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Embracing the Digital in Democratic Citizenship Education

by Janette Hughes, Jennifer A. Robb & Molly Gadanidis

We are more connected to the world than we’ve ever been. Globalization and increasingly affordable digital technologies have diversified the communities we engage in, both on- and offline. This is exceedingly true for youth, most of whom own or have regular access to a smartphone[1],[2] and participate daily in digital spaces.[3] While these developments have created countless opportunities for youth to express themselves, make new friends, and learn in ways that have only recently become possible, their newly established membership of the global community requires a dynamic set of knowledge, skills, and attitudes that can help them navigate the complexities of an interconnected world.

Schools around the world have implemented various forms of citizenship education with the goal of preparing students to be productive, responsible, and ethical members of society. These approaches generally take one of three forms:

  • Global citizenship: “The social, environmental, and economic actions taken by individuals and communities who recognise that every person is a citizen of the world.”[4]
  • Democratic citizenship: “Equipping learners with knowledge, skills and understanding and developing their attitudes and behaviour, to empower them to exercise and defend their democratic rights and responsibilities in society, to value diversity and to play an active part in democratic life.”[5]
  • Digital citizenship: “Thinking critically, behaving safely, and participating responsibly in the digital world.”[6]

Increasing visibility of social inequities and political unrest around the world have led to the development of hybrid models of citizenship education designed to address the intersections of global, democratic, and digital citizenship, including the Council of Europe’s Digital Citizenship Education Handbook[7]. However, an effective balance has yet to be struck. Toward Democrat’s goal of preparing students to “understand and intervene in the social conditions and political-economic processes that they face,”[8] we recognize the need for innovative approaches to citizenship education that benefit from, integrate, and adapt to emerging technologies.

 

In their conceptual framework for responsible democratic citizenship, Democrat8 outlines three core competencies of democratic behaviour: participation, deliberation, and critical commitment. For each of these competencies, we present examples of the kinds of knowledge, skills, and attitudes learners should demonstrate as effective global democratic digital citizens.

Participation: Using technology to benefit communities through democracy

The internet — social media, in particular — has become a platform for learning about and participating in discussions related to civic and political issues at the local, national, and global level.[9] Youth also regularly leverage digital media for political and social activism,9 including environmental stewardship.[10] Although youth are often excluded from physical democratic spaces,[11] technology enables their participation across geographical boundaries and through multiple modes of communication. 

  • Knowledge: Understanding the short- and long-term impact of my actions related to global and digital living and working online.
  • Skills: Developing empowerment for genuine participation.
  • Attitudes: Fostering compassion and empathy for those we interact with online.

Participation: Embracing diversity, equity, and inclusion online

Pluralism — coexistence of different religions, cultures, ethnicities, etc. — is a key value of liberal democracy.[12] While early models of citizenship emphasized individual accountability, a focus on equity, diversity, and inclusion emphasizes the importance of intercultural awareness and competence. With the recent explosion of accessible artificial intelligence (AI) models, youth are recognizing and challenging the obvious biases that exist in common AI algorithms, such as social media recommendation engines.[13]

  • Knowledge: Understanding the importance of cultural diversity, and differing beliefs, worldviews, and practices.
  • Skills: Discouraging and reporting inappropriate behaviour toward others online; conflict resolution skills.
  • Attitudes: Respect, openness, and care for the ideals and beliefs of others.

Deliberation: Leveraging digital platforms to make your voice heard

Formulating and communicating opinions and participation in public debate are key characteristics of global democratic citizenship.12,[14] Technology provides access to a broader scope of information, enabling youth to influence and participate in events from all over the world. Moreover, technological affordances such as livestreaming and long-form recording enable young people to share stories and versions of events that may otherwise be suppressed by traditional media.[15]

  • Knowledge: Understanding the importance of engaging in public political debate online.
  • Skills: Communicating and interacting effectively with others online.
  • Attitudes: Realizing that we are all responsible for what happens in our global community.

