Why Teaching Digital Citizenship Doesn’t Work

8 Feb

Spend time with children and you learn that lists of rules don’t work well. Kids are too smart and love to find loopholes. No matter how long you spend crafting a list that covers all scenarios a 5-year-old will bite someone and point out that you didn’t say he couldn’t.

A better approach is positive general principles. Tell students what you want them to do. My favorite model is the four Tribes agreements that are displayed prominently in my class and discussed and practiced every day:

  1. Attentive Listening– Pay close attention to what others are saying. Check for understanding
  2. Appreciation Only– Treat each other kindly, don’t use put-downs.
  3. Right to Pass– Choose when and how much you participate. It’s acceptable to simply observe.
  4. Mutual Respect– Affirm the value and uniqueness of everyone.

These agreements cover most situations, describe behavior in positive terms and support the development of critical thinking skills.

This approach works better than long lists of rules, and so I’m confused by the common approach to encouraging good Digital Citizenship. Further, the concept of separate rules for digital behavior is quite flawed.

Digital Citizenship is often promoted by listing the many things students cannot or should not do. Schools require students to sign ‘Acceptable User Agreements’ with long lists of rules such as:

Students may not

  • Use illegal downloads
  • Post name, address, telephone number, etc. without permission
  • Contact strangers on the Internet
  • By-pass digital security systems
  • Access unapproved websites
  • Post inaccurate or harmful information
  • Use digital technologies in an unhealthy manner (e.g. game addiction, loud music, etc.,)
  • And so on…

Such lists are too narrow, quickly become outdated and don’t allow students to think critically.

More importantly the whole concept of digital citizenship is backwards. Students who behave inappropriately in digital spaces misinterpret the digital space as private, when it is, of course, public. This misunderstanding leads students to believe that the regular rules of public behavior don’t apply in digital space, and so they behave in ways online that they never would in public. The fundamental error is in thinking that digital spaces are different, with different rules from the real world. They aren’t.

Lists of ‘rules’ for online behavior reinforce the misconception that online and real life is different.  We must help students understand that social media, texting, etc. are public spaces and the same rules that apply in other public spaces also apply there.

The Brampton 9 students wouldn’t insult their teachers over the PA system at school. Students wouldn’t engage in many of the negative online behaviors that they do if they understood that they are sharing with the whole world, not just their friends. They don’t need a new set of rules, just to apply the rules they already know to their digital behavior.

We need to stop teaching Digital Citizenship with long lists of rules and instead reinforce basic Citizenship. Provide students with a set of positively framed principles to apply to all situations, digital and analog. Students don’t need more rules; they just need to apply the ones they’ve already got. The same ones they learned in kindergarten.

6 Responses to “Why Teaching Digital Citizenship Doesn’t Work”

  1. Royan Lee February 8, 2013 at 5:45 pm #

    Habits of mind are not learned through a pamphlet or PSA.

    • ballacheybears February 9, 2013 at 11:47 am #

      Agree. They’re molded through the daily exercise of trying to apply general principles. If each day we ask to students to try and be respectful, eventually they will do it independently.

  2. Matt Renwick (@ReadByExample) June 22, 2013 at 9:08 am #

    Interesting post Andrew. I agree with your perspective that you should develop a set of norms with your class before venturing online. I like how yours are positive-based and conceptual.

    As educators, we do teach our students how to behave online. It is when we model for our students this process, then guide and eventually provide independence in digital learning environments. I believe through a gradual release of responsibility students internalize and apply appropriate online behaviors.


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