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Comunicar Journal 40: Interactive Youth (Vol. 20 - 2013)

New media as a tool for civic learning


Ellen Middaugh

Joseph Kahne


Service-Learning, a popular approach to citizenship education in the US, provides youth with opportunities to define and address public needs while reflecting on the knowledge, skills, and relationships needed to do such work. This approach assumes education for democratic citizenship must help youth understand themselves as part of a larger community, increase their sense of agency and efficacy as civic actors, and increase their ability to analyze social and political issues. It also assumes that these outcomes are best learned through experience. Creating these conditions can be quite challenging in the context of schools, where students are typically separated from the community, highly controlled in their activities, and have limited time to grasp the complexities of a given topic. This piece responds to the growing role of new media in civic and political activity. Specifically, it examines how the integration of new media into service learning may facilitate or challenge the core pedagogical goals of this approach to civic education and the implications for the practice of supporting youth civic engagement in school settings. Based on a review of existing programs and research, the authors illustrate how new media can be used to support four primary goals of service learning – designing authentic learning environments, connecting to community, supporting youth voice, and encouraging engagement with issues of social justice.


Internet, youth, civic education, media, pedagogy, service learning, civic engagement

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1. Introduction

The historical portrait of US youth civic engagement suggests youth are capable of intensive participation and leadership in the right circumstances but face barriers that yield lower rates of overall engagement. While youth have played critical roles in varied social movements, their participation in regularly available avenues of civic and political participation are relatively low. The 2008 election demonstrated the possibility of energizing youth around politics, but research suggests this is more exception than rule. Recent studies find that youth under 25 vote at lower rates than their adult counterparts (Circle, 2010), and even when taking into account a variety of political acts, the majority of youth are not politically active (Cohen & Kahne, 2012).

Experiential approaches such as Education for Democratic Citizenship (EDC) have emerged in the US, under the umbrella of Civic Education, as an effective method for supporting youth civic engagement (Gould, 2011). This approach builds on participatory theories of democracy (Dewey, 1916; Barber, 1984) and assumes the ultimate goal of EDC is to prepare youth to work with others to define and address issues of public concern through both formal governmental channels and informal voluntary associations. Service-learning, «an instructional methodology that makes intentional links between the academic curriculum and student work that benefits the community by providing meaningful opportunities for students to apply what they learn to issues that matter to them» (Gould, 2011: 29) has been found to support a variety of civic and political outcomes (Kahne, Crow & Lee, 2012).

As new media becomes an increasingly important set of tools and contexts for civic engagement, there is a growing need to understand how changes in social networks, information access, and media production associated with the rise of new media influence what «best practice» in civic education looks like. In this piece, we consider how the integration of new media into service-learning might support, extend, or transform its pedagogical goals.

2. Service-learning – an experiential approach to civic education

Service-learning emerged in the 1990s as part of a shift towards experiential, project-based approaches to civic education – approaches that do not simply impart facts about the structure and function of government and rights and rules of citizenship, but aim to design «authentic» learning experiences. These priorities are guided by three assumptions: a) democracy is a social practice where people negotiate, compete, and collaborate to make decisions about how to prioritize and address public issues (Dewey, 1916; Barber, 1984); b) civic identity development is a process of defining what role one plays in this social practice and how central the practice of democracy is to self-definition (Youniss & Yates, 1997); and c) education should include opportunities to connect the learning of knowledge and skills to the social practices where they will be applied (Dewey, 1916; Rogoff, 2003).

The term authentic learning experiences draws attention to the last assumption. For example, Rogoff (2003) contrasts learning that is organized around «intent participation» – where youth learn and complete increasingly responsible tasks as part of inclusion in adult activity or a mature community of practice – with «assembly line instruction» where youth learn knowledge and skills in well-defined discrete chunks assigned by experts in preparation for, but not in the context of, the practice where they will be applied.

