Digital Citizenship for Schools: Best Practices

from Scott Smith | former CTO to the Mooresville Graded School District

The mission of the Mooresville Graded School District is to prepare every student, every day to be a responsible citizen in a globalized workspace, economy, and community.  This means being a great citizen in-person, as well as in the new digital world of education. 

Students are – to say the least – extremely social creatures.  They bond, group, pack, and connect with other students.  It’s almost always the case that they gather together to communicate, see, help, and share with each other.  

Technology has provided these students with entirely new community paradigms, which are places they digitally inhabit – as a digital citizen.  As this technology becomes more prolific and complex, K-12 around the country have struggled to define what online etiquette should be for students who are online in any form. This has become critical, given the steep rise in cyberbullying, sexting, and even suicide that has come from the misuse of technology.  

Scott Smith, who was the Mooresville Graded School District (MGSD) CTO for 8 years, and an Assistant Superintendent for 3 years, helped define and deploy appropriate digital citizenship a decade ago, when many schools were not focused on it…  Along with most other schools, MGSD didn’t focus on this early, and what it truly means to be a good digital citizen.  The etiquette, (or ‘Netiquette”, as Scott says) defines how you act online, what things are appropriate to put online, how to you respond to posts online, cyber bullying management, and data privacy.  It also impacts content research and creation, defining what is a copyright vs. “copywrong”, when you cite your sources, and what’s a valid Internet source.   

In setting up the Mooresville Digital Citizenship program, they focused on five different categories: 

  1. Identity, Reputation, and the Footprint You Leave
  2. Relationships and Communication
  3. Cyberbullying
  4. Safety, Privacy, and Security
  5. Creative and Copyright 

Identity, Reputation, and Your Footprint:

Today’s tech savvy students leave more of a digital footprint (or really a tattoo) than they would guess – a footprint that can be searched, shared, and seen by a huge, anonymous set of people. A responsible student is mindful of that, and takes control over their digital footprint, monitoring very closely what they post online.  This means exercising diligence when posting the blogs, photos, and personal profiles.  MGSD wants them to learn that although online information provides an incomplete picture of a person, it can still affect how the world perceives that person.  Whether it’s “real” or “fake” personal information, people only see a portion of the complete persona, and that limited view defines students more than they would guess.  Assuming different real or fake personas online carry both benefits and risks, both of which Scott wants his students to understand. 

Relationships and Communication:

Students are obviously social creatures, and the current crop of them communicates more prolifically than any other generation that ever existed.  Email, text, chat rooms, Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, and hundreds of other options give them the ability to connect and communicate with most of the earth’s population.  MGSD wants them to understand the benefits of sharing information online and the potential risks of sharing inappropriate information – especially with people who might intend harm in the future.  This interaction becomes their “digital life” and connects them in more social and interactive ways than ever before, and it’s being leveraged by both friend and foe. 

Students learn and explore best practices for approved communication tools like email to interact with fellow students, teachers, staff, and family within their schools and communities.  

Cyberbullying:

Children can occasionally act like bullies when online.  MGSD makes sure students understand what cyberbullying means, how it can make people feel, how to respond, and strategies on what they can do when they encounter it.  Scott Smith wants to make sure that students understand it’s essential to tell a trusted adult if something or someone makes them feel angry, sad, or threatened online. 

There are obviously dangers online in the form of online predators, but there are also people inside a student’s educational environment that could pose a more realistic form of inappropriate contact.  

Safety, Privacy, and Security:

Students know they can go to exciting places online, but MGSD wants them to follow certain rules to always remain safe in a not-so-safe world. Scott wants them to learn to follow safety rules when they travel around the web, just as they would when roaming around the real world. 

Many websites ask for or require user information that is private.  Students need to know how to responsibly handle this type of request. Obviously some of the student’s information is private in nature and should never be shared without a trusted adult’s guidance.  Examples of that would be location/address, contact information, and health records. Students also need to know the protocols for creating usernames, and how to create secure passwords in order to protect their private information and accounts online. 

Creative and Copywriting:

MGSD students are introduced to a number of critical lessons on copyrights, fair use policies, and the generally accepted rights they have as content creators. Part of this is teaching them the basics – title, name, and date – for crediting creative work. Scot makes sure they understand the importance of citing work, as well as give themselves credit so others can attribute their creations when re-used or re-mixed.  They also makes sure the students know how to do effectively and efficiently use a variety of searching strategies. He also stresses the importance of qualifying sources. In today’s digital age, anyone can publish anything they want on the Internet, so not all websites are equally trustworthy.  

SUMMARY: Scott’s goal with his Digital Citizenship program is to establish group norms to create a positive online community that promotes responsible and respectful digital behavior within the classroom. His goal is to create a group of upstanding digital citizens who exhibit exemplary attributes online, and encourage others to do so as well.   

The key is for him to make sure students understand the “checklist” of needed items.  That is the only way to ensure the Mooresville Graded School District can achieve its mission, where every student is prepared to be a responsible citizen in a globalized, digitized community.

This type of program is essential as students and schools move into the digital age. 

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