The classic 1985 science fiction novel Ender's Game is one of several books of that period that foresaw both the advent of the Internet and its eventual importance in society. While certain aspects of its portrayal seem dated – in particular, it more resembles the text-based bulletin board systems of the time than today's graphic Web – one element stands out as being particularly prescient: the use of the Internet to allow youth to participate fully in society. While today's young people aren't using the Internet to take over the world, as the characters in the novel do, they are increasingly using it to change the world, and more and more teachers are using the Internet to bring civic engagement into the classroom.
Learning about civic issues online
One of the easiest ways teachers can use the Internet to help get students engaged is to let them learn about civic issues that are current and relevant to students. For example, Michele Cooper's math class at Holy Cross Catholic Elementary School in LaSalle, Ontario, is using the Web to collect data about topics such as education, literacy, hunger and income equity, in order to raise their awareness about social justice issues. These students are learning how to evaluate and present information about political issues, but just as importantly they're learning how to find facts and opinions that may not match their own.
A study on Youth and Participatory Politics by the MacArthur Foundation found that although many young people encountered a wide variety of opinions and perspectives on political and civic issues, a third said they had not been exposed to any political opinions at all. Two key factors that determined whether youth would encounter political opinions online were whether they were engaged in online communities – related to politics or not – and whether they had been taught digital literacy skills. Teaching young people how to find and evaluate a wide range of views is essential to producing engaged and well-informed adults.
Connecting with experts and activists
There's also a more direct way in which teachers and youth can be exposed to different views and perspectives: by using the Internet to connect with experts and activists. Tina Bergman's Grade 7/8 class at Breadner Elementary School in Trenton, Ontario, has drawn on a variety of experts to shed light on different issues relating to their course work, such as consulting with Dr. Gerald Conaty, the Director of Indigenous Studies at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, to learn more about the federal government's relationship with First Nations throughout Canada's history and by taking a digital fieldtrip to the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Drumheller, Alberta, to learn more about environmental issues relating to water use.
Learning about citizenship through games
Another way that teachers are using new media to make civic engagement relevant to their students is through games and virtual worlds. Video and computer games are a classic example of “starting where the learner is,” because most young people – both boys and girls – play some kind of computer game on a regular basis. As well, the interactive quality of games helps to make the content more relevant and immediate, and encourages civic participation by letting students feel as though they are making a difference. Some classrooms use games that are specifically designed to address civic and political issues, such as iCivics, a suite of games revolving around civic engagement issues that were co-designed by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. (Most of these relate to specifically American issues, but the sub-game Activate deals more broadly with ways to promote change in social justice issues.) Another game that was created with political issues in mind is Path of the Elders, which introduces players to the culture and history of the Mushkegowuk and Anishinaabe First Nations and simulates the negotiation of the James Bay Treaty. Another option is Alternate Reality Games, which use custom-made Web sites, blogs and videos to simulate possible events. Some of these, such as World Without Oil, deal with political issues and are appropriate for classroom use (like iCivics and Path of the Elders, World Without Oil comes with a lesson plan package to help teachers bring it into the classroom.)
Teachers aren't limited to games that were specifically designed to teach civic engagement, though. Many have used commercially-available games such as the SimCity and Civilization series, in either off-the-shelf or customized versions: Jen Dyenberg, a Canadian teacher currently living in Scotland, has used SimCity 3000 to make the “nuts and bolts” of municipal government more engaging to students and to help them understand the different pressures that shape the development of a city.
Taking action online
What's truly unique about the Internet, though, is not that it is a channel for letting content into the classroom but that it allows students to have an impact outside the classroom. Teachers have two different opportunities to get their students involved on the Internet: by helping them to make a difference in an online community and to use the Internet to make a difference in their own communities.
Stephen Van Zoost, a teacher at Avon View High School in Annapolis, Nova Scotia, gave his students an opportunity to make a difference both online and in their community by expanding and improving the Wikipedia articles on two nearby towns, Stanley and Three Mile Plains. Brenna Gray, an instructor at Douglas College in New Westminster, British Columbia, did a similar project and found that students were more concerned about the quality and accuracy of their work when they knew it would be published online.
Because it has such low barriers to participation, Wikipedia can be a great introduction to the idea that young people can be active participants in online communities. The Internet can also be a vehicle to help spread awareness of what youth are doing offline: the Canadian Teachers' Federation's Imagineaction website showcases a wide variety of civic engagement projects across Canada, from community gardens to promoting social action through studying Canadian authors.
It may seem like a long way from expanding a Wikipedia article to the kind of civic engagement seen in the “Arab Spring” (where social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter were used to help organize for mass social change) or projects such as Ushahidi, which has been used for initiatives such as tracking violence following the elections in Kenya and organizing relief efforts in Haiti. In fact, though, young people in Canada are using the Internet to get involved in real social change, advocating on issues such as copyright and graduated driver's licenses (both areas where Facebook campaigns were credited with successfully influencing public policy). Teachers, too, are beginning to use the Internet to make civics education more relevant and engaging for students and to draw stronger connections between their course content and real-world civic engagement. The Internet allows youth to participate as full citizens in online communities and to make their voices heard in offline ones: it's time that we took advantage of that to bring authentic civic engagement into the classroom.
For more information on how digital media can be used to make youth more active citizens, read Media Awareness Network's report From Consumer to Citizen: Digital Media and Youth Civic Engagement.