IT Infrastructure

K-12 Digital Citizenship Initiative Targets States

By Benjamin Herold — October 28, 2016 6 min read
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A coalition of groups focused on children and media launched a new campaign today to encourage state lawmakers to promote digital citizenship in schools.

The aim is to spur adoption of new legislation requiring the formation of state-level advisory committees charged with finding ways to help ensure students use classroom technology safely and ethically while becoming savvy consumers and creators of online media and information.

“Our kids are now living in a digital world, and we need to teach them how to make smart choices so they can take advantage of all that tech has to offer while avoiding the dangers,” said James P. Steyer, in prepared remarks he was expected to deliver Oct. 28 to the Twitter Digital Citizenship Summit in San Francisco. “We believe that good online behavior mimics good offline behavior.”

Steyer is the founder and CEO of the nonprofit Common Sense Media, whose advocacy wing, Common Sense Kids Action, will lead the new campaign. The group is joined by Media Literacy Now, the Digital Citizenship Institute, and the National Association for Media Literacy Education. Together, they hope to initially persuade 20 states to pass new digital-citizenship legislation in 2017.

Their model is Washington state, where Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, earlier this year signed into law a measure requiring the office of the state superintendent of public instruction to convene a statewide advisory committee that will devise best practices and recommendations for “instruction in digital citizenship, internet safety, and media literacy.”

Beginning next school year, Washington districts will be required to conduct annual reviews of their relevant policies.

From cyberbullying (bullying, threats, or intimidation that happens online or electronically) to sexting (the exchange of sexually explicit images or messages via digital-communications tools), the downsides of students’ online lives have in recent years garnered significant legislative attention. Often, the approach has been to respond to problems after they arise.

Now, though, experts say there’s a growing focus on prevention and proactive efforts to promote healthy behaviors.

“This isn’t an issue that can be solved with a one-time fix,” said Sunny Deye, a program principal at the National Conference of State Legislatures. “It requires a mechanism for schools to address ongoing issues as they come up.”

Teaching Respect, Responsibility

The need for internet-safety instruction for children has long been evident: Back in 2009, for example, the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project found that 15 percent of teenagers who owned cellphones had received nude or nearly nude images of someone they know via a text message. More recently, Pew found that 22 percent of teenagers with relationship experience have had a partner insult them or be mean to them on the internet or via a cellphone. Overall, 4 in 10 of all internet users are the victims of some form of online harassment.

State Legislative Action

Several states in recent years have enacted legislation around digital literacy and digital citizenship:

Washington: A 2016 law provided for a process by which students, parents or guardians, teachers, librarians, other school employees, administrators, and community representatives may engage in an ongoing discussion on safe technology use, internet use, digital citizenship, and media literacy. A 2015 law modified the duties of teacher-librarians to include instruction in digital citizenship.

Utah: A 2015 law required school community councils to provide for education and awareness on safe technology utilization and digital citizenship. The aim was to empower students to make smart media and online choices and help parents and guardians learn to discuss safe technology use with their children.

Florida: A 2014 law requiring public schools to provide K-12 students with opportunities for learning computer science also permitted elementary and middle schools to establish digital classrooms to improve digital literacy and skills, such as coding.

Maine: A 2011 law required the state commissioner of education to develop a program of technical assistance for instruction in digital literacy, including offering professional development and training for educators in the effective use of online learning resources.

Source: National Conference of State Legislatures

But as the internet, social media, and digital devices have become increasingly ubiquitous, they’ve also presented children with new opportunities to connect with others, engage in school, and take part in civic and public life.

To reflect that dual reality, “digital citizenship” should cover both media literacy and responsible online behavior, many experts and educators now believe. While there is no single, universally accepted definition, the term is generally used to cover strategies to help students learn internet safety and security; manage their digital identities and reputations; engage in appropriate and ethical digital conduct; build healthy relationships; prevent cyberbullying; critically evaluate online information sources; and learn to access, analyze, produce, evaluate, and interpret a wide range of media.

“Digital citizenship can play a strong role in preventing negative experiences,” said Monica Bulger, a senior researcher at Data & Society, a New York City-based research institute. “It’s also an opportunity to teach respect, responsibility, and how to engage in civil society.”

Common Sense Media is among the groups that have produced free curricular materials for schools. A sample lesson for young children might focus on how to respond when someone is mean online. For high school students, lessons might cover the consequences of “oversharing” on the internet or an examination of how online identities might affect future educational or professional opportunities.

Despite the availability of such resources, though, districts have typically been scattershot in their approaches to such instruction in the classroom.

The federal Children’s Internet Protection Act requires schools receiving federal E-rate discounts to adopt an internet-safety policy, block or filter obscene online content, and “provide for educating minors about appropriate online behavior, including interacting with other individuals on social-networking websites and in chat rooms, and cyberbullying awareness and response,” according to the Federal Communications Commission.

In many states, however, the development and implementation of such policies has been hit or miss.

That’s historically been the case in Washington, said Dennis Small, the director of educational technology in the state’s office of public instruction. “Some districts were being very deliberate and thoughtful,” he said. “What’s not successful is when students get a canned video from 10 years ago that talks about AOL chat rooms and being safe on MySpace.”

Preventative Measures

Following the passage last spring of Washington’s new digital-citizenship law, Small and others are hoping to see a more consistent approach.

The legislation stipulated that the state education department “convene and consult with an advisory committee” consisting of educators, parents, and media-literacy experts, among others. The group was given the responsibility of revising the state’s ed-tech standards and internet-safety policy and gathering materials and ideas that can be shared with schools. Those schools will, in turn, be tasked with replicating the process on a local level, beginning next school year.

Ongoing concerns about inadequate state education funding mean the new digital-citizenship legislation didn’t come with any new dollars. The committee’s recommendations are also likely to be modest, focused more on updating standards and sharing free resources than requesting that lawmakers allocate millions of dollars for new teacher professional-development efforts.

Marko Liias, a Democrat in the Washington state senate who sponsored the law, said it is just one step in a long-term strategy.

“Right now, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. It’s about finding the best things already out there, sharing them, and launching a conversation,” Liias said. “In the future, when we find some strategies that really work, let’s put some money behind them to spread them more widely.”

It’s an approach that makes sense to Common Sense Kids Action and its partner organizations. Model legislation the groups intend to push is drawn heavily from the new Washington law, said JR Starrett, the group’s director of advocacy.

Educators and school administrators are concerned with their students’ digital lives, Starrett said, but they’ve become increasingly frustrated by the limitations of laws focused narrowly on hot-button issues such as sexting or cyberbullying.

“They want to find preventative measures,” he said. “That’s why Washington caught our eye. It creates a floor, rather than a ceiling, and it allows districts to tailor policies around digital citizenship and media literacy to their own needs.”

Coverage of policy, government and politics, and systems leadership is supported in part a grant from by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
Coverage of policy, government and politics, and systems leadership is supported in part a grant from by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 2016 edition of Education Week as Digital Citizenship Initiative Will Target State Legislators


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