Learning on and off-line civics
Whenever I taught civics, I repeatedly told my classes that I would measure my success as a teacher on how many of them were voting in elections in five years. Of course, I had no way to measure this, but it was one of my most concrete goals of teaching a civics course.
This was my definition of active citizenship. It was based on an earlier definition of citizenship, before I had fully integrated the lessons from Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat into my classroom. While globalization has made the world flat, it is really technology I see as having expanded the definition of active citizenship and the opportunities to engage in citizenship.
This wider sense of citizenship has impacted my teaching, causing me to focus more deliberately on transferrable skills – skills students can use in my class, and in other classes, at work, on the sports field, during a performance, and in most parts of their lives.
I want my students to engage with other people around pressing challenges. I want them to be able to articulate their opinion and listen to those who disagree with them. I want them to collaborate with many people to conceive of and execute original solutions to the myriad challenges facing the world. I want them to get out of their seat and make the world a better place.
This demands students become active citizens on- and offline.
In my World History 2 class, students work on developing skills to engage as citizens and problem solvers. One project that is particularly focused on digital – and non-digital – citizenship skills is when we study the effects of imperialism. In it, students choose a country in Africa and determine the current state of the country, what is going well, and what specific challenges face the country.
The students must delve into primary and secondary sources, histories and news articles to understand their country and the legacy of imperialism. In doing so, they are practicing many of the skills that will make them productive citizens in their class and beyond.
Students must sift through sources, reading them carefully. Because anyone can be a publisher now, students look critically at their sources, determining bias and reliability in sources as they establish the “truth” of the situation. And, they cite their sources (for just as stealing from a store offline is not right, stealing online which is so much easier, is also wrong).
Beyond these skills, the project asks students to put themselves in the shoes of people living with the legacy of imperialism to design solutions. Developing empathy for others can be challenging, but by using digital tools to connect with others in the country and talking with classmates students are able to make the leap from their world in Rutland, Vermont, across the Atlantic Ocean to a wholly different context. The students and groups who are most able to empathize with the local population devise the most original solutions to challenges that are then shared with stakeholders in the country.
While this work does not focus on digital citizenship, it allows them to see the online world as a way to investigate the world, collaborate with others who have different life experiences, and together create solutions to problems. They are beginning to add to the digital world and utilize it to imagine solutions to problems as disparate as distribution of malaria nets and Libyan prison security.
Students build these foundational, essential skills in my World History 2 class and use them in a deeper way if they choose to enroll in the Global Studies Capstone class. The class asks students to spend three-quarters of the year researching and taking action on a global challenge. I was fortunate to design and teach this class in its inaugural year (2013-14).
From the outset, the students were asked move beyond information consumers and to begin contributing to the digital community. They kept research blogs that discussed the information they were finding, how they were locating sources, whether they were reliable sources, and asking questions about what they discovered. They catalogued their sources online and were using digital tools in new ways each week when we met and discussed their work.
While some students were still developing as digital citizens and global problem solvers, some students used technology to push themselves and their communities further envisioning new solutions to local and global challenges.
Melanie’s project perhaps best exemplifies the intersection of digital citizenship and citizenship in general. She began her project looking at social media and its influence on high school students today, but as she continued her research she read the news of a local high school girl who was bullied online and committed suicide. A victim of cyber-bullying herself, Melanie was compelled by this story to turn towards actions to ameliorate cyber-bullying at Rutland High School and other local schools.
Her website has a compilation of sources on how to avoid cyber-bullying and how to report it when it occurred on various social media platforms. She listed stories about the effects of cyber-bullying, and when there was new information she uses Twitter to share the information with anyone following her – from local to national individuals.
While she used these digital tools and engaged the online community in the fight to end cyber-bullying, she also worked offline to spread her message and ensure it continued beyond her graduation. In speaking with younger students around Rutland and working with peers at RHS, she created a club that not only endures but was able to shape the dialogue about cyber-bullying that the club’s efforts were covered by news media across the US and in Australia and were lauded by Governor Shumlin, Senators Leahy and Sanders, and Representative Welch among others.
Melanie’s efforts and work not only demonstrated her digital citizenship but her citizenship and inspired others to join her to improve their school and local community.
We know that our students’ lives, just as our own lives, are increasingly online as well as on terra firma. To be successful both online and in offline, we need the same skills and dispositions. We need to be teaching students knowing they will need the skills of thoughtful reading, clear communication, collaboration, empathy, creativity, and taking action. I used to hope that my students would always vote. I still hope this, but I know that they need to be more than just voters.
We need all of our students to be a Melanie, for the challenges facing our democratic society – both online and off – and our planet are too great to leave it to chance.