Educating Students About their Digital Exhaust.

I think that it is very likely that historians looking back at the early 21st century will come to regard the emergence of the internet and its associated digital tools as being equally transformative to global societies as the industrial revolution.  Every sector of our society is feeling the effect of billions of people being globally connected to each other, as well as monumental amounts of information and data.  We are still in the beginning of this new paradigm shift, and we will continue to see even more changes to just about every aspect of our lives, from commerce, staying connected, healthcare, creative pursuits, and how we learn.  

Today’s students have access to the tremendous power of the connected world, which can enhance their opportunities for learning, as well as social and personal development.  The staggering abundance of information and data available at their fingertips is a powerful tool that can be harnessed to strengthen learning.  However, as with any new technology, new risks and issues arise along with the many benefits that it brings, and the internet is certainly no different.

I am a digital immigrant, and was an adult before digital technology became ubiquitous in daily life.  I was a university student before I sent my first email, and back in high school, calling a friend meant calling their house land-line, and then politely asking for your friend when their parents answered the phone.  Instant messaging and instantaneous sharing/streaming of your life?  That was still the stuff of science fiction back then.  

Many digital immigrants, myself included, plunged headfirst into this digital world, without first considering the long-term implications of sharing so much personal information online.  Social media default settings were public, searchable, and the platforms did not contain the more robust privacy settings that many of them currently have.  For example, here is an article written by M.J. Kelly on Mozilla’s blog giving Facebook users tips on how to manage their profiles and privacy settings.  Many of the settings this blog is referring to did not exist in the earlier year of the Facebook platform.

I like the term digital exhaust, which refers to the data trail we leave behind us as we wander through the internet.  It evokes a nice visual parallel in my mind of a vehicle leaving a visual trail of exhaust.  However, unlike a vehicle’s exhaust, which will eventually dissipate as it dissolves into the air around it, our digital exhaust is (at least for now) a permanent record of where we’ve been on the web.

(Image licensed under Creative Commons.  Photo credit: Ruben de Rijcke.

Taken in pieces, bits of our digital exhaust are innocuous, non-threatening, and not (usually) particularly compromising to our sense of privacy.  However, if the complete picture of our digital exhaust were to be collected and aggregated, it would paint a very detailed picture of who we are.  Many of us acknowledge that giving up a certain degree of privacy is somewhat inevitable in this new and hyper-connected world, however, most people still balk at the idea of living completely in the public sphere, where all of one’s data is free to access.

I have heard educators chatting about how they feel that students know far more than they do about digital technology.  This may be true in some cases, however, I also feel like it is many times simply false.  Just because a student is a digital native, does not mean that they understand the concept of personal data, and how that data is being collected and used by websites, apps, and networks that they interact with daily.

We educators play an important role now in teaching our students how to manage and control what data they share with others, including family, friends, acquaintances, those masquerading as avatars, and companies.  It is crucial that we not shirk this responsibility by assuming that they already know, or that their parents will teach them, or that they will pick it up elsewhere.  A vast majority of schools have recognized this need in school curricula, and thankfully have incorporated robust digital citizenship programs that begin in the early years and continue through high school graduation.

I am a secondary school science teacher.  My job title does not include any reference to digital coaching, literacy, or technology integration.  However, I recognize the need for students to both witness and act upon the continual reinforcement of these skills, especially in the form of sound personal data management.

As educators, there are many ways in which we can do this, tangential to what subject we are explicitly teaching.  We can model appropriate use of social media for students.  Tanner Higgin, Director, Education Editorial Strategy at Common Sense Education, expresses this clearly in a recent post from earlier this year.  He argues, “To be true digital citizens, our students need teachers who model pro-social, creative, and responsible social media use.”  In theory I agree with him that it is important for teachers to model professional use of social media. ( However, I also remain cautious of utilizing any public form of social media with students, and personally opt for digital technology that can be managed under our school’s domain.  According to a link in his blog post, I am not alone.)

Common Sense Education also has teacher resources for teaching students about data management and privacy issues.  They offer classroom-ready activities and lesson plans on their site, as well as privacy evaluations of over 100 commonly used edtech tools.  They also produce videos and other materials related to teaching students about digital citizenship and privacy issues.  

Later this school year I will be running a short unit as part of our Grade 7 digital citizenship project focusing on this issue. I would be very interested to hear about what resources or websites you may be able to recommend as well.  Thanks in advance for any recommendations!  

2 thoughts on “Educating Students About their Digital Exhaust.

  1. Hi Brian,

    Great read – love the term digital exhaust, and you are spot on with the fact that car exhaust dissipates – but it never really leaves our atmosphere, unlike the internet trail we leave behind that will likely stay with us forever.

    I am also a digital immigrant – I remember green screens, having a Hotmail account and calling a boyfriend and having to ask his parents if he was home. THAT was always so embarrassing! But regardless, when the internet and social media first came around, you are right, nobody really completely understood the implications of the trails we leave behind us. Now it seems everyone is much more aware and companies are doing a lot to help people understand the risks, and know how to manage their privacy settings.

    I think you make a very important point when you talk about “educators chatting about how they feel that students know far more than they do about digital technology”. I agree that this may be the case, but like you mention that “just because a student is a digital native, does not mean that they understand the concept of personal data, and how that data is being collected and used by websites, apps, and networks that they interact with daily.” And as teachers its okay to not have ALL that answers, but help guide, push and challenge the students to discover these and present them in their own way.

    In my post, I discuss how most students have phones/computer to access social media at the age of 13, but at times even younger. Boggling to my mind, but then I watch my 3 year old navigate my iPad with sheer ease. Now he is not on social media – but he works that iPad better than I can! Regardless I read some great articles on how social media is such an amazing platform for students to share their work, they just have to know how to share it safely and appropriately.

    I also found Common Sense Education to be a great resource. I addition I searched for podcasts and TedTalks. I always get inspired when learning what other educators are doing.
    Regardless check out my blog for some other resources that might be of interest to you!


  2. Hi Brian,

    I was interested in reading your post straight from the Title. I was attracted to the term “Digital Exhaust” and curious to see how you would define that. I like how you make the connection that unlike exhaust our digital footprints never really dissipate, they remain forever. I found the following statement intriguing:

    “However, if the complete picture of our digital exhaust were to be collected and aggregated, it would paint a very detailed picture of who we are.”

    And while agree that our digital exhaust does in face paint a picture of who we are, I wonder if it really is detailed and accurate? How many times have you looked at the suggested likes on Facebook, or suggested items to buy on Amazon, and said to yourself, “Really?”

    The University of Cambridge created a tool to predict your psycho-demographic profile based on digital footprint ( I took it last year using my facebook profile and because it bases the results off of pages you like and I haven’t liked a whole lot of pages the results were far off base.

    In my post on digital footprints I speak of having and wielding control over our digital footprints. Most people look at their digital footprints as something that is a result of their passive use of the internet. I think it’s very important for students (and adults) to understand what type of data is being collected when they use certain websites, people are often shocked to find out that google “reads” all of your emails to offer you suggestions. I also think it’s important for people to understand that they can control the output of the image their digital footprint provides as well.


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