Educating High Need Students for Engagement in the Digital Age
Associate Professor of Political Science
Communication, Culture, and Technology
3520 Prospect Street, NW
Washington, DC 20057
Paper prepared for presentation at the 42nd Annual Conference of the Association for Moral
Education, Panel K3.2: Social Media, Activism, and Marginality, Harvard Graduate School of
Education, Cambridge, MA, December 8-11, 2016.
The civic education of high need students—students living in poverty, minority students, English
language learners, and special needs students—often is shortchanged, contributing to a “civic
empowerment gap.” This study examines differences in the pedagogies employed by teachers of
high need students and non-high need students, focusing on the extent to which they employ
techniques that will prepare students for citizenship in the age of digital politics. The study
addresses the core question: Are there differences in the pedagogies, activities, and digital media
use skills teachers of high need and non-high need students employ in the classroom? Data on
700 middle and high school teachers nationwide are used to examine the question empirically.
The findings support the hypothesis that teachers of high need students are less likely to
incorporate digital technology into the civics classroom than teachers of students who are not
high need. The disparities in the use of technology in the classroom are apparent for accessing
information as well as civics-related activities. The inequities in civic education that contribute
to the civic empowerment gap are growing in the digital age. Students in high need schools are
not receiving civics instruction that keeps pace with the augmented requirements of engaged
KEYWORDS: civic education, civics pedagogy, high need students, digital citizenship
Disciplinary Focus: Multidisciplinary—political science, education, communication
Educating High Need Students for Engagement in the Digital Age
The need to improve civic education in the nation’s middle and high schools is especially
pressing for high need students. Students from higher socioeconomic status households receive
more and better classroom-based civic learning opportunities than their lower SES counterparts
(Kahne and Middaugh, 2008). They also have greater access to resources and quality programs
to enhance their learning experiences outside the classroom. By some accounts, students from
higher-income areas are served by more effective teachers than students in low-income
neighborhoods (Murnane and Steele, 2007).
Disparities in educational opportunities widen the “civic empowerment gap”—where
political influence is concentrated among more privileged groups—by providing substandard
civics preparation to students most in need of the knowledge, skills, and the dispositions required
to participate competently and responsibly in political life (Levinson, 2010, 2012). The “civic
empowerment gap” may be widening in the digital era, as the requirements for effective
citizenship have broadened (Bennett, 2008; Bennett, et al., 2009; Dalton, 2008). With less
access to civics instruction that meaningfully incorporates digital citizenship than their more
advantaged counterparts, high need students may be further deprived of the skills required to
develop political agency.
The goal of this study is to determine if there are differences in access to instruction
conducive to conveying digital citizenship orientations between high need students and those
who are advantaged. The paper begins with an examination of the challenges faced by teachers
seeking to incorporate digital pedagogies into the civics curriculum, especially those teaching in
high need schools. It then examines the instructional strategies that civics teachers are using in
the classroom in middle and high school, and addresses the question: How are teachers
integrating pedagogies related to digital citizenship into the curriculum? Finally, the study
addresses the research question: Are there differences in the extent to which teachers of high
need students and teachers of more advantaged students incorporate digital pedagogies,
activities, and media use skills in the classroom? I use data from a nationwide 2015-16 study of
civics, social studies, and American government teachers to assess these issues empirically.
The Challenges of Educating for Digital Citizenship
Active citizenship in the twenty-first century requires digital age skill sets, as technology
has instigated an expanded realm for civic engagement (Kahne, Middaugh, and Allen, 2015;
Wells, 2015; Gainous and Wagner, 2014). Citizens must be able to access information from
diverse digital platforms, including news sites, government sites, blogs, and social media
affordances. They must be able to evaluate the quality of the information derived from these
platforms even as the news environment becomes increasingly muddled and “fake news”
proliferates. In addition to monitoring information, the public now has the opportunity to
engage actively in the political process through new media venues. Citizens can contribute to
political discourse by providing eyewitness accounts of events, offering commentary, and
responding to posted content. They can create political sites and produce videos. They can
write, circulate, and sign petitions, and register their opinions via online polls. They can contact
public officials using digital platforms. They can recruit volunteers for community and political
activities, raise money for candidates and causes, and engage in protests.
