Dina Strasser has had a profound impact on my thinking about teaching with technology for a long while.  That’s why I was so excited when Teacher Magazine asked Dina and I to write about the role that technology should play in today’s classrooms.

Dina’s thoughts—crafted in the form of a letter to me—argued that when we focus our students on the kinds of opportunities for global collaboration that many techies passionately advocate for, our students lose their connection to their local communities.

My reply—which you can read below—tries to show how digital tools can create real opportunities for teens and tweens to take social action in their hometowns.

In the end, I think Dina’s got a point:  Our determination to connect kids across borders might just be drawing our attention away from real opportunities to engage kids in opportunities to take collective action with the people they care the most about.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t show our kids the potential in connecting across borders.  After all, connecting across borders—understanding international perspectives on the kinds of issues that are forcing nations to take notice—will be essential to long-term peace and prosperity for everyone on this global tilt-a-whirl.

But are those kinds of starting points really the right starting point for teens and tweens looking to understand the role that they can play in driving change?  And are current conversations on the role that digital connections can play in our classrooms so focused on global issues that we’re ignoring the reality that surrounds us?

Good questions, huh?

Looking forward to hearing your replies,



Dear Dina,

As a guy who has spent the better part of the past few years arguing that today’s students need opportunities to develop global awareness through the use of Web 2.0 tools, the story of your Upstate New York tweens struggling to understand the pros and cons of proposals to begin hydrofracking—a natural gas drilling process that has literally destroyed communities—in their own hometown really resonates with me.

After all, struggling in an increasingly complex world, Americans everywhere are making the same kinds of difficult decisions on superheated issues that may or may not pay off in the long run.

Sometimes, community awareness is high and our choices are informed and responsible. Most of the time, however, it seems like our neighbors are too rushed to do the kinds of meaningful research necessary to make informed decisions.

Making matters worse, individuals expressing alternative viewpoints on any controversial local environmental, social, political or economic issue are almost always quickly trampled once intellectual momentum builds behind the cheap propaganda churned out by corporate marketing departments, corrupt-yet-charismatic leaders, or ineffective governments.

It’s almost an unfair fight, isn’t it?

What’s crazy is that people all over the world are fighting the same kinds of local battles. Take two examples shared by Clay Shirky in his newest book Cognitive Surplus (2010), starting in Lahore, Pakistan.

Home to over 6 million people, Lahore is plagued by a weak local government that can’t even guarantee basic services like garbage collection to its people. As a result, the streets of Lahore are literally filthy, paved with piles of uncollected trash.

For women in Mangalore, India, the local challenge was far more intimidating than rotting garbage.

Instead, they were fighting Sri Ram Sene, a fundamentalist religious group that was attacking women who violated their strict beliefs about moral conduct. To be caught in a bar, to dress ‘indecently,’ or to mix with men of different faiths was to risk nothing short of public humiliation and assault (Shirky, 2010).

In each of these situations, though, handfuls of local residents decided to take action together—and their efforts to organize started in Facebook.

Lahore’s heroes were three men who started a Facebook group called the Responsible Citizens to recruit friends to join them on Sundays to pick up trash on streets near the public marketplace. Over time, their efforts were noticed by locals who began voluntarily joining the Sunday cleanups.

In Mangalore, Nisha Susan started a Facebook group called the Association of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women that grew from 500 to 30,000 members in one week alone.

The Association’s first act—outside of drawing incredible amounts of media attention to the plight of women in Mangalore that landed the Sri Ram Sene leader in police detention and of building the social confidence of a traditionally marginalized group in Indian society—was to send thousands of pink panties to the fundamentalist religious group’s headquarters in a funny protest against extreme beliefs (Shirky, 2010)!

Now I know what you’re thinking, Dina: both of these examples of civic action at the local level could have happened in a world without Facebook.

Anyone who lived through the Civil Rights movement and the collective outrage voiced against America’s involvement in Vietnam knows that local action was taking place long before the Internet was available to any of us Regular Joes.

But would they have happened?

Would the three young men behind the Responsible Citizens in Lahore—working in a city defined by social inaction and skepticism towards the government—been able to quickly find peers willing to give up dozens of Sundays to pick up trash or would Nisha Susan—working in a country where social equality continues to elude many women—been able to round up 30,000 peers in a week to take part in a potentially dangerous stand without access to the Internet?

The answer is probably not. The costs of organizing would have been just too high.

As passionate as any activist is, getting messages to like-minds and coordinating the contributions of dozens of volunteers has always been the barrier to widespread social action.

“The difference today,” Shirky explains, “is that the internet is an opportunity machine, a way for small groups to create new opportunities, at lower cost and with less hassle than ever before, and to advertise those opportunities to the largest set of potential participants in history” (Shirky, 2010, Kindle Location 1665-1674).

I think you and I can both learn lessons from Lahore and Mangalore, Dina. They include:

1.  Teaching students to care about their local communities is as essential as ever: Having followed your thoughts for years, Dina, I’m starting to realize that my students really are disconnected from local realities.

To borrow the thinking of Tom Huston, they’re living in “glossy, opaque bubbles” trapped by superficial Facebook messages and customized iTunes playlists, guarded against any “jarring intrusions from the greater world beyond” (Huston, 2010).

In the meantime, the very social fabric that once held our communities together—the sense of localness that you hold so dear—has been lost. What good are the kinds of global opportunities to connect, create and collaborate across international boundaries that I’ve long supported to students who are living in crumbling communities?

If we still care about schooling as a vehicle for developing effective participants in a democratic society, then we’ve got to break the digital bubbles that are swallowing a generation by giving our students real opportunities to take action in their own hometowns.

2.  Digital tools can empower anyone—including tweens and teens—to take social action: The good news is that the teens and tweens sitting in our classrooms are still passionate about fairness and social justice, Dina.

That’s why my students spent hours and hours of their recess time a few years back studying the genocide happening in Darfur—and have raised well over $2,000 in the past 18 months to loan to entrepreneurs starting new businesses in the developing world.

That means turning them on to the kinds of local issues that are important in their own communities is going to be a breeze.

Paired with lessons on elevating voice, persuading with visual images, and using digital tools to create platforms for public expression, they can actually stand on equal footing with adults and make a practical difference—like the Responsible Citizens in Lahore and the Association of Loose and Forward Women of Mangalore—in their own lives and the lives of their neighbors.

The best news is that neither of these lessons requires radical action on the part of teachers or radically new behaviors from our students.

As Shirky explains, “It’s just new opportunities linked to old motives via the right incentives. Once you get that right, you can change the way people interact with one another in fairly fundamental ways” (Kindle Location 1636-39).

And I think we’d both agree that it’s about time for schools to start getting these kinds of things right.

Rock right on, Pal.



Works Cited:

Huston, T. (2009, April 20). [Weblog] Making sense of the dumbest generation. The Huffington Post. Retrieved August 31, 2009, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tom-huston/making-sense-of-the-dumbe_b_192948.html

Shirky, C. (2010). Cognitive surplus: creativity and generosity in a connected age. New York, NY: Penguin Press HC.

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