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Digital Citizenship Revisited

By: Bernard Bull

There is no doubt that you’ve heard the phrase digital citizenship, and there is a good chance that you are doing something in your classroom to help students learn what it means to be a digital citizen. With that said, what is distinct about what and how we teach digital citizenship in a Christian classroom? Here are a few answers to that question, followed by some tips to get you started.

What is digital citizenship?

It is about much more than online self-defense and etiquette. When seeking an answer to this question and building a curriculum around it, most people continue to turn to the good work done by Mike Ribble, based on his doctoral dissertation over a decade ago. In that original dissertation and his subsequent work, he proposed a list of nine elements of digital citizenship, addressing the topics of access, commerce, communication, digital literacy, etiquette, law, rights and responsibilities, health and wellness, and self-protection. It is a helpful starting point, but stopping here leaves a gap in our approach to citizenship. The concept of citizenship is about more than self-preservation, rules, and responsibilities. It is also about action—being an agent of positive change and contributing to the well-being of those in the digital world. It is where we get quotes like JFK’s in 1961 when he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you . . .” A concept of citizenship that is based only on dos and don’ts is ultimately lacking.

Love of Neighbor

Forgetting this action-oriented aspect of digital citizenship leaves teachers and students with a largely self-oriented approach to the web. It becomes nothing more than “You”Tube, “i”Pads, and “My”Space (yes, I know that last one is a dated reference, but you get the point). From an understanding of Christian citizenship, the calling of a Christian citizen is first and foremost about love of neighbor. Citizenship is a vocation that has the same calling as any other vocation. It is a calling to love one’s neighbor(s) in a given context. If we are to teach and learn a distinctly Christian understanding of digital citizenship, then I contend that it has to focus upon this concept. But it doesn’t start there.

Law and Gospel in the Digital World

It starts with exploring the depth of our sin and the even greater depths of God’s love for us in Christ. The effects of sin certainly extend to the digital world, and there is value in helping students to recognize that sin is real and just as destructive online. Simple student-centered experiments can help with this. Consider having students search (with different levels of guidance depending upon age, and the appropriate filters in place, of course) for news about various aspects of the digital world. They are likely to find articles about cyberterrorism, cyberbullying, cyber theft, cyber adultery, cyber religion, and flame wars, not to mention the advertising and marketing that sometimes inspires us to dwell on what we do not have. Notice that this short list ventured into every one of the Ten Commandments. Sin is just as alive and well in the digital world as it is anywhere else.

Taking the time to explore and reflect upon the nature of sin in the digital world is an important aspect of studying digital citizenship. It can easily lead to an exploration of God’s love in Christ. How does God view us? What has He done for us? What difference does that make? As we look at the nature of sin in the world, what are the important truths to keep in mind? Consider the wonderful opportunity to explore the immense worth that God places upon each and every human being. Our worth is not determined by what people say about us online or anything else. And God’s value for people does not diminish when they are online. Our worth is secure. That is an important part of this mix, helping learners to see their grounding in the grace of God in Christ. In a world of constant technological change, and in a digital context where things are often not as they appear, this is an essential foundation for students’ present and future well-being.

The Vocation of Digital Citizen 

This brings us right back to the vocation of digital citizen. Citizenship is about investing our gifts, time, and energy into loving our neighbors in the digital world. How do we do that? We seek to bless people, befriend them, and help them flourish in their own lives and vocations. We discover the power and blessing of the connected world. This is where models like service learning can be central and a highlight of exploring digital citizenship (although we must also be wary of legalism with such approaches). We can do online service learning through volunteerism, creating valuable content and communities for people who need it. We can discover the many fascinating ways that people are leveraging online connections and community to bless and befriend others. We can do digital walkabouts where we explore and learn about the many opportunities to invest in that which is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8). We can connect, collaborate, create, inspire, and affirm. We can contribute to loving our neighbors in the digital world. Some argue that the digital world simply amplifies our thoughts and attitudes, like turning gossip into a global defamation of character. If this is true, does that also mean that we can amplify our ability to love, bless, and befriend others? Why not make the learning of digital citizenship a massive experiment to discover the answer to that question?

Action-Based Digital Citizenship 

This action-based approach to digital citizenship is less likely to conjure disinterested stares and the sentiment that “I already know this stuff.” It is not simply a body of content to cover. It is an invitation to engage, to do something that matters outside of the classroom and the school. Along the way, there will be plenty of opportunities to explore the rest of Ribble’s nine themes of digital citizenship. As we discover the nature of sin in the digital world, we can explore ways to respond to them. As we consider God’s love in Christ, we get a chance to look at specific and practical ways these truths impact the way we think and act in the digital world. And as we think about the vocation of citizen, we get to put it into action, learning about this calling by doing something with it. As I see it, this is what will help us form a distinctly Christian approach to digital citizenship.

Getting Started

Are you looking for some practical steps? Here is quick list of ideas to get started with action-oriented digital citizenship.

  • Instead of lamenting the errors of Wikipedia, get involved in editing and writing articles.
  • Battle cyberbullying with a “cyber-blessing” campaign.
  • Go on digital walkabouts and talk about what you see and learn . . . with your Bible open.
  • Explore news and events in the digital world using the Ten Commandments as a way to categorize them. Make this not only about breaking the Commandments but also about living out the positive side of them.
  • Have students create and share top ten ways that people are using the digital world to bless and befriend.
  • Write reviews of online communities and content, with a focus upon highlighting the best of the web.
  • Create blogs, wikis, videos, and other content that provide new and useful information or that aggregates otherwise dispersed information.
  • Host Twitter chats, webinars, and Google Hangouts about important issues and invite others to participate and learn.
  • Use online collaborative tools to connect with, interview, and learn from people around the world who are doing great things to bless and befriend, and share these stories with others.
  • Have students start to build their own PLN and share what they are learning and teaching.
  • Take Ribble’s nine themes and write a digital text that tells stories of how people are thriving and doing great things in each of these areas. Then create a web presence to share this with the world.
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