Meeting the challenge of effective digital citizenship programs through game based learning and self-assessment

by Melissa Marshall


Researchers in education commonly explore the connection between a skill that must be taught, and the best way to teach it. In this case, the aim is to illuminate the intersection between game based learning, digital citizenship and self-assessment. If games are so critical to the skills of a 21st century learner, and it is important for learners to know how to conduct themselves in an online world, is there any merit to teaching students digital citizenship through game based learning? Can students also accurately measure their own competence through such an approach?

This invitation is situated within the current literature and seven digital citizenship packages – all claiming to either be a game or to include games. Fourteen students from Years 7 – 11 explored these packages in a session lasting 60 minutes on May 6th, 2015, with discussion structured according to research. The invitation is then extended to other educational institutions to critically evaluate the teaching of digital citizenship and discover where game based learning can fit into their paradigm.

Connecting Game Based Learning and Digital Citizenship

All digital games are not created equal. Some are designed to be gigantic worlds with complex story lines and challenges that can take years to achieve. Others are over quickly, and are used to teach specific skills. Some test a learner’s recall, such as quizzes, and others are played on smartphones with users on different continents. While digital games have been defined in many ways within the literature, they are often acclaimed as a ‘motivating factor’ (Hirumi, 2010, p. 15; Gee, 2005), as essential for schools to adopt (Becker, 2007; Klopfer, Osterweil, & Salen, 2009) or as a framework for collaborative learning (Gee, 2005; Dillenbourg, 1999). Digital games have been recommended for everything from girls’ education (Beavis & Charles, 2007) to higher order thinking (Brom, Šisler & Slavík, 2010). The definition of a digital game for the purpose of this invitation is one that creates intrinsic motivation within the learner, and situates learners in explorable worlds (Brom et al., 2010). Learners are motivated to achieve progress in the game, decisions are made effectively under pressure, and there is a balance between collaborative and competitive actions (Hirumi, 2010, p. 25; Hall, 2010; Dillenbourg, 1999).

At the same time, there is much debate around how to teach students to navigate, understand and critically evaluate the online world – of which digital games can play a significant part. Digital citizenship as ‘character education for the digital age’ (Ohler, 2012, p. 14) is crucial to the 21st century learner (Ribble, 2009; Ribble, 2011; Ohler, 2012; Ribble, Bailey & Ross, 2004, p. 6.) There have been several definitions for digital citizenship (Ribble, 2010; Ohler, 2012). Good digital citizenship should encourage students to live their lives online in an authentic and caring way (Oxley, 2010) while being aware of the dangers posed by inappropriate technology use (Hollandsworth, Dowdy & Donovan, 2011). While there are many publications supporting comprehensive digital citizenship as a construct worthy of teaching in schools (Ribble; 2010; Ribble et al., 2004) and detail the reasons why it should be taught (Hollandsworth et al., 2011; Ohler, 2012; Ribble et al., 2004), there are very few on how digital citizenship should be taught, in which format and with which pedagogical approach. Often, it is left to school administrators and technology coordinators to make this decision in light of the needs of the school community. What the literature does not address is the use of games and game based learning to teach digital citizenship, despite the fact there are ‘gamified’ digital citizenship packages available. Elliot (2012) discusses how games can be seen as part of a curriculum, and as digital citizenship fits into this category, the next step is to examine this potential.

Figure 1: Aspects of game based learning, based on the main themes outlined in the literature [Microsoft Word 2011 SmartArt graphic]. (Source: Author)

Figure 1: Aspects of game based learning, based on the main themes outlined in the literature [Microsoft Word 2011 SmartArt graphic]. (Source: Author)

The Importance of Digital Citizenship Education

Digital citizenship encapsulates a wide range of skills. It is often referred to by Ribble’s (2011) definition – ’the norms of appropriate, responsible behaviour with regard to technology use’ (p. 10).  Digital citizenship, therefore, is working with students to understand how we direct ourselves in the digital world. Mike Ribble is possibly the most published writer on digital citizenship, and identified the ‘Nine Elements of Digital Citizenship’ to serve as the basis for digital citizenship education (Ribble, 2011). Digital citizenship is evident in the Australian Curriculum General Capabilities under the ICT capability (Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority, 2013) and in The Melbourne Declaration on the Educational Goals for Young Australians (MCEETYA, 2008). Founding documents for education recognise that in a digital age, and with rapid changes in the ways that people share, use, develop and communicate, students are required to be skilled in technology use.

Hollandsworth et al., (2011) advocate for a risk-balanced approach that incorporates real-world exploration, guided understanding and allowing students to make mistakes. This mirrors Gee’s (2005) proposal on what makes good learning games, and Turkay, Hoffman, Kinzer, Chantes & Vicari’s (2015) work on evaluating games based on feedback, player choice and the influence of the interface – all aspects that can potentially be moulded into digital citizenship education (Ribble, 2011).

