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Safe & Savvy Online

Friday, October 28, 2016 - 14:26
Teacher with student on tablet in classroom

Fostering Good Digital Citizenship in a Wireless World

Whether we’re looking up a recipe, getting directions, sharing a photo on social media or doing online banking — there’s no question: we’re living in a digital world. As adults, the digital world has become vital in our daily lives when being used as a tool, a recreation activity and a method of communication, and this is even truer for our students, who’ve never known a world without Google, Instagram, Youtube, Musically and Snapchat (too name a few).

But while there are many positive aspects to our connected world, there can be drawbacks and dangers, especially for young people who are still developing the critical thinking and interpersonal skills they need to stay safe and have positive interactions online.

To complicate matters, the online environment is ever-evolving. As educators, it can be challenging to keep up with the latest trends but, rest assured, no matter the app or electronic device in question, lessons related to safe and responsible use of technology by fostering good digital citizenship are much the same online as they are in the real world.

What is a good digital citizen?

 “A good digital citizen has strong critical thinking skills and is an independent thinker,” explains Dr. Wendy Craig, Scientific Co-director of PREVNet — a national network of researchers and organizations working to stop bullying in Canada—and Head of Psychology at Queens University. “They engage in positive relationships and are respectful and kind. They can also engage in behaviour that shows good self-care and evaluation of self.”

The only real difference between being a good real-world citizen and a good digital citizen, according to Craig, is that a good digital citizen is also familiar with the different kinds of apps and technology they’re using — but, even then, the reasoning behind the need-to-know is similar. For example, it’s important to know how to use the privacy settings on social media accounts for the same reasons that it’s important to know never to share personal information like your home address with a stranger in the real world.

“I always tell my students that they shouldn’t be posting anything in chats or direct messages that they wouldn’t say to someone’s face,” adds Brent Gordon, a grade 6 Health and Physical Education (H&PE) teacher at Don Mills Middle School in Toronto. Gordon emphasizes respect in all interactions. He also regularly reminds his students that they do not have the anonymity online that they think they have, and that online actions have real-world consequences.

Staying safe online starts with awareness.

As we’ve seen in recent high-profile cases of cyberbullying (such as the Amanda Todd case, in which a BC teenager committed suicide following ongoing bullying and cyberbullying) these real world consequences of online behaviour can be devastating. The dangers posed by online predators are also very real—and students are being exposed to these risks at younger and younger ages.

According to Craig, the average year in which a student gets their own smart phone is grade 7—but a quarter of students will have one by grade 4. Quite literally, the Internet is in the palm of students’ hands, and neither parents/guardians nor educators can supervise its use constantly. That’s why starting to talk about Internet safety at a young age and taking it step-by-step is vital.

“Offline, you don’t just wave goodbye and let them cross the street,” explains Craig. “You stop, look both ways, cross together. It’s the same thing when we let kids online. We start by sitting with them and giving them advice. We support them as they navigate the online world, making them aware of dangers,” says Craig.

The H&PE Curriculum sets expectations for online safety.

The 2015 H&PE Curriculum includes expectations around online behaviour in the Personal Safety and Injury Prevention component of the Healthy Living strand, in the Human Development and Sexual Health strand and through the Living Skills—the personal, interpersonal and critical and creative thinking skills that are woven throughout the curriculum.

“We want students to use Living Skills like critical thinking so they’re questioning what they’re seeing and thinking about the integrity of what they’re doing,” says Heather Gardner, Ophea’s H&PE Curriculum Consultant. “Internet safety just becomes part of the everyday safety we’re teaching students. It’s really an extension of what we’re already doing.”

The Living Skills support positive online interactions.

And while there can certainly be down sides to Internet use—from cyberbullying to too much screen time leading to reduced physical activity—it’s important to acknowledge and celebrate the many positive aspects.

Linking back to the Living Skills, Gardner has seen students making good use of technology to help with personal skills, including setting goals and monitoring their progress. “We’re seeing a lot of different devices used for motivation, including various fitness trackers and games,” she says. “There’s a lot of information out there about how these apps and games are encouraging people to move more.”  When using new technologies like tracking apps or games with students it’s always important to review online safety with students, help students understand online privacy settings, and who may have access to their “tracked” information. Additionally, helping students examine the purpose behind apps collecting personal data and how they are using the data should be part of the conversation. 

Furthermore, interpersonal skills can be developed online. “It’s the kids who are vulnerable in our society who are benefitting from this the most,” points out Craig. For example, a student with social anxiety can chat with friends online while a student who is gay or questioning their sexuality can find a supportive community of peers.

