Collective Consciousness and Democratic Transformation

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Democratic reform and structural change are impossible without a transformation in individual and collective consciousness and values. Until people unlearn the values, ideologies and sedimented desires that allow for the internalization of their own subjugation, neoliberalism along with racism and other forms of oppression will be normalized, viewed as common sense, self-evident, and hence removed from critical inquiry.

-Henry Giroux, The Educational Deficit and the War on Youth (interview)

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Field Project: Challenging New Media and Civics Education Paradigms {Work in Progress}

I recently completed my Master’s field project proposal, which consists of a literature review and plan around new media and global citizenship education. The project will materialize as a set of curricula and/or website activities geared toward educating youth in America around the ways digital storytelling shapes our perspectives of global issues. I intend to develop the curricula over the next few months, and it should be completed by December 2013.

A brief summary about the project is below. You can download the full version (30p) here: New Media Literacy Project. I welcome feedback and encourage you to read it!

Title: “Challenging New Media and Civics Education Paradigms: A Space for Critical Media and Postcolonial Frameworks”

Purpose of the Project: A supplemental form of critical learning whereby students actively participate in sharing stories, posting critiques and engaging in dialogue around current events and social causes. The goal is to foster global citizenship – a frame of mind that is globally aware and read to take action on issues both at home and abroad – and to develop critical thinking skills by empowering young adults to share their stories and feedback about the worlds in which they thrive – both online and offline.

Theoretical frame: The predominant frame is a concept knowns as the “White Savior Industrial Complex“. Coined by the author and poet Teju Cole in March 2012, it posits that Western media contorts, essentializes and oversimplifies developing or “Third World” countries’ problems in an effort to portray dominance. In this view, drawn from postcolonial theory, European-driven perspectives of the Global South are the representative and normative understanding of the world; moreover Third World problems are frequently viewed from an outside-in lens under the framework of humanitarianism. A good example of the White Savior complex is the KONY 2012 campaign, TOMS shoes and Charity:Water. (Full disclosure: I am not trying to condemn or vilify global humanitarianism; in fact, I have contributed to both Charity:Water and other large-scale campaigns in the past, and own a few pairs of TOMS shoes. The main theme I am attempting to shine a light on is white privilege – the power, wealth, and politics that surround it. For context, I will restate the argument that Mr. Cole put forth in his article: “Those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.”)

Statement of the Problem: Globalization and the rise of social media, as a result, have shaped the contours of this White Savior narrative with greater impact – and ease: stories of “the other” are now circulated at warp speed across social networks, purporting “the other” as objects rather than subjects. Education programs may use KONY 2012 as a teachable moment, but many if not most fail to reach beyond traditional media literacy programs in identifying the power structures behind these types of events. New media programs, while beneficial in separating fact from fiction, do not routinely apply critical literacy and postcolonial frames to issues of global import like KONY 2012. And while successful civics engagement programs use new media projects to empower youth in oppressed communities, they lack the “global citizenship” framework to raise consciousness while critically examining new media’s role in shaping their perspectives.

Signficance of the Project: The ongoing effort to combat misinformation and distill truth in a 24/7 news cycle is daunting, and educators and parents lack the resources and time to be able to effectively implement these strategies. Moreover, they also lack the tools to guide critical discussions of privilege and power within these current methods and pedagogies. In addition, global activism campaigns target youth through aggressive marketing and storytelling tactics; by capturing the zeitgeist of the movement, these campaigns make it difficult for parents and educators to join the conversations or guide the discourse. In effect, social media campaigns’ stickiness and rapidity of scale make challenging the discourse in real time almost impossible. Furthermore, the essentialization that occurs in global charity and humanitarian campaigns makes for an increasingly difficult concept to unpack, especially given that these “global citizen” movements entice young people to “make a difference” through lending their voices to the causes they care about.

GOAL of the Project: This project aims to go beyond both the current new media literacy paradigms that largely focus on digital literacy as a tool to combat misinformation or distinguish fact from fiction and the civic engagement processes that urge youth to become agents of change without negotiating the broader worldviews they bring to the causes they champion. This project advocates for a marriage of the two paradigms within the greater themes of critical literacy and postcolonial studies from Cole’s White Savior theory. Be re-centering the frame from one that propels the West to be the agent of change towards a more inclusive model, this way of thinking can guide youth in understanding how their privilege reifies the current discourse around global causes. In turn, the process of changing these paradigms can empower youth the change the worlds in which they live.