In the context of civic education, assigning youth to learn how a bill becomes a law, as one of many facts to be recalled on a test, because they will eventually vote and should understand the process, might be characterized as «assembly line instruction». Youth learning how a bill becomes a law as they work to stop a law from being passed might reflect learning through «intent participation». The strength of the latter approach is that it provides an immediate and compelling answer to the question, «Why do we need to know this?». Youth not only have a pressing and immediate motivation to learn – they have tasks to accomplish with social accountability and real-world consequences – but they also see how their learning fits into a larger set of practices. This approach offers a few advantages that are particularly relevant for youth civic development. In addition to providing youth with opportunities to 1) engage in authentic learning for the practice of civic engagement, service-learning projects are also more likely to provide youth with opportunities to 2) connect to community and social movements; 3) exercise voice and decision-making, and 4) grapple with issues of justice and fairness. These priorities are rooted in research that suggests that each of these foci is central to the development of civic identity.

Indeed, studies have found that feeling part of «history» or «something bigger» is an important motivator for engagement in both activism and systemic forms of participation (McAdam, 1988; Cohen, 2010). Studies have also documented a close relationship between social trust (Kwak, Shah & Holbert, 2004) or sense of community (Albanesi, Cicognani & Zani, 2007) and civic and political engagement. Thus service-learning programs explicitly work to provide opportunities for youth to build community amongst themselves and to connect to broader networks of individuals working for change, which research suggests positively supports civic identity later in life (Youniss & Yates, 1997).

Furthermore, while most approaches to citizenship education assume that youth are being prepared for future, adult roles, studies of civic identity development suggest adolescence is a critical time for such development and thus an important time for engaging youth in civic and political activity (Youniss & Yates, 1997). Unfortunately, many youth who are politically interested report that their encounters with politically active adults are discouraging – they are greeted with low expectations about their commitment and ability to contribute (Gordon & Taft, 2011), challenging their chances of maintaining interest into adulthood. In contrast, it is considered best practice to prioritize «youth voice» defined as «the inclusion of young people as a meaningful part of the creation and implementation of service opportunities» (Fredericks, Kaplan & Zeisler, 2001). Service-learning programs, at their best, seek to give youth opportunities to make suggestions, give feedback, and make decisions throughout the process of selecting, designing, and evaluating service projects (Billig, Brown & Turnbull, 2008).

Finally, one of the reasons for encouraging youth civic engagement is a belief that policies and institutions constructed by a broad and diverse public are more likely to be just and fair than those constructed by a small group of elites. The questions of how to participate in ways that promote a more just and representative democracy are not easily resolved, and people hold very different ideas about what just outcomes are and how to best achieve them. If youth are going to engage actively in civic and political life, these are questions they will necessarily grapple with themselves. Youth in late adolescence and early adulthood have both the capability and motivation to think through these questions (Erikson, 1968). Perhaps even more importantly, a concern for justice and fairness can be a powerful motivator for political engagement. For many young people, the connections between issues they find compelling and the details of civic and political life are not obvious. Those who study or practice service-learning suggest youth benefit from analyzing and reflecting on structural conditions and social forces that allow the issues they are working to address to persist (Westheimer & Kahne, 2004).

3. Challenges of experiential civic education in the school setting

While the body of research on service-learning and other experiential approaches to civic education suggest positive results for a variety of outcomes, integrating these approaches into the typical school setting can be challenging. The power of service-learning for supporting youth civic engagement lies in its aim to engage youth in the authentic practice of doing civic work, but the norms and structures of schools do not necessarily support this kind of practice. The work of defining and addressing public needs typically takes place over long stretches of time, engages a range of knowledge and skills, and is done in collaboration with a variety of stake-holders and partners. In contrast, the structure of schooling is one in which students spend a limited amount of time with individual teachers and subjects. Furthermore, content areas are divided and schools are structurally and functionally separate from other spheres of community life.

Common challenges in service-learning programs include a tendency to adopt functional or simplistic service activities –such as brief demonstrations to raise awareness about an issue– that do not require collaboration with community partners or very much time spent on analysis of complex social problems (Jones, Segar, & Gasiorski, 2008). While these are understandable accommodations to the pressures of time and resources that schools typically face, the risk is that students will adopt overly simplistic models of citizenship (Westheimer & Kahne, 2004). The question of how to balance the need to engage students in a discrete time-limited set of actions without sacrificing their understanding of the complexity of the broader issue and the collective nature of public work is one that most service-learning programs must grapple with.

