Tuesday 21 October 2014

Are we Digital Citizens, or rather Citizens in an increasingly Digital World?

The “Digital Natives” discussion has been going on for many years (1). I generally subscribe to the definition of “A digital native is a person who was born during or after the general introduction of digital technologies and through interacting with digital technology from an early age, has a greater comfort level using it.”

A more narrow definition of this term to include all persons born after 1985 has regularly been criticised as it does not take account of the variability in exposure to and confidence in use of technology (2). Acknowledging the variability and at the same time the efforts our schools, communities and society are making to allow all our young people to access technology, I belief it is fair to say that in many of our schools we are teaching Digital Natives, and many of we teachers are Digital Immigrants (that is we started using technology later and are less comfortable with it than our young people).

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Attached to the notion of being a citizen is the term citizenship (3). There are different sub-definitions of citizenship, one thing they seem to have in common is the notion that rights and responsibilities are attached to this citizenship. Where the digital world, which our students increasingly frequent, differs from the real world is that with just a mouse-click you could be visiting any state on earth without even knowing. How do you know what rights and responsibilities apply in this context? Who makes the rules, who enforces them? Does the breaking of rules necessarily preclude from participating in the digital world or is adhering to the rights and responsibilities a voluntary act?

Commonly we speak of  Digital Citizenship in regards to rights and responsibilities in the virtual world. In New Zealand we have come to understand digital citizenship to include digital literacy and cybersafety skills as well as values and key competencies from the New Zealand Curriculum:
According to Netsafe (4), a digital citizen
  • is a confident and capable user of ICT
  • uses technologies to participate in educational, cultural, and economic activities
  • uses and develops critical thinking skills in cyberspace
  • is literate in the language, symbols, and texts of digital technologies
  • is aware of ICT challenges and can manage them effectively
  • uses ICT to relate to others in positive, meaningful ways
  • demonstrates honesty and integrity and ethical behaviour in their use of ICT
  • respects the concepts of privacy and freedom of speech in a digital world
  • contributes and actively promotes the values of digital citizenship
This definition of digital citizen appeals to me as it shows how there is much more to it than simply cybersafety. However, the anonymity of the global digital world combined with its infinite memory leaves careless users with a digital footprint that is nearly impossible to remove and can affect their life both in the virtual as the real world.

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The advent of the access to the digital world (5) has led to an explosion in internet use (6). Via social networks, more people than ever before can connect with each other and can work towards a common good (7). Understandably, some users are struggling with the anonymous nature, with the sheer size of the internet, the amount of information available. It is easier to fulfil your responsibility when you are face-to-face with someone, when there is little temptation around you to make you wander off task. However, the world-wide-web, with its multitude of colourful visuals and enticing games, apps and programmes, provides lots of distraction and temptation to our young and even to older people as they navigate their original task. Be honest, how often have you been on another pathway when listening to a speaker in a workshop?

The argument can be made that not everyone has access to digital tools and information hence the term ‘digital citizenship’ should remain. However, the use of the phrases: ‘connected [...] learners’, ‘effective users of communication tools’, ‘international citizens’ in the vision of  the New Zealand Curriculum (8) makes it very clear in my opinion that we are tasked with preparing all our young people to actively participate in our increasingly digital world. Do we really need digital as the descriptor? Why not just call it citizenship?

Let’s look back at the Netsafe description.  By removing the references to ‘ICT’ or ‘digital’ you end up with the description of a citizen we’d probably all agree with:
  • is confident and capable
  • participates in educational, cultural, and economic activities
  • uses and develops critical thinking skills
  • is literate in language, symbols, and texts
  • is aware of challenges and can manage them effectively
  • relates to others in positive, meaningful ways
  • demonstrates honesty and integrity and ethical behaviour
  • respects the concepts of privacy and freedom of speech
  • contributes and actively promotes the values of citizenship

Our students and we are no longer just citizens of a country, New Zealand, we are also citizens of a digital, global world. To separate citizenship and digital citizenship is no longer relevant in a world that is permeated by digital use; teaching them as two separate topics makes them harder to grasp and less embedded. Keeping ‘digital citizenship’ and ‘citizenship’ separate is continuing to live in the world of the ‘digital immigrants’, not preparing our young people for the future where digital tools are as accepted and taken for granted as today’s electric lights and flushing toilets. 

To be responsible citizens in our increasingly digital world, we need to fulfill our rights and responsibilities in all settings we frequent, both physical and digital spaces.

Acknowledgement: I would like to thank my critical friends +Andrew Cowie, +Annemarie Hyde and +Sonya Van Schaijik for their incredibly helpful feedback and comments to my ideas! Special thanks to +Sonya Van Schaijik von inviting me to be part of #edbooknz!

1 comment:

  1. Hey Monika, citizenship has been particularly fascinating as we have discussed and dissected, added to stripped back and looked again with different eyes.
    The interesting part has been to identify the legacy we leave as part of our own learning.


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