Situational Analysis of a School

The school under analysis is a co-educational secondary school in Perth’s northern suburbs. Digital citizenship is currently taught to Year 7 – 9 classes through Health lessons and to Year 10 through Careers Education. The structure is based on Mike Ribble’s (2009) nine elements of digital citizenship, with a different element being explored each week. Assemblies throughout the year for all year groups discuss the merits and responsibilities of creating a ‘good digital footprint.’ Cyberbullying Class Act and Western Australian Police also visit to discuss legalities arising from behaviour online. The aim is to present a digital life as a good life – and as one aspect of an authentic person in society.

Figure 2: Screenshot of a Digital Citizenship Program in the SEQTA Teacher Assistant Software [X Release, 20 May 2015]. (Source: Author)

Figure 2: Screenshot of a Digital Citizenship Program in the SEQTA Teacher Assistant Software [X Release, 20 May 2015]. (Source: Author)

Some of the concerns with the current structure of digital citizenship at the school are as follows:

  • tokenistic and not at all for senior students
  • not part of core subjects
  • regular incidents dealt with by teachers where students are not realising the impact of their actions online
  • no assessment tools to judge student competence
  • teachers unfamiliar with the content.

The goal of this situational analysis is to determine what factors may affect the success of the digital citizenship program in its current form, and where improvements can be made within the context of game based learning and self assessment.

The Value of Self-Assessment in Game Based Learning

One of the key concerns in the current digital citizenship programme is the lack of any assessment. Adams & King (2006) create a strong case for student self-assessment within this type of context; however, as this area is underexplored, research is yet to recognise this link. Klenowski’s (1995, p. 146) definition of self-assessment as ‘the evaluation or judgment of “the worth” of one’s performance … with a view to improving one’s learning outcomes’ can easily be applied to games. Part of the value of self-assessment is the ability to move through a game based learning environment one’s own pace (Ribble, 2011). One strategy to keep track of how students are progressing is by asking them to self-report according to a framework. Students tend to be honest assessors of their own practice (Adams & King, 2006) and can identify areas in which they are lacking (Ross & Starling, 2008; Habgood & Ainsworth, 2011). The types of ‘complex games’ played by students today, which can take much time and effort to master (Hirumi, 2010, p. 24) provide indicators as to whether a player is achieving success. Moreover, effective games by nature know whether each player has demonstrated skills simply by ‘leveling up’ (Prensky, 2010, p. 27) and incrementally moving toward mastery. Students are motivated to complete the game with no additional testing required. With these two concepts in mind, self-assessment and game based learning make a powerful case for integration within digital citizenship programmes.

Student Voices: Seven Digital Citizenship Packages

Seven digital citizenship ‘online packages’ were examined to find engaging, games based activities for students. The packages were evaluated in accordance with Betrus & Botturi’s (2010) briefing and debriefing principles of game analysis to determine their real purpose and efficacy. Turkay et al., (2015) use the framework of feedback, player choice, and the influence of interface to determine whether a game is worth selecting for use in the classroom. The students used a game based approach to evaluate websites in order to hone in on any game playing elements and self-assessed their capability within the package itself.

The students were told that they would be participating in a ‘challenge’ to find the best package to help peers learn about digital citizenship. The students are members of ‘Tech X Perts,’ a group that has been trained to become ‘digital leaders’. These students assist on an iPad Helpdesk in the school library and participate in technology-based activities. Their comments were recorded over a period of 60 minutes after school on May 6th, 2015.

Betrus & Botturi (2010, p. 49) pose four briefing questions in a prescription that should be asked prior to gameplay:

  • What is the goal of this game?
  • What are the rules of this game?
  • Why are we going to play this game?
  • What should I observe during the game?

They also pose four questions post-gameplay, as ‘learning outcomes are unpredictable…without a good debriefing’ (Betrus & Botturi, 2010, p. 49).

  • How did you feel?
  • What happened?
  • What did you learn?
  • How can you extend and apply this knowledge beyond the game?

The ‘top 10 rules of engagement’ for evaluating effective video games (Prensky, 2010, p. 25)

  • focus on engagement
  • establish ‘hero’ goals
  • add frequent decision-making
  • don’t remove the fun
  • emphasise gameplay over eye candy
  • provide an emotional connection
  • level up for evaluation
  • balance cooperation and competition
  • personalise and adapt content
  • iterate to please users.

Fourteen students from Year 7 – 11 explored packages on Windows 7 desktop computers for 8-10 minutes each, and then discussed their findings as a class according to the framework above. Some discussion took place in an online forum after the session, due to time constraints.

a. Digital Citizenship NSW (New South Wales Curriculum and Learning Innovation Centre, 2011).

Digital Citizenship NSW. Source: New South Wales Curriculum and Learning Innovation Centre, 2011.

Digital Citizenship NSW. Source: New South Wales Curriculum and Learning Innovation Centre, 2011.

All students had initial difficulties with loading the package. Five students complained that the site had little of its own material, seven students discovered defunct links and two students noted the package was not mobile responsive. Five students said that the information was helpful because it gave player choice and decision-making, and there was a goal to complete the content. ‘The activities were quite interactive and not very information heavy, but still gave all the necessary information’ (T. Stolarski, personal communication, May 6, 2015).

b. Common Sense Education: Digital Compass (Common Sense Media Inc, 2015).

