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).


Identifying a Research Problem

Research Query

Identifying a research problem consists of specifying an issue to study, developing a justification for studying it, and suggesting the importance of the study for select audiences that will read the report. 

John W. Creswell

While it acknowledges that “Participating in elections is the essential starting point of any democratic system,” Elections Canada’s own working paper on the Electoral Participation of Young Canadians cites a characterization of the nation’s youth as “political dropouts,” building on the depressing findings of Ottilia Chareka and Alan Sears, that even though

“Youth understand voting as a key element of democratic governance, a hard won democratic right, and a duty of democratic citizenship […], most indicate they do not plan to vote because voting does not make a difference.”

Additionally, the perils of such a disinterest threaten the creation of a trend Gilens and Page have identified in the United States as having transformed the country [back] into an oligarchy, wherein “mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

Taken together the two ideas present the nexus of an area of research my recent work and experience lead me to consider, as it offers a unique insight into a vital phenomenon. As the author of the Elections Canada working paper, Paul Howe observes that “a lower voting level among the young could simply represent an increase in the number of intermittent non-voters and/or a decrease in the incidence of voting among young, intermittent non-voters.”MA Doodles

He adds,

“The notion that today’s young people need particular support and encouragement to take up the habit of voting is an important one. To better understand these processes, further research focusing on political socialization dynamics in late adolescence (when young people are approaching or reaching voting age) would be valuable.”

In the last many months, I have considered the problem of my upcoming graduate inquiry as an opportunity to explore this application of public education, sensing the intersection (though perhaps collision would be more appropriate) of Canada’s democratic traditions with the lauded Digital Age and the school curriculum itself. Working as I have (and continue to) with various unique cohorts in blended digital and face-to-face environments, as well as beyond formal instruction in a variety of informal or extra-curricular settings, my spheres of interaction with young people presents what Howe describes as an area for future research:

“Conducting research in the high school setting has the advantage of providing access to all segments of youth society, including the most marginalized, indifferent and/or disaffected, who often cannot be effectively targeted once they have left school.”

Something I’ve quoted often as a guiding principle in my work over the last many years is Gert Biesta’s notion that

“Young people learn at least as much about democracy and citizenship – including their own citizenship – through their participation in a range of different practices that make up their lives, as they learn from that which is officially prescribed and formally taught.”

In his graduate work [highlighted recently on CBC’s IdeasDavid Moscrop highlights a problem in applying the workings of the “lizard brain” to the complexities of modern democracy: “It’s about messaging and name familiarity. And it reflects our MA Doodlesown vulnerability to being manipulated — which is why attack ads work and sound bites work.” Such a revelation echoes Habermas, who described a degraded public sphere as one co-opted by media and political elites who manipulate public opinion to their own ends.

In confronting this emerging civic reality, my own interest in curriculum adjoins the prospect of critical pedagogy as a means of instilling young people with an emancipatory praxis that allows them to enact and create their own freedom. This tradition of scholarship includes the likes of John Dewey, Paulo Freire, as well as Michel Foucault and Gregory Bateson, but also recent the recent theorizing of Stephen Downes, Bonnie Stewart, Jesse Stommel and Gardner Campbell.

Following from Freire, a critical perspective on one’s “generative theme” is central to an emancipatory education:

“To investigate the generative theme is to investigate the people’s thinking about reality an people’s action upon reality, which is their praxis. For precisely this reason, the methodology proposed requires that the investigators and the people (who would normally be considered objects of that investigation) should act as co-investigators. The more active an attitude men and women take in regard to the exploration of their thematics, the more they deepen their critical awareness of reality and, in spelling out those thematics, take possession of that reality.”

When broadened to include the evolution of the public sphere presented by the burgeoning Digital Age, the means by which these themes and power-relationships are forged has expanded beyond traditional print and broadcast media to include a panoply of personal publishing technologies that continues to mediate power relationships in new and daunting ways. It is a time fraught with both possibility and peril.

So we can see that as Gardner Campbell posits the creation of personal cyberinfrastructure, Audrey Watters wonders about the peril of bringing our face-to-face cultural inequalities online:

“What percentage of education technologists are men? What percentage of “education technology leaders” are men? What percentage of education technology consultants? What percentage of those on the education technology speaking circuit? What percentage of education CIOs and CTOs; what percentage of ed-tech CEOs?

“Again: How do these bodies — in turn, their privileges, ideologies, expectations, values — influence our education technologies?”

In my work with young people I strive to create learning opportunities meant to instill a reflective critical praxis emblematic of the type of citizenship engagement necessary for democracy to exist. Many of these learning opportunities are conducted in a blended digital and face-to-face environment, and utilize open digital practices intended to leverage the participatory practices essential to both the success of the web, as well as democracy itself.

