Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Syllabi Comparisons - Digital Democracy

Inspired by Professor Young Mie Kim's course, Politics in the Age of Digital Media, I decided to look for courses that covered the broad topics of politics, democracy and digital media in some combination. I found several that seemed to fit and I chose five: 

Course Titles and Institutions
(UW School of Journalism and Mass Communication) J880 Special Topics: Politics in the Age of Digital Media -- no online version. 
(U. Illinois-Chicago Department of Communication) COMM594 Adv. Special Topics: Democracy in a Digital Age
(U. Florida Department of Journalism) MMC6612: New Media and a Democratic Society - 2010
(U. Florida Department of Journalism) MMC6612: New Media and a Democratic Society - 2013

When the Courses Were Offered
I was fortunate to find syllabi for two different years for the course from U. Florida and I paid special attention to the differences between the first, taught in Fall 2010, and the second, taught in Fall 2013. The Tufts course is useful because it was taught much earlier than the others (2008) and seemed to be part of a non-traditional course program, offered by the Experimental College (which houses the media/ communication courses). Based on the types of assignments (no research paper or similar original work), it seems that the Florida and Tufts courses were offered to undergraduates, whereas the Wisconsin and Illinois-Chicago courses were each offered as graduate-level special topics courses in Spring 2014 and Fall 2010, respectively.

Learning Objectives and Course Descriptions
The 2010 Florida course promises to address "social networks" and "RFID chips and other surveillance technologies," whereas the newer course adjusted these to "social media" and dropped the specific reference to RFID chips and discussed general "surveillance technologies." Both of them mention blogging, YouTube, copyright, mobile Internet and crowdsourcing, however. The instructor wisely uses the phrase "newer communication technologies" rather than "new communication technologies," escaping the potential pitfalls when making a grand claim about an object's "newness." 

The graduate courses (Wisconsin and UIC) promise to introduce various theories and methods that students can apply toward the study of digital technologies and democracy. The course at UIC uses the phrase "technological developments" rather than Wisconsin's "digital media" perhaps to point toward a course that is grounded in process rather than objects. Wisconsin's course makes special mention of the course contributing to "an understanding of the issues for the research community as well as the general public," while UIC uses the much more vague term of "practicing democracy." 

The Tufts course seems to be constructed around the development of a social networking tool called YouthMap that the instructors expect will be used in "a variety of civic projects throughout Boston." 

What we have with all five is a mixture of goals oriented around a case study, around the advancing and understanding academic knowledge, and around bringing the community into the conversation about changing forms and ideas of democracy. 

Course Readings
The biggest change in the Florida syllabi is the current edition is guided by more case studies (Twitter, Wikileaks, Edward Snowden, Arab Spring)  while the earlier version has broad concepts like hate speech, open vs. closed systems, social trust and civil society, and participatory media culture. 

Tufts' course advertises topics like global democracy, media and democracy, digital democracy, digital activism, digital resistance, bloggers rights and, unique amongst all five courses, a week dedicated to human rights, "Human Rights 2.0 and Democracy." None of the topics, however, speak precisely to the course title's mention of mobile phones. 

Wisconsin and UIC have some conceptual overlap, and major scholars in digital democracy literature like Bruce Bimber, Lance Bennett and Peter Dahlgren each make appearances on both, though the exact works are different. Both wrestle with the idea of the distinction between the public and the private, citizenship, and paradigms. The last topic for each course is a question, in Wisconsin's case it is "Transformation of Democracy?" with readings from Bimber's Information and American Democracy, and UIC asks "What is Democracy?" though the readings are not available on the syllabus. 

Each syllabus followed the generic, useful layout and as such it was easy to determine similarities and differences across the courses. I have good models for how to write a syllabus and good ideas for topics to choose when I am able to design my own courses. 

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