The timing struck me. Though it seems all of life is at an inflection point now, in the middle of a pandemic, two new papers that represent a pivotal moment for digital safety and citizenship education are published almost at the same time. Individually and together, they offer new guidance that simply mustn’t be lost in the Covid-19 din. Thus this 2-part series. Part 1 was on safety, and here’s Part 2 on citizenship….
It’s interesting to see where “safety” turns up in the new digital citizenship framework from the Youth & Media (YaM) team at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center: right where it belongs. In “Safety & Wellbeing,” it’s one of 17 areas that “currently constitute” what the authors call “digital citizenship+.”
“Seventeen areas?” you might ask. Yes, though digital citizenship is a newer subject of global discussion, it represents an even bigger collection of topics than the Internet safety “cairn” I referred to in my last post. This report, “Youth and Digital Citizenship+ (Plus): Understanding Skills for a Digital World,” complements the Internet safety paper in Part 1 in truly advancing both Internet safety ed and what the YaM team calls the “vibrant and at times fragmented [international] debate about digital citizenship.”
They’ve moved this stubborn needle by giving the term better definition (even while acknowledging its complexity); folding in practices and perspectives all around the world; honoring the term even while questioning its validity; and doing all the above in collaboration with youth, who, as the intended beneficiaries of all these programs, must have a say in how all this unfolds (see p.41 of the paper and this recent scholarship on co-creating youth programs with youth).
35 frameworks reviewed
As for the digital citizenship programs, the authors analyzed 35 frameworks used around the world for digital citizenship and overlapping subjects such as digital literacy, media literacy, digital competence and “21st century skills.” Then they “mapped” those frameworks onto the 17 “areas of life related to the digital landscape [e.g., civic and political engagement, artificial intelligence, and privacy and reputation] that we feel future digital citizenship frameworks…should address,” they write. These are the areas that make up their own framework, “Digital Citizenship+,” which they define as “the skills needed for youth to fully participate academically, socially, ethically, politically, and economically in our rapidly evolving digital world.”
Note “skills” not behavioral norms, which I suggest have been the dominant focus of digital citizenship in U.S. K-12 education. Reviewing its “early landscape,” the writers highlight three approaches to digital citizenship that have emerged over the years: “normative” (values and behavioral norms), “participatory” (using digital for traditional forms of civic engagement, e.g., getting out the vote) and “actualizing” (an emerging, more youth-centered approach, where engagement is aligned with “individuals’ values and interests [and]…often carried out in the context of peer-to-peer relationships”). It’s a more personal and relational sense of citizenship than that of previous generations.
So, possibly because the YaM team works with youth, their characterization of digital citizenship seems to have rejected purely normative and participatory approaches in favor of a more actualizing one, in the sense that citizenship goes beyond behavior, responsibility and action or activity to the developing realization and actualization of one’s potential (an example I’ve offered of this approach is that of this 12-year-old activist and published author), using digital and non-digital “tools” and skills. To me, this is more in line not just with changing tech and changing perceptions of citizenship, but also with growing kids – and their developmental imperative of identity formation. This really has to be the definition of “digital citizenship.”
Questioning the term altogether
Also note that the authors referred to the 17 topics as “areas of life.” It hints at why they wondered if this “thing” should even be called “digital citizenship” – even though governments, think tanks, educators and advocates around the world now urge its instruction, market researchers call it an “industry” and Congress now has a task force on it.
Why “digital,” since online and offline are now wholly woven together? Even more important, why “citizenship,” since “this adult-normative perspective of citizenship has been introduced to young people with little explicit youth consultation,” the YaM team writes.
I share that worry. How attractive to the citizens is an adult-normative concept that is dictated to them rather than sourced by them? And if not meaningful to the citizens, how truly useful and enduring could it be? Other risks to the credibility of “digital citizenship” among youth (and therefore its ultimate survival) are:
- Internet safety rebranded: The fact that “digital citizenship” has largely been a rebranding of Internet safety education (ISE) in U.S. schools. Consider, for example, the “six digital citizenship competencies” of Common Sense Media and how they’re overwhelmingly about safety: 1) “privacy and safety” (explicitly); 2) “digital footprint and identity” (topics that typically fall under the ISE rubric); 3) “relationships and communication” (implicitly addressing cyberbullying, deemed the U.S.’s No. 1 online safety risk by a national task force on the subject); 4) “media balance and well-being” (“digital wellbeing” is the newest term in the online safety lexicon and a promising indicator that the field is beginning to embrace mental health); 5) “news and media literacy” (the only 1 of these 6 not directly associated with online safety); and 6) “digital drama, cyberbullying, and hate speech” (the most common topics of ISE).
