Youth, New Media Literacies, and Civic Engagement

Editor's note: I wrote this post originally for the Knight Foundation's Idea Lab blog where it appeared earlier this week. It has generated enough interest there that I figure it would also be relevant to my regular readers here. This fall, I am going to be teaching a course on New Media Literacies and Civic Engagement, which is designed to help facilitate conversations across two of the projects we run through the Comparative Media Studies program: the Center for Future Civic Media, funded by the Knight Foundation as a collaboration with the MIT Media Lab, and Project NML (New Media Literacies), which is funded by the MacArthur Foundation. My goal in the class is to systematically explore a rapidly expanding body of literature which deals with the ways that new forms of "participatory culture" are impacting how young people think about themselves as citizens and community members. Most of this material is available online and so I wanted to share with you some pointers in hopes that it may help spark larger conversations around these issues.

I plan to open the course with reflections on the current presidential campaign season, the role of both old and new media, and signs of increased voter registration and activity by young Americans. To set the stage, I am having my students read from several recent news stories on the campaign, including:

David von Drehle, "The Year of the Youth Vote," Time , Jan. 31 2008.

David Talbot, "How Obama Really Did It," Technology Review, September/October 2008,

Marc Ambinder, "HisSpace," The Atlantic, June 2008

In the first class session, we will be looking at the images constructed around the two candidates through their advertising, websites, and official biography videos. The best online resource for these materials is realclearpolitics, a site which aggregates recent media coverage of the campaigns, including collecting current political advertising. I plan to discuss the roles which YouTube played early in the campaign season, a topic which I discuss in a new "afterward" to the recently released paperback edition of Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. And I plan to explore the ways that the McCain campaign is taking aim at Obama's blurring of the lines between popular culture and politics, a topic I addressed in a recent post on my blog. We also will be placing these materials in a larger historical context by looking at earlier forms of political advertising. You can find such materials through the Living Room Candidate, an archive created by the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, NY, and through Project Look Sharp's curricular materials on studying presidential campaigns.

From here, the course will progress across a range of related topics including:

  • New Media Literacies
  • Civic Engagement
  • Youth as Cybercitizens
  • Digital Ethics
  • Is There a Digital Generation?
  • Children's Fiction and the Fiction of Childhood
  • Expression and Participation
  • Games and Virtual Worlds
  • Collective Intelligence and Social Networks
  • Identity and Community
  • The Digital Divide and the Participation Gap

The only full book we are reading is Cory Doctorow's recent young adult novel, Little Brother, which deals with the politics of cyberactivism and homeland security. Check out my blog post on this important novel.

We will also be reading extensively from the recently published Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives, written by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser from Harvard's Berkman Center.

We will also be drawing extensively from the new books, recently released by the MIT Press and the MacArthur Foundation, as part of their Digital Media and Learning Series -- Civic Life Online;Digital Media, Youth and Credability; Digital Youth, Innovation, and the Unexpected; The Ecology of Games; Learning Race and Ethnicity; Youth, Identity and Digital Media. All of these books are available online for free access and they include work by many of the most important contemporary thinkers on youth and media literacy.

I also anticipate working with the report out from an extensive ethnographic study of young people's online lives being conducted by Mimi Ito, Barrie Thorne, Michael Carter, and an army of graduate students from USC and Berkley; this document will be released later this term, but you can read about the research.

For a counter perspective on many of these issues, my students will also be reading from Mark Bauerlein's The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30).

And I will be having students look at parts of Ben Rigby's Mobilizing Generation 2.0. I recently interviewed Rigby for my blog.

Throughout the course, we will be looking at a range of recent white papers which offer cutting edge perspectives on these issues, including:

And we will be eagerly awaiting the report soon to be issued by the Pew Center on the Internet & American Life which deals with the ways young people's experiences as gamers might impact their lives as citizens.

Along the way, we will be exploring two significant PBS documentaries, both of which can now be accessed online -- Growing Up Online and By the People: Citizenship in the 21st Century

The Center will also be hosting two public events through the MIT Communications Forum this fall focused around the Presidential Campaign and the role of media. You can find out more information about these events and hear podcast versions of previous Forum events here.

I hope to offer some more reports on the class and how it is informing our work at the Center for Future Civic Media in the weeks ahead. But I'm hoping the above may introduce you to some materials you might not know about otherwise.