Empowering digital citizenship through mobile technology

mobile_360_africa_logoAt GSMA Mobile 360 Africa, held in Cape Town in November, I sat on a panel about Empowering the Digital Citizen. Below are my speaking notes. An excellent summary of the session was written by Leigh Andrews.

What is digital citizenship?

According to Wikipedia, “A digital citizen refers to a person utilizing/using information technology (IT) in order to engage in society, politics, and government participation.” The act of digital citizenship is participation. This is enabled by mobile technologies that are in the hands of everyday people. The benefit of digital citizenship is engagement and I would say, empowerment, for both citizens and government. Citizenship implies both rights and responsibilities.

Citizen rights are increased access to information and services, and having a voice that can be heard. Remember that access to information alone is meaningless if one cannot act upon that information (for more on this see Economics Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen’s work Development as Freedom). There must be the opportunity for a response.

Responsibilities are exercising that voice, and doing so wisely. If citizens have the ability to talk to government and each other, then they must use those channels. Equally, citizens should also make use of government self-service. If not, the result is a decline in the offering of such services.

Government responsibilities are the need to be open about its data, to share information, to empower citizens to help themselves and, most critically, to actively respond to citizen voices and participation in an engaged way. For example, if the city of Cape Town allows its citizens to report broken street lights and potholes in the roads, but does nothing with that information, then the service has not only been pointless, it has eroded peoples’ belief in government’s desire to listen, act and be accountable.

A personal example comes from Cape Gateway (as it was known then), a ground-breaking service founded in 2002 that increased accessed to government information for citizens of the Western Cape through three channels: a web portal, walk-in centre and call centre. I was the Design and Usability Lead for three years, constantly trying to make the information and channels as accessible to people as possible. So, our content team would always try to offer the most direct contact details of government departments and people. Not a general contact number, but the number of Mrs Nozuka, the primary contact for driver’s licence renewals. We made government employees so accessible that some asked us to change the numbers – their phones had never rung so much!

It always struck everyone on the project that while we would try to get people as close to Government as possible, we only offered the introduction. If Mrs Nozuka never responded to calls or emails to assist in licence renewals, then ultimately the citizens would not be empowered, only somewhat informed.

So, what does this mean for education?

INCREASED LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES

There is the possibility now for an offering that is much better suited to the needs and realities of adults and children, whose daily routines are filled with work, with chores or even baby-sitting in many child-headed households. According to UNESCO, this increased flexibility is one the necessary changes that education will undergo in the post-2015 world.

For too long education has been a rigid framework into which people must fit, or be excluded by.   Now, with mobile technology in particular, teaching and learning can happen in different ways and at different times. Examples include face-to-face learning that is complemented by self-study in a blended model, increased access to educational resources, access to online teacher and learner communities where peer-to-peer learning can happen, virtual tutoring (even via IM chat as with Dr Math on Mxit), and variations of MOOCs that are sensitive to the needs of developing country students. Overall, greater flexibility in learning opportunities will lead to greater education uptake.

More efficient management of resources

There is also the possibility of more efficient management of education administration and resources. Education Management Information Systems (EMIS) are traditionally used by administrators to report on school results, infrastructure, teacher attendance, etc. — to better inform planning at the district, provincial or national level. Now teachers, students and parents can also report in.

Drawing from the field of citizen science, we would say that teachers, students and parents are part of the sensor network, using their eyes and ears to report back into the grid that can help to manage resources more effectively and efficiently through the aggregation and analysis of real-time data. Of course this reporting is done by SMS, phone camera, GPS readings, email and more.

Increased education transparency

Finally, increased transparency and visibility in education is key to increased digital citizenship. Teachers, students and parents should have access to the information that is collectively gathered by and about them, and to the responses by government. This not only serves as an incentive to participate in the process (you see the fruits of your labour by improved services), but provides the possibility for oversight (if there are no fruits you will know and should complain/campaign).

The transparency also applies to self-service within education. If student records were kept in a more open, digital and standards-based way, then they could be accessed throughout the educational career of the student, even as she leaves formal education and embarks on the lifelong learning journey. This is obviously empowering for students, but also government as more data is gathered about the learning habits of citizens which can better inform policymaking.

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