Educating Digital Citizens: Schools Can Prepare Students to Safely Navigate the Digital World and Take Advantage of the Wealth of Information That Defines Life Online

By Tan, Thomas | Leadership, September-October 2011 | Go to article overview

Educating Digital Citizens: Schools Can Prepare Students to Safely Navigate the Digital World and Take Advantage of the Wealth of Information That Defines Life Online


Tan, Thomas, Leadership


We start off early in life learning about staying within the lines. Mom always chided me to color within the lines with the crayons. Later, we learn the lines are not just a nuisance. In driver education, we learn the lines on the road help us work and play well with others on the highway. Knowing the rules of the road is a must. Cross those double yellow lines and you'll end up in a head-on collision.

We face the same challenge in the virtual world. As educators, citizens and parents, part of our responsibility is to teach our youth about where these lines are. Digital citizenship is how we can teach where the lines of cyber safety and ethics are in the interconnected online world our students will inhabit.

What it means to be a digital citizen

Digital citizenship for our youth is garnering greater attention. In June 2010, the Online Safety and Technology Working Group sent a report to Congress entitled "Youth Safety on a Living Internet," prepared in accordance with the Broadband Data Improvement Act and the Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act. One of the conclusions of the report was that new media education is essential to protecting 21st century youth.

The report said research shows that "civil, respectful behavior online is less conducive to risk, and digital media literacy concerning behavior as well as consumption enables children to assess and avoid risk, which is why this subcommittee urges the government to promote nationwide education in digital citizenship and media literacy as the cornerstone of Internet safety."

On the value of online safety education, Susan Crawford, assistant to the president for Science, Technology and Innovation put it more succinctly: "The best software is between the ears." We cannot monitor our children every minute that they are online. In the absence of adult supervision, young people increasingly play with their own safety online. Risk to youths online can be reduced through Digital Citizenship education.

Beyond Internet safety

Ubiquitous connectivity allows us access to information any time and anywhere. A downside of this pervasive connectivity is the ease of sharing extreme sensationalized bits of digital misbehavior. In the short-reach newsprint world of communications, such sensationalized news tidbits would never see the light of day, let alone "go viral" and spread around the world.

Sensationalized news can make the world seem more dangerous than it is. Henry Jenkins, author and media professor at the University of Southern California warns against sensationalist media coverage of digital teens. Jenkins says research findings from the McArthur Digital Youth Project show that "most young people are trying to make the right choices in a world that most of us don't fully understand yet, a world where they can't get good advice from the adults around them, where they are moving into new activities that were not part of the life of their parents growing up--very capable young people who are doing responsible things, taking advantage of the technologies that are around them."

Digital citizenship helps not only to keep technology users safe. Digital citizenship prepares students to survive and thrive in an environment embedded with information, communication and connections.

The nine elements of digital citizenship

Digital citizenship can be defined as the norms of appropriate, responsible behavior with regard to technology use. In their book "Digital Citizenship in Schools" (2007), Ribble and Bailey identify nine elements that comprise Digital Citizenship. These elements are:

1. Digital access: Full electronic participation in society.

Digital exclusion of any kind does not enhance the growth of users in an electronic society. All people should have fair access to technology no matter who they are. Places or organizations with limited connectivity need to be addressed as well. …

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