How to teach students to build a positive online identity

By Tammi Sisk and Richard Stegman
September 28th, 2015

Schools must actively work to educate students on social media and online identity

online-identityHere in our local district, our students know a little something about birthing a global phenomenon. Earlier this year, on a snowy January day, Fairfax County Public schools stayed open while many other area schools were closed or delayed. Students took to Twitter to express their disappointment and the world took notice. At one point, the hashtag #CloseFCPS was briefly the number two trending topic worldwide.

It is clear that students understand the power of social media. But are students making good decisions about what to post online? How can we — schools, parents, and community members — help students understand not just the immediacy of their posts but also the permanence of online communications? Something that may be funny in the moment may not be so funny next week, next month, or next year when viewed by a potential employer or university admissions officer.

Each and every time we do something online, we contribute pieces of information that form our online identity. It happens automatically. Too often without a lot of forethought about how each individual post or purchase contributes to the overall picture.

Once something is posted, students are no longer in control of who sees it, shares it, copies it, or uses it. We all need to understand, discuss, teach, model, and set expectations around online behavior that will set our students up for success now and in the future.

As learning becomes more digital, educators at all levels are instrumental in building students’ understanding about how their online presence impacts both their personal and future professional lives. Educators are also instrumental in helping students develop lifelong habits to create and maintain a positive online identity.

A positive identity

Schools should explore ways to help students intentionally build a positive digital identity. Student portfolios, blogs, and other online tools provide avenues to assess learning while simultaneously allowing students to develop a positive online presence. Students can use these tools to showcase their learning while also highlighting their strengths and personality. Having a positive identity that represents their authentic self will be valuable when the student applies to college or for a job.

Here in our district, students have the opportunity to use blogs, wikis, Voice Thread, and other digital tools through our learning management system. We have also implemented Google Apps for Education in our district which allows students to create and collaborate using Google Docs. These digital tools allow students to practice building their online presence in a closed campus environment. Our hope is that using these tools in a controlled “walled garden” will prepare them to build a positive digital identity out on the open internet.

Educators can look to a recent ISTE White Paper, Building and Keeping a Positive Digital Identity, to help kids be more intentional in what they post online. This paper applies ISTE standards to the idea of building and maintaining a positive online identity. It poses five questions adults can use to kick-start meaningful conversations about online behavior and identity:

  1. What information am I sharing?
  2. How secure is it?
  3. Whom am I sharing it with?
  4. What am I leaving behind?
  5. What are my rights?

Close involvement of educators and parents is essential as students make choices about what they contribute online. It is essential to support students so that not only represent themselves authentically, but also to ensure that they do so safely.

Students are, for the most part, growing up in the digital world without any explicit or universally adopted rules about how to behave, and adults sometimes don’t know where to turn for guidance. As our digital connections and interactions grow, the lines between our professional and personal lives become blurred.

ISTE Standards for Teachers can be used to help guide educators and other stakeholders as they consider their approach to appropriate online behavior within their personal and professional lives. The newly released ISTE White Paper, Building and Keeping a Positive Digital Identity, applies the ISTE standards to the idea of building and maintaining a positive online identity.

Tammi Sisk and Richard Stegman are instructional technology specialists at Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia.

PLCs-communitiesEd. note: This piece is part of Innovation In Action, a monthly column from the International Society of Technology in Education focused on exemplary practices in education.