Digital citizenship education: Equipping effective ‘digizens’ in the online classroom

Perhaps more than any year in history, 2020 has showcased the power of digitisation. In recent months, countless individuals and organisations have turned to digital technologies for efficient problem-solving. One of the most obviously (and deeply) affected areas has been that of education.

Throughout the year, educators and learners have found themselves catapulted into ‘emergency remote teaching and learning’ (ERT/L). For many, this has meant shifting from the traditional classroom to a virtual one that is reliant on electronic devices and online platforms. This accelerated adoption of online education is expected to persist, as institutions increasingly turn to digital learning solutions to ‘futureproof’ their offerings.

Digital society on the rise

According to DataReportal (2020), over 4.5 billion people are now using the Internet, comprising almost 60% of the world’s population. Long before COVID-19, digital technologies had already become indispensable for navigating and participating in global society. In light of this, James et al. (2019: 3) caution educators:

Without a firm grounding in the ethical and moral questions of digital life – our students’ real lives – we cannot prepare them for the future.

This highlights the ongoing relevance of digital citizenship, which encompasses ‘the quality of habits, actions, and consumption patterns that impact the ecology of digital content and communities’ (Heick, 2020) or, more simply, our online conduct and consumption of digital media.

Considering this indictment, what role can educators play in equipping learners to become effective digital citizens? More specifically, how can we encourage digital participation while also promoting the competencies to do so positively, critically and ethically?

This article will briefly outline what digital citizenship is, followed by some recommendations for fostering effective digital citizenship in the online classroom. Although this has clear relevance to school learners, tertiary educators are also encouraged to consider potential applications within the higher education context.

What is digital citizenship?

In simple terms, a digital citizen (or ‘digizen’) is someone who uses digital technologies and engages in the online environment. The Council of Europe (n.d.) provides a broader definition of digital citizenship, as follows:

The competent and positive engagement with digital technologies (creating, working, sharing, socializing, investigating, playing, communicating and learning); participating actively and responsibly (values, skills, attitudes, knowledge) in communities (local, national, global) at all levels (political, economic, social, cultural and intercultural); being involved in a double process of lifelong learning (in formal, informal and non-formal settings) and continuously defending human dignity.

In line with this, Ribble (2015) and Ribble and Park (2019) have outlined nine principles of digital citizenship, along with core competencies to be acquired for each. These principles address areas like digital access, commerce, and health and welfare. However, the following three lend themselves particularly well to the online classroom and beyond, as they focus on engagement with digital media and online communities:


Digital Citizenship - Infographic

(Source: EDGE Education (Pty) Ltd, 2020; adapted from Ribble, 2015; Ribble and Park, 2019; James et al., 2019; Pelzel, 2019; and Bessette, 2018)

It is worth considering Collier’s (in Davis, 2017) argument that these competencies are by now woven into the fabric of our society, and that we can perhaps ‘drop the word digital‘ – because what we are teaching is essentially just citizenship within the Digital Age. However, Ohler (in Ribble and Park, 2019: 1) suggests that digital citizenship education ‘is the new character education’, not replacing but rather supplementing our approach to character formation and ethics in the classroom.

Fostering digital citizenship: Skills vs. dispositions

So, how can educators integrate these principles into the online classroom?

On the one hand, they could be approached practically by focusing on skills for example, the ‘nine Ps’, which cover passwords, private information, personal information, photographs, property, permission, protection, professionalism and personal brand (Davis, 2017).

While these skills are important, the area of digital citizenship also lends itself to richer pedagogical opportunities. In particular, Perkins and Tishman (2006) and James et al. (2019) have recommended a dispositional approach. This approach speaks less to abilities (e.g. identifying good rules of engagement in online forums) and more to the values, motivations and habits that transform these abilities into meaningful real-world behaviours (e.g. generously evaluating others’ viewpoints, discerning motivations and credibility, determining how and whether to engage, and anticipating the potential outcomes of engagement). In other words, it focuses on the ‘why’ and ‘how’, rather than only on the ‘what’ – thereby prompting learners to make their own meaning and to enact their learning authentically in everyday online interactions.

The following are recommendations for dispositions to be cultivated, along with suitable activities that can be practised in the online classroom. These allow for broad application across the principles of digital etiquette, rights and responsibility, and fluency, and can be adapted by the educator as needed.

1. Being self-reflective and metacognitive

This means getting learners to habitually reflect on their thoughts and perceptions, and to ‘think about their thinking’ when engaging online.

According to the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero (2016), thinking routines  are especially helpful in this regard. These mini classroom strategies can be taught quickly and easily, and can equip learners to unpack their own cognitive processes more meaningfully. The following examples are especially relevant to digital etiquette and digital rights and responsibility.

FIRE routine

This routine fosters sensitivity and alertness to cues (or ‘red flag feelings’) such as anger, fear or sadness in relation to online engagements, and encourages learners to first ‘slow down, pause and think’ (James et al., 2019: 13).

