The Digital Citizenship Summit is a global network of summit and projects focused on the safe, savvy, and ethical use of social media and technology. Innovation Destination Hartford asked Co-Founders Dr. Marialice B.F.X. Curran and David Ryan Polgar to discuss how the startup began and its plans for the future.
IDH: What sparked the idea for the Digital Citizenship Summit?
POLGAR: The Digital Citizenship Summit is entirely original and incredibly obvious in hindsight. Multiple stakeholders, such as parents, educators, organizations, and industry were focused on improving social media and technology use, but no entity was bringing together these stakeholders. It was siloed.
I noticed this firsthand because I travel in a lot of different circles speaking to students and parents and attending conferences across the country. What was clearly evident was that groups were passionate, but they were operating in silos. What if the groups were brought together to have a collective voice in deciding what safe, savvy, and ethical social media and technology entails? That was the spark.
CURRAN: For me, the first chapter of the Digital Citizenship Summit happened in the fall of 2010 when I created and designed the first three-credit course specifically on the nine elements of digital citizenship at both the undergraduate and graduate level as an Associate Professor at the University of Saint Joseph. A year later in the fall of 2011, I designed and taught a first year seminar course at the University of Saint Joseph called, “Pleased to Tweet You: Are You a Socially Responsible Digital Citizen?”
My hope was that the course would create a student solution toward cyberbullying, but the students went beyond any of my expectations as they defined citizenship in the 21st century through the iCitizen Project. Together they learned the differences between being an active citizen, not just a resident and being an enabler of change, not just a bystander. They focused on empathy and learned the importance of humanizing the person next to them, as well as across the screen.
As a direct result of the iCitizen Project, I hosted my first livestreamed event, The iCitizenship Town Hall Meeting, which was the foundation for the Digital Citizenship Summit for both a live and virtual audience in February 2012. Just like the summit, the iCitizenship Town Hall Meeting appealed to educators, students, parents, and concerned citizens.
IDH: When did the startup launch?
POLGAR: As luck would have it, I was connected to my soon-to-be-co-founder Marialice B.F.X. Curran through a tweet. We were both highly active in the digital citizenship community online and someone connected both of us on a tweet. To my surprise, I noticed she was teaching at the University of Saint Joseph and I was living in West Hartford. I reached out and we met up in January of 2015 to discuss some ideas around digital citizenship.
CURRAN: After the tweet, I received a follow-up email from David suggesting that we meet for coffee. We met in West Hartford Center and when asked if I had any other events or conferences planned, I said I was tired of digital citizenship always being an add-on to technology conferences and bullying conferences. The iCitizenship Town Hall Meeting had inspired me to want to carve out time and space specifically to host a conference on digital citizenship. Before we even finished our coffee, we were already planning the event.
IDH: How has the startup evolved?
POLGAR: We have gone from West Hartford on a $35 budget to Twitter in less than a year. We launched our Digital Citizenship Summit at the University of Saint Joseph on October 3, 2015. The goal was to bring together educators, parents, students, organizations, and industry to discuss ways to be safe, savvy, and ethical with social media. Despite not having a budget for speakers, we had speakers and attendees fly in from California, Florida, and Chicago. The event brought together more than 200 educators, students, administrators, organization and community leaders, and parents. It became the top-trending event in the nation and led to a lot of people and organizations reaching out.
The secret sauce, in many ways, has been having a large and diverse group of mentors, advisors, and volunteers all across the globe. Although it can appear that it started from nowhere, my co-founder and I have years of goodwill and a deep network to rely and call on.
CURRAN: I would also add that the fact that we collaborated outside of our own networks as co-founders is the success for attracting multiple stakeholders to want to be a part of the Digital Citizenship community. The decision to collaborate with someone outside of our respected fields allowed us to merge networks from the very beginning of our planning stages.
POLGAR: In January of this year we had our first international event, Digital Citizenship Summit UK, which was held in January 2016 at Bournemouth University in England.
CURRAN: The enthusiasm for the UK Summit had hundreds of volunteers from around the world interested in being a part of the movement that began in Connecticut. Groups like Edcamp Global volunteered to be a part of a 12-hour Google Hangout on Air highlighting students actively engaged in digital citizenship.