People who acquire the competencies for digital civic engagement have an advantage in
their ability to express their views, participate in the political realm, and advocate for causes they
believe in. Incorporating digital media skills into the middle and high school civics, social
studies, and American government curriculum is a logical step in the making of competent
digital citizens. However, civics instruction for the making of good digital citizens lags behind
the shifts in the political environment (Owen, et al., 2011; Owen, 2014; Owen, Doom, and
Riddle, 2016). The situation is most dire for high need students, whose access to high quality
civics instruction is already constrained (Levinson, 2010). High need students may lose further
ground to more advantaged students in the acquisition of civic knowledge, skills, dispositions,
and behavior, thus widening the civic empowerment gap.
From Digital Natives to Digital Citizens
Today’s students are digital natives whose lives are fully immersed in technology
(Palfrey and Gasser, 2008; Mihailidis, 2014; Cunningham, 2007; Shah and Abraham, 2009).
Young people have more advanced technological skill sets than prior generations, and often are
more adept at using digital media than their teachers (Celano and Neuman, 2013; Hodgin, 2016).
Digital natives use new avenues to engage, as social media allow them to align the information
they gather from peer-to-peer networks to the political information they encounter through media
outlets that foster conversation and the spread of information (American Press Institute, 2015).
However, a gap exists between young people’s understanding of digital media as social tools and
their potential for gaining political information and taking part in civic life. Young people may
feel adequately equipped to cultivate social networks, but they must learn how these same
information sources and network platforms can be used for meaningful political engagement
(Mihailidis, 2014; Bennett, 2012).
Teachers can capitalize on students’ pervasive use of digital media by developing
pedagogies that foster digital citizenship skills. They can provide guidance to students as they
become critical consumers of online news and information about government and politics.
Teachers can provide direction to students about how to be responsible users of social media for
engaging in political dialogue and action. They can devise methods for adapting well-
established civics classroom activities, such as writing letters to public officials, to the digital
Digital Civics Instruction
An increasing number of schools are providing civic education that incorporates digital
instructional components, including schools serving high need students (Duncan and Murnane,
2011). At the same time, there are serious challenges to going beyond the use of digital tools to
look up information. Restricted resources, lack of technology-related teacher professional
development opportunities, limited instructional time for civics, the volatility of the media
environment, and uncertain outcomes can preclude schools from meaningfully integrating digital
media for the development of civic dispositions and skills into classes. All of these limiting
factors are particularly relevant for schools serving high need populations.
Research has demonstrated that influence of teacher quality on student performance is
more important than the race or class of students or school characteristics (Nye,
Konstantopoulos, and Hedges, 2004; Rivkin, Hanushek, and Kain, 2005). Some studies indicate
that high need students are disproportionately assigned to teachers with the least preparation, the
weakest academic records, and the fewest resources at their disposal (Murnane and Steele, 2007).
However, a 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Education suggests that although high income
students have greater access to effective math and English/language arts teachers than low
income students, the differences are small (Isenberg, et al., 2016). It may well be the case that
teacher quality is similar across schools, but resource restrictions and lack of technology-related
professional development opportunities are more likely to affect teachers of high need students.
Resource limitations inside and outside of school deter teachers of high need students
from incorporating digital technology into the curriculum for more than rudimentary purposes.
The digital divide in high need schools exacerbates the achievement gap between high need and
advantaged students (Celano and Neuman, 2013), and ultimately contributes to the civic
empowerment gap. Schools serving high need students find their resources are increasingly
stretched as the demand for technology in the classroom has grown. Technology in high need
schools is frequently outdated, not functioning, or completely lacking, even as the cost of digital
devices has dropped. High need schools frequently do not have the resources to hire technicians
to install and maintain equipment.
