Education insights

Teaching digital citizenship is about more than just online etiquette

Part of a teacher’s job is to help prepare students for success in college and their future careers, and digital citizenship has become an important part of that learning. In fact, many educators we work with have embedded digital citizenship lessons into their existing curriculum and activities. What exactly does “digital citizenship” encompass? In this blog, we’ll give you a basic guide to digital citizenship and share some easy ways you can begin incorporating it into your lesson plans.  

What is digital citizenship? 

We define digital citizenship as the proficient, responsible, and respectful use of digital technology.  

At first glance, it may seem like digital citizenship refers only to being a “good citizen” online — e.g. not engaging in cyberbullying or crime. However, true digital citizenship is much more broad and all-encompassing. From a holistic perspective, digital citizenship is analogous to becoming a citizen of a new country. Oftentimes, citizenship tests not only require a person to be familiar with the laws of the land, but they also test a person on their knowledge of the country’s language, history, and customs. Similarly, good digital citizens must be able to both understand the rules of interacting online and be able to utilize the necessary tools to use the internet effectively. 

What does digital citizenship encompass? 

Digital citizenship encompasses 9 major elements or areas of study. Additionally, students should develop 5 key competencies when learning and practicing those 9 elements. 

The 9 Elements of Digital Citizenship 

These 9 elements are useful in setting a comprehensive framework for student engagement online. 

  1. Access – Think of digital access as one’s potential level of participation in digital society. Digital access can refer to whether someone has access to a device, reliable internet, or both. If a student does not have digital access, it is obviously difficult for them to practice digital citizenship. The term can also refer to helping students set or respect boundaries around the types of websites and information they should and should not access.  
  1. Commerce – About 14% of all global commerce now takes place online. So learning safe and courteous ecommerce practices are important for today’s digital citizens. This may include understanding how to buy safely (e.g. look at reviews, ensure the site is HTTPS, don’t buy on the dark web), but also how to be a courteous buyer and seller (e.g. leave reviews, represent for-sale items accurately, ship sold items in a timely manner, etc.). 
  1. Communication – Any electronic exchange of communication falls under this category, from email and social media to customer support questions. Students need to understand how to use the appropriate channels for communication and the expectations for what types of information to communicate on each. They should be comfortable composing a professional email and should be aware of what and how they are communicating on social media. 
  1. Etiquette – This element of digital citizenship spills over into many of the others. Netiquette, or the rules of online engagement, is perhaps what many consider the core of digital citizenship. Students must understand how to treat others courteously in the digital realm. For example, they should be aware of what constitutes cyberbullying and the consequences of engaging in it, but they should also understand how to convey tone in written versus spoken messages.  
  1. Health and wellness – Students need to be mindful of their physical bodies while engaged in the digital world. For example, they should learn how to set their own boundaries around screen time and take frequent breaks to stretch and adjust their eyes. They should also learn how digital tools can help them track and improve their fitness. Finally, implementing mental health boundaries is key. Students should understand how digital participation can take a toll on their mental health if a balance is not struck. 
  1. Laws – This can refer to actual laws (e.g. do not buy or sell anything on the dark web, do not pirate software or content, etc.), but it can also refer to the laws of the classroom like only using devices in approved ways and at appropriate times. 
  1. Literacy – Digital literacy refers to understanding how to use a device, including how to navigate the internet and determine credible sources versus opinions and misinformation. 
  1. Rights and responsibilities – Freedom of speech is an important right that students should understand when engaging online. Students should learn the boundaries of free speech, including the few types of speech that can lead to legal consequences, as well as the idea that free speech does not mean speech without social consequences. 
  1. Security – Vital to a student’s online participation, digital security refers to students’ ability to make safe online decisions. This can cover actions that relate to the student’s personal safety (e.g. do not give out personal information or your location, do not engage with strangers, etc.) as well as actions related to the network or device’s safety (e.g. do not download anything that is not available on the app store, only visit approved websites, etc.). 

The 5 Key Competencies of Digital Citizenship 

As students become more familiar with each of the 9 elements above, they should begin to develop the 5 key competencies of digital citizenship: 

  1. Inclusivity – Being open to and respectful of multiple viewpoints. This means acknowledging other students’ thoughts and opinions in the digital space and avoiding judgmental language and responses. It also means amplifying voices and opinions that are not being adequately recognized by the group.
  1. Being informed – Understanding how to evaluate the accuracy and credibility of online information. Students should learn how to vet sources to recognize the difference between fact and opinion. It is an important skill to be able to differentiate between credible news and research sites versus satire, biased commentary, and other unsupported information. This means not only considering the credibility of the site hosting the information, but also checking that information against its primary source when a footnote is provided.
  1. Engagement – Using technology for civic engagement and as a force for good. One of the benefits of technology is its ability to spread ideas and information that support social good. Students should learn to use online channels to uplift, encourage, challenge, and support their peers and communities.
  1. Balance – Making educated decisions about prioritizing online and offline time. Striking a good balance when it comes to digital connectivity is one of the greatest challenges of this era for students and adults alike. Students should be informed of how social media and other online activities affect their relationships, sense of well-being, physical health, and attention span so they understand the risks that accompany their time spent online. It’s a great idea to engage students in this learning by having them do their own research and put together a presentation on how to balance their time.
  1. Alertness – Being aware of their online actions and trying to create safe spaces for others. It’s easy for students to go on autopilot and get lax in their online behavior, so it’s important they learn to keep their own actions in check and to look out for each other’s well-being. A good rule of thumb may be that if you’re feeling too tired, anxious, or ill-tempered to be kind to others online, it’s time to turn off the screen and do something else.
Teach the “dos,” not just the “don’ts” 

There are several ways to focus on the negative side of the internet and train students on the “don’ts” – don’t bully, don’t do anything unsafe or illegal, etc. However, ISTE CEO Richard Culatta argues there may be more value in teaching students digital citizenship in terms of the “dos.”

“You can’t practice not doing something,” he pointed out in his 2019 speech on the topic

For example, instead of teaching students not to cyberbully, he suggests teaching kids what it means to be good cyber friends and proactively looking out for people who are not being treated well online. ISTE also recommends teaching kids to proactively find ways to participate in civic engagement and improve their digital and real-world communities. 

Further Training and Resources 

A simple way to start teaching digital citizenship is to ensure you are modeling it in your class every day.  

Cite your sources for imagery and information in your lessons and explain how you determined the validity of and credibility of the sources you share. You can also act as though students are in the room with you when you interact with them online by writing greetings and closings in emails, using full sentences in chat, and making an effort to implement politeness like saying “please” and “thank you” in all your online communications. 

Additionally, Lenovo has partnered with Exploros to offer teacher-guided, social, learning experiences for the 1:1 classroom. Teachers can choose from a library of forty ISTE-standards-based lessons on four essential topics: digital tools and skills, digital literacy, your digital community, and the digital world and you. Exploros is a great tool to help students practice being digital citizens and develop essential social emotional skills.  

Digital citizenship should not just be a subject you teach – it should be a set of guidelines by which you engage with students and they engage with you.  

If you’re looking for more examples and advice for teaching digital citizenship, check out ISTE’s digital citizenship training course for teachers, as well as a number of resources on their website

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