A Toolkit for Digital Civics

Helping young people learn to use digital media — safely and productively — to make an impact on issues they care about

October 7, 2018
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It’s not all distractions, danger, and fake news; despite the headlines, the Internet can be a force for civic good, especially for young people. But teachers and parents are often at a loss as to how to make sure it’s a tool for education and authentic connection, and not corruption and conflict.

The Digital Civics Toolkit is a new classroom resource that can channel youthful passion for digital media into meaningful real-world impact. It offers lesson plans and content for students of all grade levels, so educators can help them productively engage in digital life — which is so often inextricable from civic life in general. It’s meant to encourage students to recognize, take seriously, and act on the civic potential of digital and social media.

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Many young people don’t know how to engage in productive dialogue across digital spaces and platforms, or how to create media that represents their authentic views, or how to manage their online lives — including their privacy — in a way that is safe and comfortable for them. That’s where educators can step in.

The toolkit — which is free — is designed for high school students, but its creators say that it can be adapted for younger students, as well. It’s made up of five modules, organized as follows:

  • Participate. In this module, students explore their identities and communities, identify issues that matter to them, and consider how they could use digital media to act.
  • Investigate. Students learn to analyze civic information online and consider what information they can trust.
  • Dialogue. Here, students practice strategies for navigating diverse perspectives and exchanging ideas about civic issues.
  • Voice. Students explore how and why they might create, remix, and share civic or political content in online spaces.
  • Action. Here, students consider a broad range of tactics and strategies for acting on civic issues — everything from civil disobedience to Facebook likes.

The toolkit was developed by a multidisciplinary team of researchers, educators, and media producers working under the umbrella of the MacArthur Research Network on Youth Participatory Politics (YPP). The team includes Carrie James, a principal investigator for the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project ZeroErica Hodgin, from the Civic Engagement Research Group at the University of California, Riverside; and Sangita Shresthova, from the Civic Imagination Project at the University of Southern California.

Using Digital Media — For Impact

Digital media are central in the lives of today’s young people, of course — and the Internet is key to the ways in which they participate civically, says Joseph Kahne, the chair of the YPP network and a faculty member at the University of California, Riverside. “It's where young people get their information and news. It's often where they can express their own perspectives about civic or political issues,” he says in this Teaching Channel video.

But that doesn’t mean that digitally acclimated young people are prepared to participate. Many young people don’t know how to engage in productive dialogue across digital spaces and platforms, or how to create media that represents their authentic views, or how to manage their online lives — including their privacy — in a way that is safe and comfortable for them. That’s where educators can step in.

Educators can promote digital literacy and effective civic participation by:

  • Asking students to analyze and evaluate online information and judge the credibility of that information.
  • Providing opportunities and supports for young people to dialogue about pressing and controversial issues, on and offline.
  • Helping young people learn to produce compelling and impactful media, and circulate that media, and also understand the strategies and tactics for responding to an issue to create change.
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How to Use the Digital Civics Toolkit
  • Use it to help students recognize, take seriously, and act on the civic potential of digital and social media.
  • Use it to guide students to become more mindful of "digital afterlife" — making decisions about what to share about themselves, and thinking through the consequences of those decisions later in life.
  • Use it to help them navigate tensions between free speech and hate speech.
  • Use it to help students ask and answer questions about information credibility. 

Navigating Digital Risks

Educators can also help young people manage the three common challenges that they face in the digital realm — challenges that YPP network member Lissa Soep, a research director and senior producer at Youth Radio, has articulated.

  • Being mindful of the so-called digital afterlife of online activities — helping young people make decisions about what to share about themselves, and thinking through the consequences of those decisions later in life. (Ideally, this consideration does not thwart online civic expression entirely.)
  • Navigating frequent tensions between free speech and hate speech.
  • Managing questions of credibility. How do young people determine the credibility of the information that they encounter, especially if they wish to draw on that information to advocate for a particular cause?

One Example: Public vs. Private

The Digital Civics Toolkit provides many ways for educators to do this kind of work. For instance, in the voice module, one activity asks students to consider the difference between public voice — what personal information you don’t mind being easily accessible — and private voice, what you might keep in a diary, or only tell close family and friends. After watching a short video featuring the actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, teachers ask students to reflect on these questions:

  • What do you share publicly and what do you keep private? How do you decide?
  • Do you use social media to share your thoughts with a larger public? Why or why not?
  • What is the advantage of sharing more about yourself with a broader public?
  • Have you ever experienced any positive or negative consequences from sharing something publicly?
  • Can sharing personal information about yourself help get people to support you when you take action on a particular issue? Do you have an example of when this happened to you or someone you know?

Other sections of the voice module expand on these ideas, helping students develop their expressive powers and consider the ramifications of using those powers online. 

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