21st Century Skills and Digital Citizenship


Laura Di Nardo

Laura Di Nardo (laura.dinardo@uoit.ca)
University of Ontario Institute of Technology


Digital citizenship has been a focus of teachers since the use of technology began to centre around content creation and interactions online. Teachers concerned themselves with their students’ ability to be responsible and ethical in an online environment. As the use of technology and the internet continues to evolve, teachers must now focus on digital leadership. Digital leadership supports the view that students should be learning and connecting with others of similar interests online, sharing their learning and creating content. Student social media accounts should be used to promote positivity and support one another. They should be looking to the internet as a space where their voice can be heard and they can speak out for those who cannot speak for themselves. If educators begin to promote the idea of the internet as a place where students must focus on creating and maintaining a personal brand. Students would remain focused on determining how they want to be seen and heard online and can therefore develop useful strategies which will support them as they continue to learn and grow in an ever changing online landscape.

Keywords:  branding, digital citizenship, digital leadership, social media, teaching strategies


Digital citizenship is a topic which has gained popularity among teachers with the increase in number of technology-based  pedagogical tools in the classroom. Students transitioned from using computers for word processing and information gathering to a model which sees them networking, engaging in social media, sharing their lives online and creating content. With this came the idea that students needed to be taught how to be digital citizens and understand the potential consequences and implications of their online actions. They needed to be taught how to be critical thinkers and be wary of how much and to whom their information was being shared (Dotterer, Hedges & Parks, 2016 ). This chapter will explore the positive shift from a focus on digital citizenship to digital leadership as it pertains to the K-12 context in the Ontario education system.

Background Information

As students’ personal use of technology increases with the availability and increased affordability of smartphones, tablets, Chromebooks and laptops, students’ ability to utilize online spaces safely is of great importance. With the addition of 1:1 – student to technology  – models becoming far more prevalent in schools, teaching about online tools and environments falls increasingly to the teacher. This focus on ensuring safe environments in schools lead to many school board policies focused on keeping personal devices out of the classroom. These policies seem counter-intuitive to the endless learning possibilities a device can offer a student. This section will focus on how the concepts of digital citizenship, digital leadership, connectivism and situated cognition support a more integrated view on personal technologies and supporting students, not in fearing what could happen online, but rather using technology purposefully to promote positive engagement.

Digital Citizenship

Digital citizenship focuses on ensuring students have the tools necessary to utilize technology in a manner that is ethical and anchored in moral constructs. As time has passed and technology and its uses continue to evolve, so does how digital citizenship is defined. According to Ribble (2008), characteristics of students demonstrating digital citizenship would be, “[to] advocate and practice safe, legal, and responsible use of information and technology; exhibit a positive attitude toward using technology that supports collaboration, learning, and productivity; demonstrate personal responsibility for lifelong learning; exhibit leadership for digital citizenship” (p.14). School board administrators are often sought out to provide frameworks or acceptable use polices which can be challenging to delineate and uphold. The variation in teacher experience and comfort with technology means that policies usually limit the amount of content creation and online engagement that occurs outside the parameters of the school board’s network (Larson, Miller & Ribble, 2009; Ribble, 2012). The idea of providing a digital citizenship framework for students supports them in understanding their rights and promotes positive behaviours online. However, if the focus is simply placed on the negative elements; not sharing information, not over sharing personal facts, limiting trust in those on the other side of the computer, not using personal devices in the classroom, than there is the risk that although students will no what not to do, they will have very limited understanding of what to do. This is where perhaps a shift in teaching strategy can better support and prepare students.


The learning theory of connectivism is regarded by some as a 21st century update to earlier learning theories such as Vygotsky’s social constructivism (Kop & Hill, 2008). Vygotsky’s ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ stated that with a more experienced mentor a student would have the potential to accomplish a task he or she wouldn’t otherwise be able to independently (Kivunja, 2014). Connectivism is similar in that it is based on the premise that learning is a social endeavour and that learners gain knowledge through social and cultural interactions. It is based in the fact that information is constantly being acquired and ordered in our brains. Each person’s knowledge acts as their own personal schema. They themselves represent a node, as they engage with others (nodes) and knowledge and experiences are shared a network begins to form (Seimens, 2005). These connections can certainly be supported using social media. Social media provides endless opportunity to engage and make connections with others. Twitter is an example of a social media platform which supports the idea of connectivism. Students can interact with each other as well as content and even the instructor becomes another node in the network (Garrison et al., 2000). As Nirupama Akella, a graduate student at Georgia Military College writes, “Twitter helped me, as a student, to develop a critical mode of thought and holistic perspective. I no longer saw the instructor as the ultimate source of knowledge” (Akella, 2014, pg.68).

