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21st Century Skills | Feature

John Q. Netizen

Educators debate what it means to be a digital citizen, and how higher education should prepare students to assume the mantle of citizenship.

Thanks to technology, the last 15 years have witnessed change on a scale unknown since the Industrial Revolution. Instant access to unlimited information--and the ability to share it with anyone, anywhere, anytime--has altered the world forever. On that, most educators agree. It's also where the consensus stops. Even as their students step into this brave wired world, there is surprisingly little agreement among faculty about what new skills students should possess--or how best to develop them.

This fragmentation extends beyond higher education. Ask a K-12 educator to define digital citizenship and you'll probably hear a tech-era equivalent of Miss Manners: Good digital citizens don't engage in cyberbullying, don't give out too much personal information, and don't post crazy videos on YouTube that will haunt them during college interviews.

In many ways, such proscriptions are a natural reaction to rapidly evolving cultural issues: As the playground spills online, there is a need for a recess monitor. By the time students get to college, however, digital citizenship has less to do with safety and civility than with intellectual inquiry itself.

At the heart of the whole debate is information. Everyone has heard the vaguely apocalyptic statistic that the amount of information in the world doubles every few days. As misleading as such numbers are, they do highlight a greater truth: In just a few years, we have progressed from a situation where students labored to find enough information to where they are drowning in the stuff.

For many faculty, the ability to navigate effectively through this sea of information is the mark of a digital citizen. "Digital citizens are individuals who intuitively understand that high quality information is easily available, either freely or for a fee, and who bristle when information that is public is hidden or not available in a digital form," says Gerry McCartney, professor of information technology and CIO at Purdue University (IN). "Digital citizens are not necessarily individuals with advanced technical skills, but instead are people who are comfortable using technology as a tool to accomplish their work. These individuals often use a search engine as a browser, but are skeptical of much of the information that is presented in the search results."

But how many students actually fit this description? "Too often, faculty members assume that, because students are very comfortable using technology, they are also well prepared to be digital citizens," notes Dave Berque, professor of computer science at DePauw University (IN). "But this is like assuming that students who can type 60 words per minute are well prepared to write meaningful texts. As a first step toward improving our ability to help students become effective digital citizens, we need to recognize the distinction between being comfortable using digital tools and understanding the implications of using these tools."

There is disagreement among educators, however, on whether today's higher ed institutions are even in a position to teach these implications. "Universities and colleges are built on many of the same ideas and values that would define a digital citizen," says McCartney, who believes that today's higher ed institutions are "spectacularly well equipped to create and nurture [digital citizens]. Universities are built on the premise of transparent and easy access to information; on comprehending that there are both credible and non-credible sources of information; on the understanding that solutions and knowledge exist and can be discovered with effort; and on the agreement that discourse about radically different views and opinions can and should take place in a civil manner."

But not everyone is convinced that the university tradition of academic inquiry is sufficient to ensure that students master what could be considered a whole new set of skills. "Using a search engine is deceptively simple," notes Alexander Halavais, associate professor of communications at Quinnipiac University (CT). "Developing good Google-fu is not something that just happens--it requires good examples and a lot of practice."

Halavais argues that this kind of "sustained assault" can happen in small liberal arts colleges, but that it's much more challenging--and rare--in large university settings. The problem, he asserts, is compounded by a lack of urgency among the higher ed community. "Many faculty, more administrators, and most students are convinced that the youth own the digital world, and that they are already the experts in anything digital," Halavais says. "I think this is a deeply flawed assumption."

According to Halavais, this assumption, coupled with large course sizes at many schools, leads to an unfortunate result: "Most students learn that the internet is best used as a source of distraction, and are good at guessing at multiple choices, but markedly less good at constructing a cohesive argument, considering alternatives, and assembling evidence to support their position."

If students are to improve their ability in these areas, adds Kristi Shaw, assistant professor of education at Marian University (IN), the necessary digital skills should not be taught as stand-alone components. The technology must "permeate all content areas and into the campus community," she says. And educators and administrators must model proper use of technology tools and encourage collaboration among students, faculty, and staff.