- Fails to serve the citizens: Logically, instruction in (whatever form of) citizenship would be designed to serve the people it’s supposed to benefit, not the instructors. Yet descriptions of “digital citizenship” in this country are rife with references to “netiquette,” “good digital citizens” and “responsible use of technology” – the normative approach I mentioned above. Of course the aim is citizen protection not classroom management, right (I hope)? But can the citizens be sure of that, when it’s sold with those phrases? Of course we want them to “make smart, safe and ethical decisions online,” but how can we assure them that this serves them, when phrases like that come strictly from those who have power over them and with references to their behavior and responsibility? Where do student voice, participation and rights come in? We need to be aware of how adult-normative aims and language can feed the insidious “control paradigm” scholars are warning us about.
- Another alphabet soup: Finally, there’s the risk of digital citizenship becoming yet another confusing collection of skills and literacies that adults keep adding to the pot – as Internet safety became (though the multiplication of Internet safety topics seems to have slowed).
It’s hard to avoid alphabet soup with a concept like citizenship that has almost as many meanings as there are citizens, or at least citizenries, and when the digital version has been adopted by governments, corporations and NGOs all over the world. It’s also hard to expect uptake of any other term at this point. So the authors wisely kept “digital citizenship” and just gave it a tiny tweak (their reasoning can be found on pp. 17-18).
As for confusion, the authors keep it to a minimum through careful categorization. The YaM team grouped the “17 areas of life” into four very accessible “clusters” of topics that clearly convey citizen-serving meaning: Participation (digital access, digital literacy, content production, security and law), Empowerment (civic and political engagement, context, information quality and media literacy), Engagement (digital economy, data, computational thinking and artificial intelligence) and Wellbeing (privacy and reputation, identity exploration & formation, positive/respectful behavior, and safety & well-being).
3 possible missing pieces
To me, there are only three missing pieces: 1) explicit reference to social-emotional learning (well-being), 2) historical context (where the Internet came from and how it works) and 3) rights. It’s possible the history/structure piece falls under “digital literacy,” but it’s such a glaring omission in all digital citizenship instruction to date that it needs to be explicit in a significant update, I think (the only example I’m aware of where this kind of context is taught is the Living Online Lab curriculum). As for social-emotional learning, it too typically goes missing in discussions of online safety & well-being, the lion’s share of which is psychosocial in digital spaces (see the ISTTF report), which the 2014 Aspen Task Force on Learning & the Internet included as one of the three “digital age literacies” and which a 2016 National Academies report called for in bullying prevention, online and offline. To be fair, social-emotional learning is at least implicit in the 17 areas of digital citizenship+, because each refers to “ability,” which the YaM team defines as “the capacity to apply the practical and physical, cognitive and meta-cognitive, and social and emotional skills to engage in the activities specified for each area” (p. 38). Finally, “rights” come up only once in the new framework – under “Civic & Political Engagement,” quite rightly – but “digital rights” only in Appendix B. They were left on the cutting floor, when the team reduced the initial 40 areas down to 17 – even while discussions and recognition of youth digital rights are really gaining momentum around the world. So it’s good the authors made it clear that Digital Citizenship+ is a work in progress.
Thankfully not missing
What’s decidedly not lost in the framework – and what makes it a significant step forward for this field – could be summed up in two words: “emerging” and “actualizing.” Digital citizenship+ supports the emerging perceptions and practices of a digital citizenship that is at least partially sourced in youth, the “citizens” it’s supposed to serve. It also supports citizen actualization – the developing realization and actualization of their potential as citizens in a digital age, personally, interpersonally and collectively. Because they empower digital citizenship as much as it empowers them.
