Digital literacy and digital citizenship are no longer soft skills. They are required for success in the classroom and a student’s broader relational sphere. Parents and teachers alike worry about privacy, bullying and screen time, but there are positive nuances and opportunities to consider.

It no longer makes sense to make a distinction between life online and off. Kids are not merely technology literate; they use technology to interact with the broader world. What if instead of a myopic focus on making good digital citizens online, we turned our focus to using digital means to developing good citizens? Period.

Screen time: active vs. passive

“If used appropriately, digital media is wonderful. We don’t want to demonize media, because it’s going to be a part of everybody’s lives increasingly, and we have to teach children how to make good choices around it, how to limit it and how to make sure it’s not going to take place of all the other good stuff out there.” –Marjorie Hogan, Pediatrician and Spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics

Defining Digital Literacy & Digital Citizenship

Recent education language has leaned hard on students needing tools, 21st-century skills. Which, at this point, 17 years in, are just skills. Everyone needs to be able to read; reading is not a new skill PLUS a new medium. And actually, the medium is hardly new anymore. Leveraging a low-tech skill like reading using digital makes tech extremely accessible. Digital Literacy is when students can engage society using technology. The next step is to ask them to engage responsibly…this is digital citizenship.

digital citizenship

Traditional definitions of digital citizenship look a lot like the graphic to the right, encompassing:

  • Permanence
  • Ethics
  • Bully & safety
  • Plagiarism
  • Privacy
  • Digital Footprint

We know a lot of their growing up will happen behind screens, and that we have the task of imparting a harsh truth: online is forever. How do we teach kids to be safe online, to be good online citizens? When we teach students about digital citizenship, we highlight the permanence of their actions. We encourage them to use ethical and safe behaviors in their online interactions, what belongs to them and what doesn’t.

Everything in that bulleted list is essential. But not enough. They are digital citizens and this is their new heritage; they must respect it, and the medium.

Turning Digital Citizenship on its head

LGBTQ titles 2016Educators choose their career path to help young people grow and learn. It’s a far bigger task than the 3Rs. Like parents: educators are not only concerned with raising children, but more about raising adults. One way educators demonstrate this is by helping their students to develop into global citizens. In addition to lessons on fake news, media literacy and how to conduct yourself on social channels, students need to read a lot to absorb the cultural knowledge base. They need to discuss that content with peers to keep the collaborative spirit alive.

Twenty-five students can read a text and get twenty-five different things out of it. Personalization means that educators can retain those unique perspectives and engage students without insisting on One Right Answer. And students are practice making room for views different than their own.


Think about active versus passive screen time. Sure, they could be frittering away brain cells on a game on that screen. They could also be reading a Gay YA novel that they could never read in open sight, analog. They are shielded by the privacy of a screen, and no book cover. Earbuds? Yep. Maybe they are listening to a 3-hour loop of Nightcore. Or maybe they are an ELL student listening to an audiobook to better grasp English language pronunciation, syntax and narrative.

Aren’t these things we want our citizens to do? To seek out resources to become more themselves? To explore culture and language to better understand and contribute to society? Isn’t digital delivery of content the perfect mix of skill and knowledge base? Give students the agency to recognize what they don’t know, and allow them to seek out the best skill or tool to solve the problem.

Bottom line? Using a high tech application of a low tech essential like reading balances the skill versus knowledge argument beautifully. Instant access to ancient texts like Beowulf or Plato’s The Republic seems a gorgeous kind of educational satisfaction.

Shouldn’t the online-focus of Digital Citizenship eventually move past the screen, and into real life? By highlighting content, culture, and collaboration, we use digital means to turn out good citizens.

Battling the Grand Wikification of the Classroomdigital citizenship

As adults and educators, we take for granted that reading is an essential in education, but not everyone values reading as we do. It calls up the battle between knowledge and skill based education. Students are expected to know how to navigate the path 25 different ways. What about enjoying the destination when they get there? Furthermore, how do we know that we are teaching the right skills for them to succeed? Today’s must-have edtech trend might be obsolete in 2 years. Skills alone are not enough.


There has been a noticeable swing back toward knowledge base, beyond skill and tool acquisition. Educators know that the shiniest toolbox is wasted if you don’t have things to hammer and inspect and take apart and weld together. Tech without quality content is useless. Focusing only on skills and decoding is risky. And for the students, boring.

We need both. The return to a knowledge based education means students can sink deeply into that high-quality content. They will have the space to absorb culture through important works, and use technology to access that content. It goes past the classroom, too. Our political and cultural climate demands that we re-embrace books as a guide to read and react to the world. News and online sources are less and less reliable. Increasing political polarization and fake news mean students need to stay well read, accurately informed and flexible enough to stay civil while working together.

Plus? Reading for pleasure simply enriches our lives. At the very least providing a temporary escape from the dark and heavy aspects of reality.

Digital study trends and student opinion

When they arrive at school, Gen Z is largely familiar with tech, we need to guide them, help them discern useful from not. When we do a good job, we can expect what a McGraw-Hill survey of 3,300 students found:

84% of students report that the use of technology improves their education

81% note digital learning helps save time and increases efficiency

81% claim that digital learning technology is helping them boost their grades

69% agree it helps them retain information

79% say it makes them aware of new concepts


This last point is the most important: 79% of students say digital makes them aware of new concepts. That awareness might be within herself, discovering a new author, or sitting uncomfortably with a peer’s differing perspective. Opening a student’s mind opens her to the world.

Isn’t that the whole point?