critical thinking about digital learning

Digital citizenship, Digital literacy, Future of work, Politics of ed tech

Digital literacy and democracy

In some ways this is a continuation of a previous post on Digital Citizenship, written in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, and in some ways it’s a complete revision of it. Re-reading it now I wonder at how naive I was just seven months ago, before Trump and Teresa, before David Kernohan’s post on the alt-right or Audrey Watter’s keynote on surveillance and intelligence in the new age of authoritarianism. I talked about ‘digital citizenship’ as if it was mainly an issue for curriculum renewal – getting the right content into what is taught, and ensuring it gets to everyone. Now I think it may be a question of whether and how democratic institutions can survive.

This is also a warm-up for a webinar on digital literacy which I’m contributing to tomorrow, with thanks to NMC for inviting me, and to Bryan Alexander for chairing. In that session (and depending on the questions that come) I’m set up to talk about the role of digital literacy in a functioning democracy.

This is where I am going to sidestep the usual blogger’s reference to ancient Athens:

and stick with a more contemporary, post-enlightenment definition of the rule of the people. The Democratic Audit organisation identifies 15 separate features of a democracy, but the all arise from two simple principles:

Popular control: how far do the people exercise control over political decision-makers and the processes of decision-making?
Political equality: how far is there political equality in the exercise of popular control?

The bit of democracy that the internet age does well – the free exchange of ideas, and the ability to choose which ones we listen to and credit – that’s just one of the fifteen features of a functioning democracy. The rest are not about choice, they’re about power, responsibility and rights (1). And they are about fairness, inclusion and equality (2). Even if we take the bit of democracy that is about decision making, remember that democracy doesn’t just give people the right to decide, it gives us the responsibility to inform ourselves enough to make a good decision (please note that I disagree with a lot of other parts of this article, but the part about structural ignorance and referrenda is good).

Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of our political future as a series of rolling online focus groups might be more attractive to people in the UK if we hadn’t just experienced our biggest focus group for 40 years – I’m talking about the EU referendum – and seen hatred come flailing out of its hiding place, ignorance being trumpeted as a virtue by our most privileged and highly educated politicians, and the institutions of representative democracy being trashed. And that was just the process – don’t start me on the actual decision.

So taking point (2) first, I think we have enough evidence now that digital technologies have failed to create more equitable access to the benefits of education, or to economic and political power. There is even some evidence that the digital divide amplifies and exacerbates other kinds of inequality. I wrote about this in a blog post on Ed Tech and the circus of unreason, and I’d point anyone interested in our unequal digital futures to some brilliant work being done by the Oxford Internet institute. But let’s look here at principle (1): popular control.

There are several features of control in a popular democracy that seem to have digital literacy implications, whether or not we go down the road of requiring all citizens to register for an electronic vote (a strategy which, as with all voter registration, will only make it harder for those with least to have a voice). But let’s choose two.

A free, fair and accountable media. The Democratic Audit site has a great, non-deterministic article on social media and the rise of disinformation. People like me have always railed against the ‘mainstream media’ for failing to be fully representative of the range of opinion in society and the range of political choices open to us as citizens. I don’t see any reason to stop doing that. But it turns out that the non-mainstream media – the online opinion-makers – can generate more bias and disinformation, more quickly and to more devastating effect than was ever possible in print.

I’ll be honest, this isn’t what I expected of the internet. Opinion is, on the face of it, more democratically owned, generated and shared when the medium of opinion is essentially free. We need to look beyond our experience of free and fair exchange when we log on to online systems and examine, for example, how opinion continues to be controlled by many of the same powerful actors and owners that operate in the mainstream, along with new, even more richer and more powerful actors, who own the platforms. Who may soon own the voting machines as well as the engines of opinion. And yes, we do need to look at the social psychology of how opinion is formed in online settings, such as echo chambers and trolling. These are fundamental to our individual mental health as well as our collective democratic wellbeing. But we also need to consider the unequal resources people bring to that space, including resources of time, attention, self-expression, and social and educational capital.

Strong, accountable non-governmental institutions.This sticks in the throat, but as David Kernohan pointed out recently, we on the left seem to have become the new conservatives, who are prepared to stand up for established institutions such as (in the UK) the sovereignty of parliament and the rule of law. So digital media may not be inherently biased against established institutions, but digital culture as I experience it in the education space certainly aspires to constantly disrupt them and construct alternatives in its own image. I experience a biased towards narrative and away from evidence, other than very vivid and easily-apprehended visualisations. Towards rapid feedback and exchange rather than extended immersion, which may be what is required to understand something as complicated as our society and economy. Towards gurus, who are experts in designing their messages, and away from all other kinds of expertise. There is another blog post here, on the demise of expertise, but what I’m flagging is the dangerous rhetoric of disruption. It’s dangerous to celebrate the destruction, disruption and innovation of our established institutions, or just to stop defending them because we are looking the other way, without examining how they have – for all their flaws – allowed some kinds of redistribution of power, some forms of mass participation in decision making, some kinds of progressive society.

