Do new technologies and new media truly transform civic education, or are they amplifiers of well-established pedagogies?
That was the provocative question asked by civic education expert Joel Westheimer to a fabulous panel about digital media and civic education at the American Educational Research Association. All research communities are made up of connected little niches, and the group of folks interested in the intersection of digital media and civic education have a terrific combination of kindness, passion, and intellectual horsepower. The panel’s title gives a pretty good sense of the thrust of the conversation: “New Media as a Resource for Transforming Civic Learning Contexts.” The backchannel is online (at least for a little while) at //todaysmeet.com/aera.
The session had four short talks from Ellen Middaugh, Katie Davis, Jerusha Conner, and Antero Garcia, Ellen set the stage by discussing different ways in which technology enables extending existing practices, amplifying different practices, and transforming practices (based on this paper which I am looking forward to reading). Jerusha Conner showed how the Philadelphia Student Union (which appears to be completely awesome), a youth organization working on schooling issues, uses technology in a variety of ways to broadcast their work. Katie Davis showed some research from Bermuda demonstrating that high school students who experience a positive school climate are less likely to be victims of cyberbullying, suggesting that schools have a role to play in supporting youth’s positive experiences of community online. . Finally, Antero Garcia showed how he uses digital media in his own eighth grade classroom to have students explore and interact with the physical spaces of their school and then develop and publish their own views about those spaces. The thrust of all of the papers was that technology provides new opportunities and new lenses for thinking about civic education.
Then Joel provocatively suggested that the entire premise of the panel was flawed! (He’s a super nice guy, and can get away with that sort of thing.) Great educators have been doing collaborative projects of consequence for many years, and they will continue to do so through many iterations of technology. He conceded that there may be an amplification from technology but not a true transformation in pedagogy. We’ve known for a long time how to do great, civics-oriented project-based learning, and technology adds methods to established practices. .
From an academic perspective, I do think it’s a great question: what is really new here? As I was listening (and forming this post in my head), I was also wondering if this was meaningless pontification from people privileged enough to spend a lot of time thinking about abstract questions, or if there really is something important here for practicing teachers.
I’m of the opinion that it is worth thinking hard about the question, and the results are important for educators. I think Westheimer’s wrong: there is something fundamentally different about living in a world where Katy Butler can garner hundreds of thousands of petition signatures to have Bully released as PG-13 and play an instrumental role in making an important film accessible to millions of kids in school. In a world where it’s possible for young people to truly have a local, regional, national, global impact with their actions through digital media, it opens the doors for teachers to think seriously about designing learning experiences which have a real potential to impact real lives. That possibility is transformative, and it does have real consequences for how we think about structuring curriculum time, designing learning experiences, and inviting our students to be co-creators of their learning.
The challenge for Ellen and her colleagues is collaborate with practicing teachers (like Antero) to articulate in very clear ways how those transformations should be enacted in educational settings.
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