Digital civic learning in schools: Youth perspectives and experiences

Daniela K. DiGiacomo (School of Information Science, College of Communication and Information, University of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky, USA)

Information and Learning Sciences

ISSN: 2398-5348

Article publication date: 31 July 2021

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Abstract

Purpose

While living in the information age is not new, the continued spread of dis/mis/information in tandem with rising partisanship has made clear the educational need for robust and critical information and media literacy education (Bulger and Davison, 2018; Garcia et al., 2021; Reich, 2018; Wineburg and McGrew, 2016). Given that most young people (and adults) today get their information and news about the world through online sources, including social media (Pew Research Center, 2018; Garcia et al., 2021), it is imperative for the health of the American democracy that students’ school-based civic learning opportunities include digital civic learning, too. This paper aims to offer a study into one such schooling landscape in a large and diverse public school district in the USA.

Design/methodology/approach

A mixed-method approach – including an online survey and face-to-face group interviews – was used to understand the opportunity landscape more broadly and glean insight into the texture and nuance of youth perspectives and experiences on digital civic learning.

Findings

Analysis of data reveals a dearth of consistent and routine opportunities for digital civic learning within the Rio Public School District context.

Originality/value

Empirical research that examines and makes visible students’ lived experiences and perspectives with digital civic information is essential if as educators and researchers, the authors are to successfully design for more and better of these experiences.

Keywords

Citation

DiGiacomo, D.K. (2021), "Digital civic learning in schools: Youth perspectives and experiences", Information and Learning Sciences, Vol. ahead-of-print No. ahead-of-print. https://doi.org/10.1108/ILS-01-2020-0013

Publisher

:

Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2021, Emerald Publishing Limited


Introduction

Over the past few decades and especially in recent years, what constitutes valid and credible information has come into question (Kahne and Bowyer, 2018; Kuklinski et al., 2000). Trust in public institutions (e.g. the government, public schools, the press, the police, etc.) and in the American Government’s ability to address its societal needs has been greatly diminished (Foa and Mounk, 2017; Reich, 2019). To cite just two examples, in a 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center, just 20% of Americans said they trust the government to do what is right for them always or most of the time and only about 30% of younger adults said they are optimistic about the nation’s future. When a government that aims to be of the people, by the people and for the people is only trusted by 20% of the people, something significant is wrong. The contemporary American political climate of hyper-partisanship and polarization has amplified these challenges (Klein, 2020). While living in the information age is not new, the continued spread of dis/mis/information in tandem with rising partisanship has made clear the educational need for robust and critical information and media literacy education (Bulger and Davison, 2018; Garcia et al., 2021; Reich, 2019; Wineburg and McGrew, 2016).

Addressing this challenge will require a host of responses – but public schools are a place to start. Indeed, to realize a more inclusive and healthy democracy, it is vitally important that public schools prepare current and future generations for active and informed engagement in civic and political life at the community, state and national levels (Dewey, 1923; Hanson and Howe, 2011; Kahne and Westheimer, 2003; National Council for Social Studies, 2018).

As public-facing, public-serving institutions, schools are not only obligated but well-positioned to prepare young people to become informed and capable civic actors (Hess and McAvoy, 2014). This is because, despite the widespread segregation that continues to characterize education in the USA, public schools are still places with higher degrees of diversity (across various lines of social difference such as socioeconomic, linguistic and racial) than what is typically found in extracurricular activities or residential areas (Carter and Welner, 2013). In addition, classrooms themselves are intentionally scaffolded spaces in which teachers and other caring adults are mandated to serve as supportive guides and facilitators of learning (Mirra, 2019).

In this third decade of the twenty-first century, several decades into life in the continually transforming information age (De Saulles, 2015; Webster, 2014), much is required of public schools and teachers as sites and facilitators of informed democratic and civic preparation (Rogers et al., 2017). In particular, the role of information retrieved online through various forms of media– where to find it, how to access it and what to do with it – is now firmly a key piece of the education puzzle. Given that most young people (and adults) today get their information and news about the world through online sources, including social media (Pew Research Center, 2018; Garcia et al., 2021), it is imperative for the health of the American democracy that students’ school-based civic learning opportunities include digital civic learning, too. This article offers a study into one such schooling landscape in a large and diverse public school district in the USA.

Digital civic learning and its opportunity landscape

Civic and political participation in the contemporary information age looks different than it did decades ago. Fortunately, substantive research within the scholarly fields of education, information and media have documented the shape and characteristics of this participation (Garcia et al., 2021; Ito et al., 2015; Jenkins et al., 2018; Kahne et al., 2014).

