From “Informing” to “Empowering”

    by Mitchel Resnick
    October 30, 2007

    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.

    Tagged: civic media decentralization education participation
    • Love it! I’m so glad you pointed out the different ways of teaching/learning, and are bringing the concept of constructing knowledge, rather than receiving it, to news media as well.

      Journalism needs to seize on new ways and new technologies to go still yet another step beyond a shift from broadcast to participation.

      There’s another half to empowering. People can help shape the reporting of the news, and people can also help shape the news that gets reported.

      Taking journalism’s role in democracy seriously means helping people find ways to engage with political and economic change and to connect with each other about what they care about. This doesn’t just mean artificial choices overy two or four years, but rather an openness to new tools and forms of organizing.

      That’s my focus (obviously! and at Agaric we’ve been able to contribute to that) but I don’t want to detract from the foundational need for people to be able to use media to “explore, experiment, and express themselves.” That’s the sort of journalism-as-teaching that we need. I just want to draw out for discussion that “designing new technologies and techniques that empower everyone to become more actively engaged in their local communities” means helping give people the power to make the news in more than one sense.

    • High Point Regional High School

      Dear Dr. Resnick,
      I am currently a senior at High Point Regional High School and my classmates and I are competing in the annual RoboRocks competition that is to be held later this month. We have devoted many hours to this project as a class, and we are continuously striding to maintain our title as “RoboRocks Champions,” a name that we so distinctly received last year. The competition has moved backwards this year, in the sense that we are now using the old robotics kits, which as you are familiar with, have an abundant amount of limitations. Only a few days ago, our group has realized that there is some approachable limit to the programming, which we had thought was not tangible. We yet have some investigating to do, and a number of my classmates and I are problem shooting the situation. We have constantly researched the topic, and have been fairly unsuccessful. The two most obvious options that we have formulated is that either the memory card has exceeded its capability, and we must simplify our program to finish the required tasks, OR that there may be a programming issues where we can possibly trick the program to allocate us more “my blocks.” The second of the two possibilities may be able to be done with the addition of another light sensor. Either way, this has become a devastating concern. If you could please explain how we could possibly gain more control over the actions of the robot, it would be much appreciated. The programming of the number of “my blocks” limit would also be extremely useful information. Thank you very for your help, and for the creation of this phenomenal learning device. I look forward to your response.

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