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Table4: Moving Beyond Personal Responsibility: A Critical Discourse Analysis of Digital Citizenship Curricula

Location: W179a, Table 4

Listen and learn

Listen and learn : Research paper

Monday, June 25, 4:00–5:00 pm
Location: W179a, Table 4

Dr. Kristen Mattson  
Presentation of original research. Learn how the term 'digital citizen' is conceptualized & furthered through curricula written for secondary students, what assumptions about teens and technology use emerge from these lessons, and how 'digital citizenship' work is often misaligned from traditional citizenship education. Recommendations for curricular improvements will be presented.

Skill level: Beginner
Attendee devices: Devices not needed
Participant accounts, software and other materials: None
Focus: Digital age teaching & learning
Topic: Digital citizenship
Grade level: 6-12
ISTE Standards: For Administrators:
Digital Citizenship
  • Promote and model responsible social interactions related to the use of technology and information.
For Educators:
  • Mentor students in safe, legal and ethical practices with digital tools and the protection of intellectual rights and property.
For Students:
Digital Citizen
  • Students engage in positive, safe, legal and ethical behavior when using technology, including social interactions online or when using networked devices.
Additional detail: ISTE author presentation

Proposal summary


In order to examine these research questions, I used three different conceptual frameworks. The first is a framework for citizenship and citizenship education developed by Kahne, Chi and Middaugh in 2006. They combed through dozens of citizenship curricula and found that schools are usually forwarding one of three ideals about what it means to be a good citizen.

Personally responsible citizenship curriculum teaches that in order for society to function and thrive, each person must take responsibility for his/her own actions, obey authority, and follow the law. Curriculum focuses heavily on character traits and rules.
Participatory citizenship teaches that citizens must be actively engaged in their communities. This engagement might could include joining organizations, becoming an informed voter, helping other members of the community; Curriculum usually includes aspects of community service and democratic voice.
Justice Oriented Citizenship is a citizenship type rarely cultivated in K-12 education. The justice oriented citizen recognizes that volunteerism only goes so far to bring about change. This type of citizen is passionate about responding to social problems by changing the systems that bring those problems about. Curriculum would include opportunities for students to study, analyze, and critique the interplay of social, economical, and political forces.

The second conceptual framework I chose for this study is critical discourse analysis, which also happens to be a methodology. As a concept, there are a few core beliefs that guide the work.
1. Texts are not created in isolation, but are part of a larger societal context.
2. Three levels of analysis - text itself, the discursive elements of the text, and the relationships between that text and the world.
3. CDA most often focus on social issues and analysts are interested in examining structures of dominance, power, control & discrimination in language.
4. Critical Discourse Analysts are optimistic about bringing light to & possibly altering conversations because they believe the link between text and society is mediated and moldable.

The third framework used in this study is governmentality. Governmentality challenges the idea that power is only exercised by laws, regulations, and top-down political structures.
It introduces a wide range of “technologies of power” that shape and mold all of our behaviors. There are many recognized technologies of power, but two that emerged frequently in this study were disciplinary power and strategic games.


This critical discourse analysis was conducted on lessons designed to be delivered to teens, ages 13-18. CDA was conducted on lessons, handouts, and teaching documents written by the organization or author of said curricula.

The first step in this process was selecting works to include in the data set. Throughout my literature review, I kept coming across the work of Dr. Mike Ribble. He was the first to publish the term “digital citizenship” and as of today, his book is the only one published by the International Society of Technology in Education on the topic. It seemed only natural to include this seminal piece of text. To locate the other two curricula, I conducted a variety of Google searches using keywords that a classroom teacher might if he/she were searching for classroom lessons (digital citizenship lessons, digital citizenship for high school, digital citizenship curriculum) and I tallied the number of times different curricular packages came up in the top 10 Google search results. Additionally, I read about a dozen blog posts and “best of” lists on educational websites and found that both Common Sense & NetSmartz came up consistently over time in both of my methods.

Common Sense, based on those searches, appears to be the most popular and widely used in many districts including my own
NetSmartz has a 15 year history of internet safety education, and is also supported by grant from the US Department of Justice.

The initial coding of my data sets happened through lexical analysis. Essentially I wanted to know how the chosen words and phrases in the curricula could help me answer each research question:
What is digital citizenship?
How do these curricula portray teenagers?
How do these curricula relate to traditional forms of citizenship education?

To accomplish this task, I had to code for:

Classifications: How are people categorized and grouped? Is there a use of we vs. them? Are minors referred to as teens, adolescents, youth, students? How do the curricula draw attention to specific parts of identity?

Collocational patterns: How do groups of words used in relation to one another over time help develop a concept? Is technology associated with cyberbullying, digital drama, predators, etc? Or is it associated with opportunity, community, learning, etc?

