Building Digital Leaders

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If you aren’t familiar with Black Mirror it is a British television anthology series, currently on Netflix, that features speculative fiction that focuses on modern society, and the often unanticipated consequences of new technologies. It is thought provoking, highly relevant in today’s rapidly changing world, and definitely worth checking out.

It has left me  thinking a lot about the unchartered waters our youth, their parents and their teachers must navigate as part of the digital age that is our reality. This is something I consider constantly in the work I do but it is also a focus in supporting my very own “digital natives”, that being my eleven and thirteen year olds at home  My kids use Instagram, Snapchat, Musical.ly and YouTube regularly, therefore so do I. I make a point of it.  How can I best support them if I don’t understand these platforms myself? At home, we have open, specific and continuous conversations about social media etiquette, on-line responsibilities and the idea of developing a positive digital footprint. I follow them, I encourage my own friends to keep an eye out and I check their accounts regularly. Perhaps, based on my line of work I am the exception, not the norm. What role are most parents taking in the digital lives of their children?  

Like with any new learning, kids need practice.  They need modeling.  They need feedback.  They need guidance and support.  Not surprisingly my two have made mistakes along the way.  This seems inevitable as they make their way through this “training wheel phase”. I am grateful for these hiccups, as it gives us the opportunity to have real, contextual and meaningful conversations around what it looks like to be a responsible digital citizen.  I would much rather have them make these mistakes right now at age 11 in a scaffolded, protected setting, then at age 18. We see it time and time again.  One photo…one offensive remark…one case of bad judgement…one mistake… and a life is changed forever.   We don’t have to look far to find examples of people making bad choices in a digital context for the world to see. We don’t have to look far to find examples of people using digital platforms to spread negativity, hostility and hate. Sure, a handful of these may be kids, but for the most part these people are adults.  How do we break this cycle? As parents, how do we best support our children in becoming responsible digital citizens?  What role do, can and should schools play in this pressing and critical issue?

Digital citizenship is most frequently defined as “ the norms of appropriate, responsible technology use”.  The term is used in many contexts and may hold a variety of meanings to many, however the image below captures the nine elements most frequently associated with the term.

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In today’s world is being a “digital citizen” even setting the bar high enough?  It is difficult to argue with the fact that each of the nine elements are important.  Following guidelines to keep us safe and healthy, being responsible, becoming digitally “literate”- these are all essential and support the status quo. But are these nine elements the best we can aspire to for our students?

In his work, George Couros, talks a lot about the notion of Digital Leadership and “how we need to push our students to make a change in their world and highlight how social media can give them an opportunity that we never were given as students.  Just being “citizens” online is the average; kids already exist online.  We should be pushing for much more than this.”  

He defines Digital Leadership as…“Using the vast reach of technology (especially the use of social media) to improve the lives, well-being, and circumstances of others… http://sumo.ly/cpJu

We see examples of the youth of today harnessing the power of our digital world for good. In this post entitled, “Focusing on What Students Can Do”  George Couros says, “What I try to do is share stories of students who are making a difference right now! Like this teen who created the “Sit With Us” app, to help students find welcoming students to join during lunch. Or the 9 year old, “Little Miss Flint”, becoming a voice of a city and educating people about the water crisis in her city of Flint, Michigan.  Both of these young people are not waiting to become the leaders of tomorrow; they are grabbing these opportunities today. Our goal as educators should be that these stories are not the exception, but the norm. By raising the bar and our expectations for our students, we are more likely to get there than by simply telling them what they should not do.”

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There is much work to do. Work that must be done in collaboration. We must come together as families, as educators, as schools, and as communities to empower our learners to make good choices, daily in their digital world. This is our call to action.

Moving forward, how do help create a generation of not only digital citizens but “digital leaders”? How do we encourage, train and support today’s learners to rise above taking the power and reach of today’s digital world to slander, damage, embarrass, ostracize, hurt and bully others and instead use it as an opportunity to connect, share, celebrate, support, empower and learn from with one another?

In order to move our learners as digital citizens towards digital leaders we need to support them in moving from a passive stance to a place of action.  In moving towards a place of active digital leadership our youth need to develop the following skills and attitudes:

Autonomy

A digitally autonomous learner has a strong understanding of how the choices they make influence themselves and others, and are able to consider a variety of perspectives. They are self-determined learners that take responsibility for their own online decision making, independently.

Communicative, collaborative, critical, creative (4C) Mindset

The learner uses technology  regularly to communicate, and collaborate with people beyond their immediate environment in positive ways. Building these networked, learning communities builds communicative skills, shared connections and a global perspective.

In an online world the learner has continuous opportunities to actively use critical thinking skills including; conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating the information coming at them. The learner must employ these skills regularly and skillfully when making choices online.

Pushing past, the more passive role of a digital citizen as consumer, a digital creator regularly puts new content into the world and extends the creator’s own positive digital footprint.

Contemporary Lifelong Learning

In today’s dynamic, rapidly changing world our contemporary lifelong learner must be committed to the continuous development and improvement of the knowledge and skills needed to be a dedicated digital citizen and leader.

Next Steps…

How do we best support learners in navigating this online world and working towards being not only digital citizens but digital leaders? Like with any new learning, children need practice.  They need modeling.  They need feedback.  They need guidance and support.  In Kayla Delzer’s blog post “Three Reasons Students Should Own Your Classroom Twitter & Instagram Accounts” she outlines how she uses  a “gradual release of responsibility to systematically turn the ‘social media reins” over to her grade 2 students.” We need more teachers like Kayla, modeling positive use of social media to celebrate and share the work of young students. We need classroom teachers having regular conversations about current events related to the topic of the online world.  We need more schools where the “THINK” poster outlining things to consider before you post online, is just as prolific as a poster related to reading strategies or math problem solving steps.

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I often hear pushback from teachers who say that schools have enough to do in teaching kids the content areas, literacy, numeracy etc. and that there is already too much on their plates.  The reality is that schools in fact,  are  in the business of teaching the whole child.  We historically and continuously support students in social, emotional, physical, and cognitive areas.   We teach pro-social skills, time management, citizenship, drug education, nutrition, human sexuality/reproduction, teamwork, mindfulness and the list goes on.  And in fact, information technology and the ethics and responsibility that it go along with it are nothing new to schools’ mandates. And while programs like MediaSmarts, Kids in the Know etc. may be valuable but they are not enough.  Where we need to see the shift is away from specific, canned programs that teach digital citizenship, internet safety, acceptable use etc. as skills in isolation in separate lessons out of context, and instead model real world, authentic digital leadership within the walls of our classrooms.  Many or most of our students own devices and the the reality is that these devices are a highly influential component of their world.  This issue isn’t going away.  This is our call to action. We must empower our learners with the skills, attitudes and direction necessary to lead in our digital world. We need to get to a point where we no longer need to use the world “digital”, before citizenship and leadership and it is merely engrained in the essence of all we do.

As classroom teachers, we have no choice but to dive into the world of connected learning.  For many, this may be uncomfortable, For many, this may be terrifying. New learning often is. But today’s reality is that technology and mobile devices are the equivalent to the pencil of days past. We must embrace opportunities for networked learning both for ourselves and our students.  When we choose to model the use of social media from the classroom for sharing and collaborating online, WITH our students starting at a young age, we normalize the positive, intended use of these platforms.  It becomes how we do business.  When we choose to give our learners the opportunity to blog or create digital portfolios at a young age and we model the responsibilities that come along with this, we help prepare them for the world that IS their present as well as their future.

These are unprecedented times.  These are times of change.  These are times for action. Moving forward, it is essential that we come together as a community of learners to best support and empower our digital learners.