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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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September152006

Should Educators Encourage Online Student Political Activism?

Earlier today I had the opportunity to speak at a forum hosted by George Washington University on the impact of online social networks in politics. It was the last place I expected to be talking about teachers and media literacy, but somehow the conversation ended up steering in that direction.

Actually, I wasn’t even supposed to be at this event, as I’m still getting settled in my new digs here in Washington DC. Yesterday afternoon, though, I was asked to fill in for Andrew Baron, the founder of the video blog Rocketboom, for which I’m an occasional field correspondent. Andrew couldn’t make it, so I was asked to sit in on a panel about the role of user-generated content in online media and political campaigns.

Among the other people on my panel were the producer of the upcoming PBS documentary, The Republic of Baseball, conservative blogging guru Michelle Malkin and Gather.com founder Tom Gerace. Fortunately for me they were all very welcoming, despite my last-minute addition to th panel. (The panel prior to mine included a senior vice president from MySpace - now that would have been a fun one to sit in on.)

After each of us got about five minutes to speak, we opened the panel to questions from the moderator and the audience. Most of the questioning had to do with either politics or the ongoing clash between old media corporate culture and Web 2.0 culture. Then, someone in the audience asked how all of this stuff impacted education. What role do educators, they wondered, have in teaching students to participate in video blogging and politics?

I’ll have to check the c-span replay of the show, but I can imagine my hand shot up in the air like an overeager student ready to show their classmates that they’re the only one knowing the answer to a question. I immediately began describing how a growing number of educators are embracing Web 2.0 tools, including blogging, podcasting and videoblogging, as new ways of engaging their students in authentic learning opportunities. Given how the Internet is a public medium, it’s possible for students to create content that reaches beyond the walls of the classroom - developing new knowledge that serves as a learning experience while impacting their communities publicly.

For example, I cited Atlantic City Roughcuts, which I’ve blogged about previously. In that project, students in Atlantic City created a collection of short videos, each representing a different street on the Monopoly game board, which in itself is a representation of Atlantic City. For each street on the gameboard, they created a video about the cultural and civil rights legacy of activities that took place there. The students felt like they were learning about media production, but in fact they were creating socially relevant content for their community.

The conversation soon turned towards media literacy. Given the fact that so many kids today know how to blog and upload content to the Internet anyway, they asked if it was important for teachers to bother teaching any of these skills since kids know lots of them already. I suggested it’s more important than ever, because it’s all about how you use these tools and why, not just whether you can use them in the first place. It’s all too easy for schools to ignore teaching these tools and let kids figure them on their own, but that leads to innumerable examples of kids uploading video clips of street fights - or as we sadly saw earlier this week, uploading photo galleries of a young man with a mohawk posing with the arsenal of weapons he would use to gun down college students in Montreal.

We need to spend time teaching kids how to use these tools responsibly, for positive community impact, rather than using them as yet another way to flirt with other teens or bully their peers. I also mentioned the DOPA legislation, noting how it was currently in the Senate, and that there was a political clash going on between those who want to block Web 2.0 sites in schools as a way of augmenting online safety, and those who feel it would be a setback for online learning. From what I could tell, almost no one in the audience - or on stage for that matter - was familiar with the legislation or the associated debate.

The moderator soon moved on to another question, bfter the event wrapped up, several people asked me if schools should be teaching these tools to encourage kids to be politically active. I wasn’t sure how to answer it. I’ve always encouraged the use of the Internet to get kids more socially involved, but didn’t really know whether having them use these tools to get politically involved was “going too far.” On one level, of course it makes sense, because we should always applaud seeing young people taking an interest in politics and public discourse. But is it the job of teachers to encourage students to use the Net for organizing campaigns or influencing policy?

What do you think? Is encouraging student online political activism some how going too far, or is it precisely what educators should be doing to improve public political discourse? Where do you stand? -andy

Filed under : Video, Youth Media

Responses

The purpose of communication is to cause change in the world. Since politics is one of the avenues to change then students should undoubtedbly be involved.

However, if a teacher is actively encouraging the students, then they may be accused of advocating a point of view. As we all know a teacher with an opinion is a menace to society.

Educators should encouraged students to be civically involved. How else are we going to increase the number of people who vote? This is especially important in local and state elections where the margin of victory for candidates is so small. Mater of fact I think blogging is a civic responsibility.

Teachers should have an opinion, be open about it, but encourage as many views as their are stars in the sky. :)

I feel educators should encourage kids to become more involved in civics. It is something most schools barely cover. I do not feel, however, that their personal opinions should be used to influence kid’s decision making. This is the rub. Most educators today that are active in this manner have agendas that do beyond simply getting kids involved. Teachers and educators have a powerful influence over the kids they come in contact with and this should be used to open kid’s minds. It should not be used to slap a campain sticker or a P.E.T.A. slogan on their overweight backpacks.

I believe that young people should be encouraged to be activists. We need to hear as many young voices as possible. Too often students have come to believe that they are politically impotent. I think it is important for teachers to be open about their biases and agendas, but they must be expressed as just one viewpoint among many possibilities. Teachers are there to help students discover their own personal version of what the truth is.

As an educator I believe blogs enhance students learning experiences, it gives them a creative outlet that our required curriculums so often seem to stifle. Personally, I believe encouraging young people to have an opinion is the job of educators, but I’m skeptical about building activism into curriculums. I DO support students activism as an extra-curricular activity with the guidance of teachers. Educators transparancey of personal politics should be determined on a case by case basis.

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