Digital Citizenship

October 12, 2011


The young woman in the Adirondack chair began to talk to her computer.  She spoke a language with which I was unfamiliar (perhaps Eastern European?) and used earphones, so it sounded like a one-sided conversation.  Soon, she rose from her chair and brought her laptop to eye level.  She aimed the laptop at the Middlebury College Library and then across the lawn toward other campus buildings.  She danced with her laptop as she gave her correspondent a virtual tour of her college.

I looked away and saw another woman engaged in an animated cell-phone conversation.  Across the lawn, two men worked together on their laptops.  Women and men strolled along the paths talking on their cell phones or listening to music through earphones.

Middlebury’s campus offers accessible Wi-Fi both inside and outside college buildings.  I read the newspaper on an iPad while sitting in my own Adirondack chair.  This scene is a snapshot of the kind digital world into which Tower’s current students will eventually matriculate.

I share this snapshot to emphasize one reason that we have moved to a one-to-one iPad program at Tower.  If we are going to prepare our students for the world of which they will be a part, we must teach digital citizenship.  We must teach our students the opportunities and the perils of the digital world.  They must learn to use effectively the digital media that will surround them.  And they should know when to turn off their devices so that they can focus on human relationships and other parts of the living world.

In a discussion the other day, one current parent observed that Tower’s move to iPads beginning in grade 3 removed from parent control the question of when to welcome their children into the digital world.  While, certainly, we were not motivated by a desire to seize this decision from parents, the observation is accurate.  Know that we have developed programs in digital citizenship designed to teach our students to use their devices well.

In grades 3-5, our current focus is on “communications.”  Working with teachers, the students have explored topics such as cell phone etiquette, posting on the Internet, blogging, and cyber-bullying.  Students have been introduced to the problem of maintaining privacy online and the requirements for talking safely online.  Each grade is developing a digital citizenship blog upon which students are required to comment.  Because we want students to beware the perils of posting pictures of themselves online, each has created an avatar for these blogs.

Upper School instruction in digital citizenship varies according to the age of the student but personal security and personal responsibility are always at the forefront of the lesson.  Recent lessons have covered copyright ownership and communication for younger students.  For the older students, topics have included advertising, cyberbullying and the dangers of digital media including addiction.  In this work, we also highlight universal character traits like kindness, integrity, honesty and respect.

As I watched the scenes on the lawn at Middlebury last weekend, I closed my iPad.  Several squirrels scrambled up and down nearby trees, two clearly engaged in some kind of a game of tag.  I worried that the college students around me on the lawn, noses trapped in their digital devices, didn’t notice the squirrels.  Our emphasis on digital citizenship should help Tower graduates one day, not only to navigate the digital world, but also how to turn it off.  I want them to watch those squirrels.

About Tower School, Marblehead MA 01945

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