Chicken or the Egg: Digitally literate or Digital citizen?
How would I describe the ideal digital citizen?
- Someone who has the knowledge needed to do what they need to online (from researching a topic to creating media, from vetting a source to buying a product).
- Someone who is able to eloquently express themselves and publish their ideas and thoughts in written or media form.
- Someone who uses the web and all of its resources and information to improve him/herself and expand his/her mind.
- Someone who understands his/her responsibilities to treat others with respect and follow national and international law in digital spaces.
- Someone who acts prudently online to protect him/herself and his/her information.
- Someone who interacts with intelligence and civility in online spaces and communications.
I would be so impressed with myself if I came up with that definition all alone. But the thing is, I didn't. My six characteristics of a digital citizen are directly based on the criteria Thomas Jefferson used to describe an informed and enlightened citizen in his failed 1779 bill (#79) to the Virginia legislature entitled "A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge". In Bill #79, he advocated for free primary education, which in his opinion was necessary to create a literate and therefore more perfect citizenry. The benefits of literacy in his words were...
- to give citizens the knowledge needed to conduct personal business
- to allow the citizen to calculate, express, and preserve ideas and accounts in writing
- to improve morals and faculties through reading
- to comprehend the citizen's duties to his neighbors and country
- to know rights and develop prudence in their administration
- to act with intelligence and faithfulness in social relations.
Digital Citizenship in the curriculum
Any U.S. History class could take Jefferson's Bill (or in European/World History examine the Enlightenment debate between civil vs. natural education exemplified by Locke and Rousseau) and extrapolate its relevance to modern day. Based on historical documents and debate, students can define for themselves, just as I did above, what it means to be a citizen in today's digital world. Class discussions/debates can explore questions such as: What skills do digital citizens need and how should education adapt to include them? (How powerful would it be if students, not teachers or administrators, were the impetus to integrate digital literacy/citizenship into the curriculum!) Other topics: should a digital Bill of Rights exist? If so, what rights and privileges should be accorded to digital citizens? To prepare for such a debate, students can compare and contrast different rights documents (U.S. Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, French Revolution's Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, UN Declaration of Human Rights, etc.) to construct their own. To go further and embed a global component into the discussion, students can examine if the entire idea of a Bill of Rights is Western biased and analyze the arguments used by the Chinese or Arab Spring governments in censoring the internet and social media.
Additionally, the internet provides a fertile ground for civics and government classes to examine the concept of inflammatory speech. Debate topics that pull in Supreme Court decisions include: Why are hateful websites allowed to exist on the internet? At what point does hateful speech constitute a clear and present danger? The unfolding Twitter situation in which a man was arrested for threatening to rape a woman on Twitter is an excellent case to use. Another topic: can you legally impersonate someone online? Odds are there is at least one fake Twitter or Facebook account created by a student to impersonate a teacher, administrator, or other student at your school. (I stumbled upon two from my school when Twitter suggested the impersonated accounts as "People I should follow" on my Activboard in the middle of a class Twitter project and presented me with a perfect teachable moment...) Instead of admin going on a fishing expedition for these accounts, create a fake case study in class using exactly this scenario and have your civics students hash it out using case precedent. Believe me, the word will get around and those Twitter accounts will magically disappear.
As you can see, my examples skew older, as high school is my realm of expertise. Some fantastic resources exist that address lower and middle school applications, including a recent article in NAIS' Independent School Magazine by Don Orth and Edward Chen, entitled "The Strategy for Digital Citizenship: Children in a Digital World".