Participatory politics – those politics that reflect what democratic participation looks like today, especially for young people – are interactive, peer-based and not guided by deference to the institution or traditional elites (Kahne et al., 2016):

Examples of participatory political acts range from blogging and circulating political news, to starting a new political group, to creating petitions, to mobilizing one’s social network on behalf of a cause (p. 3).

Robust participation in participatory politics requires various literacies, including but not limited to media literacy, civic literacy, digital literacy, information literacy and data literacy. While these literacies are all important and indeed intersect and overlap in notable ways, this analysis uses the term media literacy as an umbrella term to examine educational opportunities to access, use and evaluate media in ways that that “develop informed, reflective and engaged participants essential for a democratic society” (NAMLE, 2007). Extending the participatory politics line of scholarship, Hodgin (2019) argues that there are three dimensions of media literacy that are especially relevant for civic learning today:

  • judging the credibility of civic and political information;

  • producing and circulating civic and political media; and

  • taking civic action that bridges voice to influence.

Hodgin contends that “while the civic dimensions of media literacy have always existed, expanded opportunities for civic media literacy education are needed for youths to successfully navigate civic and political participation in the digital age” (2019, p. 9). This three-dimensional framework of media literacy builds on important lessons learned from research into the shape and texture of youth participatory politics (YPP) today.

Existing studies

What is known empirically about the extent to which students are given digital civic learning opportunities in schools varies in scope and emphasis, but remains thin (Garcia et al., 2021). In a nationally representative survey of high school youth, 64% responded “never” to the question of if they had opportunities in school to learn how to effectively share their perspectives online in the past 12 months (Kahne and Bowyer, 2019). An earlier study found that 33% of high school students did not report having even one class that focused on how to tell if the information found online was trustworthy (Kahne et al., 2016). From the Stanford History Education Group, it was revealed that a majority of middle and high school students did not know how to discern whether online media content comes from reliable sources (McGrew et al., 2018).

At the same time, teaching media literacy and supporting students to learn to evaluate information online has been documented to promote both increased online political engagement and exposure to diverse viewpoints, as well as improve students’ abilities across grade levels (Kahne et al., 2012; McGrew et al., 2018; Walraven et al., 2013; Wiley et al., 2009; Zhang and Duke, 2011). In addition, teaching media literacy has been found to increase the likelihood that students will correctly distinguish between accurate and inaccurate online content (Kahne and Bowyer, 2017) – again, a necessary skill required for being an informed contemporary civic actor.

From the out-of-school time learning literature, a number of studies have shown the powerful ways in which digital media can impact the landscape of youth participation in civic and political culture (Jenkins, 2009; Jenkins and Ito, 2015; Kafai and Peppler, 2011). These studies demonstrate that as youth gain expertise through informal online networks or informal afterschool clubs, their ideas about what is possible for themselves as current and future civic actors expand. Ito et al. (2015)’s work on “connected civics” illustrates, too, how young people exercise voice and influence in public spheres precisely through leveraging new and connected forms of digital media. Sefton-Green et al. (2019)’s longitudinal study of young people’s learning opportunities revealed the role that “networked publics” play in supporting young people’s trajectories of learning and becoming into robust creative careers. Importantly, too, there is empirical evidence that young people in fact want better and more frequent opportunities for digital civic learning, both in and outside of the classroom (Cohen et al., 2012).

In sum, a reading of the extant literature on the current state of digital civic learning illustrates a great need to better understand the landscape of digital civic learning opportunities, especially in schools, where young people still spend most of their time. Fortunately, recently developed frameworks like Hodgin’s civic dimensions of media literacy provide a useful heuristic to empirically investigate key elements of digital civic learning landscapes.

As such, the research questions for this study were:

RQ1.

How do students in Rio Public School District (RPSD [1]) experience digital civic learning?

RQ2.

Within the RPSD district context, what is the reported frequency of classroom-based opportunities to learn the civic dimensions of media literacy and what are students’ perspectives on the civic dimensions of media literacy?

