What is digital citizenship?

Everyone reading this blog, has, at minimum, dual citizenship. You may already have citizenship to one or more nations, but your presence online also grants you digital citizenship. Traditionally we gained citizenship to a place by being born there (right of soil), or having a parent/grandparent born there (right of blood). The everydayness of the internet in our lives means that most of us will spend a few hours a day on cyber-soil, granting us the bundle of rights and responsibilities of citizenship as they are applied to the digital world.

But it’s not enough just to be born somewhere if you want to maintain citizenship. We know that in most countries if you break particular laws (or enough smaller laws) you go to jail and lose your citizenship. Similarly, if you do not have the skills or knowledge to function in a particular land you have to go someplace where you can survive and be safe, and take out citizenship of that place instead.

Digital citizenship refers to the skills, knowledge and attributes required to achieve the things you want in a way that keeps you safe and meets the responsibilities expected of you. But because no one owns the internet (even though they may want to) or the tubes through which it flows, who sets the responsibilities and who enforces the rights of digital citizenship is undefined.

Locally, NetSafe has explored what digital citizenship could mean in Aotearoa/New Zealand. The NetSafe model sees digital citizenship as the nexus of skills, values, and knowledge that enables someone to use ICT (digital literacy) safely (cybersafety) to ethically, effectively, and respectfully (as described by some of the values and key competencies in the NZ curriculum) achieve what they need. Digital citizens must possess skills and knowledge in all three of these domains, otherwise they risk losing citizenship through harm to themselves, ineffectiveness, and/or sanctions.

What’s driving the interest in digital citizenship?

Two thrusts are sharply driving interest in digital citizenship: 1.) safety concerns and 2.) The potentials offered by e-learning.

Contemporary cyber-safety work in terms of child safety is roughly 15 years old. Although this work has undoubtedly increased safety, holes have appeared in some of the thinking underlying cybersafety philosophies. Technical solutions have proven to be limited in protecting children from potentially harmful content and conduct (not withstanding the technical limitations introduced with BYOD). Awareness raising approaches, while effective at educating people how to keep safe online, fall down when other users do not treat others safely, respectfully or ethically (e.g., road-safety metaphor time: it doesn’t help you to be safe if other road users drive on your side of the road, or use a car with failing breaks, etc.).

The rise in digital citizenship interest reflects the fact that focusing only on cybersafety does not produce a safe environment if there is not a focus on ensuring that other digital citizens use this space ethically, respectfully, and safely. 

Secondly, the push for digital citizenship reflects the contemporary value ascribed to e-learning and its various blended and virtual siblings. In scores of countries policies and funding now promote e-learning. The expectation for schools is no longer that young people will simply be entertained by the internet, but will instead occupy it and use it for learning. With this comes the recognition that these learners have rights in this space, as much as they have rights in their classrooms that they sit in. Equally, there is the attendant requirement for learners’ responsibilities to others in this space. Locally, Ultra Fast Broadband in Schools and e-portfolios are examples of the value by which educators and the government place on e-learning. The awareness that safety concerns may limit uptake of these opportunities makes digital citizenship a strong contender for change.

What does this all mean?

Currently the safety issues raised by the the ‘wild-west’ of the internet, and the inability of traditional cyber-safety approaches to prevent them, see these issues being brought into the purvue of governments and law makers. Locally we see this manifesting in increasing regulatory pressure for action (e.g., most recently on cyberbullying). We should expect to see more legislative pressure and regulation around digital citizenship concerns.

We need to ensure that we teach young people about using ICT to achieve what they need in a respectful and ethical way that keeps them safe. This means recognising that that teaching people how to be safe is not always going to keep them safe, and nor will relying on internet filters to always do the job. We need to ensure that all digital citizens understand their responsibilities and their rights, and we need to find ways to enforce these rights carefully.

These issues highlight the need to ensure that schools plan for the provision of digital citizenship within their strategic planning. Increasingly this will become a critical way to ensure that the school community gets the most out of e-learning. School communities need to ensure that their educators are confident in supporting learners to become thriving digital citizens.

What can you do?

Don’t let stubborn cybersafety and digital citizenship concerns hold you back – If you are passionate about e-learning and student-centred practice, then:

  • Advocate for your school to incorporate a digital citizenship into its strategic plan.
  • Use NetSafe’s excellent Learn | Guide | Protect website. The website lists resources and approaches to embed cybersafety and digital citizenship within your practice.
  • Speak out for professional development for digital citizenship so your school community can get the most out of e-learning and not be left behind.
  • Check out Mike Ribble’s comprehensive work on digital citizenship.