Another challenge for service-learning in schools is that the desire to have students exercise their rights of participation as citizens who have valid needs and priorities tend to conflict with a school environment that more frequently emphasizes the hierarchical relationship between adults and students (Kohfeldt & al., 2011). Youth and adults both hold these expectations of hierarchy, and thus when youth are invited to take a more active role in setting goals and deciding on activities, it can be challenging for both sides (O’Donoghue, 2006). Youth may lack the experience or confidence needed to define and articulate their perspective (Kirshner, 2006).

4. Can new media help?

Developments in new media over the last 20+ years have brought about new possibilities and new challenges for participation in civic and political life. We are increasingly relying on networked technologies in both our private and public lives. Whether we are finding and sharing information, building and maintaining social networks, sharing an opinion, or raising money, new media is more and more frequently the tool that enables and organizes our civic and political activities. This is particularly true among youth, who, for example, are more likely to interact with friends daily via text (54%) than they are face-to-face (33%) and more likely to get news online (82%) than through any other format (14-66%). New Media have become central to how we engage in a range of political activities (Zikhur, 2010).

As technology has becomes ubiquitous, questions emerge about whether this implies changes in who participates and what effective participation looks like. For example, research has begun to focus on whether varied aspects of internet participation are related to greater political activity (Neuman, Bimber & Hindman, 2011) and questions such as whether the rise of digital networks increases the likelihood that youth will be recruited into political activity (Schlozman, Verba & Brady, 2010) or provide alternative pathways to political participation (Rice, Moffett, & Madupalli, 2012). Additionally, studies are beginning to focus systematically on how youth and adults are using media and social networks to stay informed about social and political issues and connect to civic and political institutions (Smith, 2010) as well as to engage in activism (Earl & Kimport, 2010). Little attention has been paid, however, to systematic study of the pedagogical implications for civic educators. In particular there is a need for greater articulation of how educators and youth can best tap the affordances of new media or how they are currently doing so. In the section below, we examine how digital media might support the goals of experiential civic education and potentially play a role in helping educators address some of the central challenges for experiential educators.

5. Service-Learning in the digital age

Up to this point we have noted both the power and the challenges of using service-learning as a strategy for supporting youth civic engagement. Below, we discuss how new media may support, challenge or raise questions about some of the more critical elements of the practice of service-learning.

5.1. Designing and connecting to authentic learning environments

As noted earlier, a central challenge of service-learning is to engage youth in short-term action with a clear purpose in a way that it informs their understanding of how to engage with complex social issues rather than simplifies their vision of engagement. The role of teachers in service-learning is to facilitate access for youth to seriously engage in defining and addressing civic issues and to use their curricular learning to do so, which can take a great deal of scaffolding and a great deal of teacher time.

5.1.1. Supporting practice – New media and scaffolding engagement with social issues

Non-profits and game designers have begun to develop a variety of strategies for supporting this sort of engagement.

• Web Resources: The Living Toolkit. Web resources like www.dosomething.org and www.generationon.org provide the equivalent of an electronic toolkit by creating series of steps for students wishing to engage in action. Students can log on and are invited to explore a variety of issues to discover what they might care about, provided with examples of projects and links to resources, and given a series of steps to walk through to address their issues. This model is not dramatically different than what might happen in a classroom service-learning project without digital media, but provides a set of organized and curated resources for teachers and students to draw on with the advantage that it is a live and continually updated resources.

• Games as practice or models for conceptualizing civic problems and civic action. Social issues can be incredibly complex – in most cases multiple institutions and people acting over many years feed into the problems we face today. New media educators have increasingly been thinking about how to use games and virtual worlds to help young people think systematically about complex issues and to experiment with different courses of action. They argue that this can provide scaffolding and low-risk experimentation as a tool for thinking about how to engage with complex social issues. For example, Squire (2008) has experimented with integrating popular games, like Civilization, into the curriculum to facilitate youth thinking about the structure of society and the relationship between different sectors of society. A number of serious games exist currently to help youth think about social issues. For example, Fate of the World (http://fateoftheworld.net), asks players to address global climate change through a series of simulated policy decisions to see how their actions might help or hurt climate change.

