Citizenship and education in a digital world

by Marc Fuster
Consultant, Directorate for Education and Skills


"Everyone believes in the atrocities of the enemy and disbelieves in those of his own side, without ever bothering to examine the evidence”, George Orwell wrote in 1943. And in an era of ‘fake news’ and post-truth, it resembles our world today.

Democracies are built upon the principles of equality and the participation of citizens in public deliberation and decision making. But participation can only work if people have at least a basic understanding of the system’s norms and institutions, can form opinions of their own and respect those of others, and are willing to engage in public life one way or another. A new Trends Shaping Education Spotlight looks at how civic education can support students in developing the knowledge and skills needed to take part in the democratic process, especially in an increasingly digitalised world.

Equipping young citizens with civic and political knowledge and skills is at the centre of education’s mission, and civic education is part of the curriculum in all OECD countries. Nevertheless, data from an international assessment on civic knowledge and attitudes show that the majority of adolescent students in many countries lack a deeper understanding of how democracy works in the world they live in, even if they know basic facts about democracy. This raises questions about how teachers and schools can do better at preparing young people for the world.

Evidence suggests that civic-specific subjects and rote-learning approaches have little influence on students’ civic knowledge or on their attitudes about civic and political engagement. Instead, effective civics pedagogy depends on a classroom climate that encourages students’ participation in open discussions on political issues connected to their daily life and interests.

Participation in extracurricular activities or decision making bodies at school can also increase students’ civic skills and engagement. Furthermore, experiential pedagogical approaches, such as service learning, allow students to benefit from both the hands-on experience of serving community needs and the subsequent discussion and reflection in class. Research shows that service learning works best when projects establish a clear set of learning objectives and identify the kind of service opportunity that bests suits them.

These days, the world is also online. Technology facilitates political participation and contributes to keeping us informed -- or not. As social media develops, people increasingly rely on the online information that is shared by those they trust. But such information is not always verifiable, which can make it difficult to sort fact from fiction. This challenges our capacity to make informed decisions and undermines the quality of public deliberations.

As societies grow increasingly digitalised and become awash with ‘fake news’, citizens’ digital literacy becomes more and more important. Proficiency in digital reading is the ability to plan and execute a search, evaluate the usefulness of information, and assess the credibility of sources. However, the assessment of digital reading in PISA 2012 revealed that only about 8% of 15 years-old across OECD countries are able to navigate online information autonomously and efficiently, evaluate information from several sources and assess its credibility and usefulness. Thus, more needs to be done to develop students’ digital skills in online reading and also in producing and sharing digital content. Furthermore, raising students’ awareness on what is appropriate to share -- and how -- is essential for developing more ethical (digital) attitudes and behaviour.

So the mission of teachers and schools to provide their students with the civic and political knowledge needed for adult life needs more attention than ever. In the 21st century, this requires a focus on digital democratic citizenship and the kind of skills and attitudes that come with it. Sustaining democratic institutions and social relations over time depends on the way we support and encourage young people to become active and engaged citizens, both on and offline.

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