Digital Citizenship: a concept for the past?

I'm just going to come out and say it...

"Digital citizenship" needs to go away.


Now, hang on, (Ellen) - hear me out! 

I am not saying that our students don't need to learn to use technology safely, responsibly and respectfully - they absolutely do! And what's more, they need those skills and understandings now more than ever before

But here is why we need to stop thinking and talking about "digital citizenship" as being a separate set of behaviours from the standard of behaviour we expect from our students in every other aspect of their learning and their lives.

1. Digital technology is everywhere, all the time

The more access our students have to technology, and at this point in many schools that is very frequent or even constant, 1:1 access, the less the behaviours we need our students to be displaying with technology can afford to be thought of as discrete from their other behaviour. In the fairly recent past, when students might have access to technology and the internet for an hour or two a week, during scheduled times, it made sense to talk about the specific behaviours we expected from them during that specific time, in that specific context.

Now technology is in almost every classroom, most if not all the time. Students need to make the connection that the standards of behaviour expected from them in every element of school life apply to their digital actions and interactions in exactly the same way as they do to real life actions and interactions.

Photo by Laurie Sullivan

Photo by Laurie Sullivan

2. Digital technology is every teacher's responsibility

Because technology is increasingly in the classroom, it has ceased to be the ICT/EdTech/computing/IT teacher's sole responsibility but when we continue to talk about "digital citizenship" it has the effect of reinforcing in the minds of students and teachers that these behaviours are the responsibility of those specialist teachers to handle.

That model just can't work any more.

Every teacher who teaches with technology, or who even just allows their students to use technology in class now has to take responsibility for teaching, modelling, reinforcing and insisting upon safe, responsible and respectful digital behaviour. This is the only way we are going to keep our students safe and arm them with the knowledge, skills and understanding they need to protect themselves online.

If not "digital citizenship", then what?

Well.... it's just plain old citizenship. The rules for being a good "digital citizen" are not actually different from those required to be a good all round citizen.

When we (try our best to) teach our students to have empathy, treat others with kindness, see other perspectives, manage emotions, learn to say no, set personal boundaries, communicate respectfully etc, we accept that this is part of being a teacher of a whole child. We don't set aside one week per year to teach our students to be good people or keep themselves safe offline and we can't afford to keep doing that with the digital world either.

So, here are two simple approaches to help you begin to say goodbye to digital citizenship while teaching your students to be safe, responsible and respectful with digital technology:

1. Anticipate what could go wrong and tell your students

Every time you use technology in your classroom try to think: "What could go wrong here? What might I do if I were a kid and I felt like making trouble/goofing off/experimenting? What am I hoping they wont realise they can do with this technology?" and then, and this is key, tell the students.

For example, many a teacher in my school has quietly hoped the students will not figure out they can Airdrop things to each others' iPads, like digitally passing notes.

Top tip: the students will definitely figure that stuff out. Just tell them. Show them how it is done and then tell them what the expectations are in your class and what the consequences are for failing to meet those expectations. If Airdropping things without your permission is unacceptable, make that clear and make sure everyone knows what will happen if they do it anyway. 

In the first few weeks with technology you might have to do A LOT of anticipating, A LOT of sharing your expectations and be very consistent about either making sure those expectations are or the consequences of failing to meet them are implemented. In time though everyone will be clear about what is and is not acceptable behaviour and you will be able to trust your students, rather than simply crossing your fingers and hoping for the best.

2. Make connections between digital behaviours and real world behaviours

Students usually have a very developed understanding of what behaviours are unacceptable in the classroom - make use of that understanding by making explicit connections and comparisons between real-world and digital behaviour and misbehaviour:

- Airdropping photos to another student's iPad is basically passing notes. Is passing notes OK in your class? Neither is Airdropping without permission. 

- Would it be acceptable for your students to go into another student's binder, take out an assignment and write all over it, or tear it up and throw it in the bin? Make sure your students understand that doing that to a digital file is the exact same thing, and just as unacceptable. Whatever the consequence for the former action would be should apply to the latter as well.

- Make it clear to your students that calling someone names, swearing at them or bullying them out loud in the classroom or playground is exactly as serious as doing it in a typed comment or message and that you, the school and their parents will treat both of those behaviours in exactly the same way.

- If you worry about particularly younger students seeing or reading something inappropriate online, help them to understand that "the internet it a public place". Compare being online to going on a field trip: Sometimes when we are out in public grownups say words or behave in ways that wouldn't be ok for kids to copy. If a stranger talks to you outside on a field trip, you should never tell them your name or your personal details, and it is the same online"

Make sure your students know that if they see, hear or read something that makes them feel uncomfortable, or unsafe that they should tell you right away, just like they would if you were out and about.

Alpha Stock Images - link to -

Alpha Stock Images - link to -

By ditching "digital citizenship" we wouldn't be talking about it less, focussing on it less, or trivialising it  - we would be talking about it more!

Safe, responsible and respectful digital behaviours don't belong in "internet safety week" or the weekly ICT lesson any more: they belong to every teacher, in every lesson, every day of the year.