How I Learned To Type (video)

This first video, “How I Learned to Type,” was created by Diana Kimball and Sarah Zhang of the Digital Natives team. It takes a glance into how people of different ages learned one of the first skills every digital inhabitant needs – typing. Do you “peck” with two fingers, type in multiple languages at once, or have a typing teacher with a wooden leg? The people in “How I Learned to Type” do all this and more. Digital technology has become so ingrained in our lives that for digital natives, learning to type has become a ubiquitous experience, as memorable, say, as learning to read or ride a bike.

Gearing up the project to support multiple forms of investigation, engagement, learning and fun, we’re proud to announce the start of our summer “Digital Natives: Reporters in the Field” series. In this series, we’ll be investigating the many themes of our project in true Digital Native style – through video, audio, and instant message chat interviews. Stay tuned as we talk to Digital Natives on the ground, discuss related issues with researchers, educators and innovators, and celebrate the upcoming August release of Born Digital.

Look for more podcasts on piracy, digital learning, online activism, and other topics. Stay tuned for the release of a new piece every Wednesday, and enjoy!

Got Missiles?

As a recent photograph depicting Iranian test missiles reveals, all you need to do if you’re one warhead short is break out Photoshop. That, at least, is what somebody affiliated with Sepah News (the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s media outlet) did with a now-infamous photograph. The picture, a view of three test missiles launching, was altered to include four (hiding one that failed). The photograph was displayed by many prominent news organizations (including the BBC, the L.A. Times, and the New York Times) before it was noted that portions of the dust clouds beneath the missiles were identical. Online news sites have been abuzz all morning, engaged in a debate over what, exactly, this means. As the New York Times notes, this is not the first time Iran’s state media has altered photographs for political ends. Nor is photoshoppery for private gain a new phenomenon (just ask the L.A. Times, which was unfortunate enough to find an emerging pixel jockey among its photographers in 2003).

What does this mean for Digital Natives? Could top-notch picture-tweaking skills land them lucrative jobs with a government spin unit somewhere? Perhaps. Before they even think of submitting a cv, however, they’ll have to master what Henry Jenkins and others at the New Media Literacies Project have labeled the “Transparency Problem,” the “challenge[ ] young people face in learning to see clearly the ways that media shape perceptions of the world” (read the NML whitepaper here). Scholars still disagree as to just how savvy kids are these days. As NML’s white paper points out, Ted Friedman’s analysis of the game SimCity could be read to suggest that gamers are more likely than other youth to identify a system and learn how to manipulate it to their advantage. NML also cites other studies that have shown exactly the opposite — that Digital Natives have difficulty separating the objective and subjective components of digital media (for example, in a case in which students played a game depicting both American and British accounts of the Battle of Lexington Green, the young players interpreted everything presented by the game as fact, rather than as a dramatization of two biased, contradictory interpretations)

John Palfrey and Urs Gasser argue that in some cases (among gamers or Wikipedia editors, for example) being a Digital Native improves young peoples’ ability to critique information online. For those youth who spend less time online, the opposite is true. Incidents like this week’s explosive photoshoppery are a reminder that students need to be taught how to evaluate online material just as they are encouraged to assess historical print sources. Students also need to be reminded of some complexities unique to digital media, including the way a website can change from moment to moment to reflect shifting views on an issue (the four missile picture is said to have quietly disappeared from the Sepah News website). This latest altered photo may not have been good enough to fool everyone for long, but as governments continue to expand their digital media arsenals, it is likely that propaganda of this variety will be produced with greater skill and distributed with greater frequency. It is up to teachers, parents, and Digital Natives themselves to ensure that young people will be critical enough to demand the truth.

Nikki Leon

Social vs. Collaborative Spaces

I’ve been ruminating for a while now on The Real Paul Jones’ excellent post on the differences between social and collaborative spaces and practices, and the implications:

This points out the weaknesses of social networks versus networks for collaboration. When using say del.icio.us, I want collaborators for much of my research and teaching and work. But when it comes to say last.fm, I want my friends who share and enlighten me about music. People using FaceBook for work can see right away what I’m getting at. I do feel close to many of my coworkers and they keep me in touch with a lot of things I’d otherwise miss, but I don’t use FaceBook as a work resource — except for those times I need incidental or ad hoc help. I think that LinkedIn is defining itself less of a social space and more of a collaboration space. Not so much for active collaboration in any constant way but in a kind of punctuated temporary way that is slightly ad hoc but more about information exchange — I see Bill is in your network and he seems to have the skills we need in my office. Could you recommend him?