Methods

Context of study

This study was part of a research-practice partnership (RPP): a collaboration between a university research partner and a school district focused on the investigation and improvement of a jointly negotiated educational problem of practice– a “key dilemma and challenge that practitioners face” (Coburn and Penuel, 2016, p 49). In this case, the collaboration was between a university-based team of education researchers and RPSD– a large public school district on the West Coast of the USA and the problem of practice was the perceived lack of routine high quality civic and digital civic learning opportunities for its K12 students. This problem of practice emerged through early and ongoing conversations with the Social Studies Instructional Lead, classroom observations and workshops with teachers. In the spirit of RPP work, it then became our team [2]’s joint object of broader inquiry and improvement.

RPSD is a large district characterized by substantial racial, ethnic, linguistic, socio-economic and political diversity. A 2019 report [3] on this geographical region reported that it was a “region on the rise” civically because of the significant gains in voter registration and voter turnout since 2012, particularly among youth, women and communities of color. A majority of residents in the region are Latinx. While there have been important gains in various indicators of civic engagement (e.g. voting, attending meetings and contacting officials) at the aggregate level, this region still has lower civic engagement than the rest of its state. Given its racial and political diversity and its projected resident growth – an additional two million in the next 40 years – the need to pay attention to and better understand the landscape of civic and digital civic education in schools in this district is clear.

Study design and participants

There were many dimensions to the RPP, including baseline and follow-up qualitative and quantitative data collection, ongoing professional development, network building and pedagogical support for district instructional leaders, teachers and students. All data collected in the context of the RPP have been shared back with the district leaders and transformed into usable forms for school improvement and the design of teacher supports. For the purposes of this article, however, the analysis is restricted to the student focus group and survey data to hone in on youth experiences with and perspectives on their digital civic learning.

While the RPP collaboration began in Fall 2017, data collection began in the Spring of 2018 and was repeated throughout the following school year. A mixed-method approach – including an online survey and face-to-face group interviews – was used to understand the opportunity landscape more broadly and glean insight into the texture and nuance of youth experiences and perspectives. In Spring 2018 and 2019, a 20-min survey was offered to all RPSD middle school students. Participation was voluntary but encouraged by the Social Studies Instructional Lead and response rates from among the eight middle schools where over 60% both years. A survey design was principally informed by a larger set of Likert-style items that have been empirically tested and validated in similar large district contexts (www.civicsurvey.org) but was adapted slightly to meet the RPSD instructional lead desires for the local context [4]. It included closed-ended items thematically organized into four categories civic learning experiences; civic learning commitments/outcomes; digital civic experiences and digital civic outcomes. Table 1 speaks to response rates and participant characteristics of the two survey administrations.

Over the course of the 2018–2019 school year, six group interviews with between four and eight middle and high school students were conducted by the first author, as well as other RPP team members. The interview protocol included open-ended questions focused on civic and digital learning experiences such as “This past year in your classes, did you get a chance to talk about or practice searching for credible information online?” and “How (if at all) do you get your news about what’s going on in your community and the world?” Students who participated in these group interviews were volunteers that assented (and had their parents/guardians consent to participation) and were provided with a pizza lunch by the researcher. Each group interview was conducted with students from within a particular class (e.g. 7th-grade language arts or 11th-grade history). Students were invited to participate based on an invitation from their teacher, who received an open invitation from a member of the RPP team.

Analytical approach

To understand the broader landscape of RPSD digital civic learning opportunities, descriptive statistics for both the 2018 and 2019 survey data sets were generated. For consistency, analysis was restricted to 7th graders in both data sets, despite that 8th graders were also invited to participate in 2018, whereas in 2019 they were not. Particular items were selected to examine students’ reported opportunities to judge the credibility of civic information, produce civic media and/or take informed action on civic issues that mattered to them. Because part of the intention of this study was to understand, organize and summarize the reported frequency of school-based opportunities to learn these civic dimensions of media literacy, the generation of by item means, standard deviations and percentage of students’ responses to frequency category made the most sense (Holcomb, 2016). In the results section that follows, these data are put in conversation with analysis from the qualitative group interview data. Group interview recordings were transcribed and deductively coded according to the three civic dimensions of media literacy [5] to more fully understand how students experienced digital civic learning in the RPSD context.

Analysis of findings

Analysis of data reveals a dearth of consistent and routine opportunities for digital civic learning within RPSD. In the subsections that follow, the by-year descriptive statistics and qualitative analysis are brought together to speak directly to youths’ experiences with and perspectives on their in-classroom opportunities to learn, in particular, the civic dimensions of media literacy.

