With "Digitale Helden" (Digital Heroes), Jörg Schüler and his team equip a new generation of digital natives with the competencies to deal with digital emergencies and establish a culture of empathy online.
The New Idea
Digitalization not only makes life more comfortable, but also bears a huge potential for stress and conflict. Cyber bullying is especially a widely-spread phenomenon among kids, leading to anxiety, isolation or, in the worst case, even suicide. At the same time, students, parents and schools are most often insufficiently prepared to deal with those risks. Jörg Schüler and his team recognized that a digital society needs anti-poles to these threats. With Digital Heroes, he empowers digital natives (teenage students) to become the mind-shifters and process-creators in a paradigm shift towards what he calls “digital empathy.” They design and implement actions to raise awareness among younger students, parents and teachers about the risks and opportunities of the internet. They also serve as peer counselors in case of inter-related problems or cyber bullying.
The fact that students become the drivers of change is key. Parents and teachers only have limited understanding of what it is like to grow up in a digitalized world and in fact are often more scared of technology then their children and students. Digital Heroes therefore has been set up as a peer-based model, in which students not only develop and co-create “digital empathy” and norms of digital communication, they also become role models to their peers.
Jörg and his team furthermore worked out a way to make the model very easy for the schools to implement. He uses a blended-learning approach, which combines online learning with student-led offline activities and does not require schools to spend their restricted budget on expensive offline trainings. The online component additionally allows students and teachers of different schools to connect with each other and even co-create the content. Acknowledging the importance of smart networks to address internet-related risks, Jörg Schüler connects all relevant actors in one region (police, school psychologists, youth welfare offices) to set up processes for their cooperation in case of “digital emergencies” such as bullying, or even danger of suicide or rampage. Moreover, he connects teachers and students of different schools to enhance best practice exchange, encouraging digital school development in general. This network approach enables his model to spread through schools recruiting other schools.
Digitalization has significantly changed communication patterns in our society – unfortunately not always for the better. Online communication lowers the barrier for uninhibited behavior, cyber bullying being one of its facets. According to recent studies, one in five students has already been victim of cyberbullying, including insults, gossip, degrading content such as videos, or invasion of privacy. Cyber bullying results in increasing numbers of psychosomatic complaints, isolation or depression. 20% of all victims are reported to suffer from permanent emotional problems. Apart from cyberbullying, kids also encounter other internet-related stress such as data security or copyright issues or even online sexual harassment (cyber grooming). With every kid having a smartphone the problem is highly pervasive. Therefore, it is not sufficient to merely treat the downsides ofdigitalization on a symptomatic basis.
Instead the problem requires a new set of attitudes towards the digital sphere. Most existing solutions tend to be top-down and normative (e.g. Police woman comes to school and talks about Facebook) or short-term interventions, teaching merely about risks. Therefore, what is needed is an approach that builds the competence from the bottom up. To change the culture of uninhibited behavior online, not only awareness about the risks but also the competencies to deal with them are necessary. As it is difficult to impose culture, new attitudes must emerge from those who would be the most affected by it: the students themselves.
Self-organized students are an especially effective driver for change, considering that risks of digitalization are still not prioritized in teacher’s education and schools lack structures for digital education and conflict resolution. Studies show that 86% of all teachers complain about missing formats to address stress in the internet, 44% of all parents feel insufficiently informed and 50% of all bullying victims wish for better support at schools. The potential for cooperation between the involved actors (police, school psychologists, youth authorities) is often not fully leveraged and that the schools do not have the budget to implement new programs or change the structures.
To be able to address the threats that digitalization poses, the learning experience of Digital Heroes has been designed to be particularly effective. Throughout one year, participating students form a team of “Digital Heroes,” accompanied by one teacher. The team meets at least bi-weekly and goes through an online course, which equips them with knowledge, insights and options for action to prevent cyber stress and resolve related conflicts. The interactive formats empower students and teachers to co-create the material on the online platform, resulting in the material being a close reflection of the kids’ reality as well as more up to date. The latter is especially important in a sphere as rapidly changing as the internet.
