Teachers & Digital Citizenship

Reference.com defines a good citizen as “ a person who obeys the laws of his country, contributes to society and participates in public affairs with wisdom.” In other words, a good citizen makes an effort to be informed, to act with consideration and care for others and for society, and to leave the world better than they found it.

While the lines between learning in the classroom and learning in digital spaces continue to blur, digital citizenship and digital literacy are becoming important topics for teachers to be aware of. This is a daunting problem given the complexity and rapid rate of change, and I understand why many teachers might feel overwhelmed if they try to tackle it all at once. It’s all about becoming informed and making good decisions, which is always a learning process. So, there are two things I want the reader of this post to keep in mind:

  • Understanding the digital world is a journey, not a destination
  • You aren’t alone! Your institution likely has someone whose job it is to support you in your integration of technology into the curriculum. If not, there are many folks on Twitter and elsewhere on the web who can provide information and support. These people may be knowledgeable or even subject matter experts, but please remember they are always learning too!

With that in mind, I’m going to focus in on just a few areas I personally find most relevant to the discussion on digital citizenship.


Just as the physical world can be made accessible to those with a disability, so to can the digital world. The good news is that it’s much easier and cheaper to make a webpage accessible than it is to retrofit an old building – it just means getting into a few good habits.

What Can You Do?

If you’re new to the idea of accessibility, the main idea is to make sure those who are relying on assistive technology can get the same information from your digital materials as everyone else does. In most cases, learning to use the formatting options such as Heading Styles in your authoring tool will get you most of the way towards creating accessible digital materials. For digital documents (PDFs, PowerPoints, etc.) and webpages, I like to use the acronym SPLAT to remind myself to use these tools.

SPLAT stands for Styles, Paragraphs, Lists, Alternative Text, & Tables, and you can find out more at the Teaching and Learning blog at my home institution, University of Portland.

Another important area to consider is the captioning of any video you want to use. If you have a deaf/hard-of-hearing student or just want to make your content accessible to a larger audience, you might want to learn how to curate accessible Youtube videos or even how to start captioning your own content.

As you start to get into the habit of thinking about accessibility, you’ll find that most steps you take towards accessibility add usability and value for all – for example, using headings is crucial for screen readers but also helps to visually and logically order long sections of text, and adding captions can help ESL students understand to read English in a new way. Accessible design is good Universal Design!

Remember, it’s OK and encouraged to ask for help! Your school most likely has accessibility and technology specialists who can provide guidance.

Copyright and Fair Use

This is a sticky issue but an important one to be brought up. I know of many teachers who hold their students to high standards regarding academic honesty, who might then turn around and grab an image from Google search without a second thought to copyright or attribution. In some cases, that may be acceptable under fair use, especially if the graphic is being taught to specifically. However, if the image is supplementary or decorative, fair use most likely doesn’t apply, and it’s also important to understand that fair use is a legal defense of copyright violation, not a law in and of itself.

What Can You Do?

Understand that just because you can find material on the internet, doesn’t mean it always fair game to use. There are lots of resources and ways to find free to use content if you know where to look. A digital rights check can also be an opportunity to ask “Do I really need this graphic in my instructional materials? Is there information I want students to learn here?”

 It can be frustrating to practice restraint in this area, and realistically you aren’t likely to ever be punished for re-using images or other resources without permission in the classroom. It’s not glamorous to take the extra time to attribute a photo, but this is an area where it’s important for teachers to be modeling behavior for their students!

Featured Image: David Teniers the Younger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


On Grammarly

I’ll be the first to admit it: my spelling acumen leaves something to be desired. As part of the generation who began writing via word processing at an early age, I learned I could always count on red squiggly lines to catch my misspellings. Things haven’t improved much as I’ve gotten older. In the connected smartphone era, adaptive and intelligent auto-correct usually fixes my mistakes before I even notice them. What’s next? An app lets me off the hook if I fail to form a grammatically sound sentence? As it turns out, yes.

I’ve been using Grammarly to help catch mistakes in emails and to give my academic and professional writing a second pair of (electronic) eyes for about four months.
Grammarly is available and most useful as a free browser extension. It can also be installed as a standalone Mac app and as an add-in to Microsoft Office in Windows. The free version checks for spelling and basic grammar issues. You can also subscribe to the Premium version, which is frankly pretty expensive but does add some extra functionality to the free apps. Either way, as you write Grammarly adds comments and suggested corrections to the margins of your work. An explanation of the grammatical principles involved and what you might do to improve are always available via a pop-out “card” that can be expanded with a click.