#DML2013 Debrief: Reflections on Digital Media and Learning Conference (part 2)

DML Conference

This post is the second and last in a small series about the DML 2013 conference –  what I learned and what questions remain.

As I mentioned in my last post, the DML Conference proved that it was not your ordinary education conference – it was casual, not only in atmosphere but in spirit; it lacked the corporate smothering or pretense of academic confabs that I’ve been to in the past. Its genuineness and warmth allowed organic conversations and discourse to flow freely. During the three days of plenaries, panelists and PowerPoints, I noticed common themes throughout – relating to agency, power, engagement and worldview. Underscoring these themes are the elements of storytelling and the invitation (to connect).

Agency – it looks simple, but when you peel the layers of the onion it reveals itself as a complicated concept. Technology enables this oversimplification in the media, especially. When you click “like” on Facebook, is that revealing your agency? Is it wholly your choice? Does that “like” represent you, or only part of you? Or what about the “like” itself – does it  endorse, accept and vote for that object, organization or movement?  In traditionalist terms, agency means to “stand up and be counted”. Using your voice, your body – a physical presence. Now, the 21st century vision of agency is warped and transmogrified by the technological coatings around it. Agency, and all its layers, matters greatly, and was a major theme of the conference. In Panel I “Envisioning 21st Century Civic Engagement“, I saw the embodiment of agency first-hand. Youth groups from the Bay Area and LA’s Watts Youth Collective shared how they tackle agency in tough communities: circumventing the digital divide by blogging from a broken cell phone; using Twitter to engage in counter-storytelling; confronting hegemony through analyzing (and consequently ruining) Disney movies. Citing Gramsci, Freire and Dewey, these kids were challenging norms and systems that subvert agency in ways that society fails to recognize. This panel crystallized the ideas of empowerment theory and critical consciousness in the 21st century. It’s no simple formula, and the individual does matter. Their stories matter.

Power is represented through many forms; in education, it’s authority: society, parents, teachers, tests, police; however, in social justice movements it’s also tied to individual power structures. In Panel II, “Engineering Change“, youth from the Bay Area were transforming their own experiences through voice, storytelling and connecting. Examples like Youth SpeakYouth Radio and the Hidden Genius Project, young men and women actively challenge their own power issues at home through participation. Be it performing spoken word, presenting a business plan, or developing a mobile app, these skills represent changing structures of power in young people’s lives. They are able to transform from one area to the next using 21st century technology and media production, and create their own content worlds in the process. They are able to connect and define democracy as they see it – by inviting others. Yet power structures remain – they are not equalized despite the movements that  attempt to subvert them.

Worldview was implied in a lot of the stories and examples of youth engagement and activism. Whether in developing skills to confront society’s biggest issues or making mistakes along the way, frames are created and destroyed in the process of becoming engaged and active, both on and offline. In Panel IV “What can a concerned kid trust“, Chicago area organizations like the News Literacy Project, Columbia Links, Free Spirit Media and Radio Arte shared how youth were developing their journalistic and media skills through storytelling and activism campaigns. They learned how to use broadcast media to not only perfect their craft but also to share their stories. The panel also touched on media literacy skills and how these organizations helped guide youth in becoming more media literate.

I was disappointed that this particular topic of media literacy was centered around the “protectionist” approach, which argues for guiding youth and protecting them from misinformation or separating “fact from fiction” through a variety of toolkits and strategies. I’m not disagreeing with this approach entirely, since such guidance is needed and is important, however I wish that they had applied a more critical media lens to this framework, focusing on the systemic structures that shape how and why we receive the information we do online (especially news and media campaigns), rather than the treatment of it postfact. I was excited that the title of Panel IV was “KONY 2012, FEMA camps: What can a concerned kid trust?“, however the Kony phenomenon was only mentioned while the panel was describing its theme: “news literacy”. No further attempt (during this or other panels) was made to understand how media literacy should also include a critical lens – by focusing on hegemony, power, control, or postcolonialism, in the KONY example.

