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  • Writer's pictureDr. Kristen Mattson

Words Matter: Why I’m not ready to drop “digital” from the #DigCit conversation

Updated: May 27, 2020

This weekend (10/28/16) I had the honor and the pleasure of sitting on a panel of speakers during the #DigCitSummit, which was held at Twitter Headquarters in San Francisco. During this eight hour day of speaking, listening, and collaborating, there were several big ideas I felt compelled to write about as I reflected and digested my learning.

Let’s start with the topic of this conference – “digital citizenship”: a term that has been living on the outskirts of academia for a good dozen years, but is only beginning to make its way into the consciousness of educators and educational technology companies. Some in the field have embraced the terminology, others say “digital citizenship” is merely a new label for an old idea.

The argument that digital citizenship is nothing more than being a good citizen in all aspects of life is one that was brought up by Derek Larson during a panel presentation this weekend, but was also mentioned informally in conversations throughout the day. Many argue that we should ditch the word “digital” and just continue to teach citizenship while recognizing that citizens today live simultaneously in online and offline spaces. Others like Jennifer Casa-Todd and Sylvia Duckworth suggest a change in name from “digital citizenship” to “digital leadership.”

These differing perspectives on digital citizenship are not new to me. One blog I have revisited often in my own thinking journey is titled “Why I Am Renouncing My Digital Citizenship.” In it, the blogger argues that the discourse around digital citizenship has actually harmed technology integration through its fear-mongering messages. An Edutopia article I’ve circled back to a few times states that digital citizenship is a misnomer because citizenship is more than responsibility. These are perspectives I agree with wholeheartedly. Essentially, all of these authors are pointing out that words matter — and that maybe the word(s) we have collectively chosen for this concept just do not work. But rather than scrap the vocabulary, I would argue that it’s time to expand the concept….

During the #DigCitSummit, I put out a Tweet saying I was not ready to drop the word ‘digital’ from the “digital citizenship” conversation just yet, and I would like to elaborate on that Tweet a bit more here:

  1. Words matter in curriculum development and policy making. Citizenship education is not a new concept. Since the earliest schools were formed in this country, the goal was to develop citizens who could be informed about and contribute to the societies of which they were a part. Today, citizenship education continues in many forms through character education, social studies and civics courses, service learning projects, and initiatives like Democracy Schools. These courses of study, taken from kindergarten through high school graduation, introduce students to communities of the classroom, the family, the school, the town, state, and nation. Today we are citizens of digital communities as well, communities that may include people we know and people we have never met with face to face. When the vocabulary of a “digital citizen” is made explicit, educators are forced to consider this layer of citizenship in their curricular planning, development and delivery. Elementary school children will continue taking field trips to the post office and enjoying classroom visits from police and firemen during “community week,” but the explicitness of digital communities through the term “digital citizenship” should implore educators to weave digital community introductions right alongside expectations for crayon drawn maps of their city blocks.

  2. Citizenship should not be confused with personal ethics. One of the biggest arguments people make from dropping the term digital from “digital citizenship” is because they narrowly consider a citizen as someone who is personally responsible and ethical. If that is your definition of a citizen, it make sense to say that if we are ‘good people’ offline, we should just be that way all the time, eliminating the need for separate terminology. I see ethics as only a very small aspect of citizenship, however. If you even stop and consider that citizens have a responsibility to give back to the communities of which they are a part, this looks very different in digital spaces than it does in traditional ones. Throw in the aspects of social justice and equity, and consider the magnitude of possibilities that being able to connect globally might offer. Digital citizenship curricula should strive to show students possibilities over problems, opportunities over risks, and community successes over personal gain. 

  3. Digital citizens need different skills than traditional citizens. So much of the digital citizenship conversation has been centered around ethics and behaviors, that we have not taken a lot of time to stop and consider the skills that digital citizens need. In the earliest days of schooling, students were taught to read and write so that they might be informed voters. They were shown workplace skills that would allow them to contribute back to society. Looking at those two concepts alone, let’s think about how much has changed in the last decade. First, reading and writing only scratch the surface of skills that people need in a day and age of the 24 hour news cycle, social media, and ease of sharing. People need to be able to  navigate their way through a steady barrage of information, determine the credible from the incredible, and synthesize ideas from text, image, video, meme, info-graphic, and even emoji! Literacy has a whole new meaning for today’s digital citizens than it did for our previous generation. And what does it mean to contribute to the digital communities we belong to? Is a “like” enough? What about throwing a few dollars at a Go Fund Me campaign? Should I be contributing as many blog posts to the educational community as I use to help spur on my own thinking? I cannot pretend to know the answers to any of these questions, but I know I wouldn’t be asking them without having had the terminology of the “digital citizen” brought to light. We still have so much work to do, and the explicitness of the language should be a reminder that today’s citizens are NOT the same citizens we were educating even a decade ago.

In closing, let’s not let the word “digital” disappear from “digital citizenship” just yet. Instead, let’s re-think what it means to be citizens of global, digital communities and start to reshape the policies, messages, curricula and educational practices instead of just the terminology.

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