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Teach digital citizenship all year, every year

By Nicole Krueger 4/24/2018

When students in North Carolina made the news for sharing underage nude photos of each other on Instagram a few years ago, parents didn’t know what to do. School was snowed out, the photos were spreading like wildfire, and teachers had no way to step in and correct the behavior.

“The whole thing was seared in our minds,” recalls Andrew Smith, chief strategy officer at Rowan-Salisbury School District. “We couldn’t get a hold of kids to tell them, “You do not understand the repercussions of what you’re doing. You’re literally spreading child porn. This could be detrimental to all of you.’”

The district had just implemented 1:1 iPads and MacBook Airs, distributing some 20,000 devices to students. Although students posted the photos from their personal smartphones, not school-issued devices, the incident served as a painful wake-up call.

“We very quickly realized that digital citizenship, and how to interact in a digital society, was lacking in our schools,” he says. “The whole thing spurred a conversation about what we can do to help our students be better digital citizens in this Wild West of the internet right now.”

While many schools address digital citizenship through the occasional school assembly or one-off lesson plan, administrators at Rowan-Salisbury knew that wouldn’t be enough. If they wanted to prevent similar problems in the future, they needed to go bigger. So they paid 25 teachers from around the district to develop a comprehensive K-12 digital citizenship curriculum.

Using materials from Common Sense Media as a template, the teachers designed some 250 grade-appropriate lessons — 18 per grade level — that are mapped to the regular curriculum so students constantly build digital citizenship awareness and skills throughout their school career.

“It really embeds digital citizenship into the regular curriculum,” Smith says. “Every two weeks they’re getting lessons on digital citizenship. It’s not just something they attend once in a while; it’s a learning cycle that’s reiterated throughout the year and that builds upon previous lessons.”

He offers the following advice for educators who are interested in creating their own digital citizenship curriculum:

Leverage existing resources. Educators looking for digital citizenship resources should start with Common Sense Media, he says. “They’ve done a great job with the scope and sequence of material for students.” Although he felt his district needed something more comprehensive, the lessons made a great starting point for teachers.

Assess your students’ needs. Whether you’re adapting an existing curriculum or creating your own from scratch, make sure you’re tailoring the information to your district or school. “We had a lot of issues with social media, so we have lots and lots of sessions all up and down the curriculum and grade levels that focus on social media,” Smith says.

Design for flexibility. While scaffolding lessons with grade-appropriate content is ideal, teachers need to be able to respond when students engage in behavior beyond their grade level. Rowan-Salisbury’s curriculum allows teachers to easily pull in advanced lessons to address any problems that crop up during the school year. “Everything is ready to go. All of the resources they need are included, so they can just plug into their learning management system and it’s ready to be delivered to students.”

Make room in your budget. Developing a comprehensive curriculum cost the district around $15,000, most of which went toward paying teachers to work on the project. At less that $1 per student, Smith considers the money well spent. “If you value digital citizenship, you have to be willing to put money toward it and give teachers time to create this for you. To us it was worth it to have 250 high-quality lessons that are matched to the standards and integrated with one another.”

Consult the ISTE Standards for Students. The Digital Citizen standards is a blueprint to help you prepare students to recognize the rights, responsibilities and opportunities of living, learning and working in an interconnected digital world. 

So far, the district’s digital citizenship curriculum has been a success, he adds.

“We haven’t had another one of those issues since.”

Nicole Krueger is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for finding out what makes learners tick.

  Explore the possibilities of the digital age with ISTE's book Digital Citizenship in Action

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