Educators choose their career path to help young people grow and learn. It’s a far bigger ask than the 3Rs. Like parents, teachers have to take the long view: You hope to influence not just the children in front of you, but also the adults they’ll become. Digital citizenship is evolving, and how to conduct yourself on social media is no longer enough. Students need guidance to expand their cultural knowledge base and learn to work collaboratively. In the modern classroom, they use digital means to do it.

Digital literacy allows students to engage with society using technology. When we ask them to engage responsibly, this is digital citizenship. When we teach students about digital citizenship, we highlight the permanence of their actions. We encourage them to use ethical and safe behaviors in their online interactions. What belongs to them and what doesn’t. We have whole programs and school handbook chapters built around online bullying, plagiarism and privacy. All of this is essential. But not enough.

Screen time & digital citizenship

Students need to read A LOT to absorb the cultural knowledge base, and discussing that content with peers will keep their collaborative spirit alive. Twenty students can read a text and land on 25 different perspectives. Personalization means that educators can retain those unique perspectives and engage students without insisting on one right answer. Students are asked to make room for views different than their own. Sometimes this take place face to face, sometimes behind a screen.

Sure, they could be frittering away brain cells on vintage Vines. They might also be reading a gay YA novel that they don’t feel safe reading in open sight, shielded by the privacy of a screen and no book cover. Earbuds? Maybe they are listening to Spotify. Or maybe they’re an English Language Learner listening to an audiobook to better grasp pronunciation, syntax and narrative.

Aren’t these things we want our young citizens to do? To seek out resources to become more themselves? To explore culture and language to better understand and contribute to society? Isn’t this the perfect mix of skill and knowledge base? Recognizing what you don’t know and seeking out the best skill or tool to use to learn, to solve the problem. Using a high-tech application of a low-tech essential like reading balances the skill versus knowledge base argument beautifully.

Return to a knowledge-based education

Tech has provided 18 different ways to solve a problem, and students are expected to know all of them. What about enjoying the destination when they get there? How do we know that we’re teaching the right skills, not just for them to succeed, but to flourish?

Tech without quality content is useless. Education is enjoying a swing back toward knowledge base, not just skill and tool acquisition. Educators know that the shiniest toolbox is wasted if you don’t have things to hammer, inspect, take apart and weld together. Focusing only on skills and decoding is risky. And for the students, boring. We need both skill-based and knowledge-based education, which are inextricable.

The ideal education focuses on a diverse and inclusive selection of cultural works, fiction and primary source material. It also develops skills necessary to access that content using technology. The political and cultural climate demands that we return to a reliance on books for how to absorb and react to the world. Students must stay well read, accurately informed and flexible enough to remain curious and civil while working together.

Students can use that depth of knowledge to become creators, not just consumers. Within your OverDrive collection is the ability to upload local content, such as historical documents, local author interviews, community resources and more. This includes new or edited existing content for which your library has copyright, and is perfect for showcasing student work, teacher contributions and collaborations through students groups, such as the yearbook, newspaper or literary journal.

Becoming a global citizen

When they arrive to school, Gen Z is largely familiar with tech. They don’t need help using devices. They need help exploring and upgrading the most priceless and powerful tool at their disposal: their brains. They need guidance to discern useful from not, truth from fiction. Teaching kids how to think critically, create passionately and collaborate generously will point them not just toward digital citizenship, but the path to becoming a global citizen.

First they learn to read, then they read to learn. Digital literacy is a nuanced concept. Besides the ability to use tech devices and platforms, students need to learn how these are best used to participate in society. Some even elevate digital citizenship into the realm of participating in a democracy with civility, thoughtfulness and critical thinking. Tech is essential in the modern classroom, but there is no substitute for careful instruction. Keep students curious and engaged, and they’ll grow into thoughtful, curious citizens.