Cultivating Digital Literacy, Citizenship & Leadership

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Whether for good or bad, the Internet and the information revolution have impacted nearly every aspect of society and social organizations, including our schools…and the challenge becomes how to address that impact. Technology and the Web have changed how students learn, study, and research, as well as how they interact with information, teachers and each other.  From Khan Academy to 1:1, it is increasingly clear that this is, “Not your father’s school,” and educational leaders who don’t respond and plan accordingly, will see their students left behind.” Jonathan Martin

As technology changes our society, our schools too must adapt. It is important for educators to understand three elements regarding technology in education: digital literacy, digital citizenship and digital leadership, and then provide instruction in all three so our students develop proficiency.

Instead of banning technology and social media on our campuses, it would better benefit our stakeholders if we taught our students the responsible ways in which to use the tools our society and economy have come to depend on.

Research is clear; our brains are extremely influenced by environment. If we cultivate a literacy and tech-infused environment of innovation, responsibility and critical thinking, then our students will understand how to positively use tech to communicate their ideas and harness the power of it in a productive manner. 

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Don’t get me wrong, as an English and social science teacher, I will be the first to say that technology DOES NOT replace effective teaching.  An ineffective teacher without a device will often be an ineffective teacher with a device, “a fool with a tool is still a fool.”

I advocate first training teachers in best instructional practices that increase student achievement such as: essential questions, writing and communication skills, critical thinking, note-taking, content literacy and engagement strategies.  After teachers have incorporated these effective learning practices, the environment is ripe for the induction of tech tools. 

A balanced tech adoption in which students read, write and create on paper, in addition to reading, writing and creating on their devices, is most advantageous.  Though I still believe in teaching students to read and write in cursive (GASP!), I have come to respect digital devices and witnessed the tremendous opportunity they provide in giving students equitable access to 21st Century methods.

Because technology is not going away, who better than educators, can educate our students to use tech for good, not for evil? 

In order to do this, we first must understand how technology positively and negatively affects our brains.

How Does Technology Impact the Brain?

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Depending on the study referenced, technology can have positive and negative neurological influences.

**Some say technology decreases:

*attention span

*face to face communication skills

*information retention

*complex reading abilities

*writing and grammar skills

*physical activity

*healthy eye development

**Some say that it increases:

*visual and spatial skills

*reaction times

*eye to hand coordination

*cause & effect processing


*skimming and scanning for main ideas

Whether a tech opponent or proponent, both agree that technology has changed our brains.  Just as students need explicit instruction in solving linear equations and annotating complex text, they also benefit from instruction, modeling, and practice in digital literacy, citizenship and leadership.

I do not subscribe to the idea that our students are ‘digital natives’ and therefore are adept in overall tech literacy.  Though they may be skilled in a few areas, most don’t understand how SEOs (search engine optimizers) work, how to skillfully research accurate and relevant information on a topic, or how to project a positive digital footprint that will aid, and not harm them in the future.  For more about this topic, check out the article, "Digital Natives, Yet Strangers to the Web."

Thus, the need for explicit instruction in a few tech areas, is vital to student success.

According to Jess Bolluyt, author of “5 Ways Tech is Disrupting Education,”  tech has positively changed education in these ways, it:

1. Allows for adaptive, personalized learning

2. Encourages collaboration among students and teachers

3. Enables students to learn and consume content in a social manner

4. Provides anytime/anywhere learning

5. Provides formative and summative centralized assessments that provide more data for teachers to use to drive their instruction

Tech is here to stay; consider teaching these components in order to prepare students for the changing tech needs of our society.


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Digital Literacy (DL) is having the ability to:

*analyze and evaluate content for trustworthiness and relevancy

*understand digital platforms and how SEOs operate

*collaborate using tech to create original content

*use fonts, backgrounds & graphics to convey a message

*understand one’s digital tattoo/footprint

*engage in responsible Social Networking

*use a variety of tech tools to produce, communicate & evaluate information

The “How & Why”

We can help students develop this type of literacy by teaching students the “How & Why” of the tools that we use.  For example, when students use Keynote & Prezi to create a presentation, they are utilizing a tool that allows them to visually and linguistically convey a message (what the Common Core State Standards refers to as “create a claim and support it with evidence”).  Or when we use Edmodo or Schoology, we are respectfully sharing, learning and debating ideas related to our class content. Using Scratch or Minecraft allows students to “code” in order to animate learned content or create new content, while fostering cause and effect and decision-making skills.  

Ultimately, we use technology to increase our critical thinking, expedite communication, and expand our repertoire of tools to accomplish tasks. Teaching the “How and Why” of the tech tools we use in class, helps students to understand which tool to choose in order to complete a task.

What?  Everything on the Internet is not True?

Another component of DL is to determine whether Web content is relevant and reliable.  Teachthought, one of my favorite educational sites, compiled a list of valuable e-resources in their article, “100 Search Engines for Academic Research."  These sites have been deemed trustworthy for teacher and student research.

**In addition to using trusted sites, here are a few questions students can use to personally evaluate Internet content:

Is the site reader-friendly (using titles, subheadings, pictures, captions and charts)?

If timeliness of the information is important, is it kept up to date?

Does the author provide contact information if there are questions about the content?

Does the author add in personal commentary and/or use absolutes and superlatives such as “always, never,best, excellent” to describe the information?

Are the sources clearly listed so facts can be verified?

