Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Participatory Media And The Pedagogy Of Civic Participation

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Participatory Media And The Pedagogy Of Civic Participation - The Transformation Of Education And Democracy: A Presentation by Howard Rheingold

Howard Rheingold - Photo credit: Mikegr

''Education - the means by which young people learn the skills necessary to succeed in their place and time - is diverging from schooling.

Media-literacy-wise, education is happening now after school and on weekends and when the teacher isn't looking, in the SMS messages, MySpace pages, blog posts, podcasts, videoblogs that technology-equipped digital natives exchange among themselves.

This population is both self-guided and in need of guidance, and although a willingness to learn new media by point-and-click exploration might come naturally to today's student cohort, there's nothing innate about knowing how to apply their skills to the processes of democracy.''

(Source: Howard Rheingold, The Pedagogy of Civic Participation)

Participatory media is changing the way we communicate, engage with media and each other and even our approaches to teaching and learning.

The generation of digital natives - those that have grown up immersed in digital media - take all of this for granted. There is nothing strange, new or even transformative about the interactive, participative landscape of blogging, social networking and Web 2.0 Read/Write media for them. This is the very starting point, the background canvas on which they live their lives.

The promise of participatory media is a democratic media, and a media that strengthens our democratic rights in concrete terms. Howard Rheingold has written extensively about the very real uses people have put mobile and digital media to in fighting street level battles over concrete issues. In his 2002 bestseller Smart Mobs, he writes about the ways that these technologies have been put to use in online collaboration, direct political action and the lives of young people across the planet.

But can the use of these emergent socially networked technologies transcend entertainment and personal expression, and push us forward towards an engaged, empowered democracy?

In his recent lecture The Pedagogy of Civic Participation, which took place in the 3D virtual world Second Life on the NMC Campus, Howard Rheingold asks this very question.

In this special feature, I have divided Howard Rheingold's presentation into several audio files, and brought together the key points and questions discussed. You can listen to the original verbal presentation delivered for each key point or browse through the summary notes I have posted next to each.

The Setting

Image credit: (cc) NMC Second Life

The NMC Campus exists in the 3D virtual world of Second Life, and is home to a great many experiments in learning. In the following short video, the full story of this Non-Profit organization dedicated to pushing the edge of new media and technology in education is explained and explored.

It was on this virtual campus that Howard Rheingold delivered the following lecture, to an audience from around the world, who watched both his virtual avatar and a screen displaying his slides in real time.

An Introduction to the series

Image credit: (c) MacArthur Foundation

Rheingold's lecture was part of the MacArthur Foundation's series on Digital Media and Learning, a ''five-year, $50 million digital media and learning initiative to help determine how digital technologies are changing the way young people learn, play, socialize, and participate in civic life.'' (MacArthur Foundation Website, 2006).

In this first audio file, the MacArthur Foundation series is briefly introduced.

(Running time: 00' 33)

Introducing Howard Rheingold

Image credit: (cc) NMC Second Life

Howard Rheingold has a rich and illustrious history as a writer, teacher, theorist and practitioner of digital media, and has focused extensively on the ways that digital media can empower and consolidate democracy in the evolving landscape.

In this audio file, Larry Johnson, CEO of the New Media Consortium, introduces Howard Rheingold and his work to date.

(Running time: 01' 51)

In the following audio clips of the lecture, I have highlighted Howard Rheingold's key points and contentions.

The Internet & Critical Thinking

Image credit: (cc) NMC Second Life

(Running time: 03' 23)

  • In the age of the search engine, the ability to think critically about media sources, their credibility and truth claims are vital for all of us.
  • The vast repository of information available online has changed forever our certainty about authority.
  • As such, the locus of responsibility for determining the accuracy of texts has shifted from the publisher to the reader.
  • So, the ability to be critical, and to ask the right questions is a key skill in terms of media literacy.
  • However, computer literacy programs in contemporary education have missed out critical thinking from the list of skills being taught to young people.
  • Critical thinking is, however, regarded by some as a plot to incite children to question authority, and perhaps not something that belongs in the classroom.
  • As a consequence, the key literacies required of these digital natives are diverging from the school environment.

