The concept of citizenship as participation in a society’s civic, political and social decision making is relatively modern. At the end of the 18th century, the Constitution of the United States represented the most advanced thinking about the concept of citizenship, but the right of participation was limited to white males.
Today, participation is more commonly limited by lack of the habits of citizenship. Virtuous behavior by the citizenry is considered fundamental to a democracy because it is practically impossible for just societies that effectively provide for the common good to evolve through the rule of law alone. Virtuous behavior is learned, therefore it should be taught both in schools and in families. There are those who maintain that “education” in the sense of good manners and social graces should be taught in the family, and the schools should limit themselves to teaching math, reading, science and the other academic disciplines. The problem with this position, of course, is that many children live in families lacking in examples of virtuous behavior. So where can these kids learn it except at school? They deserve the chance to exercise their rights and responsibilities as citizens, and we don’t have the luxury of considering them disposable.
Jason Ohler (“Digital Community, Digital Citizen.” Corwin, 2010-8-31) highlights the importance of schools in teaching the habits of citizenship in modern society: “We have a fundamental question to address with regard to educating our Digital Age children. How we answer this question will determine how we plan for and implement education in the broadest sense for many years to come. In its simplest form, the question is, Should we consider students to have two lives or one? Allow me to restate this question with a bit more detail: Should we consider students to have two separate lives—a relatively digitally unplugged life at school and a digitally saturated life away from school—or should we consider them to have one life that integrates their lives as students and digital citizens?
“The “two lives” perspective contends that our students should live a traditional educational life at school, much like their parents did, and a second, digital life outside school. It says that the technology that kids use is too expensive, problematic, or distracting to integrate into teaching and learning. It says that issues concerning the personal, social, and environmental impacts of living a digital, technological lifestyle are tangential to a school curriculum. Above all, it says that kids will have to figure out how to navigate the digital world beyond school on their own and puzzle through issues of cybersafety, technological responsibility, and digital citizenship without the help of the educational system.” According to Ohler, if our answer favors the separation of student and digital lives, the consequences could be disastrous.
It has only been about ten years since a whole new level has been added to the traditional virtues of citizenship like respect, responsibility, courage, kindness, empathy, solidarity, and integrity. Due in part to their virtual, global and multicultural nature, participation in on-line communities is somewhat different from community participation in real life. For example:
- Personalized communities based on participants’ common needs and interests
- Geographical dispersion of virtual communities and belonging to many different communities at the same time
- Direct relations between persons of different nationalities, without national leaders as intermediaries
- Use of invented identities, engendering feelings of invisibility and anonymity, along with safety concerns
- Tenuous connections between action and consequences
- Greater need for learners to evaluate information sources for veracity, reliability and appropriateness
- Greater need to identify the audience and adjust the scope of communications (intimate, personal, social or public) and take great care of personal “digital footprints”. Publishing photos of a drunken escapade on social media could cost us professional opportunities later on.
- Multiple different communications formats in digital media, i.e. collage of visual, auditory and print media in addition to traditional essays. Powerpoint and Prezi presentations in addition to exams.
Students are adept at using technology to pursue their interests and entertainment preferences. Ohler thinks that “…the task of teachers is to help students connect their personal networks to global realities that have both personal significance and academic importance”. To do this, it is worthwhile to engage learners in setting the guidelines for in-school participation in virtual communities and expression of the virtuous habits of citizenship, carefully and conscientiously analyzing these and other differences between real life and virtual communities. There’s much work and learning ahead if we wish to make the role of schools relevant in developing citizenship for the modern world.