Alumni Guest Series

Stay Connected: Exploring the Role of Information Technology in Building Digital Citizens

In the month of October, we educate citizens, especially students, parents and teachers, about their rights and responsibilities related to information technology and its use in our society during Digital Citizenship Week. Throughout this week, teachers and parents will discuss topics and engage in curriculum designed to cover myriad topics: identifying the difference between trustworthy and false information on the internet, noticing and responding to cyberbullying and protecting personal information online. In the book, “Digital Citizenship – The Internet, Society & Participation,” a digital citizen is a “person utilizing information technology in order to engage in society, politics, and government.” Whenever I discuss digital citizenship, I use this definition because it shines light on the fundamental building block of digital citizenship — the apparatus required to utilize of information technology.

Devices connected to affordable and reliable fiber-optic broadband networks are prerequisites for the nation to achieve an idealized dream of an informed digital citizenry. Many states and the federal government are starting to understand this fundamental truth. In 2016, the nonprofit Education Superhighway reported that 34.9 million students in the U.S. were able to access the Federal Communications Commission’s minimum goals of 100 kilobytes per second per student. Education Superhighway lauded this achievement because fiber-optic cabling has been a main roadblock to connectivity. Just a year earlier, such access was available to 10.4 million fewer students. I am proud to work in Tennessee’s Department of Education where we are engaged in a multi-year strategy to help our school districts drive down the student-to-connected device ratio with the goal of reaching one-to-one parity. Tennessee is not the only state education agency across the country dreaming big to achieve this goal. School districts in Massachusetts and Maine are exponents of one-to-one strategies.

But what’s next? We need to continue broadband infrastructure investment, while at the same time adding more and varied connected devices in classrooms. To achieve this, federal, state and local investments must be sustained or increased while creating carefully constructed purchasing contracts with technology vendors that include refreshing equipment frequently to keep up with the latest technologies. Also, connected devices mean more than just underpowered laptops, desktops and static displays. Lydia Green, a librarian and media specialist, states that “devices to teach digital learners extend to interactive media centers that feature responsive, touch-screen devices, technologically advanced computer equipment, including 3-D printers, and tech-based maker spaces.” But more importantly, during Digital Citizenship Week, we should reflect on increasing access not just with K-12 students in school buildings but to all citizens. For example, broadband access should be far more available in public meeting spaces like free internet cafés, government offices and public libraries. Once citizens of all ages and abilities have access through connected devices, only the individual can determine to what end those resources are used to improve, connect and participate. To what end will you choose?


Darnell Billups is the director of program management for the Tennessee Department of Education, overseeing improvements in technology and classroom integration for more than one million students and teachers in the state.

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