What I am trying to get at here…

We cannot separate media literacy from engagement. In order to understand how movements can change and shape worldviews, subvert authority or garner 100 million views on YouTube, we need to deconstruct who is behind these campaigns, why they are present, and what their goals are. It’s more than just being able to tell if a website is a hoax, or if a video is inaccurate, or finding truth in fiction (because really, what is truth?). It’s also about confronting privilege.

I noticed that this theme was lost even in the “global movement” panels – Getting Global with It, From Click to Clictivism. and Citizen Action in the Global South. The panelists extrapolated on the ideas of cosmopolitanism, global citizenship and social media activism with a lot of great examples, but without acknowledging the issue of privilege in global social movements (ie. Kony). While they recognized the multiplicities of many movements: the half-truths of what constitutes a “true” movement from a global perspective, or the assumption that all movements are good, they didn’t address the way that privilege and power connect what gets heard and what doesn’t. If the Watts Youth Collective can use Gramsci to counter the dominant narrative that oppresses their communities, why can’t we also examine how KONY 2012, for example, exploited the spectacle of war-torn Africa for donations? What about Charity Water or others that use celebrity to drive their cause? What image does “humanitarianism” project to people of color, if they aren’t the “objects” of it? How can we confront these issues more clearly in digital media and education conferences? I wished that the White Savior Complex had been addressed further in this conference. We got a twinge of it during the last plenary, when the Harry Potter Alliance spoke of dropping food aid on Haiti, but then it quickly died off.

I’d like to see more of these conversations happen.

Let’s put two and two together when talking about media literacy and engagement. Engagement can facilitate literacy, and literacy is more than understanding “truth” from “fiction”. Let’s move beyond the empowerment/protectionist binary and bring in critical theory to the mix. Let’s take the privilege and CRT discourse out of the current paradigm and into the world of social media. Let’s empower youth to become global citizens without assuming the gaze of postcolonial privilege, where “changing the world” starts and ends with a click of a button. That’s just not how you learn about the plight of others.

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#DML2013 Debrief: Reflections on Digital Media and Learning Conference (part 1)

DML Conference

I have to say the first thing that struck me after arriving at the Digital Media and Learning 2013 Conference last week in Chicago was its lack of pretension. It was a very well organized setup, and no-frills –  the $75 entry fee meant no swag, except for some free publications in book and pamphlet form (which are by the way really great), and no corporate sponsors with their flimsy handouts and gimmicky promotions – a sign that it was going to be a really authentic experience. It turned out to be much more than that: intimate, inspirational, and validating, I came away from it feeling full of new ideas and questions.

This post is the first in a small series about the conference –  what I learned and what questions remain.

Overall Theme – Democratic Futures: Technology as Catalyst for Social Change
Called “Democratic Futures”, the conference brought together a diverse cabal of folks in many different spheres of education to discuss how young people can be agents of change in their communities and beyond. It was definitely an activist-centered conference, and technology was just the layer on top of it, the catalyst. I quickly realized that there were 3 distinct camps present in both the audience and speaker groups: 1) the research and technology folks who were pushing innovation both in and outside the classroom (still, very little product placement involved); 2) the educators, higher ed or below, who may have been more traditionalist in their approach to technology uses (citing often the “protectionist” approach to safeguarding youth online; and 3) the social justice organizers and students themselves who were clear agents of change in their communities. At times I could sense the tension between the three camps, since they each had their own vested interest in how technology could or could not work for them. The bottom line: technology is not a savior, and should not be an excuse for involvement, not scapegoated for when things fail. It should help you get from point A to B, to express yourself, to empower your community, to get your message across. The dominating hype is not going to die down anytime soon, so we need to be the ones to recognize and counteract it with our own stories.

