Digital Citizenship

digital citizenship
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With new knowledge, comes a responsibility to change our thinking and assess what we teach the new generation so that they can be safe and productive and further advance knowledge for humankind.

When Galileo proved that Earth was not the center of the known universe–that the earth, in fact, revolved around the sun–it was, quite literally, a cosmic shift in thinking that required looking at the heavens in an entirely new way. When automobiles began to grow in popularity, the rules of the road for horse and buggy had to be revisited and overhauled to take into account the enhanced functionality of this new mode of transportation. Every day, advancements in science and medicine force doctors and researchers to reevaluate their methods and align them with the new knowledge they possess.

Now, as technology aids in the ever-accelerating development of all these fields—astronomy, transportation, and medicine—astronomers, logisticians, and doctors all must be willing and inclined to embrace change and adapt to it. We in education are not immune to the changes brought on by new technology. And like the aforementioned professions, we must be willing to change, too. This need to carefully examine how we prepare students to become good digital citizens is perhaps one of the most pressing changes educators face.

As an educator in his late 40s, I remember clearly when students did not have access to an online environment. Using cutting-edge technology meant utilizing a transparency overhead projector, or CD player or television or word processor. Web 2.0 tools that would soon unleash the possibilities for communication, research, and demonstration of learning were still non-existent. As these resources slowly developed, it forced educators, thinkers and futurists to assess and prescribe rules and standards by which to operate.

Few would argue that technological advancements have changed the world profoundly over the last 25 years (since I began my career in education). What you might get some disagreement about is the need for educators to teach digital citizenship so that the new generation is equipped to operate effectively and honorably in this relatively new environment.

Thanks to the work of scholars such as Mike Ribble, educators have a map for charting a course for digital citizenship instruction. Ribble defines digital citizenship as “the continuously developing norms of appropriate, responsible, and empowered technology use.” Ribble identifies nine areas that comprise a digital citizenry. Briefly, they are as follows:

  1. Digital Access—Stresses the importance for each member of a digital society have a baseline of access to digital resources, with the goal being full access.
  2. Digital Commerce—With the ubiquity of the online world, it is only natural that more and more business will be conducted online. Digital citizens need to be adept at buying and selling in an online environment.
  3. Digital Communication—Be it via email, text message, message boards, video conferencing, Skype calling, etc., digital citizens must know how to effectively communicate online.
  4. Digital Literacy—As new technologies emerge, digital citizens must be aware of how these changes impact their lives online. From communication to banking to entertainment to education, the digital world changes fast. We have to keep up.
  5. Digital Etiquette—Etiquette speaks to expectations for living in a respectful, productive society. Just because something is not against the law, doesn’t mean it’s okay to do. This is true not only in the physical world, but online as well.
  6. Digital Law—There are ways to break the law online. Digital citizens need to be aware of the laws, particularly in the realm of copyright, to avoid breaking them.
  7. Digital Rights and Responsibilities—This area of digital citizenship reinforces the previous two—law and etiquette. It is important to know what can and cannot be done to you, just as you must know what you are legally permitted to do and not do; additionally, know what you should and should not do.
  8. Digital Health and Wellness—Just as with any activity, being online comes with physical and psychological concerns. Ergonomics, eye strain, social isolation are just a few examples of how we should concern ourselves with our digital health and wellness.
  9. Digital Security—At the end of the day, not everyone online is practicing good digital citizenship. Therefore, we must be vigilant about protecting our data and valuable information online.

Each of these areas address an important principle relevant to citizenship in general and applicable to digital citizenship: Respect for yourself and others; educate yourself and connect with others; protect yourself and protect others.

As computers and technology play more roles in our lives and we spend more time online, we must instruct students to be cognizant and good practitioners of digital citizenship.


Marshall, T.H. (1950). Citizenship and social class: and other essays. Cambridge, MA: University Press.

Ohler, J. (2010). Digital community: Digital Citizen. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Ribble, M. (2015). Digital citizenship in schools: Nine elements all students should know (3rd ed.). Eugene, OR: International Society for Technology in Education

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