• Using games and virtual worlds to scaffold engagement with complex issues. In addition to using games to learn about complex issues and experiment with different outcomes, designers have also begun experimenting with ways that games and virtual worlds can be used to help youth move from simulation and experimentation to connect to real world action. For example, Quest Atlantis, created by Barab and colleagues at the University of Indiana is an immersive, persistent virtual world with a narrative in which youth must engage in missions to save the dying world of Atlantis (dying environmentally, economically, culturally). The narrative story of Atlantis and the virtual world introduces students to virtual solutions to abstract problems, but then, in partnership with classrooms, students engage activities to identify and address similar problems in their own communities. This strategy takes advantage of the narrative story and experimentation affordances of gaming as a back-ground to support youth thinking about social action.

5.1.2. New considerations – What counts as authentic problems and authentic action?

As youth are increasingly spending time online, what happens online matters more for their quality of life and material conditions. This raises questions about what it means to meet «authentic» community needs and what counts as «authentic» action. For example, if, as we know, 97% of US youth play video games, and as some suggest, hate speech is a persistent presence in networked gaming, do efforts to raise awareness about and address hate speech in gaming (as the GAMBIT (http://gambit.mit.edu/projects/hatespeech.php) hate speech project does) count as meeting an authentic community need? Similarly, if a class identifies a problem in their community but addresses the problem completely through virtual means – posting awareness raising facts on social network sites and linking their networks to raise funds for a cause, send letters to elected officials and broadcast media, etc. This may not look very much like community service, but may actually be as effective for addressing social issues as many face-to-face service projects.

5.2. Building community and connecting to movements

Another critical element of service-learning identified earlier is its potential to help students build a sense of connection to a broader community and to ongoing efforts to address social issues. However, this can be challenging when the service-learning is confined to a specific setting (school) and a specific time period (semester or year).

5.2.1. Supporting practice – connecting the social dots with social networks and maps

One of the most accessible and most striking affordances of networked technology is the ability to bridge connections between time and space. Consider the following:

• Mapping as Community Building. Activists, environmentalists and educators are increasingly taking advantage of mobile technology and online interactive mapping and data visualization software to connect individual activities to a larger whole. For example, Citizen Science (http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/category/learning-methods) programs encourage individuals to contribute data observations from their communities (pictures of wildlife, specific plants, etc.) to broader efforts to track climate change. Youth engaged in such activities have a chance to see how their individual acts of data collection can help inform the broader conversation about climate change. Mapping has also been used to build and maintain coalitions. For example, Chicago youth with the support of Open Youth Networks created OurMap of Environmental Justice (http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?hl=en&ie=UTF8&t=h&source=embed&msa=0&msid=103647195530581788559.00044b66339217a3e2538&ll=41.83913,-87.718105&spn=0.022381,0.036478) to draw attention to how they are impacted by environmental racism in their community, to identify assets in their community, and to «build a stronger and more vibrant environmental justice movement».

• Connecting to online youth leadership communities. A number of sites have emerged to connect youth nationally, globally, and across issues. Taking it Global (www.tigweb.org/) serves as an online resource and online community for youth and a space for «youth interested in global issues and creating positive social change». The site serves as a space for youth, educators, and organizations around the globe to access resources, share stories and information, engage in discussions, and to collaborate. Sites like this provide a structure for classrooms and organizations engaged in service-learning or organizing to connect their work to a broader, global dialogue about addressing social issues.

• Using social network sites to maintain community. Programs are increasingly using digital technology to create online spaces where youth can organize their work together. Free, commercially available tools, like Google Sites can be used to post updates and resources, plan activities, stay in contact, record discussions and decisions. The persistence of this form of communication and the ability for the entire group to access and interact with each others’ work, can, when done well, support the emergence of community in ways that episodic sharing back may not. Furthermore, as students move into and out of classrooms, these kinds of sites allow them to see the work that has come before them and that begins after they have left.

