Back to School 2015: Building a Digital Community

Digital Citizenship 472

Districts and schools throughout the country are gearing up for the new school year, and many teachers and students will return to a transformed classroom filled with new devices, digital content and learning opportunities. When it comes to implementing technology and creating digital learning environments,  much of a school’s or district’s energy and thought are dedicated to the smart allocation of funds, selecting the “right” digital tools, and improving infrastructure, but the impact new technology will have on school culture and student learning is often given too little attention.

What changes can teachers expect and prepare for in the classroom – will new behavioral patterns emerge, or will the room’s physical configuration change based on devices and opportunities for virtual collaboration? What new challenges does technology create? For example, will students be distracted? How will educators ensure the classroom remains a safe and effective place to learn – are privacy policies clear?

When we place computers, tablets, or other digital tools into the hands of our students, it is also critical that we teach them what responsible, ethical, and legal use of technology looks like. So, as we begin to better understand the digital culture of our learning environment, let’s look at some ways educators, families and administrators can support this work.

Helping Students Learn to Work in a Digital Environment

1.   Define Digital Citizenship

Consider the traits that define a responsible citizen: respectful, ethical, considerate. How different are these traits from those we expect of a digital citizen? Not very different, are they?  

We expect students to communicate in a clear and respectful manner in traditional modes of collaboration and engagement, like research reports or group presentations. These same expectations hold true in a digital world. Our responsibility as educators is to understand how these traits translate and operate within a digital environment. We have to think about how we define digital respect.

For example, a common pain point within the digital learning space is setting boundaries and expectations for virtual collaboration; lack of guidelines leaves the door open for serious issues, like cyberbullying. However, if we are clear about how we define digital citizenship upfront, we will also be able to set clear expectations for students, model appropriate behaviors in practical ways and hold students accountable when necessary.

It’s equally important that we prepare for the occasional mistake. Building a shared sense of digital responsibility within your school community will no doubt be an ongoing process. After all, failure is an essential part of learning and should be expected as students learn to behave, cope, and respond in an environment with transparent boundaries. When a student makes an inappropriate comment or uses content from an Internet resource without permission, turn the situation into a teachable moment. Help students understand these situations in a productive way and use them as learning opportunities for all students.

2.   Create an Aligned Community

Creating a community of responsible digital citizens is a team effort.  Everyone can play an active role:

School Leaders: The leader’s responsibility is to set school-wide expectations and communicate them to all stakeholders. One method of accomplishing this is to create an Acceptable Use Policy, which is then signed by teachers, students, and parents.

Teacher:  Teachers should consider how technology will support learning and develop expectations that promote student success.  It is also helpful to establish daily learning expectations that are communicated to both students and parents. Teachers must also understand the intricacies of classroom technology use and align lessons and assignments appropriately with plans for collaboration and communication, all while respecting educational fair use requirements.

Students: Students are responsible for adhering to the agreed-upon guidelines and must understand that while making mistakes is part of the learning process, certain behaviors, like using disrespectful language with peers or using unlicensed content, come with consequences. Students must take responsibility for appropriately following the guidelines that have been established and communicated.

Families: Finally, families should also play a critical role in the formation and preservation of a responsible and effective digital community. Families must be aware of what children are doing online, where they are going while online, and how often they are using technology. Often the home digital environment is less protected and secure than the environment at the school. Families need to be mindful of privacy controls, websites and social sites their children their children are accessing. Monitor their activities and ask questions!

3.   Collaborate and Communicate

As we plan for the coming school year and the use of technology, keep lines of communication open.

  • Work with your administration to create, distribute, and enforce a technology use policy.
  • Collaborate with your students to create clear expectations and procedures for the various digital learning scenarios (digital collaboration, research, exploration, creation, etc.)
  • Get the parents involved (through your back to school night, tips in a weekly newsletter, digital projects shared through email, etc.)
  • Assess your progress, successes, and setbacks throughout the year and make adjustments when and where appropriate.  Embrace change and recognize opportunities to learn from mistakes.

As technology becomes increasingly central to learning, school communities must place critical importance on the way students engage and work in a digital world.  It is our shared responsibility – as educators, students, and family and community members – to foster a culture that supports safe, ethical, and legal use of technology so that all students have access to digital environments in which they can thrive.


Brent Hartsell has served as both an instructional and technology lead, supporting colleagues with classroom practices and technology integration. In his current role as HMH Education Services Design Director, Brent is responsible for architecting new professional learning content, practices, and modalities. In this role, he also leads all instructional technology professional services at HMH.

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