Teaching Q&A

Schools Are Teaching Digital Literacy and Citizenship. But Are They Doing It Right?

By Arianna Prothero — July 13, 2023 4 min read
Photo of teacher helping students with their tablet computers.
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The proliferation of fake news stories and conspiracy theories on social media, as well as rising concerns that these platforms are hurting kids’ mental health, have put digital literacy and citizenship in the spotlight.

But there’s a lot we don’t know about how those skills are being taught in K-12 schools, said Allison Starks, a researcher who studies child development and technology. What specific skills are schools teaching—or not—and in which classes? And do educators even feel like this is their responsibility?

“The driving force for the study was just trying to understand what’s happening in schools around this kind of instruction because after an in-depth research review, I couldn’t find anything,” said Starks, who is a former special education teacher and district technology coordinator and a current doctoral candidate at the University of California, Irvine. “Even just the presence of standards across the U.S., we don’t have any consistent standards for these things.”

To answer those questions, Starks partnered with the nonprofit Project Tomorrow, which administers the annual Speak Up survey, to hear directly from a large swath of educators, parents, and students.

In a phone interview with Education Week, she shared her early insights from her research.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

What were the big findings that jumped out to you?

One is that when we looked at which topics were being discussed, we organized them into traditional topics like being kind online. Then [we organized them into] these more evolving skills like digital privacy from corporations, reading privacy policies, data tracking, and understanding how algorithms work in daily life.

We asked teachers how often they were teaching these things, and what we found was that they’re much more likely to teach these traditional skills, like I just mentioned, and far less likely to teach these more evolving skills, which makes sense because they are newer.

Allison Starks

Can you describe what some of these skills look like?

Media balance is this awareness of how you’re spending your time online, what your goals are, whether you’re getting off task, and then how you’re balancing those things with other needs like sleep or uninterrupted time with family or friends. Because we know that kids get really important things from their digital interactions—they can socialize with friends, they can learn new things, they can connect with family members far away. But we also know that things that happen offline are really important to develop these in-person social skills, understanding social cues, as well as conflict resolution, play, and physical activity.

I think you need to know what you’re working against. You need to know how these technologies work to keep you online so that you can think about what strategies you’re going to use. Once you have that understanding, I think it’s easier to take steps.

Another example would be source evaluation. A lot of teachers teach source evaluation, but if you don’t understand why you’re seeing what you see online or why you might get different results than the person sitting next to you, source evaluation doesn’t get you very far.

A lot of teachers teach source evaluations from looking at news articles or looking at news sites, and that doesn’t seem to be the way that most young people get their news now. And that feeds into one of the big takeaways, is just that we need to really update our idea of this skillset that we’re calling digital citizenship, digital literacy.

What are some equity concerns you have around how these skills are taught in schools?

In the survey, we lumped all digital literacy, media literacy, digital citizenship under the concept of digital citizenship. So, we asked: where does this happen? And we saw that it happens during designated computer time, or electives, or during library time, and during regular instruction in a face-to-face class.

And fitting it in where they can makes sense. But it could also mean that certain schools are only doing it during designated computer times and/or electives. Then that becomes a question of who has access to those classes. From my background as a special education teacher, I know that students who are identified [as needing special education services] often go to intervention classes during those classes, and that means they might be missing out on this kind of instruction.

One question that is often raised about teaching digital citizenship and literacy is whether this is the role of schools or the responsibility of parents. What did you hear from educators?

We actually asked administrators their perception of these topics: who do you think should be primarily responsible for teaching these things? Most administrators said it’s both families and schools. There were certain things administrators thought families might play a slightly bigger role in, especially around how to self-regulate technology use and media balance. But a large majority of school administrators who are likely making these decisions about whether these things are being addressed at the school level think it’s both a family and a school’s responsibility.

But then when we look at the parent data, less than half of parents are satisfied with their school’s digital citizenship training. And only 20 percent of parents think their child’s school is teaching about responsible decisionmaking, and they’re pretty concerned about it.

It’s a very real tension, and we don’t quite know what it looks like for schools and families to work together on these things. And it might be a case of, you know, if it’s everyone’s responsibility, it’s kind of no one’s responsibility.

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