Even when high need students have access to technology in the classroom, their ability to
use computers for homework and school projects is often limited. Only a small percentage of
students from low-income families have computers or broadband connections in the home. They
must rely on technology in libraries, after-school programs, and other public facilities where time
limitations are imposed and the equipment can be outmoded and in disrepair from heavy use.
Teachers find it difficult to make assignments that involve using technology when students are
not able to complete them due to access issues (Duncan and Mernane, 2011; Celano and
Growing income inequality has exacerbated the gaps in access to educational and
technological resources between low-income and middle to high-income families. Students from
different socioeconomic groups often are isolated from one another as they live apart and attend
separate schools, resulting in divergent educational experiences and outcomes. Parents of more
advantaged students can provide technological devices in the home and enrichment opportunities
outside of school, such as camps and private lessons, which are not an option for high need
families (Duncan and Murnane, 2014).
Teachers almost universally believe that technology is essential in the classroom, but
lament the paucity of technology-related professional development opportunities (Hodgin, 2016).
A study conducted by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement
(CIRCLE) found that the overwhelming majority of instructors felt that teaching media literacy
is essential for students to become effective consumers and sharers of information in the political
sphere (Kawashima-Ginsberg, 2014b). However, just one-third of civics teachers felt “very
confident” in covering media literacy in the classroom. Teachers had difficulty finding quality
materials related to civics instruction involving digital media. Only 39% of respondents were
aware of good resources “to teach students how to sort fact from fiction in a digital age” (Godsay
and Sullivan, 2014: 6). 80% of teachers indicated that they were at least somewhat interested in
having more resources for teaching media literacy (Kawashima-Ginsberg, 2014a). Digital civics
instruction, much like the digital environment itself, becomes quickly outdated. It can be
difficult for educators to keep pace with shifting trends. Thus, as Hodgin suggests, “Educational
efforts that combine digital literacy development alongside of civic learning are key to fully
preparing youth for participation in the digital age” (2016b: 3).
Educators must ensure that pedagogic novelties do not compromise students’ learning of
the basics about Constitutional principles, government institutions, and American political
processes, such as voting. Instructors increasingly find themselves competing with technological
devices for students’ attention. They are challenged to develop instructional strategies that keep
students engaged with the lesson. There is some reluctance among educators to depart from
well-established pedagogies and adopt digital approaches. As Duncan and Munane observe,
“even hard-working, well-intentioned educators (like most adults) are slow to embrace change”
(2014: 2). Integrating technology in the classroom requires teachers to devote greater time to
assisting individual students working independently on devices. With limited time available for
civic education, teachers are more inclined to use pedagogies that involve the entire class more
inclusively (Hodgin, 2016a).
The nature of the online environment also poses unique challenges for teachers wishing
to incorporate digital practices into their classrooms. While the digital communication offers
students the opportunity to become acquainted with multiple issue perspectives and to participate
in the civic discourse, the “anything goes” atmosphere can be difficult to navigate. Rather than
exposure to civil discussions of differing viewpoints, students can become enmeshed in “echo
chambers,” exposed to misinformation, and involved in vitriolic exchanges that can escalate into
conflicts. Students can be put off if their efforts at online engagement do not produced the
desired response or gain sufficient attention (Hodgin, 2016b; Kahne, Hodgin, and Eidman-
Aadahl, 2016). In addition, teachers may face push-back from parents are reluctant to have their
children exposed to unfamiliar audiences online.
In light of these observations about the potential gap in access to digital instruction in the
civics classroom, this study tests the following hypotheses:
H1: Teachers of high need students are less likely to incorporate digital technology into
the civics classroom than teachers of students who are not high need.
H2: The gap in technology use in the civics classroom between teachers of high need and
non-high students will be greater for active learning approaches than for accessing
This study examines the research questions empirically using data collected in
conjunction with the James Madison Legacy Project (JMLP), a nationwide program designed to
provide professional development (PD) to teachers of high need students.