Judging the credibility of civic and political information

The ability to access, analyze and evaluate a variety of information has long been considered central to good media literacy (Hobbs, 2011). At the same time, this skill has become more complex, specifically with regard to civic and political information, due to the increasingly participatory forms of investigation and publishing that characterize the digital age (Hodgin, 2019). Two items from the RPSD survey are particularly relevant indicators of the civic dimension of media literacy focusing on judging the credibility of civic and political information:

  • I have talked about how to find different points of view on political and social issues on the internet.

  • I have discussed how to tell if the information I find on the internet is trustworthy.

With the item prompt of “In one of more of my classes this past year, I […].” followed by the item stems bulleted above, students were asked to choose from response options including never, once, two times or three or more times. For ease of understanding with regard to reported frequency of opportunity and because these items represent distinct but complementary aspects of judging credibility (seeking and understanding different information and its source(s) and evaluating trustworthiness, respectively), the use of simple descriptive statistics was used rather than the creation and presentation of a construct or scale, so as not to obfuscate nuance. Tables 2 and 3 illustrate the means, standard deviations and percentage of student responses by frequency of opportunity to these items over the two years of survey administration.

As the results in the above tables illustrate, the majority of students overall did not report having, with frequency, the experience of judging the credibility of civic and political information. Indeed, nearly a third of students in both 2018 and 2019 responded “never” to having had any classroom-based opportunity to talk about how to find different points of view online about social or political issues. Then, about another third of students in both years reported having the opportunity once. These findings are consonant with the findings of a YPP study conducted nearly a decade ago in 2013 that revealed infrequent opportunities to develop this skill (Kahne and Bowyer, 2017). Being an informed and civil civic actor in this twenty-first century, then and now, requires this fundamental information and media literacy skill. When asked about having the opportunity to learn how to tell if the information found online is trustworthy – another fundamental element of these literacies – only about a third of RPSD students reported having such a classroom-based opportunity with some frequency over the past school year (three + times).

Analysis of group interview data supports the finding that these opportunities were neither common nor consistent. When prodded about what type of classroom-based instruction they did receive, students said they were most often told by their teachers “not to just use Wikipedia” (Sanaa, student from middle school focus group #1) or “to look for multiple sources that say the same thing” (Emmy, student from high school focus group #2). While indeed part of the puzzle, there are a number of judging credibility dimensions that are missing from this guidance. Interestingly, in all group interviews, students expressed that learning about how to seek out credible sources and decipher facts from opinions were highly relevant to their current and future lives. As an articulated middle school student, Santi: “It would be helpful if someone could divide the opinionated facts from the real facts!” And according to Daniel, a high school sophomore:

“When I leave high school, I feel like I’m going to have to learn so many things to be able to actually participate in political things and to get the full story and knowing if a certain source is credible or what information I should be using and shouldn’t be using.”

Striking in the voices of Santi and Daniel is an awareness of the requirements of healthy civic life in the digital age– that is, a world in which there is a need to decipher accurate information from misinformation to fully participate. This finding is similarly consonant with that of the aforementioned nationally representative YPP study, which found that 84% of youth felt that they and their friends would benefit from more instruction in this area.” (Hodgin, 2019, p. 7) Importantly, RPSD students recognized an educational need for support in gaining expertise in these areas of credible information use as it relates to civic learning and engagement.

Production and circulation

The diminished role of institutional gatekeepers in the digital age has afforded increased general access to the publication and circulation of information (Brock, 2013). Such increased access is a boon for the health of the American democracy. At the same time, to learn how to produce and circulate information ethically and civilly, young people need opportunities to learn how, for example, “to blog about a political issue, remix a political video and circulate it or produce a wiki of information resources” (Hodgin, 2019, p 7). Two items from the RPSD survey were particularly relevant indicators of this dimension of digital civic learning:

  • I have discussed how to effectively share my opinions on social or political issues online.

  • I have created and shared something on the internet related to a social or political issue.

Similarly here, the use of descriptive statistics was used to capture the means, standard deviations and percentage of student responses by frequency of opportunity to these items over the two years of survey administration.

The response patterns illustrated in Tables 4 and 5 above show that for the most part, students did not report experiencing the civic dimension of media literacy of producing and circulating civic and political media in their classes. As compared to the first dimension of judging credibility, this second dimension was found to be even less prevalent. That is, around two-thirds of students in both years reported “never” having a classroom-based opportunity to create or share something on the internet related to a social or political issue. Then, nearly half of students reported “never” to having a classroom-based opportunity to discuss how to effectively share their opinions about social or political issues online. Such low rates of opportunity matter to the extent that robust and equitable participation in democracy matters – given what is known about the increased chance of later civic participation as a function of performing participatory politics acts: “youths who engaged in at least one act of participatory politics were almost twice as likely to vote as those who did not” (Cohen et al., 2012).

