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Learning to be a Citizen of Cyberspace
by Vincent Mosco

Most researchers agree that the growth of a knowledge-based society will bring about fundamental changes in the production, distribution and exchange of information and that almost every social and cultural institution will be changed in some way, but none more than education (Negroponte, 1995; Oppenheimer, 1997; Stevenson, 1997; Upitis, 1997). This is because, more than any other social institution, education is fundamentally about knowledge, information, and communication. Although it certainly makes use of material tools and sometimes results in the production of material goods, these are ancillary to the fundamental process of education: people using knowledge to create more knowledgeable people.

It is therefore not surprising to find considerable support for transforming education so that it is as fully independent as possible from geographic location and physical space. If education does not require a specific spatial location or a building then it can be delivered anywhere. This will, some argue, transform the fundamental infrastructure of education at every level, starting particularly at the post-secondary level, and will fundamentally erode local community or even national control over education. The development of on-line courses, libraries and other information resources, and the marketing of distant or on-line education by businesses and schools eager to profit from opportunities to expand their horizons, are the beginning of what some may see as a revolution in learning. (Veccia, 1998; Wilson, 1997)

In addition to overcoming geographical constraints on the delivery of education, new technologies promise to expand the basic nature of education. In quantitative terms, computer communication is opening up vast new sources of information and learning by enabling on-line access that frees schools from complete dependence on paper delivery. Associated with this is the ability to link written with audio and visual material that can enrich the full range of the learner’s senses. The technology also creates a qualitative expansion in the means of education by taking a process rooted in the one-way delivery of knowledge and making it more participatory and reciprocal. Education moves from an emphasis on transmitting information to the active creation of knowledge. Moreover, according to this view, computer communication takes a system of learning based in narrow linear, narrative forms, and opens it up to a wide range of non-linear, exploratory processes that allow the learner to make full use of his or her own multiple cognitive maps. As a result students mutually constitute their learning environments, all of which grow in the learning process. (OECD, 1997: p.120; Veccia, 1998; Wilson, 1997)

But researchers are increasingly acknowledging that the promise of computer mediated education is sadly falling far short of reality. As one generally supportive OECD report concluded: "... the classroom revolution foretold decades ago has failed to materialize. Overall, the school system has not kept pace with the rest of society in terms of IT use . . . " (OECD, 1997: p.134). Indeed, some argue that the promises themselves have been clouding our ability to see the reality and especially to see that, in our rush to realize the dreams of its leading advocates, we have neglected important values, particularly the values of citizenship, that have historically grounded traditional education.

There are several tendencies in computer-mediated education that raise important questions about these conclusions. First, almost all of it takes place in the developed world or in those pockets of the less developed world that are urban and rich. This is largely because, in spite of much talk and some action to provide vital network infrastructure, the vast majority of the world's peoples are without the means to learn in cyberspace. According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), only 34 percent of the world’s households have telephone service and most of this is concentrated in the developed world. At the beginning of 1997, 62 percent of all main telephone lines were installed in just 23 developed countries (i.e. Australia, Canada, the European Union, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland, and the United States). Africa, including South Africa, contains 2 phone lines per 100 population while it is 65 and 35 lines per 100 in the US and Europe, respectively.

Fully 97 percent of all Internet hosts are found in developed countries. Regarding the gap between the level of service provided in the richest and poorest countries, progress has been made, though there is still a considerable way to go before equality will be reached. For example, it is remarkable to note that there are more Internet hosts in Estonia than in Sub-Saharan Africa, excluding South Africa. (ITU, 1998; see also, Press, 1998) In 1993, the US, Western Europe and Japan accounted for about 71 percent of all computers shipped while in 1996, it was 73 percent. In that time the developing world has gone from 19 to 14 percent of all shipments (OECD, 1998, p.21). One might argue that we are in the early stages of computer development and that we are likely to see the gap narrowed as costs decline. Yet, the consistent failure to overcome substantial historic inequities in telephone penetration does not inspire optimism on expanding equity in cyberspace. Moreover, there are also significant gaps within the developed world with the US and UK enjoying about nine students per computer while Japan and Portugal averaging about 50 students per computer (OECD, 1998, p.118).

In addition to the concern about the quantitative gap in access, there is also cause for reflection on the type of training that is taking place in cyberspace and in the type of content that is most heavily emphasized. Specifically, although there are exceptions, much of the learning in cyberspace is technical training that reflects the one-way, linear, and passive approaches that have characterized traditional education. According to a one multi-million dollar US study, schools use networks for teaching and learning in, what the researchers concluded, were the most obvious and pedestrian ways. (Kaye, et. al., 1996)

Experts in instructional design worry that educators are seduced by the sheer amount of information available on the Internet while administrators, attracted by the potential to save on instructor costs, conclude that it is only necessary to point students to the data and learning will follow. Instructional design expert M. David Merrill demurs: " We need to wake up and recognize that information is not instruction. There is this belief that all you need for learning is information and collaboration. Put enough people and enough information on the Web and learning will happen. There isn't enough guidance and structure on the Internet for someone to learn a systematic body of knowledge." (Zemke, 1998; see also Noble, 1997)