The program is
implemented by the Center for Civic Education (CCE), and is based on the We the People: The
Citizen and the Constitution (WTP) curriculum.
The data used in this study were collected on the first cohort of teachers taking part in the
JMLP during the 2015-16 academic year. Middle and high school civics, social studies, and
American government teachers took part in the JMLP. Surveys measuring teachers’ civic
knowledge, instructional goals, teaching methods, and self-efficacy were administered online
before and after they received the JMLP PD. The surveys were proctored to preclude teachers
from looking up the answers to the knowledge items. The present analysis employs pretest data
collected prior to the JMLP intervention. A total of 562 JMLP teachers and an additional 53
control teachers who did not go through the JMLP program took the pretest for a total of 700
survey respondents. The control teachers are from the same population as the JMLP teachers,
and there are no statistically significant differences in civic knowledge, instructional goals,
teaching methods, and self-efficacy between the JMLP and the control group on the pretest
(Owen, Schroeder, and Riddle, 2016). Therefore, all 700 respondents are included in the
The majority of the schools enrolled in the JMLP serve high need students. The U.S.
Department of education defines high need students as “students at risk of educational failure or
The JMLP is funded by a Supporting Effective Educator Development (SEED) grant from the U.S. Department of
Education. James Madison Legacy Project: Professional Development for Teachers of Civics and Government.
PR/Award Number U367D150010
otherwise in need of special assistance and support . . .”
The JMLP focused on recruiting
teachers from schools identified as high need based on their Title I
status and/or whether 30% or
more of their students were: 1) provided with free or reduced cost lunches, 2) living in poverty,
3) homeless or in foster care, 4) disconnected or migrant youth, 5) incarcerated youth, 6) served
by rural local educational agencies, 7) minority students, 8) English Language Learners, 9) far
below grade level, and 10) students with disabilities. However, a number of teachers
participating in the JMLP were not associated with schools meeting any of the high need criteria.
As a result, we are able to make a comparison between teachers of high need and non-high need
students. The data set includes 619 teachers of high need students and 81 teachers from schools
that do not serve high need student populations. Almost all of the participating schools (97%)
are public. The schools are evenly divided between rural (33%), suburban (32%), and urban
The teachers were asked questions about the specific pedagogies they employed in their
civics classes, activities they incorporate into their courses, and their integration of digital media
into the curriculum. Pedagogies, activities, and use of digital media are the dependent variables
in the study. Whether or not a teacher instructs in a high need school or not is the main
independent variable of interest. Controls for grade level, the number of years a teacher has been
in the classroom, and teacher’s highest level of education are taken into account in the analysis.
U.S. Department of Education. (2016). Definitions. “High-needs students.” http://www.ed.gov/race-top/district-
Meeting the provision of the U.S. Department of Education’s Title I program for Improving the Academic
Achievement of the Disadvantaged. http://www2.ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/esea02/pg1.html
Teachers in the study indicated if they regularly used thirteen pedagogies that are
classified into three groups: 1) basic pedagogies, 2) research, and 3) projects. Basic pedagogies
consist of lecture, Socratic Method, reading out loud, reading silently, class discussion, group
discussion, and homework. The research category takes into account Internet and library
research. Projects distinguishes between digital projects and individual, group, and class projects
without a digital component.
The respondents were asked to indicate activities that they incorporate in their classes.
The activities are divided into three categories: 1) digital activities, 2) classroom activities, and
3) community activities. Digital activities include having students use social media in their class
work and using digital tools to create civics materials, newsletters, videos, or websites.
Classroom activities consist of mock elections, moot court, simulated congressional hearings,
student speeches, debates, participating in a civics competition, putting on a play, and designing
and/or taking part in a survey. Community activities involve students writing and/or circulating
a petition, writing letters to government officials, meeting with government officials or
community leaders, attending community meetings, and taking field trips to government or
historic sites. All of these community activities occur offline.
The survey asked the teachers if they used social media as part of their civics instruction.
