Character Education for the Digital Age

Ohler, J. “Character Education for the Digital Age’ (February 2011) , online:

This article paints a picture of the confusing technological environment our children tip-toe through and proposes a framework that would begin truly preparing them for the digital world in which we live. Due to the history of our educational system and the sensitive, complex, and legal implications surrounding the use of digital technology at school, some teachers or districts take the stance that the Internet is too problematic or distracting to effectively use in a school setting. The author asserts that this mindset communicates that “issues concerning the personal, social, and environmental effects of a technological lifestyle are not important in a school curriculum, and that kids will have to puzzle through issues of cybersafety, technological responsibility, and digital citizenship without the help of teachers or the educational system” (Ohler, p. 1). This is the essence of the “two-life” perspective; technological expertise, although vital to a productive life, comes at too risky a price, so kids will need to gain that knowledge on their own. The “one-life” perspective proposed by the author says the opposite. It suggests that the role of educators is to encourage kids to use technology in school, and then openly discuss it’s impact within the global context of society and community. “If we want to pursue a future that celebrates success not only in terms of abundance but also in terms of humanity, we must help our digital kids balance the individual empowerment of digital technology use with a sense of personal, community, and global responsibility” (Ohler, p. 1).

I’ve stated before that I believe digital devices are merely tools in the toolbox of an intentional teacher. It’s the creativity, drive, and desire to cater to the various learning styles of diverse children that set great teachers apart. The author of this article takes this “tool” idea a step further. He states that while on one hand we may view the capabilities of our modern age as something completely new, on the other hand, we are simply using the tools at our disposal to meet an basic human need – communication with other people. From cave art to the Phoenician alphabet, our ancestors used the tools of their time to tell their story and thereby build community. We are at a unique time in history where we can utilize our latest “tool” to establish the citizenship needed to function as a contributing member of a larger community. This can only happen through a “one-life” perspective, where digital tools are treated as another ingredient mixed into the the school soup. The author states that the teacher’s responsibility is not only to help students use the tools in creative, productive, efficient ways, “but also help them place these tools in the larger context of building community, behaving responsibly, and imagining a healthy and productive future, both locally and globally (Ohler, p. 2).

Say, show, do. These three words summarize constructivism and good teaching. If we want kids to walk in a quiet, straight line, we tell them what we expect, demonstrate what it looks like, and then let them practice in real world context. Why then would we expect kids to be good digital citizens without explicit instruction and guided practice? We create a taboo around the Internet when we tell kids they should pursue digital interests outside of school, while adults aren’t present. “Because of the extreme freedom, anonymity, and pervasiveness that characterize cyberspace, concerns about values and character education have now shifted into overdrive (Ohler, p. 3). If the end goal is ethical digital citizens, isn’t it precisely the role of educators to model appropriate behavior in this realm as we do in all others. Teachers can do this by simply having conversations about sources and copywriting. When citing ideas or information, they draw attention to the fact that this is not original, but borrowed from a specific source or from the collective wealth of information. They can also do this by discussing the importance and sensitivity of passwords. I remember a quote from a internet safety class I took years ago. “Passwords are like underwear, best kept to yourself and changed frequently.” This is a quote I’ve used often to break the ice, relate the importance to something we understand, and begin a uncomfortable conversation with a little humor. We as educators are in an ideal position to teach and model critical citizenship practices for our students.

The author recommends several steps for developing character education programs within a school that reflect the values of the community. First, public meetings afford community members the opportunity to discuss and debate the ideals they hold dear. Since character education has historically been intertwined with community values, it’s imperative that members outside the school have their voice heard. Next, students must be directly involved in developing character education programs. Students are “in the trenches” so to speak; they have a better idea about opportunities and pitfalls in cyberspace than most adults. They, like adults, are more likely to buy into outcomes if involved in the decision-making process. This process of inclusion leads to valuable dialog, the exchange of opinions and motivators, that is crucial to educated, informed policy. Finally, it is recommended that school districts check to see if the department of education has already adopted mandates for character education. Although the mandates may not be comprehensive, it’s a starting point to begin the conversation about guiding principles of exceptional character.

Ethical behavior and character education is not something new or revolutionary. The world we live and operate in, however, is changing so fast that the assumptions behind them need to be reevaluated periodically. If we as educators are charged with instilling mutual respect and preparing our students for a successful future in this world, we cannot create a “two-life” paradigm. We need to have proactive conversations about the challenges students face online. We need to model appropriate behavior and decision-making and teach students how to navigate the confusing world they faced with. We begin this by letting the monster out of the closet and teaching our students how to communicate and interact with it in a healthy manner that builds up humanity and the global sense of community we all desire.

2 thoughts on “Character Education for the Digital Age

  1. Interesting, Craig! I think part of the problem creating the ‘cling’ to the ‘two-life’ paradigm you speak of, is how rapidly things have changed. We have a lot of seasoned teachers (and policy makers) in schools today, who are not digital natives. They did not take classes about teaching digital literacy while in college or spend gobs of time reflecting on the pros and cons.

    All of the children in their classrooms, however, are digital natives. It feels a lot like an English Language Learner with a heavy accent being put in charge of developing and leading grammar programs for children with speech difficulties. It would not be impossible, and some of them might be great, but it would certainly not be surprising if it was awkward at times! However, understanding how it has come about does not mean that it shouldn’t be fixed. And quickly.

  2. I am not a K-12 educator but i spent a few months doing a long-term subbing assignment at the local high school a few years back. I didn’t really see the ‘two-life’ paradigm in practice. There were some rather heavy handed rules about YouTube and the like (but students helped me get around the restrictions for class presentations). But I’m wondering if the ‘two-life’ idea is a bit of a straw man? Is Ohler talking about a extreme position that is relatively rare? Or is the ‘two-life’ approach fairly common? And what about character education? How much can a K-12 instructor do to educate regarding character? When students go home and jump on the Xbox and play Halo – they’re immersed in a very rough ecosystem of modern online community.

    “We begin this by letting the monster out of the closet and teaching our students how to communicate and interact with it in a healthy manner that builds up humanity and the global sense of community we all desire.” How do we do this? Is this a bit like living in Barrow and saying we need to teach children how to interact with snow and the cold in a healthy manner?

    Also, there’s been some pretty good scholarship on the subject of what we mean by digital native. What does that mean? Comfortable with Facebook and Instagram? Or comfortable with Word and Son of Citation Machine, Excel, PowerPoint?

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