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Why and How One District Embraced Digital Citizenship in a Big Way

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Leanne Lacey is the coordinator for instructional technology for the Gilbert Unifed School District in Arizona. In her role, she supervises the district's 12 technology educators, and its 1-to-1 computing program, which offers a Chromebook for each student in grades 7-12, and some devices for students in younger grades.

Digital citizenship has become a big part of her job lately, as the 35,000-student district near Phoenix has worked to adopt a curriculum developed by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that works with educators to help young people become more responsible users of technology both in and outside of school.

Education Week spoke with Lacey about her work.

Please explain how you first got involved in digital citizenship.

Lacey said the district's strategy has shifted over the years. Back in 2015, as the district's 1-to-1 computing program was just starting, students in grades seven and eight were required to fill out what the district called a Google "Ninja" form. Students had to complete the tasks it required, answering questions about maintenance of the device, hardware, and digital citizenship, before they could be issued a device. The "Ninja" program lasted two years and then the school began simply issuing devices.

After that, "we sort of sat back a little bit on the digital citizenship piece," Lacey said. "That was not a good thing. We just made that assumption, well, we've told you once, now you get it. [But] obviously you get new apps, you get new social media platforms. You just get the growth of online activity that has happened in the last four years for kids."

As a consequence, two high ranking district officials got together and suggested it "might be a good idea to revisit [digital citizenship in a big way," she said.

Lacey paired up with the K-12 prevention coordinator, who oversees all of the district's social workers and counselors, and an official in charge of elementary school education, and partnered together to make that happen.

What problem were you trying to solve?

"We were seeing lots of filter violations. Kids learned to put games behind walls," she said. Students were also not treating their Chromebooks with respect. And the district wanted kids to be aware that if they were seeing peers expressing depression, or being cyberbullied, they should let an adult know. 

What's more, the district had "never really addressed" digital citizenship with students in kindergarten through 6th grade, because they weren't part of the 1-to-1 computing program. "The elementary was where we really needed to make sure we weren't forgetting," Lacey said.

How did you implement the plan? LeannaLacey_Headshot.jpg

The district trained its instructional techs and social workers on the Common Sense media curriculum and other strategies at the same time, she said, to harness both social-emotional learning and technical expertise.  

"It was really a perfect match. There's a lot of things in those digital citizenship lessons" that teachers aren't comfortable with," Lacey said. "But the social workers and the counselors, that is their lane. That is what they talk about all the time."

At times, she said, social workers have delivered the lessons, blending the Common Sense curriculum with their own SEL lessons. School librarians may help out too, explaining concepts like plagiarism. Classroom teachers may also help, talking about topics such as cyberbullying. And teachers are always on hand when other specialists present their lessons.

"You've got three adults all giving the same message," Lacey said.

What's the goal in terms of how often and how deeply students are learning about digital citizenship? 

It's not enough, Lacey said, just to remind teachers to do their digital citizenship lessons. "Teachers get more and more and more stuff piled on all the time. Well, guess what's going to fall off the plate? The thing that's not being held up as 'this is super important.'"

And to help with accountability, the district put together "lesson trackers," Lacey said, using Google sheets. Principals, social workers, and instructional technology coaches are responsible for making sure those trackers remain up to date. Students in each class are supposed to participate in five Common Sense media lessons through the course of the school year, which Lacey considers doable. "They really don't have to do a lot of lessons, but they do have to do them," she said.

Plus, Gilbert is requiring librarians, instructional technology specialists, and teachers to get micro-certification in digital citizenship through Common Sense. Schools and districts can also get recognized by the nonprofit. Gilbert is pursuing that distinction, which Lacey thinks could give the district a leg-up in a competitive landscape where families have a lot of charter schools to choose from. A parent can say "that's awesome, now I know I feel like you're my partner in helping my child learn about digital citizenship and how to use their device."

How are you reaching out to parents?

The district put the Common Sense curriculum on the district website for parents to preview and comment on.

"Overwhelmingly, they said 'wow, we didn't know that this was something you guys talked about in school.' They said 'I'm 35 years-old or I'm 40-years-old and I don't know how to tell my kids what they should be doing necessarily.'"

The district has also held parent engagement nights, where parents could come and watch a movie made by the nonprofit on screen time and technology balance. "We need their help and they need our help, so we're going to do it together," Lacey said.

What results have you seen so far?

"The feedback we've had from teachers has been positive. We were obviously concerned that it would be one more thing" on their to-do list. "There's always more added to their plate. I think the positive response that we've had from teachers is that they're not necessarily the only ones that have to do it. I think the positive response is partly because the [Common Sense] curriculum is really, really updated. And that's huge. They felt that it wasn't old and stale. And I think the second positive thing was that they are going to partner with social workers and librarians and other staff at their campuses. They really liked that. And we've had some success with parents as well. When they see the parent engagement fliers and tip sheets coming home, they're thrilled. They enjoy the help."

Not everyone is enthusiastic, of course: "There's always going to be a few that feel as though this is a topic for the family to discuss. And we're like, 'that's good, your family should discuss that,'" Lacey said. "But we have an obligation to our students to make sure that if we're handing them a device, that we cover this information with them."

This interview is part of a series of Q&As with education technology district leaders. Got a story to tell about your district? Want to participate? Email [email protected]

Want more on Digital Citizenship? Check out these goodreads: 

Photo courtesy of Leanne Lacey. 


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