Tattoos for all

Mrs. M. Stevens Wagner (Woman with upper body tattooed) Public Domain

Whether we use the term ‘digital footprint’ or ‘digital tattoo’, either way this has become an important piece of learning both in and out of the classroom.  Last year, my colleague Michelle and I did a series of workshops with parents about digital citizenship, social media, and helping students control their digital footprints. When parents asked us when we began these conversations and lessons with students, the answer was ‘as soon as they have an email account’.  Even email, perhaps the most innocuous of social media, has a potential for negative consequences if abused.

Image: ‘who do we appreciate’
Found on

As many have pointed out, teaching kids to manage their digital footprints begins by modeling this behaviour for our students. Teachers have been doing this in the face-to-face world for centuries by both keeping up their reputation and standing in the community as well as creating boundaries with their students. Part of managing our digital footprints with students is simply an extension of this tradition; for example, most teachers do not ‘friend’ their students on Facebook and don’t allow compromising pictures of themselves to get posted and tagged.

While controlling the negative aspects of one’s digital footprint is a bit of a no-brainer, controlling the positive is a bit more difficult to come to terms with.  Should all teachers blog, have their own website, and be active on Twitter?  Is having a website today the equivalent of having a resume 10 years ago – is it just expected?

I see many positive aspects of a teacher having a strong, positive footprint, but I don’t think that blogging, websites, and tweeting are mandatory for everyone (teacher or student).  What is important is that we find tools we can use to promote ourselves and accomplish our goals within our various disciplines.  I see several layers of engagement in creating a digital footprint as a teacher:

  1. Dependent, static footprint: At a minimum, it’s important when looking for a job to meet the expectations of potential employers.  If you are looking for a job through Search Associates or similar group, you obviously have to create a strong profile within that framework.  In addition, I think it is wise for teachers and other professionals to have a LinkedIn profile that is attractive and up to date. It doesn’t take very much work, and it provides a way for employers to cross-check your resume against your digital footprint.
  2. Independent but static footprint:  The next level of engagement would be to build a professional website that showcases your bio, teaching philosophy, resume, and samples of lessons or work.  This is sort of like a digital resume; it needs to be updated over the years with new credentials and examples, but overall it is still fairly static.
  3. Dynamic digital footprint:  This level of engagement reflects an ongoing connection to and involvement with various online communities.  The most common venues are Twitter, Google+, and blogs, though there are others as well.  At this level, teachers have a strong PLN and work to further their own skills in collaboration with other teachers around the world.  Having connections like this is great for any teacher, but I’ve met many who are able to grow and develop as a teacher through face-to-face connections instead.  For tech coaches and coordinators, however, having a dynamic digital footprint is mandatory.
  4. Innovative digital leadership:  This is the level that many of us in ed-tech aspire to.  This is the point where you are not only immersed in an online PLN, but you are far enough in front of the crowd that people are looking to you to set the trends.

The implications for students out of all of this are numerous.  Like teachers, it is vital that students understand how to keep their private lives private so they don’t interfere with college and job opportunities.

As far as promoting a positive digital footprint, however, it gets much trickier.  Many teachers and admin get very excited about ‘digital portfolios’, but I’ve seen mostly failed attempts at implementing when it comes to MS and HS students.  Often it seems like we are asking them to reflect on the comments made on their reflection regarding a reflective piece of writing.  In other words, it can easily turn into a house of mirrors where teachers continuously tell students that this is ‘really important’ but neither the students nor the teachers believe it.

Oftentimes, the problem is that students are asked to blog about things that aren’t actual problems that need to be solved.  When a student writes about his or her science experiment, it is more to satisfy a teacher’s requirement than to fill a gap in the world knowledge on grade 7 science.

When blogging does meet an actual need, not only does student engagement go up but the quality of the blogging does as well. As William M. Ferriter wrote in Educational Leadership,

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“Whether they’re working to raise awareness of the genocide in Darfur—a project that George Mayo’s students tackled (—or doing a good deed every day for a month and sharing about it online—an initiative that 10-year-old Laura Stockman started to honor her grandfather’s life (—today’s teens and tweens can come together electronically to learn about and act on issues that matter.”

If everyone blogs or tweets just to create a digital footprint and to get their next job, then it will be the equivalent of the whole world shouting out their windows just to hear their own voice.  We need to spend less time talking about getting kids blogging, and more time connecting them to projects for which blogging deals with an actual issue, whether war in Darfur and a girl who wants to honor her grandfather.