Digital Age

Educating High Need Students for Engagement in the Digital Age

Diana Owen

Associate Professor of Political Science

Communication, Culture, and Technology

Georgetown University

Contact Information:

3520 Prospect Street, NW

Suite 311

Washington, DC 20057

(202) 687-7194

Paper prepared for presentation at the 42nd Annual Conference of the Association for Moral Education, Panel K3.2: Social Media, Activism, and Marginality, Harvard Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, MA, December 8-11, 2016. 1


The civic education of high need students—students living in poverty, minority students, English language learners, and special needs students—often is shortchanged, contributing to a “civic empowerment gap.” This study examines differences in the pedagogies employed by teachers of high need students and non-high need students, focusing on the extent to which they employ techniques that will prepare students for citizenship in the age of digital politics. The study addresses the core question: Are there differences in the pedagogies, activities, and digital media use skills teachers of high need and non-high need students employ in the classroom? Data on 700 middle and high school teachers nationwide are used to examine the question empirically. The findings support the hypothesis that teachers of high need students are less likely to incorporate digital technology into the civics classroom than teachers of students who are not high need. The disparities in the use of technology in the classroom are apparent for accessing information as well as civics-related activities. The inequities in civic education that contribute to the civic empowerment gap are growing in the digital age. Students in high need schools are not receiving civics instruction that keeps pace with the augmented requirements of engaged citizenship.

KEYWORDS: civic education, civics pedagogy, high need students, digital citizenship

Disciplinary Focus: Multidisciplinary—political science, education, communication

Author’s Note: I am extremely grateful for the hard work of the Georgetown University Research Team for the James Madison Legacy Project—Isaac Riddle, Scott Schroeder, Jilanne Doom, and Tonya Puffett. I also greatly appreciate the staff of the Center for Civic Education who work diligently to implement the JMLP. Without them this study would not be possible.

Educating High Need Students for Engagement in the Digital Age

The need to improve civic education in the nation’s middle and high schools is especially pressing for high need students. Students from higher socioeconomic status households receive more and better classroom-based civic learning opportunities than their lower SES counterparts (Kahne and Middaugh, 2008). They also have greater access to resources and quality programs to enhance their learning experiences outside the classroom. By some accounts, students from higher-income areas are served by more effective teachers than students in low-income neighborhoods (Murnane and Steele, 2007).

Disparities in educational opportunities widen the “civic empowerment gap”—where political influence is concentrated among more privileged groups—by providing substandard civics preparation to students most in need of the knowledge, skills, and the dispositions required to participate competently and responsibly in political life (Levinson, 2010, 2012). The “civic empowerment gap” may be widening in the digital era, as the requirements for effective citizenship have broadened (Bennett, 2008; Bennett, et al., 2009; Dalton, 2008). With less access to civics instruction that meaningfully incorporates digital citizenship than their more advantaged counterparts, high need students may be further deprived of the skills required to develop political agency.

The goal of this study is to determine if there are differences in access to instruction conducive to conveying digital citizenship orientations between high need students and those who are advantaged. The paper begins with an examination of the challenges faced by teachers seeking to incorporate digital pedagogies into the civics curriculum, especially those teaching in high need schools. It then examines the instructional strategies that civics teachers are using in the classroom in middle and high school, and addresses the question: How are teachers integrating pedagogies related to digital citizenship into the curriculum? Finally, the study addresses the research question: Are there differences in the extent to which teachers of high need students and teachers of more advantaged students incorporate digital pedagogies, activities, and media use skills in the classroom? I use data from a nationwide 2015-16 study of civics, social studies, and American government teachers to assess these issues empirically.

The Challenges of Educating for Digital Citizenship

Active citizenship in the twenty-first century requires digital age skill sets, as technology has instigated an expanded realm for civic engagement (Kahne, Middaugh, and Allen, 2015; Wells, 2015; Gainous and Wagner, 2014). Citizens must be able to access information from diverse digital platforms, including news sites, government sites, blogs, and social media affordances. They must be able to evaluate the quality of the information derived from these platforms even as the news environment becomes increasingly muddled and “fake news” proliferates. In addition to monitoring information, the public now has the opportunity to engage actively in the political process through new media venues. Citizens can contribute to political discourse by providing eyewitness accounts of events, offering commentary, and responding to posted content. They can create political sites and produce videos. They can write, circulate, and sign petitions, and register their opinions via online polls. They can contact public officials using digital platforms. They can recruit volunteers for community and political activities, raise money for candidates and causes, and engage in protests.

People who acquire the competencies for digital civic engagement have an advantage in their ability to express their views, participate in the political realm, and advocate for causes they believe in. Incorporating digital media skills into the middle and high school civics, social studies, and American government curriculum is a logical step in the making of competent digital citizens. However, civics instruction for the making of good digital citizens lags behind the shifts in the political environment (Owen, et al., 2011; Owen, 2014; Owen, Doom, and Riddle, 2016). The situation is most dire for high need students, whose access to high quality civics instruction is already constrained (Levinson, 2010). High need students may lose further ground to more advantaged students in the acquisition of civic knowledge, skills, dispositions, and behavior, thus widening the civic empowerment gap.

From Digital Natives to Digital Citizens

Today’s students are digital natives whose lives are fully immersed in technology (Palfrey and Gasser, 2008; Mihailidis, 2014; Cunningham, 2007; Shah and Abraham, 2009). Young people have more advanced technological skill sets than prior generations, and often are more adept at using digital media than their teachers (Celano and Neuman, 2013; Hodgin, 2016). Digital natives use new avenues to engage, as social media allow them to align the information they gather from peer-to-peer networks to the political information they encounter through media outlets that foster conversation and the spread of information (American Press Institute, 2015). However, a gap exists between young people’s understanding of digital media as social tools and their potential for gaining political information and taking part in civic life. Young people may feel adequately equipped to cultivate social networks, but they must learn how these same information sources and network platforms can be used for meaningful political engagement (Mihailidis, 2014; Bennett, 2012).

Teachers can capitalize on students’ pervasive use of digital media by developing pedagogies that foster digital citizenship skills. They can provide guidance to students as they become critical consumers of online news and information about government and politics. Teachers can provide direction to students about how to be responsible users of social media for engaging in political dialogue and action. They can devise methods for adapting well-established civics classroom activities, such as writing letters to public officials, to the digital environment.

Tervikartikkel koos tabelite ja kasutatud allikate loendiga on leitav:

Create your website at
Get started
%d bloggers like this: