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Reflecting on Over a Decade of Digital Citizenship Education

This Digital Citizenship Week, it's time to recognize how far we've come, and what the future holds for digital citizenship and our school communities.

Children in a classroom looking at laptops

Ten years ago this week, Common Sense Education started the first-ever Digital Citizenship Week. We wanted to raise awareness and celebrate the work that schools were doing to create a culture of digital citizenship among students, teachers, and staff. Looking back, I'm reflecting on how far we've come, and how much we've learned about teaching students, supporting schools and educators, and engaging families.

Today, digital citizenship is widely known in education as the responsible use of technology to learn, create, and participate. And its importance is clear in the demand we've seen from educators, with 1.3 million of them accessing our resources over the years. But digital citizenship wasn't always the well-known and clearly understood concept it is today, and the work we've undertaken, alongside some incredible partners, has been instrumental in getting us here.

Our Digital Citizenship Curriculum started everything

One of the reasons why I love my work is that I get to collaborate with scholars to translate their research and innovative approaches into curriculum for schools. In 2009, Common Sense Education began a collaboration with Dr. Howard Gardner and Dr. Carrie James at Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Project Zero (PZ) has a long history of conducting research and developing powerful pedagogies for schools and other learning environments. This collaboration supported the development of Common Sense Education's first curriculum, which launched in 2010 thanks to support from the MacArthur Foundation. Over the years, we've adapted and evolved our curriculum based on the continued research of Dr. James and Emily Weinstein at PZ.

In reflecting on our first Digital Citizenship Week and early work in the field, I've identified three learnings I'd like to share:

1. Digital citizenship includes a variety of skills and dispositions.

In defining the field, we have drawn on others, including media literacy, digital literacy, social and emotional learning, and civic education. In our early days of supporting schools with our free curriculum, many school leaders and educators saw digital citizenship as solely addressing internet safety. In the late 2000s, there was fear about the potential harms of media and tech, including internet predators and cyberbullying. And while we certainly want to protect kids from these risks, we also want to empower them to harness the possibilities as digital creators, communicators, and collaborators. The empowerment approach is one we've taken all along—we believe that we need to balance teaching kids about the risks and opportunities of media and technology.

Our framework for digital citizenship covers six topics: media balance, anti-cyberbullying, data privacy, digital footprints, media literacy, and communication and collaboration skills. Within those topics it teaches five core dispositions, like slowing down and recognizing dilemmas as they arise, seeking facts and evidence to make informed decisions, and being curious about different viewpoints. Dispositions guide students' thoughts and behaviors as they go about their lives. They shape what students think and care about.

The skills and dispositions students learn from our lessons go far beyond internet safety—they're essential life skills that apply to all areas of their lives. And in a survey of our audience at the end of the last school year, 95% of our educators said that as a result of using our resources, students learned digital citizenship skills and dispositions.

2. Digital citizenship is a foundation for digital learning.

I noticed a shift a few years ago—a perspective that digital citizenship is not just safety- or compliance-based education, but a necessary foundation for students' digital learning. And that in order to get the most out of technology for learning, we must encourage digital learning environments where students are safe, responsible, and ready to participate in ways that set them up for success in learning and in life. In addition to having acceptable-use policies, schools and districts were including digital citizenship as a part of their technology vision statements and digital learning strategic plans. For example, LAUSD has integrated digital citizenship into their Acceptable Use Policy, Social Media Policy (for Employees and Students), Safe School Plan, and resource for Joy and Wellness under String Social Emotional Skills. And in 2015, digital citizenship was expanded as part of the revamped ISTE Student Standards, which lay out what's necessary to prepare students to thrive in a changing technological landscape.

3. Digital citizenship requires a whole-community approach.

One of the hallmarks of our approach is engaging the entire school community to create a positive culture around media and technology. Teaching and empowering students, training and supporting educators, educating and engaging parents, and supporting administrators and leaders are all necessary components. And now that school-issued devices are taken home much more often, it's essential that all stakeholders work together. Parents and caregivers especially have many concerns about media, technology, and devices. Whether it's screen time, inappropriate content, online privacy, consumerism, or supporting their children with learning at home, parents look to schools and educators for advice. That's why I'm proud of our robust family engagement resources, both within the Digital Citizenship Curriculum and in our Family Engagement Toolkit, where we have many resources for school outreach, from family nights and e-newsletters to our Tips by Text program.

The next 10 years – and more

In reflecting on our progress, I remembered an interview we did with Dr. Howard Gardner in 2011. What he said back then still rings true today. When asked what's at stake if we don't raise good digital citizens, Dr. Gardner said: "What's it like to live in a society where you don't trust other people and they don't trust you? What's it like to be in a society where you can present yourself in any way you want and nobody knows who you really are? What's it like to be around someone who can spread all sorts of rumors about other people? What's it like to live in a world where you can take stuff that people worked on for years and give it away? Or what would it be like to join a community that exists just to bully other people? It's hell. It's like Lord of the Flies. If you want to live in a society like that, I hope I don't have anything to do with you."

No one wants to live in a society like Gardner describes. As technology morphs and changes, playing an even more fundamental role in life, we must continue to support our schools and students with digital citizenship education. We are all responsible for cultivating the kind of digital world we want to live in. And what better time to think about and define the world we want to see than during Digital Citizenship Week?

Kelly Mendoza

Kelly Mendoza, Ph.D., is vice president of education programs at Common Sense. She oversees the Digital Citizenship Curriculum and all edtech ratings and reviews at Common Sense Education.