The Internet can also be a powerful learning tool—whether students are increasing their vocabulary by looking up a word on their e-reader, searching for information online or conducting an Internet search as part of the inquiry process.

How can you help to foster good digital citizenship?

Bullying Awareness and Prevention week is this month (Nov 13-19) and while there continue to be cyberbullying cases in the media, there’s also some good news. For one thing, many educators are using these real-world cases as teachable moments. “It’s really helpful to share these stories and have students deconstruct them,” says Gardner. Furthermore, although media attention around cyberbullying is increasing, the number of incidents is not. In fact, according to Craig, reported cases of cyberbullying have not increased over the last eight years.

In addition to sharing stories about Internet safety, educators can also aim to set a good example through their own modeling and use of technology, and can work to set parameters for online interactions—such as guiding the tone and content of messages posted when using Google Classroom or other online learning tools.

School policies can help to guide you.

When things do go wrong in the online world, there are real-world supports in place to help educators manage the situation. These include the Education Act, P/PM 145, Progressive Discipline and Positive Student Behaviour, and P/PM 144, Bullying Prevention and Intervention.

“Whether teachers are looking for information to educate students or something has happened and they’re looking for a plan to support students,” says Gardner, “these documents provide steps and guidance in terms of the actions teachers should be taking.”

When in doubt, reach for resources.

Ophea offers several resources for fostering good digital citizenship including CyberCops (Gr 7 & 8) and ConnectED (Gr 4-6), both of which have been recently updated to align with the 2015 H&PE curriculum, including content related to healthy relationships and consent. These resources were developed in partnership with many subject experts and organizations including, Kids Help Phone and the OPP, and are available online through Ophea’s Teaching Tools website.  CyberCops is for Grades 7 and 8 and includes games, interactive modules, and lesson plans linked to the H&PE Curriculum. “ConnectED is one of our most popular resources,” says Gardner. “It uses a video format that combines animation and live actors. Students see these animated characters making their way through various real-life situations, and there are pauses for discussion and interactive tools/reflections.”

Gordon has found ConnectED helpful with his Grade 6 classes. In particular, one video about a chat situation really opened his students’ eyes. In the video, the character is wearing a school uniform, which allows an online predator to track them down. “ConnectED is fantastic,” comments Gordon. “It has real, relevant situations that students can relate to and deals with everything from gaming addiction to cyberbullying.”

Craig also suggests checking out Media Smarts—a bilingual, Canadian website with a wide range of media and web literacy resources for teachers and parents/guardians. “It’s evidence-based and user friendly,” she says.

Additional supporting resources include; The Ontario Software Acquisition Program Advisory Committee’s (OSAPAC) Digital Citizen Classroom Connections which provide K-12 resources in all subject areas to support educators in fostering digital citizenship skills as an integral part of classroom learning, and the Ontario Ministry of Education’s Bullying: We can all Help Stop It guide which supports parents/guardians with what to watch for, what they can do, and where they can go to get help for their children regarding bullying.

Ophea’s new Campaign Messengers: Taking a Stand program initiative also takes a school-based approach to help Ontario student and educator leaders address the root causes of sexual violence and harassment through the promotion of healthy relationships and equality, including healthy online relationships and interactions, and mutual respect - a key component to preventing and ending sexual violence and harassment.  Learn more about this project and how to sign up by visiting Ophea’s Teaching Tools.

Connect with your community.

Gardner also recommends connecting with your school administration, the OPP, Kids Help Phone or local police and public health for resources and support. “Learn what resources have been used in the past and what actions the school has taken,” she says.

Collaborating with other teachers and various organizations (like the Educational Computing Organization of Ontario) can also be a good way to stay up-to-date on trends in technology. “It changes very quickly,” says Gordon. “It’s Snapchat today, but it could be a new one tomorrow.”

It’s really about helping kids make moral decisions—online and off.

But while students may seem to take to new technologies with astonishing speed and ease, it’s important to recognize that they will continue to need our support.

“This generation of adults has less experience online than kids do,” says Craig. “At some point, they’ll pass us in terms of technical ability, but what we have to realize is that while they might have the technical skills to navigate online, we need to support them emotionally and when it comes to safety.”

“We need to lay down these critical evaluation skills that reflect our moral values and how kids and adults should be acting in relationships,” Craig concludes.

After all, it’s by teaching students to think critically about what they read, see and share and then to act with kindness and integrity that we’ll help to ensure their success and safety—both in the virtual and the face-to-face world.