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

About Learning.Now

Learning.now is a weblog that explores how new technology and Internet culture affect how educators teach and children learn. It will offer a continuing look at how new technology such as wikis, blogs, vlogs, RSS, podcasts, social networking sites, and the always-on culture of the Internet are impacting teacher and students' lives both inside and out of the classroom.
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Random Acts of Journalism

At the Personal Democracy Forum in New York City this week, participants discussed and debated the impact of Web 2.0 on journalism, politics and governance. For two days, I couldn’t stop asking myself: what skills should we be teaching students to make them 21st century citizens - and should teaching them to act as citizen journalists be a part of it?

(Before I dive into this post, though, I’d like to offer my apologies regarding my recent absence. A business trip to London soon merged into a minor family emergency, which in turn merged into a move into a new house, during which I had almost no Internet access; before I knew it, I’d been in absentio for more than two weeks. If something like this happens again, I’ll do my best to come up for air long enough so you know I haven’t accidentally driven off a cliff or anything like that.)

But let’s get back to the conference. It’s become one of my favorite events on my annual travel calendar: The Personal Democracy Forum, or PDF. Organized by online political activists Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry, PDF is a gathering of politicos, journalists, bloggers, vloggers, community organizers and pretty much anyone else interested in how the Internet and other technologies can raise the quality of American discourse.

This year’s PDF had a particular focus on governance. For example, can wikis be used to help citizens work with policymakers to craft legislation or find common ground on complex issues? Can opening up the government’s massive annual output of data so they become available as RSS or XML feeds make it easier for people to hold elected officials accountable? Meanwhile, there were lots of discussions on the impact of social networks and YouTube on the election, not to mention the obligatory debates on the relationship between professional journalists and bloggers.

As the various panels and networking activities took place, I noticed a reoccuring theme, particularly on backchannels like Twitter and the conference’s official chat room. There was a general assumption that people were prepared to dive in and use these tools for their full democratic, Jeffersonian potential. It’s not surprising - some of the brightest and most creative people in the social media space were participating in PDF - so it’s natural when we Web 2.0 geeks get together in the same room, we take a lot of things for granted about what digital literacy skills - including media literacy - people possess.

Granted, the evidence is all around us - more people than ever are participating in political discussions on social networks, organizing community actions online, uploading political critiques on YouTube, etc. But occasionally, conference attendees would reference the challenges faced by disenfranchised groups when it comes to participating in these new political processes. For example, Mayhill Fowler, the citizen journalist who made headlines this year for capturing Barack Obama’s so-called “bitter” comments at a California fundraiser, noted how the Obama campaign initially required supporters to register online to attend campaign events. They then realized that a sizeable section of the constituency lacked the access or skills to go online, so they changed the policy so that supporters could go to a local volunteer office to get their tickets.

A more overt example of discussing the digital divide came in the form of a press conference organized to announce the launch of the Internet for Everyone campaign, a bipartisan coalition of nonprofit groups, businesses, academics and activists pushing for the federal government to embrace policies to bridge the digital divide. As the founding editor of the Digital Divide Network, I caught myself having flashbacks to 1999, when a similar coalition came together to address many of the same goals. I also had flashbacks to what I felt was a glaring ommission then, and I still believe is a glaring ommission now - addressing the skills gap in conjunction with addressing the access gap. It’s relatively easy to expand Internet infrastructure in comparison to improving the technology skills of disenfranchised people, particularly the tens of millions of people who are functionally illiterate.

During the press conference, I raised the point, noting that previous research on the digital divide suggests that education level is generally the greatest indicator of whether one has Internet access, and asked how the coalition would address the skills gap. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a very clear response, as can be seen in this video stream I shot on my phone during the event. Scroll ahead to just after the three-minute mark to hear where I ask my question.

In other cases, the question of skills and participation was referenced more directly. Zephyr Teachout, who coordinated Howard Dean’s online campaign activities in the 2004 election cycle, summed it up concisely in her opening keynote. “How many people have within them the knowledge of how to form a local group and to use that group to change the structure of their society?” she challenged us to consider. Unfortunately, only a few of us at PDF were thinking about questions like this from a K-12 perspective.

Thankfully, education blogger Will Richardson was there, and the two of us were going back and forth on Twitter trying to make sense of all of this. In one panel, Washington Post reporter Jose Antonio Vargas was discussing the gap between professional journalists and citizen journalists covering the campaign. I posted a tweet paraphrasing one of his comments: “I think everyone’s a journalist. It’s just a matter of whether your work lives up to that name.” To this, Will replied:

So does that mean we should teach all of our students to be journalists?

