Close up of a group of elementary school kids doing schoolwork on their laptops


Empowering a Rebirth of Digital Citizenship

At a moment when everything about being online seems broken, Richard Culatta sees reasons for hope—but it will take a team effort

Richard Culatta, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), is a rare breed. He’s a technology optimist, for one. But he’s also someone who still believes digital connection is a powerful tool for fundamentally improving education and civic life for America’s young people. “Technology brings an unprecedented level of convenience and personalization, and it will allow our children to do more, learn more, create more, and connect more than any of us could ever have imagined,“ he writes in his new book, Digital for Good: Raising Kids to Thrive in an Online World. “The artificial barrier of physical location will never be a constraint that limits access to who they work with, play with, and learn from.”

But that hopeful vision is only possible if we reverse course on our just-say-no approach to online activities for young people. Instead of viewing screen time as the enemy and giving students endless lists of things they shouldn’t do online, Culatta argues for much greater focus on how to be a constructive member of digital communities. “We’re far too negative and too narrowly focused on online safety,” Culatta told me. “Being safe is important, but that’s just the beginning. We need to teach young people about being engaged and inclusive and balanced in their digital activities, about using technology to influence and inform their thinking.”

That’s the message Culatta delivers to thousands of teachers every year through ISTE, which promotes high-quality online learning and educator training all over the world. Prior to leading the organization, Culatta served as a senior technology advisor in the federal Department of Education and the chief innovation officer for the state of Rhode Island. In that role, he led an effort to dramatically increase participation in computer science in schools. “We believe that tech and coding are the languages of future problem solving,” Culatta says. “And it's important that everyone has some basic computational thinking skills.”

Culatta and I spoke recently about the massive disruptions and technological innovations of the last school year, and to learn what he hopes parents and teachers will take away from his new guide to building a positive online culture for young people.

Headshot of Richard Culatta on the left, next to the cover of the book digital for good on the right

Richard Culatta, Harvard Business Review Press

At the start of the covid-19 pandemic, very few students or teachers had any real experience with online education. And then overnight, schools closed from coast to coast and millions of kids were suddenly online-only learners. What have we learned from that incredibly fast transition and from almost 18 months of remote and hybrid learning?

One of the things that covid taught us as we all moved online was that there is great power in being able to learn with technology and through technology. All of a sudden, distances didn’t seem to matter. Access to expertise was much easier, and we connected virtually with peers and experts all over the world. We learned technology allowed for huge flexibility in teaching and learning formats. It helps remove a whole bunch of artificial barriers that we have allowed to persist in our traditional face-to-face classrooms for way too long.

But we also learned that if you don’t do online learning right, it really stinks! It can be monotonous, repetitive, not very engaging. It’s not enough to just show up online—you have to use tech tools to deepen engagement, not just broadcast lectures.

The question going forward is: How do we take the really amazing parts of online learning and do them well, and leverage the really amazing parts of in-person learning and also do those well, so that the future of learning will be awesome? More opportunity for students to explore their own sense of purpose and their own interests; more opportunities for student voices to be developed and expressed as part of the class; more opportunity for individual initiative. We have to use this moment to rethink and redesign how we want to teach and learn.

Do you think schools will do that deeper rethinking, or will things just go back to normal as schools resume in-person learning?

In some schools, we’re starting to see real creativity in using technology to redesign how learning happens. But not often enough. In too many cases, people are looking at the emergency remote learning of the past 18 months and thinking it’s what online learning should look like, and that’s a mistake. The emergency digital learning plans of last spring should be the low-water mark, the starting point for a much more thoughtful series of improvements to the learning experience.

Now that we have access in the classroom and connectivity at home, let’s do transformational stuff and really push the limits on the new digital tools we have to show how great learning can be. That’s what we need to aspire to, while also taking advantage of the things we can do better in class. Standing in front of the room and delivering a lecture may be the least effective way to use a face-to-face classroom. Content delivery is much more efficient and flexible online. So thinking about how we leverage in-person spaces for the things they are best for and digital spaces for the things they are best for, that’s really the new path for learning we should embrace.

If schools do make online engagement a regular feature of their classes, will students be able to take advantage? We heard a lot last year about the scale of the digital divide, and the students left behind by a lack of reliable internet access. Where do things stand now?

We have made enormous progress in terms of connectivity in schools. For the most part, walking into any classroom anywhere in the country you're going to have a fairly reliable Wi-Fi connection. The big area we need to work on is connectivity at home. Up until last year, we really haven’t treated internet connectivity as basic required infrastructure. We treat it as an optional thing, but there is nothing optional about it. If you’re applying for a job, accessing health care, going to school, or even participating in democracy, you need access to the internet. We’re finally seeing a new commitment and new resources to make that happen.

But connectivity alone is just the first step. There’s an idea out there that if we just get students connected at home it will solve problems of inequality and lack of opportunity. That is just not the case. We need to really rethink how we’re preparing young people to thrive in the digital world. It’s a tremendous and very powerful digital world, and we’re just throwing kids into it. Sink or swim is not how you teach kids to swim, and it should not be how we teach kids to be good humans online, either.

Older man helps a young boy working on a laptop in a cluttered RV

John Moore/Getty Images

Hector Medrano helps his son Angel, 8, with distance learning while in their RV on October 09, 2020 in Phoenix, Arizona.

