Digital citizenship: creating safe and inclusive online learning spaces

Digital citizenship, or the ability to use and connect via technology responsibly, is now a vital life skill that educators must foster among students. Vicki Madden explains how to start by creating respectful online environments

Victoria Madden's avatar
3 May 2022
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Created in partnership with

University of Edinburgh

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Creating a welcoming and inclusive online learning community
Create a welcoming online learning community

As universities adapt to hybrid models of learning and teaching, relying on increased engagement with digital tools and forums, educators must work to foster safe and inclusive online learning environments. Digital citizenship – which refers to the ability to use technology responsibly in order to learn, create and participate online – should be viewed as part and parcel of the pursuit of academic excellence, making it crucial to actively embed this concept within the curriculum.

Ideas for creating positive online spaces

 1. Lay the groundwork. While some courses will have their own “netiquette” guidelines, it is important to set expectations for respectful digital engagement from day one to avoid problems down the line. This is especially important in courses where sensitive or controversial topics are discussed.

2. Help students develop a nuanced understanding of the relationship between intention and responsibility. Students may not understand that they can be morally or legally responsible for comments that were not intended to harm, making it imperative to discuss this within the classroom. Emphasise to students that free speech must also be responsible speech, and that language and tone matter, especially when conveyed through text in asynchronous environments. Comments posted online should always remain respectful.

3. Acknowledge that people are still learning. Building a safe and inclusive digital environment requires collaboration and an empathetic approach to discussion. Increased sensitivity is required as both students and staff grapple with digital fatigue. Learning about privilege, unconscious bias and microaggressions is also a process, and it is important to acknowledge that people might make mistakes along the way.

4. Prepare for surprises. Just as with in-person teaching, students might make surprising comments when engaging online. Whether dealing with microaggressions or overtly offensive comments, it is important to address challenging digital behaviours in a timely manner.

5. Respond to inappropriate comments and posts. Problematic comments should never be ignored, and feedback should be offered on ideas, not individuals. Highlighting why particular comments may be upsetting, offensive or inappropriate creates an opportunity for students to learn. There is, however, a fine line between discouraging offensive remarks and tone policing. The purpose of this guidance is not to prevent students from voicing their opinion but rather to ensure that they do so in a way that does not inadvertently cause harm to others.

6. Encourage students to be allies and active bystanders online. Students should feel empowered to stand up for one another online and to report behaviour that poses a risk to others. Make it clear that it is everyone’s responsibility to help create a safe and inclusive digital environment and educate students on the concept of “calling in,” addressing problematic behaviour privately and with empathy.

7. Signpost students to online resources to help them develop digital communication skills. The University of Edinburgh, for example, offers myriad skills development opportunities focusing on digital safety, digital citizenship and communication. These include digital skills courses and webinars, and the Digital Safety and Citizenship Web Hub.

8. Familiarise yourself with the same resources and digital terminology. It is important that all university staff have an understanding of digital safety and citizenship in order to foster safe and inclusive teaching environments and to understand student concerns when they arise.

Encourage students to consider…

Their diverse learning community

  • Students should keep in mind that university communities are made up of diverse learners, including international students and classmates with protected characteristics.
  • Encourage students to avoid assumptions about their classmates or generalisations about social groups.

Intent vs impact

  • Students should consider the impact of their words and how their comments might make others feel. Even if there is no ill intention, certain language can cause distress to others. It is important that students understand the difference between intent and impact.
  • Educate students on topics such as intersectionality and privilege, microaggressions and unconscious bias.

E-professionalism and professional reputation

  • E-professionalism refers to the way you engage yourself online in relation to your profession, including your attitudes, actions and adherence to relevant professional codes of conduct. While some qualifications will include a set of defined professional bodies’ guidelines, it is important for all students to consider how their comments reflect on them.
  • Once you commit something to the internet, it’s there forever, even if posted in closed forums, and offensive comments that demonstrate a misalignment with the values of the organisation you represent (for example, your university) have the potential to impact employability and future opportunities.
  • Students can demonstrate positive graduate attributes and a personal commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion by amplifying the voices of those who are being marginalised and by challenging disrespectful behaviour occurring in digital spaces.

Honing digital communication skills

  • Professional communication skills are a key area of development for students. As more activity takes place in digital spaces, encourage students to think about developing digital literacy by engaging respectfully with their peers in digital environments.

Creating safe digital spaces for university communities requires timely staff moderation and student cooperation. Students must understand what is expected of them within digital spaces, including what constitutes misconduct. It is crucial that everyone does their part in maintaining safe and inclusive virtual environments.

Vikki Madden is digital safety support officer at the University of Edinburgh.

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