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Embracing mobile devices and social media tools

Digital citizens grow up as students are taught to lead more productive online lives
  • WEB WISDOM—Educators in the Central Valley School District in Washington realize students can’t be kept off the internet or social media forever. The goal at the district—and in an increasing number of school systems—is to show students how to behave responsibly in the digital world.
  • Teens and social media use. To see more of the study, go to DAmag.me/apnorc.

Fast disappearing from schools are internet “lock and block” policies that keep students off social media and restrict them to carefully curated websites. Even with sophisticated filters and firewalls, today’s learners carry all the access in the world in their back pockets.

“We’re past trying to stay ahead of the digital native,” says Morgen Larsen, a technology instruction coach for Central Valley School District near Spokane, Washington, and president of Northwest Council for Computer Education. “We have to think how to ally ourselves with our youth so they can help us protect them.”

Educators offering students freedom on the internet must balance that openness with an emphasis on safe, empathic and legal online behavior, says Mike Ribble, the technical director for Manhattan Public Schools in Kansas who is also known as the “Godfather of Digital Citizenship.”

“Are we going to educate or are we going to make everyone afraid?” says Ribble, the author of the books Digital Citizenship in Schools, now in its third edition, and Raising a Digital Child.

Businesses want to hire young people who have mastered the digital world—including social media—but also have the ability to disconnect when necessary, Ribble says. “Many business owners have students working for them who can’t put down their phones for five minutes,” he says. “I think we need to put them into situations to maneuver and help assist them to make better choices.”

When educators change the conversation from “no, you can’t do that” to “here’s how to use these tools responsibly,” they can teach students to use technology and social media more productively, adds Susan Bearden, author of Digital Citizenship: A Community Based Approach, a book for school district leaders. “The most important filter for kids is the one between their ears,” she says.

Key connections

A recent poll of 790 teens by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Chicago reveals that

76 percent of American teens use Instagram.

75 percent use Snapchat.

78 percent say that social media makes them feel closer to friends.

40 percent say it makes them feel closer to family members.

Digital job skills

The philosophy at Tolles Career & Technical Center—a specialized public high school for juniors and seniors in Ohio—reflects Ribble’s perspective. With 22 programs—including agriculture, communications, health sciences, construction and education—students earn high school diplomas, industry certification and college credits simultaneously.

Every student receives an iPad at the beginning of the year and has access to Netflix, Twitter and Facebook, among other apps and websites. The only service that is blocked is Snapchat, says Shane Haggerty, director of marketing and technology at the Tolles center.

Those sites aren’t part of the curriculum. Students learn that, in the real world, no one will block their access—they need to manage time spent online and prioritize work before entertainment. Spending all day on Facebook or posting a rant on Twitter during work or school hours has consequences, such as losing a job or scholarship, says Haggerty.

“For us, it’s workforce preparation, employability and soft skills,” says Haggerty.

Tolles’ weeklong digital citizenship program also has an eye on career prep. It covers everything from intellectual property rights to managing online trolls and bullies. Students are also shown how to curate their social media accounts to better position themselves for college and job searches.

“The aha! moments come when they realize that if they post and delete something, it’s still going to be out there for an employer to see,” says Haggerty.

During a 2016-17 pilot program, 215 seniors built their own websites using public platforms such as Wix or Squarespace. They showcased résumés, original written content, photography and self-produced YouTube videos. The goal was for students to present a comprehensive portfolio for future employers, featuring a professional online identity that illustrates their individual talents and skill sets, says Haggerty.

On the flip side, Tolles also provides students an opportunity to disconnect completely during Tech-free Tuesday twice a month in the library. Students play Jenga and Connect Four, and will soon be able to practice yoga. What started with 40 to 50 students grew to well over 80, says Haggerty.

An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found that teens who voluntarily take breaks from social media appreciate  their time away, feel connected to people and relieved to be offline, even if just for a week. Those forced to unplug tend to feel anxious that they’re missing out and are eager to get back online, the study reports.

Day-to-day citizenship

Educators at Katy ISD in the Houston suburbs encourage students to use mobile devices in classrooms for lessons and assignments, and to communicate with teachers, says Jay Sonnenberg, the digital learning manager.

And the best digital citizenship lessons occur on the fly, during day-to-day classroom experiences, he says. For example, when a teacher passes out iPads and reminds students they can’t take someone’s photo without permission, that’s just as important as a formal lesson.

“What we’re really after at the elementary and junior high is that it’s done in the regular classroom,” he says. “We want the whole staff to be involved in teaching those important skills.”

At the elementary level this past year, the theme was RISE: Respect, Integrity, Safety and Etiquette. Each campus chose what specific activities to incorporate around that those topics, such as students taking a “digital citizenship pledge,” and learning to keep personal information private online.

In addition, as the district moves toward an integrated learning management system, teachers can post links, documents and assignments, and can communicate with students 24/7. The district prefers teachers use the LMS to communicate online with students because it’s a more controlled and safer environment than a social network, Sonnenberg says.

In Burlington Public Schools near Boston, instructional technology specialist Jennifer Scheffer created a new help desk with 12 high school honors students. What started as a way to provide tech support soon evolved into a forum for students to share information about developing positive online identities, says Scheffer.

Students from the help desk launched a Twitter chat, “Help Desk Live,” on educational topics, and invited guest moderators to respond. They also interviewed business, education and technology leaders, including a Google employee, to learn firsthand about life in the professional world, she says.

The students also blogged about the benefits of using social media positively. “Once they started to see a positive impact of what they were publishing online, they began to understand they had the power to develop their own digital presence and could network with industry professionals in their fields of interest,” says Scheffer.

Social media smarts

Teachers can model positive behavior through Facebook, YouTube and Instagram accounts that promote student artwork, performances and videos, says social media expert Larissa Hageman of Educators Rising, a national network for college and high school students interested in education careers.

Building school pride shows students the positive impact of social media—as opposed to the harm caused by bullying and trolling. Also, as millennials become parents and get involved with their kids’ education, they will expect digital communication and social media engagement from their children’s schools.

This means administrators need to get comfortable communicating on those platforms to convey information about everything from academic performance to special events, adds Hageman.

Looking ahead, Scheffer already sees a shift in how even the youngest students understand the impact of public online behavior. “I think they’re developing self-awareness about what kind of image they want to project,” she says.

“There’s a lot of social and emotional learning about teamwork, leadership and empathy. If and when they do experience negative dialogue online, these kids will recognize that it’s not right, they won’t participate and they will have the confidence to report it.”


Emily Rogan is a freelance writer in New York.