The Internet Can Be a Force for Good. Here’s How.
What does it mean to be a good citizen?
It’s little things like reading the news, putting your trash in the right bins, turning the water off when you’re not using it and donating used clothing and books when you’re done with them.
It’s also bigger things, like voting, volunteering and treating everyone around you with compassion and respect.
These are all no-brainers, right? Most people have been hearing and learning about this since they were kids.
And of course, today’s kids still hear all these messages, too, but they live in a world that is so much more complicated than in years past because they’re so steeped in today’s digital landscape.
After all, the online world is filled with all the trappings of a modern society. You can meet people online. You can shop and make purchases. You can establish a personality or “build your brand.” You can use the internet to donate to charity, stay informed about current events and keep in touch with old friends. The flip side is that you can also use it to harass, bully and intimidate others—to mislead them and misrepresent yourself.
All of this amounts to what is essentially a new frontier in society, and it’s often called “digital citizenship.”
Over the summer, EdSurge sat down with one of the foremost experts on this topic: Marialice Curran, founder and executive director of the Digital Citizenship Institute. According to Curran, digital citizenship is less about a list of online dos and don’ts and more about promoting social responsibility and human connection. (She also insists the term “digital citizenship” is rarely the best way to get people to pay attention.)
During the conversation, Curran suggests some simple things anyone can do to be a better citizen, both on and offline. Because even the adults can use a lesson these days on how to treat one another with humanity, compassion and respect online.
Listen to the discussion on this week’s EdSurge On Air podcast. You can follow the podcast on the Apple Podcast app, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music or wherever you listen. Or read a portion of the interview below, lightly edited for clarity.
EdSurge: Let’s start at the beginning. What is digital citizenship?
Marialice Curran: As I have evolved on my own journey with digital citizenship, I certainly started in a very reactive place trying to just catch up. There were headlines early, early on with teens being cyberbullied and teen suicides that really affected me. I was reacting. I was trying to catch up.
But as I have evolved as an educator, I’ve gone from a reactive place to a really proactive place. And so I think that I first started with looking at safety. I’ve probably then added another layer of social responsibility. And now I’m at a point where it’s really that digital citizenship needs to be a verb. It needs to be an action. It’s using technology and social media for social good, for solving real problems in local, global and digital communities. And that we do this together.
So if we can’t humanize the person sitting next to us—that’s the first thing that we’ve got to be able to do—then we’re never going to be able to apply that to people around the world that might look different, might speak a different language, practice different traditions and cultures. So after humanizing the person next to us, then we can relate that to humanizing people around the world. And then that third point would be humanizing the person across the screen.
So in a long way, digital citizenship to me is human connections. It’s all about bringing back the humanity.
So how did you get into this work?
I was a faculty member. At the time it was St. Joseph College [in West Hartford, Connecticut], and it was an all-women’s undergraduate program. And I was a faculty member on record for the edtech program, both at the undergraduate and graduate level. And we were really, in the early 2000s, focused in on just the edtech part. And at the time, digital citizenship was an add-on. It was an add-on to a course, or professional development or even for conferences.
And so I was one of the first faculty members that was like, “We need to carve out time and space because we’re putting the cart before the horse. We really need to lead with digital citizenship, not lead with edtech.” And so I started creating courses. And then one course led into another course, and workshops and events. And then again by probably 2011, things changed drastically for me. I created a first-year seminar for my incoming freshmen called, “Pleased to Tweet You. Are You a Socially Responsible Digital Citizen?”
And knowing that a first-year seminar is about building community, I thought this would be a great foundation—no matter what the undergraduates might be studying later on. And over the summer, before the course started, I thought, it would be even more meaningful if we were to connect and collaborate with a classroom someplace else. So I put a blog post out.
And, to make a long story short, a second-year teacher in Birmingham, Alabama said, “My high school juniors would love to join you.” That whole experience changed my teaching practice, where I could never teach the same way again. I always had to breakdown classroom walls and do things collaboratively. So her high school juniors and my college freshmen collaborated on defining what digital citizenship is. And to this day it’s still my definition—[that] to be a human in the 21st century, we need to think and act. And the emphasis was on act locally, globally and digitally.
Since then, we’ve really been all around the world, working with school communities where everybody’s got a seat at the table.
I personally have heard about digital citizenship for several years, but sometimes it still feels really abstract to me. Could you help ground that with some examples of “good” digital citizenship or “bad” digital citizenship?
I feel like the first thing is trying to change those “don’t” statements. Go look at your tech policies, and what does the language say? Because there’s a lot of “don’t do this” statements. I’m always looking at how we change those “don’ts” to “do’s” and “I will” statements, so we can empower our students.
But one of my favorite examples that I share all the time is of four- and five-year-olds in Scotland. Because if four- and five-year-olds can do it, there’s more that I can do.
So there is a classroom in Scotland. And when you’re four and five, no matter where you live, you’re learning your math facts. You also learn about your community. And at the time those students learned that homelessness is a serious issue in Glasgow, and that the No. 1 issue is access to clean sanitation.
So this actually adds in this layer of connecting digital citizenship with the global goals, which is to me where we should all be headed. And so alongside their teacher, they decided that to be motivated to learn their math facts, they would put out on social media what they’ve learned about their community [and] what they were doing. “Would you like to sponsor us, our class, as we learn our math facts? Because all that money we want to be able to donate a toilet for our community.”
And the best part of the whole story is, it wasn’t just one toilet, it was four toilets that they were able to donate. And that to me is like digital citizenship in action.
We’ve all seen divisive Facebook posts between adults, and we’ve seen President Trump’s tweets. We can’t expect everybody’s parents and grandparents and siblings to go through digital citizenship curriculum or training. What are simple ways to talk to adults about how to use the internet for good?
Usually, when I talk to adults, the first thing that I’ll ask is how many people sleep with the phone by their bed. And then I say, “I want you to go back and get an old-fashioned alarm clock, because I would like you to say hello to human beings in your home.” Because right now we’re modeling that I’m saying good morning and good night to a device.
And so this is on all of us. This isn’t just something our students are supposed to do, or our children. This is something that the whole family should be practicing. And that’s one simple thing that we can all do. It’s like a family contract. It isn’t just for the young people in the family. It’s for all of us to get reconnected and to be present.
Basically, adults don’t practice what we preach. We used to take our hats off when we would go into a building or a meeting. So we need that digital hat rack, to take it off to realize there are times that we’re just not going to be on our device. So I feel like that’s the start.
I love these suggestions, but they sound more like removing technology rather than using the technology for good.
There is a perfect example in Texas. There was a young girl, elementary age, and she was doing a science project in school. And she decided she was going to look at how plastic bags are polluting the Bayou. And so the project ended at school, but it didn’t end for this young girl. So with her parents, and with her grandmother in particular, she went and she did a Change.org petition to get enough signatures so she could meet with the mayor of Houston. And she came up with—with her parents and her grandmother—how to make recyclable bags out of old T-shirts. And how that bag, this is that adding all of those mindsets, how that bag could help.
So whatever it might be that your child has fire in their belly about, take that, capitalize on it. And then that’s how a family, as a connected family, you can start to make a difference in your own community. And then those stories inspire other families to say, “Oh, we do something similar. Oh, we really like to do that. We could do something.” And it will just continue.