A bit more on digital citizenship’s (ancient) past, future & present
Future first: Digital Citizenship+ is clearly meant by the authors to be a work in progress, as anything on “the digital” has to be. The final section of the paper (V.) looks at still under-explored areas in the global citizenship discussion: “Data,” “Computational Thinking,” and “Artificial Intelligence.” [In service to educators, they also map the 17 areas of life in digital times to the K-12 school context (p. 31) and explain the terms that people often use either interchangeably or in association with “digital citizenship”: “digital literacy,” “media literacy” and “new media literacies,” “21st century skills” and “digital competence” (starting on p. 19).]
A bit of earlier digital citizenship history: It has been 16 years since “cybercitizenship” first hit my radar screen. That was when two visionary professors in Florida, Michael Berson, a professor of social science education, and early childhood education professor Ilene Berson, very early subscribers of NetFamilyNews.org, brought to my attention a paper they co-authored: “Developing Thoughtful Cybercitizens.” I had written about “e-citizenship” two years before, in 2002, but that was about a Pew Internet study’s findings on the percentage of adult citizens who accessed Web-based government services, so I think it’s quite possible Profs. Berson were the first to use “citizenship” in reference to both children and the Internet (four years later, in 2006, school district technology director Michael Ribble’s PhD dissertation, “Implementing Digital Citizenship in Schools” was published (as mentioned in the “Youth and Digital Citizenship+ (Plus)” report under “Exploring the Early Landscape…”). The latest published work, by Ilene Berson, Michael Berson and Colette Gray, would likely be of interest to anyone who has read this post. Published last year: Participatory Methodologies to Elevate Children’s Voice and Agency. Clearly, they have been thinking about the youth voice, participation and civic engagement parts of digital citizenship all along. In 2010, a national task force I co-chaired, the Online Safety & Technology Working Group, formed by the federal law “Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act,” delivered our report to Congress calling for instruction in digital citizenship and media literacy in schools nationwide, but I’m not sure we can claim responsibility for schools’ (gradual) uptake.
Back to the present: Ten years later, “digital” seems more of an education imperative than ever, but “citizenship” quite off the radar. We’re triaging. Schools everywhere have been forced either to close or to bring classes online, with the focus painfully now almost exclusively on equity of access, technical hurdles and security – when not on physical and mental health and food security.
The “firewall” between home and school has collapsed, and students and teachers are getting unprecedented glimpses of each other’s everyday lives and struggles, and that’s after lack of devices and connectivity and security issues have been resolved. There’s so much for everybody to deal with at the existential and economic levels that “digital citizenship” seems like it’s from another universe. That will change, and thankfully, educators will have “Digital Citizenship+” to refer to when they’re ready to help their students develop “the skills needed for youth to fully participate academically, socially, ethically, politically, and economically in our rapidly evolving digital world,” to give the authors the last words, here.
Part 1 of this 2-part series can be found here.
- “Youth and Digital Citizenship+ (Plus): Understanding Skills for a Digital World,” by Sandra Cortesi, Alexa Hasse, Andres Lombana-Bermudez, Sonia Kim and Urs Gasser, Youth and Media, Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society
- The new Congressional Task Force on Digital Citizenship was “created in order to better equip Americans with tools and resources to use technology and engage online responsibly in an increasingly digital world,” according to the page on the Website of one of its members, Rep. Jennifer Weston (D-Va.).
- The Council of Europe’s “Digital Citizenship Education Handbook” with 3 sections: “Being Online,” “Well-Being Online” and “Rights Online”
- Participatory Methodologies to Elevate Children’s Voice and Agency, edited by Ilene Berson and Michael Berson, University of South Florida
- In “The Heart of Digital Citizenship,” my TEDx talk four years ago at the World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva, I tried to get across how key agency is to being a (digital) citizen – and how you don’t even have citizenship without the citizens’ input. I didn’t say this in the talk, but top-down “citizenship” is really digital dictatorship, not citizenship, right? Does that make sense?
- The view from three states: A window into North Carolina students’ and schools’ experience now, over a month into schools’ closures, a into the new “school life” in Texas
and Oregon – and then MIT Technology review on “The children being left behind by America’s online school”