These items were placed into two categories based on whether social media was used primarily
to gain information or for engagement. The information variables asked teachers to indicate if
they have students access online news sites, use government websites and other e-government
resources, and use campaign websites, such as political party and candidate sites. The
engagement items include having students use social media to contact government officials using
digital tools, share their thoughts, ideas, and other classwork via a digital platform, create social
media posts, such as posts to Facebook, Twitter, or other platforms, and create and post video
The study distinguishes between teachers who work in high need schools and those who
do not. The variable is coded 1 for high need school and 2 for non-high need school. Some
caveats about the use of the high need/non-high need distinction between the schools in this
analysis are in order. The teachers of high need students come from schools that encompass the
qualifying criteria identified by the U.S. Department of Education. They all come from Title I
school districts, and 30% or more of the students receive a free or reduced cost lunch. The
majority of the high need schools have a high percentage of students living in poverty and
minority students. The small number of non-high need schools in the sample does not represent
the range of schools in this category. They are more likely to reflect schools serving lower to
middle rather than higher socioeconomic status constituencies even if they do not meet the
formal criteria for being classified as high need. There are no elite schools in the sample. The
disparity in the sample size between the high need (n=619) and non-high need (n=81) teacher
groups, while large, should not be an issue in the analyses presented here (see Crone and Finlay,
Three additional independent variables are included in the analysis—teachers’
instructional grade level, their years of teaching, and their highest degree. 42% of the teachers in
the study taught middle school (coded as 1) and 58% taught high school (coded as 2). In a small
number of cases, teachers instructed both middle and high school students; these teachers were
classified as high school educators. The number of years of teaching experience was recorded
for each respondent. The average number of years in the classroom was 11.7 years and the
median was 10 years.
Finally, a measure of the teachers’ level of education—the highest degree
they have earned—is taken into account. 40% of the teachers have a bachelor’s degree (coded as
1) and 60% have a graduate degree (coded as 2). The vast majority of the teachers with graduate
degrees hold a Masters. Less than 2% of teachers in the study have law or doctoral degrees.
The analysis begins by comparing the percentage of teachers of high need and non-high
need students who incorporate the three types of pedagogies, the three categories of activities,
and the two forms of digital media use in their classrooms. Separate analyses are performed for
middle and high school teachers. Next, I perform binary logistic regression analyses to
determine if school type, grade level, and teacher factors are significant predictors of the
pedagogy and activities items that involve digital technology and all of the digital media use
indicators. The independent variables in the logistic regression analyses are high need/non-high
need school, grade level (middle or high school), years of teaching experience, and teachers’
highest degree earned (bachelor’s/graduate degree).
The pedagogies analysis examines the extent to which traditional and digital instructional
methods are employed by teachers of high need and non-high need students. As Table 1
demonstrates, there are few discernable differences in basic pedagogies employed in high need
and non-high need classrooms in middle and high school. Teachers of both types of students are
highly inclined to employ established instructional strategies that include lecture, the Socratic
The analysis was replicated using the number of years teaching civics. The trends remained consistent with the
findings using the number of years of overall teaching experience.
Models incorporating variables for teachers who instruct special populations, including English language learners,
adult learners, incarcerated students, and special education studies were run. These variables were not statistically
significant in the models.
Method, reading out loud, reading silently, class discussion, group discussion, and homework.
The only statistically significant finding is that a higher percentage of middle school teachers of
high need students (88%) lecture their students than teachers of non-high need students (76%).
Pedagogy Regularly Used in Classroom
by Grade Level and High/Non-High Need Students
Reading Out Loud
Teachers are much more inclined to have their students conduct Internet research (85%)
than library research (41%). A smaller percentage of high need students (81%) than low need
students (96%) conduct research online in their civics classes; the difference is statistically
significant (p≤.01). The gap is similar for library research, with only 38% of teachers of high
need students using the library compared to 52% of their non-high need counterparts, and is
statistically significant (p≤.01). The findings are more pronounced for middle school students
than for high school students. Internet research is part of the civics curriculum for 80% of the
classes of high need middle school students compared to 95% of the classes of students who are
not high need. Library research is conducted by 37% of high need middle school students as
opposed to 53% of non-high need students. The gap favoring non-high need students exists at
the high school level, but it is not statistically significant for either type of research.