After mulling this over, I don’t think that that’s quite right, but I’m also still figuring out what I think the difference is between social and collaborative spaces. LinkedIn – in that it basically presents contact and relevant contextual personal information (in its case, work experience rather than, e.g., music tastes) – seems more like a traditional profile-based social networking site (SNS), mainly useful for the maintenance and growth of social capital. That it’s a professional and not a particularly sociable space (as, e.g., Facebook or MySpace is) is not quite the point – whenever collaboration occurs, it will be as a result of actions taken on LinkedIn (that is, social actions) but the collaboration itself will take place elsewhere. Mostly, existent SNS are designed for sociability, and functionally are crippled for collaboration – they include neither the basic features (e.g., document storage; basic word processing, etc.) or the flexibility of interface (truly open API) necessary for it. It’s also not for nothing that these SNS have become perceptually established as social spaces and thus users are likely resistant to their re-framing as collaborative work spaces.

I don’t think that, at present, there are many truly collaborative spaces online. Something like Ning suggests other possibilities as a collaborative space because,

  1. it hasn’t really been established as a social space, for many people, and
  2. it does include the flexibility of interface to make it into a collaborative space

Indeed, many self-organizing social networks on Ning are explicitly organized around professional projects or interests – constructed social spaces for the purpose of collaboration. Not being in the prognostication business, I’m not going to call for Ning to be The Next Big Thing but I do think that we’ve reached or are rapidly approaching a transition point in online activities.

While the socializing-online-will-destroy-the-world crowd still gets in their punches, an increasing body of research combined with the personal experiences of a large share of society are revealing that social activity online can actually be a net benefit and indeed result in more offline socialization rather than less. Part of this is down to the maturity and ease of use of the technologies, part to habituation of users, but basically – many people have “figured out” socialization online, and it’s a relatively uncontroversial part of many people’s daily lives.

Work and collaboration, by contrast, still exist for most users in the same hybrid online-offline space that has predominated since e-mail became a widespread tool and computer workstations a taken-for-granted element of office life. We’re talking about 10, 15, 20 years here, which is kind of awesome to contemplate – almost literally forever in Internet time. Most people still collaborate by e-mailing successive drafts of a document and then talking about it in meetings, or accessing copies on a shared drive. A range of platforms are making document-based collaboration easier, but this is just a part of the puzzle. The perceptual shift that hasn’t quite happened yet – and this is, again, a function both of technology and of habituation – is the movement of collaboration from a splintered, multi-modal (Word Doc -> meeting -> IM conversation, etc.) process to one that is streamlined and takes place in a single space, or at least a space in which all of the various elements are coordinated in such a way as to make the space effectively unitary.

Okay, so maybe I am a prognosticator: this is going to happen, even if the particulars of the how remain to be sorted out (and there’s more grist for the mill). But it will happen especially and increasingly among those for whom living online is the default presumption, who’ve grown up IMing each other for help on homework and working together as squadrons in Halo. That perceptual difference – of always having additional cognitive resources in your ear or at your fingertips – seems to me the bridge to be crossed in developing truly collaborative spaces online.

-Jacob Kramer-Duffield

The Video Generation

At age eleven, I experienced Disney at the movies or on VHS, nowadays Digital Natives are experiencing it online. Nielsen Online, a service of The Nielsen Company, reports:

“Kids 2-11 viewed an average of 51 streams and 118 minutes of online video per person during the month, while teens 12-17 viewed an average of 74 streams and 132 minutes of online video. Those over 18 viewed an average of 44 streams and 99 minutes of online video”

The way I see it, it’s impossible to avoid this phenomenon, and if anything, these numbers will continue to increase in the near future. Digital Natives can find anything from “digital play for girls today” (everythinggirl.com) to “where the hell is matt” (wherethehellismatt.com) to the NBA Finals. As Michael Pond, senior media analyst, Nielsen online, states:

“Today’s youth don’t know – or don’t remember – a time when they weren’t going online, so their adoption of online video has been seamless”

For young Digital Natives online video seems to compliment their TV experience. Their top online video destinations include Disney Records, PBS Kids, Nick, and Barbie, among others. For DNs, ages 12-17, the demographic with the highest average of streams viewed, the most popular destinations include YouTube, MySpace.com, Google Video, Facebook, bebo, and funnyjunk.com, among others.

