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The What, Where and Who of Digital Citizenship Across K-12 Schools

Pennsylvania Convention Center, 121BC

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Researcher, Former K-12 Teacher
University of California-Irvine
Graduate student
Allison Starks is a technology and media researcher, former teacher and technology integrator in K-12 public schools, with experience in creating comprehensive digital citizenship programs and facilitating family-school partnerships around technology. She collaborates with schools, after school programs and organizations to understand children's technology lives. Allison's work has been published with the MIT Press, Ed Surge, and on the ISTE blog. Her latest research examines developmentally appropriate design of digital spaces, transitions to smartphone use in childhood and digital divides in remote learning responses to COVID-19.
Co-author: Michelle Green

Session description

Using data from the national SpeakUp survey, this session will describe what digital citizenship topics are discussed, who is teaching digital citizenship and where instruction takes place, with implications for children’s experience of risk and opportunity online. Critical digital skills like data collection practices and algorithmic bias are included.


The present work is grounded in an ecological model of children’s rights online developed by Livingstone and colleagues (2015) called the Global Kids Online framework. The model depicts ecological systems of risk and opportunity for children online, shaped by several nested factors at the individual child level, social level, and country level. At the individual level, the online experiences of children are shaped by their digital practices, skills, opportunities and risks. These online experiences are informed by a child’s access to digital technologies, skills they have related to digital environments, the child’s identity and resources. Children’s access to digital citizenship instruction informs which skills and practices exist at the individual level and is the focus of our analysis.
At the social level, the framework acknowledges that there are multiple social factors that influence children’s experiences online. Families, educators, peers, community, and digital ecology are highlighted as key social agents in children’s digital lives. These social factors shape the individual experiences of children online, and are also heavily influenced by wider country-level factors. The present study documents social factors for youth’s online experiences by exploring how schools are facilitating students’ digital citizenship skills.

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We use survey data from the national SpeakUp survey to describe patterns of digital citizenship instruction in K-12 public schools, with a specific focus on the content, frequency and context of digital citizenship instruction. The SpeakUp survey is a cross-sectional survey about key educational issues distributed nationally to a nonrandom sample of over 400,000 K-12 students and over 26,000 K-12 educators, representing a mix of urban, suburban and rural schools and approximately 60% of participating schools are Title I eligible (at least 40% of student population qualifies for free and reduced lunch). Participating schools and districts administer an online questionnaire developed by Project Tomorrow, an education nonprofit organization.
The survey is distributed to all students, teachers, administrators, and parents within the school or district, typically in the fall of the academic year. The SpeakUp survey has between 15 and 30 close-ended questions with one or two open ended questions, depending on audience (e.g. student, teacher, administrator) and grade level. We draw on digital citizenship questions from teacher, administrator and parent surveys to detail (1) what topics adults are talking with students about (2) how often digital citizenship instruction happens (3) who is most likely to facilitate these conversations and (4) where in the school context do these conversations happen (e.g. classroom, electives, assemblies).
Data will be collected digitally through the SpeakUp survey portal unique to each participating school district. The teacher version of the SpeakUp survey is distributed to all classroom teachers, English Language Learner (ELL) and Special Education (SPED) teachers, and paraprofessionals in a school or district. Teacher participants constitute a convenience sample because schools or districts opt-in to taking the survey and distribute it to all teachers within that school or district. Overall response rates for the teacher survey will be included with findings. The analysis sample will include all teacher respondents (e.g. classroom teachers, ELL, SPED, and paraprofessionals) with complete survey responses serving grades 3-5. In 2019, approximately 26,000 teachers and librarians completed the SpeakUp survey. The SpeakUp survey is distributed nationally, so participants may represent all 50 states. In the past, participating schools have been a mix of urban (26%), suburban (33%) and rural (44%) and 59% identify as Title I eligible.
Data analysis will be based on all completed surveys in the spring of 2023. Surveys will be analyzed for content, frequency and context of digital citizenship instruction. We will analyze relationships between school demographic variables and patterns of digital citizenship instruction (topics, frequency, context). Descriptive analysis will be used to indicate means, standard deviations, and ranges for digital citizenship topics taught, frequency of instruction, personnel responsible and location of instruction. Frequency tables and charts will be created to illustrate what proportion of teachers report teaching each digital life topic (at all), who is primarily responsible for talking to children about digital life, and where this instruction mostly takes place. For each digital citizenship topic, mean and standard deviation scores will be calculated to indicate how often teachers report talking about that topic (e.g. 0=never, 1=once a year, 2=once a month, 3=once a week, 4=once a day). Digital life topics will be described in categories to indicate conceptually similar skills (e.g. critical digital skills, non-critical skills), and these categories may be further specified after items are finalized with the Project Tomorrow team. Because the study is especially interested in critical digital skills, we will create a variable for the sum of discrete critical digital skills topics taught by each teacher. We will describe the average number of critical digital skills taught along with how often each one is talked about, on average. To examine frequency of critical digital life instruction to non-critical life instruction, we will examine how often digital life topics are talked about by category. We will create one category for critical competencies related to structures and power dynamics, including such topics as algorithms, data flows, and persuasive technology. Tentatively, we will use ANOVAs to examine differences in topics of instruction and frequency of instruction based on grade level, school FARL/ Title I, and school technology access.

