Rethinking Citizenship in a Digital World

Every morning in elementary school, I recited a code of citizenship with my teachers and my peers.  The “Cougar Code,” as it’s affectionately called, is an integral part of the school’s identity to this day.  At its core, this sworn oath of school-wide citizenship is a practical, thoughtful, and mascot-friendly way of reminding kids to be responsible, caring people.  However, society and technology have changed more in the past 20 years than in any previous 20-year period in history.  The “Cougar Code,” though, has remained the exact same since the school’s inception in 1968:

I Care about others

I Organize for success

I Use time wisely

I Give my best effort

I Act in a safe manner

I Respect myself, others, and property

These statements in and of themselves aren’t useless just because they were conceived many years ago…in fact, most people would love to be defined by these characteristics.  But, educators, administrators, and parents must adapt to and reflect on the technological world our students engage in now!  Are we doing enough to prepare our young people for the new “reality” they live in today?  Can an oath of citizenship created nearly fifty years ago effectively help students navigate the digital world they face?

In both cases, the honest answer is likely, “No.”

We can’t be naive.  Kids, at younger ages than ever before, have 24/7, unfiltered online access at the tips of their fingers.  With a click or a swipe, young people can interact on social media, communicate with people around the world, create and post content, and find information on virtually any topic, among other things.

The internet, in its basest form, is a powerful tool.  And, like any other powerful tool, the internet can be dangerous when used by inexperienced, untrained hands.  Adults don’t hesitate to remind kids to look both ways before they cross the street, buckle their seatbelt, or wash their hands.  These important reminders aren’t taken for granted or assumed.  Yet, when we provide access to the internet (arguably, the world’s most powerful tool), we assume that “they’ll figure it out” because “they were born with this stuff.”  Just because our students grew up engaging with tablets and clicking away on smartphones doesn’t mean they were ever taught how to wield that tool, and the access it provides, responsibly.  They are inexperienced.  They are untrained.  They need to be taught how to act as responsible citizens in a digital world.

That’s just the problem, though.  Teaching “digital” safety, “digital” awareness, and “digital” leadership is viewed as a separate add-on to teaching the basic principles of safety, awareness, and leadership widely found in most classrooms.  In this day and age, “digital” safety is basic safety…they must be viewed as one in the same!  The sooner educators shift their perspective and cater the curriculum to reflect this change, the better-equipped students will be for the digital world around them.

So, how do you find the proper balance in this endeavor?  There is no easy answer.  When students access the internet at school, should you block everything, or block nothing?  Should you allow personal cell phones and tablets, or should you take them away?  Should you squeeze digital citizenship into an already-jammed curriculum, or do you try and embed digital citizenship throughout?  Should you let the negatives of online access outweigh its many positives?  Lastly, should one content area teach these principles, or is it everyone’s responsibility?

I can’t answer those questions for you or your school. However, I can tell you that when most students graduate, they won’t use the Pythagorean theorem anymore, remember how to properly MLA format an in-text citation, or care who won the French and Indian War.  But, I can promise you that when most students graduate, they’ll use the internet every day to access social media, develop meaning, and form relationships.  For better or worse, they’ll have online reputations that will follow them the rest of their life.

Clearly, educators play a large role in these outcomes.

Although the “Cougar Code,” and other citizenship programs like it, have good intentions, they’re mostly preparing our kids for a reality that doesn’t exist anymore.  Every educator needs to rethink their practice in this regard and work towards preparing the next generation as digital citizens in a digital world.


For help with your school’s digital citizenship curriculum, check out Google’s new offering, “Be Internet Awesome.

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One thought on “Rethinking Citizenship in a Digital World”

  1. 100% agree Tyler!
    The focus for the last five years or so has been on teachers adopting technology in education, but that focus must be shifted to how students are using and will continue to use technology throughout their lives. Google are doing a good job in trying to support teachers, as is common sense media. As always, it can take one educator in a school to speak out (as you have done here) that can make the difference! Good luck in adapting the Cougar code for the present!

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