Q&A: How to Teach Your Students About Their Digital Footprint

Learn how Sam Walker teaches kids about digital literacy.

May 13, 2013
Kelsey Herron
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, United States
CATEGORIES Common Sense Resources, Digital Citizenship, Digital Literacy, In the Classroom

We’ll be at ISTE next month presenting on the importance of starting early with digital citizenship, in elementary school. We’ll be co-presenting with Samuel Walker, a K-5 technology teacher from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, whose leadership has helped make digital citizenship a priority in his school from policy to practice. In preparation, we sat down with Walker, a proponent of problem-based learning and self-proclaimed homework skeptic, to gain some insight into his unique approach to digital literacy education.

Now a technology facilitator at Kimmel Farm Elementary, Walker has been in the classroom for the last 17 years. He provides technology professional development for his colleagues and teaches digital literacy and citizenship to students in grades K-5. He is an avid user of our free online curriculum, and was named North Carolina’s Technology in Education Society’s instructional technology educator of the year in 2010.

His school, whose theme is a “problem-based learning academy,” has around 800 students, and a recent poll found that more than 95 percent have access to the internet and other mobile technologies.

Common Sense Media: How did you come to teach digital literacy education? Was it a passion of yours, or something that happened unexpectedly?

Sam Walker: My principal at the time needed somebody to take over the program, and I was the only teacher who really enjoyed working with technology. Really, I’m a former classroom teacher who went into technology and found a niche. Teaching technology definitely revived my career. I think one of my greatest strengths is that I’ve been in the classroom. I know the stresses and the strains that come with it.

Common Sense Media: Why do you think teaching digital literacy is important?

SW: We’re just in a digital age when you’re not going to find information on the page, you’re going to have to find it on the server. I just want my students to know how they should act, and what they should do online when they leave here. Digital literacy is just one other thing that we didn’t used to have to teach, but now we do. It’s the world that we live in. They’re going to go home and get on Facebook whether or not they are old enough. Social media is not a fad. It’s not going away. Facebook can be a wonderful tool. We just have to teach people how to manage it.

Common Sense Media: How would you describe your style when it comes to teaching digital literacy?

SW: It’s really a whole-community kind of approach that I try to take. I like to set students up with a story or a scenario, ask what they learned, and give them a chance to process their experience. I’m still doing my homework on this. I don’t want to go too fast with students. One thing that bothers me is that kids often think that if they can’t solve a problem in a certain amount of time that it says something negative about their intelligence. I tell them that the only rule is that they can’t give up. One thing I’ve always said is that failure is an opportunity for new learning.

Common Sense Media: What parts of the Common Sense Media Curriculum are you using in your classroom?

SW: All of my fourth and fifth graders have been through everything in the Digital Passport. This was a real game changer too, because there had never been a program that fit into a 40-minute class period. I also use the Common Sense Media website ratings, and the Connected Culture digital literacy curriculum when I teach students how to detect credible websites.

Common Sense Media: One thing that kids are learning about the hard way is the legacy of their “digital footprint” – those trails of our posts and social media profile updates that stick around for an eternity. Employers or college admissions offices, for example, can check out a candidate’s postings as a screening device. How do you impart the importance of digital footprints to your students?

SW: I tell my kids, “Whoever you are in real life needs to be reflected by who you are online.” The stakes are high, and a lot of people don’t think before they post, unfortunately. I also start out by telling them that they’re probably going to learn something that they may not hear talked about too much, and that their parents may not know. After they hear that, they perk up a bit. When kids learn that websites like Facebook can access and use their personal information without their consent, they’ll react with surprise and say things like, “What? People can do that?”

Common Sense Media: What aspect of teaching digital literacy do you find most difficult?

SW: Really when you’re teaching digital literacy, you’re teaching ethics, responsibilities, attitudes, and behaviors—a lot of which is intangible. The hardest thing for me is that you’re teaching habits, and trying to build those with your students. It’s difficult because they come in with preconceived ideas. This is really new for a lot of us, no matter how old you are.

Common Sense Media: How do you try to reinforce positive online behavior and build the right habits with your students?

SW: One of the things I tried this year was using Edmodo with my students, which is like Facebook but without the ability to “friend” someone—which I like. I told them that they’ve got to be careful what they put in there because every third and fourth grader can see what they write. I also use Edmodo to give quizzes and poll students. Once I asked how many of them had been cyberbullied. It provides useful data feedback to see what kind of experiences they’ve had. I would moderate the comments, and have students read each other’s comments during class time.

Common Sense Media: Is there anything you wish you could do to improve your current curriculum?

SW: I either have a six or seven day rotation with students, meaning sometimes I won’t see kids for 10 days if you include the weekend. That kind of handcuffs me because you can’t teach one lesson over the course of a few classes. One of my concerns is that what I’m doing is so isolated that I have no way of knowing if what I am teaching is being applied to what they’re doing in other classes.

Common Sense Media: Is there any advice you would offer to other educators who want get started teaching digital literacy at their school? I think you have to have somebody at your school to cheerlead you through the process. They don’t necessarily have to have a degree in teaching technology, but they have to have the passion. If you have a support team of teachers on each grade level, well, that’s really something special.

Common Sense Media: Have you seen students change their habits as they’ve gone through the program?

SW: I’ve seen kids making both good and bad choices online—especially outside of school, but, as we’ve gone through the school year, I’ve also seen them delete certain comments after they realized they shouldn’t have posted them. I can give them the information, but I can’t make sure they will make the best choices, and that’s always going to be the case.

Common Sense Media: What didn’t you see coming? Is there anything that has surprised you along the way?

SW: I found out that this is my passion, that’s for sure, and that I care about how students take care of their digital footprint. I want my students to be “well-googled,” as Will Richardson has put it. I don’t think I’ve had any true surprises, because I’ve tried to prepare myself so well. If anything, I think I was surprised at how little parents are prepared to teach digital literacy at home.

For concrete ideas about how to teach your elementary students about digital footprint check out our lesson Follow the Digital Trail. And if you’re coming to ISTE in June, don’t miss our presentation on “Start Early with Digital Citizenship in Elementary School,” Monday, June 24 at 8:30.