5.2.2. New considerations: Attending to the quality of online communities

Another affordance of new media is the potential to connect to communities not available in the physical space. For marginalized youth, who may feel alienated from their school or local community, digital networks can help them connect to like-minded people (Byrne, 2006) opening up the discussion of community beyond the geographic locality. However, one does not have to spend much time in the comments section of a YouTube video, a discussion board, or a networked game to realize that not all online networks lead to vibrant or healthy communities. Conversations can be fleeting or hostile. Feedback may or may not be relevant or helpful. Simply having technology doesn’t mean we use it well. We highlight the practices above because they are tools that can enhance the work that young people are doing and help them stay connected to each other, build community, etc. However, intentionality is important, and the practices we use to support healthy school and classroom communities may be different than those that support healthy online communities. Efforts like CommonSense Media’s (www.commonsensemedia.org) Digital Citizenship Curriculum (www.commonsensemedia.org/educators) provides a structure for teachers to work with students on creating healthy online communities in their own lives.

5.3. Supporting youth in expressing voice and making decisions

The third critical element we highlight is the importance of supporting youth in identifying and expressing their perspectives on social issues and in contributing substantively to decisions about how to address such issues.

5.3.1. Supporting practice – media production as a support for youth voice

While youth have long had opportunities to create media, advances in digital media have brought new capacity to produce and manipulate media and to reach an audience, both of which can support youth in discovering and expressing their point of view. Remixing and responding to existing media can be a mechanism for youth to explore their own point of view. Sharing media with others and receiving comments provides youth with an opportunity to feel as if someone is listening and their point of view is important.

Currently, there are a number of Youth Media resources dedicated to providing youth with the support and tools to articulate and draw attention to and amplify their experiences and the issues that are most relevant to their well-being. These programs focus not only on how to use new media tools – video, machinima, music, photography, graphic design, but how to use them effectively to reach an audience. As an example of one such effort, Adobe Youth Voices (http://youthvoices.adobe.com), a partnership of the Adobe Foundation and The Education Development Center, provides a number of curricular tools (http://youthvoices.adobe.com/essentials) for educators to support youth-led media production focused on a variety of civic and political issues (http://youthvoices.adobe.com/youth-media-gallery). The site not only provides the tools and support for production but seeks to build connections to an audience for youth products.

5.3.2. New Considerations. Building «counter-publics» in virtual worlds and online spaces

Noting the challenges of disrupting the tendency of youth and adults to default to norms of interaction that privilege adult authority, some scholars and practitioners have drawn attention to the creation of «counter-publics» where the norms of interaction are explicitly youth-focused as a strategy for helping youth develop their skills and confidence (O’Donoghue, 2006). Youth Leaders from Youth on Board, suggest several strategies for building healthy adult-youth relationships, one of which is for adults to step outside of their comfort zone and spend time with youth in their «space and turf». For some youth, their «turf» may include online communities they are already invested in or online communities built within the group where they are able to demonstrate greater expertise in certain technical skills than adults.

Some youth leadership organizations have experimented with using virtual worlds to create such spaces. For example, Barry Joseph documents how youth in the Teen Second Life could assert ownership and autonomy in their online community – designing spaces where they could meet (through their avatars), adding features to exhibits on social issues they were designing1. Because the area was open, teen-specific, and operating 24-7 in real time, youth were not in a physical space with adults, and adult control was secondary to expression, adult mentors in such a space are forced to think about how to work with teens on their terms.

5.4. Grappling with issues of justice and fairness

A final critical element of service-learning is that it engages youth in critical thinking about issues of justice and fairness. This requires that youth not only identify societal issues but that they consider questions of how the problem emerged and why it persists.

5.4.1. Supporting Practice: Using new media to discover and reframe narratives

New media has played an important role in helping youth engage in critical thinking about social issues for educators who work with youth in urban settings. Youth in these settings are keenly aware of issues that need to be addressed in their communities, but thinking through the structural factors that allow these issues to persist is a complicated endeavor for adults and youth alike. Media is a tool for both discovering and participating in the definition of social issues. When this activity is networked, it can becomes an exercise and grappling with differing perspectives on social issues.