A Harvard professor of education agrees, noting that "the most mindless use of computers is at the elementary level." (Bronner, 1997) In relation, there is significant concern that we are moving ahead with computer applications in schools (US spending on technology in schools is expected to grow by $5.2 billion over $4.3 billion in 1997), without conducting serious research on their impacts. The Dean of the Faculty of Education at Queen’s University in Canada provides a sobering summary of what we do know about the impact of information and communication technology on education, in comments on a multi-million dollar study funded by three US government departments: "The overarching conclusions were that school districts had not evaluated the impact of computer networks on student achievement with scant attention being paid to their effectiveness. The critical question remaining was stated as such: 'Do computer networks improve student education?' - ironically the very question the study sought to answer. But what is startling - inconceivable, in fact - is that the researchers nevertheless recommended that government policies, supported by the private sector, should be established to ensure stable and long-term funding for computer networks, so that school district networks might become more widely accessible to teachers, students, parents, school staff, and computer members at large." (Upitis, 1997: 4; Kaye, et. al., 1996; cf. Stevenson, 1997)

It is, unfortunately, easy for this form of logic to win out. However, because another form of logic, the logic of the marketplace has made the business of education and its cost-effective delivery by technological means a very attractive option for firms like Microsoft, which is now one of the major forces in what is increasingly called the education industry (Newman, 1997; Noble, 1997). As a result, there is a growing concern that cyberspace is evolving into a largely commercial space, an electronic mall whose main activity is electronic or e-commerce rather than public debate and education. (Stoll, 1995; Sussman, 1997) By 1997, one-fourth of all Internet sites were fully commercial while the rest were partially commercial sites that used national or other domain names. (OECD, 1998, p.36). Although information retrieval and electronic mail helped the Internet to a remarkable beginning, the fastest growing uses of the Net are now electronic commerce and advertising. Anyone contemplating the use of cyberspace for genuine education must confront an increasingly commercial environment whose goal is to teach new generations of consumers how to shop electronically (The Information Society, 1997; Hansell, 1997).

Notwithstanding the value of technical and consumer skills, it is important to make learning, how to become a citizen of cyberspace, an ethical imperative of on-line education. Indeed, citizenship education is a necessary grounding for learning how to fully use the Internet while the Internet itself can be an important tool for developing effective citizenship. It is absolutely essential to invoke citizenship today because citizenship elevates human activity beyond the commonly accepted view that the best way, indeed for some the only way, to define human activity is by its marketplace value, its worth as a consuming or laboring commodity.

The widely accepted view of citizenship is that elevation has also been accompanied by extension. Here it is common to invoke the work of T.H Marshall (1964) who charted the progress of citizenship in modern Western society starting with the legal sense of basic rights and protections, for example, habeas corpus, due process, the presumption of innocence and the right of trial by a jury of one's peers. From here, citizenship was extended to encompass political rights, particularly the right to vote and public assembly. Finally, social citizenship stretches the notion to include the right to employment, housing, health care and other social welfare benefits.

Citizenship in the new electronic age means treating cyberspace as a public space or "new commons" to which all people have rights of access and participation, reasonable expectations of privacy and security, and along with these rights, civic responsibilities of active involvement in this new commons and mutual respect for fellow cyber-citizens. (Garnham, 1997) Genuine education for an information society starts by teaching these principles and by using the Net as one among the many means to implement them.

We are beginning to accumulate a body of exemplars, which provide important guidance for developing the practice of citizenship in cyberspace. One of the most important is the establishment of community nets or freenets which bring together people in a city, town or neighborhood, providing essential information about public services, in addition to material normally found on the Internet. Freenets provide two essential elements missing in most of the commercial networks. First, because they make use of servers provided by educational, non-profit or other donor organizations, freenets offer low cost access for users. This is particularly important for low-income people who, even in the most developed societies, have little chance of using the Net. Secondly, they locate terminals in public places like post offices, libraries, schools, and markets, enabling people to make use of the net without having to purchase a computer. (Noack, 1998; see also Doheny-Farina, 1996)

With regard to education, several countries have initiated programs to provide hardware, develop content, establish public networks, provide teacher training, initiate research on educational innovation, and promote distant and adult education. (OECD, 1997: pp.122-134) For example, the Canadian government has established the Computers for Schools program that channels surplus computer equipment and software from public and private sector partners to needy schools. Its joint federal and provincial School-Net program connects libraries and schools alike to the World Wide Web.

The Ministry of Human Resources Development conducts research and supports demonstration projects across Canada on learning applications in schools and in employment training. The federal and provincial governments have also pioneered in delivering distant education to the scattered populations of the Canadian North. (Canada, Industry Canada, 1995, 1997) Canada provides just one among several other national examples of a commitment to the principles of citizenship in cyberspace. Nevertheless, as with other nations, Canada’s commitment is under constant challenge, particularly from those interested in making cyberspace a private space, largely oriented to commercial activity and open only to those who can pay for access and security.

In conclusion, there is considerable potential in the educational uses of cyberspace, but there are also many challenges and dangers. Computers can provide the means to explore new forms of learning that break out of the traditional hierarchies of educational bureaucracy and develop genuine alternatives to rigid, passive approaches to learning. But they can also reify those hierarchies if they are applied without a commitment to the principles of equality, participation, privacy, mutual respect and responsibility that historically provided the foundation for many of our systems of public education. New technologies can also entice us into thinking that the technology alone will overcome problems of equity and excessive commercialization. Experience suggests that this is not the case and calls for a commitment to the principles of citizenship, including strong support from the agencies of civil society and the public sphere, in order to make cyberspace a rich community itself and an instrument to enrich our existing communities.

  Mr  Vincent Mosco is Professor of Communication at the School of Journalism and Communication, Carleton University, Canada


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