The Role of Critical Thinking
It's a strange phenomenon. Question educators about what it takes to be a digital citizen and the answers sound a lot like a traditional liberal arts education: Teach kids how to think and they can figure it out.

"The core digital skill is not digital at all," says Alexander Halavais, associate professor of communications at Quinnipiac University (CT). "It's critical thinking. That may seem obvious, but many see the key digital mode of interaction to be the remix: taking stuff and putting it together in interesting ways. I think this is an important skill to have, but many students seem to lack the ability to assess information, to recognize what an assertion is, and to use evidence effectively."

In a world where information is everywhere, the advantage would seem to lie with those students who know how to evaluate it critically, regardless of whether those skills were learned in the classics department or in engineering.

"The essential digital skill is rationality," continues Halavais. "With that comes what [communication media guru] Howard Rheingold has referred to as bullshit detection. When he teaches his course at Stanford University (CA), detecting bullshit scores a fairly prominent place on the curriculum. I don't have to tell you what the alternative is: a world in which the mere assertion that our president is foreign-born or that climate change is a scientific controversy is enough for large swaths of voters to make poor decisions."

Not so fast, says Michael Wesch, associate professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University. When it comes to the digital world, he contends that critical thinking skills are not enough if you don't know how to speak the language. Just as a philosophy student will falter when presented with an advanced mathematical formula, so too will students in the online world who don't understand its underlying structures.

"In the digital world, critical thinking helps you filter the things that are coming at you," says Wesch, "but you also need skills that help you find and sort information, and ultimately, create your own platforms. Whether you believe that students need to become 'digital citizens,' or great global entrepreneurs, or whatever it might be, they really do have to understand this stuff. They need to be able to navigate the digital world and use all of these different technologies fluently. And we, as educators, need to give students the courage and the curiosity to become something like intentional learners, people who will go out and find new things and make new connections. That's part of digital citizenship as well--maybe the most important part."

Consumers and Creators
While educators agree on the importance of students being able to evaluate information critically, some feel this should be the bare minimum of what is expected of a digital citizen.

"This notion of digital citizenship is no longer about the old questions about the quality of sources," says Michael Wesch, associate professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University. "We've been asking those questions forever. And it's not about what we used to call 'netiquette' or computer literacy. Or even critical thinking."

A researcher in the modern discipline of digital ethnography, Wesch is well known for a video, entitled "The Machine Is Us/ing Us," which became a YouTube sensation in 2007. In his view, digital citizenship should reflect the very attributes implied in its name: a sense of belonging and a responsibility to participate.

"We have to recognize in our society that the new media we see in our environment are not just new means of communication, not just tools," he said in a recent speech. "Media change what can be said, how it can be said, who can say it, who can hear it, and what messages will count as information and knowledge." For Wesch, digital citizens cannot afford to be bystanders in this new world--they must be active participants in shaping the information around them.

Susan Metros, deputy CIO for technology-enhanced learning and professor of visual design and clinical education at the University of Southern California, doesn't like the term "digital citizenship" (she prefers "visual literacy"), but she shares Wesch's contention that higher ed has a responsibility to produce graduates who are both discriminating consumers of online content and responsible content creators.

"The definition of visual literacy, which isn't new, is the ability to look at something and understand it," she says. "But now you have to be able to make something. It's about both decoding and encoding. We have to teach people how to do that, and give them not only the skills but the theory behind it and the context."

Wesch sees enormous value in students learning the theory behind it all. In a digital world where everything is interconnected, where hyperlinks bounce users among content, and search engines use advanced formulas to determine content rankings, he feels students need to understand the machinery under the hood.

"The newer, more interesting questions that are unique to the digital world revolve around things like algorithms," he explains. "When my students are freshmen, I try to get them familiar with the digital space in a new way, to begin to give them a sense that what they're seeing on the screen is encoded. I want them to get a peek behind the curtain. By the time they're seniors, my hope is that they not only see those structures, but start to manipulate them and put things together in new ways."