Critical Commitment: Engaging in responsible and critical democratic behaviour online

The internet enables anyone to be an author, regardless of their truthfulness or intent. Global democratic digital citizens have a responsibility to critically evaluate digital media and avoid perpetuating mis- and disinformation.[16]

  • Knowledge: Understanding the importance of acting democratically and responsibly in digital environments.
  • Skills: Combating hate and discrimination online through critical media literacy.
  • Attitudes: Valuing individual and collective responsibility, democracy, justice, equity, human dignity, and human rights.

Overcoming the challenges recently posed to pluralistic liberal democracies necessitates the development of sustainable democratic behaviours and characteristics.8 The knowledge, skills, and attitudes that learners today need to be active participants in global society are increasingly mediated by digital technologies, so democratic and global citizenship frameworks need to be presented within the context of digital life and learning.

Full manuscript in preparation.


[1] Anderson, A., & Jiang, J. (2018, May 31). Teens, social media and technology 2018. Pew Research Center. https://pewrsr.ch/2kCW352

[2] Statistics Canada. (2021). Smartphone personal use and selected smartphone habits by gender and age group. https://doi.org/10.25318/2210014301-eng

[3] Eurostat. (2023b, May 22). Being young in Europe today – digital world. https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php?title=Being_young_in_Europe_today_-_digital_world

[4] Oxfam. (n.d.). What is global citizenship? https://www.oxfam.org.uk/education/who-we-are/what-is-global-citizenship/

[5] Council of Europe. (2010). Charter on education for democratic citizenship and human rights education: Recommendation CM/Rec (2010)7 and explanatory memorandum. Council of Europe Publishing. https://www.coe.int/en/web/edc/charter-on-education-for-democratic-citizenship-and-human-rights-education

[6] Vega, V., & Robb, M. B. (2019). The Common Sense census: Inside the 21st-century classroom. Common Sense Media.

[7] Richardson, J., & Milovidov, E. (2022). Digital citizenship education handbook: Being online, well-being online, rights online. Council of Europe Publishing. https://www.coe.int/en/web/digital-citizenship-education/-/2022-edition-of-the-digital-citizenship-education-handbook

[8] Democrat. (2023). Conceptual framework and vision: Responsible democratic citizenship and education for democracy. [Manuscript in preparation].

[9] ​Gennaro, S. & Miller, B. (Eds.). (2021). Young people and social media: Contemporary children’s digital culture. Vernon Press.

[10] ​Buchanan, J., Pressick-Kilborn, K., & Maher, D. (2019). Promoting environmental education for primary school-aged students using digital technologies. Eurasia Journal of Mathematics, Science and Technology Education, 15(2). https://doi.org/10.29333/ejmste/100639

[11] Biesta, G. J. J. (2011). Learning democracy in school and society: Education, lifelong learning, and the politics of citizenship. Sense Publishers.

[12] Parker, W. C. (2008). Knowing and doing in democratic citizenship education. In L. S. Levstik & C. A. Tyson (Eds.), Handbook of research in social studies education (pp. 65-80). Routledge.

[13] Lamb, E. (2019, January 31). Even kids can understand that algorithms can be biased. Scientific American. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/roots-of-unity/even-kids-can-understand-that-algorithms-can-be-biased/

[14] Straume, I. S. (2016). Democracy, education and the need for politics. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 35(1), 29–45. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11217-015-9465-4   

[15] ​Laffier, J., Gadanidis, M. & Hughes, J. (2021). Youth’s relationship with social media: Identity formation through self-expression and activism. In S. ​Gennaro & B. Miller (Eds.), Young people and social media: Contemporary children’s digital culture (pp. 91-107). Vernon Press.

[16] LaGarde, J., & Hudgins, D. (2018). Fact vs. fiction: Teaching critical thinking skills in the age of fake news. ISTE.


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