Digital citizenship, the ‘lived curriculum': Part 1

Have you ever heard of taking a cooking class that didn’t include a kitchen or learning how to swim in a classroom not a pool? It can be helpful to watch instructional videos on YouTube, but mastery of anything usually requires practice with the tools and within the context of whatever a person wants to master. Especially digital citizenship. But students are being taught this “subject” largely in the abstract – without much, if any, practice in digital environments.

Besides the absence of digital context, there are two other problems with that: 1) the idea that digital citizenship, an emergent and still very subjective concept, is ready to be taught as a formal curriculum or set of lesson plans and 2) the idea that it can be taught at all, in a top-down way. Is citizenship, offline or in media, something that can be dictated to the citizens (think about that in the context of participatory democracy)?

A disposition as well as a practice

Digital or not, citizenship is a verb but more than that, really. It’s a disposition as well as a practice, and how one acts as a citizen is individual, situational and contextual. Educator Bronwyn Stuckey, PhD, in Sydney, Australia, put it best when she called the learning of it a “lived curriculum.”

“I see many teachers giving students worksheets, watching videos and acting out role plays to assist students in learning what digital citizenship involves. And quite frankly I think it is largely a waste of time,” writes Stuckey, who works with students and teachers in online communities such as Minecraft and Quest Atlantis. Why, she asks, “do we expect children to understand digital citizenship without being part of online communities?”

But it goes beyond needing the pool to learn how to swim. Stuckey calls it a lived curriculum because, like life or any experience we’re sharing with others, a great deal is learned in the interactive process – whether in “teachable moments” or problem-solving or building something in Minecraft or joining a raid in World of Warcraft. Stuff happens, new information is coming in moment by moment, and learning happens on the fly.

Educator John Seely Brown, author of A New Culture of Learning, likens this to the way whitewater kayakers operate, acting on continuously changing conditions as the conditions change. But that’s only a piece of what we’re talking about – the individual piece. In online communities, games, apps, school and everyday life, part of the constantly new information and conditions we’re acting on or responding to comes from the people we’re working or living with. And they and their self-expression are changing in real time just as we are. That’s the dynamic, lived curriculum Stuckey’s talking about.

Informal, not formal, learning

“This experiential learning is vital,” she writes, referring to the learning of citizenship and social skills and norms in digital environments, which can certainly include a blog, a wiki or a Google Doc as much as a 3D virtual world. “No worksheet can ever offer the gamut of situations that kids might face online,” she writes. “We are derelict in our duty of care to our students if we do not offer them these experiences.”

Stuckey points out the vital role of agency, or students’ self-determination, in this. “We want them to engage on their own terms in spaces where they are surrounded by supporting trusted adults.” That’s the infrastructure that school can provide – safe digital and physical environments that include adult guidance as well as student agency, so that both student and teacher learn, model, practice and facilitate citizenship.

Ideally, the instruction or lesson plans in digital environments are about core subjects, not citizenship – social studies, science or any other subject (the key difference between teachers and students besides teachers’ experience is teachers’ awareness of learning objectives, including citizenship). The idea is to stop burdening educators with more to teach. We need to get digital environments into school so we can free them up to focus on the formal learning, while digital citizenship – the informal kind of learning – is simply learned and practiced in the process, the way citizenship itself has always been part of what’s learned and practiced in the physical environment that we call school.

Learning citizenship through play too

Citizenship can also be modeled, practiced and learned in a digital environment that’s just about play, for example in the game Minecraft. Loads of learning happens in these games and virtual worlds, whether a child is creating something, socializing or struggling against others in virtual contests or combat (on his or own or in a group). The player or learner figures out how to…

  • Work with and create constantly changing knowledge
  • Turn it into the solution needed in the particular moment, then…
  • Respond to the new set of conditions with the experience just gained and the new knowledge flowing in from fellow players and other sources in the next moment, and…
  • Starts that process over…
  • And over and over.

Tomorrow, Part 2: A rare and valuable view – what this looks like in digital environments, from the perspective of an educator who has worked with young people in them for over a decade.

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