Understanding Digital Citizenship

(Note: There is some sensitive content discussed here, especially under item #4.)

I recently spent most of the day with Dean Shareski in Moose Jaw co-facilitating a couple of digital citizenship sessions. Here’s the wiki for the media literacy portion, in case you are interested.

Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about digital citizenship. I even dreamt I twitted about it last night (when Twitter is in my dreams, I know I need a break). Here is mostly what I have been thinking.

To me, the current approaches to digital citizenship seem to leave out important meanings of the term citizenship. It seems the Dr. Mike Ribble and Dr. Gerald Bayley are associated with the term quite frequently and they have a lot to say about it. At their digital citizenship site, it reads:

Digital Citizenship is a concept which helps teachers and technology leaders understand what students should know to use technology appropriately. But Digital Citizenship is more that just a teaching tool, it is a way to prepare students for a society full of technology. Too often we are seeing students as well as adults misusing and abusing technology. The issue is more than what the users do not know but instead what is considered appropriate technology usage.

This is as close to a definition that I can find on the site. From this, it seems that digital citizenship is about using technology appropriately, and not misusing or abusing technology. Not bad, but pretty vague.

So I explore the site a bit more, and there are “Nine Themes of Digital Citizenship“. OK, this is better. These include: digital etiquette, digital communication, digital literacy, digital commerce, digital law, digital rights and responsibilities, digital health and wellness and digital security (self protection). The item I am most interested in is the “digital rights and responsibilities”. Up until now, most of what I have seen related to digital citizenship relates only to safety, literacy and etiquette and the strategies we use in teaching these to children. While these approaches have merit, I still feel there is something significant missing.

So under “digital rights and responsibilities” it reads:

Digital Rights & Responsibilities: those freedoms extended to every student, administrator, teacher, parent or community member. Just as in the American Constitution where there is a Bill of Rights, there is a basic set of rights extended to every digital citizen. Digital citizens have the right to privacy, free speech, etc. Basic digital rights must be addressed, discussed, and understood in the school district.

Wait a minute … there’s the rights, but where’d our responsibilities go? I looked around … yet, no where in sight.

So I turn to a colleague down the hall … actually walked down the hall, didn’t Google him. Dr. Marc Spooner who recently wrote the paper, “Full-Spectrum Literacy, For Full-Spectrum Citizenship: Education as a process towards agency, engagement, and critical awareness and action“. Ironically, the title itself has told me more about citizenship than anything I’ve read so far under the digital citizenship label. In the article, Dr. Spooner writes:

A fully literate citizen is at once critically self-reflexive and critically reflexive of his/her collective and position within it.

This helps a great deal. Will get back to this.

Also helpful is the description of polis citizenship in Wikipedia. Most specifically,

The obligations of citizenship were deeply connected into one’s everyday life in the polis. To be truly human, one had to be an active citizen to the community, which Aristotle famously expressed: “To take no part in the running of the community’s affairs is to be either a beast or a god!” This form of citizenship was based on obligations of citizens towards the community, rather than rights given to the citizens of the community. This was not a problem because they all had a strong affinity with the polis; their own destiny and the destiny of the community were strongly linked. Also, citizens of the polis saw obligations to the community as an opportunity to be virtuous, it was a source of honour and respect.

I’m not sure if its my Greek roots or my leftist views, but this appeals to me as well.

So in bringing these two last source together (and I know I’m taking a giant leap here), I can say that digital citizenship can be extended to include;
1) A responsibility to critical interpret our place in the collective, especially in terms of power, authority, influence and position, and
2) An obligation toward bettering our (digital) communities through critical, ethical and moral decision-making.

Again, I know it’s a leap, but I may fill in the gaps later.

OK, enough theorizing. I’d like to give you an idea through examples of why I think this missing piece is critical to our understanding of digital citizenship.

1) Star Wars Kid: Perhaps the greatest tragedy for Ghyslain Raza is that he will forever be known as the Star Wars Kid. This young boy was a victim of a global, yet widely unintentional, bullying assault which prompted him to end his school year in a psychiatric ward. At the time, most could claim that they didn’t know better, and this is likely true. There had never been a viral incident like this, and some predict there will be nothing like it again. So what have we learned? Have we been any kinder to our youth or adults that make mistakes? Do we join in on the laughter? Do we act? What do we do?

2) LonelyGirl15: Controversy emerged when “Bree”, a supposedly 16-yr-old YouTuber who went by the screen name of LonelyGirl15, was revealed as a corporate hoax. Since then, other Youtube hoaxes have emerged including Bride’s Massive Hair Wig-out and The Pit Breakup. Types of democratic media (e.g., blogs, video) which have been instrumental in exposing the lies and biases of corporate media (e.g., RatherGate) are also being used in these same, coercive ways. While it may not be the end of the world when the content is light as in these examples, this can be much more severe when the topics are more critical (e.g., Global Warming is a Hoax, or Pro Suicide). Certainly, critical literacy is important here, but it’s more than that. If deception continues to be the fad, what are our roles and responsibilities?

