by Jason Ohler

In many parts of the world, one of the most universally available international experiences is traveling the World Wide Web. It’s hard to believe, but the Internet and the world of ubiquitous connectivity have only gained widespread adoption within the last fifteen years. Yet they are so embedded in our everyday experience we can’t imagine life without them.

It is because the Web is so pervasive and invisible, and provides access to so many different kinds of experiences, that we have developed such a keen and sometimes urgent interest in understanding how best to help students navigate this new world. In the educational arena, this interest has been given the name “digital citizenship,” a reference to our belief that the Internet offers a kind of community experience. Our goal as educators is for students to become the kinds of citizens who know how to interact safely and responsibly in this new community without losing the sense of hope and creative possibility that the Internet inspires.

In a few words, our goals for our students are as follows. We want our students to be safe, ethical and responsible; inspired, innovative and involved; passionate, reflective and empathetic; and informed, savvy and ultimately wise. We want them to interact in this new land as skilled researchers, participants and leaders. As we move forward blending and balancing our lives in the real and online worlds, here are some points to consider to help us realize those goals.

Digital citizenship and character education need to inform each other.

We tend to think of digital citizenship as a technical matter. However, the foundational issue is character, and the digital citizenship movement needs the foundation that character education provides. Yet the digital domain introduces new situations and considerations to issues of character that are complicated and challenging, and bring a breadth and depth to issues of character that are quite new. Character education and digital citizenship need to join forces. Our focus needs to be on how character plays out in both worlds, and how students blend those two worlds into a single, integrated, healthy approach to life.

Many schools have established behavioral and character goals for students. Digital citizenship compels us to ask how these translate into the digital domain. One line of thought says no change is needed; that is, ethical considerations don’t change as we move from “real life” to “immersive reality.” While I wish life were this simple, my three decades in educational technology suggest otherwise. The nature of activities like theft and bullying can be quite different between the two worlds. Other issues, like rampant identity theft and secording (secretly recording people) are almost entirely products of the digital domain. In short, there are enough differences between the two worlds that we need to shine a light on them so we can see them clearly, understand them deeply, and develop policies that recognize the new experience that digital citizenship brings to the field of character education.

There are a number of ways to approach this. I would suggest only one here: looking at  Character.org’s 11 Principles of Effective Character Education with an eye towards new virtual realities. For example, Principle 5.3 speaks to the need for students to have opportunities to engage in moral action in a larger community. Broadening this to embrace both physical and virtual communities would be very helpful. Alternately, simply add assessment criteria that moral digital lifestyle activity. Thus, we add criteria like “Acts to protect themselves and others against cyberbullying,” or, “Practices netiquette, and is proactively helpful to others in digital environments in terms of locating resources.”

Involve students in developing acceptable use policies

Typically, adults develop acceptable use policies (AUPs) about how students should use the Internet and digital technology. I recommend schools consider adding students to the policy development team. Doing so compels students to think more deeply about the possibilities and pitfalls of their online lives. In my experience, if we don’t ask students to frame the system, then they tend to game the system. And the online world can be a gamer’s paradise. In addition, having students discuss AUPs with their peers broadens the conversation in ways that can permeate a school culture. And because students have a hand in developing their own AUPs, they are more likely to honor them. We need to give students chances to flex their ethical muscles. They can’t do that when we are making all the rules for them. The online world is largely invisible to them. Having them think about their own rules makes it visible.

Update school mission statements to reflect digital lifestyles. 

I recommend schools look for ways to update their mission statements. If a mission says something like “Students will engage positively with the community,” consider changing it to “Students will engage positively with their traditional and virtual communities.” We need to understand the two worlds we inhabit in terms of their differences as well as their similarities.  I need to offer a caveat here. Because students’ second, immersive reality travels with them wherever they go – from home, to school, to socializing – the boundaries of school influence are very blurry. Schools and the legal community have yet to sort this out.

Encourage parents to talk to their children.

The virtual world is a subterranean world, and anyone who wants to hide behind an obscure username can do so. That is why I tell parents that the only way for them to really know what their kids are doing online is to talk to them. Parents frequently tell me they don’t talk don’t feel comfortable doing this because they feel they are invading their children’s privacy. Hogwash. Now more than ever, parents and children need to talk about the issues involved in living a digital lifestyle; they have much to teach each other. If parents are worried about sounding invasive, then I suggest they be more curious than judgmental, and more general than specific. Resist the urge to ask something like, “Do you have more than one online identity? Instead, try depersonalizing this by asking, “So, why do you think people have more than one online identity?” This approach opens the door to less threatening conversation, while the other approach may close it entirely.

I also recommend parents try talking to their kids about real issues in their digital lives, like what to do if one of their friends is being mistreated on social media, how to handle misinformation posted on a blog or whether texting should be allowed during the school day. There will always be an endless stream of relevant topics. Students often know more about the digital domain than we do, and we need to benefit from their experience. But we have been alive longer and hopefully have accumulated some wisdom that might be useful to them. This presents a great opportunity for collaboration.

Think about how you will be Googled

Have students use Google and other search tools to put together a composite of how they are seen on the Web. They are often amazed at what they find, sometimes because they see references they don’t like, other times because they don’t find references to accomplishments that are important to them. Based on the composite they create I ask students to ask themselves: Would you hire yourself? Allow you to attend your university? These are not rhetorical questions. It is routine these days for employers and universities to check the web to learn more about potential candidates.

Develop a deliberate digital footprint.

But there is also a more positive approach to the issue of online identity: creating the presence you want others to see. We all leave digital footprints wherever we go online. An effective way to manage this is to deliberately create the presences we broadcast to the world. At whatever age we feel is appropriate we should help students create web-published, well publicized ePortfolios that show all of their accomplishments. This activity provides an effective platform for engaging students in questions about who and what they want to be when they grow up. They need to tell their own stories, or others will do it for them.  

In the end, we want students to pursue a future that celebrates success not only in terms of abundance but also in terms of humanity. We want them to balance the inspiration and personal empowerment that a digital lifestyle offers with a sense of personal, community and global responsibility. Fortunately for all of us, school is an excellent place to do just that. And bringing together the skills and perspectives of digital citizenship and character education is a great place to start.

Jason Ohler, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus, Educational Technology and Virtual Learning, University of Alaska

Professor, Media Psychology PhD program, Fielding Graduate University
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Eager to learn more about Digital Citizenship from Jason Ohler? Watch the webinar he recorded for Character.org. Free for all new members!