Word connotations: How does a word feel? House vs. Home carries different emotions. Cyberbully vs Digital Drama; digital citizenship lesson vs. internet safety lesson

On a second pass of the data, I had to code for presupposition: What words and phrases are these curricula setting out as “knowns”? What do they assume people already know or think about technology, teenagers, and citizenship?

In order to accomplish this, I had to look for:

Structural Oppositions: Meaning is developed not only through words themselves, but through the understanding of their opposites. When I say something is “good,” I rely on both my understanding of the word “good” and my understanding of its opposite word, “bad” to form a concept in my head

Overlexicalisation: The overuse of words and phrases can help forward a concept as true. In the same regard, the absence of anticipated words and phrases can help shape one’s understanding of a concept.

After completing my initial passes of the data sets, I moved on to focused and axial coding. This coding happened on multiple levels, where I looked for themes in individual lessons, then across the curriculum as a whole, and final in an interdiscursive analysis of all three curricula combined.


Three Key Findings:
-Being a digital citizen means being safe, ethical, and respectful online;

-Lessons on digital citizenship have limited parallels to traditional frameworks for citizenship education;

-Digital citizenship lessons reinforce traditional relationships of power between teenagers and adults through recognized aspects of governmentality.

The majority of digital citizenship lessons currently used in high schools today are written from a core assumption that a good citizen is one who follows the law and acts responsibly, respectfully, and ethically in online environments. This core assumption guides curriculum writers to develop lessons that promote cautionary use, obedience to authority, civility and tolerance with other internet users and that promote a replication of traditional power structures found offline into the digital spaces. These attempts are most evident in the way digital citizenship curricula portray teenagers, adults, and the relationships amongst them.

Across the three curricula, personally responsible citizenship is mostly demonstrated through non-examples. In many cases, scenarios are used to show students engaged in “uncitizen like” behavior, and then receiving a consequence because of it. The use of these crime and punishment examples is a recognized technology of governmentality that is used to shape behavior. Unfortunately, the sole use of non-examples in these curricula makes it difficult for students to see what a good digital citizen does with technology.

Part of being a good critical discourse analyst is studying the history and context through which discourse has come about. Throughout this study, I began to develop a theory about digital citizenship based on my reading. Digital citizenship dialogue began in 2004 with publication by Mike Ribble. Several years earlier, however, an article entitled “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” was published by Marc Prensky in 2001. This article forwarded the notion that kids born in a digital generation “are all ‘native speakers’ of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet” (p. 1). Prensky asserts that while many adults often become fascinated by and adopt new technologies, they “always will be, compared to (digital natives), digital immigrants” (p. 2). While the intent of Prensky’s article was to engage teachers in thinking differently about their pedagogy, these two opposing terms - digital native and digital immigrant - have been repeated over and over again in both popular and academic literature. While many studies have challenged the dichotomy of the native vs. the immigrant, these classifications persist. Two terms, two labels, one widely cited article put a younger generation in a position of power over adults – something that rarely, if ever, happens in the offline world.

My theory, then, is that digital citizenship came about as an attempt to restore the traditional relationship of power between digital natives and digital immigrants. As I further considered this possibility, the technologies of power used to reset the balance through such curricula became abundantly clear.


As educators yourselves, you are well aware that the educational system is in a slow, ongoing struggle to adapt and change in a world permeated with technology. The schoolhouse is no longer the sole source of information and teachers have lost their sense of authority on Google-able facts, figures, and how-to’s. They find themselves fighting for their students’ attention and trying to convince teenagers why the curriculum is so relevant in an age when students and non-students alike are increasingly turning to one another and to the internet when they have a need for information or support.

The problem is, when digital citizenship curricula overwhelmingly portray technology as a portal for risk, a source of unreliable information, a space for cruelty or folly, while also maintaining a traditional figured world of school where the teacher is the center and student centered inquiry is frowned upon, the wheels of change are given permission to slow even more.

In fact, digital citizenship curricula may be doing schools more harm than good. As more districts move toward 1:1 environments, they will need the support of teachers, families, and the community to make that shift successful. However, when schools are passing out Chromebooks alongside curricular handouts that focus on negative behaviors, it can be difficult to get stakeholders to support the inclusion of digital resources in the curriculum.

In a final call to action, we must
1. Reexamine and expand the digital citizenship discourse to help educators, parents, and students see possibility over problems, opportunities over risks, and community success over personal gain.
2. Move beyond non-examples centered around personal responsible citizenship, equipping students with the skills to actively participate and contribute in a global society.
3. Further clarify a framework for the alignment of digital citizenship, traditional, technological, and media literacies.


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Dr. Kristen Mattson, Dr. Kristen Mattson Consulting, LLC

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