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.