Analysis of group interview data also revealed students’ general lack of experience with producing and circulating social, civic and/or political information online. Across the six group interviews, the consensus from students was that they tended to play more of a consumption-over-production role when it comes to information. Interestingly, when asked about where students get their news or information, students overwhelmingly responded with various forms of social media (Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook, to a lesser extent). Yet when asked the follow-up question or if they used these platforms to generate or circulate media or carry out discussions themselves on civic, social or political issues of interest to them, nearly all of the students interviewed said no. The primary reasons given for this were related to the perceived bully-ish nature of the mediums, as well as the rapidity with which information put forth on digital media could be propelled, spread and saved. The following two student excerpts of the talk are illustrative of this pattern:

There are sometimes where I feel like I can’t exactly speak my mind on specific things because it’s definitely like, especially because of social media. Social media is so big like if one person says something, a thousand, thousands of people are going to agree just because it’s that one person that they look up to (Charlie, group interview #3).

“It’s a lot more toxic online, there’s no filter (other group interview students nod in agreement with this) […] There’s also no punishment” (McKinley, group interview #4).

When prodded about if they had opportunities in their classes to learn about how to have productive and respectful conversations online or to remix, circulate or generate media related to civic, social or political issues, all of the students again reported in the negative. During this part of the group interviews, several students in multiple groups commented that a few of their teachers did talk about civil discourse norms in the context of in-class debates, but that this was not specifically related to conversations online. Again, what these students’ voices evidence is a lack of guidance and training with regard to digital civic learning, a sentiment that was corroborated by the survey data. In addition, they expressed a fear related to online participation related to what Soep (2014) has called the digital afterlife – and indeed it was astute of RPSD students to recognize the potential problem in the content they produce or remix being taken up or shared in a form different from what was initially intended. At the same time, however, they recognized the blurry boundaries between digital and face-to-face communication, citing that what is shared online has repercussions for civil dialogue both on and offline.

Taking action

The increased access to the publication and circulation of information, together with the ubiquitous use of social media and new networked publics (Sefton-Green et al., 2019), affords the general public, including youth and increased opportunity to make a difference on civic, social and political issues that matter to them. Again here, this shift in the landscape has great potential to amplify the civic voice of a more representative range of citizens in ways that are supportive of enhancing the democratic culture of American communities (Balkin, 2014). Accordingly, then, young people need opportunities to learn how to “effectively and meaningfully act upon issues that matter to them” (Hodgin, 2019, p 8), by, for example, leveraging the new digital tools to connect, organize or mobilize with groups relevant to their interests.

Table 6, below, shows the findings from the survey item that is particularly relevant as an indicator of classroom-based opportunities to take action in ways that bridge voice to influence – the third key civic dimension of media literacy.

Descriptive analysis from this item reveals somewhat of a 50/50 split between students who reported in the affirmative to the question of classroom-based learning opportunities to take action. Analysis of qualitative data provides contextual insight into this dimension. Across the focus groups, when students were asked about routine school-based opportunities to take action or get involved civically with social or political issues, students either reported that they had not been involved or that they had participated in a singular event such as a one-off fundraiser or a school safety awareness event. The following response set from one of the group interviews with several middle school students is illustrative of the broader set of student responses related to taking action:

Author 1:

Have you had opportunities in your classes to take action or get involved in your community?

Jamie, Student 1:

In the club, I was talking about. That’s probably the only thing in class, but my family has been involved in a lot of things.

Laney, Student 2:

No, I don’t think the school really likes talking about political things. Because the kids agree with their parents all the time because their parents say it in a certain way that they agree with. So, they don’t want to get in a conflict with the kid because that would be like a conflict with the adult. Then, there are a lot of different opinions around this area. So, I don’t know what to say…

Jamal, Student 3:

I’ve done marches. I’ve done 4 or 5. The most recent one was on the shootings and there were speakers and it was cool.

Cindy, Student 4:

Remember the speeches we told you about? We all made posters if we felt like it, to show our support. A lot of us did the 17-min walk out and we were trying to bring attention to it. However, in some schools, students would get suspended or expelled if they were to walk out of the classroom.

