George Lucas Educational Foundation
Technology Integration

Why I Hate "Digital Citizenship"

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.

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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 piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we've preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer's own.