Connected Civics and Learning

What does connected learning look like when it is centered on civic and political interests? A new paper that I co-authored with Lissa Soep, Neta Kliger-Vilenchik, Sangita Shresthova, Liana Gamber-Thompson, and Arely Zimmerman, investigates this question. Drawing from case studies of a wide range of youth affinity groups, we suggest that “connected civics” can be understood as a form of participatory politics grounded in young people’s deeply felt interests and identities.


In many of our ethnographic cases of youth pursuing their interests through affinity networks, we’ve observed civic dimensions to their activities alongside academic and career relevant outcomes. This is particularly the case when matters of justice and equity come into play. For example, when young people leverage the deeply felt affinities they forge through fandom to mobilize collective action related to economic inequality or immigration rights. This paper offers a way to conceptualize and build conditions for those particular cases — opportunities for young people to achieve civic and political ends through their experiences of connected learning.

For almost six years, the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning initiative has supported two interdisciplinary research networks, one on Youth and Participatory Politics (YPP) and one on Connected Learning (CLRN). These two networks have pursued a linked and complementary research agenda. The concerns of both networks center on young people’s participation in the digital and networked world, with YPP focusing on civic and political dimensions, and CLRN focusing on learning. I’ve enjoyed a role on both networks as chair of CLRN and PI on the Leveling Up project,  and a collaborator on the Media, Activism, and Participatory Politics project of YPP.

My own research in both networks has centered on the role that affinity networks, particularly those enabled by the Internet, can play in young people’s learning and development. The case studies in our Leveling Up study have focused on affinity networks powered by youth interests, that support academic, career-relevant and civic outcomes. These have included studies of fans of One Direction, knitters on, Starcraft II gamers and modders, Little Big Planet level creators, and fans of professional wrestling. These studies are complemented by the studies of the MAPP team, which have centered on DREAM activists, Libertarians, American Muslim youth, and members of the Harry Potter Alliance and Nerdfighters. All of these affinity networks embody elements of connected learning, which tied together the agency and voice that young people experience in their peer networks with interests and affinity, and opportunities to get recognized as change-makers in the wider world. To learn much more about each of these case studies, keep your eye out for the MAPP team’s forthcoming book, “By Any Media Necessary.”

By looking across these cases and the frameworks from the two research networks, the paper suggests points of conceptual intersection, as well as concrete suggestions for how to build the linkages that result in learning connected civics. For example, the cases are rich in examples of how to build hybrid content worlds and narratives that draw together civic and political interests with pop cultural referents and idioms. A prime example is the Harry Potter Alliance, which is the focus of Neta Kliger-Vilenchik’s case study. It frames contemporary social issues in relation to the referents of the Harry Potter universe.

The paper also investigates youth and educator practices that build these connections, as well as organizational networks and infrastructures that tie together the three spheres of connected civics. Ultimately, the desired learning outcome is to build “consequential connections” between the spheres that deepen purposeful forms of affinity, social capital and civic agency.

Banner image credit: Ruben Hernandez