Kevin, Student 5:

I have a lot of strong opinions that people disagree with, so I don’t like to do stuff like that.

In these student responses, there is noted variation with regard to students’ understandings of the idea of taking action and/or getting involved. First, some students ascribe a sort of political affiliation with the notion of getting involved, making a connection between taking a stand on something with displeasing others or coming off as partisan. Then, others equate instances of getting involved (as in the case of marches) with a “cool” experience. Finally, the fact that about half the group expressed some type of school-based opportunities and the other half did not, is again illustrative of the broader set of responses to this question across the qualitative data set, as well as supported by the mixed findings from the survey item.

Next, consider the case of Andrea, an RPSD high school senior who was just having the opportunity to participate in a school-improvement focused project in the past year of her schooling experience:

It’s different because we don’t really do this [a collaborative project to study and advocate for increased shade coverings of the commons area in the school]. This is the first class that we have done community-wise. We have senior hours and stuff, but this is different.

Of note, the classroom-based opportunity for Andrea and her peers to take some action was the result of her teacher opting into the adoption of an action civic curriculum provided by the broader RPP collaboration. Andrea’s teacher was one of two teachers in the entire school that had chosen to do so. In sum, students from a range of grades and schools within RPSD expressed that with the exception of their extracurricular clubs, special events, particular teachers or mandatory service hours, there were not consistent opportunities for this type of active civic engagement. Importantly, these opportunities have been linked to students’ future likelihoods to participate in their communities (Kahne et al., 2013). To be sure, a limitation of this particular dimension of analysis is that response options for the item were attitude-based (versus frequency), so direct comparisons with the previously discussed civic dimensions of media literacy items remain limited. Additional limitations are discussed in the section that follows.

Implications and limitations

Using a mixed-method approach to inquiry, this study provides insight into students’ perspectives and reported experiences with their in-school digital civic learning experiences. Descriptive analysis of student survey data and deductive analysis of student group interview data revealed that opportunities for students to learn and practice the civic dimensions of media literacy were neither routine nor frequent in the context of RPSD classrooms. Being able to judge the credibility of information by evaluating multiple perspectives and discerning accuracy and trustworthiness is fundamental to the health of an informed democratic citizenry. At the very least, the first finding from this study– that around half of students had either one or zero classroom-based opportunities to learn such skills – should serve as a direct call to increase the frequency of such instruction through targeted professional development, for example.

Next, the majority of RPSD students reported that they did not have frequent opportunities to learn about how to create or share something on the internet related to a social or political issue, nor how to effectively express their opinions about those issues effectively online. This second finding is consistent with that of recent studies (Garcia et al., 2021), which reveal that learning opportunities related to production and circulation (e.g. activities like blogging about a political issue or producing a wiki page) lag behind other civic dimensions of media literacy. Robust and representative citizenry participation in the digital age will require that students learn how to produce – and not only consume – information and media. The last finding from this study speaks to students’ reported experiences taking action that bridges voice to influence – the third civic dimension of media literacy. Here too, findings varied and revealed that not only did students have a range of understandings of what it means to take informed action but that a substantive amount (over 40%) did not have classroom-supported opportunities to be involved in a project to improve their school or community. To be sure, what it means to take action will necessarily vary by person, context and issue – but at the very least, schools should support students to learn about the range of ways in which they can, if they wish, have an impact on issues that matter to them.

Taken together, the findings from this study serve as a call to action for educators, instructional supports and researchers to study and improve the digital civic learning landscape of K-12 contexts precisely because classrooms can offer particularly supportive and scaffolded places to learn how to be and become informed civic actors (Hess and McAvoy, 2014; Mirra, 2019). Of note, too, nearly all mean scores related to the frequency of classroom-based experience decreased from 2018 to 2019, which was not the directional change desired by neither district nor research partner. Consistent attention to and reflection on students’ lived experiences and perspectives is an essential starting point if the collective goal remains to improve and expand digital civic learning for all students.