Keynote by Ethan Zuckerman MIT Center for Civic Media: “Beyond the Crisis in Civics”
Ethan Zuckerman’s talk was the most anticipated of the conference, not just because he was the keynote but also because he is widely known for his activist work in the US and abroad. What I took from his talk is summarized below:

In our heavily mediated world, we should be focusing on agency rather than “traditional” civics participation. Gone are the days when being a civically-minded person meant you would have to write your congressman or newspaper – the internet allows for a sliding scale of engagement as well as new forms of participation: from signing an online petition to remixing a political ad to creating a story about your own community’s struggles, there are more ways to “practice civics” than ever before. We should also reinterpret how we view “authentic” participation; while we are accustomed to movements like the Arab Spring, where a critical mass indicates “true” mobilization, we should also think about how that can be met via different means, with different outcomes. A spectrum of involvement has been created as a result (see picture below). Yet, because of new media’s rapid “spreadability”, we often have to evaluate after the fact: the slow swell does not play out well on YouTube. But questioning that impact is becoming more important: Was Occupy successful? Or the Arab Spring? Other examples are more clear: KONY2012 was a success in terms of its campaign goals, but the bottom fell out quickly afterwards.

Matrix of Civic Involvement

Follow up questions:
What constitutes success if ultimately we are just recirculating old ideas of activism in new forms? New media complicates this frame: because online campaigns are trackable and “achievable” (they can scale at a much faster rate than offline), they change our understanding of success. When does a click represent more than a symbolic action?

For the full Keynote presentation and writeup far more in-depth than mine, please visit the Center for Civic Media’s blog.

Confronting MOOCs – Reflections on hyperbole and elitism

A recent paper I produced for my graduate course on Comparative Education last fall focused on higher education systems in India and the United States, specifically centered around the rise of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). I have been following this trend for most of 2013 which was why I chose to write about it, but looking back I do feel like I lauded much praise on the hyperbole-laden, media-driven blitz of a “revolutionary moment” in higher education history. An excerpt from my paper:

“In many ways, MOOCs represent an existential threat to those in traditional, location-based academic institutions; the very nature of MOOCs dismantle the agreed-upon roles and responsibilities of  teachers, students, classrooms,  and learning outcomes. “

In retrospect, the above statement is a bit overblown, as most MOOCs still rely heavily on the teacher-to-student “banking” model pedagogy. But the crux of my argument was around the democratization aspect of what a MOOC fundamentally can represent – an epistemological shift in how people learn:

“Consumption and production of knowledge has shifted from the hands of the elite few to the outstretched arms of the masses.”

Where I could (and should have) focused my paper, had it not been a comparative study, would have been around the value of higher education. The below explains the questions I raised, which were not fully explored nor answered during my research:

The bulk of the research and data on MOOCs in the United States (which is growing on a daily basis) is problem-posing, inasmuch that the perceived value of online education is still highly contested and lacks clear goals or consensus from those involved in its production. While The New York Times proclaimed this year “The Year of the MOOC”, epistemological concerns abound. One journalist from the Washington Post writes, “Are [MOOCs] undercutting a time-tested financial model that relies on students willing to pay a high price for a degree from a prestigious institution? Or are they accelerating the onset of a democratized, globalized version of higher education?” (Anderson, 2012).  The media tend to skew the argument by focusing on the “democratization” of higher education – or, put bluntly, the Achilles’ heel of the elite institutions, who offer the same courses but at a much higher price tag.  Another author puts it more simply: “MOOCs have become a flashpoint for discussion of higher education because they represent an easily graspable, almost parodic version of what was previously invisible: elite university education.” (Byerly, 2012) The jury is still out on what the real, true value of MOOCs is in the United States. It’s clear the partnerships formed between MOOCs and American higher education institutions represent a shared vision of dispensing and distributing knowledge en masse, but for what purpose and with what goals?

These concerns are still valid. I fear that most of the media discourse is fixed plainly on the business model of higher education, (using human capital theory as its foundation) rather than a more precise, epistemological confrontation of elitism in education. With politicians and the media stumping around the issue of jobs and a weak economy, when it comes to the the higher education “crisis”, it seems natural that they avoid the deeper issues, since that won’t necessarily lead to an increase in pageviews, ratings, or voter constituencies. Does this conversation only happen within the confines of academe and those that write about the academe? What about the students’ points of view? They also seem largely absent.

