Sunday, January 10, 2016

Expanding Paradigms: From Digital Citizenship to Digital Literacy

By: Rabbi Aaron Frank, Associate Principal
and Rabbi Avi Bloom, Director of Technology Integration

Recently, during Shacharit, a student approached me (Rabbi Bloom) to ask a nuanced question about the structure of tefillah. I offered an initial answer, but wanted to use my iPhone to look up more information. I hesitated, recognizing that in school we generally ask students not to use their phones during tefillah, and wondered if we could create a structure in which mobile devices could be used to help create a more engaging, informative, davening experience, rather than be viewed as an obstacle to meaningful tefillah. At SAR, this year, we are spending many hours exploring how technology plays a part in the lives of our teachers and students and how to best educate students to be responsible and literate digital citizens.

For the past decade, much has been written about helping children and adolescents make good decisions about technology use, whether in the realm of communications, social media, or information acquisition. In schools, there has been an evolving conversation about digital citizenship and digital citizenship education. Digital citizenship education refers to the idea that we have a responsibility to educate students about their digital lives, and the need for responsible decision making.

Early on, much of the discussion surrounded rules, limits, and policies that were put in place to help curtail technology use, often perceived as a distraction from more productive learning activities. Schools and Boards of Education created cell phone, social media and communication guidelines. Parents expressed concern about “screen time” as a quantitative problem, and there was much discussion about how to ensure that teachers and students maintain proper boundaries and communication in light of the new technologies.

Here at SAR these policies exist as well. During this past November, one week of advisory was dedicated to digital citizenship. The goal was to bring to light some important challenging issues that students face in their daily technology use. This was an outgrowth of conversations with a committee of faculty members who met throughout last year to explore topics and strategies regarding this subject. These discussions focused on social media interactions, ethical complicity through non-action, thinking strategically about online posting, the bystander effect online, and other important issues.

Certainly, the need for appropriate digital citizenship and usage will always be critical. However, we must go further in our digital goals. Conversations around “screen time” and other quantitative barometers of healthy technology use are outdated. While quantitative policies and clear rules play a role in the conversation, the focus must continue to evolve to more thoughtful and strategic engagement given the realities of how devices play a role in almost every aspect of our lives .

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has articulated this shift and amended its guidelines regarding screen time to reflect a more qualitative, rather than quantitative approach. In his article in Forbes about the new guidelines from the AAP, Jordan Shapiro writes:

“Screens are now a ubiquitous part of our lives. It is a technology that has been completely integrated into the human experience. At this point, worrying about exposure to screens is like worrying about exposure to agriculture, indoor plumbing, the written word, or automobiles. For better or worse, the transition to screen based digital information technologies has already happened and now resistance is futile. The screen time rhetoric that accompanied the television—when this technology was still in its formative age—is no longer relevant.” The AAP now seems to agree. “In a world where ‘screen time’ is becoming simply ‘time,’” the update reads, “our policies must evolve or become obsolete.”


At SAR, we have broadened our orientation and our conversations to reflect the new realities in the digital conversation. It is a shift from digital citizenship to what is known as digital literacy. Digital literacy addresses three main points:
  1. The ability to use digital technology, communication tools or networks to locate, evaluate, use and create information. 
  2. The ability to understand and use information in multiple formats from a wide range of sources when it is presented via computers. 
  3. A person’s ability to perform tasks effectively in a digital environment... Literacy includes the ability to read and interpret media, to reproduce data and images through digital manipulation, and to evaluate and apply new knowledge gained from digital environments.”

Responsible digital citizenship is not sufficient, it is but the first step toward cultivating a culture where technology is used as an asset to create a more collaborative, dynamic and effective educational environment. The crux of our professional development program this year is to increase the digital literacy and knowledge of our teachers so they can leverage the digital tools we offer to better prepare our students for the future. Ultimately, our job as educators is to best prepare our students for the realities that lie ahead.

Throughout the year, the faculty has been working on strategically enhancing the student learning experience by leveraging the powerful technology made available through our student and faculty 1:1 iPad program. Faculty members have devoted many hours to learning about new apps, tools, and strategies that will help them create a more personalized, active, engaged, learning environment for their students. The faculty, both individually and by department, are developing curricular goals that highlight areas where the technology available to our students can be used as a powerful tool to help them improve their skills and learn more within specific subject areas. It is designed to encourage them to be digital explorers and intellectual innovators by utilizing all facets of what the technological world can offer them. This professional development program is a key ingredient in helping ensure that we are educating our students to be digitally literate, not just digitally safe citizens.

And while it may not play out in the middle of davening, it is these thoughtful conversations that will lead to a community where everyone, students and teachers alike, can access technology, both in the classroom and outside, as a path toward a more digitally literate, educated, enlightened community, prepared for the digital future that lies ahead.

For Further Reading:

Rabbi Frank can be emailed at and Rabbi Bloom can be emailed at