It’s About People, Not Tech: Analogue Education Shaping Citizens Of An Algorithmic Era

This article was first published in the July 2020 edition of the Teaching Citizenship journal, which had a thematic focus on critical media literacy and was distributed to all secondary schools in England. You can find it here.

Did you catch 2018’s most memorable demonstration of media illiteracy? When a white-haired US Senator asked Mark Zuckerberg how Facebook’s business model could be sustainable if Facebook was free, teenagers around the world buried their heads in a collective ‘facepalm’. The generational divide, culminating in Zuckerberg’s almost kindly reply, “Senator, we run ads”, is nothing new. Given the pace of technological change, will today’s educators quickly require an ‘update’?

I am at the tail-end of the floppy disk generation. When I went to school in the early 2000s, I.T. meant that 15 clunky laptops would occasionally be carted into the classroom to briefly interrupt the buzzing of the overhead projector. At the conference on Digital Inclusion & Positive Identities, recently convened by the educational charity Cumberland Lodge, a friend told me that her toddler tried to swipe open the fridge door. Time to contemplate how can we raise ethically astute, literate citizens of a digital age, if we ourselves have long since drowned in the forever-accelerating Insta-Snapchat-WhatsApp vortex.

Despite the rapid evolution of digital societal infrastructure, schools remain largely analogue environments – albeit ones that are equipped, in principle, to prepare young people for digital spaces. After all, raising tomorrow’s citizens is not merely a question of digital skills. Rather, citizenship education concerns, first and foremost, guiding ethics and behaviour, personal values and social goals. These are timeless matters which can, and should, be developed in the social environment where young people spend a large proportion of their waking hours: at school.

According to the most recent Media Literacy Index,[i] high-quality education offers the best response to misinformation and fake news. After all, many of the rules of engagement governing analogue civil society (including the classroom) are relevant in virtual spaces, too: Consent and respect for privacy matter not only in sex and relationship lessons. Accountability and ownership apply beyond conversations about plagiarism and exam practice.

Counterintuitively, the key to educating tomorrow’s citizens could be to de-emphasise the distinction between our online and offline lives, and to consider whether the “digital” prefix is necessary at all, in discussions on citizenship education.

State-of-the-art education in a digital age focuses on enhancing children’s resilience to the lures of misinformation, and on helping them cope with the incessant torrents of information-overload: by giving them the tools to think critically, interpret and evaluate information.[ii] Important though resilience is, this strikes me as an insufficient approach to educating tomorrow’s citizens. Children are not simply consumers of online material: those who not only cope but create and thrive with the self-efficacy of citizens, will also be tomorrow’s developers of digital technology. Which standards will future tech giants apply to their ideas, designs and algorithms, when they think about what makes a society worth living in?

When Supreme Court Justice Lord Sales recently called for the creation of an expert commission to oversee digital innovation, he stressed that tomorrow’s most powerful social innovators need not all be coders. Rather, to ensure that “algorithms and artificial intelligence are used to enhance human capacities, agency and dignity”, those at the forefront of shaping the digital age will also be ethicists and psychologists. [iii] Their most powerful tools will be what Gori Yahaya, CEO of UpSkill Digital, calls “soft skills with a digital edge”. These skills – including a mindset for continuous learning – can be developed in the classroom.

From my point of view, as a social psychologist, one of the core skills required in a digital age is the ability to step outside of our ‘echo chambers’. Technology companies – social media platforms, in particular – claim to create community, counter division, and offer everyone a ‘tribe’. At a recent Cumberland Lodge conference, psychologist Dr Elaine Kasket called this “purpose washing”: a branding exercise shrouding these companies’ true purpose and impact. Perversely, Twitter and Co are designed to confine their users to echo chambers, to lull us into a comfortable sense of certainty about our beliefs. By encouraging us to text not talk, ‘social’ technology has also prompted us to rely on a means of communication that, neuro-chemically speaking, builds less connection with the people we care about, not more.[iv] On balance, social technology has the power to undermine, not enhance, our ability to relate to others. In such digital environments, it is essential to hone the skills that allow us to break out of familiar communities.

Seven decades of social psychological research have shown that the key to developing the social and emotional skills which underpin cohesive societies lies in forging positive relationships across (ethnic, religious, socioeconomic, political, …) divides.[v]

Unfortunately, schools are often less diverse than the neighbourhoods in which they are located[vi] – a homogeneity that is accentuated further by our tendency to re-segregate into homogenous peer groups, even in relatively diverse social spaces.[vii] From the point of view of teachers, it is therefore crucial to integrate a wide range of voices into the curriculum,[viii] and to model curiosity about the unfamiliar, empathy across social faultlines, and tolerance and openness in the face of complex social diversity. Even if your students’ lives unfold in culturally monochrome bubbles, the diversity of your own social experiences – like ripples radiating from a pebble landing in water – affect them indirectly.[ix] Their social experiences and your own will shape how the children in your care will engage with, and contribute to, society – offline and online.

For too long, the digital-analogue distinction has suggested that our lives, and the rules and values that govern society, can be parsed into separate online and offline realities: that what we learn in the classroom – about friendship, ownership, boundaries, empathy – does not inform how we act online. Organisations with the mission to further social cohesion – including Cumberland Lodge, which is currently facilitating talks, workshops, and in-house research to explore education in the digital age[x] – recognise that educational institutions cannot afford to watch technological changes from the side-lines. Just as we must consider that ‘digital natives’ may lack the skills, knowledge, and instincts required for fully consensual and truly civic participation online, we ought not to dismiss the timeless insights into citizenship that educators can convey offline. At a recent meeting of educators and innovators at Cumberland Lodge, Helen Milner from The Good Things Foundation summarised this well: “In the end, digital is about people, not tech”.

[i] https://osis.bg/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/MediaLiteracyIndex2018_publishENG.pdf

[ii] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/28/fact-from-fiction-finlands-new-lessons-in-combating-fake-news

[iii] https://www.supremecourt.uk/docs/speech-191112.pdf

[iv] Seltzer, L. J., & Pollak, S. D. (2012). Instant messages vs. speech: hormones and why we still need to hear each other. Evolution and Human Behaviour, 33, 42-45.

[v] Love, A., & Hewstone, M. (in press). Intergroup contact and prejudice reduction: Three guiding principles. In P. Van Lange, E. T. Higgins, & A. W. Kruglanski (Eds.), Social Psychology: Handbook of Basic Principles (3rd ed.). The Guilford Press.

[vi] Burgess, S., Wilson, D., & Lupton, R. (2005). Parallel lives? Ethnic segregation in schools and neighbourhoods. Urban Studies, 42, 1027-1056.

[vii] Al Ramiah, A., Schmid, K., Hewstone, M., & Floe, C. (2015). Why are all the White (Asian) kids sitting together in the cafeteria? Resegregation and the role of intergroup attributions and norms. British Journal of Social Psychology, 54, 100–124.

[viii] Cameron, L., & Rutland, A. (2006). Extended contact through story reading in school: Reducing children’s prejudice toward the disabled. Journal of Social Issues, 62, 469-488.

[ix] Zhou, S., Page-Gould, E., Aron, A., Moyer, A., & Hewstone, M. (2018). The extended contact hypothesis: A meta-analysis on 20 years of research. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 23, 132-160.

[x] https://cumberlandlodge.ac.uk