It's Official: 'Digital Citizenship' Classes Are the New Normal in Schools

It's Official: 'Digital Citizenship' Classes Are the New Normal in Schools

By Molly Fosco


Our interaction with the society we live in is increasingly online.

By Molly Fosco

On a fall day in early September, Rachel Murat begins the school year by instructing her newest group of high schoolers to google themselves. As they click away on their Chromebooks, the students begin to realize what a simple search can reveal about them, and the room slowly fills with gasps of shock. Once the students have settled down, Murat tells them to google her name. “They always think they’re going to find dirt, but they never do,” Murat says. “Then I harp on them about not making a permanent post about a temporary emotion.” 

When Murat wanted to start a digital citizenship class at Maine-Endwell High School in Broome County, New York, in 2012, she didn’t have much of a road map to work with. Today, a growing number of digital-citizenship curriculum providers are emerging, catering to increasing demand from schools and educators across the country adopting “DigCit” as central to the education they provide.

It’s also using the reach of technology, especially social media, to improve the lives of others.

Rachel Murat, digital-citizenship educator

Considered the founders of the DigCit movement, technology educators Jason Ohler and Mike Ribble began speaking and writing about digital citizenship in the early 2000s, urging young people to use the internet for good. But it is only now that digital citizenship is shedding its status as something select educators adopted. Common Sense Media, which in 2010 was one of the first educational organizations to launch a digital-citizenship curriculum, had a little over 200,000 registered U.S. educators in 2014. Now, that number has jumped to 560,000 — about 60 percent of K–12 schools. Social Assurity, an organization whose content focuses on building an authentic digital presence, has distributed 5,300 licenses to high schools since its 2015 launch and expects business to triple in 2018. An online learning-management system, Schoology is the go-to for many digital-citizenship teachers like Murat, who use the platform to post assignments and collaborate with students online. In 2009, they launched with just a handful of early adopters. Today they have 20 million users in 60,000 U.S. schools. The crux of DigCit is online responsibility, but there is more to it.

“It’s also using the reach of technology, especially social media, to improve the lives of others,” says Murat.


Common Sense launched its curriculum after their research showed kids struggling with values, ethics and decision-making online. “They may know how to swipe a screen, but they don’t understand the implications of it,” Brisa Ayub, director of educational programs at Common Sense, tells OZY. Many of their lessons are interactive: collaborative polls and quizzes that can be downloaded as PDFs or ibooks or accessed through a platform called Nearpod. They vary by grade level, but all focus on internet safety, digital reputation, privacy and cyberbullying. Ayub sees the impact of their content each time she visits a school and hears kids “reciting phrases from our songs.”

The visible growth of cyberbullying has been a catalyst for others. Marialice Curran, founder of the Digital Citizenship Institute, came across the work of Ohler and Ribble in 2008 but didn’t become fully involved until two years later. After hearing about the suicide of Tyler Clementi, a victim of cyberbullying at Rutgers University, Curran thought, “That could be my son,” she recalls. In 2015, Curran launched a Digital Citizenship Summit, demonstrating to fellow educators how students can spread kindness online.  

rachel murat in class 1

Digital-citizenship teacher Rachel Murat (crouching) with her class in Maine-Endwell High School in Broome County, New York.

Source Rachel Murat

Some states are using laws to engineer digital-citizenship lessons. In the state of Washington, Sen. Marko Liias (D–Edmonds) helped pass a bill this year requiring educators to list the online-responsibility content they use. The resources will then be pooled on a website. “We’re not trying to create a new mandate; we’re trying to knit together things teachers are already doing,” says Liias. In 2015, Utah passed a bill requiring school community councils to fulfill certain duties related to digital citizenship in their district.  

Measuring the efficacy of a curriculum this new is difficult, and challenges persist. Several schools don’t want screens in the classroom at all because they fear they can’t control what students say on social media, says Curran. But social media can also serve as a “bridge between home and school,” she says. If teachers post the day’s lesson on a classroom Facebook or Twitter account, parents can check the feed and ask their child about it that evening.

rachel murat classroom

Digital-citizenship teacher Rachel Murat [standing] with her class at Maine-Endwell High School in Broome County, New York.

Source Rachel Murat

Those doubts are absent at Palatine High School in Illinois, where technology coordinator Bob Schuetz tries to get students to mimic online behavior through analog activities, using Common Sense’s curriculum. “Each student in the class gets a pad of sticky notes and the teacher puts a question on the board like ‘Should cell phones be banned in school?’ ” Schuetz says. Students stick their responses on the wall. The aim: to understand how their comment contributes to the discussion.

And it’s not just teachers like Schuetz and Murat who are embracing digital-citizenship lessons — parents and students are too. Paul Karabon, parent of Theresa, who completed Murat’s class last year, doesn’t observe his daughter’s every action on social media, but he’s happy with what he’s seen and attributes that to the DigCit class. “Theresa has become much more conscious of the need to keep her [online] activity respectful,” he says.

Theresa, now a senior, agrees that “this information needs to be known by more people.” And Theresa’s classmate Stephanie, also a graduate of Murat’s class, chimes in to say she found the cyberbullying portion particularly eye-opening. “In the class, I did a Twitter poll asking, ‘Have you ever been bullied online?’ and surprisingly, the majority of people said yes,” she recalls.

Some, like Dr. Kecia Ray, executive director of the Center for Digital Education, argue that the best online-responsibility classes teach kids how to put down their devices. “Students should understand the limitations of technology,” she says. “Everything doesn’t need to be around a screen.”

Whatever the approach, ignoring digital citizenship is not an option for classrooms, suggests Ayub. “This,” she says, “is becoming as fundamental as sex education and physical education.”