Evaluations show that thanks to the program, students feel well-prepared for their role as Digital Heroes, preventing cyber bullying, and enabling responsible surfing and empathic online communication. Students independently carry out actions to raise awareness among younger classes, parents and teachers – such as class visits or parents’ evenings. They are not only empowered to inform others, but to be peer counselors for younger students who are affected by cyber bullying. They learn to recognize bullying situations and to help solve them. Jörg discovered that kids are much more likely to come to a peer or slightly older student in case of a “digital emergency”. Confiding in a parent or teacher could easily result in not being allowed to go online or use the smart phone anymore. Training a group of peer counselors strengthens student communities and provides a source of guidance for the kids. In many cases the Digital Heroes can help their fellow students themselves. To give an example: A common problem in schools is that certain students keep being excluded from the class’ Whatsapp group. In these cases, “Digital Heroes” have conducted workshops with the class on digital communication, sourcing rules for whatsapp communication from the students themselves. Once the topic is discussed openly, students quickly agree that no one should be excluded from class Whatsapp chats. If the problem is more severe they know exactly who to turn to for help: a teacher, a parent or even the police. In their second year, participants become “Senior Digital Heroes” who train the new generation of Digital Heroes and become role-models in the wider student community. The result is a community that grows organically and without any top-down imposing from parents or teachers.
Jörg and his team not only found a way for the student community of Digital Heroes to grow horizontally, but also facilitate the growth of the network of participating schools. The blended learning approach plays an important role in this: While the online component is accessible to all student groups and enables the exchange between Digital Hero groups in different schools, the offline components are highly flexible and can be adapted to the particular needs of the schools, making it easy for schools to join. Digital Heroes and teachers participate in yearly barcamps that connect different schools with each other. The objective of these meetings is to enhance best practice exchange between teachers and students. In regional partner meetings, Jörg brings schools together with other relevant actors, such as psychologists, police and youth welfare offices and helps them to establish structures for cases in which students or teachers cannot solve the problem themselves, such as danger of suicide or rampage. As an outcome of these meetings, the participants have developed a “plan for digital emergencies”, providing a guideline for students and teachers on how to react and whom to contact in dangerous situations. This network creates a self-correcting system, which evolves along with its challenges.
Digital Heroes started in 2013, with the number of participating schools doubling every year and very few dropping-out. In 2016, 80 schools are participating. The team intends to reach 250 yearly subscriptions, which would be the break-even point of their self-sustaining business plan. Currently, Digital Heroes are financing their activities through local funding partners. To cross-finance the organization they are also carrying out workshops for parents called “My kid, my smartphone and me.” While other programs are often state funded and thus more vulnerable to budgetary changes, Jörg’s program is independent from state funding and affordable to schools. It mainly involves schools’ resources such as teachers and students and offers a lean, but effective support structure through the online platform. Therefore, the program is easily scalable. Currently, Jörg is exploring ways to scale through cooperation with regional partners in order to decentralize the support for schools.
As a kid, Jörg Schüler experienced bullying himself. His early experience with the issue sensitized him for these kinds of conflicts. When working as a programmer in advertising, he noticed a lot of clashes between designers and programmers and initiated conflict resolution workshops within his company. Through martial arts, he learned even more about interpersonal communication, and the importance of self-reflection and empathy. “I don’t want to become better than others, but better than myself,” Jörg says. And he wants others to also develop their competence for empathic behavior.
Professionally established in the digital sphere, personally interested in communication and conflict resolution, there was just one puzzle piece missing to bring the idea of Digital Heroes to birth. It happened 10 years ago, when Jörg’s nephew accidentally subscribed to an online offer and got into legal trouble. Both kid and parents did not know how to handle the situation. Jörg helped out by talking to the different actors involved and was eventually asked by the local authorities to hold workshops for parents on digital risks. Jörg was inspired, and started earning his living with workshops. However, with time, he found that a much bigger lever lies in empowering the students directly to do his work. Digital Heroes was born.