“Liking” a Cause: Bringing digital civics into the classroom
The close of the May 2011 election saw a decisive shift in the political landscape of Canada. The Conservative Party secured a majority in Parliament, the NDP took over the mantle of official opposition, the Green Party elected its first member to Parliament, and the Liberals and Bloc Quebecois shrank to shadows of their former selves. Despite these decisive changes, voter turnout remained low. Some university students were proactive, coordinating large groups to swarm advance polls and then filming the event, but there is no indication these ‘vote mobs’ rallied youth who weren’t already inclined to participate (leadnow.ca). Although having an undergraduate degree is one of the few things which reliably increase the likelihood of voting, efforts to get younger youth involved politically – such as high school civics education – are far less successful.
Traditionally, high school civics curricula frames the problem of youth apathy as one of ignorance: if students only knew how systems of government worked, they might be more eager to vote; if youth are cynical about government, it’s only because they don’t fully understand all the nuances of capital ‘P’ politics. If that is the case, the prescribed dose of lectures on the foundation of the Canadian Parliament should remedy the problem. So why doesn’t it? At the same time, how can we explain all the small ‘p’ political engagement activities youth are initiating online?
Perhaps this is because teens feel pushed out of public life offline: politicians hardly court them, since they are not eligible to vote, and they may see their work in the civics classroom as a dress-rehearsal for adult life instead of something that is relevant to their lives right now.
By comparison, there are many features of cyberspace which pull youth there: all their friends are online, access is cheap and fast, users can opt into groups they are genuinely interested in, messages can spread quickly to a large audience, communication works in both directions – the list goes on. Youth appear to be bringing civic life to virtual spaces by joining online protest groups, forwarding e-mail petitions, forming online clubs, and spreading news through social networks. On an informal basis, they are practicing digital literacy – but without much guidance or support.
In the social media world, site operators observe a rule called "paving the cow paths". In a nutshell, this refers to monitoring how members spontaneously use a Web site and adjusting site features to support those behaviours. Given that young people are already informally attempting to engage in civic life through online technologies, this represents an opportunity for educators to pave the cow paths in the civics classroom. Rather than tug youth back onto the prescribed path of general classroom practice, educators might instead consider investigating how their students are already applying their digital literacy skills to civic life and help them refine those efforts.
Teens as a group have ample access to the Internet, but they don’t always have requisite digital literacy skills to thrive online. This is an important gap to address as more and more daily activities migrate online, especially civic life. Digital literacy is more than just consuming text delivered online. It also includes participation, collaboration, and action in online communities. In other words, digitally literate youth are empowered when they can produce as well as understand new media. It is the difference between just visiting a political Web site and leaving a thoughtful, public comment which forces a response from leaders. It is the difference between starting a boycott, and running a campaign online which communicates the goals and rationale of the boycott to the targeted company. Given the civic applications of digital literacy, especially for youth, it deserves a place in civic education programs.
If the long-term goal of civics education is to motivate youth to exercise their rights as citizens of a democracy, it makes sense to find opportunities for them to do this in the present through their online communities. Cultivating the attitude that one can make a difference is more important for long-term voting behaviour than a command of facts. The advantages of digital media currently embraced by politicians, activists, and students are also a blessing for civics educators: the Internet is ideally suited to enabling meaningful participation without leaving school grounds. This means that whatever causes youth care to pursue can be supported in class. Even if the causes youth gravitate towards may seem off-topic (for example environmentally-minded students asking Facebook to “unfriend” coal) the point of the exercise is not to learn facts about the political system but to develop an interest in being active citizens. From this, learning the facts will follow. This approach isn’t practical when civics education is confined to classrooms and limited to textbooks, but with adequate ICT access in schools it becomes a real opportunity for youth to work on civic issues that resonate for them and to make real contributions online using digital literacy skills.
Digital media can help educators make their civics courses more authentic both by facilitating student choice of topics and by empowering students to act on them using digital literacy. Digital media is already a huge part of civic and political life: how many activists could live without e-mail? How many Members of Parliament could function without their smart phone? What kind of political campaign can forego any presence on the Web? Schools remain strange hold-outs where digital media are concerned. But if our goal is for students to do civics and not merely learn about it, digital literacy is central. Indeed, those without adequate digital literacy skills risk being left out of civic life.
Media Awareness Network has published a discussion paper on the importance of digital literacy and civic engagement for educators. It is freely available at: http://www.media-awareness.ca/english/corporate/media_kit/reports-publications.cfm#civic.
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