Education is Happening after School

Image credit: (cc) NMC Second Life

(Running time: 01' 01)

  • Education, in terms of media literacy, is happening outside of the classroom, after school.
  • It is taking place through SMS messages, MySpace pages, blog posts, podcasts, videoblogs that technology-equipped digital natives exchange among themselves.
  • Schools remain places for parents to put their children when they go to work, and for society to train a fresh supply of citizen-worker-consumers
  • Participatory media forces questioning, collaborative, active, critical pedagogy, but this is not the kind of change that takes place quickly, or that we are likely to see any time soon in public schools

Moral Panic and Internet Freedom

Image credit: (cc) NMC Second Life

(Running time: 03' 37)

  • Moral panics about internet sexual predators and pornography almost led, ten years ago, to legislation that would outlaw all expression online that wasn't deemed suitable for children. Thankfully this legislation didn't come to pass.
  • Laws and technical barriers cannot prevent damaging or offensive material from being available without destroying the value of the internet in the process.
  • DOPA threatens internet freedom again. The answer now is the same now as it was ten years ago: someone needs to educate children about the necessity for critical thinking and encourage them to exercise their own knowledge of how to make moral choices.
  • We teach our kids how to cross the street, and what to be careful about in the physical world, and now parents need to teach them how to exercise good sense online.
  • Media literacy should be central to 21st Century civic education

Emerging Media and Participatory Democracy

Image credit: (cc) NMC Second Life

(Running time: 02' 57)

  • Emerging media challenge the ability of old institutions to change.
  • The challenge is to use the digital native's abilities to engage with participatory media to engage with issues that they care about
  • Learning to use participatory media to learn and speak and organize about issues might well be the most important citizenship skill that digital natives need to learn if they're going to maintain, or revive, democratic governance
  • The online population under the age of twenty has driven huge corporate deals, such as Rupert Murdoch's acquisition of MySpace and Google's recent YouTube buy-out.
  • But cultural and economic power is not the only sphere where participatory media are having an impact. There have also been a significant number of instances where young people have brought about direct political action through the use of participatory media, such as the tipping of an election in Madrid, or the impact of citizen reporters on tens of thousands of people in Korea protesting to impeach their president.

Public voice and the Digital Native

Image credit: (cc) NMC Second Life

(Running time: 03' 51)

  • Public voice is a way to link media skills and civic engagement.
  • Kids in online social network environments are creating publics online in an era when physical public spaces are increasingly denied to them.
  • A significant amount of young people are involved in creating as well as consuming digital media. According to a 2005 survey, the number of teenagers using the internet has grown 24 % in the past four years, and 87% of those are between the ages of 12 and 17 are online.
  • They are anything but passive media consumers. They seek, adopt, appropriate and invent ways to participate in cultural production.
  • The internet is not a transformative new technology for them, but a feature of their lives that has always been there, like running water and electricity.
  • This population is both self-guided and in need of guidance, and although a willingness to learn new media by point-and-click exploration might come naturally to today's student cohort, there's nothing innate about knowing how to apply their skills to the processes of democracy.
  • Participative media is possibly a powerful tool for helping young people to engage in their own voices about the issues that they care about.

From Personal to Civic Engagement

Image credit: (cc) NMC Second Life

(Running time: 03' 10)

  • Voice - the unique style of personal expression that distinguishes one's communications from those of others - needs to be called upon to help connect young people's energetic engagement with identity formation with their potential engagement with society as citizens.
  • Moving from a private to a public voice can help students turn their self expression into a form of public participation. Public voice is learnable, a matter of consciously engaging with an active public rather than simply broadcasting to a passive audience.
  • The public voice of individuals aggregated and in dialogue with the voices of other individuals is the fundamental particle of public opinion. When public opinion has the power and freedom to influence policy and grows from the open, rational, critical debate among peers it can be an essential instrument of democratic self governance.
  • Communication acts, whether or not they always calmly deliberative and rational, are the fundamental elements of political and civic life in a democracy.
  • By showing students how to used web-based tools and channels to inform publics, advocate positions, contest claims and organize action around issues that they care about, participative media can draw them into early positive experiences of citizenship that could influence their civic behaviour throughout their lives.
  • Media production differs from other kinds of production, because media - unlike other products such as steel or food or textiles - has the power to persuade, persuade, inspire, educate and direct human thought, belief and activity.
  • Communities, movements, markets, societies and civilizations are the products of the human talent for accomplishing complex tasks together, incited by and coordinated by communication media.

