Critical Citizenship for the Digital Age

Brian and Bryan Jam

Photo courtesy of Alan Levine

This post is part of a serialized collection of chapters composing my recently completed Master’s of Education degree at the University of Victoria. You can access the other chapters on this site here, and access a pdf of the completed paper on the University of Victoria library space here

This project builds on these notions of a process-oriented citizenship curriculum by bringing them into the digital age. As communicative technology has altered how people relate to both information and one another, humankind is forced to reimagine both knowledge and citizenship in contemporary society. “In the digital age,” Simsek and Simsek (2013) write, “it is a vital requisite to fully understand and use the capacity of new information and communication technologies” (p. 128). Where prior media landscapes – print, film and radio – forced citizens to make meaning based on limited societal authorship, literacies arising in the 21st century “differ from the previous ones, mainly due to their operational, interactive, and user-based technological characteristics” (p. 129). Epistemologically, the creation of cultural narratives and realities has been urged away from a minority authorship toward what Sidorkin (2000) describes as “polyphony, the principle of engaged co-existence of multiple yet unmerged voices” (p. 5). Thus the communications revolution calls upon schools to foster the discovery and synthesis of diverse voices in the service of citizenship learning, something digital tools are well-suited to provide, as “the free flow of information through new technologies is consistent with the requirements of deliberative democracy and corresponding citizenship practices” (Simsek & Simsek, 2013, p. 130).

In a seminal essay in the movement toward open 21st century education, Gardner Campbell (2009) builds on Marshall McLuhan to explore the message at work in the medium of the World Wide Web. “Print is not advanced calligraphy,” he writes. “The web is not a more sophisticated telegraph” (p. 58). To better interpret curriculum in the digital age, Campbell suggests the idea of “personal cyberinfrastructure,” where students are assigned and provided with their own web servers and domain names, and then proceed – through the course of their institutional educational experience – to “build out their digital presences in an environment made of the medium itself,” allowing them to “shape their own cognition, learning, expression, and reflection in a digital age, in a digital medium” (p. 59). Citizenship education, in this view, is enabled by educators and institutions willing to exemplify the participatory culture required by democracy, and which is essential to the information landscape of the digital age:

if what the professor truly wants is for students to discover and craft their own desires and dreams, a personal cyberinfrastructure provides the opportunity. To get there, students must be effective architects, narrators, curators, and inhabitants of their own digital lives. Students with this kind of digital fluency will be well-prepared for creative and responsible leadership in the post-Gutenberg age. Without such fluency, students cannot compete economically or intellectually, and the astonishing promise of the digital medium will never be fully realized. (Campbell, 2009, p. 59)

Stewart (2013) similarly describes an “ethos of participation” grounding many open educational experiences, as she notes that, “To be digitally literate is to be able to engage the connections and communications possibilities of digital technologies, in their capacity to generate, remix, repurpose, and share new knowledge as well as simply deliver existing information.” However, Groom and Lamb (Groom & Lamb, 2014) counter these attempts at optimism in their description of “innovation fatigue” taking over education in 2014: “As institutional demands for enterprise services such as e-mail, student information systems, and the branded website become mission-critical, the notion of building and re-imagining the open web gets lost” in a preoccupation with “what’s necessary rather than what’s possible,” as institutional decisions are further driven by private capital and interests that fall outside those of education for the public good (para 12). If education for citizenship is to be concerned with the “analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them” (Foucault, 1984, p. 50), educators must seek the promise of openness, not only in technology but society itself. Chief engineer of the World Wide Web, Tim Berniers-Lee, described the necessity of seeking an open Internet as central to the democratic project: “Unless we have an open, neutral internet […] we can’t have open government, good democracy, good healthcare, connected communities and diversity of culture” (Kiss, 2014). Groom and Lamb note that “It is well within the power of educators to play a decisive role in the battle for the future of the web,” even if this will “require an at-times inconvenient commitment to the fundamental principles of openness, ownership, and participation” (2014).

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