It’s fine they’ll learn it in school…

Should schools be responsible for teaching students how to be good digital citizens?

This debate goes beyond the digital and tech debate. At a surface level, sure, this seems like a conversation around the role and responsibilities of the teacher in relation to tech and digital citizenship, however I think that it goes far beyond that.  A lot of the negative view of this “they’ll learn it in school” debate comes in the form of teacher dissent. Teachers are already feeling high levels of burn out, are underpaid, undervalued and overworked. Teachers  already serve in loco parentis on so many levels. So then the argument against teaching digital citizenship and digital footprint in school presumes we are already doing enough, maybe too much, for our students. 

I feel as a high school teacher my role in this idea as a whole is greatly different than an elementary school teacher. By the time we, as high school teachers, see students many of them have already developed their digital identity, habits and footprints. This, however often leads to the argument that we are already teaching students, especially in the primary years, much of what they learn about how to be a good citizen so shouldn’t we be teaching them how to be good digital citizens since that will inevitably be part of their futures.

Photo by Yan Krukau on

This is where I believe the debate goes deeper than whether or not teachers should teach digital citizenship. At the heart of this debate is really the debate around what schools are for. Often in this larger debate we see a division into two camps those who believe the heart of teaching is to prepare students for participation in society- to shape and mold young minds to be global citizens who participate with love kindness and respect in the world with the intention of making it better than they inherited it. The other side still sees school as a reformed version of the factory model where the school’s responsibility is to prepare students for participation in society by giving them the training that they need to become employable citizens that contribute to the country in terms of business and economy. This debate on what schools are for continues well beyond elementary and secondary school, in fact the debate continues into the world of postsecondary education. If you’re interested in the debate you should check out the book What Are Universities For by Stefen Collini and maybe check out the symposium in Regina as well. Like most debates the reality of what schools are for probably falls somewhere in-between the two extremes but for the sake of this post let’s deal in extremes. 

Global citizens and teacher responsibilities:

Many debates in education often center around teacher role and responsibilities. At the center of this debate we find a push toward the idea as teachers we are responsible to teach the students in our classroom to be good global citizens. Many people would argue that much of what we do as teachers is already focused on teaching students life skills and how to participate fully in society, especially at a primary school level. Teachers are already working on social/emotional skills and development, so is it that far of a stretch to push towards adapting these lessons to include participation in an online world? Isn’t there some logic to the idea that if we are teaching them to be kind, a good friend, to avoid bullying, and not to be a bystander in the real world can’t we teach them the same skillset for their digital lives as well? Many people would see this as a natural connection and therefore an easy answer as to who should teach students about their digital lives and digital footprint. However some teachers would argue that it is not their job. Many teachers would claim that they are not experts in the field and therefore are not equipped with the necessary knowledge to teach students. If that wasn’t enough of an argument many teachers would point to the high level of teacher burn out related to additional responsibilities  outside of teaching students the prescribed curriculum. Adding additional curricular outcomes and responsibilities beyond those that already exist in current curriculum can feel overwhelming as teachers already often don’t feel they don’t have enough time to cover what is already there. This doesn’t even address the idea that to efficiently and effectively teach some off these digital footprint skills teachers would have to themselves likely attend professional sessions on technology and its impact, or return to postsecondary to attain additional certifications. Again, try pitching these ideas to professionals who already struggle with feeling overworked and underappreciated. All of that focuses on the teacher and the role they play not to mention that there is nothing to say that a teacher’s view of what is acceptable online would match the views of all parents, guardians, etc. So which stakeholders then would determine what becomes curriculum? Well that just brings us right back to square one doesn’t it? Who determines what students should learn and why? This debate comes back to stakeholders in education. It’s not to far of a walk from here to the role of industry in education.

The factory model and digital citizens:

The flipside of this debate leans toward the idea that if we aren’t teaching students to become outstanding global citizens then are we simply preparing them to join the workforce become consumers and be a cog in the ever turning wheel of democratic capitalism? Is being educated synonymous with being financially stable and contributing to the economy? Is the goal of students get good grades so you can go to a good school, get a good job and retire with a nice house, a nice car and money in the bank? Maybe, for some students who are privileged enough to come from a family that values those things. What about students who come from poverty or whose families don’t value those same ideals? Is it enough to say they just need to work hard, put in their time and they’ll break the cycle? So many rhetorical questions but that’s really at the heart of this side of the debate; the belief that students are best served by an educational system that provides them skills and training to join the work force. This view of education could also argue that teachers are responsible for teaching students about their digital identity because ultimately employers are going to look into potential employees online. So just as we teach students to write resumes and cover letters we should teach them how to tweet and create linked-in profiles. This again hinges on what you believe our role is as a teacher and how much power steak holders outside of the classroom should have in what is taught in the classroom. It wasn’t so long ago that there was a push from those outside of the education system for a need for teachers to teach financial literacy. Similarly this is how we see many campaigns to provide students opportunities to access experience in the trades (programs like 12 to trades, CRP, etc.) or STEM education programs that are often funded/sponsored by outside industry that often recruit future employees directly from these programs. In short if we feel that commerce, economy and the needs of industry should drive what and how we teach children then it seems only natural that we should include digital footprint and digital citizenship in the curriculum. However if you think that industry has no place in the classroom then it is easy to see how you could argue that it is not the responsibility of teachers to each these things.

So What’s The Answer?

The answer is clear- it depends. Like so many great debates the truth is probably somewhere in the middle ground. So although I’m not convinced that teachers and curriculum should be influenced and shaped by those who make a living outside of the education sector I also understand the idea that there is a natural connection between teaching students the social emotional skills they need to be successful and the practical skills they need to be employable. In the end it is probably a combination of teaching to the liberal arts and social development as well as practical skills. There is obviously some reason that we still include a PAA and Fine Arts rotation at the grade 9 level. Really, its about thinking about and teaching to the students in front of you. There is no silver bullet for Education. There is no one answer that will provide all students everything they need. That being said if I had to answer firmly on one side or the other I would say that teachers shouldn’t be solely responsible for teaching the skills students need to have a shining digital foot print nor should they ignore the fact that more and more of who our students are is connected to their online life. So I think that I would take a page from some wonderful profs I’ve had at the University of Regina- who think about how we contribute back to the internet- instead of being passive consumers, how can we teach students to be aware of their digital identity and to give back to creating a safe and positive online space… like the time I tried to build a skateboard, or give my wife a tattoo… or the time I wrote 10 blogs about issues in Ed Tech.

2 thoughts on “It’s fine they’ll learn it in school…

  1. Will, my position is simple: School is to prepare the student to function effectively in society, that is, we have a moral obligation to pass on the norms and values of society so that the next generation can operate in a better world. My philosophy is that I should try and leave this world a little better than I came and saw it. So I have a role to play in educating students about being good digital citizens.


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