What does it mean to be a Digital Citizen?

Over the past few weeks, I have been reviewing the work of Marc Prensky (originator of the Digital Native–Digital Immigrant paradigm) and Michael Wesch (originator of the Ed Parkour concept), and of course, since that review is taking place in a digital environment, there have been many side paths to strike out on.

Clearly, the conversation has moved on from the digital native / digital immigrant discussion that began over a decade ago.  Today, Prensky speaks of moving digital natives towards digital wisdom, and Wesch talks about moving beyond critical thinking to digital literacy and digital citizenship.

But what, exactly, does it mean to be digitally literate?  What does a digital citizen look like?

Hmmm… where might be the first place one would look to find a definition of digital literacy?  Does one need to already be digitally literate to understand the phrase, “google it”?  Or to not be surprised that when we do google it, the first entry to appear is Wikipedia?

Wikipedia defines digital literacy as the ability to locate, organize, understand, evaluate, and analyze information using digital technology. It involves a working knowledge of current high-technology, and an understanding of how it can be used. Further, digital literacy involves a consciousness of the technological forces that affect culture and human behavior…  Digital literacy encompasses all digital devices, such as computer hardware, software (particularly those used most frequently by businesses), the Internet, and cell phones. A person using these skills to interact with society may be called a digital citizen.

Digital literacy skills include:

  • digital writing, which includes an understanding of how different writing spaces affect the meaning, audience, and readability of a text, as well as the use of hypertext to explore information in a non-linear fashion.  It requires the ability to make decisions about which links to include and which to leave out.
  • the ability to critically evaluate online content; to recognize and not be taken in by scams such as online hoaxes, photo manipulation, email frauds and phishing; to be protected from online dangers such as identity theft.

One does not have to be a digital native to be digitally literate, and, in fact, many digital natives (perhaps even the majority of them) are not digitally literate.  Research suggests that the operational dimension of digital literacy (such as the ability to move rapidly through hypertext and familiarity with a variety of online resources) is high among the digital native generation, but many lack the skills to critically evaluate the content they locate (Gui and Argentin, 2011). As Mike Wesch has found in surveying his classes at Kansas State University, most college age students know how to entertain themselves with digital tools, but few of them have the skills to educate themselves at a level that will allow them to problem solve and take part in the creation of new knowledge.

The Wikipedia article notes that a digital divide exists between

  • those who apply critical thinking to technology and those who do not
  • those who create digital content and those who merely consume it

To be a digital citizen, one has to do more than simply gain the skills; one must use the skills to create a digital identity, form a social network, and have a voice online.  If we follow the digital citizen hyperlink, we find that digital citizen commonly refers to a person utilizing information technology (IT) in order to engage in society, politics, and government participation.

Most of us today, whether we be digital native or immigrant, have at least the beginnings of a digital identity: we exchange email and text messages; know how to make a purchase online; have a Facebook, LinkedIn, or Flickr account and know how to post a picture online.  But these are only the beginnings of digital citizenship. Mike Wesch contends that “In many ways, what is passing for technology education is doing education with technology.” We are not yet teaching students how to really use the technology to further their own development.  We need to redefine literacy and move beyond critical thinking to creative thinking and fuller participation in the world.

Marc Prensky says, “Rather than trying to insert knowledge into our kids’ heads, as in the past (and then to measure how much of it got there), today’s teachers need to find ways to create 21st century citizens (and workers) who parrot less and think more.  This requires fully integrating into our teaching ‘meta’ skills like critical thinking, problem solving, video and programming, just as we now integrate reading and writing.”

Mike Ribble, who served as the Instructional Services Coordinator at Kansas State University from 2002-2006 before turning to educational consultation, developed a website dedicated to the concept of Digital Citizenship and has identified nine elements:

  • Access – allowing for full participation
  • Commerce – skills and knowledge to safely engage in e-commerce
  • Communication – ability to communicate and collaborate electronically, as well as to make appropriate decisions when faced with a myriad of digital communication options
  • Literacy – searching and processing skills; ability to learn new technologies quickly and appropriately
  • Law – understanding and abiding by the laws related to plagiarizing, sending spam, piracy/theft, hacking, etc.
  • Rights & Responsibilities – understanding the basic rights to privacy, free speech, etc. that extent to every digital citizen, as well as the responsibilities to use the technology in an appropriate manner
  • Health & Wellness – understanding how to protect oneself physically through sound ergonomic practices, as well as psychologically from dangers such as Internet addition
  • Security – the ability to protect oneself from digital dangers and criminals (i.e. virus protection, data back-up, surge control)

Digital literacy and citizenship don’t happen overnight; they don’t happen by osmosis.  As Wesch has discussed, they take years to develop.  We can’t just look at a list of things we need to know; it’s not a unit we can complete for an exam; we have to get engaged and practice.

Is it worth our time and energy to become digital citizens?  Obviously, that’s a question each of us has to answer for ourselves.  For me, the answer is YES!

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One thought on “What does it mean to be a Digital Citizen?

  1. Pingback: Speaking about Technology… « Craig's Tech Blog

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