As experienced teachers, we’ve been conditioned to reach for curriculum when we have something new to bring to the classroom. But as digital age educators, we also know that kids do best when they can learn something authentically, by figuring out their own answers to real-world problems that are relevant to their lives. You can’t teach everything this way, of course, but some concepts — especially those that students will use in their day-to-day lives, now and in the future — lend themselves well to the authentic learning approach.
It was a major a-ha moment when I realized that digital citizenship is one of those things. As one of the 2016 ISTE Standards for Students, digital citizenship is a key skill for living and working in a connected world. And I’ve found that if my students don’t learn this important skill set in an authentic way, it will be just another abstract idea that becomes real only when they run into problems down the road. I want to help them avoid those kinds of major mishaps if I can by teaching them how to be good digital citizens now.
The other great thing about authentic learning is that you don’t need to devise a separate unit to learn a subject. In fact, I realized that I was already teaching digital citizenship in my classroom. I didn’t need to add another lesson to my day. I just needed to be more intentional in the way I was already teaching and using technology in the classroom.
For the past two years, my class and I have been using an app called Seesaw: The Learning Journal for our digital portfolios and workflow. Here are some of the app’s features that encourage authentic learning of digital citizenship skills:
Classroom feed. Seesaw lets students add just about anything, from pictures and video to projects they create using other apps, to their digital portfolios. All of this work is visible not only in their individual portfolios, but also on a classroom feed. This means that all students are able to see each other’s learning in the classroom, which helps reinforce and augment their learning process. From a digital citizenship perspective, it’s also important that the public nature of this feed makes them really think about what they put in their posts, knowing that their peers, their teacher and even their parents will be able to see it.
Teacher approval. I have the power to approve or deny any student submission before it makes it onto the classroom feed. I use this dynamic as a way to set up some useful classroom discussions: What happens when your teacher is no longer there to be your filter? What happens when it’s not just your classmates, but your employers who can see your online presence? These are real-life situations presented in a safe place. The is the first step in helping students cultivate a positive digital identity.
Commenting. Students can comment on each other’s work — a feature I can choose to turn on or off. I always start the year with commenting in the off position. Why? I’ve tried allowing commenting right off the bat before, and it failed miserably. Students would make comments like “Awesome!” “Cool!” Emoji, emoji, emoji. These comments were much more distracting than they were valuable to anyone’s learning.
But I know that giving and taking constructive feedback are skills my students will need in the future. So I start out with a lesson that lends itself to thoughtful feedback. During this lesson, we talk about expectations and examples of what we want to learn. Students then post their creations, and we discuss together how to give another student feedback that is both valuable and respectful. I also give them sentence starters, such as, “Your post taught me that…,” “This made me think of…because…,” and “I really liked…. Have you thought of…?”
Once we practice as a class a few times, I turn on the commenting feature. Just like the work itself, their comments come to me first for approval or denial. If approved, they post to the classroom feed under the original submission.
Overall, I have been so impressed by my students’ ability to give insightful suggestions while keeping their comments respectful. But when I run across a comment I don’t want to approve, I have a one-on-one conversation with the student. I show him or her the comment and explain why it is not appropriate or does not meet expectations. Only then do I deny the comment and ask the student to go back and try writing a new one.
Class blog. While the classroom feed is self-contained and limited to only approved viewers, Seesaw also has a blog feature that allows students to connect globally with other classrooms around the world. This is another great opportunity for my students to have authentic discussions about digital citizenship under the guidance of their teacher.
The open blog spurs them to think about their audience before they post and Seesaw even offers tips to help out with this. Posting to a global audience is much different than posting to your peers in the classroom. We discuss how it is important to be clear and concise with our words when we post to this wider audience. My students are also always quick to point out that our readers may not be native English speakers or may be from another culture. We practice by revising each other’s posts with these things in mind as well while correcting spelling and vocabulary.
Once we learn how to post on the blog, we move on to how to give feedback and comment in a respectful manner for the global audience. This is when we get to decide what our digital presence will be: What kind of class do we want others to see? Who are we representing when we post on our blog? Ourselves? Our teacher? Parents? Our school? The world?
By having these conversations with my students in an authentic context, I plant the seeds in their brains that will one day remind them to ask these same questions of themselves before writing that blog entry or posting that picture.
Heather Marrs is a third grade teacher and ed tech teacher leader at Eagle Rock Elementary School in southern Oregon. She is a wife and mother of two, who enjoys spending time with family, dancing and all things ed tech. Follow her on Twitter @hmarrs24
Want to learn more about how to teach digital citizenship? Read Digital Citizenship in Action: Empowering Students to Engage in Online Communities by Kristen Mattson.