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What is digital citizenship? – A guide for teachers

Find out everything you need to know about digital citizenship, as well as how to teach your students the basics.

Teaching digital citizenship

The world has changed dramatically in the last 30 years. The rise of the internet means that much of our lives now takes place online, and the process of digitising society only seems to be accelerating. With this rapid change comes the need to know about digital citizenship – the roles, responsibilities, and skills for navigating digital life. 

In this article, we explore the essential elements of digital citizenship. We look at what it is, why it’s important, and what the various aspects entail. Finally, we explore how you can teach your students about digital citizenship. 

What is digital citizenship? 

Let’s start with a digital citizenship definition. In our open step on digital society and the information age, Susan Halfpenny from the University of York defines the concept in these terms: 

On a simplistic level, we might take digital citizenship as the ability to access digital technologies and stay safe…However, we also need to consider and understand the complexities of citizenship as we start to become a digital citizen, using digital media to actively participate in society and political life.

So, digital citizenship is the ability to safely and responsibly access digital technologies, as well as being an active and respectful member of society, both online and offline.

Who are digital citizens?

As well as knowing what digital citizenship is, it’s worth thinking about who the label might refer to. Again, we can turn to our open step for an explanation of this. A digital citizen is a person who develops the skills and knowledge to effectively use the internet and digital technologies. 

They’re also people who use digital technologies and the internet in appropriate and responsible ways in order to engage and participate in society and politics. 

Effectively, anyone who uses modern digital technology can be considered a digital citizen. However, a good digital citizen is someone who is informed about the various issues that come with the incredible benefits of technology. This is why it’s so essential to teach digital citizenship in schools and other educational institutions. 

Why is digital citizenship important? 

When we consider that essentially everyone with an internet connection is a digital citizen, the concept of digital citizenship becomes a critical part of our lives. No matter what age a person is, knowing how to stay safe, respect others, and participate meaningfully in our digital society becomes a necessity. 

Because we are a global community

The latest statistics show that around 4.66 billion individuals worldwide are active internet users, roughly 65.6% of the world’s entire population. As such, there is a global community of people, each navigating the digital world. 

With this incredible level of connectedness, we can communicate with people we may never meet, share content and stories to wide audiences, and access information, news, and media on demand. However, with this access comes potential risks. 

Because there are risks that come with digital technology

The dangers of technology are numerous and varied. Whether it’s cyber security threats to our personal data, wealth, and identity or the dissemination of disinformation or illegal materials, the internet can be a dangerous place. 

Data shows that 80% of fraud in the UK is cyber-enabled, while 25% of all UK businesses fell victim to cyber crime in 2019. 

Because young people are increasingly online 

Young people, in particular, face risks online. In 2020 in the UK alone, roughly one in five children aged 10 to 15 years in England and Wales (19%, or around 764,000 children) experienced at least one type of online bullying behaviour.

When you couple these stats with the fact that children spend over 20 hours a week online by the time they’re in their teens, the need to understand and teach digital citizenship becomes apparent. 

Because there is a digital skills gap

According to a recent report in the science journal Nature, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused rushed digitalization of primary and secondary (K12) student education. Students around the world had to learn online, and the rapidly changing digital landscape made it a difficult transition for many students (and their teachers). 

The Nature article goes on to highlight that issues such as limited digital skills, technology access, inequality, and systemic racism were all hampering progress. 

The elements of digital citizenship

Before we get into the details of teaching digital citizenship, let’s explore some of the key areas that need to be covered. Below, we’ve highlighted some of the essential elements of digital citizenship: 

Equal access 

Above, we mentioned that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted an issue around access to digital education. There are a couple of points to bear in mind with this issue. 

The first is to recognise that not all students have the same access to computers, smartphones, or the internet. Teachers and educators must be aware of this fact, ensuring that there are suitable alternatives that meet the needs of students. We cover the topic in more detail in our post on blended learning

It’s also important to help students understand that learners, both their contemporaries and those around the world, may have different access to technology, either in the classroom or at home. There is a certain privilege and responsibility for those who do have access. 

Digital skills 

Those growing up in the digital age should be digitally fluent, able to use and understand the latest technology. Not only does this help them safely and securely navigate the digital world, but it also helps them understand how technology shapes our society. 

In our course on digital skills for work and life, learners can explore how our personal and professional lives are affected by the technology around us. This can act as a useful primer ahead of teaching your own students about digital citizenship. 

The current generation of learners will go on to shape the future of the digital world, so a thorough understanding of it can help ensure that everyone has a voice in what’s to come. 

Communicating online 

We’ve already mentioned the issue of cyberbullying, but the aspect of online communication is broader than that. The vast majority of us communicate in the digital space somehow, whether through social media, instant messaging, or other formats. 