Common Sense Media Digital Compass. Source: Common Sense Media Inc, 2015.

Common Sense Media Digital Compass. Source: Common Sense Media Inc, 2015.

All students said that this package would be engaging for primary schoolers as the feedback was clear, and it was easy to follow. Three students did not like the animations, and one student thought it could have been ‘made more intelligently… like, they don’t think we are going to choose the correct choice.’ (D. Casella, personal communication, May 6, 2015). This package calls itself a ‘game’ and students described it as thus, commenting ‘this game is fun and educates you in an almost exciting way and the animations are pretty good’ (B. Tkachenko, personal communication, May 6, 2015).

c. ThinkUKnow for Youth (Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, n. d.).

Think U Know: Youth. Source: Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, n. d.

Think U Know: Youth. Source: Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, n. d.

This package was not enthusiastically received, with five students commenting on the lack of feedback and goals. Three students did not like the interface and found it difficult to access the important information. In addition, there were few elements of game based learning – an emphasis on content rather than connection. ‘There [weren’t] any games, activities or animations on the website. I did not enjoy it as it felt like school’ (L. Vines, personal communication, May 6 2015).

d. ACMA CyberSmart (Australian Communications and Media Authority, 2015).

ACMA Cybersmart for Teens. Source: Australian Communications and Media Authority, 2015

ACMA Cybersmart for Teens. Source: Australian Communications and Media Authority, 2015

Students complained that the game was really a multiple choice quiz. ‘This is not a game, this is just a test’ (B. Tkachenko, personal communication, May 6, 2015). Three students liked the interface. Five students said they liked the videos – ‘it had some good animations and information videos that deal with cyber bullying’ (X. Russell, personal communication, May 6, 2015) and the digital citizenship information was ‘good but a bit [too] long’ (L. Vines, personal communication, May 6, 2015).

e. DigiZen Game (Childnet International, 2015).

DigiZen Digital Citizenship Game. Source: Childnet International, 2015.

DigiZen Digital Citizenship Game. Source: Childnet International, 2015.

Students were positive about this package and rated it as containing many elements of a game. ‘It had a lot of interaction and was much like a proper game … a lot of learning involved that was still fun and educational’ (D. Casella, personal communication, May 6, 2015). Students figured out how to compete against one another and complete the challenges. ‘It taught you about how to be safe across the internet and how to stop cyber-bullying as well as letting you … customis[e] your character and receive a score on how you did…’ (B. Tkachenko, personal communication, May 6, 2015).

f. Budd:e Secondary (Australian Communications and Media Authority, 2015).

Budd:e Secondary. Source: Australian Communications and Media Authority, 2015.

Budd:e Secondary. Source: Australian Communications and Media Authority, 2015.

This package incorporated many elements of game based learning such as a leaderboard for competition, animations and decision making to find a path through the content. ‘The game … is very good for learning what to do when you are in an online situation such as with hackers, viruses … strangers’ (J. Cable, personal communication, May 6, 2015). Seven students commented on the limited use of text, and four students thought the package was easy to use.

g. Hacker Busters  (Cisco Systems Inc., 2005).

Hacker Busters. Source: Cisco Systems Inc., 2005.

Hacker Busters. Source: Cisco Systems Inc., 2005.

This package had many elements that constitute a game – feedback, player choice, levels and ‘competitive challenges’ (Prensky, 2010, p. 25). ‘This was my favourite site because the game you play is fun but is very informative about how the web works and how information is transmitted, and that’s how I like to learn’ (T. D’Ascenzo, personal communication, May 6, 2015). The influence of the interface (Turkay et al., 2015) was strong. ‘…the website’s animations were kid-friendly and appealing’ (L. Vines, personal communication, May 6, 2015). Three students expressed frustration over the time it took for this package to load on their browser.


The inclusion of challenge in this invitation was derived from the work of Csikszentmihalyi (1991) into flow theory and optimal experience. His theory proposes that clear goals, achievable challenges, and accurate feedback are all required to achieve a state of flow – where a learner is ‘lost in the learning’ – and this is one area in which games excel (Prensky, 2010, p. 28). In order to achieve a games based learning pedagogy in an area such as digital citizenship, game designers must be allowed to keep the activity as a game – not as a series of questions or skills. Teachers need space to explore and self-assess the packages as a gamer and not just as an educator searching for content. There is an opportunity to develop a robust game based digital citizenship package for secondary students that meets Prensky’s (2010) ‘rules of engagement,’ Betrus & Botturi’s (2010) principles and the role of feedback and player choice in learning (Turkay et al., 2015). The invitation is extended firstly to teachers to integrate game based learning into digital citizenship, and secondly to game designers and stakeholders to work with schools to create experiences that students will both learn from and enjoy.



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Part 3: Invitation

Part 3: Invitation

Inviting organisations, systems or workplaces to meet, respond & adopt the challenge of game-based learning.

In this section:

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