Help Yourself by Helping Your Students Be Good Digital Citizens

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

There is a rapidly growing movement online to advocate for digital citizenship instruction as a core component of developing media and digital literacy. While this movement is currently focused on children (, there is a significant need for digital citizenship training for adults who may be new to the cyber world. Adult learners having their first exposure to online interaction may have an urgent need for instruction regarding digital citizenship, and there is no better place for them to gain those skills than in the online classroom. Here's how to support your online students in becoming good digital citizens and great online learners.

What is Digital Citizenship? quotes Anne Collier from her "Connect Safely"" blog to explain that digital citizenship is "Critical thinking and ethical choices about the content and impact on oneself, others, and one's community of what one sees, says, and produces." Cyberwise also presents a video "Guide to Digital Citizenship," which is focused primarily on children, but is nonetheless informative about the key components of digital citizenship.

Adult Learners Need to be Good Citizens Too

Translating this to the online classroom for adults is simple and expands the definition to all virtual interactions. Digital citizenship for the adult learner, especially those who are new to the online environment, consists of the following:

  • Basic Digital Literacy – To participate effectively in the online classroom, students need to first understand the tools and social norms surrounding virtual interactions.
  • Personal Responsibility – Being aware of the connected nature of the digital environment means being aware of all of the potential consequences of your online actions.
  • Ethical Behavior – The online world is often seen as free of ethical considerations. However, every individual needs to have clearly articulated standards of personal guidance that apply to their virtual interactions, particularly in online classes or the work environment.
  • Protecting Privacy – Those new to the virtual world need to understand that their privacy and the privacy of others is under constant assault online. They also need to know the steps that need to be taken to preserve their privacy and that of others.
  • Ownership/Stewardship – Part of the online world is the sharing and stewardship of digital resources. Understanding that you are responsible for what you produce, as well as the role that you take in supporting and protecting your resources and the resources of others is critical.
  • Trustworthiness – Digitally mediated interactions do not impede the need to be trustworthy. Students are responsible for being the type of person online that they expect to be in person, and should expect the same degree of trustworthiness in others, while still being aware that the Internet is a place where not everyone is trustworthy.
  • Community Participation – Perhaps the most important part of being a good digital citizen is being aware of the fact that, when you are online, you are part of many interconnected communities – all with different rules of behavior and expectations. Be aware of these virtual communities and their standards of practice at all times.

Supporting Digital Citizenship in the Online Classroom
While these are great standards to have and may seem like common sense to anyone who has been working and playing online for years, these principles may not be so obvious to the first-time virtual student. An uninformed student may not realize that they are breaking protocol in the online classroom, disrupting the lessons, offending their peers, or failing to meet understood expectations. Luckily, this can largely be avoided by integrating digital citizenship instruction into your curriculum.

  • Establish Clear Expectations – If your students know what is expected of them – what to do, how to do it, and when it's due – This will empower them and make them more comfortable and more likely to contribute positively to the class. Here are ten suggestions for establishing a positive online classroom environment from Faculty Focus.
  • Support Digital Literacy – New online students in particular will need guidance in developing both the technological and social literacy skills necessary to be effective participants in your class. Here are some suggestions how you, as the instructor, can facilitate that development.
  • Make Roles Explicit – The boundaries in the virtual classroom can be a bit fuzzy. Make sure that everyone involved in the class has clearly defined roles and expectations. This research paper from Susan Easton at the University of West Virginia examines the ways in which the online faculty role differs from face-to-face teaching and what can be done to support unambiguous classroom roles.
  • Model Ethical Behavior – As an online instructor of new learners your role in modeling ethical online behavior is very important. In addition, taking the opportunity to make teachable moments out of instances where members of the class exhibit questionable behavior is essential. Media Awareness Network has several exercises designed to promote ethical behavior online.
  • Discuss Online Privacy – Think of this as an opportunity to delve deeper into the area of instruction by discussing the role of online privacy in the field. For example, this would be a perfect opportunity for nursing students to learn about HIPPA regulations.
  • Instill Ownership – Include some project-based learning in your course and have students publish the results. This way, they learn about the subject matter, learn some new digital literacy skills, and learn about curating online artifacts.
  • Inspire Trustworthiness – This ties in directly with establishing a digital community. Set up course expectations that make it clear that all members of the class are to be supportive of each other and that trust in classmates is an essential part of making the course work. This is also an opportunity to discuss plagiarism and citation standards, as well as how to evaluate online information.
  • Cultivate a Sense of Community – Perhaps the most important thing to show new online learners is that real community is possible in the online classroom. Here are some tips for establishing an effective online community.

While it makes sense to front load this information in the class, it is valuable to reinforce it throughout the course. Some things, such as expectations, roles, and digital literacy need to happen up front, while other aspects such as community, trustworthiness, and ethical behavior are ongoing goals. Plan your courses to hit on all of these and you will be well on your way to helping your students become exemplary digital citizens.