There are also new issues that democracy has not had to face before. Joe MacNamee, writing in OpenDemocracy, points out that ‘the infrastructure and services of the digital age (the public space of a digital society) are privately owned and are provided across multiple jurisdictions.’ Legal protections, rights, and democratic responsibilities are provided to citizens of a nation state, not to users of privately-owned digital platforms. We are in a time of conflict and uncertainty over how democratic rights and responsibilities will be enacted in the new ‘privately ordered public spaces’. Do these spaces call out new kinds of collective responsibility and decision-making, and is that an unqualified good, as Mark Zuckerberg would have us believe? Or are they spaces where global private capital can operate without the constraints of law? These are not questions that can be resolved by advances in technology, only by advances in our collective understanding and our ability to mobilise.

Of course the internet gives us new ways of being political actors and activitists, and they are brilliant, so long as they don’t become ends in themselves. You can sign an online petition and the next thing you know – along with 1.8m other people – there is a debate in our real parliament, and thanks to the miracle of organising online, you can also go along in the real world to make your feelings known.


There are many less obviously political forms of activism and organising that our digital participation affords us, and these are emerging features of our democracy: healthcare interest groups, volunteering and community actions. All of these forms of activism will be of increasing importance as public services and institutions become less secure.

So what does this mean for educators: how can we practice digital democracy in the classroom?

First I think we need to attend to the content of the digital curriculum, as per my earlier post. Media literacy, data literacy, algorithmic awareness: these are not optional extras in a course of study now. How they are made relevant to the subjects that students want to study, and what kinds of authentic learning activities we can offer to support this curriculum, are ongoing pedagogic projects and we must continue to share our best ideas with each other. The popularity of Weapons of Math Destruction gives me a lot of hope. In our curricula – and in the co-curriculuar opportunities students have available – we can perhaps give opportunites for varieties of digital activity and activism that are not directly tied to the world of work.

Then, in the critical pedagogy tradition we need to go beyond teaching students how to be informed citizens of a digital democracy that happens elsewhere. We need to support and challenge them in our encounters, in ways that develop their ability to think and behave democratically – in the broad sense that the Democratic Audit wants us to think of democracy. We need to go beyond supporting students to be producers of digital artefacts and media (though they will need that too, as activists as well as workers). We need to involve them in producing their own curriculum, their own organisational context, their own networks and rules of engagement. Student activists are doing this already, from economics students protesting at being taught nothing but free market models to university students demanding a decolonised curriculum in the global South. These students are developing their own intellectual agendas, and in pushing back against established curricula they are also pushing at the power relationships between the teachers, the taught, and the (designers of) what is taught. But that can happen in small ways to, in how we structure and negotiate the spaces of teaching. In the US, the Digital Pedagogy Lab and its journal Hybrid Pedagogy are well-known sources for ideas and practices that support that renegotiation.

What would it look like if our students took similar initiatives in respect of the digital curriculum: that is, the overt curriculum of digital practices that will ‘fit’ them for the future we envisage, and the covert requirement that they submit to certain technologies as means to their educational ends? How might they then start to question the power that resides and is enacted in digital systems, in algorithms, and in the data practices and  governments and organisations? That is something we can maybe hope and work towards.


  1. francesbell

    Thanks for this Helen – so much to think about. My interests currently lie beyond formal education but your post made me reflect on how I dealt with critique of the digital in my classes with postgraduate students in Information Systems/Technology who had mostly done bachelor degrees in some IT-related subject. They were, in general, digital enthusiasts and I wanted to encourage them to be critical and reflexive. I found that a useful approach was to encourage them to question my own interpretations and to challenge me. This was quite tricky at an early stage of trust-building (and I was their programme leader too). I used to tell them that the main purpose of the course was to achieve an appreciation of the importance of context in the application and use of IT. One usually successful activity involved critique of university- provided information systems such as the student information system, Blackboard, Turnitin, etc. I think that one of the reasons that this worked was that these IS were within a context shared by me and the students and one that I might be expected to support. Another was that our conversation was off the network, face to face . I don’t think that I could have done this in a digitally-mediated environment or if I was teaching digital literacy as part of a centrally-provided service. I could have defended my approach to Uni admin but I was quite happy to operate under the radar.
    I think that there is an important place for teaching digital literacy within formal education but there is also a sense that reflexive critique and use of the digital draws on ideas and experiences beyond formal education.
    Thanks again for a very thought-provoking post.

    • Thank you Frances, I agree that so much of our learning in this space is informal: learning from activism itself in all its forms, in the informal spaces of formal curricula, from our families and work colleagues and friends.
      So one of the first projects I was involved with as an educational developer was supporting a new module for final year IT students who had done little else but programming for three years and – it was felt – needed to do something more ‘contextual’ before they could be turned out as useful people. I wish I had thought of getting the students to critique the ready-to-hand examples of IS in use, rather than going away and researching some ‘other’ contexts. To think about purpose, context, power in that really embedded and authentic way. i think of Jisc’s work on learning analytics, or students-as-developers more generally, and wonder if there is a sociological research project in there. Why they have chosen the projects they have, what changes in their relationships to tutors, mentors, each other, and the institution…?

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