The Obama Foundation recently announced that digital citizenship is one of its top initiatives for education. But what does it mean and how can teachers teach students to be good digital citizens?
We spoke with educator and tech-ethicist, David Ryan Polgar, a sought-after leading expert on the subject, who defines digital citizenship as “the safe, savvy, and ethical use of technology and social media." While it may be easy to isolate the discussion to anti-bullying and digital literacy, David emphasizes there’s an integral part of the conversation that's often overlooked: the value of unplugging.
Here are 5 key steps David suggests will help educators develop a lesson plan that teaches students to unplug and engage as more mindful digital citizens.
Step 1: Take a Step Back From Technology
While teaching digital citizenship seems to be an opportunity to immerse students in the top technology, David suggests doing the opposite. “We shouldn’t assume that the latest technology is helpful by the very nature of its ‘newness’,” he says.
David argues that, in order to begin a thoughtful conversation, teachers and students need to recognize where technology has fallen short, and deliberatly unplugging from it is the best place to start.
We shouldn’t assume that the latest technology is helpful by the very nature of its 'newness'.
By taking a step back from technology, students are given a unique opportunity to develop a healthier tech-life balance and, ultimately, re-engage differently. “We maximize the human existence by seeing the most benefit from both online and offline worlds,” he says.
Step 2: Evaluate Before Plugging Back in
“We have to have a healthy skepticism over any new gadget,” David says. “We should think critically before adoption.”
He emphasizes that teachers should evaluate a new technology for its usefulness, utility, and externality before adoption, not only to measure its online benefits, but to fully understand its offline ramifications. “What is most advantageous for education?” he asks, highlighting that this is the type of question teachers should be asking when evaluating any technology before implementation.
David argues that while some integration of technology is healthy, its limits must be understood first. “We need to be more cognizant over the massive impact that the integration of technology has on our ability to focus — and for teachers to actually do their jobs.”
We need to be more cognizant over the massive impact that the integration of technology has on our ability to focus — and for teachers to actually do their jobs.
In other words, if technology is ultimately taking away from a student’s ability to learn effectively or to meet their most basic human needs, like having a meaningful conversation and showing empathy, then it isn’t good for the learning environment. And removing technology that isn’t valuable to learning is one of the most responsible choices a modern educator can make.
Step 3: Begin An Ongoing Conversation
“It needs to be a constantly evolving area of discussion,” he says, suggesting that the conversation around digital citizenship be fluid and ongoing. He emphasizes that, most importantly, students, should be involved in the decisions around where these discussions will go. “Students need to think through their own solutions; they need to be treated as an equal stakeholder.”
David explains what he means by telling me a story of a group of 16-year olds he’d presented to who were astutely aware of some of the downsides of their technology use and their inability to shut off. He points out that these are students who will especially benefit from contributing to the conversation because they are a demographic that recognizes and appreciates the need to unplug. He tells me that the digital citizenship conversation therefore needs to be exploratory, not punitive or “finger-wagging” bad behaviour.
The conversation shouldn’t be to make us feel bad, but to step back and ask, ‘How can we get the most benefit from technology?’
“The conversation shouldn’t be to make us feel bad, but to step back and ask ‘How can we get the most benefit from technology?’” To answer this question, first and foremost he says, involves asking students.
Step 4: Inspire Positive Offline Behaviour
The biggest misconception is the assumption that digital natives are already the best digital citizens — that their frequent activity and an obvious understanding of the latest tech make them the safest, savviest, and most ethical users of all of us.
But David says that educators still have a long way to go. “People don’t actually know what it means yet,” he says, articulating that educators should be focused on teaching kids more than simply good online behaviour.
Teachers should instead be inspiring students to operate online in a way that will maximize offline potential, like their ability to have valued friendships, to be present around others, and to be deep thinkers. “We do need to engage with technology, but engage differently — in ways that’s more mindful to our basic human needs,” he says.
We do need to engage with technology, but engage differently — in ways that’s more mindful to our basic human needs.
Step 5: Encourage Reflection
The Internet operates in a way that warrants immediate, instant, and often thoughtless responses; and much of these instantaneous activities are present in education tools currently on the market. "Because there’s no friction with how we act online, we often act in a mindless fashion," David says.
So instead of skimming the surface for superficial information, like fact-checking or responding to instantaneous polls or quizzes, students should be urged to absorb and reflect. “Once they have the opportunity to reflect, they think differently,” David says. “Thoughtfulness is true friction.”
David Ryan Polgar is a 3-time TedX speaker, branding and communications consultant, and Trust & Safety for social messaging platform Friendbase. David is researching the impact that “scaling intimacy” has on human relationships, and working on an upcoming book. He is also the co-host for Funny as Tech. David can be contacted at TechEthicist.com or on Twitter @TechEthicist.