The emergence of the internet has created new and exciting opportunities for young people; they are deeply involved in social media creating content, expressing themselves and building communities like never before. But these very opportunities can also expose them to serious new hazards, such as creating a permanent record of negative content that might be impossible to remove. In an era when a big part of our identity is ‘digital’, it is becoming increasingly important for us, as educators, to help our learners manage their digital footprint.
What is your digital footprint?
Your digital footprint refers to the trail you leave behind when you use the internet. This includes the websites you visit, your comments and likes, your emails and Skype calls, and your online purchases and searches. All these traces of personal information can potentially be seen by other people, or tracked in a database.
This data is stored in big data systems and is mainly used by corporations, e.g. Google, Microsoft and Facebook, for monetary reasons such as targeted advertising.
Some people refer to a digital footprint as a digital tattoo, suggesting that it’s permanent. And they are right. Everything about us today is digitised and stored in the cloud, indefinitely. Just because we can delete a post or comment doesn’t mean we can remove it from back-end systems.
Why is this important for learners to know?
Learners today need to understand that their digital identity might well be the first thing their prospective college admission officer or employer will check about them when they get their application. But these people won’t just be looking for negative digital footprints – they will also be looking for positive content that showcases the potential and accomplishments of the individual. This can include examples of learners’ work, pictures or videos that show they can work as part of a team, and comments that suggest they are respectful and kind individuals.
What can I do as a teacher?
As teachers we need to adjust our pedagogy to include responsible use of technology. We need to raise learners’ awareness of digital footprints and encourage them to make informed decisions about the content they create or share online. This should not be seen as an add-on to our existing syllabus but as a skill that can be taught while developing language.
How can I help my learners to build a positive digital footprint?
The first step is to raise your learners’ awareness. No matter how tech savvy they are, they may not realise that their online footprint is permanent and can potentially be used against them. Here is a detailed lesson plan to help you with this important step.
Teach in context
Create online communities on Edmodo, Google Classroom or a blog platform and ask learners to reflect on what it means to be part of an online community. Social and emotional values of etiquette, respect and empathy should be demonstrated online as well as offline. Ask learners to engage in online discussions and leave quality comments in response to their classmates’ posts (constructive but polite feedback, questions).
Encourage them to publish their work for a broader audience. Their videos, blog posts and pictures should tell an interesting story about them. At the end of the school year ask them to reflect on what their online presence says about them. Does it exhibit the positive journey they have made? Ask them to pick 10 things they have included in their digital footprint and are proud of. Are there any things they feel less happy about?
Experimentation and mistakes are essential parts of development. Yet our learners are growing up in a world where mistakes are not forgiven because the internet never forgets. Don’t point the finger at them.