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Skills for Good Digital Citizenship

Three Skills Students Need to Become Good Digital Citizens

Jun 16, 2017 2017-06-16

By Dr. Jason Ohler

This post is part of 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.

In order to be good digital citizens, students must cultivate a filter through which they view their digital lives and understand online communication. To help students build that filter, we must support them in developing a multifaceted awareness consisting of a number characteristics. Here are three of the most important:

1. Being Informed

Students are often encouraged to be afraid of their digital lifestyles. The pull towards wanting students to be wary of the Internet is understandable. Hearing just one story about a child who was abducted because of trusting someone on the Internet is enough to inspire justifiable fear. But no one makes their best decisions when they are scared, which is why we want students to be informed rather than afraid. When students understand—rather than just heed our cautions—they have a better chance of protecting themselves and others, as well as transferring understanding to new situations. We want them to have a clear mind when they assess and respond to their online experiences, and fear can often get in the way of that.

2. Being Savvy

Being savvy is one step beyond being informed. It involves helping students cultivate a sixth sense about an online environment in order to grasp its “back story” so they can understand what is really happening beneath the surface. We can start by teaching students to ask questions about their online environment, such as the type of people they encounter, the language used, and discussion content. We should also teach students how to scrutinize ads they are pitched, as well as pop ups and surveys that often inundate their online experience. We can help students recognize alarm situations in which they need to ask for adult help, such as being asked by an online acquaintance to provide a physical address to meet in real life. Every interaction on the web is a clue, and students need to become media literate online anthropologists in order to become savvy online citizens.

3. Being Empathetic

Empathy focuses our savvy discernment by compelling us to dig deeper into our online communication to grasp what someone is trying to tell us. Understanding people is hard enough when the communication is face-to-face. When a layer of electronic distance is added, empathy becomes an art form. Nearly everyone has a story about how they misunderstood a simple email by imbuing it with a meaning or a tone of voice in their minds that was not intended by the sender. Without body language, tone of voice, and other staples of real life meta-communication, the flat, disincarnate world of online text demands that we try twice as hard as we normally would in real life to discern what someone is saying. When communicating online, we need to put ourselves in someone else's virtual shoes lest we create a very personal form of fake news.

To illustrate this point to students, I use an activity in which I ask each of them to articulate the phrase “What do you mean?” with a different nuance and meaning. I have also used the phrases “How are you?” and “What are you doing?” I have involved as many as 20 students in this activity, and each discover different ways to inflect a phrase with a unique meaning. In the often flat, representational world of online communication, there is great potential for misunderstanding. In that world, emojis only get us so far. Practicing empathy is a survival skill we must all develop.

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 using character education to teach digital citizenship.

Dr. Jason Ohler is a professor emeritus, speaker, writer, and a lifelong digital humanist who is well-known for the passion, insight, and humor he brings to his writings, projects, teaching, and presentations. He has been helping community members, organizations, and students at all levels understand the ethical implications of being digital citizens in a world of roller-coaster technological change. His most recent book, 4Four Big Ideas for the Future, reflects on his 35 years in the world of educational media and innovation in order to chart a course for a future. He is first and foremost a storyteller, telling tales of the future that are grounded in the past. Find Jason on Twitter @jasonohler or visit his website:
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