—Sofia Ranchordas, University of Groningen
[Editor’s note: This is one of our biweekly I-CONnect columns. For more information about our four columnists for 2020, please click here.]
Over the past several decades, public administrations, universities, and schools have been debating whether and how to automate administrative procedures and invest in remote learning and working. In a matter of days, the impossible happened. In the months of February and March, schools and universities throughout the world were required to shift classes online, government buildings closed their doors, and citizens were asked to use online portals as much as possible to apply for any permits, requests, and report any situations in need of attention. At first sight, the spread of COVID-19 has appeared to put an end to several hesitations regarding the shift to online teaching, remote working, and the advancement of digital government. Strangely enough, this shift appears to be working, particularly for individuals who do not have homeschooling obligations and enjoy the peace and quiet of their homes. However, a closer look at this situation shows that the rapid digitalization of public services (including health and education) is leaving out a growing number of citizens. Remote learning and working are privileges that are designed for so-called ‘digital citizens’, that is, individuals who can fully engage with technology from an educational, political, and participatory perspective. Nevertheless, many individuals do not yet identify themselves as digital citizens and are not even acquainted with the meaning and implications of this concept.
In my previous blogpost, I introduced the problem of digital exclusion, its impact on the exercise of fundamental rights, and the importance of adopting more inclusive and flexible approaches to digital government. In this blogpost, I delve into the varying dimensions of digital citizenship as this concept plays a crucial role in the analysis of digital inequalities and digital rights.
The concept of ‘digital citizenship’ refers to the ability to use the Internet regularly in a skilled, critical, and secure way. The different strands of recent scholarship on digital citizenship have discussed the dimensions of this concept and the implications of its complexity for the design of public services. This blogpost focuses on the educational or digital skills dimension.
Digital Citizenship and Education
The position of individuals within the educational system is the first dimension of digital citizenship. According to UNESCO, ‘digital citizenship is a set of skills that enables citizens to access, retrieve, understand, evaluate and use, to create as well as to share information and media in all formats, using several tools, in a critical, ethical and effective way to participate and engage in personal, professional and social activities”. The promotion of education programmes that uphold norms of appropriate and responsible behavior regarding the use of digital technology and seek to guarantee that children, parents, and educators engage with ICT in a secure and privacy-friendly have been prioritized in the educational setting. A number of civil society organizations also seek to prepare children and adolescents for digital citizenship and try to make them aware of their digital rights, familiarizing individuals with technological innovations and their implications and making them aware of their right to privacy.
Digital citizenship assumes first of all access to Internet bandwidth and basic digital skills. However, basic access to the Internet through a mobile device is not sufficient to allow citizens to fully engage with online courses. Digital citizenship requires training in the adequate use of digital technology, a good Internet connection, and access to more than just a mobile device. The lack of digital citizenship competences at a time when education is only being provided online can thus endanger citizens’ right to education and right to equal treatment. With the closure of schools in 185 countries, UNESCO estimates that girls will be the most affected group. For school-age children, schools are still safe places where social engagement, future economic opportunities, nutrition, and hygiene are provided. While in many of these countries remote learning is not fully operational, in those where it is, distance learning is not available to the most vulnerable families that do not have access to a computer or do not have the skills to support their children with the required homeschooling.
The rapid transition to remote learning has also revealed that many teachers and university lecturers are not yet digital citizens. Like many colleagues throughout the world, I am currently teaching remotely and I offer my students a mix of recorded and ‘live’ classes. While I try to adapt my teaching methods to online education and my students are incredibly gracious, I am fully aware that I am not trained to teach remotely. I am mostly providing an online version of my classes and I feel that my courses would be more effective if I would have the time and skills to turn my recordings into appealing videos with different types of special effects. Exceptional circumstances require sacrifices, but I wonder how I would feel if I had lower digital literacy skills, limited broadband access, or inadequate conditions to record my online classes at home. Most universities did not have the time or resources to make a full shift to online education or to support their academics and student communities accordingly. I am also uncertain whether university administrations are aware of the number of students and staff members who currently feel excluded and overwhelmed by remote learning. In other words, the digitalization of teaching requires that both educators and students be digital citizens who have the capacity to connect online, have sufficient skills and thorough proficiency in the use of computers and other Web-accessible devices so that they engage critically and competently with both private and public organizations online. As many Western countries have started easing their lockdown measures and schools in Europe are slowly reopening, public authorities should draw some lessons from this sudden shift to remote learning and reflect on the need to ensure that all citizens can be digital citizens within a reasonable period of time. This can include increasing the number of courses on digital literacy and digital citizenship, finding social-distancing alternatives for individuals without stable Internet access, and designing more user-friendly platforms or providing assistance to citizens who are less willing or able to uptake digital technology.