In many ways, online video is more engaging and interactive than conventional video sources such as TV or DVDs. For example, YouTube enables users to watch related videos, post video responses, and make comments about the videos viewed. This establishes a community where users are not only able to find videos but also network with others who share similar interests. PBS Kids, for example, allows users to color and play games with their favorite characters. One common theme in all of these websites is availability of related-video-links. This makes it more likely for users to spend longer periods of time online. We all know the way it goes, one link leads to another link, which leads to yet another link…the possibilities are endless.

And there’s video content for everyone. Some of my school friends who studied abroad became experts at finding sites that would enable them to watch American shows while abroad. When they came back to the states they were hooked on websites such as alluc.org or tv-links.cc. These are “link-sharing-website that catalogue links to TV shows, movies, music videos, sport, anime and cartoons to make them more easily accessible.” Not only do we have YouTube, where you can “broadcast yourself”, we also have websites that make it possible to watch all the episodes of all the shows you’ve ever loved watching, online. For those who love sports, there are websites such as rojadirecta.com, where soccer fans can watch matches for free. And my personal favorite, I recently started attending a church where they offer podcasts of the sermons, so if you spaced out for a second and did not pay attention to the youth pastor, no biggie, just watch the podcast.

Finally, I believe this development to be positive. From my own experience, I know I can sing Hakuna Matata better than I can recall the departments of Colombia – something I apparently learned in the 3rd grade. As a child I always loved learning through video. I learn about how babies come to the world at age five through a video my mom rented and to this day I remember clips from it. It is crucial that we learn and continue to harness the influence and power online video has on Digital Natives today. Video content online shouldn’t be just an extension of what young Digital Natives are experiencing in front of their televisions. It must continue to go beyond.

The Video Generation: Kids and Teens Consuming More Online Video Content Than Adults at Home, According to Nielsen Online

-DO.

Creativity and Media Literacy Forum

This past Wednesday, June 25, featured a wonderful collaborative conversation at the Berkman Center – the Digital Natives Forum on Creativity and Media Literacy. Thirty five of us crammed into the Berkman conference room on with gyros and baklava to talk, discuss and brainstorm about the issues facing various production/research venues in our neighborhood, and five projects from around the area shared their obstacles and their opportunities in today’s digital age. Here’s a taste of what happened:

-Jayne Karolow of Locamoda demonstrated Jumbli. Karolow shared an interesting mobile-text specific challenge with the group: Privacy and Trust. It seems many people do not trust “just send us a text message and win!” campaigns. There is a general feeling, Jayne reported, that mobile-texting games will charge you more than the usual text message or that the company will steal your information and spam you. How should LocaModa to counteract this bad image? The group suggested that they work with established intermediaries to become a more trusted brand. More specifically, some Berkman group also suggested that Jumbli position itself as a spelling game for schools, where all kids are mobile-ready.

-Eugenia Garduno of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education talked about River City, a Multi-User Virtual Environment for middle school students that teaches epidemiology and the scientific method. Even though students report more interest in science after playing the 17 hour curriculum, is there any way to ensure that they will be able to apply what they learn virtually to their offline lives? Prominent research says no. The Berkman group suggested designs for a second level of curricula—one that would takes kids out of the classroom and into their community—applying what they learned in River City to their own cities. Because situated learning is the only learning that ‘works,’ teaching anything on any subject must relate to real life if it is to transfer for the student.

-Karen Brennan, and Andrés Monroy-Hernández of MIT Media Lab presented Scratch, a simple graphical programming language for construction of animations. Scratch has over 15,000 pieces of unique animations and almost every minute new content is added. Students can reuse each other’s work but sometimes do without giving credit, so Scratch developed a way to track source code so that previous designers (from one level up) could be credited. How can they make clear its principles of sharing, creativity and remixing?

