Digital Citizenship: From Nice to Ethical

Too often, the message to kids is simply, “Be nice when you’re online and stay away from perverts.” While I agree that cyber-bullying and sexual predators are both important things to avoid, it seems as though the school system is being myopic in defining citizenship.

After all, if we take the word “digital” out of it, teachers wouldn’t tell students, “Be a great citizen. To do so, you need to be nice and stay away from perverts.” Instead, we talk about character, democracy, civic engagement and critical thinking. What if we took the same approach to digital interaction? What if we transitioned from “be nice” to “be ethical?”

The following are the five areas:

#1: Identity: Often, teachers talk to students about “digital footprint” and the focus is almost entirely on avoiding liability and asking students to show their best work. Students hear stories about employers who raided Facebook accounts for ethical flaws (and teachers often do this without asking teachers to examine the power of corporations on one’s private life). What if we taught them to be authentic? What if we asked them to engage in meaningful digital story-telling? And what if, more importantly, we asked students to think ethically about the role of technology in redefining what it means to be human.

#2: Collaboration: I want students to know how to co-create and communicate online. I want them to know how to speak boldly, but respectfully. Nice people keep the status quo. Ethical people engage in conflict in order to solve problems.  I want them to show empathy as they engage in meaningful discourse – not for the skills of a New Economy, but for the success of democracy.

#3: Critical Thinking: Critical thinkers aren’t necessarily “nice.” They are folks who can find the bias in sources, see multiple viewpoints, understand nuance, think in paradox and solve problems. If democracy is going to succeed, it requires critical thinkers. I also want them to think critically about the medium itself. True, they have the world at the palm of their hands, but I also want them to feel the grass beneath their feet.

#4: Creativity: I understand the need for digital citizenship to address issues of copyright. However, I want students to contribute to the creative commons and to curate resources that they find. I want them to learn to be innovative problem-solvers who can choose tech tools effectively. In the process of problem-solving, students need to pick the tools effectively.

#5: Engagement: When I look at the Arab Spring, I am reminded that they used social media for social change. I want students to be pocket journalists, contributing to an informed citizenry. I want them to explore issues, engage with the community, and express their social voice.

How would you define digital citizenship? (answer on Google Plus or Twitter)

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

More about John

10 responses

  1. This is pretty timely for me. I had a similar thread in my #InnovatED quick session last month, and I'm doing a session that will invoke some of these ideas at the Martin Institute's summer conference next month. Wanna Skype in? 🙂

    I've been thinking in terms of Be Safe, Be Kind, Be Fair (Ethical), but you've got me thinking I might want to expand my conversation. I like how you've incorporated critical thinking and creativity into the definition.

    1. I think kindness, fairness and safety are all critical for sure. Definitely different than simply "be nice."

      I would love to Skype in. Just let me know when.

  2. I think that you should add a sixth to this, and that is "Patience."

    One of the most frustrating things about creating, collaborating, and engaging is that the more you become aware and contribute, the more roadblocks you tend to run into. You wind up feeling like nobody is listening to you or that you're being shut out by those with whom you are collaborating (the culture of collaboration that we promote never seems to account for ego, does it), and that engagement does not always necessarily have quick results that you like. In fact, being an informed citizen is one of the most frustrating things one can be.

    So patience. Patience and determination to use all of these different skills and follow through to the end result and not simply give up because you didn't instantly get what you wanted.

    1. I love the notion of patience as a valuable skill. In an instant culture, that's a vital skill for empathy, collaboration, co-creating and communicating.

  3. Lovely post! Thank you, as always.

  4. Just hours ago I was in a PFO meeting where our Superintendent was pitching his "one-to-one laptop initiative," and a parent raised concerns naturally about online safety, and I pitched in about online collaboration. But I love what you wrote here, gave me a lot to think about. Thank you!

    1. Thanks. I think the safety concerns are absolutely valid. I'm not one to dismiss them entirely. I admit that a part of me gets nervous as my own children get older.

  5. What about responsibility?

    "With great power comes great responsibility" (my love for Spiderman coming out)

    Adults and young people generally think of responsibility in different ways. Adult responsibilities are usually endured for a pay off later. Young people tend to think of responsibility like Peter Parker's uncle– connected to personal power. (I think of when Kinder kiddos who are blasted over the moon when granted responsibilities such as paint brush washer… what power they wield!)

    Dewey (oh how I love that you quoted him) would say the latter is a much more enjoyable way of viewing responsibility. I think young people are naturally inclined in rising to the challenge of personally serving a digital community. Granting responsibility affirms our faith in the power they have to be ethical and critical creators. Actively fulfilling those responsibilities affirms faith in themselves.

    1. I love the notion of the two types of responsibilities and the enjoyment one gets from both of them. I'm wondering if this means I've never truly grown up 😉

  6. I really appreciate how you have helped reframe existing educational concepts for the digital age. I've been tackling the ethics of digital composition, and I'd love to hear your thoughts on my blog. Here's a snippet of what I discussed:

    "The new ethic of digital literacy we interrogate is cosmopolitan practice—reflexive and hospitable habits of mind during the several decisions made while composing…

    Self-reflexive Composition. As youth revise profile pages, create movies, post links to share, they must imagine others’ possible interpretations of their work…Compositional decisions are not isolated to the page or screen, but are decisions of social positioning and engaging with others.

    Hospitable Stances. We work with and are ourselves audiences in a sense that is new to the human experience—audience as distant and local, intended and possible, particular and en masse….Being hospitable readers, writers, and viewers includes tolerating the discomfort that comes with honestly engaging with another around the uncertainties of attempting to understand meanings as interpreted—as intended and unintended."

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