Digital Citizenship: Participation and Empowerment
The second dimension of digital citizenship refers to the ability of citizens to use digital technology to participate in society from a democratic and economic perspective. Digital citizenship is seen in this context as a fundamental concept for modern democracies where digital technology is a source of empowerment that provides individuals with new tools to be heard, develop new businesses, and participate in the information society within and beyond traditional citizenship arrangements. In 2014, Neelie Kroes brought the two perspectives together, defining digital citizens as “people with greater access to information, people empowered to shape the world around them. More able to learn and participate.”. According to this perspective, digital citizens are viewed as those who are able to take advantage of the potential of new technology in a digital environment, connect with government online, and make use of digital services. Moreover, digital citizens are also aware of the rights associated with the digital environment (for example, public information access and personal data protection rights).
Digital Citizenship beyond the State
Unlike traditional citizenship, the concept of ‘digital citizen’ is not defined as a form of membership of a nation-state. Instead, more theoretical scholarship on this issue claims that digital citizens acquire this status through their performance in cyberspace and the exercise of their digital rights (for example, by participating in online discussions). The concept of digital citizenship is thus not limited to the analysis of the digital tools that have been designed to enhance democratic participation (for example, e-voting, smartphone applications to report incidents and provide feedback to public authorities). Instead, digital citizenship may include individuals who would not be entitled to citizenship in a particular state and provides a set of rights that can be exercised in a wider civic culture and information society. A recent example of this new perception of digital citizenship and resulting digital rights has been associated with the Estonian e-residency scheme, which allows individuals of any nationality to establish their businesses in this Baltic country. E-residency generates a digital identity and status to selected digital entrepreneurs which provides access to Estonia’s digital business environment. This scheme offers a transnational digital identity that “anyone in the world can apply for to obtain access to a platform built on inclusion, legitimacy and transparency. E-residents then have access to the EU business environment and can use public e-services through their digital identity.” According to the Estonian government, the primary reason why e-residents are joining this community is to run a trusted location-independent EU business online with all the tools needed to conduct business globally. Drawing on this idea, Liav Orgad has suggested that blockchain-based digital identities do not replace traditional citizenship but rather reflect the multidimensional nature of citizenship in the digital age, and thus change the way in which “people think about sovereignty, and challenge the definition of the state as we know it – as a legal entity that must have a physical territory.” While this optimistic view of digital citizenship resonates with the burgeoning literature on the topic, it is important to ask once again whether digital citizenship will be primarily available to educated and digitally literate individuals that can already exercise their rights. Digital citizenship may empower individuals that are already vocal enough (in the broadest sense of the word) to express their views and participate in society, but may not yet be accessible to the most vulnerable members of our society.
Conclusion: Digital Citizenship and Exclusion
Traditional narratives on citizenship focus on inclusion, identity, rights, and empowerment. Digital citizenship attempts to do the same by placing particular importance on education and online engagement. Nevertheless, recent literature on both concepts has shown us that both digital and analog forms of citizenship define individuals by virtue of exclusion. At a time when public services (including schools) are closed down or very slowly awakening from weeks or months of remote work, it is important to start drawing lessons on digital citizenship. The availability of remote learning and working cannot be taken for granted and online public services cannot be thought only with digital citizens in mind. Rather, the focus on digital services is deepening the digital divide between digital citizens and non-digital citizens. This digital exclusion primarily affects the most vulnerable individuals in our societies and takes us back to the Ancient Greek perception of citizenship. While the times and eligibility criteria have significantly changed, it is highly likely that the citizens that nowadays are not digital citizens, would also not have been ‘citizens’ in the exclusive Ancient Greek polis (for example, women, migrants, underrepresented minorities). Access to the ‘club of digital citizens’ remains an exclusive privilege that cannot yet be solved by Zoom, Blackboard, WebEx or Microsoft.
Suggested citation: Sofia Ranchordas, We Teach and Learn Online. Are We All Digital Citizens Now? Lessons on Digital Citizenship from the Lockdown, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, May 13, 2020, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2020/05/we-teach-and-learn-online-are-we-all-digital-citizens-now-lessons-on-digital-citizenship-from-the-lockdown/