-Anna Van Someren and Clement Chau of MIT’s New Media Literacies explained their Learning Library project, an informal setting to explore media, mash-ups and appropriation. While they are still working out the logistics of their tool, they too are caught up in issues regarding ownership, authorship and copyright. How will NML engage students in thoughtful, nuanced or balanced exploration of the issues around digital engagement and the law? All parties present seemed to agree that young people need to learn what it means to share, to credit, and to build on others’ opinions. But how to do that, while navigating the complexities of the law, is a challenge.

-David Dockterman of Tom Snyder Productions showed off Timeliner, a software program that visually organizes information on a time line or number line. The next version Timeliner will launch with a built in internet browser that will allow students to embed and attach movies, music, photos from the web into their reports, but this will raise even further copyright issues. It can handle attribution through links to source sites, but attribution is really not a copyright issue. How can kids publish or share their work if the work they’re using is copyright protected? How can teachers encourage them to use such unsafe work?

The five main issues that emerged from the day were: branding and symbol clarity; the transfer of knowledge; authorship and plagiarism; simplicity in language; and educating about the law. These themes circle us as we too attempt to design meaningful learning opportunities in the Digital Natives context. How can we make simple what we teach? How can we make sure students learn content in the context of their real lives? How do we connect digital appropriation to ethical principles? How can use words and build web models that reflect our ethics? How do we connect our social norms and practices to the principles of the law, government and political balance?

Digital Natives’ copyright curriculum group was thrilled to have these groups here—to learn from their stories and to consider ways for complementing their efforts.

Our hope is to continue the conversation, with each other and with others. Our next Digital Natives forum, Civic Engagement, will be held on August 4, 2008. We will feature two researchers and one project, and will continue the conversation begun Wednesday.

-Rosalie Barnes

Katie Salen, ed., “The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning”

(cross-posted from John Palfrey’s blog)

The first book that I read in the series of MacArthur/MIT Press’s Digital Media and Learning series was “The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning”, edited by game designer and educator Katie Salen (open access version here). As with the other books in the series, it’s a very important contribution to the scholarly literature of a nascent field. (I’ve come back to Salen’s work just as Urs Gasser and I are turning in the final, final version of our forthcoming book, Born Digital.) “The Ecology of Games” is an excellent primer on where innovation is happening at the intersection between games and learning and where future avenues for research offer promise.

The first essay, Salen’s “Toward an Ecology of Gaming,” sets the frame for the collection. She recounts, helpfully, those things that “we” know already: “… that play is iterative as is good learning, and that gaming is a practice rooted in reflection in action, which is also a quality of good learning. We know games are more than contexts for the production of fun and deliver just-in-time learning, the development of specialist language, and experimentation with identity and point of view. We know games are procedurally based systems embedded within robust communities of practice. We know that video games and gaming have done much to shape our understanding and misunderstanding of the post-Nintendo generation, and hold a key place in the minds of those looking to empower educators and learners. Beyond their value as entertainment media, games and game modification are currently key entry points for many young people into productive literacies, social communities, and digitally rich identities.” (pp. 14 – 15) She ends her chapter with five unanswered questions, each worth reflecting and working on. (p. 15)

James Paul Gee’s “Learning and Games” gives an overview of what “good game design” can “teach us about good learning” and vice-versa (p. 21). He offers these insights through what he calls the “situated learning matrix.” (pp. 24 – 31) The most illuminating part of his essay for me was the discussion of the ways in which young people form cross-functional teams within gaming environments — and his view of the excellent training opportunities these contexts could hold in terms of training them for workplace experiences. (p. 33)

In “In-Game, In-Room, In-World: Reconnecting Video Game Play to the Rest of Kids’ Lives,” three authors (Reed Stevens, Tom Satwicz, and Laurie McCarthy) take up a great topic: “whether playing these games affects kids’ lives when the machine is off.” (p. 41) The key insight for me was the notion of identity: “… young people are indeed forming identities in relation to video games. The idea that they can do things in the game that they cannot do in the real world is only part of the story; the other half is that they hold actions that they control in-game in regular comparative contact with the consequences, and morality, of those actions in the real world. Actions in games, then, are a resource for building identities in the real world, occurring through a reflective conversation that takes place in-room.” (p. 62)

