Rethinking Digital Citizenship

Yasmina and Keri presenting on Digital Citizenship at TiE2015

This is an exciting time to be thinking about digital citizenship as there is much to learn and create given the relatively limited body of theory and practical materials that have been developed to date. Many digital citizenship initiatives focus on online safety and seek to determine the most useful ways to control where young people go and what they consume via the internet. Issues of safety are certainly important and schools are required to filter content on their networks, but what beliefs and assumptions guide our policy and curricular work on digital citizenship? What effects do these beliefs have on adults/youth?

In Youth and Citizenship in the Digital Age: a View from Egypt, Herrera (2012) frames the "wired generation" as those born between the late 1970's through the early 2000's and cites literature about this group as a generation that "...function[s] in ways more horizontal, interactive, participatory, open, collaborative, and mutually influential" than those of earlier generations (Edmonds & Turner, 2005 cited in Herrera, 2012, p. 335).  Tapscott's (2009, cited in Herrera, 2012) study highlights 8 characteristics of the wired generation in relation to digital engagement and communication: "freedom, customization, scrutiny, integrity, collaboration, entertainment, scrutiny, speed, and innovation" (p. 335). These characteristics support "symmetrical participation" (Shirky, 2010 cited in Herrera, 2012, p. 335) where young people are active and interactive participants in creating and distributing media, rather than passive consumers (as it was with earlier print and television media).
It seems that many young people do not feel that they are seen for embodying the characteristics reflected in this research. In fact, policies and practices in schools often unintentionally communicate negative stereotypes about young people to teachers and students. For example, when a few students get in trouble it often happens that all students receive the consequences. The message that young people receive is that adults believe all students would engage the same undesired behavior. In my own dissertation research, high school students reported using much of their daily mental and emotional energy to navigate adults' negative stereotypes and low expectations of young people, as a group (DeJong, 2014).
This information is important for those of us who are in positions to rethink digital citizenship curricula and initiatives. For instance, if I have a view of young people as passive consumers of digital media, and my main goal is to protect them from becoming victims of what they see and/or who they interact with online, that assumption will guide how I plan and engage students in learning activities. If I see young people this way, will I think to ask/assess how they are actually engaging technology in their lives? Without this base-level understanding, I would be missing many learning opportunities for myself and for the young people I work with.
If I see a group of young people as possessing the characteristics that Herrera's literature review highlights, in what ways might I work with students to support their best, safest, and most inspiring engagement in learning through a broader digital citizenship project that focuses on connection, engagement, creativity and other strengths that meet the characteristics of the wired generation? I think that this is the important and exciting work ahead of us in relation to digital citizenship.
In the conference presentation Rethinking Digital Citizenship with Yasmina Mattison at TiE2015, we discussed youth empowerment as being a key component of digital citizenship. By youth empowerment, we mean creating the space, time, and resources for young people to take active and decisive roles in their own growth, learning, and direction. We shared that we see adults being in the position to both create access and  barriers to technology and that many adults aren't seeing the ways that young people are already engaging in digital citizenship as they are creating communities, shifting thinking, providing support to one another in online forums, challenging institutionalized racism and homophobia, and are creating knowledge, art, media, and so much more. By not seeing how young people are actually engaging online, we (intentionally or unintentionally) create barriers. So, what do adults need to do to meet young people where they're (actually) at? And how can we play a more active supporting role in youth empowerment as it relates to the rights, roles and responsibilities of digital citizenship?
A first step can be to take a look at the policies we already have in place and ask ourselves and the young people in our schools how these policies impact them. Adults can partner with young people to develop new policies that reflect the powerful characteristics of the wired generation.

Check out these resources to learn more:

Developing definitions of Digital Citizenship create important opportunities for discussion, increased clarity, and proactive direction of edtech policy and practice: