Define digital citizenship.
It's nothing anyone would have thought necessary to do only a decade ago, but the concept of citizenship no longer exists only within the realm of the physical world. With K-12 students seeming to at all times have one foot in the real world and one in the virtual, school districts are starting to acknowledge a new collective responsibility: to teach kids what it means to be a good digital citizen and how to go about being one. The answer follows the same rules entrenched in the prescription for being a good citizen on the ground: Obey the law, have respect for others, act civilly and sensibly.
The movement to address and characterize digital citizenship originated in the UK, where educators have been working toward establishing protocols for good digital citizenship since the mid-1990s. The effort has been picked up today by Digizen.org, owned and operated by London-based nonprofit Childnet International, which loosely defines the term as the responsibility of all online users to interact with each other with dignity and respect. The site provides a manual for educators and students on making the most constructive and ethical use of social networking, as well as guides for recognizing and tackling cyberbullying. According to Digizen.org, if educators can help young people see online environments as communities they're helping to shape, they'll act more responsibly.
"Digital citizenship isn't just about recognizing and dealing with online hazards," the site reads. "It's about building safe spaces and communities, [having students] understand how to manage personal information, and about being internet savvy-using your online presence to grow and shape your world in a safe, creative way, and inspiring others to do the same."
In the US, the notion of digital citizenship is less expansive, more concrete--focusing on individual ethical behavior, with particular attention paid to online piracy. One high-profile effort to arrive at the meaning of being a digital citizen has come from the Digital Citizen Project at Illinois State University. The program, which targets the higher education environment, bills itself as a "proactive approach to peer-to-peer and copyright issues." It confronts illegal music and movie downloading by challenging students to consider right and wrong as it exists both in the physical world and on the internet.
"Creating good digital citizens involves making students aware of all the things that can happen once you put anything out there on the web," says Cheryl Elzy, dean of university libraries, who runs the project.
One educator has taken the step of itemizing the ingredients that combine to create a good digital citizen. Mike Ribble, director of technology at Manhattan-Ogden Unified School District 383 in Manhattan, KS, spent the better part of three years working to create an authoritative definition of digital citizenship while pursuing his educational doctorate. He emphasizes the appropriate use of technology as a learning and communication tool. Ribble believes that maintaining privacy is of paramount importance, in light of the amount of time kids spend on social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook, so it's imperative that schools teach students how to use these sites without putting themselves at risk.
Ribble has encapsulated his theories at his website, Digital Citizenship: Using Technology Appropriately. There he lists the fundamental elements that he says together form the underpinning of digital citizenship (see "9 Steps to Building a Good Digital Citizen," page 50). Ribble admits the nine-part formula--which includes explanations of digital etiquette, law, commerce, and even health and wellness--can be daunting for school districts, but he says that all the components can be accounted for gradually.
"When this was first put out, everybody thought they had to fix all nine at once, but there's just way too much to do that quickly," he says. …