3) Prison Thriller: A while back I blogged on the “Prison Thriller Video“. When I first saw the video, I didn’t think much of it, until I saw a post from Scott McLeod reporting on the “not so thrilling” background to this video. With media rushing at as so fast, it is so difficult to analyze anything very closely. Do we need to slow down and explore in more depth? And when we find cases like this, what should/can we do about it?

4) 2G1C: In recent weeks, the 2G1C video has been classified as a viral video, as well as a shock site. I have linked to the Wikipedia page about this video, I encourage you NOT to seek out the original, and I assume that after you have read the description, you will not want to. This is not a video I would usually talk about in an educational blog. I would not usually want to bring more attention to something like this. The problem is, it’s too late, and I don’t see any educators talking about this and what the implications may be.

The problem I see is that this video is becoming somewhat mainstream. Boing Boing (they’re ranked #3 in Technorati) has covered the issue several times. A search in Youtube, which will NOT bring up the video itself, links to over 6300 reactions. These are people watching the video, reacting to what they see, usually getting sick and disgusted. Most of these reactions are from young adults and teens. One individual even set up his grandmother to watch the video to tape her reaction. Horrible.

5) Facebook-like Petitions: A while back I asked a few questions about the Internet and prosocial change. I received many excellent responses (Dave Cormier’s for example) but one that has stuck in my mind was from Brian Lamb. He writes,

Is there any more anemic and ineffectual form of protest than a Facebook petition? The practice seems to be solely about a form of preening self-indulgence: “look at me,” the Facebook activist is proclaiming, “I care.” It reduces political and social engagement to a form of self-branding, no more or less significant that the lists of favorite movies, bands, silly quotations and virtual hugs and SuperPokes.

This quote pretty much speaks for itself in the context of this post. When social activism and engagement are reduced to these types of activities, what do we need to do to change this?

Of course, there are many more examples I can include. If you have your own that fit within (or outside of) this thinking, let me know.

I’m just beginning to rediscover what digital citizenship means. I know it needs to cover more than safety issues, literacy and etiquette. I know it is not just about our rights as online citizens. It needs to concern itself much more with social responsibility and social learning than is currently being addressed.

34 thoughts on “Understanding Digital Citizenship

  1. This is an important post that you’ve written about a critical subject that we need to discuss. I will be responding on this but have sent this through my feed and my blog in order to get others to read this very important piece of work. This is a very important blog post.

    Yes, we need to speak out and we need to move much faster than we are. We have many issues that we cannot address because many schools cannot even broach the subject. (I mean when you talk about sex, you have to get graphic. Likewise, there are uncomfortable topics floating around digital citizenship as well.)

    To take these things and stuff them in the veritable closet of unpleasantries is to great harm to our society. We must weigh in on and propose changes to prevent the viralization of the unsavory things that are not only unhelpful to society but harmful to our very being and mores.

    How low must we go until we realize that we have destroyed the very things we love. This post saddens me and fills me with hope. It is hearbreaking but also moving that you’ve taken the time here to present the things that must be considered by all educators who care.

  2. I’ve blogged about this post. Alec, I’m mad. I’m angry. I’m so much I cannot express. This post is very important and I’m going to tell everyone I know to read it.

  3. I don’t have time for this post. By that I mean, I’ve already read it, but I need about another 7-8 hours to digest it and write my own thoughts on the subject.

    It’s a critical subject to be explored and you bring up some great points. One thing that I think is important to keep in mind as well is the influence of regional community. We think of ‘online’ as being strictly global. But as we see in example after example, many issues are clouded by the fact that they’re being interpreted by people who do not come from a society with the same values as the people who are creating the content.

    How that fits into the idea of Digital Citizenry is beyond me right now, but it does need to be taken into consideration.

  4. Social Responsibility is such a vital part of what we do in schools and it is great that you shed some light on Digital Citizenship and the lack of consideration for this important aspect (dare I say ‘skill’). Your examples remind me of driving on a highway and watching cars slow down to see an accident scene… morbid fascination:-/
    It seems to me that we must empower students (rather than police them). For example, you can make students do a Random Act of Kindness, yet you can’t make them appreciate the value of giving. But if they aren’t given the opportunity in the first place, then they have lost the opportunity for learning.
    We can’t just be socially responsible digital models and hope students will see that. We must show them that we value responsible digital behavior, we must spend time discussing this with our classes and we must have clear expectations.
    I’m reminded of Lord of the Flies…
    As teachers, do we want digital social responsibility to be self regulated or do we want it to be something we show everyone that we value?

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  6. For every thing we see on the Internet, there are real people behind the images and video. I remember seeing the Thriller video and wondering in the back of my head what the real story is. I felt in my heart that there was more there than meets the eye.

