Civic Engagement in the Digital Age

Help your students connect on issues that matter to them.

November 17, 2014
Young Whan Choi
History and Civic Engagement Coordinator
Oakland Unified School District
Oakland, CA,
CATEGORIES In the Classroom, Out-of-School Learning

On a clear and cold Friday afternoon in January 2001, four students packed their bags into my car, and we began the eight-hour drive from Providence, R.I., to Washington, D.C. When they saw at a distance the Washington Monument illuminated against a dark sky, it was near midnight, just 30 hours before George W. Bush was to take the Oath of the Office as the President of the United States. But we weren't there to observe the inauguration. We were there to join the protests questioning the legitimacy of Bush’s election.

Participating in a protest rally is fundamentally about connection. Seeing others come together for a common cause shatters the walls of isolation that keep us quiet and compliant. What feels like one person’s issue and problem to deal with becomes many people’s issue and problem to solve. While a protest has chants and colorful banners to excite people, it's the sense of connectedness that makes a protest -- or any civic action -- engaging. Today, digital media and online social networks allow students to share their ideas with an audience outside of school and to make those connections that lead to authentic, real-world learning experiences.

While a protest has chants and colorful banners to excite people, it's the sense of connectedness that makes a protest -- or any civic action -- engaging.

Worlds Collide -- Oakland and Salt Lake City

Too often in schools, students rarely share their own ideas. When they do speak, it's often to give a pre-formed answer and to an audience of one -- their teacher. Digital media opens up access to audiences outside of school and creates forums where students can express their ideas. Those audiences, in turn, provide students with valuable feedback and input.

In particular, when an audience has a different lived experience, they can bring new perspectives to the table. Jo Paraiso at Fremont High School in Oakland, Calif., and Chris Sloan of Judge Memorial Catholic High School in Salt Lake City, Utah, are two teachers who saw the potential of connecting their students. They saw the widely different demographics and contexts of their classrooms as assets for their students’ learning.

Last year, these two worlds collided in a Google Hangout. Lawrence, a participating student from Oakland, was conducting field research on the prevalence of liquor stores and the shortage of fresh food in poor communities of color. He was investigating any connection there might be to high rates of diabetes and obesity in those same communities. During the Hangout, he learned that his predominantly white counterparts in Utah only had one liquor store in town; he declared that he could use that information as "data."

Like Lawrence, his peers in Oakland capitalized on the access to authentic audiences through an online networking space for students called Youth Voices. On this social media platform, students wrote about their research topics online and received responses from young people across the country.

While you might question whether blogging is a form of civic engagement, it's certainly one step in that direction. These students didn't just turn in a paper for the teacher to read; they raised awareness about issues that mattered to them and reached an audience of peers and adults outside of their school. By taking the risk to go public with their thinking, students developed a disposition to speak their minds and a sense that what they say matters.

How to Help Students Become Civically Engaged

1. Pick one area that you're interested in and start small. 

Last year, Nicole Edwards, a teacher in the Educating for Democracy in the Digital Age initiative, wondered if infographics might be a vehicle for her students to connect with others and share their ideas. She began small, having her students simply look at and analyze infographics. Next, she and her students learned how to create infographics using online platforms like and, and students created infographics as part of a classroom project. This year, she’s taking the next step by having students focus on community issues that are important to them, share their infographics online, and raise awareness about these issues. Her students started out with baby steps, and now they are confidently walking towards more powerful uses of digital infographics to influence others.

2. Connect with the local community to find meaningful issues and to see real change. 

Even though we spend much of our time in the digital world, we still live on a physical planet surrounded by a living community. Students' very real concerns about their communities can be great opportunities for civic engagement.

Michelle Espino is a literacy teacher in Oakland who saw a need for recycling on her campus. As part of the Sustainable Urban Design Academy at Castlemont High School, Michelle connected with a local organization called EarthTeam, and the students in her class took on recycling as a class projectBy focusing on a very local issue at their school, the students estimate they were successful in diverting over 704 gallons of material out of a landfill and into recycling. Their local focus also allowed them to see the impact of their efforts. As one student said, "When it’s in a garbage can, it just looks like a little bit, and you’re like 'so what?', but then when you see it all together, you’re like, wow! This is all going into a landfill!" Michelle’s students also promoted their local, grassroots change efforts using social media.

3. Seek out a community of educators that support one another in innovation and risk-taking. 

In Oakland, we're lucky to have the Educating for Democracy in the Digital Age initiative, which has brought together more than 70 teachers in the past two and a half years to work on civic engagement practices in the classroom. Many of our teachers are developing practices around the use of digital media to connect young people with others in a virtual space around civic and political issues. Connectedness is not only essential for civic engagement, but it's what supports teachers to develop new ideas and to grow as professionals.  

While protesting is a vital form of democratic participation, the digital age gives us many other ways to connect to one another around issues that matter. Trying something small, connecting to issues important to the local community, and innovating with the support of other educators are all best practices for civic engagement educators.

To learn more about our project in Oakland, you can visit our website where you will find teachers’ blogs and educator resources.