Digital Citizenship

What Your Students Really Need to Know About Digital Citizenship

Ideas on how to guide students to the knowledge and experience they need to act responsibly online.
Illustration of a laptop computer with various icons representing online activities around it
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In my classroom, I use two essential approaches in the digital citizenship curriculum that I teach: proactive knowledge and experiential knowledge.

Proactive Knowledge

I want my students to know the “9 Key Ps” of digital citizenship. While I go into these Ps in detail in my book Reinventing Writing, here are the basics:

1. Passwords: Do students know how to create a secure password? Do they know that email and online banking should have a higher level of security and never use the same passwords as other sites? Do they have a system like LastPass for managing passwords, or a secure app where they store this information?

2. Private information: Private information is information that can be used to identify a person. Do students know how to protect details like their address, email, and phone number? I recommend the Common Sense Media curriculum on this.

3. Personal information: While this information (like the number of brothers and sisters you have or your favorite food) can’t be used to identify you, you still need to choose who you will share it with.

4. Photographs: Are students aware that some private details (like license plates or street signs) may show up in photographs, and that they may not want to post those pictures? Do they know how to turn off a geotagging feature? Do they know that some facial recognition software can find them by inserting their latitude and longitude in the picture—even if they aren’t tagged? (See my “Location-Based Safety Guide.”)

5. Property: Do students understand copyright, Creative Commons, and how to generate a license for their own work? Do they respect the property rights of those who create intellectual property? Some students will search Google Images and copy anything they see, assuming they have the rights. Sometimes they’ll even cite “Google Images” as the source. We have to teach them that Google Images compiles content from a variety of sources. Students have to go to the source, see if they have permission to use the graphic, and then cite that source.

6. Permission: Do students know how to get permission for work they use, and do they know how to cite it?

7. Protection: Do students understand what viruses, malware, phishing, ransomware, and identity theft are, and how these things work?

8. Professionalism: Do students understand the professionalism of academics versus decisions about how they will interact in their social lives? Do they know about netiquette and online grammar? Are they globally competent? Can they understand cultural taboos and recognize cultural disconnects when they happen, and do they have the skills to work problems out?

9. Personal brand: Have students decided about their voice and how they want to be perceived online? Do they realize they have a “digital tattoo” that is almost impossible to erase? Are they intentional about what they share?

Experiential Knowledge

During the year, I touch on each of the points above with lessons and class discussions, but just talking is not enough. Students need experience to become effective digital citizens. Here’s how I give them that experience.

Truth or fiction: To protect us from disease, we are inoculated with dead viruses and germs. To protect students from viruses and scams, I do the same thing. Using current scams and cons from Snopes, Truth or Fiction, Threat Encyclopedia, or the Federal Trade Commission website, I’m always looking for things that sound crazy but are true, or sound true but are false or a scam. I’ll give them to students as they enter class and ask them to be detectives. This opens up conversations on all kinds of scams and tips.

Turn students into teachers: You can have students create tutorials or presentations exposing common scams and how people can protect themselves. By dissecting cons and scams, students become more vigilant themselves. I encourage them to share how a person could detect that something is a scam or con.

Collaborative learning communities: For the most powerful learning experiences, students should participate in collaborative learning (like the experiences shared in Flattening Classrooms, Engaging Minds). My students collaborate with others on projects like Gamifi-ed or the AIC Conflict Simulation.

Students need experience sharing and connecting online with others in a variety of environments. We have a classroom Ning where students blog together, and public blogs and a wiki for sharing our work with the world. You can talk about other countries, but when students connect, that’s when they learn. You can talk about how students need to type in proper case and not use IM shorthand, but when their collaborative partner from Germany says they’re struggling to understand what’s being typed in your classroom, your students really understand this point.

Digital Citizenship or Just Citizens?

There are people, like expert Anne Collier, who think we should drop the word digital in contexts like this one because we’re really just teaching citizenship—these are the skills and knowledge that students need to navigate the world today. We must teach these skills and guide students to experience situations where they apply knowledge.