Life trumps pedagogic research.
When my colleague Kim Winter and I saw the outcome of our first collaboration in print in 2019 – a journal article on engaging students as digital citizens – little did we know how much more poignant digital citizenship would become approximately twelve months later.
The article we co-produced explored students’ perceptions of how our university, primarily a face-to-face teaching institution, used digital technology to facilitate their growth into digital citizens: their active, sustained, ethical and accountable participation in online communities.
Our university had redeveloped its digital framework and was planning its implementation. The students in our focus groups acknowledged being reasonably confident and comfortable in digital environments as a result of growing up with technology. They recognised themselves in the label “digital native”.
They did not, however, readily associate digital citizenship with belonging to social and professional digital communities. The digital practices they described seemed to have a more instrumental, assessment-oriented focus and were not explicitly linked to the collaborative online workspaces and globalised workplaces they would be able to join after university. Many students used online interaction tools informally, within pre-established peer networks, rather than as a way of reaching out to make professional and civically-engaged connections.
The focus group data Kim and I pondered over made it apparent that digital citizenship should be framed not as an identifying label or something that people are described as but as a complex developmental journey, a process of learning and becoming.
Digital citizenship goes above and beyond honing digital technology skills. It fundamentally relies on collaborative learning and on creating a sense of belonging to an online community. In the closing section of our article, Kim and I constructed for our readers a possible scenario for interweaving face-to-face and digital learning to facilitate the development of digital citizenship. As we were drafting it, we wondered how well the scenario resonated with academic colleagues across areas and departments in universities.
Engaged digital citizens
Fast forward to March 2020. Like so many other universities across the UK, ours has had to pause face-to-face teaching and there is very little physical presence on our bricks-and-mortar campuses: staff, students and external partners are in the process of taking up residence in digital academic spaces. Digital citizenship has been officially conferred (imposed?) on all.
Online collaboration, reaching out, making new connections are now at the centre of how we work. Colleagues are busy making sense, together, of how to align personal, academic and professional commitments and how to become more engaged digital citizens ourselves, so that the learning experiences we facilitate for our students prepare them fully for a changing – and challenging – world.
Over the past couple of weeks we’ve witnessed colleagues engaging in varied forms of online learning and belonging on an unprecedented scale. Outside our university, #LTHEchat @AdvanceHE has helped us connect with others to share feelings, wisdom and practical advice about remote learning and teaching.
We find reassurance about practicalities and the social/emotional impact of moving online in blogs like this one. We follow @invisiblegrail on Twitter, for timely reminders about the power of narrative, empathy and compassion to shape higher education experiences (and tweets about virtual campfires we can gather round to support each other in interesting times).
We make the most of the reverse mentoring our digital native students and colleagues are providing, to help us recontextualise our values and vision and adapt to change. Although our university does offer excellent guidance on remote working, we are also accessing webinars run by external organisations, such as the NOBL Collective, and drawing on the guidance they have promptly put together on going remote overnight. At times like these, we need inspiration from those who serve the difference-makers, so that we can better serve our students, not least because their career aspirations, employment opportunities and participation in society may have been substantially reshaped by the time they graduate. We are working hard to keep things simple for those whose access to digital environments is more limited in the current circumstances and we are grateful to those in control of digital resources who are removing paywalls and barriers to access.
The various digital communities our colleagues have engaged in over the past few weeks share a sense of purpose: their purpose is to enable quality learning and professional development to take place. They generously share resources. They have respectfully requested that members, established and new, treat each other with kindness and consideration.
Hierarchies are not barriers and leadership is expected and welcomed from each and every member of the community. Speaking out is encouraged. Expertise is appreciated. Questions are welcome because they lead to learning. Answers provided are carefully thought out or cautiously hedged. Building resilience and ensuring sustainability are core priorities. These are values we hope resonate with our past, current and future students.
The next stage in our journey
When things settle a bit and collaborative digital learning in online communities of the kind we described has been embraced and experienced by all (digital natives and digital immigrants), Kim and I are keen to repeat our research. We hope that the collaborative online learning experiences some of our trailblazing colleagues have already designed will become the norm rather than the exception.
We are interested to know if and how these learning experiences have impacted on students’ understanding of what it means to be a citizen of the digital world. We very much welcome colleagues in other universities joining us for this project. We favour focus groups because in our experience mixing students from courses and years of study resulted in instant opportunities for participants to learn from each other because they didn’t need to wait for us to disseminate our research. We’ll also think of other ways to share stories about lived experiences of journeys towards active, sustained, ethical and accountable digital citizenship.
When face-to-face teaching resumes, our students and colleagues will no doubt bring more of their enhanced digital experience into their day-to-day learning and teaching, and they will do so, we hope, with a transformed understanding and appreciation of what it means to be a full-fledged citizen of digitally-enhanced communities.