Designing and Evaluating Technologies for Civic Learning
This general exam proposal is designed to prepare me for my larger PhD goal: to design future civic technologies optimized for the development of effective citizens using definitions and measurements of civic and political learning in a way that captures the complexity and needs of contemporary, digitally-mediated democracy.
Last January, I attended a Civics Research Workshop at Google in New York. The leaders of the field of civic technology in attendance, from industry representatives, practitioners, scholars, and funders, all agreed we severely lack ways of measuring impact or even defining it. And yet, there is a rush into this field attracting vast amounts of funding and media attention. With lots of technology being built, claiming to extend citizen voice and efficacy, this is the moment to be working on measures for evaluating and improving civic technology design.
First, there is a need to define this space more clearly by analyzing the design of civic technologies, in terms of their embodiment of certain goals, values, and definitions of democracy and civic participation; how they conceive of good or effective citizenship and of the development of users into those kinds of citizens; and the ways these platforms and their designers measure success. Second, focusing on the potential of technologies to empower citizens to grow into more effective civic actors, it’s important to understand the way Western civilizations have looked at the development of citizens in offline and now digitally-mediated contexts, and how we might assess new forms of civic learning. Thus, my general exam areas cover:
- Primary Area: Designing Technologies for Civic Engagement, surveying the range of platforms, technologies, and uses of those tools to promote civic activities.
- Contextual Area: History and Philosophy of Civic Education, surveying the most prominent political and educational philosophers and trends in civic education since the birth of modern democracy.
- Technical Area: Statistical and Psychometric Validation of Measures of Civic and Political Learning, covering recent approaches to valid assessments of learning in digital contexts.
- Ethan Zuckerman, PhD Advisor at MIT Media Lab
- Peter Levine, Associate Dean for Research and Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs in Tufts University’s Jonathan Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service
- Andrew Ho, Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education
“Participatory culture handed the 2012 U.S. presidential election season a bumper crop of political memes. These “election memes,” largely in the form of image macros, took sound bites from the candidates’ debates and speeches and turned them into “digital content units” of political satire “circulated, imitated, and/or transformed via the Internet by many users,” to paraphrase Limor Schifman’s definition of “internet meme” (2013, 177).
“Image macros like the lolcat, feature bold text on top of an image, often a “stock character,” and like all Internet memes are “multi-participant creative expressions through which cultural and political identities are communicated and negotiated” (Ibid.). This case study focuses on three popular image macro-based election memes that came out of the 2012 US presidential election cycle: “Fired Big Bird,” “Binders Full of Women,” and “You Didn’t Build That,” and argues that sharing such memes is a valid form of political participation in the style of what Tommie Shelby calls “impure dissent” (forthcoming).”
“Measuring engagement with news is comprised of more than just a set of quantitative metrics. It is a process of civic identity construction that unfolds on social networks when someone decides to share a piece of content. This is a core part of contemporary civic learning and political participation. “In his book Post-Broadcast Democracy, Markus Prior uses the term “by-product learning” to refer to learning “politically relevant facts as a by-product of nonpolitical routines” (2007, 4). Prior derives this concept from his study of the “efficiency” of citizens’ media environments, finding that less efficient systems like broadcast television actually produce high levels of by-product learning because exposure to political information was high when so few channels and programming options existed. “Ironically, in the age of “information overload” with a proliferation of free news online and readers spreading their attention across many sources, we have adopted new centralizing mediators in the form of social networks. One important example is Facebook, which services a broad array of information, entertainment, and social needs. Historically, one’s choice of news source was an expression of identity through ideological affiliation, or professional membership. Now, rather than subscription and conspicuous print editions, we signal these things through the headlines we choose to share with our Facebook friends or Twitter followers.”