Our speakers traveled to the United Kingdom from Utah, Virginia, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Singapore, Madrid, Ireland, and Scotland. What excites me is that we had two student speakers travel to the United Kingdom from Connecticut and Massachusetts. Plans are already in the works for the 2017 UK Summit.
POLGAR: We also launched a spin-off, Digital Citizenship Summit EDU, which specifically targets issues and individuals in education. In March of 2016, the first Digital Citizenship Summit EDU brought together 400 students in Wisconsin to discuss what safe, savvy, and ethical social media means to them. Instead of sage-on-the-stage, we are flipping the script to make a participatory culture about an immensely important issue.
CURRAN: Not only are we flipping the script, we are flipping the tone and the culture from fear to trust, from negative stories about social media use to positive examples, and we are going beyond the pitfalls and what to avoid as we focus on what to encourage.
IDH: Any other events planned?
POLGAR: In the pipeline we have Digital Citizenship Summit Australia and Digital Citizenship Summit Ireland coming up. Our flagship event will be held at Twitter headquarters in San Francisco on October 28 2016. For that event we have some big-name speakers to announce, along with attendees coming from Australia, Spain, and the United Kingdom.
IDH: Why launch your startup in Connecticut?
POLGAR: Since both Marialice and I were in Connecticut, it made sense to launch right in our backyard. We are the Knowledge Corridor in an area heavily saturated with quality schools of K-12 and higher education, so it made sense. The big question, however, was if we could launch a national conference in West Hartford. Would people travel here? We had speakers and attendees fly in from Illinois, Utah, California, Florida, and more.
Connecticut is well-positioned because of its focus on education, and being equidistant between Boston and New York City. We can draw the edtech industry from Boston and the thought leadership and major media from New York City.
CURRAN: Connecticut was the first to ensure that digital citizenship was not an add-on to an edtech course or an edtech conference. The first three-credit digital citizenship course in the country was designed and created in Connecticut.
The first digital citizenship chat on Twitter happened in my digital citizenship course as an opportunity for teacher candidates to connect with a global network of educators and students committed to leading with digital citizenship before edtech. Since then, the iCitizen Project, as well as the iCitizenship Town Hall Meeting also took shape and put Connecticut on the map for leading the way in digital citizenship curriculum. Hosting the first Digital Citizenship Summit on the campus where it all began highlights why Connecticut is the hub for innovation.
IDH: In what ways is Digital Citizenship Summit making a social impact?
POLGAR: “Digital Citizenship” may sound like an esoteric or niche topic at first, but once you break it down you realize that millions of Americans are impacted by topics such as online safety, how we interact on social media, and media literacy. We are making a social impact by creating a novel method for everyone to participate in the conversation with how social media and technology is developed, used, and implemented in the classroom.
CURRAN: It’s like skipping stones and causing a ripple effect. When you think and act at a local, global, and digital level simultaneously, you make a social impact. When you use social media to solve problems, you not only change your community, you change other communities. All it takes is one person to make a difference, one person to skip a stone and we have an entire global community skipping stones and causes positive ripples. What the Digital Citizenship Summit does differently from other conferences is to focus on participation—digital citizenship is something we must do not just talk about. To me, digital citizenship needs to be a verb and we need to focus on what to encourage not just what to avoid.
IDH: Any long- or short-term goals?
POLGAR: Our hope with the Digital Citizenship Summit is to make Hartford the annual destination for a major international conference. The major problem happening was that the various stakeholders (parents, educators, organizations) were operating in a silo. They wanted their voices to be heard in actually determining how social media and technology are adopted. We have created a multi-stakeholder participatory platform that allows people to not only learn, but to contribute. It elevates new voices into the global conversation and empowers people to “be the digital change.”
CURRAN: This global conversation needs to be happening every day. With the onset of social media, change is constant and the Digital Citizenship Summit brings together and amplifies multiple voices. As an educator for more than 20 years and a parent, I am most interested in bringing student voice to the forefront of this conversation. My son is a third grader and we are modeling how parents and children can and should learn digital citizenship together. The only way we will change how we treat others face to face and online is if we start this conversation early and often.
IDH: How can people become involved with Digital Citizenship Summit?
CURRAN: Digital citizenship is everyone’s responsibility. We are the hub for digital citizenship and we encourage anyone to participate—to be a speaker, to host an event, and to actively engage in this critical conversation both on and offline.
To learn more about Digital Citizenship Summit, visit www.digcitsummit.com.