Digital Footprints: Inevitable but Manageable

I suppose things were more anonymous when I was in high school. Then again, gaining global notoriety was harder. After all, if I wanted to send a naked photo of myself to someone, I’d have to actually go to a photo shop and have one developed from 35mm film. THAT would be embarassing. If I wanted to chat with strangers, I’d have to, well, actually go out to a public place and start talking to a stranger – FACE TO FACE – and I’d be able to see if that person was actually another teenager or a 40-year-old man in a basement. If I wanted to promote myself as an individual – well, that, too was harder. I’d scheme to get myself featured in a yearbook photo shot. (Who remembers the days of poring through the yearbook index to see how many times you were mentioned, and then comparing them to other people?) If I wanted to get a job, I would print up resumes and mail them – using REAL PAPER – to potential employers. But today, we have sexting, chatting, social networking, and personal websites – any number of ways to leave our digital footprint.

Ferriter reminds us that digital footprints “are an inevitable by-product of life in a connected world” that can both let other find out excessive details about our personal lives as well as connect us to opportunities to learn and grow and individuals. That begs this week’s essential questions:

Should you have a digital footprint as an international educators? How would one help or hinder you if you go looking for a new job?

Absolutely – an actively managed digital footprint helps us connect to our Personal Learning Networks and lets employers find out about our professional and extracurricular backgrounds. In the former case, our cohort member Clint Hamada has both a personal blog that he uses for reflection and a blog specifically for his position as UNIS Hanoi’s Tech Facilitator. This allows him to separate his personal views from those of his professional responsibilities. Furthermore, the Titlow article confirms that most companies (though not necessarily most international schools) use social networking – primarily LinkedIn – to case out prospective employees. My own impression is that an online presence conveys the impression of a proactive, connected, and communicative individual. The lack of a digital footprint is by no means a disqualification of any given teacher’s competence, nor is the converse true. However, teachers have nothing to lose – except time – by creating one, and in a world that emphasizes digital skills and favors digital natives, it argument in favor is made stronger.

In addition to the potential for improving connection with colleagues and employers, I will say that having a digital footprint – which I suppose I am defining as an “online presence” – can really help to connect teachers with students. Our swim team has a Facebook group where we post announcements and pictures. The kids are really enthusiastic about participating. The post to the group many times a week and anything I put on the Wall I can be sure the swimmers will read the same day. It’s saved us on many occasions such as team photo days, dryland practices, and travel reminders. I also use Twitter to post class announcements, since our student population is very active in using it. They won’t check the Moodle, but they’ll check Twitter since notifications are pushed directly to their smartphones.

What then are the implications for students and how should we be teaching them to have a positive digital footprint?

A salient question, indeed. We can expect that in the future, the lack of a digital footprint will be a mark against students in a world where online interaction is a requirement, not a luxury. It should be the province of technology classes to teach students about having a positive digital footprint. It is there that students should receive direct instruction with hands-on application for how to navigate the online world. Students might be required to:

  • Construct a Facebook account for a fictitious person, given biographical information and a variety of photos. They would have to evaluate which information and photos should be kept public and private, and they would have to learn how to control the various privacy settings.
  • Be asked to pass judgment – through court simulations or simpler group discussion – on cases of online privacy such as when “sexts” have been released to the public or students have been cyberbullied by their peeres, and then asked to reflect on their own online etiquette
  • Create a blog to showcase their opinions and interests
  • Finally, find and participate in an online community based on their own interests – this would be an authentic assessment where they demonstration the accumulation of their digital footprint skills

Middle school would be the appropriate time to teach these things, given that this is a time when peer approval and individual vs group identity become important themes in childrens’ lives. Good middle schools try especially hard to develop students as healthy, well adjusted individuals, and learning to navigate online society is a must.