Teaching digital citizenship across the whole curriculum

By Dennis Pierce
September 15th, 2015

Teaching digital citizenship as a “one-off event” doesn’t lead to changes in behavior, experts say

citizenship-curriculumWhen author and IT director Mike Ribble talks about the importance of teaching students appropriate online behavior, he likes to share a few eye-opening statistics.

According to Common Sense Media’s study “Zero to Eight: Children’s Media Use in America,” the percentage of children ages eight and under who’ve used a mobile device nearly doubled from 2011 to 2013, from 38 percent to 72 percent. What’s more, about two in five children under the age of two have used a mobile device.

“Kids are coming to school having already had some contact with technology,” said Ribble, who works for the Manhattan-Ogden Unified School District 383 in Kansas. “Whether they have a knowledge of how to use it appropriately is another question.”

Findings like these suggest the need for schools to start teaching good digital citizenship to students at a very young age—and Ribble and many others believe that students should learn these skills throughout the K-12 curriculum. But that isn’t happening in many school districts.

“When we teach digital citizenship as a one-off event like a presentation or an assembly, everybody gets all hyped up—and then it disappears over time,” he said. “But if we embed it into the curriculum, that’s when it sticks.”

Ribble has written a book about the topic, called Digital Citizenship in Schools, and a new edition is available this fall. In his book, Ribble outlines nine essential elements of digital citizenship that every student should know, and he includes suggestions for teaching these skills across the curriculum.

For instance, one sample activity aims to make students more aware of the issues involved in file sharing. Teachers divide their class into two groups, one arguing in support of file sharing and the other arguing against it. Student research each side of the debate, perhaps with the help of lawyers who specialize in digital law, and they must find concrete examples of legal and illegal file sharing to use in their arguments.

“After completing the debate, have the class determine which side made a better case,” Ribble writes. “Spend time after the debate discussing the issues raised by both groups.”

Managing an online identity

Teaching digital citizenship across the curriculum is a practice that Jennifer Scheffer is working to bring to the Burlington Public Schools in Massachusetts.

Scheffer, who is the mobile learning coach and instructional technology specialist for this district known for the one-to-one iPad program at its high school, has taught a high school elective course called Digital Literacy. But the class “was only being taken by a very small percentage of students,” she said. “We feel that digital citizenship is something that all students should learn.”

Scheffer is working with the high school’s principal and department heads to figure out how to integrate digital citizenship education school-wide and deliver lessons that are tailored to each grade level. “We may use Common Sense Media’s curriculum and assessments,” she said, “because those resources are excellent—and there’s no reason for us to reinvent the wheel.”

Burlington English and social studies teachers already teach their students information literacy skills such as how to judge the credibility of online information and how to source this information properly, Scheffer said.

Many teachers also use Google Classroom to foster online discussions outside of class, and they set clear expectations for how students should interact in this space—such as how to disagree with each other in an appropriate and respectful manner.

In addition, Burlington High School holds a summer session in which incoming freshmen receive their iPads and learn how to use them responsibly.

“This year, we went a little deeper,” Scheffer said. “We spent more time talking to students about their ability to use social networks, but also their responsibility to use those networks safely and ethically.”

The school allows students to use social networks such as Twitter, Instagram, Tumbler, and Vine. “We believe it’s our job to help students use these tools for research, and also to craft an identity they can be proud of,” she said.

The school’s message to students, which is reinforced throughout their high school experience, is to think carefully before they share something online, and Scheffer emphasizes to students that they are not creating a digital “footprint,” because “footprints can be washed away.” Instead, she refers to their online identity as a digital “tattoo.”

“With digital technologies, it’s more like a permanent mark,” she explained.

Scheffer has taught in a school that blocked students’ access to social media tools, and she said that approach was not effective at curbing cyber bullying. In Burlington, where students are exposed to these tools early on and learn how to use them responsibly, there have been very few instances of misuse.

“I think our approach is working,” she said. “When students know their teachers and principals are on these sites as well, they are less likely to use these tools in negative ways.”

Many schools teach about online safety and responsibility by creating an atmosphere of fear, Scheffer said, but that’s not a healthy approach. It sends the wrong message: We don’t trust you.

“Culture is a hard thing to develop in schools, but we have such a great culture here in Burlington, because students feel trusted and empowered,” she said. “At the same time, they know they will be held accountable for their online behavior.”

Digital citizenship is not just about teaching students what not to do, but also what they should be doing, to create a positive online impression. Scheffer runs a student help desk at the high school, and she has showed her help-desk students how to create LinkedIn profiles and cultivate digital identities that will help them get into college and land their dream job.

“My vision is to team up with the guidance department to make sure every senior is graduating with an understanding of how to use LinkedIn to help them achieve their career goals,” she said. She described one student who wants to be a physical therapist and has carefully crafted both a professional and a personal profile to help her reach her goal.

Examples like this aren’t the norm yet, Scheffer said, “but we’re on the right path.”

The former Editor in Chief of eSchool News, Dennis Pierce is now a freelance writer covering education and technology. He has been following the ed-tech space for nearly 20 years. Dennis can be reached at