Howard Rheingold has a chapter just out (.pdf) in the latest McArthur Foundation series “Civic Life Online: Learning How Digital Media Can Engage Youth” where he writes the following:

I propose that learning to use blogs, wikis, digital storytelling, podcasts, and video as media of self-expression within a context of “public voice” should be introduced and evaluated in school curricula, after-school programs, and informal learning communities if today’s youth are to become effective citizens in the emerging era of networked publics. In the twenty-first century, participatory media education and civic education are inextricable.

The whole chapter is pretty interesting (as, it seems, are the other chapters in the collection at least looking at the titles…lots of holiday reading ahead), but I was especially struck by that last sentence especially in light of the blogging that’s been going on of late about digital citizenship and the like. (Dean has as good a round up as any.) While Rheingold is the first to admit that this is a thesis in need of testing, he does make a good case that we have an opportunity right now to engage our students in meaningful participation around the causes they are most interested in. And this is especially apparent as we enter the long stretch to the November presidential elections here in the US (as well as the compelling causes ongoing around the world that students might undertake.)

To be sure, Rheingold also identifies the big hump that we have to get over here, the one of making sure that our students’ public participation actually has a meaningful audience. While there are numerous examples of student initiated protest or action that has scaled well, many don’t. It’s one thing to participate simply for the sake of participating. It’s another all together to be able to have that participation actually create action. Which means, of course, that teachers have to have a deep understanding of the potentials and pitfalls of online activism, that it means more than simply signing a Facebook petition (in the words of Chris Lehmann) or putting up a wiki page todo list.

So here is the salient question, as asked in the chapter: “What if teachers could help students discover what they really care about, then show them how to use digital media to learn more and to persuade others?” The first part is almost (if not more) difficult than the last part these days. But that is a compelling question, I think, because inherent in it is the process of constructing and leveraging networks to learn and interact. As I said the other day, I want my own children to know how to participate effectively in the issues of their day using the way beyond local connections that are now possible. It would be great if they were being taught that in school.

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