However, communicating online is often vastly different from in-person interactions. Nuance, tone of voice, body language, and other non-verbal cues aren’t evident. What’s more, the physical distance, relative anonymity, and lack of consequences mean that some people will act with less empathy. 

Working on emotional intelligence can help with self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management, all of which can make us better at communicating in the digital space.  

We each have a responsibility for our actions online, and it’s important to teach about the consequences of misconduct in a virtual space. 

Data safety 

One of the consequences of having our digital personas online is that we end up creating a digital footprint of our data. Whether it’s creating social media posts, handing over personal details, or uploading our content to cloud storage, we each create vast amounts of data. 

As we explore in our post on how to protect your data, knowing about data safety can help you keep your rights and freedoms, prevent fraud and cyber crime, and ultimately, give you control over who uses your data and how. 

Although laws and regulations such as GDPR exist to protect people online, we are each responsible for what we share. Teaching digital citizenship is about ensuring learners know how much information they produce and how that data is used, for good and for ill. 

Freedom of speech 

The internet gives everyone a voice to express themselves. As we’ve discussed, this can bring both positives and negatives. In our post on freedom of speech, we explored how freedom of speech is paramount to democracy. If we cannot speak freely, it often means our liberties are being restricted in some way. 

However, freedom of speech doesn’t mean that you have the freedom to say anything without consequence. For example, it’s often inappropriate to speak freely if it infringes on someone else’s freedoms.

Understanding the concept of free speech and how it applies in the digital age is essential to becoming a good digital citizen. You can learn more about the varying uses of social media around the world and its consequences on relationships, politics and everyday life with our course on the anthropology of social media

Digital wellbeing 

Another consideration is how digital technology affects our health, relationships and society. When teaching digital citizenship, it’s important to have your learners consider how much time they spend interacting with technology, how it makes them feel, and how they can stay physically and virtually safe. 

Our course on digital wellbeing explores some of these themes and more, examining the positives and negatives of engaging with technology and how we can ensure our own digital wellbeing.  

Cyber security 

As well as taking control of our own data, we also must be wary of cyber security threats in a digital space. Part of digital citizenship is about understanding how people can use technology to exploit vulnerabilities, steal data, and threaten devices. It’s also essential to know how to stay safe online and prevent such threats. 

Our course on an introduction to cyber security for teachers will take you through some of the key concepts of cyber security. You’ll learn about some of the common cyber threats, as well as how to deal with them and protect against them. 

Teaching digital citizenship

We now know about what digital citizenship is, why it’s important, and what some of the key elements are. Let’s turn our attention to how you can teach digital citizenship. We won’t outline specific lesson plans, but we will highlight some of the key areas you might want to focus on for yourself and with your learners: 

Use blended learning

Perhaps one of the most useful ways to teach digital citizenship is to use blended learning – a mix of traditional face-to-face learning experiences and online and mobile technologies. The aim is that each element enhances the other. 

Blended learning can help learners use and master some of the technology and software that is shaping the modern world, all through a structured and supervised way. 

Of course, we’ve already mentioned the fact that students may not have the same access to technology outside of the classroom, so it’s important to bear this in mind when planning study materials. 

Discuss key themes 

With topics such as freedom of speech, cyberbullying and digital wellbeing being linked to digital citizenship, there is plenty of scope for discussion. Of course, some of these topics could cause distress or controversy, so it’s important to prepare appropriately. 

By discussing these topics with your learners, you can promote critical thinking and empathy, as well as raising awareness about the subjects you’re covering. Such discourse can also help individuals take responsibility for the way they behave online, which is a key part of being a good digital citizen. 

Work on digital literacy 

Depending on the setting, digital skills may already be a part of the curriculum. Even if they are, you can still work on ways to teach your students how to understand and use technology. For example, you could build a makerspace for young people, where they can use their digital skills in the real world. 

You can also learn how to get started with teaching computing to different age groups with one of our courses. Whether it’s teaching the basics in primary school or working with secondary learners on programming skills, you can improve your students’ understanding of the technology that’s changing our society. 

Be inclusive 

Inclusivity is a central part of teaching digital citizenship. After all, each of us has a role to play in the digital age we live in. For example, you may want to plan lessons that are more inclusive for learners with special educational needs and disabilities.

Creating an inclusive classroom, whether in person or online, helps to establish some of the key themes behind digital citizenship, as well as give all learners the opportunity to reach their potential. 

Final thoughts 

Digital citizenship is a topic that is essential in the modern world. We are trending towards a society where more people are more connected, and as such, it’s vital that we are all aware of our responsibilities and able to navigate our own digital lives. 

Teaching digital citizenship means understanding the key elements of the subject and helping learners reach that same level of awareness. You can help your students take an active role in the digital world, educating them on the dangers and obligations that come with using technology. 

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