How can we teach students to use technology in a responsible way? 

The answer to that question is tricky. Digital citizenship has so many facets. Our kids need to have the skills necessary to navigate many different aspects of the online world. Educating students about appropriate online behavior, screen time, life skills, safety, and more can be very overwhelming, so where do we even start?

A good place to start is to model. As teachers, we can sometimes feel we have a very limited influence on any part of digital citizenship, no matter how hard we try. We have students for a very small part of their day, and the habits that are formed at home are not always in line with the types of behaviors we would like to see at school. However, that isn’t a reason not to try. I say we can reach kids and strengthen their leadership skills by modeling our skills.

Most teachers already have good habits relating to their online behaviors, especially in regard to information seeking and evaluation. I’m sure there are a few places we can get better. Did you cite those images in your last presentation, for example? Even at our best though, transfer to our students doesn’t just happen by example. Modeling is about being more deliberate in how we interact with our students in the classroom. Being an “example” just isn’t enough, but there are ways that modeling your skills and knowledge can become more impactful. Here are a few.

Make your thought process more visible.

One of the biggest impacts you can have on modeled behavior is to explain why you are doing it. We are less likely to repeat or follow a behavior if we don’t understand the motivation behind it. This is also true for good digital citizenship. You know why you skipped to the third entry on that Google Search page. The first two entries were paid ads, but do your students know why? Taking time to reveal your understanding and motivations behind your actions, makes every situation a learning situation. Stop and take 30 seconds to explain your online behaviors, every time. This small thing will make a huge difference in your students’ understanding of online behavior.  

Ask more questions.

The flip side of making your thought process visible is to get a better understanding of why students do what they do online. We can only help improve their behavior if we understand their motivations. The best way to do this is to ask questions and have discussions. We want students to follow norms for online behavior, including being polite and acting as a digital leader by making good choices while using technology. But, what if they don’t? Correcting behavior isn’t enough to make it stick. Start by asking why the behavior occurred and, if it’s appropriate, turn it into a learning experience for everyone. Have a discussion, and don’t underestimate the importance of taking the time to share with each other.

Make DIGITAL citizenship a part of your classroom culture.

Your day probably starts with kids standing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. That act is a part of being a good American citizen, and it’s a part of our school culture. What do your students do each day to celebrate or recognize their digital footprint? Students should be proud of their digital footprint, and they should share positive online experiences with each other. Did they get a positive comment from someone on their blog? Did they learn something from another culture, and leave a post that impacted the other writer’s life? Allowing students to share positive actions with each other will show them that there is more than cyberbullying and sexting that can happen online. If your students don’t have digital footprints, especially grades three and up, then now is the time to start building. We need to model by encouraging them to show each other that a digital presence can be a powerful tool, not just a scary place.

What is the ultimate goal of all this modeling? For one, we want to help shape citizens that can understand how to evaluate and use information online. Second, we want them to be nice. Most importantly, though, if we are strong enough models, and we are consistent our students will be models for each other. Following these steps will help you build a culture in your classroom that can help create digital leaders. When we see students helping and encouraging other students to be their best, that is when we know we have truly been a great model.