Remember when the Internet was so full of promise? There was so much information – on everything! – available at our fingertips. So much more connection possible – with long-lost friends, with people from around the globe who shared our challenges, interests or concerns. Important news, causes, and initiatives could reach so many more people. The world took a giant step closer to becoming a true global village.
That promise is still there, but the dark side of this instant connectivity has become starkly apparent. If we have more information than ever before, we also have more disinformation. If we can recruit more people to save the whales, we can also recruit them to join the neo-Nazis. We can connect with people, and we can also inundate them with brutal hate mail. Extreme polarization seems as likely an outcome as a common understanding.
In this context, democratic countries have never had a greater need for informed, active citizens who can see beyond narrow self-interest and grandiose claims and set their sights on positive change. We need savvy users who can engage online, yet protect their privacy and well-being. We need critical citizens who are able to assess both the value and flaws in our institutions and policies. In this issue, we explore how educators can engage students in civic issues within the shifting landscape of the digital age.
And yes, this is a charge that our schools must take on, alongside so many other requirements. Joel Westheimer points to disturbing signs that globally, democracies are weakening, and warns that civic education is more than teaching good behaviour online or off: “ ‘Good character’ is insufficient for safeguarding and strengthening democratic institutions and traditions.” Erica Hodgin and her colleagues write, “Teachers can, and should, play a pivotal role in supporting all youth to develop the sense of agency, motivation, and skills to use digital media to participate in democratic life.” For one inspiring example of how it can be done, check out Casey Burkholder’s account of how students use cellphilming to engage with and communicate issues that are meaningful to them.
I hope you will find lots to think and talk about in this issue, and in our web-exclusive articles. There’s been a lot of attention paid to the education students need to participate in the workforce of the future. Surely it’s at least as important to prepare students to be effective citizens in a world filled with critical challenges.
Photo: Dave Donald
First published in Education Canada, December 2018