Digital citizenship

Digital citizenship is more than just cybersafety

Digital citizenship is when a combination of the values and key competencies (in the New Zealand Curriculum) are realised digitally. It is the ability to conduct an effective social and cultural life on the Internet and on mobile phones, and the ability to keep yourself safe when you’re in that space. The really interesting thing is that for quite a long time we’ve really focussed on the safety aspect at the expense of understanding what a values approach would suggest for digital citizenship. We are clearly working hard in terms of digital literacy, but it’s using the key values and competencies to realise digital citizenship that I want to focus on in this particular trend.

The cybersafety-only approach is restrictive

This represents a real shift for us, in terms of how we’ve considered digital citizenship. When we thought of digital citizenship simply as cybersafety it was easy to teach. We told young people what to think and what to do. We relied on the model of awareness-raising to produce behavioural change—the idea that information provision would change behaviour. In some ways, when I and my college, Karen Melhuish-Spencer, got a chance to look at this, it highlighted that we were harking back to old-school pedagogies to try and realise outcomes that needed higher-order thinking. These information provision methodologies relied on the idea that I could tell you that 2x2=4, and then next week, when I tested you, you’d tell me 2x2=4. If you weren’t able to tell me that, then I’d find some other way to make that learning more interesting and memorable.

A lot of educators ask us to “scare some sense” into young people, hoping that this will produce the behaviour change—making the information transfer “stick”. Unfortunately, at the time that we’re trying to seek the development of critical thinking skills for children and young people, we conversely resort to very old-school approaches to tell them how to be digital citizens. Furthermore, we often do this in an assembly rather than within ongoing discussion in formal classroom practice.

The big shift towards inquiry-based learning to create digital citizens

This raises a huge issue for us, and, I think, represents a big shift for digital citizenship. That is, the shift towards using inquiry-based learning to promote critical thinking, and then applying that approach to understanding how to foster digital citizenship. This is going to be, a big shift and a big change for us as we move forward. We have to firmly put to bed these ideas that 19th century rote-learning pedagogies around safety skills are sufficient for delivering digital citizenship.

The shift towards digital citizenship away from cybersafety is also a really exciting change for schools and for educators. For a long time within a cybersafety framework we’ve viewed cybersafety and digital citizenship as an annoying bolt-on—as something that schools simply have to do to protect their infrastructure and their educators, and vaguely to protect their students from problems online and on mobile phones. However, when we take the Internet and mobile phones as an opportunity, we allow students to do real-world learning about what effective citizenship means for them, both online and offline. This is a rich opportunity for schools—something very powerful, and something that we currently miss out on a lot. Instead of seeing this as an annoying bolt-on, we could, instead, view this as an wonderful opportunity for real lifelong learning in a meaningful way.

Disturbing cybersafety approaches are missed opportunities and counter-productive

I’ve heard of a disturbing situation where one school has banned cell phones from the entire school. They did that this year. They did that because they had a cyber bullying problem that their cybersafety approach wasn’t able to address. This school missed out on the opportunity to explore how they could use digital citizenship to transform the way that these students were using cell phones in a positive way. This is sad. I think about the unintended victims of this ban. I think of the science projects that won’t be able to be videoed on someone’s cell phone, I think of the class polls that won’t be able to happen because the cell phones are no longer there—and, I think about the challenges the school is going to face as they move into embracing bring-your-own-device and other mobile learning devices into their classroom. How are they going to do this?

A swimming pool analogy is helpful to understand this sort of quandary. We are lucky that so many schools have pools to teach water safety. However, what if a school became worried that one of their students might drown and they resorted to getting rid of the swimming pool? We know, however, that the parent community would be up in arms. Pools in school provide an amazing opportunity to teach students water-safety skills so they can be safe when they leave the school grounds, when they finish their school career. Yet, when applied to mobile phones and the Internet, the school chooses to ban the swimming pool, effectively cutting off an incredible opportunity to foster their students digital citizenship, to let their students rehearse and play around, make some of the mistakes they need to make while they are younger, when they are still protected by the school where they have that support. The last thing we want is for them leaving without that knowledge so they are let loose on society without skills to keep themselves safe, and more importantly to protect other people.

Drivers for this trend

  • Global futures
  • Global connectivity and global reach
  • Tension between ‘white list’ & ‘black list’.
  • Providing safety but also some risk for students
  • Concerns about online safety
  • Emerging mores around online participation
  • Globalised reach of education


  • How well is the concept of global citizenship embedded within your school curriculum?
  • Do you have a vision for the global future that your students will inhabit?
  • What is your personal/school vision for being digitally literate?
  • How are the practices of cyber-citizens being modelled in your school?
  • What would be the response of staff to a breakdown in this area?

Learn, participate, and share

CORE staff are using Bundlr to collate links to articles and information relating to Digital Citizenship in a Bundlr collection. There is the option for you to choose to follow the growing collection over the next few months.