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Next step: Crowd-source digital citizenship

I question it even as I’m preparing for talks on the subject in several countries this coming fall…. The term “digital citizenship” is heard more and more in educational and online-safety circles. The subject is now part of the International Society for Technology in Education’s national educational technology standards, and ISTE is starting a National Council for its promotion. Elements of it are being taught in at least 15,000 of the US’s some 99,000 elementary and secondary schools. I’ve written about it a lot – even called it the killer app of online safety – and co-chaired a national task force that recommended instruction in it nationwide in grades pre-K-12 as a national priority. But there still is no real consensus on its definition, and I sense that many educators dealing with tight budgets see it as a luxury more than a necessity. And, though I know most of us adults like the term, I struggle with whether it has much relevance with youth, who are supposed to be the beneficiaries of its adoption.

No youth citizenship without youth agency

To students, it’s a theoretical-sounding term imposed from the top-down at a time when traditional top-down education itself is losing relevance to many of them. It’s crucial that we make the case to them – that we include them in developing consensus, not just reach it ourselves and then impose it on them. The reason why should be obvious: “Citizenship” by definition is participatory. It’s about agency; in user-driven digital media, our children are already participants and, potentially, agents of the individual and collective good.

Then there’s the challenge of helping our peers – adults who have not demonstrated much interest in social media, much less how to optimize experiences in it – take citizenship in online environments seriously. Author and educator David Warlick struggles with “digital citizenship” as much as I do, apparently. Last month I found this blog post of his: “Would we be talking about digital citizenship if we were…”. Though he didn’t complete that sentence in his post, I think he might agree that the rest of the sentence could be “…teaching and modeling it properly in and with digital media in school.” I presume to end his sentence because of the way he ended his post: “I guess digital citizenship irks me because of my shame,” he wrote. “We need to champion concerted efforts to define and teach our students to be digital citizens because we’re not.” And then he proceeds to suggest why:

“As a society, we have failed to recognize the crucial educational implications of the incredible shifts that ICT (Information & Communication Technologies) has provoked in recent decades. As politicians, we have shrunk from our responsibilities to provide for our children, eagerly trading leadership for partisan gamesmanship. As educators, we have grown less confident, more complacent, and just plain meek, when we should have been insightful and bold. Much is made of our falling behind the Chinese and the Finns and behind our digital native children. But the real shame is that in working to prepare our children for their future, we have fallen so pathetically far behind our own times.”

Not just digital citizenship

I completely agree, and suspect that part of the reason for this is that we haven’t yet made a compelling enough case for it with educators. ”Digital citizenship” works much better than “online safety” – which, destructively, made “predator” a household word and associates youth with victimization (see this on “juvenoia”) – but in the mashup of online and offline that is our lives now, as we socialize, learn, play, work, etc. in physical and media environments, sometimes at the same time, digital citizenship isn’t enough. Just as always, civil, respectful engagement wherever we are – in whatever place or medium, on whatever device – aids effective participation. Though to some it makes citizenship more current and interesting, I think we’ll need to drop the “digital” part at some point. Certainly the online-safety field (which itself is necessarily losing relevance as we drop “online” as something separate from life) shouldn’t want to reinforce the idea that digital selves are different and need special instruction. But humanity does need to establish its time-honored social norms in social media too. We need to extend the civility and ethics we’ve spent thousands of years establishing offline into our online spaces. What name that gets everybody’s buy-in do we give that? Honest question.

‘Digital literacy’ doesn’t cut it

“Digital literacy” doesn’t work, at least not the definition arrived at collectively in Wikipedia, and it even attempts to define “digital citizen”: “Digital literacy is the ability to locate, organize, understand, evaluate, and analyze information using digital technology…. A person using these skills to interact with society may be called a digital citizen.”

Do you see how limited that is? It simply updates media literacy, pasting in the digital part. It refers merely to interaction with and use of digitally delivered information, not people, so it’s an interim step between the media consumption of our childhoods and the social media use of our children. It fails to factor in the multidirectional, behavioral nature of today’s media, updated in real time. The user needs to “understand, evaluate, and analyze” or think critically not just about content but about his own behavior, about what’s shared, produced, and uploaded as well as what’s read, consumed, and downloaded. The most basic definition of new media literacy, I believe, has to be “critical thinking about media that are shared, produced or uploaded as much as read, consumed, or downloaded.” [For a much more complete definition, see this at the New Media Literacies Project.]

Wikipedia’s definition, though crowd-sourced, is way too narrow. A digital citizen necessarily (for his/her own protection from phishers, false advertising, “predators,” identity thieves, cyberbullying, IP, etc.) also needs some social literacy – critical thinking about his/her and others’ behavior as well as content. In fact, digital citizenship and media literacy increasingly overlap. They’re melting into each other.

Draft definition

At the heart of citizenship, certainly, is respect for self and others. Artist and author A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz wrote, “The central task of citizenship is learning how to be good to one another.” It would be great if we could leave it there, but – for the more complex definition human nature seems to need – I’ve been testing this basic one out on parents and educators: the rights & responsibilities of full, positive engagement in participatory media, culture, and society. The breakdown of those rights and responsibilities might be:

  • Rights: access and participation, privacy, free speech, physical and psychological safety, and safety of physical and intellectual property
  • Responsibilities: respect for self, others, and our own and others’ communities; protecting one’s own and others’ rights and property; developing and benefitting from the social, technical, and media literacies of full participation

Does that work? Please weigh in! What should we call this thing that allows for what we call in “Online Safety 3.0″ full, constructive, successful participation in an increasingly participatory culture, society and democracy. In keeping with the collaborative medium this is all about, let’s crowd-source this!

Next step

To crowd-source this properly, we need an intergenerational discussion about digital citizenship yesterday. If young people, who are already active participants in participatory media, aren’t part of the consensus building, there’s no consensus; a key sector of the citizenry would be missing. Researchers in Australia are addressing that. Drs. Amanda Third and Philippa Collin at the University of Western Sydney are running a “Living Lab” for the new Cooperative Research Centre for Young People, Technology & Wellbeing, facilitating adult-youth communication in and about social media, as they put it, “not only to inform research and policy development, but to look to intergenerational dialogue as a way of promoting digital citizenship – or whatever we end up calling it!” They will soon be releasing reports on their findings, so watch this space for more on their work. Meanwhile, it’s clear to me that the next step is for all of us collectively to make the case for all of us!

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