Jason OhlerDigital citizenship should not only be required, it should also become the primary lens through which we ask our children and ourselves to view the world. Our prosperity, humanity, and indeed even our survival, may well depend on it.

For me, the ideal school experience would focus on cultivating the digital citizen in each of our students. The core of our efforts would consist of helping students understand the implications of living side by side with immensely powerful machines of our own creation that amplify our every move within the massively connected mediascape that has become our second home. We would call upon our content area teachers in the sciences, history, health, language and other areas to work together to provide an integrated curriculum that asks students to become “detectives.” As such, students would develop creative, research-driven projects that explore the opportunities, limitations and ethics of living a digital lifestyle.

The question is not whether digital citizenship should be required, but how it should be pursued. Here are three possibilities.

First, policy makers – including parents and community members – need to think more expansively. Right now they seem to be focused only on the particulars of digital citizenship, like cyberbullying and online safety. They certainly need to address these very important issues. But they also need create a more foundational, integrated approach to digital citizenship that will be able to address all issues that emerge, especially those that will arise because of technology we can’t even imagine yet; bear in mind that cyberbullying arrived largely unanticipated. School districts need to include something like the following as part of their missions statements as a way of committing to the idea that digital citizenship needs to become part of educating the whole student:

Students will study the personal, social, and environmental impacts of every technology and media application they use in school.

It’s important to include students as part of any team that is tasked to develop mission statements and guidelines for digital behavior. Students will bring tremendous experience and insight to any team. And because of their involvement, they will be much more likely to understand and respect whatever the team produces.

Second, digital citizenship needs to be infused throughout the school day, rather than be addressed only as a stand alone curriculum. Helping our students cultivate a positive digital footprint needs to become part of everything we do.  And because the technology we use tends to be largely invisible to us, helping students with their digital footprints will require a special approach to character education uniquely suited to address the digital lifestyles that we have all adopted.

Lastly, we need to value student efforts in the area of digital citizenship, something that currently we don’t do often enough. We need to require and honor evidence of everything that falls within the digital citizenship domain, from showing concern for fair use, to effectively and maturely gathering in global online learning communities, to trying to foresee the unintended consequences of social media and emerging technologies. When our students reflect about the importance of being a digital citizen, we need to recognize them for doing so. The quality of their character, particularly in relation to living a digital lifestyle, needs to valued as highly as their academic achievement.

While there may be some debate about how to proceed with digital citizenship, there is no question about when to begin. That day has arrived.


Jason Ohler is author of Digital Community, Digital Citizen.