Digital citizenship and the importance of creating safe and inclusive online learning spaces

Image credit: Daisy Michelson, former Digital Skills Champion.

In this post, Dr Vicki Madden, Digital Safety Support Officer, provides an insight into the University community’s relationship with the term ‘digital citizenship’, and highlights the current and upcoming resources and projects delivered by the Digital Skills and Training team. This post is part of the September & October Hot Topic theme: Revisiting the Hybrid Teaching Exchange.

The case for digital citizenship

As The University of Edinburgh settles into the new academic year, staff and students continue to adapt to new ways of hybrid working, learning and teaching. While in-person activities are resuming for smaller groups, we’re still relying more on digital technologies to bridge gaps and connect with students and colleagues. This increased digital engagement raises some interesting questions about digital citizenship and the ways in which we’re embedding (or failing to embed) this concept both within the curriculum and within our University culture at large.

Although relatively new, the term digital citizenship has become increasingly prominent, especially within educational settings. As early as 2004, educators Mark Ribble, Gerald Bailey and Tweed Ross defined digital citizenship as, “the norms of appropriate and responsible behavior with regard to technology use” (p.7). This definition has since expanded to incorporate not only digital literacy but also to consider an individual’s social, economic, and political relationship with technology.

These varying aspects indicate that digital citizenship encompasses more than simply the ability to use technology responsibly in order to learn, create and participate online. Thinking about what kinds of behaviours are required to foster more inclusive, socially just and safe environments for everyone who engages with technology is just as integral to being a digital citizen in the twenty-first century.

As the University is an international community that prides itself on our commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion, we all share a duty to build safer and more equitable digital spaces where no one feels left out of the conversation. This mission hinges not only on bridging the digital divide but also on ensuring that both our students and staff have the digital knowledge necessary to create positive online presences that they can be confident about rather than engaging with technology in ways that might jeopardise their relationships, reputation, mental wellbeing, or even physical safety.

Digital Skills and Training team projects and resources

With this in mind, the Digital Skills and Training team, within The University of Edinburgh Information Services Group, has been actively exploring ways in which we can work together as a community to foster a sense of digital citizenship amongst students and staff. This work has primarily focused on three strands: digital citizenship, digital safety, and digital wellbeing, as the skills associated with each of these concepts are deeply intertwined.

In May, Digital Safety Support Officer, Dr Vicki Madden, was awarded a PTAS grant, alongside co-researchers Dr Louise Connelly (Teaching Fellow in Digital Education at the Royal (Dick) Vet School) and Dr Melissa Highton (Director of Learning, Teaching and Web Services and Assistant Principal Online Learning), to investigate student perceptions of digital citizenship. While the project is still in its early stages, initial interviews with students at the University have already indicated a problematic lack of emphasis on digital citizenship, safety and wellbeing across a broad range of disciplines and the need for more visible resources to help support students as they engage with digital technologies both within and outside of their studies.

Developing such guidance and training has been a chief focus of the Digital Safety and Citizenship initiative in the Digital Skills team over the past two years, but it is clear that we need the help of both our academic and professional services colleagues to spread the word. The following resources outline just some of what is available to staff looking for ways to embed digital citizenship into their own courses and teaching practices.

Available now: ‘Staff Toolkit for Creating Safe and Inclusive Online Learning Spaces’ and ‘Digital Citizenship Guide’

In response to feedback from academic colleagues that they have been seeing an increase in negative online behaviours on course discussion boards and other digital forums, the Digital Skills team helped create a staff toolkit centred on Creating Safe and Inclusive Online Learning Spaces, which is available as part the Professional Development for Student Support toolkits (staff log-in required). This toolkit aims to support staff in providing effective interventions when witnessing poor online behaviours that fail to adhere to the University’s Dignity and Respect Policy and/or Code of Student Conduct. It is also designed to complement the University’s Virtual Classroom Policy and Digital Citizenship Guide, which has just been updated for the 2021/22 academic year.

Available Soon: ‘Digital Safety and Citizenship for Staff Online Course (Learn)’ and ‘Updated Digital Footprint MOOC’

Launching in Winter 2021, the new Digital Safety and Citizenship for Staff course will be available as a self-paced self-enrol course through Learn for both academic and professional services colleagues seeking to learn more about digital safety, citizenship and wellbeing. For staff wishing to signpost similar resources to their students, the self-paced online transitional course Preparing for Study also contains a unit on Digital Safety and Citizenship geared towards new students.

Finally, the University’s Digital Footprint MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) will soon be updated with a unit on digital citizenship created in collaboration with the Digital Skills team. This three-week course outlines the importance of and practical steps for creating a positive online presence and is free to join.

For updates on the launch of these new resources and more, be sure to follow the Digital Skills and Training team on Twitter and Instagram @UoEDigiSkills and subscribe to the Digital Skills Newsletter.


Ribble, Mark, Gerald Bailey and Tweed Ross. “Digital Citizenship: Addressing Appropriate Technology Behavior.” Learning & Leading with Technology vol. 32, no. 1, pp. 6-12.

Vicki Madden

Dr Vicki Madden is the Digital Safety Support Officer in the Digital Skills and Training team at The University of Edinburgh Information Services Group. She develops equality, diversity and inclusion-centred resources, guidance and training to support students and staff at the University in navigating digital safety and wellbeing. She holds a PhD in English Literature, also from The University of Edinburgh, and writes on both the American gothic tradition and digital citizenship.

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