Nowadays, the importance of digital literacy for a modern person could be hardly overestimated. It goes far beyond enabling people to navigate the Internet; it improves citizens’ employability, empowers them to participate in the life of their communities online, and what is more important, serves as a tool that enables them to acquire other significant life skills. At the same time, in the context of Belarus digital literacy is also one of the most prevalent internet health issues with youth being at the heart of the matter. Nevertheless, it can be argued by many, since young people ─ who are often referred to as digital natives ─ are considered to be the most active, advanced, and skillful group, when it comes to using the Internet and technologies.
Yet, what has failed to be recognized on a national level here is that being a digital native doesn’t imply that you naturally acquire such skills as critical thinking, evaluation, and analysis of information, creation of online content as well as meaningful interaction with technologies. Moreover, it is also reinforced by the traditional logic that digital literacy is something that can be taught and thoroughly covered in a few computer classes in school or university. As a result, there has been insufficient progress in introducing innovative and comprehensive courses on digital literacy in educational institutions that play a crucial role in shaping a young person’s skills, knowledge, and citizenship.
Meanwhile, touching upon citizenship, it must be pointed out that citizenship education and digital literacy share one particular feature ─ which also can be perceived as a flaw or a challenge ─ in the Belarusian context. Namely, there is a lack of both a unified framework for these phenomena as well as an effective and up-to-date national strategy to develop respective skills among young people in educational institutions. Here comes NGOs, projects, and initiatives, which engage youth in non-formal education and teach them both citizenship education and digital literacy with a focus on values of civic participation. However, while young people living in big cities have access to the myriad of such non-formal activities, students in rural areas often lack this opportunity and leg behind.
Meanwhile, last year while working on the local youth events in Minsk, the capital of the country, I had an opportunity to connect to young people, who moved to Minsk from small cities and who eagerly assured me that they would like to see youth projects and events related to the discussed above areas in their hometowns. Their stories inspired me to create a community project called Younity, an educational project on citizenship education for rural youth aged 14-20. The main goal of the project is to enable young people from rural areas with knowledge and skills for civic engagement and leadership by educating them on values and tools of exercising active citizenship both in real life and the digital environment. Younity also aims at creating an online platform where the participants of the project can share their ideas, experience, and knowledge on the topics learning material, connect with each other and find useful learning materials for deepening their knowledge on the discussed issues. The project consists of a series of workshops conducted in different towns around Belarus. Each workshop gathers around 18-22 participants and is based on non-formal education methodology. During the activities, participants learn about and discuss such issues as sustainability, digital literacy, global citizenship. As part of the digital literacy, module participants get to know digital rights and responsibilities, Internet Governance, privacy and security, digital inclusion, and related issues that help youth reflect on the digital environment from different perspectives and explore their role in shaping their communities online and offline. At the same time, there have been 2 workshops conducted in different cities this year, which gathered 39 participants in total; another 5 workshops are planned to be implemented till the end of 2020.
One of the open leadership practices that the project has a vision for is sharing leadership tasks with the participants of the workshops. It involves both giving them an opportunity to take on responsibilities within the project as well as encouraging them to become peer educators and organizing their own educational activities for young people in their communities based on the
knowledge they acquire as part of the project.
When I think of a message to a global Internet community on Internet health what comes to my mind is the words of a famous American physician, Mark Hyman “The power of community to create health is far greater than any physician, clinic or hospital.” There can be a variety of stakeholders, however, it takes common efforts to create and sustain a healthy Internet for us as one connected community.