Schools and parents as partners in digital citizenship

October 26, 2017 - 10 minutes read

How do we effectively help students harness the benefits of our digital world, while easing the negative effects of technology and making sure that children are equipped with important foundational skills like reading, writing and math? This question is often top of mind for those concerned about the impact of technology on students, particularly in our district, where we continue to lead on the adoption of digital tools for the classroom.

There are two prominent issues around technology that I hear concerns about, and we have also seen these same issues play out in the news on a regular basis. One is related to the content to which young people are potentially exposed, and the other has to do with too much screen time. I’ll take these two in order to address some aspects of both.

Internet Content
Many people believe that we can and should filter out the worst of the internet, and certainly, the provincial government and district technology teams spend time ensuring that accessible sites within our network are safe and educational. But in the real world, always-on access is a very real issue, and students participate in the digital conversation beyond our walls. Just as you wouldn’t send a child to walk to school without instructions and some certainty that they understand and can handle the risks, students need to harness the skills that allow them to use technology responsibly, safely and ethically.

Neither teaching nor parenting is an easy job, and most everyone would agree that it would be irresponsible to leave the role of responsible technology use up to a software package. In a similar vein, blanket internet blocks do not work, partly because students are very adept at getting around such restrictions and then sharing that information with their peers. In an era of fake news and alternate facts, the best defense is to guide and lead the conversation on digital citizenship, so that students can safely and successfully navigate the digital landscape at all times.

This is not a ‘one and we’re done situation’. Our teacher-librarians from every school, already this year, have had a special session on digital citizenship, since these specialized teachers play a key role in literacy and research. We use a common language and have a consistent approach around the district. Responsible Use is addressed. Using sources like media smarts our schools teach kids:

• how to recognize false content on-line
• how to make privacy decisions on-line
• about cyberbullying
• about excessive internet use

In West Vancouver, students learn how to find and validate sources and use the vast promise of technology to design, produce, collaborate and demonstrate their learning. This is a vital skill, and parents and educators who share concerns about student well-being and success should embrace the promise and the challenges that technology in education brings. Fear of the unknown is certainly a factor in some quarters, but for those unfamiliar with technology, or the policies and best practices in place, there are resources that can help.

Time Spent on Devices
There is no doubt that everyone is spending more time on their devices, and if it’s purely about consuming rather than creating, that can become a problem. Like I am sure many of you, I am concerned about the mindless consumption of so many (kids and adults) in our world. But the solution is to invest more time in areas like intelligent consumption, rather than resort to punitive measures.

At school, before we implemented bring your own device across all of our schools, we spent considerable time developing the skills of our staff, with a heavy focus on our role as ‘digital citizenship leaders’ – teaching the basics of online ethics, intelligent consumption, intellectual property, online safety and ‘netiquette’. Doing this well means less time spent policing the use of devices and more time getting the most out of what technology can help us do. As opposed to mere passive consumption and entertainment, we ask students to create, produce artifacts, collaborate and demonstrate their learning. They will be doing even more of this as we continue to implement the Applied Design Skills and Technologies curriculum at higher grades.

The International Society for Technology in Education (ITSE) is an excellent resource on technology in schools, and is referenced frequently in our district. The “standards for students” are very helpful, as the document establishes several principles, one of which includes the need to teach good digital citizenship. Schools, in partnership with parents, are doing precisely this work. The aim is to have students “recognize the rights, responsibilities and opportunities of living, learning and working in an interconnected digital world, and act and model in ways that are safe, legal and ethical”.

Schools often require that students unplug and/or close their cases. One example of this in action is what West Bay Elementary school has done by creating “phone lockers” so that students can use them when they will be used for learning, and store them safely at other times. At the same time, we value the importance of face-to-face time and focus heavily on other areas of literacy and basic foundational skills – like math lessons in the forest, reading stories to younger students and encouraging the use of our public libraries.

As to what parents choose to do when children are not in our classrooms, our district innovation support leader, Cari Wilson, mentions a number of great resources, along with several age appropriate tips for leading digital literacy in her recent blog post.

Once students go to secondary school, I believe they need to have greater ownership over these decisions. This can be hard, for us in schools, and for parents at home. On the home front, I think it is crucial that parents act as good models for the use of technology.

With four school aged-children myself, these are conversations that are not just part of my work life, but also my home life. For us, we have a series of rules at home, and they apply to both adults and children:

• no cell phones in the bedrooms so we don’t get distracted at night
• we uninstall some Apps during vacation or other times to limit distractions
• we talk about which Apps we will put on our devices – and which ones we won’t
• we don’t talk about getting phones until at least in high school

Excessive consumption is a tough pattern to break, once it’s set in. But it is up to each of us to model and guide the young people in our care, and we urge every parent to take an active leadership role.

Conclusions
I am amazed at the work students are creating, that we could not have even imagined a few years ago. I see students building and programming robots, creating videos they share with the world, and digitally connecting across the district and around the world. I also think there will be far more technology in our schools (and our lives) in 10 years than there is today. We have a responsibility to see that as technologies shift, we find ways to use it, and not be used by it.