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Digtial Citizenship: More than Ethical Behavior

If Digital Citizenship is understood to be a moral education of how to behave on the Internet, - a manners guide to social media as it were, --then educators and government are doing a terrible disservice to the children.

The idea of Digital Citizenship as a route to better conduct on the web would seem to be reasonable enough. We all want to protect children from the abuses of this new technological environment. It is clear that children and adults do write and post hurtful things on the Web without understanding the repercussions of their actions. It is always reasonable to show an expectation of moral behavior and in that schools openly promote using technology, it would seem to make sense that schools teach digital citizenship. Yet as sensational as the reports of misuse and abuse by individuals to individuals are, -and they are often most repugnant - it is wrongful to suggest that the student will be safe guarded on the Internet, or even mildly prepared to competently navigate the Internet through the teaching of morality. This is because inherent in teaching Digital Citizenship is a misleading implication that the student is in fact a "citizen" and has rights and responsibilities in a "place or space" known as the Internet. In most lessons about Digital Citizenship the individual "citizen" is portrayed as victim, persecutor and savior within the benign -level playing field- space of the Internet. But this pedagogical view of a democratic and social physical space, open to all and run by all, is a completely erroneous assumption, because the Internet is not a democratic pubic space. It is a commercial coercive environment that is becoming increasingly powerful in the ability to manipulate individuals.

As living in the Cloud, (an apt metaphor, for the dissociation of mind and body) becomes less of an option and more of a command, the Internet will soon become a utility run by an elite corporate oligarchy. Recent revelations about the NSA spying on everyone combined with Internet Providers and large corporations such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc. "sharing" (selling) their data, both secretly in collusion with government, and discretely with private enterprise, show that privacy and anonymity on the net are illusions.

The great moral and practical issues of ignoring personal freedom and liberty as defined in the American Constitution, and implied in the Canadian Charter of Rights, are little debated even though knowingly violated. Where one might expect outrage and action there seems to be only indignation and apathy, revealing a sense in the individual of fatalism or a belief in technological determinism. Many surrender to this force and in the face of such a flow of information begin to accept that their privacy can be monetized as payment for services rendered. Students in classrooms can and do write letters to government representatives about many issues that they see as affecting them, however, the issues of the internet are seldom if ever relegated to higher authority. This partly because issues of the internet are not widely recognized in educational institutions as being controllable. Who is actually responsible for the Internet after all? Given the teacher is legally charged with the care of the child, while simultaneously charged with the delivery of the curriculum, and in that they are largely untrained in, or unaware of, the systems controlling digital technology, or how that technology interacts with society and the students' physiology, it is little wonder that the reasonable answer appears to be to teach the student that it is the student's responsibility to act in a moral manner. It is convenient to ignore that the landscape is rife with ethical issues beyond the scope of the child.

Teachers who have little understanding of the mechanics and politics of the Internet really have little choice but to teach moral lessons about behavior and the "consequences" of "bad" behavior. What else can they do?

In most schools Digital Citizenship is taught as a modern myth or folk tale reminiscent of the story of "the cat in the microwave," --or was it a poodle?-- Stories with a punch but little real connection to the actuality of living in this technological age. Most teachers are left using stories of bullying and suicides or sexual explicit abuses to attempt to scare their students into some restraint. But this does little except to temporarily produce the effect that there is an evil Internet boogie-man/stalker/monster. In this manner digital citizenship is simply a moral story serving to frighten children into not venturing too far into the dark woods of the Internet. But this is to suggest, yet again, that the net is simply a substitute for a physical social community wherein all laws and regulations outside the net are in effect inside the net. By suggesting that morality will assist the student in being safe from exploitation, the teacher also implies that any trouble on the net is the result of amoral actions on the part of the student. To some degree these lessons are reminiscent of the "just say No" campaign against drugs in America. They are very simple rules of conduct, easy to espouse, easy to support and if they prove completely ineffective in preparing anyone for anything well... at least the jargon sounds good. And in the event that an individual isn't morally strong enough to "Just say no," the moral superior, the teacher or parent, or judge, gets to say, "I told you so," and wash their hands of any responsibility in the matter. A more provocative comparison would be to metaphorically suggest that the Internet is an addictive drug that is distributed in the classroom; it is easy to say, "Johny, remember don't overdose!" It is easy to tell scary stories about drug addicts, but, it does nothing to protect those susceptible to addiction. Just how many hours a day does one have to be on the internet before this strange engagement becomes a physical addiction? 3, 5, 7, 9, 22?