For example, teacher, researcher, and blogger Antero Garcia turned a relatively routine lesson in which he assigned youth to re-tell a scene from Shakespeare into a lesson in critical analysis by putting the assignment in conversation with other youth productions. As described in his blog (www.theamericancrawl.com/?p=660) students’ discovery of videos of «Ghetto Shakespeare» on YouTube by students suburban settings raised a series of questions about how their community was being represented in the broader public. The posting of an alternative version within a socially networked space, then, became an act of engaging in dialogue about how their community is represented in the public sphere.

Youth organizers and youth media programs have long used media as a tool for youth to think about and help to shape how problems are framed and represented in the public eye as part of consideration of the structural factors that allow social problems to persist (Hosang, 2006). Digital networks enhance the capacity of youth to discover these narratives and to enter into conversation with others.

5.4.2. New considerations: Internet regulation issues as issues of justice and fairness

As youth spend more time online, the rules, regulations, and experiences associated with being online are becoming issues of public concern. One change that youth civic education may need to take into account is that the issues that concern the regulation of the internet are becoming issues of justice and fairness. For example, as the internet and new media tools are becoming critical tools for economic and social life, the issue of net neutrality is moving from the domain of internet innovators to being an issue of concern for the public more broadly. Control and ownership of infrastructure has important implications for who has access to these increasingly important tools of public engagement. For organizations who are working to amplify the voices of marginalized or under-represented groups like colorofchange.org working to preserve net neutrality is an important sphere of civic and political action.

Similarly, copyright and content control are becoming issues of public concern, as demonstrated by recent initiatives within the US Government to more forcefully regulate the circulation of copy-righted materials through the Stop Online Piracy Act and by the resulting widespread protests. Thus, thinking about access to the tools and materials of online life as an aspect of issues of social justice become a new consideration for service-learning.

6. Conclusion and implications

We have outlined a variety of ways that new media may be used in service of the goals of service-learning and experiential education and how new media may potentially raise new considerations for practice. We suggest that integration of new media into service-learning may help educators address some of the challenges of creating service-learning experiences that will most likely enhance youth civic development.

However, we suggest these approaches as areas for experimentation and study. The integration of new media into schools brings with it a number of risks and challenges, and we have yet to see any systematic studies of the effectiveness of these practices. What we are suggesting is more attention to how new media is currently being integrated into civic education and hoping to focus attention on the areas where we believe the role of technology can potentially make a difference.

Just as new media might enhance the ability of service-learning practitioners to connect youth to critical aspects of the authentic practice of civic engagement, there are risks as well. For example, we do not currently have sufficient research that tells us whether games genuinely support better understanding of complex social issues or whether they lead to important misconceptions or simplifications. If we are going to encourage youth to engage in online social networks, we also need to be very cautious in this practice – thinking about where they share their work or engage with other youth’s work (moderated spaces that regulate the tone of the community vs. open spaces), how they interact with other youth, what they share and whether they will be comfortable with their work having what Soep (2012) refers to as a «digital afterlife».

Given that the world where many youth are and will be enacting their citizenship is increasingly saturated with new media, it is critical to support youth ability to act effectively and responsibility in such a context. As an increasing number of teachers and youth mentors are beginning to integrate new media into their practice, the time is critical to begin more systematic study of what the impacts might be on youth and how we might most effectively support their civic development.


This article was adapted from the unpublished white paper Service and Activism in the Digital Age: Supporting Youth Engagement in Public Life, developed in collaboration with the Working Group on Service and Activism in the Digital Age http://dmlcentral.net/sites/dmlcentral/files/resource_files/sa.pdf. This work is supported by the Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (UC Irvine). While much of the content reflects contributions from the Working Group, we bear full responsibility for the content presented here.


1 See Eulogy for Teen Second Life – Barry Joseph (http://business.treet.tv/shows/bpeducation/episodes/bpe2011-049).


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