This is my first post in a series—and such posts will be labeled GAVS—to complete the online training offered by the Georgia Department of Education and Georgia Virtual Learning. Teacher Online Open Learning (TOOL) focuses on five key skills: Participation, Navigation, Communication, Creation, and Evaluation. The growing trend of Digital Learning Communities (DLC), Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC), or distance learning classes by charter schools, universities, and public schools is reason enough for all teachers to consider such training.
TOOL begins with Participation, which is somewhat “meta” since the training mirrors how students should participate within a learning community. Even if you have no interest in teaching online, the subjects and resources I will address and evaluate will be useful for any teacher, either online or on school grounds.
Today, with the accessibility of MOOCs and the ability of Twitter to spark social change (#Ferguson), there is plenty of evidence that technology can educate and empower users with Internet access. These users are citizens of a digital community where they consume and produce ideas and content. Exemplary digital citizens are responsible for their consumption and production of content on the Web, and in doing both, they must be active, maintain a balanced life between the digital and physical worlds, and keep an open mind to creating friendships online.
When we think about how people interact online, we see that people are either producing content or consuming content, but this dichotomy has another axis running perpendicular to describe how users participate online: active and passive. Active users contribute frequently with valuable information, and passive users are those who remain mostly silent and disengaged from the community. This additional category creates four ways of classifying digital citizens: Active Producers, Active Consumers, Passive Consumers, and Passive Producers. Both the Active Producer and the Passive Consumer seem self-explanatory, and most could imagine how someone might be an Active Consumer, but this system creates an apparent contradiction: the Passive Producer.
Creation is active, so the Passive Producer may seem active online when contributing to an online community, but their social media posts work more like broadcasts that ignore the global network and the audience by being limited solely to that individual’s experience. Posts such as, “Look at the dinner I cooked,” are some of the most egregious examples. Unless the user is a chef or replying to a question about a recipe, such posts ignore the needs of the online community and clutter digital spaces. On the other hand, active producers of content don’t just post regularly on social networks; they direct their posts to a particular audience’s needs, and their content strives to meet those needs. Tutorials are an example of such content; it comes from a personal experience but offers help to others.
Then there are the passive consumers. These individuals regularly read blogs, click links, and explore discussion boards, but they’re lurkers. In the digital community it is not enough to peruse content; active consumers must take the extra time to further discussions by offering meaningful content and giving critical feedback. For example, a passive consumer might regularly listen to a podcast but never share it with friends in “real life,” or he/she might never rate the podcast on a forum that would help promote the podcast. A passive consumer, furthermore, might regularly comment on discussion boards with no more than, “Thanks for the good read.” “Like” buttons are an easy out. In contrast, an active consumer will make suggestions or add information which improves the dialogue. For example, and active consumer might reply, “Thanks for the insights on X. Have you thought about how Y connects to X. I just read Z which connects X and Y in an interesting way. Here’s a link.” An exemplarily digital citizen will strive to be an active producer and consumer of content.
Digital citizens must also balance their time between the digital and physical worlds. Studies show people need time away from screens for various health reasons. There are risks associated with looking at screens for too long and sitting too long. Similarly, there are risks when users only frequent a few sites and ideas. Echo chambers of opinions pervade the Internet because users do not seek balance and algorithms further limit users’ exposure to different ideas. Too many ideas from within a certain discussion board without an external, real-life, connection is unbalanced. A responsible digital citizen will read both online and in print, draw from IRL experiences and discussion boards, and discuss what is happening online in person with friends and family. The digital world also has a short attention span, so it is important to balance trends with old favorites; this may mean digging up favorite articles and stories to complement or refract current discussions. The digital word and the physical world will complement each other.
Finally, an exemplary digital citizen will strive to make lasting friendships online. A friend-seeking mindset will automatically discourage abuse and bullying and spur a user to advocate against such abuse when it happens. More importantly, if users begin to see their digital learning communities not as a means to an end but as a conversation among friends, these communities’ discussion boards and posts will build momentum rather than wane. The rationale behind this is that research shows “roughly two-thirds of social media users say that staying in touch with current friends and family members is a major reason they use these sites.” If digital citizens begin to approach other users as friends instead of content generators, we will be more engaged, so we will check in frequently, understand the needs of the community, and respond accordingly. Digital communities must offer insight, connection, and entertainment to meet the needs of the users, and digital citizens can help build that by approaching them with a friend-seeking mindset.
When more users who are active, balanced, and open to creating friendships populate digital communities, everyone will be more likely to find a meaningful connection to the global network.