Teachers were asked if they regularly had students work on digital projects as well as
individual, group, and class projects that did not have a digital component. (See Table 1.) The
gap in the propensity for teachers of high need students (51%) and low need students (71%) to
use digital projects as an instructional pedagogy is large and statistically significant (p≤.01). The
difference in assigning digital projects is large and statistically significant (p≤.01) for middle
school students, as 48% of high need teachers regularly make use of digital projects compared to
77% of non-high need teachers. While there is a nine percentage point gap at the high school
level, the difference is not statistically significant. Middle school teachers of high need students
are less likely to assign individual or group projects than non-high need teachers. The difference
approaches statistical significance. At the high school level, teachers whose students are not
high need are more likely to assign group and class projects than teachers of high need students.
Binary logistic regression analyses were run for the dependent variables of Internet
research and digital projects. As Table 2 indicates, the high need school variable is the strongest
predictor of Internet research and whether students were assigned digital projects in their civics
class. In each equation, the relationship is statistically significant at p≤.01. High school students
were significantly more likely to do Internet research than middle school students. The teacher-
specific independent variables—years teaching and highest degree earned—are not significant
predictors of Internet research. However, teachers holding advanced degrees are more likely to
assign digital projects than those with a bachelor’s degree. Grade level and years of teaching
experience are not statistically significant predictors of digital projects.
Binary Logistic Regression Analyses of Internet Research and Digital Projects
High Need School
Cox & Snell R2
% Correctly Classified
ap≤.01; bp≤.05; cp≤.10
In general, teachers of high need students are less likely to incorporate activities
involving digital media into their classrooms than teachers of students who are not high need.
Social media-related activities were introduced into 39% of high need classrooms compared to
47% of non-high need classrooms, although the difference is not statistically significant. 34% of
teachers of high need students and 51% of non-high need teachers had their students use digital
tools to create civics materials, newsletters, videos, or websites. The difference is statistically
significant (p≤.01). As Table 3 indicates, there is no meaningful difference in social media
activities for middle school students. However, social media activities were incorporated in 47%
of high need high school classrooms and in 63% of classrooms of non-high need students, a
statistically significant difference of sixteen percentage points. There are significant differences
in the use of digital tools to create civics materials between teachers in high need and non-high
need schools at both the middle and high school levels. 32% of high need middle school
teachers had students create digital civics materials compared to 48% of non-high need students’
teachers. Similarly, 38% of high need and 54% of non-high need teachers incorporated making
digital civics materials into their classrooms.
A higher percentage of non-high need teachers incorporated in-class activities into the
civics curriculum than high need instructors. In middle school, there are statistically significant
differences favoring non-high need students for holding mock elections, moot court, and
simulated congressional hearings as well as for taking part in a civics competition. The gap
between the high need and non-high need conditions is especially stark for moot court, with 8%
of teachers of high need students holding moot court compared to 40% of teachers whose
students are not high need. Congressional hearings were held in 10% of high need classrooms
versus 42% of non-high need classrooms. The difference is somewhat smaller for holding mock
elections and civics competitions. The disparities between high need and non-high need
classrooms in holding mock elections and moot court persist at the high school level. 39% of
high need teachers hold mock elections compared to 56% of non-high need teachers. Moot court
is a curricular activity for 22% of teachers of high need students and 35% of teachers in non-high
need schools. Finally, high need teachers are less inclined to have students give speeches in
class than non-high need teachers in both middle and high school.
In contrast to the findings for digital and class activities, there are few significant
differences between the high and non-high need groups for community activities. High need
middle school classes are somewhat less likely than non-high need classes to meet with public
officials. Writing letters to public officials is less often part of the high school civics curriculum
for high need students (48%) than for non-high need students (61%).