“E is or Everyone: The Case for Inclusive Game Design,” by Amit Pitaru, followed a different structure than most other essays in the series. It’s told as a story about the researcher’s time with students at the Henry Viscardi School in Albertson, NY, a “remarkable school” that “educates approximately 200 pre-K to twenty-one-year-old students with a variety of physical disabilities and medical needs.” (p. 68)

Through this narrative, Pitaru offers insights on many levels. The essence of the argument is that a lack of play among children poses dangers, many of which can be avoided through digital games when set in the proper context. Pitaru claims further that digital games “provide a viable complementary activity to existing mediated forms of play” for children with disabilities.” (p. 85) I wondered, at the end, how many educators would agree with Pitaru, and where other experimentation is happening.

Mimi Ito, as usual, offers an extraordinarily helpful essay. If you read any single essay from the DML series, read this one: “Education vs. Entertainment: A Cultural History of Children’s Software.” The topic is genres of participation. She tells a story about “commercial children’s software, designed to be both fun and enriching, lies at the boundary zone between the resilient structures of education and entertainment that structure contemporary childhoods in the United States.” (p. 89) Ito gives an instructive history of the development of games for kids along with a genuinely useful analytical frame and a clear conclusion. She writes, “If I were to place my bet on a genre of gaming that has the potential to transform the systemic conditions of childhood learning, I would pick the construction genre.” (p. 115) Here’s to tinkering (and to Mimi’s great work).

In “The Rhetoric of Video Games,” Ian Bogost makes an intriguing argument in favor of “procedural rhetoric” via games. In his view, this approach could enable the questioning of the values behind certain professional practices instead of their blind assumption. (p. 130) I’m not sure I completely got his argument, but it was useful and provocative to puzzle it through.

Anna Everett, the editor of another volume in the series, and S. Craig Watkins offer a counterpoint to much of the rest of the book, exploring ways in which games and other immersive environments are not always socially productive. (p. 143) It’s a helpful reminder and a useful link to the DML series book on race.

The most interesting data that is presented in the book comes from the private sector: Cory Ondrejka, then of Linden Labs/Second Life and the Annenberg School (now headed to an exciting new job…), points out some usage statistics about SL in “Education Unleashed: Participatory Culture, Education, and Innovation in Second Life.” The most striking — and hopeful — figure was his note that 67% (sixty-seven percent) of respondents to a survey of Teen Second Life users “had written at least one program using the scripting language.” (p. 239) Of course it is a tiny sample (384) of self-selected young people, but the tinkering spirit that Mimi Ito highlights in her essay is alive and well in the people that Ondrejka heard from.

Salen, Ito and Ondrejka’s essays, among others in the book, led me to a conclusion out of the book: in some contexts, great forms of learning may come for some students using well-designed games, primarily of the construction genre. There’s not yet sufficient evidence here, in my view, to turn over our entire educational system to games and virtual worlds, but there’s plenty to learn from what some young people are doing in these environments during school time and otherwise.

Instructional Technology in College Courses

As more Digital Natives arrive at colleges and universities, professors and instructors of all subjects are trying to use digital technologies to better connect with students. In my personal experience as a sophomore at Harvard, some professors have been quite adept at using online resources – like watching music videos on YouTube during a foreign language class – while others have yet to embrace digital technologies.

Overall, however, most professors who I spoke to here at Harvard were passionate about the opportunity of using the Internet and its resources to improve teaching and make student’s learning experience more engaging. Many wondered where to start, asking which types of tools would be best to help students learn. In an effort to identify what digital “tools” students find the most helpful, I worked with the Romance Language department to survey hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students about their experience with instructional technology. Specifically, we asked them to rank digital technology tools (like blogs, podcasts, and wikis) on a scale of 1 -5, where 1 is “not useful” and 5 is”very useful.” We also asked them to describe their best experience with digital learning and to comment on any negative aspects of using digital technology in college courses.

Average Rating

Consistently, students ranked the posting of course material online and interactive syllabi as the most useful. They believe that all courses should maintain a website that contains readings, notes and other content so they can be accessed easily during the semester. Furthermore, students greatly appreciated interactive syllabi – a list of lectures and assigned readings with links to download them. Both of these features enable easy information access, something that saves time and confusion. However “web 1.0” they may seem, students view them as a necessity.

