Digital Citizenship: Preparing Students for Life


WholeChildBannerBy Steven Weber

“I am a citizen, not of Athens or Greece, but of the world.” —Socrates

digitalcitizenshipCitizenship has been one of the main goals of education since the days of the one-room schoolhouse. Although teaching the 3 Rs (reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic) provides an academic foundation for our youth, an educated person lacking character will not make a good employee, community member, elected official, or volunteer. Does your school still teach a character word of the month? Do you make citizenship part of the school’s culture?

As an assistant principal at an elementary school, I learned a lesson in citizenship from one of our 5th grade students: Our school counselor had painted a giant tree on the wall outside the cafeteria. When students demonstrated traits of good citizenship such as honesty, respect, dependability, or responsibility, they would receive a leaf to place on the tree. One afternoon, a student gave me a nickel. He said, “Mr. Weber, I found a nickel. I found a nickel. Can I have a leaf with my name on it?” I asked, “If that were a dollar bill would you turn it in or would you keep it?” After a long period of silence the boy said, “Mr. Weber, no leaf is worth a dollar!”

Digital citizenship is a new term in K–12 education, and there are endless possibilities for incorporating digital citizenship skills into lessons and unit plans. Rather than asking students to memorize definitions of character words or place a leaf on the character tree, we can use teachable moments as a learning lab for students who live in a digital world. In the one-room schoolhouse, students learned bible verses, poems about character, and maybe even read from the hornbook to learn how to behave as a citizen.

How many students enter your classroom with a cell phone or other device? How many students post videos, create music, play video games with players they have never met, share photos on Snapchat, or share their life story through Instagram? Educators can take advantage of the digital world and teach citizenship by addressing topics such as media literacy, cyberbullying, digital footprints, netiquette, Internet safety, citing online sources, and more. Students may not be given a handbook for playing in this virtual playground, but here are a few resources that outline how K–12 teachers can incorporate digital citizenship across the curriculum.

  • Digital Literacy & Curriculum Classroom Curriculum (from Common Sense Education)—Common Sense Education is the nation’s leading independent nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering kids to thrive in a world of media and technology. Check out how the curriculum’s scope and sequence (PDF) supports teaching and learning.
  • Footprints in the Digital Age” by Will Richardson (Educational Leadership, 2008)—In this article, Richardson addresses the importance of a digital footprint and explains that “[m]ore than ever before, students have the potential to own their own learning—and we have to help them seize that potential.” All students are creating a digital footprint when they post text, photos, and videos online. Are they being taught how to use social media to their advantage?
  • ISTE Standards for Students (PDF)—The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Standards for Students outline the skills and knowledge students will need in order to live productively in a global and digital world. These standards, specifically standard 5, provide a starting point for teachers and teacher teams who are aligning their lessons, units, and assessments to digital citizenship.
  • Digital Citizenship Poster (from Common Sense Education)—Common Sense Education designed this poster for middle school and high school classrooms. The poster helps students evaluate photo-sharing decisions and realize the impact of their digital footprint by answering a variety of questions.
  • 10 Benefits of Media Literacy in Education (from the Center for Media Literacy)— The Center for Media Literacy works to help citizens, especially the young, develop critical thinking and media production skills needed to live fully in the 21st century media culture. This list outlines the many advantages of teaching students about media literacy. According to Media Literacy Now, “Media Literacy is literacy in our era. It is a set of skills that allows people to understand messages they are receiving through writing, sound or visual images. At one time you were considered literate if you could read and write.”

Students live in a globally connected world, and the world is in the palms of their hands. What are the characteristics of a good citizen in a digital world? Tony Wagner (2008) wrote, “[A]ll students need new skills for college, careers, and citizenship.” If we fail to provide students with the opportunity to learn digital citizenship, then we will fail to prepare students for life. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1940) said, “We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.”

How can you use digital tools and classroom assignments to prepare our youth for the future? As educators, we need to address digital citizenship because our students are citizens of the world and they are connected. Character education and citizenship are not ancient history. Our students are competent with smart phones, laptops, video games, apps, and social media. What type of citizen will your school district produce?


Steven Weber is the executive director of curriculum and instruction for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools (N.C.). He is also on the North Carolina ASCD board. Connect with Weber on ASCD EDge® or on Twitter @curriculumblog.


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