Only some of us can be digital citizens

“I have children in my class whose parents do not want them to appear online. So how can I do collaborative work with those children? They have to do something else and that’s not fair at all…”

It is quite normal, even ideal, to surface crunchy questions during sessions with schools. One of the workshops at #ULearn13, on digital citizenship, was no different. I was facilitating with Dr John Fenaughty, exploring the shift from fear-based messages to approaches embedded in curriculum [Resources in this post].

We talked with a large group of educators about the challenges that they face in the schools. One of the issues that arose really stuck with me and it is this issue that I’m going to address in this post.

We were discussing the various user agreements and permissions given by parents to allow schools to share digital content created by students which may include their photos/identity. An observation was made that unless all parents gave permission for students to appear online, it would be impossible for those students to engage in collective work.

In other words, if there are two students in a class of 30 whose parents are trying to manage their digital footprint, the students are somehow therefore unable to participate in collective work using digital technologies.

Speaking as someone who has blogged about sharing digital content related to children before, this has sat with me on both a personal and professional level. We didn’t debate this topic specifically at the time but I would like to return to it now and make the following comments and questions.

1.  What expectations do we as educators have about how much students can or should share online?

If parents wish to limit their children’s digital footprint, especially at primary, do educators have a full understanding about why that should be? If we are to take an inclusive approach to learning, this includes learners coming with different needs, backgrounds and expectations for learning. If we see a lack of user agreements as somehow a failure of parents to support learning, we should be very aware of the assumptions on which that view is based. To what extent do we believe that online collaboration must involve a visible sharing of identity in order to be successful?

2.  How are we differentiating learning?

The question that a student might not be able to collaborate as fully as other students because their parents had refused to have their identity shared online to me is a worrying indictment of learning design. Collaboration does not require technologies. Learning to relate and participate with others does not require technologies. Our challenge and opportunity as educators is to design learning experiences that allow all students to gain equal access to learning, regardless of the pathways they need to take to get there.

3.  How are we applying user agreements in schools?

Some schools use them as carte blanche to publish any names and identities of students, rarely reviewing use agreements over time. Some schools use a single user agreement across multiple online platforms. While there are clear management issues with reviewing his agreements for different platforms, it’s worthwhile schools considering how they use agreements to support the design of learning and the marketing of the school. In some cases it may even be useful to debate whether user agreements are needed at all.

Above all, we as educators should be aware of deficit thinking around parental choice. All parents from whatever culture and background want the best for their children and make choices based on what they believe is right. If we use our interpretation of parent choice as a justification for providing a more impoverished learning experience for children we may miss an opportunity to build relationships with family and develop inclusive learning for all.

For more information on user agreements, contact NetSafe NZ.

Associated posts from this blog:

[Image source: ‘Behind Bars’ by Sean Bonner []

2 thoughts on “Only some of us can be digital citizens

  1. A great summation of a sticky problem. Children can still make the most of technologies without compromising their parents’ idea of a digital footprint. The process and experience of on line collaboration, and using digital tools, need not be visible to the digital world, but that child will know and treasure the learning that has gone on.


  2. Thanks Karen for your thinking on this. I really appreciate this from the differentiated and inclusive angles – nice way to shed light onto this issue, and put pedagogy at the heart of it, not the [lack of] agreements. It so comes back also to that thing that you talk about, the “why” aspect of this… publishing for publishing’s sake, or producing and disseminating learning, for learning’s sake (in which case this need not be publicly viewable/managed in many other ways). And you’re right, there is no reason why this sort of agreement should prevent a learner from becoming a digital citizenship (may just for the time being, not a virtually networked public one).


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