Ethan Zuckerman – Teaching New Civics In a Digital World

February 26, 2013
9:00 am - 10:00 am PST
By Connected Learning Alliance

As the Internet shifts our concept of civic life, how can we equip citizens (especially youth) to handle digital rhetorics and publics?

Key Questions and Comments:

  • (03:20) So, Ethan, if you could start us off on this topic of ‘new civics’ and how the Internet & the networked age is affecting how people–especially young people–are able to engage civically?
  • (04:28) “Civics,” as a term, is one that people hate. It immediately puts people in the 1950s…it takes us to Schoolhouse Rock…there’s this sense of: “There’s a system we should have learned about, we should understand it better than we do, and there’s all sorts of responsibilities that we should be taking on.”
  • (06:37) I want to think about how you bridge from this question of “civics in crisis” to some of the really interesting, energetic movements we’re seeing, particularly of youth getting involved with public participation and civic change.
  • (10:20) Is there a way we can come up with a definition of civics that’s broad enough to include not just learning branches of government, separations of powers…but thinking about media-driven activism, consumer activism, hacktivism–all these different examples of ways of being engaged in civics?
  • (12:32) I’m starting to think about this question of civics in terms of a pretty simple two-by-two matrix. One axis is “thick” versus “thin”…and the other is “effective” versus “symbolic.”
    • “Thin” engagement: easy for you to do, clearly defined, doesn’t require a lot of strategy or creativity on your part, participation within an existing system (Ex: liking/sharing the KONY2012 video on Facebook)
    • “Thick” engagement: getting involved with something over a very long period of time; learning more about it; as your path of the Ladder of Engagement increases, your path of depth of knowledge and depth of nuance increases; and it’s playing on your ability as a creative actor to build your own content… (Ex: DREAM Act activism)
  • (18:50) Could you give a couple examples of [civic engagement] that are “thick” but not “impactful”?
  • (23:22) One of the things that complicates the new media world is that it seems to be easier & easier to have lots of thin actions compiled to be really impactful…That question of scale–that is what new media opens up the most kind of interesting domains about.
  • (29:23) The internet and social media has really changed how we think about scale. Historically, it’s been awfully hard for one person to think about how they impact more than a couple hundred people…Now, it’s not unrealistic for people to say, “I’m gonna find a way to influence a thousand, ten thousand, a hundred thousand people.”
  • (32:24) What do you feel is the different between civic “involvement” versus civic “engagement”?
  • (34:37) Let’s shift to how you teach and prepare young people for the opportunities that we talked about, but also some of the challenges…How do teachers help kids get their arms around the opportunities?
    • (37:40) What we know about interest-driven learning is likely very important. Looking for what people are passionate about and then trying to figure out how that becomes a teachable moment around a whole variety of different issues is one possible way to look at this. If I were designing curriculum around this, I would be looking for issues that students are already passionate about. I would then be looking for ways to try to help students think about how you deepen your knowledge on an issue…and then thinking about…how do we figure out who we’re trying to influence, and how do we measure who we tried to influence over time?
    • (40:35) The other teaching strategy I think is really compelling borrows on Ethan’s idea of linking to multiple subject, and I think history is incredibly helpful here. Particularly getting people to understand the historical examples of people who have made change…not just the heroic figures, but more ordinary, relatable figures.
  • (45:08) One of the questions asked is, “What sort of infrastructures do we have to help us do this?” My response to that: I’m less worried about what the infrastructures are. I’m actually much more worried about trying to figure out these questions of efficacy.
  • (46:35) What roles might educators have in encouraging students to engage with electoral politics…versus the “community service” model, which is often more encouraged in schools these days?
    • (52:06) I think we’ve ended up doing this community engagement because we feel that it’s effective (at least on the small scale) and, frankly, because it’s not going to get us in trouble…so we go to an area where no one is going to object to us trying to work in a soup kitchen…we’re scared, understandably, of moving into those deeply controversial areas.
  • (59:02) We’re at a moment in time where people feel empowered to act, at least in media spaces…What I would urge for parents and educators: the first step in any of this is the skeptical evaluation of a claim…It’s a moment to both do that really deep dive into understanding an issue before we then start climbing that Ladder of Engagement.

View the Conversation
During the broadcast, the conversation also took place on Twitter using the hashtag #connectedlearning.

Guests for this webinar included:

  • Jeff Brazil – Moderator/Host
  • Ethan Zuckerman – Guest Speaker. Ethan Zuckerman is director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, and a principal research scientist at MIT’s Media Lab. He is the Keynote Speaker for the 2013 Digital Media & Learning Conference: “Democratic Futures: Mobilizing Voices, and Remixing Youth Participation.” His research focuses on the distribution of attention in mainstream and new media, the use of technology for international development, and the use of new media technologies by activists. With Rebecca MacKinnon, Ethan co-founded international blogging community Global Voices. Through Global Voices and through the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, where he served as a researcher and fellow for eight years, Ethan is active in efforts to promote freedom of expression and fight censorship in online spaces. You can follow his thoughts at EthanZuckerman.comand on Twitter at @EthanZ.
  • Justin Reich – Director of Online Community, Practice and Research at Facing History and Ourselves; founder of EdTechTeacher
  • Liana Thompson – Postdoctoral Research Associate with the Civic Paths Project at USC Annenberg

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