EdTech and Civics

Throughout history, technology has served as a driving force of human society. The advent of the internet and, subsequently, the introduction of the World Wide Web in 1990, altered how people interact with their environment, institutions, and each other. In the realm of education, this transformation has been no less profound. Technology and the ability to leverage electronic devices afford opportunities for improving and redesigning approaches to student learning. This is especially true within the context of civics education.

Computer-Assisted Instruction

Technology that allows content to be distributed in an online format is often referred to as computer-assisted instruction (CAI). Generally, CAI products have a fixed structure and employ knowledge-based pedagogical approaches. Think of an online civics textbook that a student can digitally access, or a website, such as CampusActivism.org, that provides consumable content and allows the user to engage with interactive features (online discussion forums, social networks, etc.). Thus, CAI products can be extremely effective in civics education.

Victory’s Boston Massacre performance-task lesson serves as an excellent example of a CAI tool. The lesson engages students in critical thinking exercises and explores the complexities of this historical event. As performance tasks guide students through each lesson component, they are given the opportunity to interact directly with the content. Students can assign weights of importance to individuals’ actions preceding the event, highlight sections of primary source text representing biased language or perspective, and interpret visually represented data. Ultimately, the students produce a piece of original, unbiased writing describing what factors most contributed to the event and a critical analysis of why the event occurred.

CAI programs allow for a wide distribution of material and provide numerous opportunities for engaging students in civics instruction. However, different applications of technology offer additional forms of instruction and learning outcomes.

Intelligent Tutoring Systems

Also within the purview of knowledge-based instruction, intelligent tutoring systems (ITS) seek to create an environment that will adapt to students’ progress as they move through lesson content. These programs assess prior knowledge and learning style, adapting to meet students’ needs as they demonstrate their level of proficiency.

For example, AEINS (Adaptive Educational Interactive Narrative System) is an interactive narrative program that creates an inquiry-based learning environment with the goal of provoking deeper thought about ethical dilemmas. Within the program, teaching moments—presented as ethical questions involving multiple characters and settings—are authored into the story that students interact with.

In an exemplar dilemma, a student is presented with the following scenario relating to dishonesty: Parents give their child money for clothing and school supplies, but the child goes to a concert instead and lies to them about how the money was spent. The program then asks the student a series of questions about his or her feelings toward lying about the concert, and asks if the student’s own choice would be telling the parents about the lie. As the student considers the issue, his or her responses prompt the program to assign a score gauging specific attributes, such as honesty or loyalty. This results in a uniquely tailored progression through the story environment based on the student’s interaction with the program. For example, a student who chooses not to reveal the lie would be presented afterward with a different scenario compared to a student who chooses to reveal the lie.

This model can potentially serve multiple applications for motivating students to explore increasingly complex civic issues, such as ethical behavior among individuals, community leaders, elected officials, and countries. Both CAI and ITS programs foster critical thinking skills and initiate a deeper exploration of a student’s own values, opinions, and perspectives. Technology also provides the capability to take these interventions even further.

Identity Construction Environments

Identity construction environments (ICEs) are virtual digital spaces that users manipulate to create objects and rules for interaction. For example, the ICE program Zora allows its users to build a virtual city and define the predominant social interactions between digital characters. Users build assets independent of other users or collaborate to decide what the environment needs. Imagine a virtual environment that students build themselves without the guidance of an instructor: what would they build and what insights can instructors gain by observing the students construct such communities?

Child Study and Human Development Professor Marina Umaschi Bers of Tufts University describes how Zora “provides tools for youth to explore self and community by encountering the challenges of democratic participation.” Using Zora, Professor Bers designed a preorientation program called ACT for incoming freshman at Tufts. For three days, participants design a virtual campus. They can make both public and private spaces, tailoring each to the needs of students or to an individual’s personal identity and interests. Over the course of the program, students work both independently and collaboratively when disagreements about the need for public spaces arise. This encourages participants to come together to coordinate their actions and hold each other accountable for designing the virtual campus.

This example shows how ICE programs such as Zora can help students develop civic identities and the skills required for effective civic action. In ICEs, students have an opportunity to conceptualize space and values, to engage their peers in debate, to compromise, and ultimately to formulate plans of action for shaping their community. In the virtual space, students develop their civic identities and skills through trial and error, primarily driving their own learning experience. Students can apply this experience in their communities as civically minded and responsible citizens.

Technology in the Future of Civics

With the Internet of Things (IoT)—that is, the connectivity between electronic devices through the internet—having an increasingly influential role in our society, the use of technology in civics education is expected to expand and proliferate. Technology provides students the opportunity to develop the skills they need to participate as informed, responsible citizens in their communities. How do you feel technology best serves to promote civic learning and action in students today?

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