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. https://www.flickr.com/photos/48722974@N07/4478993066/)
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!