Teachers & Digital Citizenship

Reference.com defines a good citizen as “ a person who obeys the laws of his country, contributes to society and participates in public affairs with wisdom.” In other words, a good citizen makes an effort to be informed, to act with consideration and care for others and for society, and to leave the world better than they found it.

While the lines between learning in the classroom and learning in digital spaces continue to blur, digital citizenship and digital literacy are becoming important topics for teachers to be aware of. This is a daunting problem given the complexity and rapid rate of change, and I understand why many teachers might feel overwhelmed if they try to tackle it all at once. It’s all about becoming informed and making good decisions, which is always a learning process. So, there are two things I want the reader of this post to keep in mind:

  • Understanding the digital world is a journey, not a destination
  • You aren’t alone! Your institution likely has someone whose job it is to support you in your integration of technology into the curriculum. If not, there are many folks on Twitter and elsewhere on the web who can provide information and support. These people may be knowledgeable or even subject matter experts, but please remember they are always learning too!

With that in mind, I’m going to focus in on just a few areas I personally find most relevant to the discussion on digital citizenship.


Just as the physical world can be made accessible to those with a disability, so to can the digital world. The good news is that it’s much easier and cheaper to make a webpage accessible than it is to retrofit an old building – it just means getting into a few good habits.

What Can You Do?

If you’re new to the idea of accessibility, the main idea is to make sure those who are relying on assistive technology can get the same information from your digital materials as everyone else does. In most cases, learning to use the formatting options such as Heading Styles in your authoring tool will get you most of the way towards creating accessible digital materials. For digital documents (PDFs, PowerPoints, etc.) and webpages, I like to use the acronym SPLAT to remind myself to use these tools.

SPLAT stands for Styles, Paragraphs, Lists, Alternative Text, & Tables, and you can find out more at the Teaching and Learning blog at my home institution, University of Portland.

Another important area to consider is the captioning of any video you want to use. If you have a deaf/hard-of-hearing student or just want to make your content accessible to a larger audience, you might want to learn how to curate accessible Youtube videos or even how to start captioning your own content.

As you start to get into the habit of thinking about accessibility, you’ll find that most steps you take towards accessibility add usability and value for all – for example, using headings is crucial for screen readers but also helps to visually and logically order long sections of text, and adding captions can help ESL students understand to read English in a new way. Accessible design is good Universal Design!

Remember, it’s OK and encouraged to ask for help! Your school most likely has accessibility and technology specialists who can provide guidance.

Copyright and Fair Use

This is a sticky issue but an important one to be brought up. I know of many teachers who hold their students to high standards regarding academic honesty, who might then turn around and grab an image from Google search without a second thought to copyright or attribution. In some cases, that may be acceptable under fair use, especially if the graphic is being taught to specifically. However, if the image is supplementary or decorative, fair use most likely doesn’t apply, and it’s also important to understand that fair use is a legal defense of copyright violation, not a law in and of itself.

What Can You Do?

Understand that just because you can find material on the internet, doesn’t mean it always fair game to use. There are lots of resources and ways to find free to use content if you know where to look. A digital rights check can also be an opportunity to ask “Do I really need this graphic in my instructional materials? Is there information I want students to learn here?”

 It can be frustrating to practice restraint in this area, and realistically you aren’t likely to ever be punished for re-using images or other resources without permission in the classroom. It’s not glamorous to take the extra time to attribute a photo, but this is an area where it’s important for teachers to be modeling behavior for their students!

Featured Image: David Teniers the Younger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons