Community Empowerment: Digital Citizenship for our Youngest Children

By Vitor Tomé, Algarve University, Faro, Portugal, and Belinha de Abreu, Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, Connecticut, USA

In a small community, Odivelas, which can be found within Lisbon area, Portugal is an on-going community based research project on digital citizenship. The focus of the work is on children ages 3-9 with the purpose of empowering them to become active digital citizens in their mediated environments. This project is an undertaking between researchers and the local community whose goal is to bridge a communication gap that is frequently seen when students are not given operational capacity for discerning digital practices in all facets of their lives.

This endeavour has been focused on school, family and out-of-school contexts, it also aims to contribute to identify best practices in all these venues, to influence public policies, and to integrate digital citizenship education in the curricula. This ongoing work is intended to be replicable in Portugal or abroad.

Our research looked at the child, family, and school triangle through the understanding of these three questions:

  • How can in-service teacher training on digital citizenship education improve teachers’ digital literacy practices in classrooms?
  • What are the digital literacies practices of young children in school, family and community contexts?
  • How do both formal and informal learning contexts shape children’s digital literacy practices?

The methodological approach used followed the research model developed by Sefton-Green, Marsh, Erstad and Flewitt (2016), in Establishing a Research Agenda for the Digital Literacy

Practices of Young Children, according to which individual production and reception of media messages, whether in formal and in informal settings, are based in its:

  • Operational capacities and skills needed to read, write and interpret messages from different media and its various platforms;
  • Ability to interact critically with texts and digital products, seeking to answer questions related to the power and agency, representation and voice, authenticity and veracity;
  • Cultural concerns interpretations and actions that develop according to its involvement in digital literacy practices in specific social and cultural contexts.

Early results

Our work began with training 25 Preschool and Primary school teachers (January-February 2016) who developed digital media literacy activities involving 366 of their students (147 pre-schoolers and 219 primary schoolers). Activities focused on producing and discussing media, online news analysis, communicating and learning through media and advertisement critical analysis. In March the longitudinal action research began involving eight out of the 25 teachers who agreed to develop digital citizenship activities with their students. Parents (42) and their children (45, of which twenty-five are between 3 and 6) were interviewed on digital citizenship practices and mediation. Results showed the following:

  • All teachers agreed that the media have educational potential in the pre-school and Primary school, but media content was used with sporadic frequency in their classrooms;
  • Most teachers considered that the lack of time and resources explained the minimal use of digital technologies;
  • Through professional development training, teachers were able to develop digital literacy activities without deviating from their previous pedagogical plans;
  • Most teachers were surprised by the increased use of digital technologies by children;
  • Most children are frequent users of digital media and technologies, sometimes without adult supervision, especially those who live with older siblings;
  • A small group of children do not engage with or barely use digital technologies, primarily the youngest ones due to their parent’s decision;
  • Most parents are really concerned about digital media use by their children, feeling they lack information on risks and opportunities using these tools, and therefore they try to protect their children limiting media use;
  • Most parents admit they do not talk with their children about their digital media practices;
  • There’s a wide gap in the communication discussion between parents and teachers regarding children’s media use.

Between March and June 2016 our work continued with eight of the 25 teachers (three Preschool, three Primary teachers, a teacher of Special Education and a teacher librarian), working in the same school, in the development of activities with their students (e.g.: advertisement analysis; creative written). In the meantime, having in mind the data analysis (teachers, children and parents) an intervention plan was designed.

During the first term of the school year 2016/17, activities with students were focused on the theme “What means to be a citizen in the digital era?” Teachers organized activities involving students, their families and other community members in order to discuss how citizenship and media evolved in the last three generations (grandparents, parents, and children). Results were published in a school print newspaper and shared with the greater community.

Next steps

During the second term of the school year (January-April 2017) the activities, developed in partnership with the local Health services will focus on Human Rights, Children Rights, respect and anti-violence actions at school. These topics will be the main focus of the second edition of the school newspaper to be published in April of 2017. During the third term (April-June 2017) the main theme will be advertisement, media and freedom of expression.

Feedback

After the publication of the school newspaper in December 2016, the project attracted the attention of the local school board, which organized a meeting with all teachers and researchers involved in the project, as well as the coordinators of the other three Pre/Primary schools. After the meeting, we all agreed to extend the project to the other three schools who were not part of the original project.

We are also developing another in-service teacher training course involving 26 Primary and Secondary school teachers from another Odivelas Municipality school that will be formally integrated in the project next March.

Moving Forward

As this project has progressed interest has extended beyond the school and into other community agencies. A partnership has been developed which will include one of Lisbon’s largest public libraries that will work in partnership with one of the selected schools starting from September 2017. This extension might be seen as a first step to replicate our project in other municipalities as well as continuing the development of partnerships that encompass agencies which have direct and invested interests in schools.

Core results of the project will be presented during a local conference that will take place in February 2018.

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