    I keep coming back again and again to the thought that our students require our leadership in all things. Social responsibility is just one facet in the overall schooling children should be receiving. There are so many things I struggle with to provide a balanced program in my K-8 computer classes. As I work with my students, I will add this to our discussions.

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  8. Thanks for all of your comments, everyone. This is something I really want to think about over the next few weeks. I’m thinking “digital citizenship” is not the right term to deal with this all. I usually talk about many of these issues under the critical media literacy umbrella, it seems a bit more flexible, as long as people understand that action is often necessary to be truly critical.

    Thanks Vicki for writing about this on your blog, and passing it along on Twitter … it certainly got the message out beyond my usual readership. The message is quite incomplete, but it’s up to all of us to fill-in-the-blanks.

    I know I’ll follow-up with something more thought out in the future, I’ll be sure to ask for guidance along the way. Thanks all, thanks again!

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  10. This is a great post. I am glad that this is being talked about. Just like behavior in hallways or out in society, I think people believe it will just go away. Have we lost a generation that does not know what the right thing is? I hope not. I feel many model the correct behavior well but when there are mixed messages, the wrong choices are made. How do you change the values? As an educator, this seems daunting but worthy of the effort and should not be given up. Thanks Vicki for posting!

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  13. No site has gotten this perfectly right yet, but a semi-closed Web 2.0 tool (blogs, comments, wikis, podcasts, vodcasts, diggs, etc.) for K-8 students – where kids police each other hand-in-hand with teachers and parents – rewarding positive digital citizenship within posts, comments, and flagging with a wider audience and severly punishing negative digital citizenship within posts, comments, and flagging with a smaller audience could help in the long term.

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  16. Thanks for sharing your views on this Alec. This is a very important subject, and one that we as educators need to look good and hard at. I will be posting some thoughts to this on my blog, once I have digested what you’ve said and the thoughts that spawn from this. There’s so much that can be said, but in the end, we want our students to learn the appropriate way to use the Internet.

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  22. Thanks Alec for your excellent discussion and the other thought provoking postings. I am an Australian Digital Literacies lecturer. Media Literacy (English Curriculum) and Digital Literacy (Media Studies Curriculum) are compulsory subjects here. We too are very involved in debating the concept of Digital Citizenship and a colleague and I have set up a website to inlcude debates of this kind- Cyber safe World. On that site you will find a link to a new resource we have produced for the Australian Teachers of Media (ATOM), called Cyber Safe Kids. ATOM also provides a lot of free resources on their website for Digital and Media Literacy. http://www.metromagazine.com.au/index.html
    Good luck!

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  24. Thanks for an excellent posting. Allow me some comments. You wrote “Digital Citizenship is a way to prepare students for a society full of technology”….I agree, but having just talked to my students about the concept of digital citizenship, we agreed that we need to add something which will capture the issue of ‘power’ in living in a society full of technology. I wonder, whether the below quote from Stephen Brookfield ( in the book :The Power of Critical Theory for Adult Learning and Teaching, p94) is more valid than ever:

    “Have you ever seen a friend or group of colleagues behave in a way which you knew was killing them slowly and decided in the interests of friendship to point this out to them?And have you ever found that the analysis of their behavior was met with scorn or disbelief and an increased desire by your friends to celebrate, and become even more committed to, these same behaviors?…..Then what you are witnessing may be something other than willfully irrational self-destruction. Instead, it can be hegemony in action.”

    So, my point is whether we need to add to the Digital Citizenship concept, the term ‘critical’, which will allow our future citizens to resist technology not only to adopt. For example, would ‘facebook’ be so successful should users knew about the exploitation of the information by the company itsself? Would uses boycott tools and technology if they were suspicious of misuse? Would people be ready to question the idea of a cloud computing generation? and so on….

    Thank you for reading my blurb …just ideas from a young academic in the field.

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  30. Some interesting points here Alec. I agree with your points regarding the need to ensure a broad and deep understanding of digital citizenship. I would argue that Ribble and Bailey do not ignore this in their work. Perhaps it is the manner in which their work is being interpreted and filtered in various permutations?
    I would add that an understanding of digital citizenship is also about the wonderful possibilities for our children and students. Rather than focusing on the negative I think it is important to note and profile young people who are using the Internet safely and ethically to make the world a better place. For example, seven year old Charlie Simpson through riding his bike around a park in the U.K. managed to raise $300,000.00 for Haitian relief. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/jan/25/schoolboy-charlie-simpson-haiti-bike
    Craig Kielberger at 12 years of age created Free the Children. http://www.freethechildren.com/ There is so much fear around children’s use of digital technologies. Digital citizenship is about more than that-it is also about potential and the celebration of the human spirit. Not to approach digital citizenship from this aspect is to comparable to telling our children they should never cross the street because it might be dangerous! Isn’t it better to prepare them to take a thoughtful place in the world where they can contribute in a meaningful manner?

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