Limitations of analysis

There are several limitations to this study. First, the author recognizes the constraints in remaining at the level of descriptive statistical analysis for in-depth quantitative analysis, including the non-typical focus on by-item reporting. At the same time, given the thin empirical research that documents the provision of digital civic learning opportunities in K-12 contexts, the use of such straightforward metrics seemed an important contribution to the field. Of note, the use of the word “opportunity” here and throughout the analysis is not intended to suggest that these items encompass the totality of students’ opportunity landscape, which may be greater than reflected in this analysis– rather, this study reports out on students’ lived experiences with regard to particular dimensions of civic media literacy. Next, because the district partner asked the research team to focus on the 7th grade population during the second year (2019), the 8th grade population is missing from the second year of survey analysis. With regard to the student group interview data, because students within the district were invited, but not required, to participate in the focus groups, there is room for self-selection bias in these data. In addition, because of the scale of the RPP and the capacity of the research team, in-depth participation observation was not possible throughout the district. Additional studies would be well served by the inclusion of ethnographically informed methods of in-depth participant observation into the digital civic leaving practices of students in their classrooms.

Conclusion

If these are challenging times for our democracy in general, they are even more challenging times for youth who are learning how to be and become civic actors in the places in which they live and learn. Findings from this study within RPSD are consistent with findings from broader nationally representative research into the landscape of civic and media literacy learning opportunity– namely, that a majority of RPSD students do not report frequent opportunities to learn and practice the civic dimensions of media literacy, though they recognize those opportunities would serve them well in their current and future lives.

Simply put, these opportunities appear to remain the exception, rather than the norm, in the precise spaces in which young people spend most of their time (schools). As public-serving, community-based institutions, public schools can and ought to prepare young people for robust, respectful and ethical civic participation in their schools, communities and the world.

To be sure, the shifting nature of information production and circulation and the prevalence of new digital media have complexified the requirements of adequate provision of digital civic education. Luckily, teachers and educators do not have to bear all of the responsibility or expertise. They can and should, center the wealth of lived experiences and rich repertoires of practice with digital information use that students themselves bring to the classroom (Gutiérrez and Rogoff, 2003). With their intergenerational and shared expertise, teachers can support students to leverage new media tools to pursue discipline-specific inquiry and take informed action on social, political and civic issues that matter to them. This article aimed to bring this complicated conversation to the Information and Learning Sciences research community because as an interdisciplinary body of scholars invested in the study of information and learning in all its contexts (Reynolds et al., 2019), we are well-suited to bring innovative, mixed-method analysis to bear on inquiry related to the intersection of education, media and information in the digital age.

Student survey administration in RPSD

Timepoint N of participants
Spring 2018 3,595 middle school students (7th + 8th graders)
Spring 2019 2,850 middle school students (7th graders)

“I have talked about how to find different points of view on political and social issues on the internet”

Year Response % students Item mean (SD)
2018* Never 27.4 2.44 (1.2)
Once 27.4
Twice 18.8
Three + times 26.4
2019** Never 31.3 2.23 (1.1)
Once 33.3
Twice 16.6
Three + times 18.8
Notes:
*

n = 1,798, never (1), once (2), twice (3), three + (4);

**

n = 1,726, never (1), once (2), twice (3), three + (4)

“I have discussed how to tell if the information I find on the internet is trustworthy”

Year Response % students Item mean (SD)
2018* Never 18.3 2.67 (1.1)
Once 28.9
Twice 19.9
Three + times 32.9
2019** Never 20.7 2.54 (1.1)
Once 32.4
Twice 19.1
Three + times 27.8
Notes:
*

n = 1,789, never (1), once (2), twice (3), three + (4);

**

n = 1,710, never (1), once (2), twice (3), three + (4)

“I have discussed how to effectively share my opinions on social or political issues online”

Year Response % students Item mean (SD)
2018* Never 44.1 2.09 (1.2)
Once 22.1
Twice 13.9
Three + times 19.8
2019** Never 46.9 1.96 (1.1)
Once 25.1
Twice 12.8
Three + times 15.2
Notes:
*

n = 1,784, never (1), once (2), twice (3), three + (4);

**

n = 1,721, never (1), once (2), twice (3), three + (4)

“I have created and shared something on the internet related to a social or political issue”

Year Response % students Item mean (SD)
2018* Never 70.9 1.49 (0.9)
Once 16.2
Twice 5.5
Three + times 7.4
2019** Never 65.4 1.57 (0.9)
Once 20.0
Twice 7.4
Three + times 7.3
Notes:
*

n = 1,714, never (1), once (2), twice (3), three + (4);

**

n = 1,786, never (1), once (2), twice (3), three + (4)

“I have been involved in a project to improve my school or community”

Year Response % students Item mean (SD)
2018* Strongly disagree 13.9 2.47 (0.9)
Disagree 38.1
Agree 35.6
Strongly agree 12.4
2019** Strongly disagree 7.1 2.00 (1.0)
Disagree 35.5
Agree 31.5
Strongly agree 25.9
Notes:
*

n = 1787, strongly disagree (1), disagree (2), agree (3), strongly agree (4);

