On Digital Citizenship

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The first week of my latest graduate class, Digital Citizenship, has come and gone, and has led me to examine two main concepts: my own definition of what the term “digital citizenship” means, and the most vital elements of that citizenship.

Some authors argue that there should be no distinction made between digital citizenship and citizenship in the “real world,” believing that, as Ribble writes, “the word digital should and must be removed from citizenship” (2015, p. 12). This “one life” perspective, as Ohler terms it (2012), maintains that the digital and non-digital world are one and the same, especially to today’s students. Ohler further argues that a strong “character education,” built around a community-defined set of values, is what these students truly need to develop into good citizens. 

Another school of thought, while not completely separating the digital and non-digital worlds, does nonetheless draw a distinction between the two; for example, Polgar and Curran, citing Ribble, declare: “Digital citizenship is the norms of appropriate, responsible tech use” (2015). While I lean toward the “one life” perspective, I believe that at present we are better served by continuing to highlight the distinct citizenship challenges and questions that present themselves in the digital world. This is not so much for the students as it is for teachers, who may not be as naturally “plugged in” as their students are, and may need to draw these distinctions in order to understand the world their students are constantly navigating.

Even further from the “one life” idea, unfortunately, are the digital citizenship concepts put forth in countless Acceptable Use Policies in school systems across the country. As Kuropatwa points out, many times people who talk about digital citizenship are really simply talking about what not to do online, with no attention paid to what one should actually do and why (Brainwaves Video Anthology, 2015).

My own definition of digital citizenship would be as follows: Digital citizenship is the set of principles and actions that enable all people to learn and grow unimpeded. All digital citizens (or just citizens) have the right to this growth for themselves and the responsibility to help others achieve it as well, both by positive action and by avoiding negative behaviors. The most fundamental principle of this concept of citizenship is that because each individual’s success depends on their connection to the broader community, the strength of the community must be maintained by ensuring that all individuals have equal access to and investment in that community.

Ribble’s nine elements of digital citizenship all address this idea in some form; he cites digital access, commerce, communication, literacy, etiquette, law, rights and responsibilities, health, and security as the key components of digital citizenship (2015). To me, however the most important elements that Ribble highlights are rights and responsibilities, access, and communication. The sharing of information is what makes the digital world such a powerful tool for education; equal access for all is vital to help that world reach its full potential, and understanding one’s rights and responsibilities in that world, as well as those of others, is an essential part of protecting and growing that remarkable learning environment. It is these three of Ribble’s elements that drive my own definition of digital citizenship, and will affect how I present this concept to my students and colleagues.


The Brainwaves Video Anthology (2015, July 16). Darren Kuropatwa – Digital ethics and digital citizenship #BLC15 [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zbMsbxYvr4E

Ohler, J. (2012). Digital citizenship means character education for the digital age. Education Digest: Essential Readings Condensed for Quick Review, 77(8), 14-17. (PDF: Ohler_Digital_citizenship_means_character_education_2012.pdf) 

Polgar, D. R., & Curran, M. B.F.X. (2015). We shouldn’t assume people know what digital citizenship is. Retrieved from http://www.teachthought.com/technology/we-shouldnt-assume-people-know-what-digital-citizenship-is/

Ribble, M. (2015). Digital citizenship in schools: Nine elements all students should know (3rd ed.). Eugene, OR: International Society for Technology in Education.

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About the author

I am an instructional technologist for the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Dentistry in Richmond, VA. Before that, I spent more than 20 years as a public school music teacher in Chesterfield County, VA, primarily teaching guitar and music technoogy at the high school level. I hold a Bachelor of Music Education degree from the University of Richmond, and a Master of Education degree with a focus on Digital Learning and Leading from Lamar University. I believe that every person has the need, the desire, the ability, and the right to learn, and that as educators we must meet our students wherever they are, and help bring them to where they want and deserve to be.