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Together, these analyses will describe which digital citizenship topics teachers are teaching, how often teachers talk about each topic, who is primarily facilitating these conversations, and where these conversations take place. Findings will indicate which groups of students have opportunities to develop digital citizenship/literacy skills, and whether critical digital skills are part of that instruction. Findings will also have implications for stakeholders interested in building comprehensive digital citizenship programming.

Though the data is not finalized, our research design has many strengths and enormous utility for the ISTE audience. First, the proposed line of research has been approved by a committee of experts in the field as part of a doctoral degree dissertation. The research has been approved as a feasible, rigorous and meaningful inquiry. Second, the research is based on a national survey that is well established and broadly implemented across K-12 schools in the U.S. Importantly, the demographics of the survey indicate a high percentage of lower resourced schools which are important populations to attend to when considering issues of equity and digital citizenship instruction. Third, the lead author has an established line of research in this topic area and with quantitative research methods.

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The current project will explore important gaps in digital life skills instruction, attempting to understand the scope of digital life education with a national sample of K-12 educators. Currently, public education in the U.S. does not have agreed-upon standards for digital citizenship education in K-12 schools (Walters, Gee, & Mohammed, 2019). The US National Education Technology Plan highly recommends digital literacy and digital citizenship education for both teachers and students, but the details of what exactly should be taught remains unclear (US Office of Educational Technology, 2017). Only a few states require digital citizenship or media literacy instruction (Florida, Ohio, Colorado, Texas, and Illinois) according to a recent policy analysis (Media Literacy Now, 2022; Media Literacy Now, 2020; Cortesi et al., 2020). Thus, it is worthwhile to establish how often students have access to digital literacy instruction and what topics they learn about in order to ensure all students can leverage the power of digital technologies.
Importantly, this study includes an analysis of critical digital skills instruction, which is becoming essential for understanding potential risks online such as misinformation, ad targeting, and negative mental health effects. For example, traditional digital literacy focuses on source evaluation rather than questioning how certain information gets populated into an individual's feeds, stories, etc. whereas a more critical approach considers how algorithms determine the content that children are exposed to in their content feeds, shaping the experiences they have with certain kinds of information or misinformation.
To date there has not been a systematic, large scale inventory of the frequency of digital life topics and prior research has not included increasingly relevant topics such as algorithmic literacy and awareness of data flows online (Selwyn, 2022). Findings will describe overall patterns based on school level factors, which could indicate which groups of students get access to certain types of digital citizenship instruction. This information can inform conversations about ways to support young people’s participation in digital environments as well as where we locate responsibility for teaching young people how to maximize the good and mitigate harm online.

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Cortesi, S. C., Hasse, A., Lombana, A., Kim, S., & Gasser, U. (2020). Youth and Digital Citizenship+ (Plus): Understanding Skills for a Digital World. SSRN Electronic Journal, 7641.

Livingstone, S., Mascheroni, G., & Staksrud, E. (2015). Developing a framework for researching children’s online risks and opportunities in Europe. EU Kids Online, November, 1–21.

Media Literacy Now (2022) Putting media literacy on the public policy agenda. Accessed at

Media Literacy Now. (2020). U.S. Media Literacy Policy Report 2020. Retrieved from:

Öztürk, G. (2021). Digital citizenship and its teaching : A literature review. Journal of Educational Technology & Online Learning, 4(1), 31–45.

Selwyn, N. (2022) What should ‘digital literacy’ look like in an age of algorithms and AI? Parenting for a Digital Future Blog. Retrieved from

Tynes, B. M., Stewart, A., Hamilton, M., & Willis, H. A. (2021). From Google Searches to Russian Disinformation: Adolescent Critical Race Digital Literacy Needs and Skills. International Journal of Multicultural Education, 23(1), 110–130.

United States (US) Office of Educational Technology. (2017). Reimagining the role of technology in education: 2017 national education technology plan update.

Walters, M. G., Gee, D., & Mohammed, S. (2019). A literature review: Digital citizenship and the elementary educator. International Journal of Technology in Education (IJTE), 2(1), 1–21. Retrieved from

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Session specifications

Digital citizenship
Grade level:
Chief technology officers/superintendents/school board members, Principals/head teachers, Technology coordinators/facilitators
Attendee devices:
Devices useful
Attendee device specification:
Smartphone: iOS, Windows, Android
Laptop: Chromebook, Mac, PC
Tablet: Android, iOS, Windows
ISTE Standards:
For Education Leaders:
Equity and Citizenship Advocate
  • Cultivate responsible online behavior, including the safe, ethical and legal use of technology.
For Educators:
  • Advocate for equitable access to educational technology, digital content and learning opportunities to meet the diverse needs of all students.
  • Mentor students in safe, legal and ethical practices with digital tools and the protection of intellectual rights and property.