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Why I Hate "Digital Citizenship"

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As educators, we seem to be spending an inordinate amount of time talking about the notion of digital citizenship. I've seen posts all over the place - including on Edutopia - outlining to teachers and educators what is meant by digital citizenship and how important it is for students to be aware of it. I highly recommend reading them - they're full of useful knowledge and helpful tips for teachers to consider when they help their students establish a foothold in the digital world.

But (and it's a big but) I can't bear the term digital citizenship. I don't think that's what we're teaching in the vast majority of these blog posts. Instead, I think we're teaching digital responsibility. We're teaching kids how to stay safe and be sensible - and that's not citizenship.

I'm not saying that we shouldn't be teaching students things like not putting personal information online, or how to protect their passwords, or what to post and what not to post - I agree with all of that information and I agree that it is vital - but I don't think that this is digital citizenship. It's kind of like teaching children to cross the road safely, and then claiming that's teaching citizenship. Citizenship is how to participate - safely, yes, but also meaningfully and thoughtfully - in civil society, in political, social and other spheres. There's a lot more to it than responsibilities.

Now this is not just the whinging of a grumpy old man; instead, I'm passionate about school's role in developing active citizens. In fact, here in Australia, according to the Melbourne Declaration, the development of active citizens is one of the two most important goals of schools. Here then are some of my ideas for developing active digital citizenship:

1) Teach, model and introduce students to debate and discussion. Show them the correct way to share their ideas and discussions with each other and with people they don't know. Guide them away from trolling or straw man arguments. Privilege intelligent and thoughtful responses over cheap throw away lines.

2) Encourage students to use their digital profiles to work for justice and equity. The internet has great potential for this kind of campaign, but it remains largely unfulfilled and is instead replaced with armchair activism. A key demand of active citizenship is the desire for justice, and the skills to work towards a more just and equitable society. 

3) Show students how to engage with their democratic leaders through the internet. Get them to ask questions (respectfully and thoughtfully) of their elected representatives - and even to challenge their point of view. A democratic society requires participation and involvement - and, thanks to the internet and tools like Twitter and Facebook, there's no reason that students can't start that process while still young.

To my mind, these are some ways that we can move from digital responsibility towards digital citizenship. How do you encourage digital citizenship in your classroom?


This post was created by a member of Edutopia's community. If you have your own #eduawesome tips, strategies, and ideas for improving education, share them with us.

Comments (11) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project

What a great post! I agree with Laura, you made me think. I really like that you focused the lens of digital citizenship on the idea of participating meaningfully and thoughtfully in the digital world. I always saw this to be the case, possibly because I teach adults... Don't get me wrong, I think even with teaching college students it's important to remind them about digital safety, but even more so about creating their own personal digital identities where their own voice counts to make a positive change socially/politically.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

I totally agree. The term "digital citizenship" is right up there with "digital native" on my list of terms I really hate. Citizenship is citizenship, no matter where one is operating. What Laura and Rusul have described (along with what you write about here) is good practice online AND in the non-digital world.

nvandop's picture

I agree that if we are to title aspects of student tech involvement 'digital citizenship' than we need to teach our students to engage core democratic values, civil rights and/or social issues in a responsible way through written work and/or through projects promoted in the classroom. I enjoy a project that our middle school involves students in. They pick a topic that effects their 'world' that they want to bring attention to - research it - create a video explaining their concerns and suggestions and publish their findings online as well as host a community event to spotlight their concerns. That is an example what I think of when I hear the phrase 'digital citizenship' and I don't think there is an age too young in which we can begin the conversation - kids are curious...and through those projects we teach digital responsibility. Great post! I enjoyed the spotlight on the differences.

Ian the Miller's picture
Ian the Miller
Creative Director for Satyrus Jeering™, The Legendary Facemaker & Storyteller

Keith,
It seems there is a need here. Digital etiquette and ethics should find a place within the sparkling motif of "Digital Citizenship". Perhaps a clever training course for the classroom?

Ryan Galloway's picture

Wow! Thanks for the clarity of the language. I agree with you 100% percent. If we really want students to become "digital citizens," then we need to teach the etiquette that is utilized when students are participating as a collaborative digital citizen. Nice thoughts.

Diana Graber's picture
Diana Graber
Co-Founder, CyberWise.org

Great Post! I agree that "digital citizenship" is right up there in the snore zone with "media literacy." Years ago I was given the opportunity to take over an old-fashioned "civics" class and turn it into "Cyber Civics" and that name has stuck. Cyber Civics is now a three year curriculum we've bottled up and made available to other schools. We like to refer to them as "digital life skills" lessons...and sometimes people get it!

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Jim Bentley's picture
Jim Bentley
5th/6th grade teacher, Elk Grove, CA, National Faculty Buck Institute for Education

The title of this post rankled me, but your argument alleviated that immediately.

Love the analogy of teaching one to cross the street and claiming it's teaching citizenship. I would add one more way to develop active digital citizenship: Teach students to use the web as a tool to communicate a message to a wide audience.

My 6th grade class last year undertook a documentary film project to educate middle schoolers on the importance of reading-with an emphasis on reading news. They tied that message back to citizenship and used our Vimeo channel to communicate that message. Check it out for yourself: https://vimeo.com/134364576

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srittel's picture

Love this! I especially love the part about teaching students how to debate and discuss issues. If children could figure out how to respectfully approach each other and their various diversities, several cyber-bullying problems would cease. Unfortunately, world politics and debate are often divisive, bullying, and involve wretched people who set a terrible example for kiddos. Love the idea of using technology as an opportunity to teach integrity and open-mindedness. Thank you!

Marni Zabel's picture

The title of your discussion intrigued me, as I have never quite understood what it means to teach digital citizenship when all descriptors of digital citizenship do sound more like teaching ethics or responsibilities. Your suggestions for teaching actual digital "citizenship" were very helpful, especially the first one "teach, model and introduce students to debate and discussion." With my 5th graders we have been working on appropriate blogging responses using the kidsblog website, on a blog only for our school. Students answered an open ended question based on a story they had read and then responded to each other's answers. I was pleased with the respectful way they discussed their differing opinions. This was a small isolated in-class activity. Mr. Heggart, do you have any suggestions for how I could have my students reach a broader audience?

Keith Heggart's picture
Keith Heggart
High School Teacher from Sydney, Australia

Hi Marni,
Your blogging activity sounds like a really interesting one. I am glad that you allowed the students to read and comment on each other's blogs - this is a good start for a broader audience. My next suggestions are up to how comfortable you feel taking the next step. You could, for example, share the blogs with the rest of the school, and ask other students or teachers to comment on the responses. Again, some careful monitoring might be needed here. I'm not familiar with kidsblog, but is there a way to share particular posts with a wider audience? You could send some of the links home (perhaps via the school's Facebook account, if you have one or via email to the parents) and ask them to comment? Or alternatively, you could use Twitter and share it with one of the edchat discussions. I know in Australia that lots of the teachers use #AussieEd. I'm sure there would be similar ones in the US. Good luck!

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