It was interesting to see how different groups of students ranked newer technologies like lecture videos, blogs, and RSS feeds. For example, undergraduates gave recorded lecture videos a high ranking, while graduate students did not. In fact, graduate students wrote in and note the negative aspects of lecture videos, claiming that they allow undergrads to skip class and take a passive role instead of actively participating in the lecture. Freshmen tended to give higher rankings to “web 2.0” tools like wikis and blogs than did older students, perhaps a sign of digital natives entering the arena of higher education.

Most striking of all, however, was the difference in rankings between students who have used a given technology and those who have not. For nearly all technologies, students who had firsthand experience with tools tended to give them a higher usefulness ranking. This means that students may not know to ask professors to use tools like RSS feeds and podcasts until they have experienced them in another course. This is shown in the graph below.

Average Usefulness by Prior Experience

My favorite part of doing the survey was reading the written responses. Although students expressed concern with digital technologies replacing personal discussions with professors, the vast majority of respondents praised digital tools for making learning more engaging and exciting. The best experiences with digital media where ones in which online content and tools supplemented inspiring lectures and stimulating readings.

Instructors looking to use digital media to improve the learning experience can look to first meet “web 1.0” needs, like easy access of readings and other material, and then incorporate social tools like blogs, wikis and RSS feeds of relevant news.

I encourage anyone who is interested in seeing the details of the study, including many of the open-ended answers, to download the full report at http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/digitalnatives/files/2008/03/instructionaltechnologysurvey.pdf .

- Tony P.

The Internet is Not Eroding Our Culture

Whenever I get those personal statements asking me to “Indicate a something that has had a significant influence on you and describe that influence,” I’m always tempted to pick — at the risk of sounding like a maladjusted nerd — the Internet.

Amy Goldwasser’s Salon article about the Internet and and its impact youth culture got me reflecting on this. Refreshingly, it takes a largely positive view of the Internet, defending it against recent surveys proclaiming ignorance in teenagers and writer Doris Lessing’s Internet-condemning Nobel Prize acceptance speech last year. Lessing, using some very harsh language, had said,

How will our lives, our way of thinking, be changed by this internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging etc.

No disrespect to Lessing, but I think her dismissal of “blogging etc” arises from complete misunderstanding of the Internet. Of course we should ask how the Internet has changed our lives and our ways of thinking — that’s one of Digital Natives’ goals, no less — but that impact is surely not so negative. In her article, Goldwasser gets at the true impact of the Internet: it teaches us to be active. She calls the YouTube-CNN debates, cultural phenomenal like MySpace, and especially blogs productive and lauds the teens who produce them. These ideas reminded me a lot Lawrence Lessig’s superb TEDtalk from last year. Although he approaches it from the angle of copyright law, he also argues for the shift from passive to active consumers of culture. It is the Internet that has unlocked this potential.

So when I speak of the Internet as the single most influential force on my life, that’s exactly what I mean. And for the record, I don’t think it’s nerdy, or nerdy in a bad sense, at all. On the Internet, I have not only learned about the Nash Equilibrium and Pedro Almodóvar and copyright infringement, but also learned to engage in discussions about them. The last line of Goldwasser’s article particularly hit home for me.

One of [these teenagers], 70 years from now, might even get up there to accept the very award Lessing did — and thank the Internet for making him or her a writer and a thinker.

In my mind, this isn’t a maybe, but a definitely. There Internet has contributed too much to our culture to not have this kind of impact. We no longer look at a screen passively; we can type on our keyboards and pick up our cameras to post something in response. It is an outlet for active communication and productive discussions. I probably won’t be winning Nobel Prizes, but I will still proudly thank the Internet for teaching me to think.

Update:A Vision of K-12 Students Today is a great video that makes the point I’m trying to make in an elegant multimedia format. It’s no doubt inspired by Michael Wesch’s equally brilliant video about college students, A Vision of Students Today.