Activities by Grade Level and High/Non-High Need Students
Use Social Media
Letters to Officials
Logistic regression was performed for the two activities that involve digital media—
using social media for class activities and creating civics materials using digital tools. As Table
4 indicates, teaching in a high need school is not a statistically significant predictor of using
social media in the classroom. The largest coefficient is associated with high school grade level;
the relationship is statistically significant (p≤.01). Teachers who have a graduate degree are
more likely to have students engage in social media-related classroom activities than those with a
bachelor’s degree. Being a teacher of high need students is the strongest indicator of creating
digital civics content. The relationship is statistically significant at p≤.01. Having a graduate
degree is also a significant predictor (p≤.01) of creating digital materials in the classroom.
Binary Logistic Regression Analyses of Activities
That Use Social Media and Digital Materials
Use Social Media
High Need School
Cox & Snell R2
% Correctly Classified
ap≤.01; bp≤.05; cp≤.10
Use of Digital Media
Disparities in the use of digital media in the civics classroom are apparent for accessing
information and engagement. The differences between the high need and non-high need
conditions are most evident for middle school students. Lower percentages of high need
teachers use digital media in the classroom for accessing information than non-high need
teachers, a finding that is consistent across all three variables. Over 80% of teachers make use of
online news in the classroom. Teachers in high need middle schools (79%) are significantly less
likely to incorporate online news into the curriculum than teachers in non-high need middle
schools (92%). While a higher percentage of high need teachers than non-high need teachers at
the high school level have students use online news in the classroom, the difference is not
statistically significant. Using government and campaign websites is more evident in non-high
need civics classes than high need classes. The finding is most obvious for the use of campaign
websites in middle school, where there is a twenty percentage point difference between teachers
in high need (25%) and non-high need schools (45%). The difference is statistically significant
at p≤.01. The disparity in the use of campaign websites is high school is twelve percentage
points, and approaches statistical significance.
Digital Media Use in Classroom by High/Low Need Students
Teachers in high need and non-high middle schools differ in their propensity to have
students use digital media to engage with others. (See Table 5.) 47% of high need teachers in
middle schools have their students share their thoughts, ideas, and other classwork via a digital
platform compared to 69% of non-high need teachers. 10% of high need middle school teachers
and 24% of non-high need teachers have students create social media posts, such as posts to
Facebook, Twitter, or other platforms. 9% of teachers in high need middle schools have students
contact government officials using digital tools as opposed to 24% in non-high need schools. All
of these differences are statistically significant at p≤.01. Similar differences exist for creating
and posting video content online (significant at p≤.05). The only significant variation at the
high school level is for contacting officials. 32% of high need and 49% of non-high need
teachers have students contact public officials using digital platforms.
Logistic regression analyses were run for all of the digital media use variables. Table 6
depicts the findings for the accessing information items. Teachers in non-high need schools are
significantly more likely to use government and campaign websites than teachers in high need
schools. However, the high need school variable is not a significant predictor for online news.
Grade level is the strongest indicator for all of the accessing information variables, as high
school teachers are more likely than middle school teachers to have students use online news,
government websites, and campaign websites. Teachers with a graduate degree are more
inclined to have students use digital media for access information than teachers with a bachelor’s
degree. Years of teaching experience has no influence on the dependent variables.
Binary Logistic Regression Analyses of Digital Media Use for Accessing Information
High Need School
Cox & Snell R2
% Correctly Classified
Table 7 displays the findings for the use of digital media in the civics classroom to
engage with others. High need school is a statistically significant predictor in the expected
direction of contacting officials, sharing ideas and content online, and posting social media
content. The relationship between high need school and creating and posting videos is not
statistically significant. High school grade level is the strongest indicator of contacting officials,
social media, and posting videos, and is statistically significant at p≤.01 in all of these equations.
Having an advanced degree is significantly related to posting videos, but is not significant for the
other engagement variables. Years of teaching experience has no association with any of the
measures of digital engagement.
