Blog 7: The Changing Public Sphere

Habermas and Castelles are two scholars who think critically about how society and social networks overlap in our modern world. Habermas writes specifically about the public sphere, which he defines as the “nexus between public life and civil society.” Depicted in the figure below, the public sphere is a space where all people in society are provided the opportunity to engage in conversations and debates that are in the public interest, without being influenced by the state. However, these debates are ultimately an important and integral facet of democracy, and therefore influence the state.

Though the ideal public sphere is open to all regardless of social class, wealth, power, etc.; Habermas claims that access to the sphere varies, as does an individual’s degree of autonomy within it. Further, he warns of the deterioration of the public sphere as organizations are now taking the role of individuals, and media is turning information into a product to be sold. As a result, the public sphere is slowly becoming more closed and restricted.

Castells, takes a more optimistic outlook on the public sphere, crediting the rise of network society for the revitalization of the public sphere. From his point of view, a network society, is one in which communication is multi-dimensional and multi-directional, not limited by time or space. This is largely due to the role of technology, which decentralizes the power in society and gives access to a broader population. Additionally, it removes the requirement for people to be in a certain place at a certain time to hold power and have input. Due to these advancements in communication, he claims that more individuals have access to the public sphere, and actively engage in it. Examples of this active engagement are the online movements such as #lovewins, a movement which ultimately influenced policy during the summer of 2015. At a more local level, we see movements such as the Richmond Teachers for Social Justice who are similarly using online platforms to advocate for educational equity (see here).

Thus, largely as a result of enhancements in technology, the network society is known for new forms of time and space (timeless time and space of flows) that allow for democracy in action like the aforementioned examples. Given this idea, Castells claims that network society leads to a more connected, productive, open-minded and accepting society. However, his critics claim that his ideas are utopian. In my opinion, though utopian, I agree with Castells that these changes will improve the lives of various people. Though inequity in access still exists, and some voices will continue to hold more weight than others (celebrities, politicians, social media influences, etc.); I believe that any movement towards giving people voice has the potential to produce good.

Blog 6: Social Networks and Student Engagement

By and large we know that students struggle to stay engaged in the classroom and classrooms at any level can end up looking similar to Figure 1.

Whether from our own experience as a student, teacher, or parent; this is an often-experienced phenomenon. In fact, research has confirmed throughout time that many students are not engaged in school (Steinberg, Brown, & Dornbush, 1996; Yazzie-Mintz, 2007). Jennifer Fredericks, a leading scholar in the field of engagement warned of the consequences of disengagement stating that they “are especially severe. These youth are less likely to graduate from high school and face limited employment prospects, increasing their risk for poverty, poorer health, and involvement in the criminal justice system…” (Fredericks, 2011). For this reason, I find it extremely important to explore student engagement in a variety of contexts to not only understand the consequences of disengagement, but also to understand what is associated with higher rates of engagement.

For this reason, I plan to investigate the relationship between how connected a student is in the classroom social network, and their individual reports of engagement. Kindermann and colleagues suggest that students make friends with others who have similar levels of engagement (1993; 1996), and Ryan (2000) reports that peers can support each other’s engagement through information sharing and modeling. Given this evidence, I hypothesize that highly connected students in the social network will report higher levels of engagement. To investigate this idea, I plan to answer the following three research questions:

  1. Is a student’s level of connection to a classroom social network related to their levels of engagement in the course
    • Are highly connected students more or less engaged?
  2. Does a student’s level of connection to a classroom social network differentially impact the 4 different dimensions of engagement?
  3. Are there differences in level of connection by gender?

To investigate these questions, I plan to collect a network data (specifically a directed graph) using an online Google survey in an undergraduate human development course that I teach. I will ask students in my section of the course about their engagement as well as who they frequently work with. Demographic and network survey items will include:

  • Please provide your gender: _______________________
  • Year in school:
    • Freshman
    • Sophomore
    • Junior
    • Senior
    • Graduate student
  • List the people in this class that you have collaborated with. (Collaboration)
  • List the people in this class that you would study with or go to for help. (Dependency)
  • List the people in this class that you frequently talk with. (Neutral)

Additionally, since engagement is often conceptualized as a multi-dimensional construct including cognitive, affective, behavioral, and social aspects (see Figure 2), I will use the following 4 items to investigate students’ engagement.

  • How true are the following statements of you?
    • I try to connect what I am learning in this class to things I have learned before.
    • I put effort into learning in this course.
    • I look forward to this class.
    • I try to understand other people’s ideas in this class.

Given the lack of research I’ve found investigating the role of social networks in classroom engagement, I think that this will be a contribution to the field in understanding what it is that encourages student engagement.