May 16 2022

What Is Digital Citizenship Curriculum & The Tech Behind It?

K–12 students are online more than ever, and they must understand digital citizenship to conduct themselves safely and responsibly in the virtual world.

K–12 students today have grown up as digital natives, but they still have much to learn about the online world.

Digital citizenship is the guidebook for how students can behave in and navigate an entire online world — a world where they will continue to operate in their personal and professional lives after graduation.

Carrie James is a Harvard Graduate School of Education principal investigator at Project Zero and co-author of Behind Their Screens: What Teens Are Facing (and Adults Are Missing).

“We have defined digital citizenship as responsible use of technology to learn, create and participate,” James says. “We emphasize different ‘rings of responsibility’ that direct attention in digital decision-making to care for the self, close friends and family, near communities and the broader world.”

Here’s how digital citizenship affects school district leaders, educators and future digital citizens in today’s educational environment.

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What Is Digital Citizenship in K–12 Education Today?

Digital citizenship seeks to educate students on internet safety, but it’s much more than that. A decade ago, the only digital citizenship education students might have received was to watch for online predators. Now, it encompasses more than safety alone.

Nearly half of students in grades 4-8 (40 percent) have connected or chatted with a stranger online, according to a study by the Center for Cyber Safety and Education. Of those, 53 percent gave the stranger their phone numbers, and 15 percent tried to meet them in person.

These statistics have school districts asking how they can better educate students to understand internet safety as a key component of digital citizenship.

Educators and school leaders must also combat less-than-credible sources of information, which students won’t innately be able to identify without guidance and instruction. It’s a concept even adults are struggling with: Nearly 2 in 3 say fabricated news greatly confuses them about current events and issues, a Pew Research report shows. Twenty-three percent of Americans surveyed admitted to sharing fake news.

The Dig Cit DoctorsKristen Mattson and LeeAnn Lindsey, founded their company Edvolve as a digital citizenship resource for schools. The pair even created a free curriculum resource for PK-12 schools.

Mattson says digital citizenship includes “scaffolding skills like digital health and well-being, media and information literacy, and social responsibility throughout a child’s K–12 experience.”

LEARN MORE: Connected STEM classrooms break down silos for K–12 students.

What Are the Nine Elements of Digital Citizenship?

Mike Ribble, author of The Digital Citizenship Handbook for School Leaders and Digital Citizenship in Schools, explains that safety is the foundation we can all agree on as a “common denominator,” but the need for additional education grows from there to include savvy and social.

He uses these three S’s — safe, savvy and social — to guide school leaders toward a complete digital citizenship curriculum framework.

Districts hoping to improve their digital citizenship instruction can use Ribble’s framework of nine themes to empower students:

  • Digital access ensures the equitable distribution of technology and digital resources.
  • Digital commerce focuses on the use of money on digital platforms, including electronic buying, selling and banking.
  • Digital communication and collaboration is the electronic exchange of information.
  • Digital etiquette refers to the standards of online conduct, which involves thinking of others.
  • Digital fluency enables people to make good decisions online. One way schools can focus on building digitally fluent citizens is by helping them decipher real versus fake news.
  • Digital health and welfare centers on users’ physical and psychological well-being online.
  • Digital law refers to the understanding of online actions and the creation of rules and policies around digital behavior.
  • Digital rights and responsibility means the freedom to use the internet and digital tools while maintaining a responsibility to inform adults of potential problems.
  • Digital security and privacy focuses on awareness of cyberthreats, including privacy attacks and breaches, and working to prevent them.

Schools can integrate these themes into comprehensive instruction to ensure they are focusing on more than basic online safety. Educators should teach each theme as students use online spaces for classwork, research and other projects.

MORE ON ONLINE LEARNING: Game-based instruction prepares students for a digital future.

How to Consider Digital Citizenship When Planning Tech Purchases

District leaders have extensive decision-making to do when they purchase new technology for staff and students. Digital citizenship should be top of mind during the planning and purchasing process to fully implement it into instruction. Leaders can follow these expert tips when purchasing and implementing new technology.

Choose tools that provide authentic interactions.

Ribble warns against buying and integrating “technology for tech’s sake.”

“Purchasing tools and platforms that allow young people to interact with content, with one another and with their teacher in the most authentic ways possible” is helpful, Mattson explains.

Integrate digital citizenship across the curriculum.

With students’ lives and responsibilities moving to online platforms, digital citizenship must be fully integrated across the curriculum.

“To truly create a culture of digital citizenship, we have to pair curriculum with policies, practices and purchases that advance the goals we have for our students,” Mattson says. Educators can integrate it into a research project in a science classroom or an English lesson that helps students identify the credibility of sources.

“Each teacher has to understand that intentionality,” Ribble says, adding that teacher preparation programs are starting to focus on teaching future educators about this need.

Dig Cit Doctor Kristen Mattson
To truly create a culture of digital citizenship, we have to pair curriculum with policies, practices and purchases that advance the goals we have for our students.”

Kristen Mattson Co-Founder, Edvolve

Remember the lessons of the pandemic.

When considering new technology purchases that could improve students’ experiences, Ribble says district leaders must remember the lessons from pandemic-era online learning. Namely, many students still don’t have reliable internet access at home. He adds that turning a hotspot into internet support for four to six people often won’t provide adequate access for educational purposes.

Acknowledge the unprecedented online challenges students face.

Adults may think they understand the digital citizenship challenges of students growing up in the age of technology, but they might not. Conversations about these hard topics are a “necessity,” James says.

“The proliferation of mobile technologies, the ages when kids have access to devices, and new features of apps with geospecificity and quasi-ephemeral content are just a few of the shifts that demand more attention to digital citizenship issues,” she says. Today’s students navigate everything from friendship in a 24/7 digital world to learning how to disconnect for sleep and self-care. Districts should keep these experiences in mind and teach healthy digital habits to students.

Digital Citizenship Is an Important Business Planning Consideration

Students’ physical and mental health depend on a robust understanding of digital citizenship. These standards help optimize safety and learning for students, and they serve as a guide in buying and implementing educational technology.

The pandemic allowed schools to pilot initiatives they never thought possible before, Ribble says. Now is the opportunity to fine-tune those processes, intentionally integrating education to ensure that students fully benefit from those tools for now and for their futures.

DIVE DEEPER: Pandemic-era tech continues to add value to K–12 classrooms.

SDI Productions/Getty Images

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