Emerging Participatory Culture

Image credit: (cc) NMC Second Life

(Running time: 02' 20)

  • The technical power of many-to-many communication networks is important because it multiples pre-existing human social networking capabilities that enable collective actions.
  • The technical networks, that carry bits from node to node, and the media woven from those bits, enable the humans at those notes to learn, argue, deliberate, transact and organize at scales and at paces that were never possible before.
  • Henry Jenkins and his co-authors see an entirely new kind of culture emerging from the use of particiaptory media, characterizing the shift as one that should not be reduced to the enabling technology, but rather that represent a shift in the way that our culture operates.
  • The emerging participatory culture described by Jenkins et al is characterized as innovative, convergent, everyday, appropriative, networked, global, generational and unequal.
  • With these changes comes the need to teach new literacies - a set of cultural competencies and social skills which young people need as they confront the new media landscape. Participatory culture shifts the focus of literacy training from individual expression to community involvement.
  • The new literacies are almost all social skills that have to do with collaboration and networking. These skills build on the foundation of traditional literacy, research skills, technical skills and critical analysis skills which should have been part of the school curriculum all the long.

Rows of Desks and 'Back Channels'

Image credit: (cc) NMC Second Life

(Running time: 04' 07)

  • Lining up desks in a row is a very industrial-era way to organize education.
  • A paradigm shift is happening at the university level. Some are in denial about it, others turn it off. But professors today find that ubiquitous wireless internet access and their students symbiotic attachment to their laptops mean that lecturers are competing with the entire internet now for their students attention.
  • Certainly there are circumstances in which the purpose of the session requires everyone to turn off their computers, but professors who have delivered the same lectures for years now have to ask whether they have their students attention.
  • At symposiums these days it is quite usual for attendees to use the internet chat 'back channel' to chat back and forth while speakers stand in front of us and talk to us the old fashioned, face-to-face way.
  • Tuning into the chat channel of symposiums and classes in entirely different geographic locations allows for participation beyond the lecture theatre. The back channel in the classroom, along with the production of class wikis can add a participatory dimension to learning that also extends that learning beyond a given campus or location.

Blogging Advocacy

Image credit: (cc) NMC Second Life

(Running time: 01' 16)

  • One method of introducing participatory engagement into the classroom is in teaching a blogging rhetoric that leads students to exercise public voice. For example, the first post is to be addressed to a clearly imagined public: people known and unknown to the author that might reply, learn something, or debate the bloggers contentions about a shared issue, who might potentially join the blogger in some kind of collective action.
  • First, students are asked to provide links that might educate, inform, persuade or motivate that public and to write a post that gives enough context to link to enable readers to decide whether or not to click it.
  • Next, students are asked to experiment with connective writing by offering two links, and their contexts well as an overarching description of what connects those links and their issues.
  • Analytic and critical posts follow - taking issue with, contesting, debating posts made by others on their blogs.
  • Finally, student bloggers were asked to make posts that advocated positions and provide links to support their assertions.

Media Literacy Wiki

Image credit: (cc) NMC Second Life

(Running time: 01' 28)

  • Howard Rheingold has been searching, compiling and adapting the work of educators who have been using blogs, wikis, podcasts and other participative media for a learning wiki, which gathers resources and exercises for the use of participative pedagogy.
  • The wiki can be found at and welcomes anyone who would like to participate to join this resource and guide to work in the field.
  • It is hoped that the wiki will expand the community that has been forming around participative pedagogy.
  • If print culture shaped the environment in which the reformation exploded and the enlightenment blossomed, participatory media might similarly shape the cognitive and social environment in which 21st century life will take place.

Evaluating What Engages Students

Image credit: (cc) NMC Second Life

(Running time: 01' 34)

  • Education that recognizes the full impact of networked publics and digital media must adopt a whole new way of looking at learning and teaching, not just add another set of skills to the curriculum.
  • The way to create such an education system is far from clear, as is how to evaluate efforts to create such a curriculum and how to evaluate their impact, or even if schooling as we know it is the right place within which to create such institutions.
  • Assuming a world in which the welfare of young people and the health of communities and democracy are considered worthy goals of education, modern societies around the world need to assess and evaluate what works and what doesn't work in terms of engaging students in learning.
  • It is also important to look empirically in a more nuanced way at what civic engagement really means today, including really looking at and listening to forms of popular cultural production to better understand what young people are really doing with digital media, and to find ways to help them use their literacies as citizenship skills as well as avenues to self expression and entertainment.

Q & A Session: How do we address the Digital Divide?