-Sarah Zhang

Young People Who Rock: Alexander Heffner

(cross posted from John Palfrey’s blog)

One of the big questions in the digital world is whether the way people use the Internet will lead to stronger democracies — or, in fact, have the opposite effect. This debate is playing out in the United States and around the world. In China, activists use online bulletin boards to organize themselves for the first time across geographic boundaries. In Iran, young people are using blogs to make their voice heard when the state is shutting down established media outlets. At the same time, China and Iran are using the same technologies for quite different aims: to censor what political activists are saying, listening in on their conversations, and putting activists in jail for what they’ve said and done online. The vibrant political blogosphere in the United States has become a political force, to be sure, but many question whether its influence is for good or for ill.

Alexander Heffner and his team at Scoop08 are proving that we have reason for hope. CNN, appropriately, has just made him one of its “Young People Who Rock.” Alexander’s leadership, and the engagement of more than 400 young people, is an inspiration to those of us who have been pushing hard to ensure that the Internet has a positive impact, not a negative one, on politics in the long-term. There’s been a lot written about them: here, here, and here. Alexander has a radio program, too.

Alexander’s work is so important because he is providing a means for young people to prove to themselves that they can have an impact through social action. The Internet is secondary to this story, in a way: the point is that Scoop08 draws young people into a public, civic space. It enables young people to have a voice that is heard all around the world. It demonstrates the power of collective action. It can help teach the responsibility and accountability that come with power, as young people come to see the impact of their words when they have a digital megaphone and are participating in a high-profile public debate.

The output of what Alexander and Scoop08 also gives us reason for hope. Scoop08 is a vibrant community that is helping to bring new and greater perspectives to election coverage around the country. One of the fears about the Internet and democracy is that we’ll each just surround ourselves with words and images from those with whom we’ll agree, famously called the “Daily Me” in the words of law professor Cass Sunstein. Scoop08 doesn’t fall into this trap. The student writers, based around the world, are telling their stories in a positive, careful, generally balanced way. Their coverage is serious and authentic. Their effort is to focus on substantive issues (policy, character-driven) — and distinctive and unconventional beats to generate new interest among young people — rather than exclusively horse-race-oriented coverage. The students writing up the reports are grappling with what it means to write without an exaggerated slant, presenting facts in a more or less neutral way, learning by doing in the process.

I look forward to Scoop08’s first big scoop. It will be a great day when one of Alexander’s extended team breaks a big story in this election, or an election to come somewhere else around the world.

But even before that day, it’s easy to say that Alexander Heffner and his colleagues have already succeeded beyond any reasonable expectations. What they’ve done, and what the good people at Generation Engage and other similar organizations, is no mean feat. Many have failed to get young people involved in politics. As the youth vote continues to rock — upwards — Scoop08 deserves credit for helping to create and sustain the enthusiasm of young people entering the political process for the first time. And the way they’re going about it stands a terrific chance of having a lasting impact on democracy.

(Disclosure: I am an unpaid advisor to Scoop08.)

How to Engage Students?

Diana had a great post last week about Ben Chun’s use of Moodle in his classroom. While there has been a lot of talk about teachers finding innovative ways to use technology, the conversation seems to often focus on motivating teachers rather than students. The prevailing attitude seems to be that students will automatically flock to an online discussion forum to discuss schoolwork.

There are many inspiring successes out there (click for an example),but I think the availability heuristic is a source of some bias. When classrooms don’t successfully use new technology, we don’t hear about it. And if we do, it’s easy to put the blame on the adults with generalizations like this:

From Corporate Power

Information technology causes stress on the campus, simply because no one can always keep up at the cutting edge of technology. Even younger faculty members who have grown up with the Internet feel stressed due to the fact that information technology is not user-friendly.

In my own admittedly limited experience, I would argue the same could be said of students who have grown up with the Internet. It is often students who are reluctant to engage in discussion in online forums. Several of my classes have had online blogs, forums, or wikis, which are all very easily incorporated on the official course website. Despite mandatory online discussions, the infrequency of student participation was a source of frustration among professors. Students would often pose their own questions, but few took the time to respond to others’ questions. The interaction that makes such technology so great was sorely lacking.

Without getting into the controversy of the term, perhaps we, the current college students, are not Digital Native enough? Certainly few, if any of us, were accustomed to posting homework online in elementary or middle school. Maybe there’s this line in our heads that the classroom ends when we step out the door. I pose these questions because this is an issue that has bothered me for some time. What are some ways to get students to participate in online academic discussions? Is this less of a problem for younger students who are more in tune with digital learning?

-Sarah Z.