And I fired back this answer:

we should teach them to be 21st century citizens, part of which is teaching them to contribute to public discourse by all means

But 140 characters isn’t always enough to wrap up a response, so I added this follow-up:

yeah, we should be prepping kids so they can conduct random acts of journalism when moments arise that demand coverage, debate

This notion of “random acts of journalism” is something I’ve talked about before when people ask me if I see my role as a blogger as being the same as being a journalist. It’s not a yes or no kinda question. Sometimes when I blog, I’m just talking about my cats or the stuff I’m doing over the weekend. Other times I’m reporting, digging, exploring, analyzing, publishing what could only be described as journalism. Think of it as journalism on-demand - not in the sense that I’m accessing news at my convenience, but that I’m willing and capable to engage in my own acts of journalism when the moment demands it.

That’s what I was talking about when I tweeted to Will that part of the role of being a true 21st century citizen is having both the skills and the mindset to participate in civic processes whenever possible. Almost every student today has a camera phone and an active online presence - two of the basic building blocks of being a citizen journalist. Of course, the reality is that 99.99% of what students post online don’t come any where close to what anyone would ever consider journalism. Nonethless, the latest generation of students are already more civically engaged both online and offline that my generation ever was. And most of this engagement is peer-inspired. They’re not doing it because we taught them to do it in schools. They’re doing it because their type of peer interaction - always on, always connected, always in conversation - expects it of them. Brazilian cultural minister Gilberto Gil, who happened to be at the conferenced, used the term “peeracy” to describe this new culture of sharing and participation.

Having said all that, I still think there’s a role educators can be playing to help prep students to be better online citizens, including acting as citizen journalists to document what’s going on in their community, promoting what’s working and demanding fixes to what’s not. So now that I’ve left the conference, I’m trying to get a picture in my head of what kinds of lessons, if any, we should be teaching to accomplish this goal. For example, one of Gilberto Gil’s colleagues from the Brazilian culture ministry, Claudio Prado, described local initiatives where young people were introduced to the Internet by having their very first act online be be posting something they’ve created themselves. Not to learn how to download, but upload. Not to frame themselves as consumers, but as producers.

What about you? Do you think there’s a role we should be playing to prepare students to be better citizens through what they do online, including citizen journalism? What might that look like in a curricular context?

I don’t know what the answer is, but it’s a conversation I want to have. As journalist Roy Greenslade wrote earlier today, “When we journalists talk about integration we generally mean integrating print and online activities. But the true integration comes online itself. The integration between journalists and citizens.”

And citizens come in all shapes and sizes - and ages. Civic duty doesn’t have to begin the day you’re allowed to vote. -andy

Filed under : Media Literacy, Policy


I really enjoyed reading this post. I also attended PDF 2008, and the panel “Reinventing Political Media: The Rise of Semi-Pro Journalism,” was certainly refreshing. Jay Rosen’s mention of the hybrid journalist really intrigued me, especially as we move more into the era of hyperlocal news. I do believe teaching our kids to perform random acts of journalism with their cellphones and other tools is going to be necessary to get closer to transparency in news. We’ll uncover a lot more truth this way.


Thank you for an eloquent article of the state of journalism now. I agree with you so much in how new technology maybe used to benefit and open doors of truth that we may not be aware of but the cellphone phennomen is breaking down this barrier in a variety of ways.

However, in our quest for sharing stories, what ethics may be taught to our youth in sharing these stories? Should courses be taught in the local schools of what is considered good/bad journalism? Should a code of ethics be taught universally in the school system. Just questions I had.

Thanks again..

I totally agree, we need to include media creation and “random acts of journalism” when we teach citizenship to our children. Last year I wrote a post about how we need to broaden the goals of “journalism education” to include general curriculum starting in gradeschool - not just focus on training professionals who now only produce a certain percentage of the total journalism out there.

Here is an example of citizen journalism by NYC 8th graders.

Students from schools in NYC participate in a program called Voices and Choices to create citizen media campaigns about issues that are important to them.

Here is the site for the project: http://rights.teachingmatters.org/

Ethics is a key concern especially when working within a school. We also have to consider that school administration has ultimate control over what is published. In the case of instant publishing this is a very scary prospect.

As the key contributor to our school’s website, I encourage students to write articles, but I am always aware that these articles are going to be judged by an array of stakeholders.

One interesting project that you might want to check out is Global Kids, which educates NYC-area students in civics, humanitarian causes, and social media. The Global Kids projects include some great machinima done in Second Life.


I love this idea and will present the concept to my middle school students next month! I’m on it, Chief!

I enjoyed your thoughts and reflections after attending the PDF forum. I think it is an interesting time that we live in, where access to information is creating an environment where there is incredible opportunity for collaboration. It seems natural that this would spill into journalism, politics, and business forums. As a teacher in a middle school, I see incredible value in teaching ethics and citizenship, although sometimes I sense that our students are traveling faster than we are in cyberspace. I enjoy being in education at this pivotal time. No one would say that being a teacher is boring! Thanks again for your thoughts…

I’m a newbie where can I study all these skills?

It’s relatively easy to expand Internet infrastructure in comparison.

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