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Understanding Digital Wisdom, Digital Literacy and Digital Citizenship

How do we build a culture of honesty and authenticity in the digital world? How do we promote honesty among our digital citizens? 

Driving up and down the freeway, I can’t help but notice the guardrails in place. What do guardrails do? By definition, a guardrail is a railing, or a barrier set in place to prevent danger (Merriam Webster).  A guardrail prevents vehicles from driving into the opposite lane in case of an accident, a collision, and in reckless driving situations. It also gives a visual cue that cars need to stay in their own lane.   

I like seeing the guardrails. I know they help me stay safe. They provide a subtle reminder that I have a responsibility to drive safely – to myself, my loved ones and to everyone else on the road. And I sure hope that every other driver thinks the same way.  

When we build a culture of honesty and authenticity in our online environments, we are essentially setting up guardrails for all online users. When we prepare students by talking about technology using the language of opportunity, integrity, responsibility and collaboration, we help students develop an understanding of how they can thrive, participate and contribute to their digital environments. This is closely linked to The International Society for Technology in Education Digital Citizen standard (ISTE, 2021) for students: Students recognize the rights, responsibilities and opportunities of living, learning and working in an interconnected digital world, and they act and model in ways that are safe, legal and ethical (International Society for Technology in Education).  

What core ideas can educators rely on to establish this kind of culture?  Let’s think of the following: digital wisdom, digital citizenship and digital literacy.  

FIGURE 1: Culture-building connections with digital wisdom,
digital literacy and digital citizenship

Digital Wisdom 

Prensky (2012) describes digital wisdom as a “two-fold concept – referring both to wisdom arising from the use of digital technology to access cognitive power beyond our usual capacity and to wisdom in the use of technology to enhance our innate capabilities” (p. 202). In other words, digital wisdom calls for knowledge in accessing tools and resources technology has to offer, in conjunction with skills in using the same resources appropriately, which lead to better decision-making. This two-fold concept is fundamental to understanding digital wisdom (Prensky, 2012) because its strength lies in the alliance of the two. Human wisdom, as optimized as it can be, is greatly augmented by digital resources in areas of memory, evaluation, analysis, and reflection, to name a few. By the same token, digital tools are guided and amplified by human intuition, judgement, problem-solving ability and common sense.  

Digital Literacy 

As access to the web greatly expanded in the last 20+ years, the scope of the word literacy has also widened to include the digital aspect of literacy. The term ‘digital literacy’ was first utilized in the 1990s (Bawden, 2001) and initially referred to the multimedia aspect of literacy that was gaining traction at that time and was quite different from the traditional forms of literacy. However, the digital literacy concept was first introduced by Gilster (Bawden, 2001). Although the concept has undergone many iterations in its definition, its scope, and its intentions, I believe that as digital citizens in the 21st century, we can extrapolate the core thinking behind it. Digital literacy incorporates: 

  • critical thinking 
  • capabilities to find, organize and evaluate information from various digital sources 
  • technical skills to navigate the myriad of technological software and applications current at the time  

“Digital literacy includes knowing how and when to use which technologies and knowing which forms and functions are most appropriate for one’s purpose” (Greenhow et al., 2009). EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (2019) briefly discusses the impact of digital literacies on teaching and learning. Digital literacy skills need to be explicitly and deliberately taught. There should be no expectation that students will somehow learn this on their own. “To help learners navigate information in an expansive, ever-changing digital landscape, administrators, faculty members, librarians, instructional designers, and others who interact with learners in higher education have a pivotal role to play in helping students understand how information is shaped and shared today across the digital landscape” (EDUCAUSE, p. 2).   

Digital Citizenship 

According to ISTE, digital citizenship in the classroom is about developing thoughtful and empathetic citizens who can engage in their online communities through active participation and respectful collaboration while practicing critical thinking as they evaluate the different kinds of information they can access. Check out the short video on Digital Citizenship from ISTE. 

Mattson (2017) proposes a participatory approach to digital citizenship, where all “digital citizens, regardless of age, contribute to and consumer from digital spaces” (p. 45). The focus is not on establishing rules that determine acceptable behavior, and instead, the focus is on the potential of collaboration in the digital world. The intent is that all digital citizens affirm their dual roles as both users and contributors while striking a balance. Look at Mattson’s diagram (2017, p. 47) about the roles of digital citizens: 

Figure 2: Digital citizens of all ages play the roles of
consumers and contributors in their digital communities
(Mattson, 2017, p. 46). 

Ribble and Miller (2013) bring up an important point: “Technology provided without direction or instruction has the potential to cause issues with others” (p. 139). It is of utmost importance that we prioritize teaching digital citizenship in schools, universities and other learning spaces. If we expect positive outcomes from students engaging in their online communities, educators need to equip them with the tools they need and empower them by helping them develop the right mindset. Ribble’s second edition of his book, Digital Citizenship in Schools released through ISTE in 2011 outlined 9 key areas for digital citizens and organized the 9 areas into 3 main concepts as a model for teaching digital citizenship (Ribble and Miller, 2013).  Check out these key areas in the table below: 

Figure 3: Ribble’s Digital Citizenship Model – 3 Categories and 9 Elements
(Ribble & Miller, 2013, p. 141)

As educators, we have a mission to carry out in the lives of our students – equip them and empower them to thrive in the digital world.  We are aware of the risks and challenges living and learning in a digital environment. This compels us to be more proactive, to be increasingly intentional and to be consistently deliberate in our approach to teach our students.  


Bawden, D. (2008). Origins and concepts of digital literacy. In C. Lankshear &  M. Knobel (Eds). Digital Literacies: Concepts, Policies, and Practices (pp. 17-32). Peter Lang.  

EDUCAUSE (2019, July 29). 7 things you should know about digital literacies (pp. 1-2). EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative. 

Greenhow, C., Robelia, B., & Hughes, J. E. (2009). Learning, Teaching, and Scholarship in a Digital Age: Web 2.0 and Classroom Research: What Path Should We Take Now? Educational Researcher, 38(4), 246–259. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20532540 

ISTE. (2017, October 31). The new digital citizenship/empower proactive digital learners [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/NOYu35BbMNU 

ISTE. (2021). ISTE Standards: Students. https://www.iste.org/standards/iste-standards-for-students 

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Guardrail. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved October 17, 2021, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/guardrail 

Prensky, M. (2012). From digital natives to digital wisdom. From Digital Natives to Digital Wisdom: Hopeful Essays for 21st Century Learning (pp. 201-215). Corwin Press. 

Mattson, K. (2017). Digital Citizenship in Action : Empowering Students to Engage in Online Communities, International Society for Technology in Education, 2017. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.spu.edu/lib/spu/detail.action?docID=5178021. 

Ribble, M. S., & Miller, T. N. (2013). Educational leadership in an online world: Connecting students to technology responsibly, safely, and ethically. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, (17)1, 137-145. 

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  1. Thank you for drawing the connections between digital literacy, digital wisdom, and digital citizenship as connected elements to build a culture of honesty and transparency in a digital world. I also like how you’ve laid out the definition of digital wisdom as being 2 fold – referring to both “the use of digital technology to access cognitive power beyond our usual capacity” as well as to “wisdom in the use of technology to enhance our innate capabilities”.

  2. Hi Chelly,
    Thanks for sharing good insights regarding how to build a culture of honesty and authenticity in online environments. This is an essential issue to raise in digital education. You made an excellent point to draw culture-building connections among digital wisdom,
    digital literacy, and digital citizenship. Also, Ribble’s Digital Citizenship Model regarding 3 Categories and 9 Elements provides practical strategies.

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