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Digital citizenship and inequality: From classroom to workforce

posted Jul 11, 2019, 11:57 AM by Ontario East
Written by: Noorin Nazari


My keen interest to keep abreast of debates concerning citizenship has exposed me to the concept of digital citizenship, and of course, to the question of equity. I was taken aback when I read School Boards - IT Systems and Technology in the Classroom, the Auditor General of Ontario report published December 5th, 2018. In the report, various forms of disparities across school boards and schools are documented; however, the causes of such disparities are examined from a utilitarian perspective. Consequently, they remain at the procedural and regulatory levels and in turn do not take up the underlying socio-economic causes of such disparities. For example, in one instance the audit observed that, “Students’ access to information technology and consequently students’ learning experiences varied across schools” (p. 548). The report suggests that issues are due to outdated technology and an absence of evaluative assessment rather than the socio-economic background of students and their respective access to digital devices. 

As a “visible minority” woman, I know first-hand, the challenges one faces to enact citizenship in Canada. Drawing on the work of Westheimer and Kahne (2004), we might take up equality and equity through three different conceptions of citizenship. First, a normative citizenship approach emphasizes the conventional characteristics of a ‘good’ citizen such as honesty. Second, for these two scholars, a progressive citizenship approach involves participatory citizens who take on volunteer projects and vote. Their third concept is informed by a critical approach or ‘social justice-oriented citizenship’ in which citizens question, challenge, and seek to change established systems of inequality and injustice. 

One may see digital citizenship within a similar context. A vision of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) that revolves around issues pertaining merely to availability, accessibility and regulatory mechanisms, is contrary to the view of experts on digital citizenship who advise that we need to move forward from a normative approach that emphasizes only ‘safe, legal and ethical’ use of IT and towards additional questions of digital literacy and digital participation in civic and political affairs. These questions inevitably bring about the notion that equality as digital participation is not only about accessibility and consumption but also equal opportunities to create, interpret and evaluate digital information. Experts show that IT use—equal opportunities to create, interpret and evaluate digital information—has the potential to create a more equitable society. For instance, in a 2013 social action curriculum project developed by Ng-A-Fook, Radford, Yazdanian, and Norris with disadvantaged and marginalized school youth in Ottawa, Ontario, it was found that initiatives such as the development of a social network site to teach novel studies and the establishment of a student-led news broadcast had positive impact on civic participation of participating students.

In contrast, when digital citizenship discriminates against one demographic category at a very young age in schools, this reflects at the social level. A 2017 report—entitled The Digital Talent Dividend: Shifting Gears in a Changing Economy and published by the Information and Communications Technology Council of Canada—reviewed ten years of ICT trends in Canada and raises some alarming concerns in relation to gender disparity in the ICT sector. The report states, “the participation of women in ICT profession has remained relatively constant, averaging between 24% and 25%, for more than 10 years.” At work women are further discriminated against. In 2016, as the report makes clear, women in the ICT sector earned nine cents for each dollar men earned, marking a difference of $7, 600 in annual wages. The underrepresentation of groups who are discriminated against, either as newcomers, marginalized youth or women, are due to a wide array of systemic barriers which in turn impact who has access to equity in a classroom, a workplace, or in curriculum to labor policies. If we are to create a just society, the means and mechanisms, such as ICT, that materialize equitable digital citizenship ideals should also be built upon the principles of equity.

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