Creating Technology for Social Change

From “Informing” to “Empowering”

For me, our new Center for Future Civic Media at MIT provides an opportunity to weave together several strands of my career.

I started my career as a journalist, writing about science and technology for Business Week magazine. Then I decided to make a career shift. I went to graduate school in computer science, and I began developing educational technologies — in particular, technologies to engage children in creative learning experiences.

How do I make sense of these two seemingly-disconnected careers? I have often explained that both careers grew out of the same underlying motivation: to help people understand the world around them.

That’s true. But I now realize that it’s only part of the story. Over the years, I have come to realize that I have a strong preference for certain ways of helping people understand the world. I am skeptical about approaches that focus primarily on “transmitting” or “delivering” information. I believe that the best way to help people understand the world is to provide them with opportunities to actively explore, experiment, and express themselves.

That’s why I ultimately became frustrated with journalism. Working as a correspondent for Business Week, I felt that I was simply informing people, not empowering them. I saw a parallel problem in the world of education. In too many educational settings, teachers simply “inform” or “instruct” learners, rather than providing learners with opportunities to explore, experiment, and express themselves.

I became interested in educational technologies because I believe that they have the potential to transform how we practice and think about education and learning. For the past 20 years, I have been designing new technologies (such as Scratch and Crickets) with the explicit goal of shifting away from a “broadcast” model of education, to a more decentralized model in which learners actively construct knowledge in collaboration with one another.

I see the recent rise of blogging and citizen journalism as a parallel trend. In journalism, as in education, new technologies are facilitating a shift from a broadcast model to a more participatory model. Of course, new technologies do not dictate or ensure this shift; indeed, many technologies are used to deliver information and instruction in a centralized way. But digital technologies provide unprecedented opportunities for decentralization and democratization of media and learning.

In the Center for Future Civic Media, we aim to build on these trends, designing new technologies and techniques that empower everyone to become more actively engaged in their local communities. For me, personally, it feels like a natural next step, an opportunity to draw on my experiences in journalism and education to rethink notions of civic engagement.