“Partycipate” Like It’s 2022: The Case for Digital Citizenship in Education

By Dr. Jason Ohler

This post is the first in a series of blogs from passionate digital citizenship advocate, Dr. Jason Ohler. The series will explore the importance of digital citizenship and provide strategies for integrating digital citizenship into schools.

As technology advances and our real lives (RL) increasingly blend with our online lives, the need for digital citizenship in education has never been more important. Students growing up in the digital age must be equipped with the tools to think critically about the impacts technology has on their lives.


Partycipation (pronounced like participation) refers to participation in the big Internet party. It is a gala affair that millions of people can attend from anywhere anytime. At partycipation, you can pretend to be anyone. You can even have multiple personas. You also have access to an ever-expanding smorgasbord of online relationships and information resources. Any question you can think to ask can be answered with a quick search. Any idea you want to pursue can gather an audience. The problem with partycipation is that we experience connections with others without the same emotional investment that we have in RL. Given so much freedom with so few consequences, ethical issues are bound to occur.

Educators’ current interest in digital citizenship is driven by the fact that many students attend partycipation. There they encounter a number of ethical issues as the party rages on. Young people have always experimented with boundaries and personality exploration in RL, while still forming their identities. However, in RL educators and parents could witness the development of maturing youth and intervene when necessary. In contrast, the online world of connections is virtually invisible, making it harder for adults to monitor and help young people as they develop and mature. It is our job to make sure children enter this subterranean world with the skills and perspectives needed to behave like good digital citizens.

Understanding Technological Impact

Students need to develop a “metaperspective” of what it means to live a digital lifestyle. That is, they need to be able to step back from the screen and see “the big picture,” which consists of a balanced view of technology’s upsides and downsides. The upsides to technology are always immediate, enticing, and easy to see, while the downsides are often hidden and unfold imperceptibly over time. It’s only in hindsight that we often see the impact technology has had on our lives, and by then it’s too late to reverse course and fix our mistakes. We need to help students develop the critical-thinking skills necessary to see and understand this big picture so they can craft a future they are proud to call home.

There is one simple question we can ask to help us understand technological impact: How does technology connect and disconnect us? We must assume that there are no connections without disconnections. For example, Facebook connects me to cousins who live across the country and whom I never expected to hear from regularly. Yet Facebook also disconnects me from the people sitting right next to me in RL whether they are friends at a party or strangers in a coffee shop.

We often don’t see the disconnections of a technology until we adopt it in our daily lives. By then, it is often too late to change the technology, or reduce our dependency on it. That means we need to be proactive about assessing its impact before we adopt it. And because of technology’s many unforeseeable consequences, it also means that we need to question its impact on ourselves, our societies, and our environment even after we have infused it into our lives.

It is essential that our students become digital citizens who are capable of seeing the bigger picture of how technology impacts us. Yes, we want them to develop practical skills such as how to be safe and responsible online, and how to practice netiquette (online etiquette) and empathy in virtual spaces. However, these aspirations will fall into place more readily if we help to cultivate a larger perspective about the digital lifestyles they lead. That’s where digital citizenship needs to start.

I hope you will follow along with this blog series as we delve deeper into digital citizenship and the strategies you can use to help your students become digital citizens. In the next post, we will discuss how to give students a voice in the digital citizenship conversation.

Dr. Jason Ohler is a professor emeritus and distinguished president’s professor in educational technology and virtual learning at the University of Alaska. He is co-creator of ISTE’s Digital Citizenship Professional Learning Network, serves on the Digital Citizenship Institute board, and teaches digital ethics and storytelling in Fielding Graduate University’s media psychology PhD program. He has spent over 30 years helping K-12 teachers and students use technology effectively, creatively, and wisely. His latest book, 4Four Big Ideas for the Future, reflects on his many years in the world of educational media and innovation in order to chart a responsible and inspiring course for a future. Subscribe to his newsletter, Big Ideas (in English and Spanish), and learn more about his speaking, research, and writing at jasonohlerideas.com. Find Jason on Twitter @jasonohler.

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