Digital Citizenship Reconsidered: Global Citizenship In A Digital World
Choruses from The Rock T.S. Eliot, 1934
The Eagle soars in the summit of Heaven,
The Hunter with his dogs pursues his circuit.
O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying!
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
Digital citizenship is an old, tired concept, sort of like that of Digital Natives. Current ideas are based on a good idea but don’t really embrace the scope of what it might mean to live in a digital world. I propose that we need to think broader than merely how we use our devices and acknowledge some of the implications or hidden costs of the technology we love so dearly. And, clearly, as the co-editor of a book on great ways to use technology with students, I am not looking to ban these devices from our homes and schools. But our digital technology connects us to the global community, and with great knowledge comes great responsibility (and maybe some wisdom).
What I am proposing is that we move the focus of thinking about our technology from one where we are mostly concerned with how to use a device appropriately and how to protect ourselves to a focus on the greater implications of having and using our wonderful devices. Simply put, we tend to focus on how to be aware digital content consumers and cautious content producers. The ideas we need to discuss go well beyond the typical Digital Citizenship norms and increasingly must include essential concerns around design, mineral sourcing, production, consumption, energy, reuse, and recycling. It also means teaching students (and teachers) how to get out of the ‘echo chamber’ where all they see/hear only reinforces what they already think and doesn’t lead to understanding the views of others.
Current digital citizenship models (and they are good at what they do!) include statements such as: “Digital citizenship is the norms of appropriate, responsible technology use.” (DigitalCitizenship) or “to empower students to think critically, behave safely, and participate responsibly in our digital world.” (Common Sense Media) and “The 21st Century Citizenship Guide outlines a vision of citizenship that encompasses informed, engaged and active practices in three dimensions of citizenship—civic, global and digital.” (Partnership for 21st Century Learning) Most of this is about personal use. “When we stop worrying about smartphones just in terms of content (what we’re looking at) and start to consider the rituals that tether us to them throughout the day, we’ll notice that the very form of the practice comes loaded with an egocentric vision that makes me the center of the universe.” (Smith, 2016, p. 46). We have to get beyond the me.
These definitions (and many sites don’t bother defining the term) then give direction to details as to how this is to be achieved. Again, these are notable goals but tend to be very individualistic and self-centred: overuse of the internet or games, cyberbullying, pornography, safe posting of comments, ideas, and images, copyright, respect, assessing validity of information, security, and body image. (from the above sources as well as MediaSmarts and Osapac) A novel concern for future consideration is Jason Ohler’s vision of the digitally physically-embedded citizens we will teach: “Currently the world of digital citizenship is understandably focused on issues like cyberbullying and sexting. But I fear these will seem quaint when compared to the issues that await us… like those that will accompany the coming of the bio-hacked student.”
Many sites present some variation of 21st Century Skills most of which begin with the letter C. The most common of these notable C words are communication, critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and citizenship (from Thoughtful Learning and Partnership for 21st Century Learning).
An interesting model is proposed by C21 Canada and their document Shifting Minds. The bias behind my choice here is that they include two C’s that are not evident elsewhere and appear to head in the direction I am encouraging: Character (Reaching higher and growing stronger), and Culture & Ethical Citizenship (Sharing what we value). Among other virtues, the Character section lists “tolerant, ethical and fair” (p. 11) and in the Culture and Ethical Citizenship category we find, “the impact of humans upon the environment ... and ... sensitivity and respect for diverse identities and cultures as impacted upon our sustainability” (p. 11). These too are worthy goals. Along these lines the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2009) advocates a Social responsibility component that “implies that individuals’ actions may have an impact on society at large, both in a positive sense (i.e. thereby a responsibility to act), but also a negative one (i.e. responsibility to refrain from certain actions)” (p. 10). They also delineate Social impact that recognizes both the social life implications and environmental impact of our technologies.
But where do we go with this? Neither of these latter frameworks provide real detail on what exactly these mean in action, and the little detail that is given tends to focus on individual development and tends to be very localized when dealing with the ‘issues.’ We need to broaden the scope of these issues to a global context and redefine digital citizenship as global citizenship in a digital world.