**

n = 1825, strongly disagree (1), disagree (2), agree (3), strongly agree (4)

Deductive coding scheme

Parent code Child code Definition from Hodgin (2019) Corresponding interview questions
Civic dimensions of media literacy Judging the credibility of civic and political information “The ability to access, analyze and evaluate a variety of information … within civic and political contexts” “What you like to see about learning about credibility issues online?” “Do you talk about how to tell if the information you are taking online is trustworthy? How you know what’s credible?”
Producing and circulating civic and political media “…opportunities for youths to produce, remix and circulate media that has a civic and political focus … including writing and disseminating a blog about a political issue, remixing a political video and circulate it or producing a wiki of information resources with relative ease” “Do you have experiences talking about these (social and political) issues online?” “Do you ever have these types of discussions about current events online?”
Taking civic action that bridges voice to influence “…forms of action that bolster young people’s capacities to effectively and meaningfully act upon issues that matter to them” “Have you had opportunities in your classes to take action or get involved in your community?” “So when you learn about these social and political issues in your classrooms, do you also learn sometimes about how to get involved in these issues?”

Notes

1.

District name, as well as a personnel and students have been given pseudonyms.

2.

The first author was part of a larger university and district team that made up the RPP personnel. The analysis and presentation for this article, however, are her own.

3.

Not cited for the purposes of retaining district anonymity.

4.

See Appendix 1 for survey protocol.

5.

See Appendix 2 for deductive coding scheme.

Appendix 1. Survey items (bolded if analyzed in manuscript)

  1. This past year, in my classes, I have:

    • discussed current events and/or controversial issues.

    • learned about societal issues that I care about.

    • I am encouraged to consider multiple views on controversial issues.

    • I have been involved in a project to improve my school or local community.

  2. This past year, I have voluntarily raised money and/or volunteered for a cause I care about.

  3. This past year, I have voluntarily worked or cooperated with others to try to solve a problem affecting my school, city or neighborhood.

  4. This past year, I have voluntarily watched, listened to or read news about issues in your local community, the nation or the world?

  5. Getting involved in improving my local community, the nation or the world is important to me.

  6. There are issues in my local community, the nation and/or the world that I care deeply about.

  7. I expect to vote in elections once I am old enough.

  8. This past year, in my classes, I have:

    • Talked about how to find different points of view on political and social issues on the internet?

    • Discussed the importance of evaluating the evidence that backs up people’s opinions?

    • Discussed how to tell if the information you find online is trustworthy?

    • Discussed how to effectively share your opinion on social or political issues online (for example, by blogging or tweeting or posting comments)?

    • Created and shared something on the internet related to a societal or political issue?

    • Researched or searched for information online?

  9. This past year, I have voluntarily shared someone else’s article, blog, picture or video related to social or political issues.

  10. This past year, I have voluntarily created and shared my own article, blog, picture or video related to social or political issues.

Appendix 2

Table A1

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Further reading

Cohen, C., Kahne, J. and Marshall, J. (2018), “Let’s go there: race, ethnicity, and a lived civics approach to civic education”, GenForward at the University of Chicago.

Fine, M. (2018), Just Research in Contentious Times: Widening the Methodological Imagination, Teachers College Press.

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Kahne, J. and Middaugh, E. (2008), “Democracy for some: the civic opportunity gap in high school”, Circle Working Paper 59, Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE).

Kahne, J. and Sporte, S. (2008), “Developing citizens: the impact of civic learning opportunities on students' commitment to civic participation”, American Educational Research Journal, Vol. 45 No. 3.

Kahne, J., Middaugh, E. and Allen, D. (2014), “Youth, new media, and the rise of participatory politics [youth and participatory politics]”, Working Paper No. 1, available at: http://ypp.dmlcentral.net/sites/default/files/publications/YPP_WorkinPapers_Paper01_1.pdf

Acknowledgements

The author would like to especially thank Drs Erica Hodgin and Joseph Kahne of the Civic Engagement Research Group for their supportive collaboration and guidance in this research. In addition, they are very grateful to the district leader, Carolyn Power, for their collaboration and expertise, which made this research possible. Funding for the work was made possible in part by The John Randolf Haynes Foundation.

Corresponding author

Daniela K. Digiacomo can be contacted at: daniela.digiacomo@uky.edu