Interestingly, Wesch sees the traditional university setup as an impediment to achieving these goals. "Our schools are still generally organized around answers, rather than questions. If we organized around real questions that research teams were actually trying to answer, our students would immediately have to get really good at all the things we want them to be good at. This includes everything from finding, sorting, and analyzing information to collaborating effectively, and ultimately scaling all the way up to creating the platforms on which collaboration can flourish. What's so disheartening is that it's very achievable. If you organized a school around that goal, you'd get to it in four years."

Wesch is trying to walk the walk. He's an active developer of innovative teaching techniques, including the World Simulation project, which is the centerpiece of KSU's Introduction to Cultural Anthropology course. On his Mediated Cultures website, Wesch describes the project as "a radical experiment in learning, created in a fit of frustration with the large lecture hall format which seems inevitable in a classroom of 200-400 students."

"I think one of the big missed opportunities [in higher ed] is that so few students are learning how easy it is to create their own tools," Wesch says. "Let's say you're solving some simple problem, like how to make a team work. You have 10 people working on a project together, and you start exploring your options. You think about setting up a group blog, or a wiki, or maybe Google Docs. But none of these works that well for your team, so you start to list the things that would work. And that's when you discover that you can take a few widgets from here, a few components from there, and create your own collaboration platform. In that moment, you are creating the environment in which a creative society will flourish."

Veteran educators, with memories of slumbering students in the back row, may look askance at Wesch's ambitions of having non-tech students create digital platforms for collaboration. And Wesch himself admits that he's setting what many might see as a high bar for digital citizenship.

"I'm not saying that every student should become a developer," he advises. "I am saying that every student should know enough to be able to talk to a developer. They should be able to imagine the limits and the possibilities of the digital space, and be able to go to a developer and say, 'I want this and this to happen.'"

For that to be possible, Wesch believes that significant portions of the university curriculum need to change, with digital skills becoming part of the core requirements. "You have to start looking at things that are required across the whole university," he explains. "At KS, for example, it's writing 101 and 102, and a speech class that are required. The kinds of things we're talking about in digital citizenship are at the level of writing and speaking. This is how we communicate now. It shouldn't be its own discipline, so that only the media studies or journalism kids learn how to do this stuff. The challenge here is that it's not just a skill set, but a way of approaching the world that you are trying to instill. It almost requires some sort of transformational learning experience."

Collaboration and the Digital Citizen
Michael Wesch, associate professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University, feels that universities have to switch gears from an academic culture predicated on dispensing the answers to one that focuses on posing questions. For his classes, he works with students to frame questions to which no one in the class--including himself--knows the answer. These questions then provide the springboard for broad exploration, research, and analysis. It also puts a premium on collaboration, not just within the class but across disciplines. After all, no one can be sure where the question will lead students. And it's here that the traditional university structure becomes an impediment in the eyes of some educators.

"Our biggest challenge is not technology mastery or outcomes assessment or all of the things we tend to look at," says Gary Brown, director of the Center for Online Learning at Portland State University (OR). "The biggest challenge we have in higher ed is our inability to collaborate effectively. We are, both by disposition and the structures of our institutions, disinclined to work together. And we are rewarded as individuals and for our individual work."

Brown has been in his current position for about five months, during which time he has worked to build a structure of incentives that reward programs that collaborate, with the goal of "quality in hybrid and online courses that engage community."

"We need to start finding ways in our universities to recognize departments, not individuals," adds Brown. "And that includes departments that are collaborating across the boundaries of our disciplines."

Wesch agrees. "The problem is that so much of the structure and administration is encumbered by the silo effect that is fragmenting the university," he notes. "Even when it occupies a shared space, there's not much sharing going on. Getting to where we need to be might not take much structural change, but something more cultural. If you can somehow inspire a culture of sharing and collaboration, that might do it."

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