(Running time: 02' 15)

  • Mobile phones should not be left out of any discussion of the digital divide, for the obvious reason that there is more access to mobile phones, and over the next ten years most mobile phones will have some access to the internet.
  • The divide is not forever going to be about whether people have mobile access, or even connectivity - the prices of those are going to continue to drop - both because of the market and because of efforts to provide low-cost access.
  • The divide between knowing how to use these media and not knowing how to use them is equally important. We need to look not just at the haves and have-nots, but also at those who know how and those who don't know how to use these media. It may well be that after school programs, summer programs and parent programs are going to be as important if not more important than what happens in schools.

Q & A Session: What Role can Second Life play in these ideas?

(Running time: 02' 49)

  • Second Life is a great example of the kind of immersive, experimental environment that people are drawn to today. It is also worth including the gaming world, the massive multi-player online games as well. It's one aspect - certainly not the only one, but an important one - of participatory media.

  • Millions of people are involved not because they're supposed to, or they think it's a good thing, but because they are attracted to it. That natural attraction to learning their way around these worlds could be enlisted for pedagogical purposes.
  • We need to learn a lot about the appropriate uses of the world. Having an avatar in the game world, while talking to an audience, while showing slides and speaking about abstractions as if in a college lecture is not as vital a use of the 3D environment as, for instance, learning architecture while virtually walking through and around buildings, or learning biology and interacting with molecules in 3D space.
  • The important question about 3D immersive environments is 'What's the appropriate use? What can we do here that we couldn't do elsewhere?". It's possible to stand in front of a classroom, talk and project slides - but not possible to walk you through a cathedral standing in the classroom, or rotate a protein molecule and enable people to move around it in a standard classroom. What can we do in 3D worlds that's uniquely attractive and appropriate to this medium that has some pedagogical purpose to it?

Q & A Session - How do we Avoid the Over-Intellectualization of Media Literacy?

(Running time: 01' 57)

  • First and foremost, you're not going to get kids interested if it isn't fun. With older students, Juniors and Seniors in high school, or undergraduates in college when talking about public voice, its important to think about issues that really matter to them.
  • So, the first task of a parent or teacher is to really find out what matters to them - maybe they're perturbed about not being able to skateboard in public, maybe there are issues that aren't classroom issues, that aren't traditional pedagogy. Your odds of attracting young people to learn by presenting learning materials is going to be successful as listening to what they care about, and using those learning materials to help them learn about it and advocate about those things, to be active participants in the issues that they care about.

Q & A Session: How effective is the UK National Curriculum (which includes both ICT and Citizenship elements) at realizing the goals put forth in the lecture?

(Running time: 03' 13)

  • At this stage it is too early to tell. It's important to use empirical methods to try to test what's working and what's not working, but we're talking about a long term issue.
  • If you are introducing students to civic engagement through information and communication technologies when they're 16 years old, what's going to be important on a social level is when they're 20 and 25 years old, when they are voters and they're in the workforce, they are fully adult citizens, the technologies are going to have evolved by then. Their sense of agency will have evolved, or not, by then. We're talking about generations who, whether or not introduced to this in school, they're accustomed to using their telephone to be in touch with their five best friends, they know how to summon their social network to find the kind of information they need right now, right here.
  • They don't necessarily know how to apply those skills to what's going on in their society. It's a process that's going to take some time, how you evaluate what it's impact is going to be longer term. How you evaluate in the shorter term is to evaluate what's working, what's really connecting with kids, what enables young people to get passionate about getting involved in some kind of issue. It might not be what you consider to be a civic issue, it might be to do with cultural production. Copyright issues today are big issues about cultural production, file sharing, all of the things that young people are involved in online, that's the place to start.

Audience feedback on the Second Life based lecture

Image credit: (cc) NMC Second Life

(Running time: 01' 18)

Members of the lecture's audience noted how the fact that it took place in Second Life made it possible for them to attend, despite being scattered around the globe geographically.

A Final Question - Howard Rheingold's hat

Image credit: (cc) NMC Second Life

(Running time: 02' 51)

The final question put to Howard was more light-hearted - how he came to acquire what has become his trademark hat, and what kind of a hat it is.

Listen to the entire lecture

The complete lecture, divided and summarized above, can be listened to here:

(Running time: 45' 40)

Additional Resources

Howard Rheingold -
Reference: NMC Digital Campus [ Read more ]
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posted by Michael Pick on Tuesday, November 14 2006, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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