In the case of digital etiquette, learners may be weighing up how to respond to hurtful comments by peers on social media, or whether to become embroiled in heated online debates.

  • Feel: Assess current state of mind. What best describes my feelings?
  • Identify: Pinpoint the cause. What led to this situation? Why does it make me feel this way?
  • Reflect: Contemplate the next steps. What options are available? What are the pros and cons? What are my underlying motivations? How might they affect me and others?
  • Enact: Address the situation. What would have the most productive outcomes overall? (Sometimes, this may mean choosing not to act at all.)
CSQ routine

This routine prompts critical evaluation of learners’ subjective interpretations and opinions, and challenges them to assess their own reasoning before (re)acting online (Project Zero, 2016).

In the case of digital rights and responsibility, learners may need to determine their responses to content that contradicts their personal values or beliefs, or how to handle inappropriate online conduct by their peers.

  • Claim: What is my interpretation of, and explanation for, the matter at hand?
  • Support: What information or reasoning can I provide to support this claim?
  • Question: Consider potential gaps in reasoning. What alternative perspectives, beliefs, values or counterclaims might exist? What questions are left unanswered and require further investigation before I (re)act?

2. Remaining open-minded and curious

This disposition builds on the previous one. It means habitually looking beyond what is given, exploring alternative perspectives, and having a bias toward constructive discourse and inquiry when engaging online.

Socratic seminars

Socratic seminars provide a useful format for student-led classroom discussions. Here, learners participate in a dialogue around a ‘text’ (which can also encompass images, videos, forums and other digital content) by asking and answering open-ended questions.

For instance, this activity could expand on the previous examples – i.e. how to conduct online debates around sensitive topics (digital etiquette) or allow for diverse perspectives in online spaces (digital rights and responsibility). It could also be used to encourage inquiry around various digital information sources (digital fluency).

The goal is ultimately for learners to listen to others, find common ground and make meaning collaboratively, rather than to impose their views on others or win arguments. Additionally, Socratic seminars give learners the opportunity to practise using Socratic stems  or sentence starters, such as:

  • Does anyone have similar/different views?
  • How did you draw that conclusion?
  • Do you see any gaps in my reasoning?
  • Can you give an example?
  • I’ve never considered …
  • Before, I thought … Now, I’m starting to realise …

When facilitated effectively, Socratic seminars encourage deeper analysis, purposeful reflection, collaborative meaning-making, empathy, and articulate and respectful communication – all of which are vital for productive engagement in online spaces (Davenport, 2016; and James et al., 2019).

3. Seeking clarity and being intellectually vigilant

This means exercising healthy scepticism, probing assumptions, asking difficult questions, seeking balanced views, and remaining alert to superficiality, vagueness, inconsistency and inaccuracy (Perkins and Tishman, 2006).

This disposition is vital for addressing the ‘digital naivety’ still prevalent among digital users, as highlighted in this study by Stanford History Education Group (2016). In particular, learners should be guided to discern the credibility of the information permeating our ‘post-truth ’ digital world (Schulten and Brown, 2017).

This ranges from the more obvious domain of digital fluency (e.g. news articles, blogs, videos and viral social media posts), to the less explicit area of digital rights and responsibility (e.g. information broadcast by Internet celebrities and influencers, or messages shared among peers on chat platforms).

This disposition can be cultivated through various teaching strategies, and will likely require a longer-term focus (to unpack complex areas like bias, reliability, credibility etc. in detail). However, the following mnemonics are valuable starting points for stimulating awareness, inquiry and discussion in the online classroom.

Consumer questions

Students can be tasked with vetting the credibility of online information by unpacking the following ‘consumer questions’ (Schulten, 2015; and Coiro, 2017):

  • Who created this information? (What are their credentials and affiliations?)
  • What is the purpose of this information?
  • How is this information influenced by the author’s stance?
  • When was this information published or updated?
  • Where can I verify the accuracy of this information?
  • Why should I trust this information?

Building on the previous mnemonic, the following one provides a helpful checklist for committing these principles to memory (O’Connor, 2014; and Schulten, 2015):

  • Independent sources above self-interested sources
  • Multiple sources above a single source
  • Verifiable information above speculation
  • Authoritative and Informed sources above unqualified or uninformed sources
  • Named sources above anonymous sources

To cultivate this disposition meaningfully, learners can also be asked to generate their own probing questions in response to information that they encounter in day-to-day online interactions. This requires them to evaluate information more rigorously (and consistently) outside of the classroom, to draw intentional inferences, and ultimately, to formulate questions that reflect their process of inquiry (Terada, 2020).

Finally, these probing questions and information sources can be collated in a communal class repository, which can be expanded over time. In this way, learners are also given the opportunity to be ‘teachers’, and can establish shared values around their consumption of, and interaction with, digital media.

By using these dispositional approaches to teaching digital citizenship, educators can equip their learners with a robust framework for thinking, rather than a simple toolbox of skills. With consistent practice, these activities should foster meaningful (i.e. positive, critical and ethical) real-world interactions – in the online classroom and beyond.


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