(Digital) practice, research and citizenship
As regular readers of this blog will know I’ve been leading a large practice/research project for the last two years. Titled Digital Commonwealth, it’s really taken me out of my academic comfort zone, exposing my abstract, theoretically-informed understandings of citizen journalism, digital citizenship, digital media, participatory cultures and community development to real people experiencing real difficulties that, on the surface, appear unlikely to be addressed by a playful digital storytelling project. As I report on project outcomes to the funder it’s been quite easy to wax lyrical about our numerous ‘achievements’ around involving school children in digital storytelling activities (circa 600 across Scotland), bringing together community media organisations to create a more effective networked public (Boyd, 2014) and co-producing wonderfully uplifting creative artefacts with diverse groups from across Scotland. As my project coordinator Jennifer Jones has highlighted in this recent blog post about the project we have given older adults, disenfranchised young people, people with a disability and minority ethnic populations a (digital) platform upon which to speak about their stories, told from their perspective and uploaded using their expertise. Though ultimately produced by the project team in terms of editorial decisions on what to include/exclude, our Digital Commonwealth documentary film provides a valuable insight into what we were trying to achieve and how successful we’ve been.
However, as this project used the practice context (actually working with people to produce creative outputs and digital media artefacts) to also draw out research insights, in this post I want to highlight some of the obstacles we experienced which shows how difficult it is to make (and sustain) meaningful progress towards addressing the complex and multifaceted structural challenges that many in-need individual and groups encounter and which impact on their life chances – including in access to the digital world that many of us take for granted as a right of citizenship. I’m going to focus on on group of people in particular.
One of the main constituencies we worked with on Digital Commonwealth was young people residing in local authority areas which were classified within the lower percentile of the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD). Though our project found that access to technology was not the main problem for the young people we worked with per se, there were numerous other reasons why young people were inhibited in their ability to engage fully with the opportunities presented by everyday digital platforms. These reasons included a lack of available equipment, software and functioning IT infrastructure in their schools, blocked sites for staff and pupils within and across local authorities, significant variations in engagement and teaching styles, and a culture of fear (Furedi, 2007) experienced by teachers and education leaders associated with the dark side of the digital. Whilst it is important to acknowledge the legitimacy of discourses of risk online for young people (see IRights as an example of an initiative to address these concerns), as I’ve argued in a recent article, it is imperative that young people are:
given the opportunity to create and not simply consume media content…whilst there are legitimate concerns pertaining to the responsibilisation of individuals (including young people) accompanying the age of neo-liberalism, with empowered citizens required to invest time and energy in enterprising their own lives, our study has advanced an alternative reading of this phenomenon. We have argued for the embedding of a critical digital citizenship agenda, where young people are, through practice, asked to ponder how digitally mediated publics operate and think carefully about matters of ownership, privacy, security and risk in the school setting and beyond. Integrating ‘making’ and ‘thinking critically’ about the benefits and dangers of pervasive digital media in and outside of school is imperative (McGillivray et al, forthcoming)
In my role as the project lead on Digital Commonwealth and the research insights we garnered through immersion in practice, I’ve become more convinced of the importance of pedagogies aligning with technologies to ensure that young people and their educational guardians are adequately prepared to deal with the opportunities and threats brought about and intensified by the digitally mediated world. It is increasingly difficult to differentiate clearly between spaces of work, leisure or education and rather than try to maintain these tenuous boundaries it is more important that:
As the social Web creates the potential for simultaneous learning and leisure, both educational actors and young people have to adapt their pedagogical practices to deal with a collapsing of spatial and temporal boundaries of schooling and leisure (McGillivray et al, forthcoming)
Though I’ve focused on young people in this post, the same applies for other people that we worked with in our project, especially those that are digital visitors rather than digital residents (see Dave White for more on this distinction). I think there’s a need for much more in-depth thinking about how, through practice, we can by stealth encourage diverse populations to engage in critical digital citizenship, whereby they become digitally literate, making informed judgements about their digital practice and enabling them to retain control their own ‘voices’ in a multi-platform world.