As our world becomes increasingly interconnected, digital technologies have become an integral part of our everyday lives. From social media and gaming platforms to online learning environments, the internet affords countless opportunities for communication, collaboration and learning. Children and young people seamlessly weave in between the digital and physical realms, interacting with each other and with a global audience. However, they do not always use digital technologies safely and responsibly. Thus, just as we teach them to navigate the physical world, we must also teach them how to behave responsibly and keep themselves safe when they are online. This kind of education is often referred to as Digital Citizenship Education.
The Maltese national curriculum does not have a standalone subject dedicated to Digital Citizenship. Instead, it addresses this topic by integrating it into different curricular subjects such as Personal, Social and Career Development (PSCD), Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and Ethics. This blogpost aims to shed light on how the Ethics syllabus, which is taught in State schools and some Independent schools, specifically equips students with the necessary knowledge, skills and values that are required for them to engage ethically and responsibly in online environments.
Ethics is taught in primary, middle and secondary schools. While the early years syllabus does not specifically address digital technologies, it does teach students the importance of treating others kindly and with respect. However, as children progress in the primary years, around the age of eight, they are introduced to the topic of online safety. At this stage, children learn about managing their digital footprint and the importance of not sharing personal information with strangers. They also learn about cyberbullying, and how to prevent and address such incidents.
The middle school syllabus has recently undergone a comprehensive overhaul to incorporate topics directly related to Digital Citizenship. This updated syllabus delves into various pertinent topics, including the use of algorithms and the ethical issues pertaining to them. Students explore topical issues such as privacy concerns, the manipulation and persuasion techniques used in digital environments, and the potential exploitation of personal data. Furthermore, this syllabus deals with intellectual property rights associated with creative and intellectual works, designs and music. It discusses these rights in the context of generative Artificial Intelligence, shedding light on the challenges and implications arising from AI-generated content. Finally, the middle school syllabus advocates for active participation in digital spaces as a necessary component of a healthy democracy. Students are encouraged to engage in meaningful discussions, express their opinions, and exercise responsible digital citizenship to contribute positively to online communities and civic discourse.
Throughout the course, students are actively encouraged to cultivate critical thinking by using effective tools such as the Edward DeBono Thinking Tools and Lipman’s Programme for Philosophy for Children. These tools serve as catalysts for critical thinking, enabling students to analyse complex issues and engage in meaningful discussions about ethics, values and morality. By employing these methodologies, students are empowered to develop their reasoning abilities, consider multiple perspectives, and thoughtfully explore various topics and ethical dilemmas. Thus, students become better equipped to tackle more complex ethical topics as they transition to secondary school. The foundations laid during their earlier years allow them to approach more complex ethical dilemmas with greater confidence and proficiency.
One of the most pressing challenges that educators face is teaching students how to recognise and resist online hate speech and extremism. By fostering critical thinking skills and promoting open dialogue, schools can empower students to become discerning consumers of information and active participants in creating a more inclusive and tolerant society. In fact, this is one of the aims of the Ethics secondary school syllabus. This syllabus is tailored to address pertinent issues relevant to youths. It revisits the topic of cyberbullying, while also tackling the issue of online hate speech. Students are taught to practice respect for others both online and offline and are taught about the consequences of hate speech. They are also asked to reflect on the values portrayed by some influencers and role-models they encounter. By encouraging reflection, students become conscious consumers of media, making informed choices about the content they engage with and the individuals they look up to.
Students are also reminded of the importance of verifying information sources, recognising bias, and understanding the potential consequences of sharing misleading or inflammatory content. They are encouraged to challenge their own beliefs, consider a diverse range of perspectives and engage in empathetic dialogue. These essential skills are reinforced throughout their educational journey, starting from the primary and middle school, and continued in secondary education. Considering the legal voting age of sixteen in Malta, it has become even more critical to empower students with the necessary skills to navigate the digital world and to critically evaluate political information. By fostering these skills, students are better equipped to make informed decisions as they actively participate in the democratic process.
Teaching students how to behave ethically and responsibly online requires a multifaceted approach that combines digital literacy, critical thinking and empathy. By fostering these critical skills and values, educators can empower students to become informed, engaged and empathetic citizens capable of contributing to a more inclusive and tolerant society. Through education, we have the power to shape a generation that can resist polarisation, promote dialogue, and navigate the complexities of the online world with wisdom and discernment.