Technology Published 15 May 2014

The issues and implications of digital citizenship


Who is a Digital Citizen? According to Wikipedia, "a digital citizen refers to a person utilising information technology in order to engage in society, politics, and government participation."


I like this definition. It surpasses the narrow interpretations of digital citizenship that have dominated educational discourse. It is a definition that touches on the true potential and importance of the internet. It raises issues such as equity of access and voice. It is a definition that challenges us as participatory members of our community, nation and world. I am going to use this definition as a springboard to engage in an exploration of contemporary issues and the implications of digital citizenship.

Networks

ICT and social networks are changing the world. News disseminates directly between and through citizens rather than being filtered (or constructed) by sanctioned mainstream media channels. Communication is instantaneous and constant. Video conferencing in real-time with someone on the other side of the planet is commonplace. Political and social awareness has rapidly increased. Governments have risen and fallen due to information shared or leaked online. Learning is now available to anyone with a connection. The information age has enabled the age of learning.

The Learning Age

The days of the industrial education system are numbered (over). The bell tolled for 'chalk and talk' the day the internet was born. The new 'ism, connectivism (a learning theory for the digital age), posits that learning is more critical than knowing. Connectivism holds that learning is a process of connecting specialised nodes or information sources. Learning occurs within a network and is socially and technologically supported.

In our current education system, many standardised tests and assessment procedures focus on memorisation of information that can be accessed at any time from the internet. With facts a click or a voice command away, should we now be focusing more on the innovative use of those facts? On critical thinking, innovation, collaboration, networking, creativity and real world applications? The ecological, social, economic and political problems facing coming generations need innovative thinkers and makers.

Question Everything

How do we discern reputable sources of truth? Australian media ownership has been described as one of the most concentrated in the world. Eleven of the 12 capital city daily papers are owned by either News Corp Australia or Fairfax Media. How does this type of ownership concentration affect freedom of information and news coverage in Australia?

The 'March in March' earlier this year attracted tens of thousands of Australians who gathered across the nation's capital cities demonstrating a vote of no confidence in the Abbott Government. The event, however, went largely unreported by Australia's newspapers and mainstream Australian television. This is concerning. Conversely, social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook prolifically communicated pictures and news from the march directly between attendees, supporters and their networks. This example demonstrates the power of social networks to bypass censoring mainstream media channels and bring important information to the public.

Social networks can also propagate disinformation, however. Just as we should question mainstream media, we should employ critical thinking when engaging with online information. Researching an article's sources and stakeholders is a good place to start. Google recently launched its Digital Literacy and Citizenship Curriculum. This is an excellent resource; providing lessons for students that target critical thinking, managing online identity and identifying online scams. Class 1 in the series, titled "Becoming an online sleuth" provides activities to guide students in evaluating the credibility of content online.

BYOD and Digital Citizenship throughout the curriculum

Facilitating focused digital citizenship sessions for students is great. Embedding digital citizenship throughout your curriculum is even better. At my school we support BYOD (Bring your own device) for Years 3 to ­12. We support any brand and operating system. To enable this we migrated our teaching, learning, administration and communication systems to Google Apps for Education. The benefits of this cloud migration have been tremendous. Learning anytime/anywhere, flipped learning, project-based learning and collaboration are all much easier with BYOD and Google Apps. The number of devices at school exponentially increased overnight and we provide school devices for those who cannot bring one. Communication, creativity and collaboration increased and paper handouts have decreased.

In our planning for cloud migration, faster networks and BYOD we foresaw the need to support our technological evolution with a Digital Citizenship Program (DCP). The potential for bullying and online scams is real, so we developed a program of digital citizenship and literacy that was embedded in our curriculum. We created a Google Site and constructed courses that linked directly to curriculum and school goals. We created the program to be easy for teachers to facilitate within their time and curriculum restraints, organising it into key learning areas and linking resources relevant to subjects. The program covers critical thinking, access, commerce, communication, identity, health, law, ethics, literacy, security, rights and citizenship.

In the two years we have been facilitating BYOD and digital citizenship we have experienced very few bullying or other internet related issues. Our program works. In fact the program was so successful that we decided to run a Digital Citizenship conference. The first digital citizenship conference was run at St Columba Anglican School Port Macquarie in July 2013. Various schools sent delegates to learn how to create programs at their schools. The success of that conference led to us running the conference again in Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral School in November.

BYOD and Social Networking Policies

Another key ingredient of our school evolution has been the creation of effective and explicit policies covering BYOD and social networking. With the advent of mobile networks the old school IT control paradigm crumbled. Mobile devices with (3G/4G) have direct connection to the internet that bypasses school filters and firewalls. Policies can prohibit use of these networks but policing such policies is problematic. Also, you can have the tightest, most restricting network at school, but at home (for most students) the internet is unrestricted and filter free. Are locked down school networks in place to protect students from harm or to protect schools from the threat of litigation?

We need to help students develop into discerning online citizens who can make good choices wherever they are. As an educator, I feel it is within my duty of care to help students become responsible and safe digital citizens. Good policies enable schools to ease up on overly restrictive network filters and allow students to better utilise the benefits of the internet and the information it offers.

Learning Communities

Our digital citizenship program is collaborative. Teachers, students and parents all contribute to its development and evolution. We run parent eLearning and digital citizenship sessions every term. Our school blogs and social networks encourage communication between everyone in our learning community. Digital citizenship is a challenge, responsibility and right for everyone. Not just students.

Citizens stand up

Developing critical thinking and an online voice is one of the great challenges of our time. Current issues such as security agencies spying on citizens without permission (Snowden leaks), the Trans­pacific Partnership (TPP) which increases corporate control and threatens our rights and environmental destruction for profit all deserve our attention and action. Sir Tim Berners-­Lee (the inventor of the World Wide Web) believes a global bill of rights is needed to preserve an open and neutral internet.

Now more than ever we need to question everything and start working for the benefit of all humanity, including future generations. The world is facing some daunting problems. With the help of technology, the internet and online collaboration, perhaps we have a chance at fixing them.

Matt Richards is the director of eLearning and EdTech St Columba Anglican School, Port Macquarie. You can reach him at google.com/+MattRichards Follow him on Twitter @ sirmattrichards or read his blog sirmattrichards.blogspot.com.au.

This story appeared in the June 2014 edition of Australian Teacher Magazine.

Matt Richards


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