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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Digital Citizenship in 3rd Grade

Now that we've gotten five placemarks into our Google Earth tours, and the kids don't have another field trip scheduled for a little while, we have shifted our focus for a bit. Last week I introduced Digital Citizenship to the third graders, not for the first time in concept, but probably the first time with official vocabulary attached to it. After all, citizenship is a big important word, and we really need to know what it means. Forever.

Sometimes my best planned lessons go completely astray, and other times, when I'm engaged in conversation with these young people, amazing things happen that I couldn't have planned in my wildest dreams. Last week, I had one of those really wonderful days, and I was so energized by the participation and understanding demonstrated by the kids, I felt like I gained a whole new way to teach this important concept.

When the kids walked in the door, I handed them a notecard and a pencil, and instructions were written on the board to "Write down one rule that you have learned to keep you safe on the Internet." It didn't matter who taught them the rule, I just wanted to know what came to mind when I asked this question. I collected the cards as the kids got to work on their keyboarding practice, and I flipped through them as they concentrated fiercely on the homerow position. I definitely saw some patterns to their answers, but I was curious to find out if they would see them also.

When keyboarding time was up, I had them gather on the rug with me to go through the cards, but before I read them aloud, I briefly introduced what we would be talking about, explaining that today's kids are growing up in a digital world that is, in many ways, unfamiliar to people significantly older than they are. How do we behave in this environment? Is the digital world different than the real world? Are the rules different? What does it mean that so much of our lives are now online?  My students have never really known otherwise, but those of us from other generations are still adapting to the rapidly changing landscape of this "connected" culture, and sometimes it is hard to keep up with how quickly everything is evolving. My favorite quote of the day came when I asked them to guess how long YouTube has been around. Answers ranged from 10-40 years; it was pretty hilarious. When I told them the answer was actually 7 years, there was that brief moment of "I can't believe it" silence and then this:
WE are older than YouTube!
Yes, indeed. Our digital world has become so interwoven with our real world that many of us can no longer even imagine a day when we couldn't just look up information (or watch our favorite video of cats doing silly things) online, even though it wasn't really all that long ago that we couldn't.

So, back to the cards (spelling changed for your benefit) and the rules we've learned so far: 
  • don't give out your full name or location (never write your last name; never ever give people your name if someone asks you to; never put information about yourself on the internet)
  • don't hack into other people's computers
  • never share your username or password with anyone
  • don't make friends that you don't know in person (NEVER be friends with somebody you don't know; don't chat with other people you don't know; don't talk to strangers on the computer about personal stuff)
  • don't go on pop-ups (don't click on strange pictures or ads because it might have a virus in it; don't click on something unless you know what it is)
  • if you see a bad picture on the internet, tell a grown up
  • don't go to YouTube or Google unless they (your parents) say so; don't go onto websites you are not supposed to or you have been told not to; don't look up bad things
  • don't leave mean comments
  • log out of your accounts when you're done using them
  • don't buy things!
Wow. From what I was seeing, it was quite clear that these kids have heard several messages about safety, which is great! Of course, these rules make a lot of sense for 8 and 9 year olds, but they will inevitably change and adapt as the kids grow older (especially that one about buying things).  I asked them if they noticed anything (anything at all) about the cards as I read them.  Many pointed out that they heard repeated messages from fellow students, that clearly a few of these were so important, everyone knows them. Then one child raised her hand and said, "They all start with DON'T."

Here's where this lesson magically transitioned into my best introduction to Digital Citizenship yet.

I shared with the kids some websites devoted to Digital Citizenship and we looked at a few different pages as we tried to put a definition on the concept. 
"Digital citizenship can be defined as the norms of appropriate, responsible behavior with regard to technology use."   --Mike Ribble
This particular definition, while adequate, did not seem "third grade" to me. They hear appropriate and responsible a lot, but who the heck knows what a norm is... While the Nine Elements of Digital Citizenship are detailed and helpful, and apply to people of all ages, I was really looking for something simpler that we could sink our teeth into. I particularly wanted to find something they could understand that didn't start with don't.

So here's a definition that I thought was simple enough that we could break down the key points once we really defined the terms being used.

Digital Citizenship means using technology
  • safely
  • responsibly
  • critically
  • proactively for the good of society
I didn't spend much time on "safely" or "responsibly" because we talk about that ALL THE TIME, and I wanted my students to know that there's more to being a good digital citizen than just staying safe. We looked at the word "critically" in more depth, because many of them associated the word with something negative, like "criticism" or "being critical of others." I explained to them that using technology critically was actually a good thing, necessary and wise. Referring back to the cards about ads and pop-up windows, I asked the kids what could happen if they didn't view those things with a critical eye? What happens if you go ahead and click every "You just won a FREE iPad!!" pop-up they see without reading it carefully and looking critically through the fine print? Being a critical consumer of digital media is extremely important, and most of the kids have already been critical users of technology even if they didn't know it. People today are bombarded by media all the time, and it is imperative that we learn how to sift through it all, weeding out the good from the bad. Being critical is critical, if you know what I mean.

I say we didn't spend much time on safety or responsibility, which in a way is true, but we had already spent all that time talking about our rules on the cards, all of which had to do with safety and responsibility. "They all start with DON'T," remember? As we arrived at the fourth way to use technology, "proactively for the good of society," we talked about what we DO, and what we SHOULD DO. Good citizenship isn't just about the don'ts. Of course, we need to follow rules to maintain some semblance of order, but there's so much more to citizenship than that. If we spend all our time focusing on what we shouldn't do, how do we really know what we should do? If we focus only on the ways technology helps us waste time or stir up/get in trouble, how do we see all the ways technology can actually make things better? As citizens of this digital world, we have certain responsibilities to ourselves, but we also have responsibilities to each other. How can we use these abundant digital tools to better our society? What positive contributions can we make? Technology is helping young people all over the world tackle some pretty serious problems. I shared one example, in fact, of graduate students playing video games to crack scientific codes that have baffled AIDS researchers for years (oversimplifying this incredible story)! Technology makes amazing things possible.

The 3rd graders and I ended up having quite a conversation about digital citizenship, and this was just our first shot at it. I was so pleased that the notecards led to the discussion of "don'ts," which naturally fed into the discussion of "do's." I have been trying to shift the students-and-technology conversation toward the positive for a long time. Though safety and responsibility will always be important, those messages have been drilled into them so much that I don't really worry about them as much anymore. Using technology critically and proactively, however, are concepts that need more of our attention. 

As we move toward our talks about digital footprints, I want the kids to think of all the ways they can make sure theirs is a positive one. That might mean that some of their early-childhood don'ts have to change eventually: 
  • Using their real name will be just one important step in crafting an accurate digital footprint. 
  • In our interconnected, global society they will most likely end up chatting with or meeting people online that they don't know in person (remember writing to penpals, anyone?) -- I safely communicate with other educators that I've never met in person all the time -- and at the right developmental age, this will be an okay thing for our students to do. 
  • Parents and teachers won't always be looking over their shoulders to make sure they are visiting appropriate websites, but we still want them to know the difference, consider the consequences of their choices, and know what to do if they get into something they shouldn't. 
I strongly hope that by empowering our kids to be safe, responsible, critical, and proactive, they will grow into thoughtful, contributing members of our digital world.

Also posted @ Ethics 4 a Digital World

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