It seems there’s always something to celebrate at COM, and the 2019 fall semester marked one particularly noteworthy achievement  PhD candidate, Sarah Krongard, passed her dissertation defense and became the college’s first doctoral recipient.

Sarah arrived at Boston University four years ago with an extensive and impressive resume, already established as a leader in media education with degrees from Harvard University and Wellesley College. Her early passion for driving social change through education initiatives influenced her career path, ultimately leading her to explore research opportunities in the Emerging Media Studies program.

COM spoke with Sarah about her interests in the intersection between media and education, why she chose COM, and where she’s headed next — with a PhD title now following her name.

What originally sparked your interest in exploring the intersection between media and education?

Both media and education have always been passions of mine.  Early in my career, I participated in education reform initiatives, particularly in support of social, emotional, and civic learning in K12 schools. I helped to spearhead campaigns that empowered young people as agents for change in schools and communities. Simultaneously, I was fascinated by the power of media to propel social change and majored in Cinema and Media Studies at Wellesley College. I wanted to merge these passions to understand the ways in which media could be used to amplify voices, promote prosocial development, and drive social change. To this end, I knew I needed to merge my passions and learn more about the potential for media to support both formal and informal learning opportunities.

How would you describe the relationship between emerging technologies and youth development?

I would describe the relationship as, in a word, complex! Emerging technologies offer young people unprecedented access to information, opportunities, and connections. The creative and cognitive potential is overwhelming and exciting, and at the same time, this vast and evolving media landscape can be daunting. For example, embedded within these digital engagements are human emotions, interpersonal expectations, and social norms, which can be particularly challenging during adolescence, as young people navigate their identities and relationships with others. Furthermore, there are dimensions of many emerging technologies that may not be immediately obvious during casual use. For example, connected virtual spaces may seem to be purely for entertainment and social sharing, but these are commercial environments, where clicks, attention, and users serve as currency.  Further, while algorithmic culture may seem objective, these tools are developed by humans and laden with biases that can then propel injustices. There are so many layers, and we all – not just youth – need to constantly question and interrogate these tools and their consequences. And while the technical uses of new technologies may feel seamless for many young people, the interpretations of these contexts, content, and interactions require skills for critical analysis. To this end, media literacy is necessary for effective engagement in today’s digital world.

When designing learning experiences and curriculum, what are the most important things you keep in mind?

I think it is most important to begin by fully articulating the learning goals.  It can be easier and more appealing to begin with learning activities, but the goals have to come first in order to understand what each experience is trying to achieve. Then, I brainstorm how students can demonstrate their acquisition of knowledge; what activities would allow them to perform their understandings? I then think about what technologies could help to facilitate this, considering the fact that students have different learning preferences; technologies can offer a variety of entry points to ensure all students can engage effectively with the learning material. I also try to ensure that students have a voice in the learning process; for example, it can be helpful for students to participate in the development of assessment criteria which can help make evaluation feel more authentic. Overall, in learning design, I prioritize empathy, voice, and connection. I constantly try to think about the student perspective and allow space for their voices.

You received your Ed.M in Technology, Innovation and Education at Harvard University, and then served as an executive director at Massachusetts ASCD and later as an instructional designer at Lesley University. What led you to the PhD Emerging Media Studies program here at COM?

I was driven to a PhD because I wanted to acquire a substantial knowledge base in media studies and the research skills necessary to fully evaluate the effectiveness of media education interventions.  I knew I needed formal training in a variety of research methods, and I searched for a program that focused specifically on media’s role in society, particularly with an eye toward the future, as this field is constantly changing. I also appreciated that EMS was interdisciplinary, as I hoped to integrate ideas, perspectives, and approaches from multiple fields of study.

Can you tell us a bit about your dissertation, and what you discovered through your research?

My dissertation examines the implications of contemporary over-the-top, or Internet-enabled, television.  More specifically, I aimed to better understand the phenomenon of binge-watching and its role in our civic and social worlds. In a 2016 study I conducted with Dr. Jacob Groshek, we found that binge-watching positively contributes to political engagement, both online and offline, regardless of the content consumed. This was an exciting and somewhat unexpected finding that I hoped to explore in more depth. For my dissertation research, I retested and built upon these findings, considering the experience of talking about television, as well as the role of empathy. My findings suggest that binge-watching, indeed, positively shapes political participation and discourse, and interestingly, talking about binge-watched television is especially powerful as a predictor for political participation, as well as a predictor for empathy. In other words, the more individuals discuss the shows they binged, the more politically engaged and empathic they are, which is an exciting, prosocial dimension of the streaming television landscape.  I hope to further explore this topic in future work.

After four years in the doctoral program, what are your most valuable takeaways?

From a content perspective, I feel that the doctoral program provided me with a strong training in both theory and research methods. But perhaps more importantly, EMS showed me the importance of a respectful, collaborative, and kind learning community. I consistently felt supported, encouraged, and heard by the faculty and my peers, which I think is extremely empowering for a doctoral student.  This positive working environment made the teaching, learning, and research experiences not only more pleasant but also more successful.  I am truly grateful to have been a part of the EMS team.

Do you imagine yourself always staying in the world of academia? Or are there other areas in the education space where you’d hope to make an impact?

Overall, I am interested in using research to help foster a more empowered and media-savvy world.  Currently, I am investigating teaching and research opportunities, and I am also in the process of establishing a media education organization to help K16 students, parents, and educators effectively interpret, use, and create media and new technologies.

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