I am going to withhold future commentary on the MOOC mess. In the meantime, some further reading on the topic that I found useful, that attempts a more holistic viewpoint, is below:

Making the Most of MOOCs (Inside Higher Ed)
To MOOC or Not To MOOC (Chronicle)
A MOOC Article a Day: Three Themes to Watch
 (IIE.org)

Response to The Cost of College in the New Yorker Magazine

An old post meant for May, but posted in December, in response to Nick Lemann’s New Yorker article on the cost of college :

It’s common knowledge these days that student loan debt has soared past credit card debt in the United States, and Romney and Obama have drawn their lines in the sand about the cost of college and each man’s plan to fix it. The problem is that Mr Lemann’s argument –  government should continue to “pump” money into the system to “spread opportunity more widely”, a “small price to pay” for long term gains in society – implies that the system will figure itself out as if it has two eyes and a head. Those running elite institutions (like the ones Mr Obama and Romney attended) will continue to function as elite, with endowments and governmental grants that have protected nonprofit schools from faltering along with their moneyed, status-driven alumni and celebrity rankings. But he mentions that “the system is built to take in just about all high school graduates” , which is a false assumption. Harvard and all want-to-be Harvards vie for top spots in the national rankings which are geared towards exclusivity and unattainable statuses. State colleges are no better- the CSU system has failed to accommodate its rise in yearly applications and has cut funding so much that it will deny more students than ever. And what about all the high school graduates who are well beyond college years who seek an education? There’s community college, which is also plagued by capacity problems. Any hard look at the current system will reveal that it is not focused educating the masses, but rather those with deep pockets, or in recent years, international students with even deeper pockets. Democracy in education is not a dream for the incumbent institutions, indeed, but rather a nightmare.

“Higher Education Should Not Be a Luxury”

These words, just recently emitted by President Obama, sum up the problem with the higher education system in America these days. He’s responding to the crisis in student loan debt (over $1 trillion) and specifically to the fact that now, effective this year, interest rates are doubling for all loans – from 3.4% to 6.8%. This is catastrophic for any student who relies on loans (most do). To raise awareness, Obama is touring around the country for the next week to enforce the message that this increase is unacceptable, and that the Republican-majority Congress must lobby for students – not against them – by finding an alternative way to shore up cash. Let’s not “cut our future off at the knees”, he says, by making our students unable to afford higher education, the link to America’s future prosperity.

I agree, and think it’s great that he’s campaigning for an alternative. The irony, however, is that the 2007 bill that extended the 3.4% rate until this year was signed into law during the Bush administration, and was widely accepted by Republicans. So Congress had, at one point, been looking out for students. At present, I don’t think this is a political issue, but, rather, a forecasting issue. You see, in 2007, when the bill was passed, the recession had not yet started. The recession came a year later, and jobs were obliterated. With fewer jobs, people began enrolling in post-secondary education in droves, taking out more loans in order to pay for their schooling. Politicians in 2007 lacked the foresight to anticipate the highest rate of enrollment in the nation’s history, along with the rise in for-profit colleges and increased student loan disbursements. It’s a supply and demand narrative – when the economy turns down, society looks to other ways to recover – and one of the commonest ways to pull oneself out of the proverbial hole is the pursuit of advanced knowledge. Just as the sub-prime mortgage rate turned homeowners into debt-addled foreclosers, the student loan crisis is turning students into unemployed drop-outs…

With all this being said, let’s not look to partisan rhetoric when doling out criticism about the crisis in higher ed (its return or its affordability). After all, Obama signed the Budget Control Act of 2011 which essentially wiped out all Subsidized Direct Stafford Loans as of this year, upon which I have solely relied on to pay for college in order to remain debt-free. Subsidized loans come interest-free – as long as you remain a part-time student – and the interest doesn’t kick in until six months after you graduate.  The news came to me this week after I got my financial award for 2012-3 school year – a heaping $20,000, to the tune of 6.8% interest, which begins to accrue immediately upon enrollment in the Fall. Are you kidding me? I had no clue this was in store – my university informed me in a single paragraph in my reward notice – and this has not been acknowledged in any of the recent publicity around the student loans crisis. Without the Subsidized loan, I will need to pony up a cool $3 – 6,000 in tuition each semester, all at once, lest I incur the horrible 6.8% interest rate that I cannot afford. A double in rate doesn’t matter to me – what matters is that I have no buffer, at all, to pay it off. Until recently, I was excited about going back in the Fall, knowing that I can pay off my loans as I work full-time, at peace with the fact that I will not become another poor graduate student living hand-to-mouth. My last post reeks of gullibility. How could I have been so sure I wasn’t going to be affected sooner or later?

