Are We Preparing Young People for 21st -Century Citizenship With 20th-Century Thinking? A Case for a Virtual Laboratory of Democracy

Jun. 20, 2008

Source: Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education
[Online serial], 8(2)
, 125-157.

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

“We need a clear citizens’ vision of the way the Net ought to grow, a firm idea of the kind of media environment we would like to see in the future. If we do not develop such a vision for ourselves, the future will be shaped for us by large commercial and political owerholders” (Rheingold, 2000, p. 6). If the online environment is not considered as substantially different from the offline one, social studies educators run the risk of applying preconceived notions not only of citizenship, citizenship education, freedom of expression, and commercial and public space to the online environment, thus, limiting its potential and young people’s preparation for it. To prepare young people for online civic participation, a publicly supported virtual laboratory of democracy should be created. Such a laboratory will enable young people to become socialized to an online civic society and to learn how to act—in a civic manner—upon issues of importance to them and the larger society.

The author describes principles for this environment.


Overcoming Barriers and Establishing Principles

First, we must help the youth learn how to act upon the features of the internet that they find so attractive (i.e., to communicate and socialize) in a manner that serves not merely social functions, but the public interest.

Second, given the concern over addressing controversial issues in the classroom, the challenge is designing the site so educators and students can select controversial issues that better align with the desires and interests of the community.

Third, realizing the concerns over student involvement in the political realm, creating “online democratic spaces for young people” where they are “encouraged to develop horizontal channels of interaction through which networks and collective associations can be formed, as well as vertical channels, providing dialogical links to various institutions that have power over young people’s lives” (Coleman, 2006, p. 260) would serve as a means for students to gain limited political experience.

Finally, given that virtually all schools now have access to the Internet, the notion of creating a virtual lab or community for students begins to address the disconnect between the classroom and the community. Such a site should be founded on democratic principles and also provide opportunities to act upon such principles.



In posing the creation of a virtual laboratory of democracy from the vantage point of what young people today need to prepare for citizenship in a digital society of tomorrow, such a proposal represents a leap into the future.

Coleman, S. (2006). Digital voices and analogue citizenship: Bridging the gap between young people and the democratic process. Public Policy Research, 13(4), 257-262.

Rheingold, H. (2000). The virtual community. Homesteading on the electronic frontier (Rev. ed). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Updated: Mar. 02, 2009