Digital Citizenship Basics for College Students

Digital Citizenship Basics for College Students

If you have developed an awareness of your online presence and learned to behave appropriately when utilizing technology, you are maintaining proper digital citizenship – a crucial skill set that many of your college peers lack.

Jim Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, believes that “for the most part, kids who are in college today never received any form of digital citizenship or media training when they were in high school or middle school.” This is a very good point, as students are expected to know how to behave properly when they are in college, often without the benefit of digital citizenship classes or training.

Instructional technology specialist Andrew Marcinek wrote in his blog post, The Importance of Digital Citizenship in Social Media, that students “must understand the repercussions of irresponsibly using social and digital media and what affects it may have on their future.” Students often use technological devices without considering potential consequences from their behaviors. Students must be aware of the importance of developing a proactive approach to managing their online activities as it will have a direct impact on their school work, as well as their future career opportunities.

The development of a digital citizenship plan also involves managing your reputation. Students are spending a significant amount of time online, leaving behind a digital trail of breadcrumbs from their posts, comments, and tweets or status updates, among other forms of online communication. You may present yourself in a certain manner in class or with a potential employer and then–through an Internet search–it is discovered that there is a conflict with the reputation you’ve established online. If you do not make a conscious effort to monitor and control your online activities you may be undermining your reputation without even being aware that it is occurring.

The Five Important Components of Digital Citizenship

Dr. Jason Ohler, President’s Professor of Educational Technology at the University of Alaska, Juneau; shared five essential components of a digital citizenship curriculum in his article, Character Education for the Digital Age. It is developed for educators and based upon teaching students to utilize technology in a responsible manner.

Ohler does not believe that students have two lives – one that is unplugged from technology at school and one that is digitally connected outside of school – as students are always connected in some manner. They may not be allowed to utilize technology during class time; however, many are utilizing technological devices throughout the day. The components suggested by Ohler for educators can be used as a guide for students, as a method of learning what it means to be digitally responsible.

1. Balance.

Dr. Ohler refers to this component as “a sense of balance that considers opportunity as well as responsibility, empowerment as well as caution, personal fulfillment as well as community and global well-being.” This can be further defined as online ethical behavior. Ethics are a set of standards that each of us follow, guiding our behavior and interactions with others. For example, your school has a set of behavioral standards that students are to adhere to while interacting with others, which allows them to make ethical decisions. You decide to either act ethically or unethically, which means you will follow the school’s standards or disregard them.

In contrast, morals are used to make a determination of right and wrong. You decide if an issue is morally right or wrong, based upon your belief system and what you have been taught by society, religious affiliations, and as a result of your upbringing. It is also referred to as an internal compass. Educators Mike S. Ribble and Dr. Gerald D. Bailey indicated that “true north tells us when we are going in the right direction and when we are going in some other direction.” The use of technological devices has complicated the interpretation of our internal compass as different rules of behavior are needed. For example, if you post something online in a moment of frustration, it may be found and viewed by others.

2. Safety and security.

There are two aspects to this component. The first is to understand how your actions may harm others, which indicates a need to respect others and consider if your communication online is inappropriate. The second aspect involves protecting your own privacy. Current Pew research has noted in a report, Privacy Management on Social Media Sites, that 63 percent of adults have an online profile on a social networking website and 58 percent have it set to a private status so that only their friends can view it. What students often don’t consider is that friends of their friends (referring to websites such as Facebook) may still be able to view their posts, unless the profile settings have been set with further restrictions.

The same Pew research found that students have begun to recognize the importance of monitoring comments they post on their social networking profiles, along with comments posted by others. According to the report, 56 percent of social media users ages 18 to 29 have deleted comments, 40 percent of users ages 30 to 49 delete comments, and 34 percent of users ages 50 to 64 have made deletions on their profiles. This is likely due to an ongoing trend that employers are checking social media websites when evaluating potential new hires, which further emphasizes a need for monitoring what is posted online.

3. Cyberbullying.

At present there are 14 states with anti-bullying laws that also contain the word “cyberbullying,” according to the Cyberbullying Research Center. These states include Connecticut, Georgia, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Hawaii.

David Barkey, Southeastern Area counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, defines bullying as “discrimination or intentionally treating someone differently based on race, gender or ethnicity.” Jowharah Sanders, founder and executive director of National Voices for Equality, Education and Enlightenment, believes that bullying overall has become an issue on college campuses because “students are not willing to step forward and report a bullying incident.” This issue has evolved into cyber bullying, which involves the use of technology to harass others – either with the use of images or text. A study conducted at Indiana State University found that 22 percent of college students reported being a victim of cyber bullying, while 9 percent admitted to cyber bullying someone else

Dr. Ohler, who developed these five components of digital citizenship, believes it is important to understand “the potentially devastating effects of cyber bullying and how it violates ethical principles of personal integrity, compassion, and responsible behavior.” As a student, it is important to become familiar with the forms of cyber bullying and the potential consequences for participating in this type of behavior.

4. Sexting.

This form of behavior typically involves the use of a cell phone to take and/or transmit photos of a sexual nature. A recent survey of college students found that “sexting” is becoming a problem. Over 50 percent of the students surveyed indicated that they had received sexual images and 80 percent said they had received suggestive text messages. Even more surprising was that 66 percent admitted to sending suggestive text messages, with 10 percent of those messages being sent without consent of the receiver. Tiffani S. Kisler, assistant professor at the University of Rhode Island, said “it is important to help everyone, especially students, to understand the importance of setting boundaries around their use of technology.” This is directly related to the need for development of a new true north with our internal compass, as interactions through the use of technology are not done without the possibility of consequences.

5. Copyright and plagiarism.

A research report by the Pew Research Center, The Digital Revolution and Higher Education, concluded that the issue of plagiarism is increasing – and it is a problem for all schools, on-ground and online. The participants consisted of over 1,000 college presidents. When asked about the impact of digital technology over half indicated that the issue of plagiarism has continued to increase over the past 10 years.

Here are some additional facts about plagiarism:
- The Center for Academic Integrity conducted a study and concluded that almost 80 percent of college students admitted to cheating at least once.
- The Psychological Record conducted a survey and found that 36 percent of undergraduates admitted to plagiarizing written material.
- A poll conducted by US News and World Reports found that 90 percent of students held a belief that those who cheat are not caught and if they are, they are not properly disciplined.

In my post What Academic Honesty Means for Online Students I defined plagiarism as using the words of an existing author without acknowledging or giving credit for that source of information. My advice is to take responsibility for your work. The writing process can be challenging and if you are short on time or simply get stuck, it is better to get a lower grade and know that you have produced your own work, rather than taking a chance and then getting caught. Students who are charged with an incident of intentional plagiarism usually face the consequences of an academic violation, which can include a failing grade, course, or suspension.

Be Proactively Involved

As students read this post they are likely to recognize the importance of the individual components, such as cyber bullying and plagiarism, as those issues have gained attention in the news. But students often don’t consider that they must manage their online presence in all of these aspects and that their online activities, actions, comments, and posts can have an impact on their academic work, their future career, and other students.

Digital citizenship is a matter of adapting a personal set of ethics and values to another form of communication, one that is enabled through the use of technology. The need for responsible behavior and a well-developed reputation are more important than ever because there may be a record of what you say and what you do. You don’t need to live in fear but you should consider your actions, possible outcomes and consequences, and be proactive in your approach to online and technologically-based interactions.

You can follow Dr. Bruce A. Johnson on Twitter @DrBruceJ and Google+.

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