For some, the advancement of digital technologies and their rapid adoption has created a moral crisis for individuals as well as broader society. For others, they present an opportunity to tackle moral concerns on a global scale. The truth is probably somewhere in-between and that both these positions have merit. A further truth is that researchers have struggled to keep pace with recent digital technological developments. Gaining a clear picture about the effects of the Internet, mobile phones and other digital technologies on humans and humanity has been challenging. What is clear, both from research, but also the daily experiences of young people, parents, teachers and others is that these new technologies have poised some big moral questions. Global moral concerns such as cyber-bullying, online plagiarism, piracy, fake news and many others have become a reality for most of us since the start of the millennium. These concerns are prominent in the media yet often contested on conceptual or empirical grounds in academia. Yet, the evidence shows that moral concerns, such as those listed above, are on the rise globally. There are also those who seek to counter the negative picture; they say digital technologies can be the driver of informed, collaborative, active and positive citizenship activities.
If children and young people are to become cyber-citizens then we require educational policies that encourage them to be critically reflective on their use of digital technologies. One approach is to seek, through deliberate educational efforts, to cultivate Cyber-wisdom (what Aristotle might have called cyber-phronesis) in our children and young people. Cyber-wisdom can be defined as doing the right thing, at the right time especially when no one is watching (Harrison, 2016). The substantial work carried out by the Jubilee Centre into how neo-Aristotelian character educational theory can be applied in practice provides some guidance on how cyber-wisdom can be ‘taught’ in schools (see www.jubileecentre.ac.uk).
A new intervention, entitled Making Wiser Choices Online, was recently developed and trialed by over 500 11-14 year olds in England. The intervention was incorporated into the Computer Science programme of study and built on similar studies that demonstrate the possibilities of teaching character through and within curriculum subjects. The intervention, consisting of a taught course structured across four computer science lessons and required students to be both self-reflective about their own Internet use and its impact on others. At the heart of the programme was a focus on the moral dilemmas that students face in their daily lives; relating to concerns such as cyber-bullying, plagiarism and piracy amongst others. The approach aimed to improve students’ ethical decision-making in cyber-society as well as to help them engage in virtue reasoning, especially when the virtue conflicted.
Repeated exposure to dilemmas might be seen as a form of advanced habituation where students are gradually brought to more critical discernment through the practice of cyber-phronesis. The advantage of this approach, and its focus on critical reflection, is that moral character education need not be indoctrinating as it is about ‘helping students grasp what is ethically important in situations and to act for the right reasons, such that they become more autonomous and reflective’ (Jubilee Centre, 2017: 2). The results of the pilot found that those students who had experienced the programme developed their virtue perception and reasoning more than those who did not. Virtue perception and virtue reasoning might be seen as just two parts of the complex cyber-wisdom jigsaw; but the research demonstrates how adopting a character education approach to address online moral concerns could be an important step towards us all flourishing online.
Harrison, T. (2016) ‘Cultivating Cyber-Phronesis: A New Educational Approach to Tackle Cyber-bullying’, Pastoral Care in Education, Vol. 34, no. 4, pp. 232-244.
Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues (2017) A Framework for Character Education in Schools. Birmingham: University of Birmingham, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, [Online], Available at: http://jubileecentre.ac.uk/userfiles/jubileecentre/pdf/character-education/Framework%20for%20Character%20Education.pdf