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Infusing Digital Citizenship into Higher Education

The last few weeks I have blogging about digital student development theory, identity and leadership.  Based upon my research as a doctoral student in Higher Education Leadership, literature is emerging on these topics.  Looking at college student usage of social media and the developmental influences of digital technologies on youth, I have seen a gap where educators and administrators in higher education can step in using a movement called Digital Citizenship.

Most simply, Digital Citizenship is responsible technology use.

This concept is quickly becoming well-known among K-12 educators, but attention that I do not believe higher education has fully embraced.  This post will provide context on Digital Citizenship and why Higher Education needs to catch up with our K-12 colleagues.

There are numerous reasons why students should be educated on the digital tools available to communicate and contribute online.  There are observable positive and negative behaviors that teens and young adults are exploring digitally.  Such negative behavior includes freshman posting content known to be inappropriate and negative, but do so anyway (Lifer et al., 2010).  Also, students use privacy measures such as making their profiles private but still accepting most Facebook friend requests from strangers (2010).  Some researchers believe this behavior reflects the idea that students believe more Facebook friends will lead them to stronger connections (Sacks & Graves, 2012).  These don’t even start to go into headline news stories that show even more extreme behaviors.  Just look to the recent Justine Sacco’s viral twitter post for a case study example to learn from.
For an even more extensive literature on these behaviors, look into the sunny and dark side of social media.
Last week I wrote about digital media literacy education, with competencies going beyond the ability to seek and find information online for academic pursuits.  I push these literacies further through an emerging term in K-12 research and curriculum.  Digital Citizenship includes norms of behavior and practice with an:

Ability to practice and advocate online behavior that demonstrates legal, ethical, safe, and responsible uses of information and communication technologies (Greenhow & Ribble, 2009, p. 125).

Ribble, Baily and Ross (2004) developed nine digital citizenship elements, which include:

  1. Digital etiquette
  2. Digital communication
  3. Digital access
  4. Digital literacy
  5. Digital commerce
  6. Digital law
  7. Digital rights and responsibilities
  8. Digital health and wellness
  9. Digital security

Many of these will look familiar to digital literacies frameworks presented here.  However, Greenhow and Robelia (2009) believe digital citizenship should include developing awareness of political and social, in addition to active participation online.  This takes the idea of digital literacies even further, challenging users to holistic development and awareness.
The ability to be a positive citizen in a digital world aligns with character education, (Hollandsworth, Dowdy & Donovan, 2011), which is many times an element of college student leadership development programs.  Education should include methods for decision-making, ethical and legal activities, safety and security, and “becoming an effective member of digital communities” (2011, p. 38).
Hollandsworth, Dowdy and Dovan (2011) stressed that the goal of digital citizenship education should be to holistically develop a student that is both a positive global and digital citizen.  Greenhow and Robelia (2009) contends a quality online participation includes respecting others rights, as well as, one’s own responsibilities online.  This would include knowing social media safety through:

  • Privacy settings
  • Respecting online community in what they post
  • Challenging others be responsible with their own online behavior

In response, middle and high school interventions have surfaced, with curriculum that addresses a number of elements listed previously.   Common Sense Media is a wonderful organization to look into, providing curriculum, visual content and even professional development such as certifications on digital citizenship, in addition to other ways to integrate media education in the classroom.
To the right is an example of a pledge Common Sense Media offers in a lesson plan on developing a digital citizen, as early as elementary school.  Activities such as this could be easily adaptable to college students.
However, very little research exists on effective methods of digital citizenship education to college students.  Johnson (2012) called for integration of technology into peer leader responsibilities, including media, information technology, and actual tech skills.  If student leadership positions are to call for and require technology interaction on behalf of the campus, technical training in addition to citizenship exploration must be included.
Similar to digital literacy and metaliteracy definitions mentioned in a previous post, the Johnson defined media literacy skills as

“The ability to access and evaluate information, see it accurately and creatively, manage the flow of information, and understand the ethical and legal issues relate to the access and use of information” (2012, p. 63).

This would include real world problem solving, peer learning, and idea generation.  Many of these skills already are integrated into student leader formal and informal training.  Applying concepts such as digital citizenship, provides direct examples into a holistic education of student leadership.

In this scenario, higher education administrators who supervise students would need to take the lead in laying expectations and role modeling to students digital citizenship.


To expand this idea to a student staff, club or team, educators can develop agreed upon digital expectations or code of ethics that the group will hold each other accountable to.  All these concepts can be expanded as students progress through college.  Students need to be provided a bigger picture to their behavior in the short and long-term.  Within Digital Citizenship, the idea of a digital footprint (Greysen, Kind & Chretien, 2010) needs to be stressed, which

“Encourages individuals to think of downstream consequences for each online action they take and become aware as they ‘tread’ through the World Wide Web” (p. 228).

Self-awareness and greater consciousness of behavior should be discussed that expands the idea of a digital footprint to a carbon footprint (2010).  Here, student’s online actions not only impact themselves, but their families, the university, and possibility their future profession.  As higher education develops future leaders, the integration of how to be a leader through digital media must be infused.

Here are a number of resources I have rounded up on Digital Citizenship to help you get started:

What other resources are you aware of on Digital Citizenship?  Are there prime examples of higher education applying #DigCit?  Please share in the comments below!
Follow me on Twitter @josieahlquist
For all content cited on this post, explore {here} for all references I have used on my blog.

*All images purchased from

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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