Does the site provide helpful live links to other resources?

Does the author seem to have a personal agenda he/she is trying to push?

Is the author affiliated with an organization?

Is the author trying to sell something?

**A few Digital Literacy sample lessons to consider are:

*Find examples of effective/ineffective company infographics and determine what could make them better? Consider symbols, color, wording, etc.

*Use coding programs such as Scratch to create an animated lesson based on content learned; include music and voice narration.

*Find evidence to support AND refute a topic such as human cloning, global warming or the existence of Big Foot—create a claim and provide evidence to support it.  Then, produce a multi-media presentation and upload it to YouTube.

*“Gamify” a unit.  Develop a game and point structure students can play to earn points when they complete certain assignments.  The more assignments they complete, the more points they earn and the farther they advance in the game. Here are a few resources to gamify your instruction: "Trying out Gamification in the Classroom? These Tools are for You," an article by Katie Lepi, and a YouTube video:"Level Up: Five Steps to Gamify Your Class."

*Utilize Twitter or TodaysMeet during a lesson to post questions and allow for running commentary throughout a lesson to engage all learners.

**Four resources for teaching Digital Literacy & Citizenship are:

Cybraryman Internet Catalogue

CommonSense Media


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Digital Citizenship is primarily concerned with establishing a positive online presence.  According to Microsoft’s 2014 “Safer Online” Report, private citizens spend billions of dollars annually attempting to repair their online damaged reputations and billions of dollars are lost in estimated income due to damaged digital footprints. 

In a nutshell, Digital Citizenship can make or break a person’s personal AND professional life.

A responsible Digital Citizen (DC):

*upholds Acceptable Use Policies

*establishes a positive digital footprint

*demonstrates proper use and care of technology

*skillfully navigates between face to face and digital communication

*participates respectfully in online discussions and demonstrates “Netiquette”

*appropriately evaluates the effects of individual tech use on the greater community

*adheres to guidelines for buying & selling products online

*does not participate in cyberbullying

*uses electronic precautions to protect one’s identity

*establishes healthy limits on tech use

One area that educational institutions sometimes need help with is in the development of “Acceptable Use Policies” for both employees and students.  Edutopia provides guidelines for this task, “How to Create Social Media Guidelines for Your School” in addition to a slew of other Digital Citizenship resources, such as Matt Davis’ article, "Digital Citizenship: 6 Resources for Educators."

Increase Search Visibility & Develop a Positive Digital Footprint

People can increase their Internet search visibility by owning their domain name, blogging, and participating in Social Media Platforms that have strong Search Engine Optimizers such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn and

However, when we engage in Social Media, we should model appropriate behavior and filter what we post. Only post what is truthful, positive, helpful and interesting, and for goodness’ sake, limit the SELFIES!

I once heard, “The Internet doesn’t make us stupid; it just makes one’s stupidity more visible.”  That can certainly be the case when one posts evidence of questionable behavior, endless rants and selfies. As many have learned the hard way in the 21st Century, nothing chases away professional opportunities faster than negative online behavior.  

In summary, when it comes to Digital Citizenship…don’t be stupid online.


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First, when it comes to Digital Leadership, a Digital Leader (DL), doesn’t have to know EVERYTHING about technology.  According to Todd Whitaker, “Though it is beneficial if leaders can model the use of technology, it is more essential that they support the use of technology.”

The benefit in being a Digital Leader is the ability to communicate to ALL stakeholders, the school’s vision, mission, activities and successes, while also promoting a culture focused on continual learning and innovation. In order to do this, a DL can use just a few tech tools well. He/she does not have to use all of them; in fact, I caution against it.

A Tremendous Opportunity

A school or district has an online brand, or presence, whether established by those within the organization, or not.  There is a tremendous (and FREE) opportunity for educators to positively impact how others view education, while demonstrating Digital Leadership, and that is by simply sharing in online communities, all of the great things happening in schools.

I have read many times, the negative, often fictitious, attacks against a school or educator, launched by a disgruntled parent, etc.  Unfortunately, studies show that people believe what they hear most, and if most publicity about an educator or educational organization is negative, then that wll influence the public’s perception.

Here are a few tools Digital Leaders can use to positively communicate a message and demonstrate Digital Leadership:

*Twitter—free 24/7 professional development and connection with other educators

*Remind + Stamps—free and secure texting service to send out reminders to staff, parents and students and allow for a quick response

*Blog—communicate the great successes of your school and provide resources

*Google Drive—create forms, communicate & track data with ease

*Evernote—combine lists, handwritten notes, articles, video, photos, etc., in one spot

In addition to using tech tools, consider these ideas to promote collaboration and learning:

*Host “appy” hour to highlight a few tech tools for educators and parents--provide snacks & music, etc.

*Partner up techies with non-techies to learn and practice 1 tech tool monthly--provide release time each month to accomplish this

*Send educators to tech conferences

*Host a “Tech EdCamp” at your school and bring in local “experts” to share ideas and tools

In closing, there is no doubt that technology has indeed changed our society.  If our goal as educators is to prepare students for the future, then education must include the productive ways in which to use technology.

Focusing on a balanced approach for "Old School" handwritten Literacy and "New School" Critical Thinking, Digital Literacy, Citizenship and Leadership, promotes a culture of learning and creativity that benefits all of our stakeholders and positions our students for 21st Century success.

Julie Adams, Adams Educational Consulting,, September 2014