Things have changed. I will have to consider the consequences of this law and decide whether or not I will be able to 1) finish my program on-time, due to huge lump payments I will have to make every 4 months; or, 2) actually enjoy my program with the added layer of stress that comes along with #1. I welcome Obama’s fine oration on the merits of higher education and its importance in developing a stronger nation, but in order for education not to be a luxury, we need reform, not just another bill extension or stump speech.

The Student Loan Bubble

While the shadow of Occupy has receded, the 99-percent-ers’ voices linger, their hand-painted messages strewn about in pieces on the street,  their stories memed across the blogosphere: remnants of a collective sigh of resignation after a long, arduous fight. Although the initial movement has ebbed, I am confident it will rise again, replicated and remixed – like everything else this day and age, a fresh, new image is just around the corner.

The reason why Occupy is part of this post is that it, as a movement, gave a voice to those who felt cheated, who were denied their right to succeed and prosper in the land of plenty. Many were doing everything they were told to do – and still got screwed. And many were college students, now saddled by debt that they will be forever shackled to, with little else left to support themselves.

Student loans have overtaken credit cards as the largest form of debt in America. The next anticipated market bubble will most certainly be student loans; with the rising number of students enrolling in and departing each year (either by graduating or dropping out), multiplied by a recession job market, tuition the highest its ever been and student loan rates hovering at 8% (at least mine are), it’s a recipe for disaster.  It’d lessen the burn if graduating students could at least feel somewhat confident that they’ll get a job afterwards. (They don’t.)

With debt collectors coming after grads full-force – an aggressive attempt to puncture the $67 billion in defaulted loans  – what choice would one have but to give in, move home, crawl under the covers and wish it all away?

I’m fortunate that I didn’t take out loans for my bachelor’s degree, but I have for my graduate degree. I graduated from college more than six years ago and have had steady work ever since, so I’m in a good place (after one year of grad school, I have already paid off my loans). Others (most) are not so lucky, and yet they were sold the idea that college equals freedom, the discovery of your passions, enlightenment: a better future. Now, all they can see is a dollar sign stamped to their forehead, and a narrowing tunnel of opportunity. Innovators like to throw around the phrase “scarcity brings clarity”, and while I like that idea when it comes to business, knowledge should not contract simply because the economy does, and its pursuit should not limit our potential. In reality, that’s just not what we’ve been told.

Alternative Education and Cal State: Student Tug-of-War

Admittedly, I am not too well-versed in my own state’s higher education policy nor its issues, but the recent news about Cal State’s “beta” test to roll out online education as an alternative to the swollen, funding-deficient bellies of its current classrooms piqued my interest. Given that Cal State is the largest university system in the US, it behooves me to see what all the fuss is about.

According to the news, Cal Sate is exploring an online version of itself, called Cal State Online, which allows students to enroll in existing and to-be-created online courses that will eventually serve over 250,000 students in the coming decades.

Some faculty – especially unionized ones – are up in arms about the platform, predicting it will “harm” its current bricks-and-mortar institutions and the students they serve, by undercutting funding and undermining its traditional teaching methods. Not surprised, faculty! But how about the harm imposed on all the students you don’t serve, whom can ultimately benefit from having a college education when they otherwise would have nothing?

The nutshell here is that Cal State is having a capacity problem, and the online learning solution could fix that problem – and educate hundreds of thousands of students that would otherwise be nonconsumers – yet, the underlying issue is the perceivable, widening gap between the “haves and the have-nots” in academe. Rich? Go to your campus! Poor? Go to your computer!

And what about the transfer students? Over 1/3 of all students enrolled in higher education institutions have transferred (and many from a four to a two-year institution, counterintuitive to what most would assume) The majority of students are transferring due to economic reasons, so an online school would be a great way to get them on track with a standardized curriculum. Preparing them for the change while ensuring quality programs is what Cal State seems to have in mind – they’re not outsourcing the content to for-profits or other providers, which could be problematic – so let’s say for today’s match, I’m for Team Cal State Online.