To give you an idea of the types of differences you might see, I ran an early draft of this post through both the free and paid versions. The free app caught all spelling errors and obvious grammatical issues such as incorrect conjugations. The paid version detects additional potential problem areas. In this case, Grammarly scolded my use of the passive voice, accused a paragraph of “excessive wordiness,” and reprimanded me for writing a sentence fragment.

In my use, I’ve found Grammarly to offer the greatest utility in semi-formal writing scenarios such as composing an email at work or writing in a forum in an online class, probably because the browser extension works online in the tools I tend to use for these purposes. In Gmail, Office 365 mail, on forums, and even when writing in the WordPress text editor, Grammarly rides shotgun and offers a helping hand in real time.

Where I tend to do more serious writing – in the Mac version of Word or Google Docs – Grammarly is not natively supported. So, I tend to write as I always have, revising and correcting as I go and proofing the document myself. Then I send the finished piece to Grammarly as if I’m submitting it to an editor.

This dual-use system seems to be working reasonably well. At work, the number of trivial but embarrassing mistakes left in my emails seems to be on the decline. When you’re always pressed for time and trying to keep many responsibilities balanced, it’s easy to overlook a typo, a repeated word, or a forgotten apostrophe. Grammarly lets me focus on crafting a message and getting my point across without worrying too much about looking unprofessional.

In my more involved writing, using Grammarly as a review tool keeps it from distracting me from the writing process. At best, by helping me catch repeated mistakes, it does offer useful feedback and an idea of bad habits to work on or misconceptions to correct.

I do wonder, though, if those worrying about the gradual erosion of foundational but mechanical writing skills are missing a bigger idea. Perhaps the need to learn fussy punctuation and syntax to the point of automaticity is becoming antiquated. There will probably always be people who enjoy preoccupying themselves with correct grammar, but there are people that enjoy horseback riding and churning their own butter, too.

In an ideal world, can the delegation of spelling and grammar to artificial copy-editors leave us free to devote our attention to the art of writing and the craft of meaning-making? Or does the endless march of automation mean that our ability to form a coherent thought without help from a computer is next on the chopping block? I don’t know, but as a harried grad student and technologist who feels like I’m typing all day, I’m willing to take one for the team and find out.

Writing is Hard, Y’all

Many teachers find technology difficult or frustrating. Many technologists, like myself, find expressing ourselves eloquently and effectively challenging or intimidating. In either case, improving is a matter of practice and approach.

As a graduate student coming back to school after many years away, I experienced a bit of a shock to the system because of the sheer amount of writing required. Academia is writing. Write and write some more. Then, reflect on what you wrote. In writing, please.

One of my New Year’s resolutions for 2017 was to write more. Writing in many different forms, for different audiences, getting practice. To sharpen those skills. This will only help me to succeed in academics, professionally, and in my own personal growth, and hopefully provide some fun and satisfaction. Here are a few of the other things I’m doing outside of this blog to keep on writin’.

At Work

Last year I took over and relaunched the Teaching & Learning blog at the University of Portland. I view as a chance to participate in a small community of teachers and those who support them at UP. I contribute thoughts there fairly regularly, and also publish #uptechtips which are aimed at the very specific audience of UP faculty. A goal of Teacher With Tech is to extend what I’m doing at UP to a broader audience.

Just For Me

I started using Day One to write privately. I need a free space to practice away from likes, comments, grades or feedback. It’s not a journal exactly but it is just for me, and there’s some power to that. I also love the way this app can pull in photos, GPS data, etc for inspiration.

For Fun

Balancing school, work, and life doesn’t leave a ton of time to read for pleasure. A joy I have re-discovered in the last year is in reading comic books (or graphic novels if you prefer). There are definitely some negative stereotypes about comics that I won’t spend the time to debunk here – but I personally love them and think they are worth writing about. If you’re interested in my reflections on the best of the creator-owned comics I’m reading, you can find them my new Tumblr, Trade Waiter. I’ve always wanted to explore Tumblr and this seemed like a good fit. I’m aiming for one post a month for 2017.