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How to Teach Digital Citizenship

digital citizenship
(Image credit: DepositPhotos/ridofranz)

As schools around the globe rapidly transitioned to remote learning, it became apparent that it is the responsibility of all teachers to engage students of all ages in a dialogue around responsible digital interactions. Most schools will not go back to ‘normal,’ and the importance and benefits of a digital education have become clear. School leaders have finally taken more seriously the work of bridging the digital divide. They are ensuring their students and staff have the technology and internet connectivity needed for success in modern times. 

Along with this shift comes the responsibility of ensuring every educator understands the importance of, and knows how to teach, digital citizenship at every grade level. While most schools taught students about digital citizenship prior to the pandemic, a designated teacher was usually responsible for this, often the technology teacher or librarian. 

Today, students need to have a better understanding of their digital footprint, how to effectively communicate, the tools they can use, strategies for when they feel unsafe online, and what is considered appropriate and inappropriate behavior. We don’t want inappropriate digital citizenship to impede sound teaching, learning, and relationship building. In some cases this has happened when students acted inappropriately online, resulting in teachers who responded by discontinuing their online instruction altogether. A Bronx middle school teacher shared why in a recent New York Post article: “There are a lot of us who aren’t comfortable with it. You never know where your face is going to end up right now.” 

Moving forward, it’s imperative that educators don't use these mistakes as a reason to stop engaging with students online. Instead, these incidents can be teachable moments. When students’ make poor choices, we can take the time to help them understand their actions and how to make more informed and responsible choices. 

We also must ensure teachers understand that they are role models online just as they are face-to-face. As stated in the New York Post article, teachers are routinely monitored online by their students. “They see us on Twitter, on Instagram,” one school staff member said. This is no surprise. Our students are growing up digital and they look to see how their teachers are behaving online.

All of this may feel new and even uncomfortable, however, our students deserve better. 

Here’s how to get started: 

Establish Norms 

 Just like how teachers work with students to establish norms in the classroom, we must also work with them to establish norms when engaging online. This effort can include considerations such as:

  •  What is appropriate attire? 
  •  How do you ask a question? 
  •  How do you give feedback? 
  •  When do you mute/unmute? 
  •  What are protocols to ensure we're not interrupting? 
  •  How do we ensure all voices are heard? 
  •  When do you use the chat? 
  •  When do you use reactions or raise a hand? 
  •  When do you use backgrounds? 
  •  When do you use a camera? 
  •  What do students do when classes are recorded (i.e. video, mute)? 

Establishing norms is a great way to begin the school year and any online class. 

Remember, you can revisit and revise norms as needed. For example, when someone within the community goes against the agreed-upon norms, it can be an opportunity to review and discuss parameters. At that time you can determine whether the behavior or the norm should change.

Assign Roles

Talk to your class about roles students may take on when learning online. Roles might include some of the following: 

 Chat moderator 

  •  Moderates chat by bringing questions and feedback to the teacher’s attention. 
  •  Answers questions and provides information. 


  •  Provides useful links and information about what is being taught and discussed. 

Tech support

  •  Helps other students with any tech issues. 

Behavior moderator

  •  This person brings any issues to the attention of the teacher. 

It may take some time to determine which students might be best for each role. You could assign roles based on student strengths and rotate assignments (like class jobs in a physical classroom). Or, you might want to have students apply for a role and interview for the job. Selected candidates may be able to have the position and/or be backed up at different times. Roles could be swapped out each week or month as makes sense. 

Determine Best Practices for Online Learning 

Here are some of the best practices that successful educators use when conducting learning in online environments:

Build in time before class to set up your activity and time after class to close out

  • Set-up includes: Checking equipment; queuing up presentation materials and any websites/resources 
  • Close out includes: Leaving time for Q & A; sending post-lesson evaluations; and providing one-on-one support for any students who might need it 

Have an opening slide so students know what they’re about to learn 

  • Include any relevant links to materials such as the agenda and other helpful information that students might need during the lesson 

Have an agenda slide to help keep the lesson on track and to ensure students know what to expect 

  • Within the agenda have links to the presentation, resources, etc.
  • Set permissions so that students can view (not edit) the agenda  

Set time up for free talk at the beginning and end 

  • Having time at the end can be a reward for staying on task and can help avoid social distractions during the lesson 

Enter with your camera on 

  • It's good to show your face and connect with your students! 

Bring the energy! 

  • Not every lesson will be exciting or engaging, however, it's important to speak clearly and be present 
  • No one likes hearing from someone that speaks in a monotone or stumbles through long-winded narratives 

Know your audience! 

  • Anticipate possible questions and ways you might address each one 

Be reflective 

  • Ask for feedback from your students on how the lesson went. Perhaps provide a short evaluation such as rate and comment on the lesson 

Involve Families 

As educators conducted remote learning, many shared how they connected with families more than ever to support their students. Developing responsible digital citizens happens best when teachers partner with families to support students. Fortunately, there is help to do so. 

Common Sense Education has a free family toolkit for educators that provides valuable tips and tools to share with families. Their research-based resources cover several digital citizenship topics via articles, videos, handouts, and presentations. Additionally, their K–12 digital citizenship curriculum has family tips and family activities in each of the curriculum topics. Resources are available in English and Spanish. 

Select a Digital Citizenship Curriculum 

Schools can select one or more digital citizenship curricula to follow. Ideally the teaching of these lessons would occur across the teaching staff and throughout the school year. 

Free Curriculum Resources:

Best Free Digital Citizenship Sites, Lessons and Activities

Paid Curriculum Resources: 

Become Common Sense Recognized 

Common Sense Education enables educators, schools, and districts to become recognized for leading digital teaching and citizenship in today’s classrooms. 

The Common Sense Recognition Program provides the latest teaching strategies and ensures those who participate receive well-deserved credit for their work. A Common Sense Educator, School, or District, will learn to lead responsible and effective tech use in their school communities and build their practice along the way. 

It’s free to participate in this program.

Know Your Resources 

Common Sense Education is perhaps the most well known source for guidance on digital citizenship. 

Here are some resources that can help teachers as they incorporate more technology into their teaching and learning.

As schools move to a new normal that values digital learning, it is more important than ever to establish norms, assign roles, determine best practices, select a curriculum, know resources, involve families, and become recognized for this work. Each of these elements will be crucial to ensure the comfort and success of our teachers, students, and their families. 


Lisa Nielsen (@InnovativeEdu) has worked as a public-school educator and administrator since 1997. She is a prolific writer best known for her award-winning blog, The Innovative Educator. Nielsen is the author of several books and her writing has been featured in media outlets such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Tech & Learning and T.H.E. Journal.   

Disclaimer: The information shared here is strictly that of the author and does not reflect the opinions or endorsement of her employer.

Lisa Nielsen (@InnovativeEdu) has worked as a public-school educator and administrator since 1997. She is a prolific writer best known for her award-winning blog, The Innovative Educator. Nielsen is the author of several books and her writing has been featured in media outlets such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Tech & Learning and T.H.E. Journal.   

Disclaimer: The information shared here is strictly that of the author and does not reflect the opinions or endorsement of her employer.