Digital Citizenship in the Dark

Summer has finally arrived here in the north, which means it must be time for me to have to stay inside too much, tapping away at the keyboard, teaching another edition of ED 654 – Digital Citizenship, etc. (AKA Nousion)

The first few weeks of the course are pretty sedate, with Nousionauts selecting and setting up their domains, installing WordPress and learning to post, outfitting their Twitter accounts, etc. But that just gives me even more time to dwell on the heart of darkness in the course: the whole troublesome concept of the retronym “digital citizenship.” What is it? Does it even exist? Does the prefix “digital” do anything useful?

Like “digital pedagogy,” I think digital citizenship, if it has any meaningful existence, is a function of the differential space between what can be done—and how we can live and be—in and amongst the digital that isn’t possible outside or deprived of it. Also like digital pedagogy, this seems more like a nice philosophical idea to muse about than one with a practical existence. Where such differentiation is being articulated, it seems firmly rooted at the safety and procedures stage of what Katia Hildebrandt and Alec Couros called Digital Citizenship 1.0.

Don’t get me wrong: citizenship is very clearly a thing beyond rules and policies. Joel Westheimer’s framework, which is a course reading, articulates just one of many ways in which citizenship can be conceived as process, agency, identity, collaboration, etc. I’ve just not seen, or figured out, anything which convinces me that the “digital” prefix is particularly useful beyond the 1.0 level.

This seems illustrated by the common conception when teaching about digital citizenship (and I use it too) that there is a kind of series, increasing in sophistication and importance, from digital skills to digital literacy to digital citizenship (with many permutations that modify the prefix—digital or web or information, oh my). But this often strikes me as categorical confusion, particularly at this model’s third stage, and beyond (fluency, anyone?) because it feels true to my experience that the divide between literacy and fluency or skills/literacy and citizenship marks a deep difference in kind.

Perhaps digital citizenship is simply useful as a term to avoid overloading those other terms, which is part of my argument for the using the phrase information fluency. But in that case I continue to feel that the difference isn’t the digital part, but the citizenship part: the part of being a passive or active, a less or more informed, a more or less visible person-in-the-world, some of which is potentially enhanced by technology, but is also often wounded by it.

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