Time was when digital citizenship was a niche area within citizenship education – of interest, but fairly marginal. Not any more. Today citizenship education without digital citizenship is unthinkable.

The notion of digital citizenship arose in the context of formal politics, more specifically in relation to up-dating the electoral process. New ways to vote: e-voting was issued by the Electoral Commission in 2004. It predicted an e-enabled general election some time after 2006.

No signs of e-voting in the UK yet, of course, but in the meantime the role of digital media in determining the outcome of elections has expanded massively. In connecting directly with American voters through social media, Barack Obama showed how elections are now won (or lost) on the internet.

However, it is not just because the internet has transformed elections that makes digital citizenship is so important today. It is because the internet has transformed life. So much of life is lived online now – from work and education to personal finance, shopping, entertainment, self-expression, making friends and forming communities. Overt political life, too – meeting, organising, campaigning, debating, fund-raising, petitioning, lobbying and so on.

Many young people today, the so-called ‘digital natives’, don’t know it any other way. A survey by the Pew Research Center found a growing number of US teens saying they use the internet on a near constant basis. Some 45% say they use the internet almost constantly, and another 44% say they go online several times a day, meaning roughly nine in ten US teens go online at least multiple times a day.

The distinction between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ life is losing its meaning. In fact, online experience is sometimes seen as more authentic and highly regarded than offline experience. Common Sense Media found that 66% of American children aged 10 – 18 said that although they trusted the news they hear from their family ‘a lot’, when asked to select their preferred news source, online news sources won out.

How can citizenship educators respond to this? The question was brought home to me recently when I was asked to edit a training pack on digital citizenship education for the Council of Europe. I found there are plenty of digital education materials available, but they are mainly about digital literacy or safety, not citizenship as such. There are also plenty of citizenship education materials online, but they are mainly about life offline not online.

What is missing are educational resources and approaches which translate the general principles of citizenship education derived from the world of face-to-face encounters into a form appropriate to life as it is now lived online. A genuinely digital approach to citizenship education needs to deal with questions like: What are our rights and responsibilities as citizens online? What do social values like justice, fairness, liberty and equality mean online? How can individuals make a difference to society online? How can we participate in the democratic process online?

These and similar questions form the basis of the now-published Council of Europe tool, Digital Citizenship Education: Trainers’ Pack. The pack is aimed at anyone with an interest in professional development and training in citizenship education in schools. It is based on a ten-dimensional model of digital citizenship education developed by the Council of Europe expert group on Digital Citizenship Education, and is designed to sit alongside other resources produced by the group, including a handbook and support materials for parents. The pack consists of a series of training exercises built on this model and deals with a range of issues from teaching and learning in the classroom to working with parents, writing a whole-school policy, and monitoring and evaluation.

Read more about this training pack.

Ted Huddleston is an independent Consultant in Civic and Citizenship Education and Lead Consultant at Young Citizens. Prior to this, Ted led the Young Citizens’ international work as well as domestic curriculum and resource development. In these capacities he shared responsibility for the Young Citizen’s work in public policy development, resource writing, training and professional development and consultancy.

Ted has authored and co-authored a wide range of teaching materials and educational resources on citizenship education for use in schools domestically and across Europe, and contributed to a number of publications in the field of citizenship and human rights education.

Suggested next steps: