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Promoting Responsible and Ethical Digital Citizens


EducationWorld is pleased to present this article by Christopher McGilvery, a lecturer at Angelo State University. The article originally appeared in TechEdge, a quarterly magazine published by Naylor LLC for Texas Computer Education Association members. To join or for more information, visit

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Today’s learners have the innate ability to easily navigate and use the Web. The Internet has evolved into a “participatory culture,” allowing students to create, connect, and collaborate with a global audience. School districts put in place Acceptable Use Policies, which are a set of computer rules to ensure appropriate student usage of the Internet and technology equipment at school.

But educators need to think of ways to train today’s generation to be responsible and ethical life-long learners of the digital age. Teachers must demonstrate, guide, and help students practice appropriate and professional behavior while actively participating in authentic learning experiences using blogs, wiki spaces, learning management systems, online research, and much more. The following tips can prepare students to be TECH SMART when using technology. (Note that when put together, the first letter of each of the following headings spell out TECH SMART.)

Take Care of Technology Equipment

Students must take care of the technology equipment, which can be viewed as a privilege. It is also important for students to learn to protect the technology resources (Cennamo, Ross, and Ertmer, 2010). Malware such as viruses, worms, and Trojan horses are even more prevalent today because of the increased use of email, fax, blogs, social media, etc. Students should be alert and active at all times when encountering suspicious messages, links, pop-up windows, etc. to prevent computers from being infected with malicious software (Cennamo et al., 2010). Students should immediately let their teacher know if there may be malware on a computer so that any problems can be addressed right away.

Explore Appropriate and Safe Sites for Learning and Research

The Internet is an immense storehouse of knowledge and should be used appropriately at all times. Students should use known and trusted digital resources (Cennamo et al., 2010). Teachers can initially provide students with a list of approved Web sites to use in class. However, students must be empowered to evaluate sites to make responsible and ethical decisions while surfing the Net. This practice will be helpful when students have to complete research for school or work. Students must be able to recognize if information on a site is valid and credible. Teaching students to critically evaluate Web sites will prepare them for their future education and profession (Pinkham, Wintle, and Silvernail, 2008).

Copyright Law, Fair Use Act, and Creative Commons Matter

Technology makes it easier to create, access, duplicate, and share information. It is therefore essential for teachers and students to understand the use of copyrighted material (Cennamo et al., 2010). Copyright laws protect an author’s original work. The Fair Use Act permits the use of copyright material for educational and noncommercial purposes. To stay within safe parameters of the Fair Use Act, practice the “10% rule” when using others' work (as cited in Cennamo et al., 2010).

The Internet is an outlet for sharing one’s creation, whether it may be an image, video, music, etc. These works are most likely protected by Creative Commons (CC). CC can be used to display a licensing mark on one’s work to authorize sharing, reusing, remixing, and building on the creative works (Johnson, 2009). More students are actively sharing, reusing, remixing, and building creative projects, so it is important they understand these laws to ensure legal use of material in and out of the classroom.

Help Prevent Cyberbullying

Prevent cyberbullying by discussing it, addressing it, and reporting it. Students interact with one another via social networks, chat rooms, blogs, etc. daily. They can write just about anything on these platforms, which then can be forwarded to many with just a few clicks, causing more issues if the information is sensitive or hurtful to another (Levy, 2011).

The consequences of cyberbullying can be damaging, resulting in emotional stress, withdrawal from school, relocation, and even suicide (Cennamo et al., 2010). Teachers must provide a set of guidelines that addresses ways to prevent and handle cyberbullying.

  • First, discuss cyberbullying and how it is unacceptable.
  • Second, provide examples of cyberbullying to help students understand the importance of addressing this growing concern.
  • Third, students should report inappropriate online interactions to their parents, teachers, counselors, and administrators immediately, whether they are a victim or bystander.

Students need to know about the serious repercussions for intentionally harming someone online. Outlining cyberbullying guidelines can help students address and prevent threatening and inappropriate online behavior.

Self-image Is Important

Choose to promote a positive and professional image of self online. On social networking Web sites, students can share information about themselves globally (Dewall, Buffardi, Bonser, and Campbell, 2011). Keep in mind, however, that “Freedom of Speech does not equate to freedom of consequences…” (Oxley, 2010, p. 3).

Students must think before they post something online and make it available for the world to see. A potential problem of which today’s learners must be aware is that employers check for information about prospective candidates online (Oxley, 2010). It’s essential that students understand that once they post an image, comment, etc. online, it’s there forever. Teachers can help students promote a positive self-image online by asking them to reflect about these questions:

  • Would you want your parents to see or read what’s online about you?
  • Will this affect your future career?
  • Would this hurt anyone’s feelings?
  • How do you want to be seen by others?

Make Use of Netiquette

Be courteous and respectful when communicating with others online. It’s best to think about and use “netiquette.” Netiquette can be defined as rules for online communication (Aranda, 2007). Communication online is done on a variety of platforms, from social networks to email, and students must understand the different rules for each mode of communication. Online netiquette must be addressed in today’s classrooms. Teachers should allow learners to practice netiquette by providing them opportunities to communicate online via email, blogs, social networks, etc. This will allow for opportunities to model netiquette.

The following are accepted norms when using communication technologies: Be aware of your audience; respect other’s privacy; apply real-world rules; be nice; use proper writing style; do not send unsolicited emails; avoid personal attacks; learn the rules of the community; refrain from profanity; and don’t use electronic devices while engaging in face-to-face interaction (as cited in Aranda, 2007). Use these norms to empower students to practice netiquette.

Always Give Credit to Original Source

When using someone else’s work, it’s important to give them credit. Copying or stealing someone else’s work is illegal and is known as plagiarism. Students need to be educated about plagiarism and the consequences for not citing borrowed words from a source (Davis, 2011). Source citation should be taught to help students gain the knowledge and skills to cite properly.

A number of students plagiarize unknowingly because they use quotations and paraphrase from sources, but are unfamiliar with the citation rules (Insley, 2011). Students should be given opportunities to practice proper citation. This will help them understand how to prevent plagiarism. Teachers can also request that students start research early to collect sources and have students submit a draft to make any final edits before the due date (Insley, 2011). These steps can prepare today’s learners to cite sources properly and prevent plagiarism.

Remember to Be Effective, Thoughtful, and Ethical Digital Creators

Educators must teach students to be effective, thoughtful, and ethical digital creators (DeVoss, Eidman-Aadahl, and Hicks, 2010). Students should be afforded opportunities to use digital tools to gain the necessary skills for the 21st century in order to help them be responsible users of technology.

Of course, teachers must set expectations and guidelines to ensure students use technology properly. Teachers can have students blog about what they’re learning in class, create a video explaining the steps for a math problem, create a graphic timeline, dissect a frog in a virtual environment, etc. These opportunities and others can help students become responsible digital creators.


There’s always a purpose for technology use. Think of how, when, why, and for what purpose you're using it. Think of ways to be creative and innovative. Think about communicating and collaborating with others globally to learn about another country. Think about how much students can learn via the Internet. Think of using it to prepare today’s learners to be successful citizens of the 21st century. Think of all the possibilities.

It takes a team to prepare today’s digital citizens. Parents, teachers, counselors, and administrators must work together to help today’s learners be TECH SMART when navigating through the virtual world. Download a printable TECH SMART poster here.



Aranda J.F., (2007). Journal of Instruction Delivery Systems, 21(4), 11-14.

Cennamo, K.S., Ertmer, P.A., and Ross, J.D. (2010). Technology Integration for Meaningful Classroom Use: A Standards-Based Approach, 1st ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Davis, L. (2011). Arresting student plagiarism: Are we investigators or educators? Business Communication Quarterly, 74(2), 160-3.

Dewall, N. C., Buffardi, L. E., Bonser, I. and Campbell, K. (2011). Narcissism and implicit attention seeking: Evidence from linguistic analyses of social networking and online presentation. Personality and Individual Differences, 51(1), 57–62.

DeVoss, D. N., Eidman-Aadahl, E., and Hicks, T. (2010). Because digital writing
, 1ST ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Insley, R. (2011). Managing Plagiarism: A preventative approach. Business
Communication Quarterly
, 74(2), 183-7.

Johnson, D. (2009). Creative Commons and why it should be commonly understood. Library Media Connection, 27(6), 56-7.

Levy, P. (2011). Confronting cyberbullying. T.H.E. Journal, 38(5), 25-7.

Oxley, C. (2010). Digital citizenship: Developing an ethical and responsible online culture. ACCESS, 25 (3), 5-9.

Pinkham, C., Wintle, S. E., and Silvernail, D. L. (2008). 21st century teaching and learning: An assessment of student website evaluation skills.



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