jason_ohler.jpgTechnological innovation moves so quickly that we often don’t have time to consider its unintended consequences. A result is that it’s difficult to respond to hot-button character-related issues like cyberbullying and sexting because they seem to appear out of nowhere. Our challenge is to find ways to teach our children how to navigate the ethics of the rapidly moving digital present, consciously, proactively and reflectively. In K-12 parlance, we want them to become wise, skilled and caring digital citizens.

The Evolution of Digital Citizenship

Digital citizenship has evolved over the years. In its original set of K-12 standards for the use of educational technology, the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) defined the broad area of ethics and technology as addressing “social, ethical and human issues” – the phrase “digital citizenship” was nowhere to be found. ISTE only became concerned with issues of citizenship when the development of the Internet led to the creation of common virtual space. This led to the formation of communities, which in turn made us want to understand our expectations of each other as community members. Years later, when the ISTE competencies were rewritten, the Internet had become a staple of modern society. At that point, digital citizenship had become one of its primary standards.  

Citizenship has always been concerned with the rights and responsibilities of living in a community – this has not changed over the centuries. However, now we are citizens of a second, very new reality that qualifies as a community. Online we are part of an immersive, networked, digital reality that follows us wherever we go, crossing and integrating our lives whether we are at work, school or socializing with friends. As we go forward, digital citizenship is the overarching term and perspective that attempts to capture our concerns about living in this second reality, as well as blending our online and RL (real life) lives into one integrated, healthy approach to living. This is what we want for our children, ourselves and our communities.

Currently, the K–12 world often reacts to concerns about digital age behavior on a case-by-case basis, as though there were only a finite number of techno-ethical issues to address, all of which we will conquer someday. However, given that the evolution of technology is exponential, unpredictable, inexhaustible, and that each new technology brings with it new behavioral and ethical concerns, keeping up has already become impossible. Today we are concerned with cyberbullying. Tomorrow we will be concerned with the ethics of using technologies that until fairly recently were the stuff of science fiction. As I write this article, contact lenses were just announced that have recording and broadcasting capabilities; currently under development are headgear and affordable neural implants that can make students “smarter,” introducing unimaginable inequities into the world of K-12 learning. If our only concern is how to integrate new technologies like these effectively and even creatively into the school day, we will miss the point. Using emerging powerful new technologies invoke profound issues of character. The point is that it is only 2017, the future is just getting started and complex issues of character education born of technological evolution are in their infancy.

Fortunately, another approach to addressing digital citizenship awaits us: establishing proactive, aggressive character education programs tuned to digital youth.

We Need Character Education V. 2.0

Character education has been with us, formally or informally, for millennia (DeRoche & Williams, 2001; Likona, 1991; Tatman, Edmonson, & Slate, 2009). If we are smart, and we have an eye on the future, we will begin our digital citizenship efforts by developing a character education foundation attuned to the digital age and then build our digital citizenship programs on top of that. This approach will allow us to look more broadly and deeply at issues related to the virtual domain and the world of technology, as well as the arena of interpersonal relationships that are mediated by electronic communication.

digital-citizenbook-cover.jpgBut in order to do this effectively, we will need to develop Character Education 2.0. When I wrote Digital Community, Digital Citizen, I adapted some of Character.org’s 11 Principles of Effective Character Education to issues associated with students living digital lifestyles. Here are approaches I used in my adaptation:

  • Rewriting the principles to better reflect the human condition in modern, digital times
  • Adding assessment criteria that speak to the realities of digital age behavior.

For example, consider Character.org’s Principle #4, The school creates a caring community. In version 2.0, this might become: The school creates a caring school community, including social media communities that are a part of school activities. I suggest limiting this principle to just school activities, because schools can’t effectively be held accountable for what happens beyond school. At present, online activities that overlap school and the world outside school, and which transpire over school networks as well as the networks associated with students’ personal smart devices, fall within a very murky legal area.

Character.org also includes criteria that operationalize each principle; that is, criteria that tell us what successful character education activities look like. To these, we might also add assessment criteria that are more indicative of desirable digital lifestyle behavior. For Principle #4, we might include behaviors like the following to address online behavior:

1. Students use netiquette
2. Students help each other practice safe online behavior
3. Students practice empathy in online communications
4. Students share technical expertise

New technologies like the smart contact lenses and neural implants mentioned earlier might compel us to add:

1. Schools allow the use of recording and broadcast technology while respecting the need for privacy, security and permission.
2. Schools will provide equity of opportunity in terms of the enhancement of intelligence and capabilities through synthetic means.

Collaborative Character Education

However we update the principles of character education, the bottom line is this: The Character Education movement should be in the forefront of the digital citizenship movement. It will inform its efforts greatly by collaborating with the worlds of digital citizenship and media literacy. If any of these movements want to be truly effective they will all need to collaborate. Doing so is how we can best help students develop the critical thinking, creative perspectives and character skills they will need to tackle a range of issues, from cyberbullying to fake news to living with intelligent machines. After all, we want our students to use technology not only effectively and creatively, but also wisely and with a sense of humanity. To accomplish, they will need a solid foundation in the fundamentals of character.

 Dr. Jason Ohler is a professor emeritus of educational technology who has spend 35 years speaking and writing about the future of people, machines and the evolution of character. He is co-creator of ISTE’s Digital Citizenship Personal Learning Network, and is on the board of the Digital Citizenship InstituteSubscribe to his newsletter about the future of digital citizenship at jasonOhlerIdeas.com.


Are you eager to share your character education experience with others? Character.org is looking for educators, researchers and community leaders who would like to present their ideas and best practices for developing young people of good character. Apply by March 1!