There is nothing inherently wrong with teaching moral behavior, indeed it is important, but ethics are ethics on the web or off. Moral behavior is important period. The issue with teaching morality rather than an understanding, or rather than choosing to control student usage of the Internet and their time on the computer, is to simplify a tumultuously complex cultural change and portray it as puerile. In doing so the teacher obscures the deeper realities inherent with communications on the web, and everyone ignores that the child may be extremely exploited, their psychology altered, and their physicality impaired, ALL regardless of the child's morality! The Internet is a complex, programmed network of computers that aid and alter the human experience.

The power of this new media affects students more deeply than those sensationalized by press and classroom dramas. Remember they and you and I will never extricate ourselves from this the force of this machine's influence. Pandora has opened the box and we need to understand the implications of this force upon our children and society. But we do not have to give in to technological determinism. We must protect the child. The stakes are very, very high. Numerous studies show that there are serious issues for student health and well-being related to computer use! Yet there seems to be a sense that somehow to curtail computer use in schools is impossible. The pressure to do nothing seems greater than the desire to do what is right for the child. We DO NOT let anyone under the age of 14 drive a car, as we recognize that it is wrongful to do so, why then must the forming human being, the child, be subjected to this ongoing force of technological disruptions? It is not enough to say, "because it is there and won't go away and they must learn it now or be left behind," as this mentality belies that there is not an iota of research that suggests not using computers in school has any negative effect upon learning, or the students future. Nor is it not enough to suggest that the student's morality will protect them from the effects of modern media.

Ultimately the citizen that does not understand the coercive nature of the Internet will lose their ability to critically evaluate reality.

Like the citizen of a corrupt Rome, they will be fed bread and circuses by an elite ruling class and they will accept that being a "good" citizen is good enough, despite that they do not have a voice in any matter, and that any form of dissidence will be punished by exile. I do not think this is the aim of our government, nor of our educational system, but it is the road that our technological decisions within the educational environment are leading us down. And it is a road promoted loudly in schools, regardless that the teachers are not receiving sufficient Professional Development to actually gain an understanding of the issues that a human faces when metaphorically entering the virtual world and regardless that government educational websites lack any deep research into how computing affects learning.

Perhaps it is not so much that it seems economical to ignore developing teachers who understand how the internet works, but rather that if people were educated they might find serious short comings in the way technology has been adopted within the school system, or they might find research that suggests that NOT all technology is developmentally appropriate for all ages of students. It might be that an educational program about the Internet might suggest that such costly adoption of technology within schools is not justified. We might ask, do kindergartens really need iPads in order to be prepared for the future? Or to put the question in a financial way, to ask; "If I took away the computers and gave your school the IT budget to spend "do you think you could find a better way to increase the abilities of the students' learning?"

If teachers do not receive valid research to assist in their understanding of why so much emphasis is put upon using technology in the classroom, it might be that the research isn't available. Teaching morality as the means for understanding the web can give the illusion of due diligence in preparing the student for using the "uncontrolled and unmonitored" Internet within a government sanctioned classroom setting. But has due diligence being executed before the purchase of billions of dollars of computer products, or is it a smoke screen to a lack of viable research? Is technology in the classroom simply a result of some technological determinism that educationalist couldn't fight against? Does it have anything to do with what is best the child?
There are so many questions that need to be addressed in order to purposefully develop a means of understanding how technology is changing our culture and affecting our children, and to develop programs that work in the best interest of the child. Where does one find the ministry's research justifying why kindergartens are given iPads? Is using technology developmentally appropriate across all grades and ages? Can the use of cell phones and laptops on wifi during pregnancy cause ADHD in children? (look it up) Can cell phones and laptop usage drastically lower sperm counts? (oh yeah) Why is there a warning to keep laptops and cell phones away 1.5 centimeters from the body? Will using a computer in the evening prevent children from sleeping? How valid is the "educational' information that is filtered by a search engine corporation that makes its income by manipulating searches? What is done with the data collected from the tracking and profiling of our students? Does the computer aid all learning? If so, how is this measured? How does the curriculum and pedagogy alter in order to take advantage of technology? And what is the objective of educational practice in the age of the digital realm? The supported view of Digital Citizenship as moral behavior does not begin to address such questions, nor does it recognize that the student is the least capable of gaining authority over a system that is commercialized towards the buying and selling of their personal interactions.

In my experience anyone who starts to look into computerized teaching and how children are physically and emotionally affected by computers soon moves away from stories of stalkers and moral behavior to the much more perplexing and troubling questions about the commercial technology environment, like asking who owns it, who runs it, what tracking and profiling do to personal freedom, and how student's physiology is altered through the experience of gaming? When one is educated in how the Internet works, one develops many other rich and real questions that might give insight into the real stakes our culture faces from this technological force.