Teens in Virtual Worlds Learn Civic Lessons That Are Anything But Dull
12.2.09 | Say the word “civics,” and most people will likely conjure images of well-meaning citizens trudging to the polls to do their democratic duty, soberly pulling levers behind dim curtains for city council members on local election days.
Civics, that is to say, rarely inspires rapture.
But that may be changing as kids, thanks to digital media, are first encountering civic issues in engaging and, yes, dynamic ways, both through school curriculums and on their own.
Take Whyville, the virtual world created a decade ago by Numedeon’s Chief Visionary Officer Jim Bower, who at the time was a professor of neuroscience at the California Institute of Technology. Today the site has a population of more than 5.8 million and counting registered “citizens”—teens and pre-teens who learn and play together in communities complete with their own elected officials, town square and places to go, like beaches and museums. They even have their own economy.
The first civic element Bower and his code writers introduced to Whyville was a newspaper, the Whyville Times. That was partly because the project was born out of a joint venture with the Los Angeles Times, but also because Bower recognized the importance of newspapers in the health of a community.
Bower says that writing for the Whyville Times is “one of the most prestigious things you can do in Whyville.” He notes that several former Whyville Times correspondents went on to study journalism in college. (And he notes that not without a twinge of irony, as real-world newspapers are shrinking all over the country.)
The Whyville Times is far from the only example of kids taking part in civic activities. Because of rising carbon dioxide levels, Whyville, like the physical world, is more susceptible to tropical storms. After storms rip through the streets, Bower says many kids “don hard hats and go around and pick up the debris.”
Sure you can earn clams—Whyville’s currency—for such action, but Bower maintains that for the kids, helping out goes beyond online dollars and cents. Those clean-up sessions become “community events.”
In another example of organizing around an issue, kids in Whyville noted with alarm that the fish in their coral reef were disappearing. Chicago Field Museum scientists, who built the Whyville reef to educate kids about ecology and conservation, were surprised by the kids’ commitment to restoring the reef’s health. (Watch this Spotlight video to learn more about the attack on the reef and how the kids responded.)
“The kids think of Whyville as their own place,” Bower says. “It’s really their community.”
The idea that their actions can make a difference motivates kids to get involved, whether it’s running for Senate or working as a Whyville guide. If email messages to Whyville’s administrators are any indication, kids have clearly taken their experiences to heart, and into life offline.
“I lovveee…..being a welcome guide!!!” one enthusiastic Whyville citizen wrote. “So I have decided to volenteer at my local animal shelter, a home for senior citezians (sorry incorrect spelling) and I have even started my own club!”
Early evidence by education professor Joe Kahne and his colleagues at Mills College shows that this urge to do good offline is not unusual. (See his study on kids’ behavior with the Pew Internet and American Life Project). When kids take part in online interest-based communities, whether that interest be music or fan sites, they are more likely than those who do not participate in such sites to be civically or politically active offline. Find out why as Kahne talks with Spotlight about his findings.
Sasha Barab, a professor of learning sciences, instructional systems technology and cognitive science at Indiana University, has prompted similarly impassioned testimonials from students with his Quest Atlantis, a 3-D, multiuser online environment. Barab writes of QA on his homepage: “Unlike any other form of curriculum, these games offer…a place where the actions of a ten-year old can have significant impact on the world.”
The games, meant for children age 9 to 16, are built around what Barab calls seven social commitments, including social responsibility, healthy communities and environmental awareness. He considers QA the textbook of the future. If that’s the case, the future of civic engagement for students is bright.
“It’s better than reading a book,” a teenage student from North Carolina recently told the Learning Channel. “You are doing the same things but on a computer—it’s slicker and you’re more interested in it.”
High school kids from Washington, D.C., involved in the Witnessing History project, certainly appeared motivated by the immersive aspects of working in the virtual space of Teen Second Life. The project was produced in conjunction with Global Kids and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
It was there that a handful of students curated an exhibit where visitors assumed the role of reporters–replete with fedoras and notepads–to learn how bystanders reacted to the horrors of the 1938 Night of Broken Glass pogrom at the outset of the Holocaust.
The visitor-reporters traveled virtual Berlin streets designed with scanned materials and documents from the museum’s archives and artifacts. They walked past a burned-down synagogue modeled on an actual place of worship. At the end of the exhibit, visitors entered a reflection room—a quiet, uncluttered area, where they could post notes for all to read.
The exhibit was created in part to underscore awareness of contemporary instances of genocide, and to prompt conversations about what it means to be a global citizen. As reporters, the students effectively revisited the critical civics lesson handed down by the bard himself: The past is indeed prologue.
Rafi Santo, a senior program associate with Global Kids who worked closely on the project, said the students remained motivated and engaged while working on Witnessing History, inspired by the idea that what they’d created would be accessible to millions of their peers.
“They had the opportunity to create something that would not just go on a shelf,” Santo says. “The students got what it meant to have a sense of agency.”
Santo suggests that new technologies have an innate advantage over other forms of education when it comes to provocative conversations about civics for the simple reason that they allow an increasingly globally minded generation to connect with youth beyond their local communities.
Photo by: teachandlearn. Virtual Kristallnacht exhibit at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Second Life.
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