Blog: Mobilising the civic curriculum

ARE YOUNG people really ‘switched off’ from politics and being active in their local communities or are we just looking in the wrong places to see their efforts? LITE Teaching Enhancement Project Leader Bronwin Patrickson explores here how the next generation are making their voices heard across innovative new platforms.

In recent years it has become apparent that young people show little interest in traditional politics and many are so cynical about party leadership that they are declining to vote.

Numerous academics have been researching these potentially alarming social shifts.

But what is already emerging from a number of studies is that recent disengagement trends are more likely to reflect an integral disconnect between traditional and digital cultures, rather than simply a rising level of apathy.

As it turns out, a lot of young people are involved in civic and public welfare activities, but they are engaging in different ways than previous generations.

New wave

Contemporary networking technologies, combined with a growing disillusionment with traditional political systems have inspired new practices that challenge previous understandings of what community engagement and good governance might mean.

Community contributions are now more likely to be sourced through alternate pathways like participatory media, for example, Conspiracy For Good, a transmedial entertainment event that raised money for real world causes, art and music.

Another example: the Russian protest band, Pussy Riot, or through social media campaigns such as The Ice Bucket Challenge  a short-lived, viral fund-raising effort, or hack attacks and information leaks like the informal hacktivist network, Anonymous.

These changes within the public sphere are just as relevant for the civics curriculum, which is why smartphones are powerful tools of the civic curriculum.Their value is not gadgetry but daily networking capacity.

I explore this theme as part of my LITE project that will be published later this year.

Protected views

At first glance smartphones may seem peripheral to a civics agenda, but their contribution lies in their flexible functionality.

By providing countless ways to be networked at all times, mobile phone applications can potentially embed the support of an engaged and empowered community in even the most vulnerable situations.

For example, numerous mobile applications have been developed that can support activists in danger.

Functions include private, anonymous networking such as Vibe, encrypted messaging: Off The Record Messaging, safe group collaboration, Crabgrass.

Or the capacity to thematically store and stream all posts relevant to particular issues online like Crowdvoice or Bambuser, or stream real time text broadcasts of protest developments to all those on the scene – Sukey, as well as work with mobile citizens to monitor and report electoral fraud, Revoda.

There are even applications that enable volunteers to quickly signal for help, like I Am Alive, and authorise friends to remotely wipe their compromised mobile data – AndroidLost.

Who is an activist and who is an extremist may shift depending upon your political allegiance.  Nevertheless, these sorts of applications can save lives.

Social choice

Applications designed to support social causes are also becoming more common.

It is now possible to readily research proven ways to help, rather than hinder events in the news like, Do Something, or text in donations – mGIVE, recycle at large, TrashNothing.

Or learn more about what charities do by accepting a three day challenge to adopt a virtual homeless man at iHobo, and/or testing survival skills in the mylifeasarefugee game, join global social change networks Boomcast or We365.

You can check the social responsibility ratings of consumer products on the go by simply scanning the barcode at GoodGuide and upload and share stories/pledges to help raise micro-donations online at Spotfund or JustGiving.



Mobile interactions can be peripheral, as much as ubiquiotous, which means that they can also be quick, and easy, as much as convenient.

Complaints that easy engagements promote lazy, superficial connections, or clicktivism rather than activism still need to be considered particularly in relation to any social issue narratives that might be circulating such as the infamous viral Kony video was a prime example of how a powerful message can be seriously flawed by superficial research.

At the same time, it is important to ask how many townsfolk traditionally engaged in political and civic events anyway?

Easy engagements can attract a broad ranging response.

The Ice Bucket Challenge, for example was so playful and required such little discussion of the charity involved that some commentators labelled it almost supercilious at the time.

This fun, infectious and short-lived charity campaign raised money from pledges gained when people flamboyantly dowsed themselves in buckets of ice water and shared videos of the event on social media.

Clicktivism perhaps, but the ease and thrill of participation fuelled the popularity of the campaign and the generous funds it raised as a result led to a medical research breakthrough.

The clicks, in other words, were tied to meaningful results, in this case donations.

Catch up

Recognising this, more charities have started to work with, rather than against the appeal of easy engagements.

Now busy people can utilize the power of spare time by micro volunteering on platforms like,The Extraordinaires, which might involve donating ten minutes, or less to helpful tasks that can be contributed remotely such as data entry, or review.

Due to the emerging links between engagement, marketing and donations it is now also possible to raise food for the hungry by playing vocabulary games  at FreeRice, or uploading photos at Feedie and Fotition, keeping fit with MaximusLife, or simply walking about with Give2Charity and Charity Miles.

Local networks

The click may not be the problem.

The power of the network can multiply even the smallest of clicks in to a community effort, but there’s still much more that can be done to engage local communities in Leeds.

The real challenge is to ensure that clicks have meaningful results.

A civic curriculum can help to better direct networking tools towards regional interests such as safe streets and healthy communities.

Beyond asking students to research the un-met needs of their local community and design mobile applications to suit – an ideal civic curriculum activity by the way – universities can also work with existing tools to bolster established civic activities.

This can be achieved by building local community networks online, or helping to link appropriate applications like the PanicButton mobile distress call with Leeds’ social welfare services, or conducting barcode reviews of major supermarket chains.


Either way, meaningful results are also more likely to emerge when civic mobile networking is linked to thoughtful and informed discussion.

Topical questions might include how to ensure equal access, given that the very people who could benefit most from these tools, the poor and the elderly, either can’t afford them, or feel anxious about having to use them.

Design issues might include whether local maps can be thematically redefined to reflect local histories and cultural ties.

What sort of augment reality content might best enrich the city, or whether data banks could be localised to collate local knowledge through voluntary location/behaviour tracking for example, or community watch and documentation etc.

And how that data could be employed to empower people, rather than reduce them to statistics, or exploit them for commercial gain.

When it comes to mobile tools in the civic curriculum the classic question of all interactive spaces, “What can we do here?” is the ideal starting point.