That brings us to the central argument of your new book, Digital For Good, which focuses on how we build digital spaces that are healthy for young people and good for democracy.

Right. The haphazard approach we’ve been taking to prepare our kids to thrive in a digital world simply has not worked. I’m very optimistic in the book, but I’m also clear about the dysfunctions of how we prepare kids for the digital world. We’re far too negative and too narrowly focused on online safety. We give kids a list of digital don’ts instead of focusing on what they can do.

Being safe is important, but that’s just the beginning. We need to teach young people about being engaged and inclusive and balanced in their digital activities, about using technology to influence and inform their thinking. You put your seatbelt on before you drive a car, but if you’re going to be a good driver you need to talk about where you’re going, what the rules of the road are, how you navigate there. You can’t just focus on the seatbelt. We need a different path forward for digital education. We need to tell students, “Here are the things we want you to do, in order to practice becoming amazing humans in the virtual world.”

You write about teaching kids to take ownership over digital spaces, but isn’t that asking too much? When we’re all interacting on these giant platforms like Facebook or TikTok, can changing individual behavior really be the solution?

We shouldn’t underestimate how much of an impact young people can have on their digital spaces based on how they choose to engage. But digital citizenship is a team sport. Everyone needs to be all-in: parents, teachers, political leaders, and the companies that own and develop the tech tools we use.

When it comes to tech providers, one way they can make an important impact is setting and upholding acceptable behavior norms on their platforms. They also need to do a better job of verifying users. A whole bunch of the “people” we interacted with online may actually be bots programmed to argue or spread misinformation, and tech platforms are doing very little to stop it.

Tech platforms should also actively “signpost” to teach digital citizenship. When we are in shared physical spaces, we see physical signs that remind us to pick up trash or not use inappropriate language. We need those same signposts in the digital world. Maybe it’s a digital pop-up that says “Have you shared something kind with someone online today? Are you using your access to make your community better?” “Have you been online longer than you meant to?”

Do you have any hope that big tech firms will start to ask those kinds of questions and guide people to better online behavior?

I think more diversity of perspective in the tech sector will help us get there. And that’s more than gender, cultural, and racial diversity, which is also badly needed. It’s also about widening the pipeline of who we attract into technology roles. On college campuses, there’s this transom between business schools or computer science programs and humanities programs. I believe coding should be a required course for all humanities majors. Because if you have not learned to code, you are not at the tables where big decisions about our digital world are being made. And there’s such irony in me telling humanities majors that they need to put more emphasis on learning a new language.

The opposite is also true. I believe you should not be able to have a computer science degree without spending substantial time in humanities programs. Broaden the pathways into the tech fields, and you’ll get broader, more humane thinking in tech.

Young black student sitting at a school desk working on a laptop while wearing a face mask in a classroom

George Frey/Getty Images

A student works on a computer at Freedom Preparatory Academy on February 10, 2021 in Provo, Utah.

In the meantime, what can the rest of us to do prepare students for the rocky online world we have now?

When it comes to the role that teachers and parents need to play, it’s critically important that we help young people see that our online world is a community. It’s a shared space. You can’t have a functioning society without shared spaces. And our digital spaces are subject to the same tragedy-of-the-commons problem as our physical spaces. The risk is that because everyone is using it, everyone thinks someone else will take care of it. And it very quickly becomes a space that is in disrepair. We must actively teach that the tragedy of the commons applies in virtual spaces, as well. If we don’t learn that we all have a responsibility to be upstanders, to call out questionable behavior and information, then the value of that space diminishes for all of us.

It’s easy to see the tragedy of the commons in physical space, when all the plants are dying or there’s trash all over the ground. In the virtual world, it looks like mean and intolerant comments on posts. It looks like newsfeeds that reinforce existing beliefs and views over truth. If everything we see in our social media bubbles tells us “You’re right!”, that’s a dysfunctional space. If you look at the time you’re spending on a digital activity, and it’s taking far more of your time than it’s providing value in exchange, that’s a tragedy of the commons. Those are things we need to learn to be alert for.

Can calling out questionable behavior really make a dent in the kind of trolling and bullying we often see online?

It can, yes! People are being mistreated in our virtual commons, and that’s a problem. The Pew Research Center has found that the vast majority of kids have witnessed or experienced some sort of online mistreatment. But here’s the scarier part: in the study, Pew found that almost none of the kids that witnessed the offenses did anything to put a stop to that behavior. These aren’t bad kids—we just haven’t practiced what to do when we see something hurtful happening online! We’ve warned kids about their own safety, but we haven’t taught them what to do to keep others safe, to create a more positive space for everyone.

It turns out it actually does not take much intervention at all to turn around most cyberbullying. All it takes in most cases is one or two people saying, “Hey, stop that. We don’t do that here.” Moving from a bystander to an upstander—it’s incredibly easy to do and incredibly effective at changing our virtual communities. But kids have to have practiced their role in advance in order to be ready to act when the time comes.

Are you hopeful about this generation’s ability to create a healthy civic space out of the online world?

I am, but it will require way more focus on these topics. Creating constructive, civically engaging online communities is one of the most important, determining factors in whether our democracy will survive. Yet we have almost no research on digital citizenship. It’s a rounding error on our national research agenda. But if we can all decide to play our part and model using technology to solve tough problems, spread kindness, and increase humanity in virtual spaces, the future will be amazing.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.