Activities to Give Students a Voice in the Digital Citizenship Conversation

By Dr. Jason Ohler

This post is the second in a series of blogs from passionate digital citizenship advocate, Dr. Jason Ohler. The series explores the importance of digital citizenship and provides strategies for integrating digital citizenship into schools.

We are up against a serious neurological challenge in terms of students making ethical decisions. For most of us, the brain’s neo-cortex—where the seat of ethical judgment resides—is not fully formed until we reach our early twenties. And yet we obviously can’t wait until our twenties to make an ethical judgment. There is only one way to address this: practice. That is, the only way to jumpstart our kids’ ethical decision-making is to give them opportunities to practice making ethical decisions.

That’s why if I could change just one aspect of how we approach digital citizenship in schools, I would stop adults from making all of the Internet rules for students.

When adults make the rules, they rob students of the opportunity to develop and apply a meta-perspective about their digital lifestyles and to build the ethical muscles they need to become thoughtful digital citizens. Helping to create the rules they will live by allows students to examine how their actions online fit into their lives offline.

If we don’t ask students to help frame the system, they tend to game the system. We all know that students can be incredibly clever when it comes to circumventing the Internet rules we put in place. However, when students have a voice in creating the rules, they’re not so quick to game them.

I have done “framing the system” activities with thousands of students and consistently observe the following result: students immediately become more thoughtful and adultlike in their considerations. They also bring unique perspectives to the digital citizenship conversation, allowing us to see the world the way they do. Digital citizenship provides an excellent opportunity for adults and students to collaborate on a joint vision of the future.

Above all, we want our students to understand that technologies connect and disconnect us. Our smartphones connect us to people many miles away, while disconnecting us from those sitting nearby. Our students need to see and balance the connections and disconnections of their digital lifestyles in order to become thoughtful, skilled digital citizens.

Framing the System

To help students frame the system, here are two activities to get students thinking critically about their digital lifestyles:

1. You’re in Charge

You’re in Charge gives students the chance to develop policies about digital lifestyle issues. For this activity, simply present students with a digital lifestyle issue or a technology and ask the following questions:

What would you do about this?

What would the rules be?

For example, I often present students with the “math hat,” a neurologically enhancing headwear that massages your brain to increase your aptitude in math. I love to pitch this technology to students first because it comes out of nowhere and gets them thinking. I ask students the following questions:

Should we allow math hats in schools? Under what conditions?

What should the policies be?

This prompts a discussion that leads to students debating larger questions. Students wonder if the math hat could be used in class but not during tests. They ask what would happen if only some students could afford the math hat and others could not. They ask if the math hat has been tested to prove it’s not harmful.

These discussions encourage students to think critically about technology. You can then begin discussing more well-known technologies and issues, such as using Google Glass or iGlasses in schools, digitally manipulating images, or cyberbullying.

2. Being a DeTECHtive

The Food and Drug Administration’s primary duty is to determine the health and safety value of the food and drugs we consume before they are released to the public. Similarly, in this activity we imagine a Science and Technology Administration (STA), whose job it is to determine the social, environmental, and interpersonal consequences of new technologies.

For this activity, students are given one of three roles:

  1. Innovators defend the innovation.
  2. STA investigators question the innovation.
  3. A panel of judges decide whether the public should have access to the innovation.

Students typically evaluate the innovation using the following seven criteria:

  1. Physical characteristics: How is the technology made? What is it made of? Who fixes it when it breaks?
  2. Enhancements/reductions: How does the technology amplify or diminish us?
  3. Predecessors/next steps: What did it replace and what does it imply?
  4. Social contexts: What are the social expectations that produced our desire to have it?
  5. Biases: Whom does it favor and who is left out?
  6. Benefits: What are the qualities of this technology that drive its creation and adoption?
  7. Impacts: How does it connect and disconnect us?

The judges then take one of the following three stances on the innovation: accept, reject, or accept with modifications.

This activity works as the basis for both short lessons and longer units of instruction. It can be used as a touchstone in any area of study, which allows almost any teacher to become a digital citizenship teacher. As appropriate issues arise, teachers can ask, “What would the STA say about this?”

I hope you will follow along with this blog series as we delve deeper into digital citizenship and the strategies you can use to help your students become digital citizens. In the next post, we will discuss how to give students a voice in the digital citizenship conversation.

Editor’s Note: Dr. Ohler and his colleagues at The Digital Citizenship Institute seek to understand your hopes and concerns about digital citizenship in K-12, and invite you to share your insight in a brief survey. The results of this survey will be reported in a future blog. To complete the questionnaire click here.

Dr. Jason Ohler is a professor emeritus and distinguished president’s professor in educational technology and virtual learning at the University of Alaska. He is co-creator of ISTE’s Digital Citizenship Professional Learning Network, serves on the Digital Citizenship Institute board, and teaches digital ethics and storytelling in Fielding Graduate University’s media psychology PhD program. He has spent over 30 years helping K-12 teachers and students use technology effectively, creatively, and wisely. His latest book, 4Four Big Ideas for the Future, reflects on his many years in the world of educational media and innovation in order to chart a responsible and inspiring course for a future. Subscribe to his newsletter, Big Ideas (in English and Spanish), and learn more about his speaking, research, and writing at Find Jason on Twitter @jasonohler.
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