From User to Citizen: Evaluating Online Engagement as Civic Learning

Presentation Recording



We should optimize the design of civic technologies for developing effective citizens, thus I argue we must put civic and political learning at the core of how we evaluate civic technology’s impact. This will require new definitions and measures that capture the complexity and needs of contemporary, digitally-mediated democracy.

In this talk, I will propose a research agenda for civic learning including definitions, measures, and design goals for our community to explore, using existing literature and analysis of a pilot deployment of the civic app Action Path.

Recent work by Bennett (2007) and Cohen and Kahne (2012) has helped push scholar and practitioner communities to understand how citizens, especially younger generations, are changing in their civic goals and practices—often using social media to consume and share political information, express their voices, and organize civic and political communities. Unfortunately, we lack a definition and operationalization of how “users” grow into the citizens contemporary democracies need. Research should be attempting to tie designs holistically to gains in targeted skills, experience, and self-efficacy.

We must develop and validate measures for civic learning by combining rich qualitative understanding with trace data to evaluate users’ civic trajectories as they explore tools and platforms; and these must scale as large as Facebook and across the diverse contexts in which users are embedded world-wide.

In partnership with SeeClickFix in New Haven, I recently piloted Action Path, a location-based mobile app that invites users to engage in local planning and governance via push notifications and short surveys. I interviewed users and traced their app usage to evaluate the efficacy of location-triggered notifications for increasing knowledge of local issues and engagement in governance. I will highlight the implications of this deployment for civic learning and how it represents a small start to the research agenda I am proposing.