The 5 Ws of Digital Citizenship

Thursday, April 5, 2018
The 5 W's of Digital Citizenship

There’s no denying that technology has shaped this generation of students. Growing up in the midst of the technological revolution, 21st-century students have been exposed to new devices and applications every year of their lives. New technology is being developed nearly as fast as educators themselves can learn to use it! In this fast-paced, constantly changing digital environment, how can educators guide students to use each new technological gadget thoughtfully, responsibly, and effectively?

It’s a complex task, and one that has concerned many educators, politicians, and families. One organization, Common Sense Media, outlines the urgent need to teach students to be thoughtful digital citizens. In a white paper on digital literacy and citizenship in the 21st century, Common Sense Media stated, “These new media literacies must become integral parts of [contemporary students'] education, both for traditional studies (reading, writing, math, science) as well as for the 21st-century skills they will need to succeed (creativity, innovation, communication, critical thinking, civic participation).”

As educators, we may not be able to stay one step ahead of each new invention, but we can teach students to be reflective and purposeful in how they incorporate digital technology into their lives. By encouraging students to carefully consider the potential uses of new technology, we also prepare them to think outside the box and find innovative ways to work, learn, and grow. As you prepare your students to become good digital citizens, consider guiding them to ask the five classic “W” questions: who, what, when, where, and why. By evaluating each new innovation with these questions, students can determine how technology can be used most effectively—and when they could opt for a low- or no-tech approach instead.


1. Who is this designed for?

Encourage students to think about the target market for new devices and applications. Even if they fall outside the intended audience, they may find that the technology still applies to their lives as students. For example, an app may be designed to assist executives with a lot of tasks to manage, friends who want to communicate more regularly, or assistants who want to make work systems more efficient. As students often take on management, collaborative, and assistant roles in the classroom as they research and work together, noting the similarities between themselves and the intended audience may prompt them to use technology in new and innovative ways. After all, there's no reason why an application designed to help businesses coordinate employee schedules can't also be used by classmates collaborating on a group project.


2. What can this tool help me accomplish?

Many new technological devices have multiple functions that can be useful in day-to-day life. For example, smartphones come with clocks, a camera for taking still photos and videos, and the ability to send texts and emails. Trading numbers with their classmates allows students to easily exchange drafts of a document, quickly text each other questions, and send each other photos of a project in progress.


3. When could this be helpful?

Students also need to consider when they need assistance as they complete their schoolwork. For those who have difficulty breaking down large projects into smaller steps, using a calendar with notifications to schedule each portion of the work would be useful, whereas simply recording the due dates of assignments may be enough for others with more developed organizational skills. Similarly, students who easily balance the demands of work and school may not need to lean on scheduling or alerts to coordinate their schoolwork, but those with jobs and extracurricular activities might find that technology can help them keep track of their commitments.

4. Where could I use this tool?

Although students live in an increasingly digital world, not all devices and applications are appropriate in all settings. For instance, some schools have policies that do not allow students to use their phones in the classroom, and some students might not have ready access to the internet at home. Encourage students to think ahead before choosing a technological device or application to help with their schoolwork. If they won’t be able to use devices from home at school or can’t sign into school email accounts at home, they’ll need to keep that in mind.


5. Why is this useful?

As we encourage students to think of innovative applications for new technology, it’s also important to caution them against using technology for technology’s sake. With this in mind, guide students to think about why a device or application is truly useful. For example, although calculators can save us time when performing complicated functions, they are not needed—nor are they more efficient—for simple math problems. Similarly, document-sharing is handy if two classmates are working collaboratively from different locations, but this is unnecessary when they are in the same room.


Knowing how to use technology tools effectively and efficiently is a real-world skill for our 21st-century students. Teaching students to evaluate each new device and application will help them incorporate technology into their lives and work in a meaningful way. Becoming thoughtful consumers of technology in the classroom will help students evolve into conscientious digital citizens—a distinction that will serve them well throughout their lives.

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