Digital Leadership

The idea of digital leadership builds from those of digital citizenship. Couros defines Digital Leadership as “using the vast reach of technology (especially the use of social media) to improve the lives, well-being and circumstances of others (Couros, 2013, p.1).” This shift focuses on empowering students to recognize themselves as leaders online. The understanding that sharing their interests, connecting with others who can broaden their understandings and spreading positivity online are all ways to build a positive online presence. The lens of digital leadership focuses students on being change makers, using their online presence to better themselves and those around them. Supporting students in becoming active participants in online learning communities can prove invaluable to their learning. Participating in social media can offer levels of connection which can support their sense of self and community (Dotterer et al., 2016).


Teachers as Models of Digital Leadership

Modelling positive online behaviours begins with the adults in students’ lives (Ribble, 2008). Their teachers and parents can be the first line of exposure to diverse social media. The idea that personal devices such as phones should be put away and not used during class time limits the possibilities the technology could be bringing to the classroom (Casa-Todd, 2018, Miller, 2018). Although most social media platforms are not to be utilized by those under 13 years of age (Packham, 2017) teachers can model the positive aspects of creating content, participating in and belonging to online social media based communities. For example, they could tweet questions to an author their class may be studying, or they may choose to video conference with experts so students can pose questions and further their studies (Casa-Todd, 2018). By modelling positive use of social media and technology for students at an early age, teachers begin to reinforce positive online behaviours. Use of classroom websites or Learning Management Systems provides students who may be too young for social media accounts the opportunity to demonstrate positive social leadership within their online classroom environment. Whether posting comments on classmate’s work or engaging with each other in a collaborative, positive manner online begins to instill positive traits in students (Casa-Todd, 2018). Overall, the importance of teachers modelling positive online behaviours as well as demonstrating how learning can be shared and built upon through social media outlets sets an important tone for young people when it comes to their own online presence.

Building Your Brand

Students are cautioned against sharing too much personal information online. A chorus of, be aware of what you put on the internet, it never goes away; always focus on the implications of your posts and and how they can be interpreted, is often the narrative.  Part of facilitating digital leadership is expressing the fact that sharing and creating content online is a great opportunity if it is done with the correct intentions and in the right way. Teaching students about branding is a great strategy to build this skill set. Asking students to consider how they want to be known online and making a conscious effort to post in line with their brand promotes digital leadership and positive online activity (MediaSmarts, n.d.). Using online platforms to affect change, spread positivity and advocate for those who can’t are key components of the digital leadership movement. Establishing a student’s personal brand and how they want to be portrayed online can be a useful tool to ensure the student remains focused on their online presence and how their actions support their brand (MediaSmarts, n.d.). Teachers need to focus on developing student skills in building a personal brand and being cognisant of how the content they create online, both in their personal spaces, and other’s space can have both positive and negative effects. The difference between which is due in large part to decisions they themselves make (Casa-Todd, 2018;  MediaSmart, n.d.).

Conclusions and Future Recommendations

The transition from digital citizenship to digital leadership is a positive trajectory which supports students in gaining appreciation for the positive effects their social media presence can bring to those around them. Ensuring that our students have an understanding that the internet provides them with opportunities to be change-makers, have their voices heard, and develop broad networks of support and growth, is vital to them utilizing the technological tools available to them to the best of their ability. Use of online tools to build learning networks – as a connectivist approach would support – that enrich their lives and their learning must certainly be considered in a modern classroom. As we continue to look at 21st century learners, this shift toward embracing social media as a learning tool and incorporating it into the classroom strongly supports our students and develops their skill sets.


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Technology and the Curriculum: Summer 2018 Copyright © 2018 by Laura Di Nardo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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