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DOs and DON’Ts of teaching digital citizenship

Teaching digital citizenship can be a polarizing activity. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, as digital natives, students seldom feel at a disadvantage when it comes to understanding online activities and behavior - leaving teachers often times adrift on a shifting sea of uncertainty.

Secondly, today’s generation of over-sharers may have a fundamentally different perspective of online behavior than do teachers (assumably from a prior generation). Thirdly, digital citizenship instruction can have a moralistic tone that can have students balking at its constriction and lack of open-mindedness.

So, today I have conscientiously chosen the title: “DOs and DON’Ts” as this is precisely the tone, and therefore the problem, with many digital citizenship instruction. We will try today to explore more organic, open ways to discuss and improve the digital citizenship of your students.

DOs of teaching digital citizenship

Without further ado, here are the things you as an educator teaching digital citizenship should do:

Follow your own guidelines

Before you can “lecture” on good digital citizenship be sure your social and other profiles follow your own guidelines. There is no doubt that students will have, or will soon, trawl the internet for information on their teacher, and at this point your personal social media privacy settings should be rock solid.

Ensure also that your professional profiles are open and transparently available.

A further aspect of this “Do” is to be clear in your own mind of what your communication boundaries are. From day one make it clear to both students, and importantly to parents (read my blog on helicopter parents) when and how your prefer to be contacted.

Get offline

A counter intuitive suggestion but one which has far-reaching impacts on online behavior. Much online misbehavior is driven by a lack of empathy. The “other person” online is often seen as little more than a digital object, free from feelings and actions are seemingly free of emotional or other consequences.

One often hears, “children can be cruel” and school-yard bullying by boys, and catty ganging up by girls is unfortunately as old as school-yards themselves. The anti-bullying campaign, I believe, is directly linked to our behavior as responsible digital citizens, and any class in digital citizenship should address the function and value of empathy, diversity, difference and community the same way any anti-bullying campaign should address how a student's behavior online is as impactful as their behavior in the real world.

Try some of these wonderful empathy-building activities with your class.

Acknowledge that students have online “lives”

It is important to recognize that your students conduct so much of their lives online, from connecting, messaging, researching, reading, socializing and shopping that to them there will be almost no distinction between life and online life.

It may be tempting at this point, specifically for older teachers, to point out that perhaps students may be better off taking a walk in nature, or chatting to a friend face-to-face, but this approach is unlikely to frame the need for good online citizenship any better. Rather accept that the online world is seamlessly blended with the real-world lives of most students, and begin your discussions about privacy, online safety, decorum, netiquette and information security from there.

DON’Ts of teaching digital citizenship

Now let’s take a look at what you shouldn’t do when it comes to teaching digital citizenship:

Have an actual digital citizenship class

This may sound counterintuitive but it may make sense, in your particular environment, to add a digital citizenship module, or learning outcome per lesson. Naturally this applies mostly to those lessons where students will need to act or research online.

Providing a guideline on safe and acceptable online behavior whenever you ask students to go online, will reinforce the approach in a more organic way, rather than have it as a stand-alone lesson, that can in fact be quite dry and unrelatable.

Simply hand out guidelines

A better method of developing guidelines is in a flat-structure rather than handed down “from above”. Allow students - this works particularly well at the beginning of the school year - to discuss and develop their own guidelines.

This not only means you get broad-based buy-in from students on the guidelines, but also allows a degree of ownership that may even result in a form of self-regulation.

Distinguish between digital and real-world citizenship

Encouraging good citizenship should be the ultimate goal of any digital citizenship process. A great way to do this is to direct your students (perhaps even design a semester-long project for it) to online resources where they can actively participate in programs and activities that build communities for the greater good. Try some of these:

  • KidPower — A UNICEF backed app that combines wearables with fitness, when kids reach a fitness goal a nutritional pack is sent to another child in need.
  • PenPal Schools — Using PBL students and teachers can collaborate across borders.
  • Tree Planet — Younger students may enjoy playing a digital game to keep their trees alive, while in the real-world the company behind the game has planted a real tree.


Digital citizenship is no doubt an important part of any school curriculum, even in schools that only have a moderate to small amount of digital or blended teaching. It is possible to naturally and seamlessly blend these lessons into your existing structure and schedule, so that it has an impact on young learners, and can - without taking up an inordinate amount if time - result in online citizens in your area that are more aware, sensitive, respectful of themselves and others and physically and digitally safe.

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