MA Doodles

In two cohorts of identified gifted learners in the Coquitlam School District’s T.A.L.O.N.S. Program, each of our 56 students charts the course of their development in an experiential, interdisciplinary learning environment through an individual blog, and a variety of digital artifacts shared and archived across a class-wide network of posts.

For the last three years, I have taught a Philosophy 12 class which has operated as an open online course for non-credit participants that have variously contributed to the course community by submitting their own assignments, offering feedback or dialogue in the form of comments on the course site, or by extending the reach of the class’ discussions on social media.

In each of these communities, the creation of learning artifacts on class sites provides the current students the opportunity for reflection and synthesis of their learning, as well as a lasting example of socially documented inquiry for future cohorts, and those beyond the community itself on the open web. This principle comes into clearer relief in an Introduction to Guitar 11 course I’ve taught for several years that has evolved over time to provide an opportunity for open online participants to join and contribute to and learn along with a class of musical beginners. It is, in the words of open online stalwart Alan Levine “not a class that teaches guitar, but one where you can learn guitar.”

By examining the generative themes brought about through the reflective practices afforded in these various learning spaces, I am hopeful that my inquiry might offer a meaningful contribution to the body of knowledge concerning young people’s emergent sense of their own citizenship and agency in our democracy.

Literacies of Participation | Bonnie Stewart & the MOOC as Trojan Horse

With thanks to Michael Wesch

With thanks to Michael Wesch

Alongside my focus this year in TALONS on the concept of engagement, I’m buoyed to read Bonnie Stewart‘s paper in the MERLOT Journal of Online Teaching and Learning which looks at MOOCs and the open course structure as “a Trojan horse for an ethos of participation and distributed expertise.” Bonnie begins with an acknowledgement of the popular discourse surrounding open courses and how this distracts from the conversation the original authors of the MOOC story were having:

This variety of responses to MOOCs is indicative of the fault lines becoming increasingly visible in the terrain of contemporary higher education. The term MOOC gets conflated with online education, with globalization, and with networked learning – to the point where public conversation about the topic becomes what Jackson (2013) calls “that most dangerous topic of discussion: a subject about which everybody needs to have an opinion” (para. 2).” “

Some voices position MOOCs as synonymous with the privatization of higher education (Bady, 2013), while others – looking at very different course models – claim that they do not so much change the game of higher education as they are “playing a different game entirely” (Downes, 2012, para. 4).”

Rather than wade into this arena of the debate, Bonnie looks at the implicit ends of learning in the open:

“This position paper takes up MOOCs neither as the future nor the death of academe. [Instead, it will] consider the possibilities of the phenomenon, in all its forms, for the sociocultural growth and spread of digital literacies. Rather than argue for or against a single perspective on MOOCs, my premise is that it may be productive to consider their potential as large, immersive – and largely unintentional – environments for acculturating people to new digital literacies.

I get a similar distaste for conversations about educational technology that revolve around this sort of Savior / Beelzebub duality, and am generally much more excited to conceive of the ways in which digital tools can support and extend physical communities. We spend a lot of time in my classes working on group processes, collaboration, communication toward a synthesis of ideas; and I like to think that taking these skills – some of which are outlined in our courses’ prescribed learning outcomes, some of which fall beyond their scope – onto the web bears immense potential for the state and future of our global community.

What is exciting about teaching courses like Philosophy 12, or Introduction to Guitar, or the TALONS Socials cohorts in a blended – face-to-face and online atmosphere is in one sense the support digital tools bring to the course’s content areas. But I think my real passion is lit as I see the implicit ethos of the web finding its way into my students practices, online and off.

In other words, the implicit focus of the course moves beyond information to communication: 

When communications are seen as key to learning, the numeric focus of the information-centered paradigm cannot be reconciled with the significant and varied body of educational research which foregrounds the importance of interactive (Dewey, 1938), situational (Lave & Wenger, 1991), and critical (Freire, 1970) perspectives on learning. The communications approach focuses on the Internet not as a technology but as a medium for human engagement. “The Internet encourages discussion, dialogue and community that is not limited by time or place. The role of educators in this world is to facilitate dialogue and support students in their understanding of resources” (Weller, 2007, p. 6).

Which brings me back to engagement, and learning design as a means of bringing about positive collective engagement, in the physical classroom, and beyond its walls.

The skills learned in one realm cannot help but influence the other.

Here’s the full pdf of Bonnie’s paper: Massiveness + Openness = New Literacies of Participation?