On being a Digital Leader

Childnet has been in the news recently. In response to international governmental pressure on tech companies, Facebook recently announced a welcome but frankly rather modest amount of support for Childnet and The Diana Award to fund anti-online bullying training in secondary schools. Childnet has already been active in primary schools for a year with their Digital Leaders programme. Given the complexity and intractability of the dangers that children face online, an initiative like Digital Leaders – which involves giving older children a role in leading and inspiring their younger peers around the use of digital media – seems both hugely necessary and sadly insufficient.

I’m lucky enough to send my kids to one of the most impressive primary schools in the country, where my elder son has just finished year 6 before moving on to secondary. He was recruited on to the Digital Leaders scheme, one of an initial cohort of six year 6s and four year 5s selected from huge London year groups.

I thought it would be worth hearing his experiences of the scheme directly from him, so I asked him a few questions:

What is the Digital Leaders scheme?

It’s a programme where students who are good with computing have the chance to help out children in younger years of the school with computing, teach children about online safety, how to use computers and technology.

Why did you want to be involved with Digital Leaders?

Shall I be honest?

Yeah, just be honest!

Because the logo looked cool.

Was there anything else?

You gain popularity with the little kids.

What did you end up doing as a Digital Leader? Was it what you were expecting when you started?

I didn’t think I’d be missing out lessons. But most of the time that was actually quite fun! It was mainly what I expected – going to meetings after school on Mondays, learning about online safety, teaching kids coding, Powerpoint, other stuff like that. If they needed help, the teacher would help them, and we would help them. We’d be going around and checking.

So were you teaching the same stuff as you’d learned from teachers in the ICT lessons?

Yeah. But also we were teaching kids knowledge that we hadn’t learned from the teachers – about a digital footprint, where, wherever you go – let’s say there’s ‘Incognito’ mode in Google: you’re incognito to everyone else but Google can still track what you’re doing. And you have loads of your information just sold to the highest bidder, and lots of people have your information because you leave a digital footprint. The teachers never taught us that.

Also there was a really fun day once where everyone in the school got to try on VR headsets – like, proper VR headsets – and look around, and we were doing digital leading then but we were just doing it for year 2, so basically all we did was just do it for longer and with other stuff. So I was missing art to play on a VR headset.

Sounds like your dream come true! What were your favourite parts of the job?

The meetings after school on Mondays were fun – just mainly chatting, learning about online safety. And chatting with the little kids in their lessons was quite nice. It’s nice helping them but they’re also just nice to talk to.

How do you think Digital Leaders could be done better?

Mainly in the meetings we were just focusing on online safety. There was nothing like tips on how to code well, though we helped the younger kids with that. Also we did get on to using Micro:bit in the last two sessions.

So in your Monday meetings you would have liked to learn more skills for yourself as a digital leader?

Yeah, so then we could give them to other kids.

So you felt like it was all a focus on safety.

Yes. I mean, that’s important as well, but…

And in talking about the digital footprint, was it all about safety, or was there anything about how you might want to have a digital footprint of a certain sort?

No, I don’t really think so. I think Mr M was getting on to that towards the end of the year but then we just left for year 7. I think he’s probably teaching that to the year 6s now.

So he was working it out as he went along as well, because it was the first year of the scheme?

Yeah.

And what do you think you learned from doing it?

Obviously some computing skills in online safety but also good collaborating with younger years. I’d really recommend it to other schools as well. There’s a leaderboard for who can get the most points – a Childnet thing – out of the, is it tens of thousands of schools in the UK?, only 300 were on the list at all. Every school that was participating was on that list.

How did you get points?

By completing online tasks – watching videos, answering quizzes and giving feedback through my Digital Leaders account.

I would get the points as an individual and they would go to my profile. But because there were ten of us, we all got loads of points and all those points would contribute to the school’s total.

I think it would be good if we got points for our teaching and things, but I guess there would be no way to track that.

And you got to be secretary of the digital leaders – can you tell me about that?

It’s basically head digital leader. We had to send Mr M an email to say why we’d be a good secretary. The only reason I did it was to gain status, but it was actually quite boring – just lots of emailing with teachers.

What I did learn was when to be informal and when to be formal. I used to always be informal in emails all the time – before, I’d be emailing my friends all the time instead of texting.

Finally what advice do you have for very young children and their parents about making digital technology a positive force in their lives?

Well, it’s good to worry about online safety but you shouldn’t worry about it so much that you can’t use any digital technology. So I think be careful, don’t be downright stupid and mess around, don’t go on any suspicious-looking sites, find sites that you like, that are good for you, such as code.org, scratch.mid.edu and things like that which you enjoy and are good for your learning. I haven’t really mentioned, but there’s also social media and games. Everyone keeps on saying social media is dangerous and it’s just as dangerous as any other web page so if you think social media’s a good thing, not something just to be glued to but every once in a while you can check that – but that’s for 13+, not for very young children. And games – don’t spend all your time doing them but sometimes it’s just nice to relax on the weekend.

That’s advice for children. What would you say to their parents?

Use virus checkers. They’ve helped me a lot. Once I tried to download Spotify but I clicked on spotify.org, and it’s actually spotify.co.uk, and then it said ‘this site could be a virus’ and I went back on spotify.co.uk and it was right. And maybe track how much time your children spend on screens because it’s unhealthy to have too much but it’s also good if you have a little bit. Also make sure they’re doing educational things, not just messing around, like Minecraft is actually good for you, even though I don’t like it.

How to make Digital Leaders work even better

So altogether, it certainly seems to have been a positive experience. But reflecting on my son’s answers, my colleague Emma made a couple of interesting observations.

First of all, my son agreed with the suggestion that the teacher leading the programme was feeling his way through the first year of delivery of the programme. Nothing at all wrong with that, and in fact, we felt that this could go further still, and teachers delivering the programme could make space for co-creation – working it out with the digital leaders themselves as they go along, listening more to their ideas and suggestions and learning about the ways in which young people use technology in their lives. The whole point of the programme is that older kids can engage with younger kids in a way that a teacher never could. So we feel it would benefit both parties for pupils and teachers to be co-designing the programme together. This is something we’ve noticed happening with kids in the context of informal learning, and it would be exciting indeed if an innovative programme like Digital Leaders made room for this kind of pedagogic experimentation.

Secondly, my son expressed a wish that his teaching ability could be rewarded, rather than just getting feedback on the online games and quizzes that he was given. Learning is so often task oriented, but my son’s comments show that the value for him in participating in this scheme (aside from the status that he was candid enough to admit he craves) lies in developing responsibility, guiding his peers and learning how to collaborate – skills that are really important in the digital age and are likely to be increasingly important for all careers in the future.

The photo at the top of this article was created by Gretchen Caserotti, and made available under a Creative Commons CC BY 2.0 licence. We downloaded it from Flickr, where it can be accessed here.

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