Digital Citizenship - the Citizenship of the Future

29 July 2015

There should be a greater focus on ethics in digital education programs to accompany the growth in online learning, according to new research from Dr Boris Handal from The University of Notre Dame Australia’s Sydney Campus.

“The Internet has brought great possibilities to advance society, but its power needs to be positively harnessed,” Dr Handal said.

“We already know a lot about what it is like being a good citizen, but we do not know enough about what it is like to be a good citizen online, and it is important that each generation is taught to use digital technology ethically.”

Dr Handal, an Associate Professor in Digital Technologies at Notre Dame, has visited more than 30 educational institutions and interviewed 100 leading educators in the United States, Canada and Australia over the past two years about best practice in implementing digital citizenship programs in schools. His findings will be published in an upcoming book Mobile Makes Learning Free by Information Age Publishing.

Dr Handal said he had noticed a shift from ‘control and monitoring’ in schools to a more ‘responsible use of the Internet’ aimed at guiding students, but said there was still a long way to go.

He said programs on the issue of cyberbullying could be taught using the language of friendship and respect while the message about cyber safety was about responsibility and trust, and the use of third party property was about honesty and truthfulness.

“Schools are frantically engaging in training students in cyber security and safe surfing habits, and trying to protect them with firewalls and filtering systems. But how effective can any school internet filtering network system be if young students have their own 3G access on their mobile phones before and after school.”

Dr Handal’s research showed that schools were reacting creatively to the issue of cyber security. Some schools held a digital citizenship week where parents and the whole community was involved in discussing issues affecting the children when dealing with computers. On other occasions, the local municipality organised those events - effectively passing on the message that digital citizenship was everyone’s business.

Dr Handal said some North American schools had also embedded digital citizenship across the curriculum in all subjects, and included digital citizenship in their orientation days. Others included it in their ‘character education programs’ or modified the school timetable once a month to dedicate one additional hour related to digital citizenship.

“It is a vital part of the education of today’s students when you consider that young children can have unsupervised access to a world which was primarily created for adults who often themselves do not know the rule of working with third-party intellectual property,” Dr Handal said.

“There are also complaints from parents of Internet addictions and related ailments such as sleep deprivation, no-mobile-phone anxiety and eye-strain and posture problems resulting from long hours exposed to small screens. And research tells us that children under eight years of age are exposed to media an average of at least three hours a day.”

Dr Handal said it was therefore imperative that the growth in online learning be accompanied by good digital citizenship to ensure digital technology was used ethically and wisely.

Notre Dame Dean of Education Sydney, Professor Marguerite Maher, said staff at Notre Dame were engaged in cutting edge research such as that undertaken by Dr Handal. “It informs the way we prepare teacher education students as best we can to be equipped to meet the challenges of schooling today,” Professor Maher said.

Theresa Kyne: Tel (02) 8204 4141; Mob: 0407 408 177;