Politics and Civic Engagement: Interview with Joseph Kahne, Part II

Thursday, February 10, 2011 at 11:19 am


This post is part of a series of interviews highlighting leaders in the field of New Learning (what we call “NLI at Inquiry”). A couple of weeks ago, we interviewed Mills College Professor Joseph Kahne about his research, trends in political engagement and civic participation, equitable digital media learning opportunities, and his thoughts on the future of civic engagement in education. In Part II, he discusses how educators can teach civics through digital media use.
Professor Kahne, how can educators teach civics through the use of digital media? Does the content matter, or is it more about how students interact with each other? Discuss how friendship-driven participation compares with interest-driven participation.
There are a variety of ways that digital media can support civic and political development. First, clearly, more and more people are doing core acts of civic and political life online. They’re expressing their opinions online, they’re getting their information online, they’re entering into discussions with others online, they’re being mobilized and mobilizing other people online; they might create a website tied to the issues they care about. Fundraising goes on online. There’s a huge number of ways digital media is embedded in civic and political life. One thing that educators can do is to help young people develop the skills needed to participate in those contexts. How do you tell whether the information you’re getting is credible? What are productive ways to get into a dialogue online that doesn’t lead to flaming and disrespectful interaction? Media literacy skills are very important.
And, we found in our studies that when teachers give young people opportunities to develop those skills — when, for example, they require that young people go online to get multiple points of view on an issue, or to create a website that communicates a perspective, or to discuss how to judge the trustworthiness of sources of information — those experiences lead young people to be more likely to do those things in their discretionary time. So we have some evidence that teaching those digital media literacy skills, and especially those skills that relate to civic life, is productive in terms of promoting more engagement.
Another thing found is that interest-based engagement with digital media can be quite valuable. When young people enter into online communities, or are a part of what Henry Jenkins calls a “participatory culture,” they frequently get a set of experiences that it appears (from our studies) promote or build a bridge to broader civic and political engagement. They learn skills of how to be part of community, which is key, and an appreciation of those norms; they get a sense of the possibility and value of collective efforts; they probably get exposed, unintentionally, to information about opportunities to get involved, and about issues they might care about.
What are the implications for educators? Many interest-based communities can be things that young people can engage with in out-of-school/afterschool programs. So it’s important for us not just to think of this as something schools deliver. In addition, many of the features of those communities, those participatory cultures, can be connected to academic content. If, for example, educators could use social media to create ways for peers to comment on one another’s work, or on each other’s perspectives on various issues, that can create a context that is more authentic and more compelling for young people; and through which they can learn a great deal about the issues they’re engaging.
Games that focus on civic and political life can also be helpful. Games can provide simulations where young people get a sense of what it is to be a leader of a community, to be a mayor or to be part of an organization; they can simulate courtrooms, legislative bodies…they can do all sorts of different things.
These interest-driven participatory communities differ somewhat from friendship-driven participation. We found that when young people are engaged with their interests, like in hobbies or fan culture, we see increases in those individuals’ participation. We have a longitudinal study that we did where we followed over 400 kids over time, where we could see that if you were involved in those interest-driven communities, they became more likely to participate. But we did not find that friendship-driven participation had any effect, either positive or negative. So, for example, if youth email their friends or socialize on Facebook or through social media, we didn’t see that had an impact one way or the other.
To be continued...
What is the extent to which digital media opportunities are inequitable and how might inequities be addressed? In the future, how could online participation differ from geographic participation?
Next week we will publish Part III of our interview with Professor Kahne, focusing on his thoughts on the equity of digital media opportunities and the future of types of civic and political participation.
Additional Resources on Professor Kahne’s work:

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