School Districts Focus on Privacy in Digital Citizenship Lessons

By Samantha Cleaver

Digital citizenship was front and center as the school year started in August in San Bernardino County, Calif. With online learning, “this is a priority,” said Laurel Aguilar-Kirchhoff, digital learning specialist. “It’s not triage.”

The focus across the 33 districts comprising San Bernardino will be building digital citizenship into the culture.

Instead of teaching a few lessons, digital citizenship now is a routine part of the day. “I think this is an opportunity to teach students to empower students to think critically,” Aguilar-Kirchhoff told Digital Privacy News.

Digital citizenship has been part of schools curriculums since before COVID-19. According to Common Sense Media, 60% of U.S. teachers taught some form of digital citizenship last year, with nearly six out of 10 doing so monthly.

Of the teachers who taught digital citizenship, the most covered topics were digital drama, cyberbullying and hate speech (addressed by 46% of teachers) and privacy and safety (addressed by 44% of teachers).

“This is an opportunity to teach students to empower students to think critically.”

Laurel Aguilar-Kirchhoff, San Bernardino County, Calif.

The U.S. is, however, behind other comparable countries when it comes to digital citizenship and has not provided as much instruction in this area, experts told Digital Privacy News.

“Particularly when it comes to teaching students to advocate for themselves and to best-protect themselves online,” said Amelia Vance, director of youth and education privacy and senior counsel at the Future of Privacy Forum (FPF) in Washington, “we’re often way behind.”

But this school year, because of the pandemic, the number of students who are learning online has increased dramatically.

As a result, Linda Carling, senior associate director with the Center for Technology in Education in Columbia, Md., predicted that digital citizenship would be a focus for teachers.

Many Digital Issues

Within digital citizenship, privacy topics remain more important than ever. Working on home or school-issued laptops, accessing learning-management platforms and apps and completing work using the Internet, students are more at risk than ever before.

They’re also seeing privacy concerns unfold in front of them, from lessons on keeping passwords safe to classes being “Zoombombed.”

“When it comes to teaching students to advocate for themselves and to best-protect themselves online, we’re often way behind.”

Amelia Vance, Future of Privacy Forum.

In this learning landscape, said Libbi Garrett, resource program specialist with California IT in Education (CITE) in Sacramento, Calif., “who better to protect student data than the students themselves.”

That said, Garrett added that “we have the responsibility in K-12 to ensure that we are contracting appropriately with vendors” in regards to keeping student data safe.

School officials expect digital citizenship to be a focus this year, as well as how students learn it such that it becomes a more natural part of the school day.

Traditionally, digital citizenship has involved lessons about cyberbullying and social media use.

But, said Carling, digital citizenship is about much more: Young students can learn not to share information about themselves. Middle schoolers can start to understand what data is collected about them and how to avoid sharing. And, high schoolers can learn more about privacy risks and social media.

Very Important Data

Students may not realize just how important their data is, experts said.

“The identity of children under 16 is one of the most valuable data sets that someone can get,” said Vincent Scheivert, assistant superintendent for digital innovation with Loudoun County Public Schools in Loudoun County, Va.

“We have the responsibility in K-12 to ensure that we are contracting appropriately with vendors.”

Libbi Garrett, California IT in Education.

Combine that with the fact that online and in-person lives are merging in new ways, so teaching kids to set up their digital worlds to prevent privacy breaches and concerns are important immediate and life lessons.

Finally, digital citizenship lessons historically have been about scaring students with the dangers — and telling them what not do to.

But Aguilar-Kirchhoff wants to change that.

“Instead of focusing on the don’ts, she told Digital Privacy News, “we have to teach students to behave safely.”

Embedding Digital Citizenship

Another change in how digital citizenship is being approached is who will be teaching it and when.

Teachers have taken over more instruction in digital citizenship, and all teachers will be walking students through important aspects.

“In schools,” said CITE’s Garrett, “the big change is shifting away from having digital citizenship being one department’s responsibility to having it be everyone’s responsibility.”

From the first day of school, teachers embedded lessons on getting set up on various equipment and platforms, from logging in to Zoom securely to learning how avoid syncing their personal information with district computers.

“Educators are the first line of defense,” said Garrett, “and they are building it into their curriculum.” 

“The identity of children under 16 is one of the most valuable data sets that someone can get.”

Vincent Scheivert, Loudoun County Public Schools, Va.

Even with the additional focus on online learning, this remains a big learning curve for teachers, who may not be officially trained on what topics to teach and how, said Garrett, who works with districts to provide training on digital citizenship for teachers who can then teach students.

This year, extending the learning to families is also an issue.

Scheivert, of Loudoun County, said he saw digital citizenship as an ongoing conversation between teachers, students and — especially — parents, who were on the front lines more this year.

Jeffrey Billings, director of IT with the Paradise Valley Unified School District in Phoenix, Ariz., is working on informing parents about digital citizenship.

Right now, said Billings, “the community is learning digital citizenship on the fly.”

Learn More About Digital Citizenship

Here are free resources on digital citizenship:

— Samantha Cleaver

Also Teaching E-Privacy

There is opportunity with the surge in online learning to train students in digital citizenship in new ways.

“Until now, where it’s particularly stark,” said FPF’s Vance, “we haven’t needed or realized how much our digital lives have merged with the physical lives.

“It’s not separate.

“In that way, digital citizenship lessons should be immediately applicable,” she said.

“The community is learning digital citizenship on the fly.”

Jeffrey Billings, Paradise Valley Unified School District, Phoenix, Ariz.

Early in the school year is a good time to teach kids about digital citizenship. They generally are seeing it first-hand, as their peers log in and they’re encouraged to sign up for more apps than ever before.

“That will make these students better prepared than any other group,” Vance told Digital Privacy News, “but only if teachers and principals team up and make it embedded.”

Samantha Cleaver is an education writer in Charlotte, N.C.

Moving From Compliance to Culture 

We can’t assume that students know what to do when it comes to protecting their privacy online.

When working with teachers, Laurel Aguilar-Kirchhoff, digital learning project specialist with San Bernardino County schools, encourages teachers to consider these questions:

  • How are you modeling digital citizenship? Is it part of class and more than just a lesson at the start of the year? 
  • How are you communicating your expectations? 
  • Are you teaching the systems that students need to have as well as content? Are you teaching students the how as well as the what and why?

— Samantha Cleaver