What is citizenship? Darin Barney (2007) offers this way of describing citizenship:
I would like to suggest that citizenship, like science and technology, is a way of knowing and acting, a way of being in the world, a practice. To say that citizenship is a practice is to say that it is something not merely borne but more precisely something done, not just an attribute but an act, not simply a status inherited passively or won through due process or struggle but a habit motivated by circumstance and obligation, cultivated through education and experience, consistently performed. (p. 11)
This is an active, ambitious description of citizenship, the kind we seem to need as political participation seems to wane. So what then is global citizenship in a digital world? How do we help our students make ‘a habit motivated by the circumstance and obligation’ of living in a digital world? I suggest awareness of the whole process of technological development leading to an examination of ethical and environmental concerns. This means students need to know about the whole process of producing their devices from design to recycling. Here are the areas I propose our students should engage with. All of these have potential for great cross-curricular projects. Check my wiki site for more sources and resources.
Design - Why do we have to dispose of our phones when the battery fails or we want a better camera or we want more memory? Most of our devices are designed to be difficult or impossible to upgrade or fix. This is a phenomenal waste, so before we even get to the process of making a device we have an environmental problem by design. Students should be aware of this and be able to find methods of persuading companies to make devices that can be easily upgraded and fixed. Responsible use of social media in this case means much more than not posting rude comments. It means participating as a global digital citizen ‘motivated by circumstance and obligation’ and taking action to investigate the problem and decide how best to use their influence. This will also be an excellent opportunity for them to learn about argument, rhetoric and product ‘spin’ as companies defend their policies and actions. They may also begin to wonder why profit is the only motivator for companies. They should also be aware of some of the positive efforts already in progress like Project Ara and PhoneBloks.
Mineral Sourcing - Tantalum is a rare earth element that is used in most of our current electronics. Congo used to be a major source of tantalum ore until it became evident that mining it was a major source of funding for the ongoing conflicts. There is now a concerted effort to try and source ‘conflict-free’ coltan - the ore from which tantalum is extracted. This is an effort to be applauded, but students at some point should also be aware of the consequences of any action. In this case many miners are now unable to make a living due to the slow implementation and monitoring of the mining of coltan. There are many good questions to investigate here, including why we don’t get our tantalum from Canada.
Manufacturing - Where are our devices made and under what conditions? Many device manufacturers have poor records for treatment of labour and lack of environmental precautions: see ChinaLaborWatch and TheWorldOfChinese articles for example. As we know from the coffee, chocolate and clothing industries, companies must be constantly scrutinized and information has to be shared. Students should learn about the manufacturing process that produces their devices so that they can decide if they want to take action or support a cause.
Consumption - How often do I need a new device? Should I get a new one every time my ‘plan’ ends? These are questions that might arise as students do inquiry projects into the background of their technology. They are critical questions for students (and adults) to ask of themselves. These questions do not have simple answers and students will struggle with their desire for the newest and shiniest versus their own ethical standards. Student debates on these topics might prove helpful. Presenting findings to parents might also be advantageous.
Energy - How much energy does a Google search take? How clean is that energy? What is ‘The Cloud’ really? What is a server farm? What happens to all the excess heat from a server farm? Are all companies the same? These are all worthy topics for an inquiry.
Recycling - This one seems obvious – of course we should recycle! But what happens when we drop off our used equipment? The process is getting better, but there are always poor examples as this documentary from 60 Minutes illustrates. More and more companies are providing information about their efforts to be cleaner and greener. Examples are HP Computers Sustainability site and Apple’s Environment page. Is there a bias to these pages? Of course! That’s why students need to be good investigators and ask good questions about what’s there and what’s missing.
Cost - How much more am I willing to pay to fix all these problems? This is a really hard question to answer, both logistically and emotionally. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be discussed.
No guilt!! Guilt is a poor, short-term motivator. If we want students to be global citizens we have to help them move beyond the potential guilt to a place where they can find ways to meaningfully engage in finding solutions. One of the advantages of their devices is that they can take action in effective ways, locally and globally. Action of course doesn’t have to be electronic and shouldn’t always be only electronic, but there are terrific opportunities to connect around the world and make a difference. They need to get into ‘a habit motivated by the circumstance and obligation.’ We can give them learning situations where this can happen.
What are the Obstacles and Opportunities?
A major obstacle to doing this is attitude. We live and learn in a very individualistic society and sometimes get lost in that point of view without thinking about whether we control the device or whether it controls us. We also need to understand the nature of our consumer driven society and the companies that push us to buy. They are profit motivated and move production around the world to find the lowest costs, and they don’t necessarily want us watching them closely.
In particular they don’t want us to ask, ‘Where does all this stuff come from?’ Instead they encourage us to accept a certain magic, the myth that the garments and equipment that circulate from the mall through our homes and into the landfill simple emerged in shops as if dropped by aliens. The processes of production and transport remain hidden and invisible, like the entrances and exits for the characters at Disney World. This invisibility is not accidental; it is necessary in order for us not to see that this way of life is unsustainable and selfishly lives off the backs of those in the majority world.” (Smith, 2016, p. 53)
So what can we do? Again, avoid guilt, but give opportunities to collect good information and opportunities to act and act responsibly. There are lots of great cross-curricular inquiry projects that students can work on such as investigating issues around any of the topics mentioned above. We also need to demonstrate to students how to get a broader perspective and get out of their personal ‘echo chamber,’ and get global news from global sources. It will take significant effort on the teacher’s part to encourage project work that looks deeper and wider. Teachers must also make it a part of their lives to understand (but not necessarily agree with) other perspectives on issues. One example in a history, geography or world issues (or many others) class is to have the headlines from a different newspaper/media source on the screen every day so that students can see what people in other parts of the world think is important. Sadly but notably, as Canadians we will find out that we are not in the international news very often!
In my one of my courses at the Faculty of Education (U of Manitoba) students have the choice to explore alternate perspectives. They all find it painful at first if they choose this assignment, but at the end they are all grateful for the experience and how much they have learned.
Spend one to two weeks breaking your ‘normal life’ RWL (Reading, Watching. Listening) habits and RWL very different places - politics, religion, music, video, etc. That is go to websites, stations, news, youtube channels that you generally would avoid like the plague and spend some time there. You do not need to go to ‘deviant’ places, just places where you disagree with just about everything they stand for.
Your assignment (should you choose to accept it):
1. Keep a journal (written, audio or video or ... not too long - think first!) of your gut reaction to the experience - we already know that you are not like them, so how does it feel to be among them?
2. Avoid condemning/hating and do some deeper listening. Why is there this difference? What are the core beliefs, and how do these get muddled/clarified through the medium and message? Can you get beyond the right/wrong types of arguments? Where are areas of agreement or reasonable discussion? So, move beyond your gut reaction and record (written, audio or video or ...) your considered thoughts after discerning some of the deeper ideas.
You are not expected to change your mind, but perhaps to have a better understanding of how and why some people think differently than you.
How do we approach some of these hard topics? How do we start the conversation between students and their technology? How do we help them understand what it means to be a global citizen? We need to know some of the questions we should ask to get us and our students started. Mander (1991, 49-50) provides a list of thoughts we should consider about our technologies:
- Be skeptical of all claims of new technology.
- Assume guilty until proven innocent.
- Bear in mind that technology is not neutral or value free.
- Negative aspects are slow to appear and blinded by the attractions of the new and now.
- Look beyond your personal benefits to a more holistic view of its impact.
- How does the new technology fit into the larger technology web?
- Is the control of the technology local or centralized somewhere inaccessible?
- Consider things like isolation, crime, suicide, abuse (drug or economic), jobs, and culture change.
- Rejecting or containing a technology is possible - nothing is inevitable.
- Recognize technological worship for what it is.
None of these are beyond the scope of students at any level but educators must be willing to enter into this conversation with them.
From Little Gidding, T. S. Eliot 1942
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
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