Students on Computers

Civic Duty Meets the Online Era

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by Jason Ohler

As the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary have dominated the news, I have been thinking more and more about citizenship. Peggy Noonan’s recent column talked about how seriously New Hampshire residents take their responsibility. They even have a state law that requires they host the first primary.

After someone described the people at one event as “professional voters,” Noonan said it was not that. She described the diverse group in attendance and said. “It is more like: ‘We may be a field hospital, we may be high, we may be damaged by the collapse of the American culture, we may be the prime victims of de-industrialization, but we are: citizens. And we do our job. We will pick a president.”

Noonan said, “Choked me up as I witnessed it. No joke. Choked me up.”

That sense of responsibility, of caring about your country and the process of electing a president made me stop and think Are we instilling that feeling in our young people today? Not just the sense of responsibility, but the sense of caring, the sense of taking care of your community, planning for the future.

Thinking about community brought me to thinking about Jason Ohler’s new book that I just read, 4Four Big Ideas for the Future, a compilation of four presentations that he has given. The idea of digital citizenship figures prominently in most of Ohler’s work. What brings these four presentations together is Ohler’s vision of helping people reshape their attitudes toward learning, community, and living a technological lifestyle. Ohler writes: “At the end of the day, we all want a more humane world that honors human potential. We want a world that channels our innately innovative selves toward creating the futures we want, and which can sustain us spiritually, emotionally and physically.”

But Ohler argues there are many challenges facing that future. Because of the ubiquitous nature of modern technologies, we are living in two places at once. Ohler describes one as Real Life (RL) and the other as Immersive Reality (IR). We take our smart devices with us everywhere we go so we can be with our companions and yet elsewhere when we check messages, alerts, and more. Beyond that, in his chapter 3, “Five Trends that Bend,” Ohler describes many technological innovations: math hats, thinking caps that can improve learning and improve decision-making, and other advances that may seem extreme today but may be normal in the future. It was all a bit mind-boggling for me, but it did raise my awareness of his point: we need to be prepared. We’re already facing data overload; how can we be prepared for even more abundance of technology overload?

Lots has been written about this overload, but I was intrigued by an analogy expressed in a Nov. 2015 Time magazine article. Steward Butterfield, inventor of Slack, sort of a fast-growing instant messenger for companies, worries about the information overload. He is quoted: “I think that we’re as a species not quite equipped to deal with the power of this stuff just in the same way we weren’t quite equipped to deal with infinite free calories. This is how people end up with diabetes,” he says. “We will now have the cognitive emotional diabetes of over interacting with people who aren’t physically present.”

Ohler offers the solution of tying it all to digital citizenship that can give us “a big picture perspective that encourages us to see each technology or information opportunity in terms of how it connects us and disconnects us.” For that perspective, I recommend chapter 2, “Digital Citizenship–Ethics in a Time of Extreme Change.”

For the most part today, Ohler argues that children have two lives. A non-digital life at school and a digital one outside of school.  Schools worry about safety, cyber bullying, sexting, and other dangers of students online, and some try to solve the problems by forbidding devices being out at school. Others worry about cheating, plagiarizing, and even distraction caused by the devices. I find it is the rare school that has developed a digital citizenship curriculum. Of course schools must deal with technology for the required online standardized testing, data gathering and so much more. And President Obama’s 2017 budget proposal includes a provision for $4 billion dollars for K-12 computer science instruction, so no doubt there will be more technology challenges to come.

Instruction is one thing, but the citizenship and behavior aspects of technology use are what concern most character educators. For that, chapter 2 offers great examples and suggestions. He even includes specific details of how digital citizenship fits with’s 11 Principles of Effective Character Education. He even includes tips for parents. He is also very big on including student voices in designing policy.

Ohler’s goal is for students to “develop the skills and perspectives necessary to lead a digital lifestyle that is responsible and safe, creative and inspired, ethical and empathetic.”  But more than that he wants “their pursuits to be driven by community interest and personal transformation, rather than simply propelled by the need to achieve.”

Of course, educators will always focus on student achievement, but as we prepare for a Presidential election, let’s make sure we are also developing young people who are driven by community interest and have that sense of responsibility and caring that choked Noonan up in New Hampshire. Let’s strive to make their Real Lives and their Immersive Lives built on good character.

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