NSF Grant Allows UNC Charlotte Faculty to Train Middle School Students and Teachers on Digital Citizenship

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The approaching PK-12 public school year will be unlike any other. Of concern to many students, parents, and those in the education field are dramatic shifts to online learning in an effort to help contain the COVID-19 pandemic. Much time and effort is being dedicated to helping teachers teach and learners learn in this environment. Now, results from a project led by a team of UNC Charlotte researchers are helping to ensure that students interacting online are not only successful, but safe and thriving digital citizens.

With funding from a $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the group spent the last three years developing and delivering cyber safety and digital citizenship resources for middle school teachers and students.

“As schools move to the use of more technology to support learning, there is an increasing need for teachers not only to understand how to use technology and integrate it appropriately, but also to understand digital citizenship and the impact technology use can have on students,” said Florence Martin, professor of Learning, Design and Technology and principal investigator on the project. The interdisciplinary team of researchers also included professor Teresa Petty, Weichao Wang, Chuang Wang, and Patti Wilkins

A 2009 study of risky internet behaviors among middle school students found 40% of students reported having encountered sexually inappropriate material on the Internet, and nearly one in three said they had been harassed or bullied on social media sites. With this in mind, the ubiquity of digital technology and the reality of children adopting its use at increasingly younger ages suggests the need for more intensive and formalized training.

“Now more than ever we are immersed in a digital world in our daily lives. Students need to be taught digital etiquette as well as digital tools, so that they can grow to be understanding and thoughtful citizens in a digital world,” said Ashley Ward, a participating CMS teacher.

To address this need, the UNC Charlotte team developed e-learning modules on cyberbullying, digital footprints, digital privacy, digital netiquette, and digital identity. The modules were piloted with 380 middle school students, then measured knowledge growth and individual satisfaction with the exercises. Overall, students’ understanding of cyber safety concepts nearly tripled following participation in the exercises, and the group on average said they were very satisfied with the modules. Ward said her students were engaged with and enjoyed the project.

The study also revealed potential areas for growth.

“Students need to be trained on digital netiquette topics on what to share online, and also on digital privacy topics on not friending someone they do not know. Training on editing security settings and the importance of not sharing passwords with someone else is also important.”

In concert with the student-focused resources, the UNC Charlotte team also created and delivered an online course on digital citizenship to 45 middle school teachers and technology facilitators. Surveys and interviews found a positive attitude about the training, and that educators felt they could transfer the knowledge of digital citizenship to their schools and classrooms. Following the course, the team provided digital citizenship workshop materials to participants to assist such efforts.

To cap off the project, students created videos on digital citizenship and shared them with their parents and to a larger audience through social media.

The team has now received another $399,999 NSF grant to provide digital safety immersion for elementary school students through summer camps. Researchers Florence Martin, Weichao Wang and Drew Polly with support from consultants Patti Wilkins, David Pugalee and Lynn Ahlgrim-Delzell will be designing a curriculum to teach digital safety for elementary school students in grades 3 to 5 and training elementary school teachers to facilitate the summer camps, which will be hosted in Summer 2021 and Summer 2022 at UNC Charlotte.

Graduate assistants Elliot Brooks, Instructional Systems Technology, Master’s Student, Spring 2018 and Tuba Gezer, Educational Research Measurement and Evaluation, Doctoral Student, Fall 2018 – Spring 2019 also contributed to the recently completed project.