Learning for Active Citizenship and Digital Transformation

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The social, economic, cultural and political impact of digital change in education and learning and the Role of Education for Democratic Citizenship

Digitalisation is an essential part of our lives across all dimensions. Many people think that it is a technological process, i.e. it is mainly about computer servers, algorithms, Internet and the like. But that is only half of the truth. For example, it is difficult to separate digitalisation from almost all activities in our lives. When we shop online – are we online or are we shopping? When we play computer games – are we playing or are we at the computer? And when we are active in social media, we are both social and active in an electronic medium. Moreover, our health system is already digitised, the pollution of the planet is, to a growing extent, caused by digital technology, and activities such as navigating a car or collaboration in civil society are increasingly facilitated by digital technology.

From a Technolgy Focus to Social Impact of Technology

This example seeks to point out that what we ultimately understand by ”digitalisation” depends very much on how we look at the topic. It is after all possible to engage in all the aforementioned activities without information and communication technology (ICT). In this sense, we prefer the term digital transformation:

Digital Transformation

A social, cultural or economic process in which cultural, economic and social practices are done and organised differently – made possible by information and communication technology.

In this sense, education for digital transformation is learning about social, economic and cultural processes and about understanding the differences caused by technology. As such, in further exploring the topic, it is important to:1. Look at both the technology and the nature of economic, social and cultural activities, for example, what we do in different social roles as digital customers, digital activists, digital workers and digital citizens.2. Take an interest in the difference that digitalisation brings to such activities. What is changing thanks to new technology? What impact does it have on society

Challenge for Education?

A lot of curiosity and increasing concerns regarding digitalisation today have to do with its ‘engine room’ - the fascinating global infrastructure of the Internet, its enormous costs and hunger for energy, Big Data, AI, and the increasing economic value of digital platforms. In particular, the growth of new kinds of platforms, fuelled by digital business models successfully capitalizing on users, is a widely visible phenomenon of this new technological and economic configuration.

Consequently, their users are at the same time subjects and objects of digital change. They experience the opportunities made available through new, platform-mediated forms of interaction, but also feel uncomfortable since they are also symmetrically affected in their role as autonomous subjects (More: Into the Internet of Everything). The right to independent information, privacy and security are, from this perspective, not yet sufficiently respected in the digital sphere. The migration of substantial parts of working and communication processes to the digital sphere during the last decades is also simultaneously a benefit and a challenge. One aspect is technical mastery – access to current technology and the ability to use it in a competent way.

A more fundamental aspect is that the digital self is completing people’s analogue identity. Their digital traces are accompanying people’s lives with related consequences for their various social roles as private subjects, employees and citizens. Feeling overtaxed by all the associated challenges and concerns is a bad prerequisite for learning and a bad basis for considering future personal and social decisions. It is high time for adult education and youth work to do something about this double-edged sword.

Building Analogies

In particular, adult citizenship education has a lot of experience teaching complex social issues and could transfer its methodology and approach to the topic of digital transformation.

  • We know, for example, that nobody needs to be an economist to be able to co-decide on political decisions affecting the economy.
  • We also are capable of understanding the social impact of cars, despite very limited knowledge of automotive engineering.

Considering that it is possible to acquire knowledge about digital transformation, could we not even enjoy learning about Big Data, robotics, algorithms or the Internet of tomorrow similar to the way we passionately discuss political issues such as transport, ecology, or democracy?

Attention to Effects and Impact

We should not, however, be blinded by the technical complexity of the digital transformation. It is important that we pay more attention to the social dimension, the intentions behind a technology, exploring its effects and regulations. Although not familiar with all technical or legal details, most people intuit that it is ill-advised to give out personal information without consent. We suppose what the right to privacy should entail and what distinguishes conscious decisions from uninformed ones, and in our analogue world, we discourage the ”used car salesmen” of our society from taking unsuspecting customers for a ride. After all, most of us have experienced the discomfort of having been deceived as a result of not understanding the fine print.

If we transfer this insight to a pedagogy of digital transformation, we must admit that we should also be willing to explore new aspects of the technical dimension such as data processing or the nudging mechanisms in online platforms. But that is not the only priority!

Rights Matter

The most important thing is that we know what our rights and ethical foundations are and how they relate to the new digital contexts and are able to act accordingly. These questions are not solely related to privacy and safety, as seemingly no aspect of social life is unaffected by digital transformation.

Assessing Potentials and Risks

Using this foundation, we might further explore the potentials and risks of digitalisation in context, assessing its impact. Personal rights, for instance, entail privacy issues, but digital transformation has also led to new opportunities for co-creating, better information, or involvement of citizens in decision-making processes. On this basis, we are then able to define the conditions and rules under which certain digital practices should be rolled-out or restricted.

Electronic communication has changed the character of human communication as a whole. There are fewer impermanent ideas or assertions that go undocumented, to later be searched and rehashed. This change is both positive and negative, for example from the perspective of an employee who may be judged based on past decisions which live forever online. Pedagogy might help people to better understand the risks and benefits associated with electronic communication.

A Creative Challenge

In addition, it will be a creative challenge to imagine the technology we want to develop as a society and what will help us to initiate social, economic and cultural changes in the future. Europe's Internet ecosystem is in transformation. Strong platforms, decentral network logic and the federated spirit of the network culture of the early Internet are complementing, competing and challenging each other. Citizens have opportunities and choices. A human-centered (European) path of digital transformation relies on conscious and competent citizens making choices and maintaining the diversity of the Internet: Choices and ideas about the infrastructures of the network, about their "smart" city or about the very cocrete tools and services they are using, for instance in a civil intiative.


The Role of Education for Democratic Citizenship

The essence of a definition of democracy and rights-based education can be found in the Council of Europe’s Declaration regarding Education for Democratic Citizenship (EDC), which is “education, training, awareness-raising, information, practices, and activities which aim, by equipping learners with knowledge, skills and understanding and developing their attitudes and behaviour, to empower them to exercise and defend their democratic rights and responsibilities in society, to value diversity and to play an active part in democratic life, with a view to the promotion and protection of democracy and the rule of law” (CoE CM/Rec(2010)7). Transferred to the context of learning about digital transformation, we extract three core questions from this:

Core Questions for Learning for, with and about the Digital Transformation

  • Digital Transformation Competence: What competence – knowledge, skills, values and attitudes – do citizens need to understand the digital transformation in their society and how it affects them in their different social roles? How does it integrate in the concepts of Digital Competences preparing learners for the challenges connected with the transformation?


  • Fundamental rights and ethical foundations: How do existing rights and moral relate to the transformation? Where do they shift their nature, what weakens them and what kind of development strengthens their enforcement?


  • Participation: What active civic competences do citizens need to participate and contribute to the transformation, including participation in relevant public discourses and decisions about the framing conditions and underlying assumptions?


With what kind of digital measures learners might improve individual and social self-organisation and social engagement?

Stakeholders from many different sectors have high expectations in education. In particular, they demand from earning for active citizenship a better preparation of Europeans for big societal changes. Only if we implement ideals of democracy “by design” into digital progress will we create a democratic digital society.


References

Council of Europe (CoE CM/Rec(2010)7). Recommendation CM/Rec(2010)7of the Committee of Ministers to member states on the Council of Europe Charter on Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education (Adopted by the Committee of Ministers on 11 May 2010 at the 120th Session). https://search.coe.int/cm/Pages/result_details.aspx?ObjectID=09000016805cf01f


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