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Leading on Digital Citizenship: The Role of Schools

Yesterday, we wrote about how Generation Z is the first cohort of Americans to be fully ‘phigital’—meaning they recognize no difference between the physical and the digital world.

For Gen Z, every interaction, whether in-person or online, is one-and-the-same. For schools, this new view of human interaction presents both challenges and opportunities for how students learn and communicate.

But despite their apparent tech savviness, today’s students still have a lot to learn about what is and isn’t appropriate online.

Last week, Education Week published a social media year-in-review of sorts, outlining 10 major incidents from this past school year in which students found themselves in hot water over offensive, violent, even illegal, social media posts.

Here’s just a few of the lowlights:

  • A group of Boulder, Colo. students were found posting to a Nazi-supporting chat group that celebrated killing African-American and Jewish people and championed “white power.”
  • Students in Ohio and North Carolina were suspended from school for posting images on social media in support of school shootings.
  • On Snapchat, a California student posted a video of a school administrator changing in the locker room of a local gym. That incident resulted in the student’s expulsion and the suspension of other students who shared the video.

Reading these headlines, one question springs to my mind: Would these students act the same way on the street or in the classroom? While there’s always exceptions to the rule, it’s hard to believe these young people would consider any of these actions even remotely acceptable in the physical world.

For all the virtues of social media and its near ubiquitous presence in our digital lives, the relative anonymity it often provides is fueling a dialogue that is harsher, more partisan, and more hateful.

While Gen Z might not perceive a difference between interactions in the real world and interactions online, many educators still see a difference in the way students communicate in those worlds.

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Kentucky middle school teacher and technology specialist Donnie Piercey has witnessed these differences.

As he writes in EdSurge:

“This separation between our true selves and our internet personas has led to some of my students believing it’s okay to be kind in the classroom, but a complete troll online. As educators, our goal should be to eliminate this divide. We want our students to be “good citizens” in the real world, so why should this extend to the very real digital world—even if we can’t always see the person on the other side of the screen?”

What can we do to  put an end to these Jekyll and Hyde personalities?

For administrators and educators, the easy answer would be to restrict, eliminate, or closely monitor student social media use.

But, for a generation who view access to digital communication as part of their everyday life, attempting to eliminate or curtail such activities is not a realistic, or even a good option.

Instead, schools must take the lead in helping to ensure that students’ online personas are emblematic of their physical personas. As Piercey writes, we need to teach students to “Be Internet Kind.”

That means meeting students where they are and embracing social media as a natural form of daily communication. Much like educators teach students the rules of science, of math, or of the English language, so too must they teach students the rules of online interaction—or, what many educators call “digital citizenship.”

That starts with having real, honest conversations—both online and in the classroom—about things like behavior, reputation, empathy, and respect

The first class of Generation Z graduated college this spring, which means they’ll soon be bringing their ‘phigital’ worldview to the workforce. We need to ensure that worldview is open, honest, and constructive. And our schools need to lead that effort.

Do you teach digital citizenship in your schools? What steps are you taking to help students understand the reach and ramifications of their online actions?