Digital citizenship: Profound implications for eLearning


You might be asking what real relevance digital citizenship has for you – as an individual, as a learner, as a member of (many) communities, and possibly as a teacher and leader in education.

When taken in a broader context where it is used to refer to all users of the Internet, digital citizenship has profound implications for eLearning.  We need to be aware of the legal and cultural contexts in which we work, and different learner expectations and needs. Likewise, the opportunities and challenges of communicating…and learning…within an online environment cannot be fully understood in isolation from our socially based understanding about learning, education’s changing perspectives on what constitutes effective learning, and attitudes to technology.

Awareness of these contexts and associated implications will help shape your understandings and skills in the online environment to help ensure that you, your family, your colleagues, and your learners, get the most out of working and collaborating in an online environment.

The variety of questions in the list below helps illustrate the breadth and complexity of some key considerations:

  • What is morally and ethically sound in this situation?
  • What are my rights and responsibilities in an online environment?
  • What are my rights and responsibilities in an e-learning environment?
  • Do I know how to search for, evaluate, and attribute material on the web?
  • What is legal to download, use and share?
  • Is this a reliable source? How do I know?

What does digital citizenship mean?

English: A book cover for The Practice of Lear...

You may have come across references to ‘digital citizen’ and ‘digital citizenship’. The terms are often loosely defined, but are frequently used in the Primary and Secondary school sectors. In these sectors digital citizenship tends to be focussed on concepts such as cybersafety, a term that is itself often used interchangeably with digital citizenship, as illustrated in the video below. (The video is related to the school sector, and illustrates the phenomenon of using cybersafety and digital citizenship interchangeably).

Digital citizenship is considered as different things by different people, and as mentioned above, many people equate it with online safety, and something that is mainly for young students. However, digital citizenship is far wider in its scope and encapsulates a number of areas that we ignore at our peril.

In 2004 Ribble, Bailey, and Ross defined digital citizenship as “the norms of behavior with regard to technology use” (p. 7). Ribble later updated their definition to “the norms of appropriate, responsible behavior with regard to technology use” [emphasis not in the original] (n.d., Ribble’s definition does not, however, overtly refer to the social aspect of interacting online – something that Nancy Groh (NetSafe NZ) highlights when she writes that digital citizenship “is the combination of technical and social skills that enable a person to be successful and safe in the information age” (2010, para. 1).

Networked learning

Focussing more on the social elements of digital citizenship, Mossberger, Tolbert, and McNeal (2008) suggest that it is “the ability to participate in society online” (p. 1), and then go on to explore the nuances of the word ‘citizenship’. Citizenship indicates that members of a community, in return for certain civil, political, and social rights, agree “to live the life of a civilized being according to the standards prevailing in the society’’ (Marshall, 1992, in Mossberger, Tolbert, and McNeal, 2008, p. 1). Their definition includes an assumption that digital citizens use the Internet regularly, as well as including underpinning considerations of ethics, democracy of communication and expression, equality, and behaviour (Mossberger, Tolbert, & McNeal, 2008).

Nine (updated) elements of digital citizenship

While the broader definitions and descriptions are useful, to unpack the concept further we are going to consider seven of Ribble’s (n.d.) nine updated elements of digital citizenship (originally identified by Ribble, Bailey, and Ross in 2004):

  1. Digital access: full electronic participation in society
  2. Digital Commerce: electronic buying and selling of goods
  3. Digital Communication: electronic exchange of information
  4. Digital literacy: process of teaching and learning about technology and the use of technology
  5. Digital etiquette: electronic standards of conduct or procedure
  6. Digital law: electronic responsibility for actions and deeds
  7. Digital rights and responsibilities: those freedoms extended to everyone in a digital world
  8. Digital ‘health’ and wellness: physical and psychological well-being in a digital technology world
  9. Digital security (self-protection): electronic precautions to guarantee safety

Resources to help you find out more

English: My Learning Ltd - Secondary Learning ...

There are many resources available to support you in your goal to stay safe online. Those listed below are ones you may like to follow up on.

  • Watch this overview of Andy’s digital lifespan and, while you are watching ask yourself: How aware are you of your Digital Dossier?
  • Test your own knowledge of netiquette by taking this online quiz. If you get stuck, the quiz site has access to a guide, or you might prefer using this guide from the University of Wollongong.
  • This interactive cyber-safety resource, developed in Australia, is a great way to check your own knowledge about staying safe online. You could use the game in a collaborative environment, and add a competitive edge by asking users to share (and get better) scores. It was suggested that the game would be suitable for children from about year 4 to 5 upwards, and we would add, for adults too!
  • Covering how to avoid identity theft to defensive computing, Web Wise Washington have developed a series of guides.
  • JISC has developed a comprehensive repository of guides to help you address legal responsibilities in an eLearning environment, including the rights of students in relation to Intellectual Property Rights and the artefacts they create. We recommend that you use them on a ‘just in time’ basis and access specific guides when you feel it is relevant rather than trying to work through the entire repository!


  • Networked learning (Photo credit: Wikipedia).
  • English: My Learning Ltd – Secondary Learning Platform Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia).
  • Learning. cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo by Anne Davis 773:
  • English: A book cover for The Practice of Learning Theories (Photo credit: Wikipedia).

Creative Commons Licence

What do we really mean by digital citizenship by Ethos Consultancy NZ is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

About ictenhancedlearningandteaching

I am a director and consultant at Ethos Consultancy NZ ( I have a keen interest in all aspects of ICT Enhanced Learning and Teaching (ICTELT) where the focus lies on ways of scaffolding and empowering learners. In particular, I am interested in the way that creative, blended approached to Academic Professional Development can create trust, rapport and encourage reflective practice. As such, ICTELT is approached from facilitation, design, evaluation and assessment as opposed to the tools and what they can offer. I am a strong advocate of the potential of Web 2.0 to empower learners from all walks of life and cultures, especially after my experiences working for 6 years in the Middle East. In particular, I am interested how ePortfolios can be used in the VET sector (especially where Literacy and Language challenges are faced), in Recognition of Prior Learning, and in authentic, applied assessment. I have been involved with designing and developing ICTELT approaches and programmes for ten years. Following research informed approaches and design, I apply a qualitative, iterative process to evaluate the effectiveness of interventions, programmes and tools, encouraging learners' voices and input from all stakeholders.
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