Binary Logistic Regression Analyses of Digital Media Use for Engagement
High Need School
Cox & Snell R2
Discussion and Conclusion
The foregoing analysis supports the hypothesis that teachers of high need students are
less likely to incorporate digital technology into the civics classroom than teachers of students
who are not high need. The findings are statistically significant and in the expected direction for
all of the technology-related pedagogy variables (having students conduct Internet research and
work on digital projects), activities variables (having students engage in class activities using
social media and create digital civics materials), and all of the digital media use items. Teachers
of high need students are not as inclined to have their students access online news, government
websites, and campaign websites as their counterparts whose students are not high need. The
civic education experience of high need students also is less likely to include digital active
engagement exercises, such as contacting officials via digital platforms, sharing content online,
using social media to engage with others, and posting civics-related videos.
The disparities between the high need and non-high need conditions generally, although
not universally, are more apparent at the middle school as opposed to high school level. This
trend may reflect the fact that middle school social studies often is given lower priority than the
high school curriculum (Vontz and Nixon, 1999; Voight and Torney-Purta, 2013). For high need
schools, the middle school civics curriculum may be even less of a priority than in more
advantaged schools, and integrating digital instructional methods may be more difficult to
Evidence supporting the hypothesis that the gap in the integration of technology in high
need versus non-high need classrooms will be greater for activities and engaged learning
exercises than for accessing information is less compelling. The gaps between technology use in
high need and non-high need schools persist across the board. The vast majority of teachers—
over 80%—have their students access information via the Internet. However, there is a
significant difference in the percentage of high need versus non-high need teachers who assign
Internet research. The differences in accessing information from online news, government, and
campaign websites based on school type are substantial. Disparities in the use of digital
technologies for civics activities and engagement are similarly vast.
Studies have suggested that teachers tend to fall back on the pedagogies with which they
have experience, especially when faced with the types of challenges presented by the
incorporation of technology in the classroom (Munane and Steele, 2007; Hodgin, 2016b). There
are few differences in the traditional pedagogies employed by teachers of high need and non-
high need students in middle or high school. The one significant finding—that teachers of high
need students are more inclined to lecture than their non-high need counterparts—points to high
need teachers employing more passive learning approaches in their classrooms. While there are
no significant variations in engagement in community activities based on school type, teachers of
high need students are not as inclined to have their students engage in class activities, such as
mock elections, moot court, simulated congressional hearings, and speeches, as their non-high
need counterparts. These types of activities require greater effort and commitment to
successfully implement than lecturing and other more passive pedagogies.
The results of the logistic regression analyses provide additional support for the
contention that teachers in high need schools are less likely to employ digital technology in the
classroom than teachers of non-high need students. The school type variable is statistically
significant in eight of the eleven equations, and is the strongest predictor of Internet research,
digital projects, digital materials, and sharing work online. Grade level also is an important
predictor, as high school teachers were more inclined to incorporate digital learning into the
curriculum than middle school teachers. Teachers holding an advanced degree were more
inclined than those with a bachelor’s degree to use digital projects, social media projects, digital
materials creation, online news use, and posting videos in their classes. Years of teaching
experience is a weak and non-statistically significant variable in every equation.
It is useful to take into account the fact that the non-high need schools in the sample,
although they do not meet the designated high need criteria, are from lower to middle-income
school districts and do not include elite institutions. It is plausible that the differences in the
incorporation of digital technology that we find based on the school characteristics in this study
may be amplified if schools from high socioeconomic status districts or elite institutions are
The evidence here suggests that the inequities in civic education that contribute to the
civic empowerment gap are growing in the digital age. Students in high need schools are not
receiving civics instruction that keeps pace with the augmented requirements of engaged
citizenship. The challenges for schools that are resource strapped are difficult to address. Still,
there is a compelling need for schools to provide and maintain the technological affordances
conducive to digital civic education. Teacher professional development that prepares civic
educators to integrate digital literacy and civics basics is essential.
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