Digital Citizenship

Digital rings

My notes from a  recent interview on Digital Citizenship for TES:

I see digital citizenship as a distinct but overlapping area in relation to digital literacy. Digital literacy is the ability to use, critically engage with and make use of digital tools and environments – it’s not just about supporting learners to understand and engage with the world, but about enabling learners to challenge, shape and change their worlds. Digital citizenship for me addresses political, economic and legal participation in relation to the use of technologies and online environments. It isn’t an ‘add on’ to the area of citizenship as a whole, but a recognition that technologies and digital environments are a part of the real world, and they mediate all aspects of UK life: from meeting partners, finding jobs, contacting the local council, protesting, organising, developing our social and professional networks – the list goes on.

Children and young people grow up and develop their identities in both physical and digital environments. While they might be confident users of mobile and gaming technologies, and online sites like Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia and Google, it doesn’t follow that they are socially and politically aware and engaged citizens in these spaces – just as simply being in the physical world doesn’t guarantee they have the tools and self confidence to understand their rights and responsibilities, and to take an active part in their communities and in governance.

Citizenship education is a well articulated and understood area in England, where it has been a part of the curriculum for over two decades. It’s defined by the Citizenship Foundation as “enabling people to make their own decisions and to take responsibility for their own lives and their communities.”

Many of the issues addressed through citizenship education are inseparable from the use of technology and digital environments, and I’d like to see citizenship within the curriculum reflect the realities of learners lives. Although it obviously depends on the teacher delivering the curriculum, typically schemes of work and lessons don’t address rights and responsibilities in digital environments, or political and  legal  issues online, or identity, conflict, and communities in online environments. The internet is still broadly framed as a place to get resources from, rather than as an active site of political life.

There isn’t a transparent relationship between how we act, are acted on and represent ourselves in physical environments and how we act, are acted on and represent ourselves in digital environments.  While most of the key concepts of citizenship education apply to activities in online environments, a range of digital-specific issues have been left largely under explored. I’d include issues around the use of technologies for mainstream and grassroots political organisation and representation, the use of technology for governance and decision making, freedom of speech and censorship, digital copyright laws, privacy and data protection, harassment and discrimination. These are all issues that impact on young people’s lives and their everyday use of technology that we aren’t addressing at national level.

Citizenship is a social responsibility. Any citizenship agenda that stops at ‘behaving well’ is potentially a dangerous one – the point of citizenship is not just to understand and do what you are expected to do by your community and by law. Citizenship should be about equipping young people to actively and critically engage in the local, national and international agendas and decision making that affect their lives and the lives of their communities. There are specific social, economic and political differences, as well as significant similarities, when it comes to rights and responsibilities in physical and digital environments. The social and legal challenges that life online pose are substantial and changes in these areas are rapid. The integration of mobile, gaming and web based technologies into everyday life means that new social norms are emerging and being argued over now.  Privacy is one of the key examples of this. What is a reasonable expectation of privacy, at time when many people are publishing personal information about themselves online? How do laws that aim to regulate and monitor online and mobile activity in order to protect people impact on our individual rights to and expectation of privacy? How are companies whose income is based on the tracking and selling of user activity data regulated?

Schools have a critical role to play and I would love to see citizenship education really get to grips with digital issues. Parents and carers, as citizens themselves, are having to engaging with digital citizenship issues, and I think there is a huge role to play for parents and schools supporting young people in using and understanding the ways in which technology can help them organise – school councils have a vested interest in active engagement in the digital citizenship agenda. Young people are already using Facebook, Twitter and mobile technologies to effectively organise campaigns, protests and establish their own interest groups. How are we supporting them in this? What can we learn from them?

I’d identify three priorities in taking forward digital citizenship education. Firstly, schools need to understand the importance of digital literacy for all staff members, as well as for all learners. If a school doesn’t have an appreciation of the critical role technology can play in learning and teaching (and that it already does play in informal learning and in the social life of its community) it’s missing out on key opportunities to support all learners. Secondly, national and local citizenship education needs to integrate digital citizenship into curriculum design, resources and delivery. Thirdly, students need to be supported in their use and understanding of mobile and web based technologies, tools and environments for organising, collaborating and for governance.