We need to stop teaching students about their digital footprint and start helping them build their digital foundation.
Do metaphors matter? Well, I'm an English teacher, so I would say, yes. We use metaphors to communicate abstract concepts to others, and so our metaphors should reflect what we mean. The term "digital footprint" has been used for a while now to explain that all of us leave traces of ourselves online, evidence of our actions and thinking that others can view. We tell our students to be thoughtful about their digital footprints because others will judge them by the evidence they leave online.
Footprint though, is the wrong metaphor, because footprints, other than on the moon, are ephemeral. They get washed away by water and wind. Our students who live in the concrete jungle may go weeks or months without actually seeing their own literal footprint. To students then, the metaphor of a footprint is meaningless, nonexistent or fleeting.
What we are really helping them build is a foundation, something that will last, something they can build on later, something that was planned and constructed deliberately. This is the message we need to be communicating to our students, that what they do online will last and needs to represent them well because they will be adding to it.
Yesterday, I was helping a student with some book reviews she had written on GoodReads. There were errors and I was trying to tell her she should fix them because other people would see her writing. She looked a bit skeptical, "No one's going to look at that Mrs. R." So I Googled her name (in quotes) and our town, San Diego. The first five results were all her. The first one was the book review we were discussing. Three of her other reviews were there too, as was her Facebook page. Her jaw actually dropped.
All of the old advice about teaching students to be thoughtful and careful about what they put online still applies. I'm just saying we should change the language of the metaphor and perhaps our own thinking about it. Foundations will serve our students better than footprints.
Picture of Shallow foundation
thanks to Billbeee from English Wikipedia and Ookaboo!