Confronting the Challenges of a Participatory Culture (Part Six)

Today’s post wraps up my list of the eleven social skills and cultural competencies which I argue we should be incorporating into our educational practices with transmedia navigation, networking, and negotiation. Next time, I will wrap up with some recommendations about what this might all mean for parents, schools, and after school programs. We haven’t received many responses here from readers but I am very pleased to see localized discussions of some of these issues start to spring up on a number of other blogs. Do let me know what you think about some of the issues raised here?


Transmedia Navigation — the ability to deal with the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities

In an era of convergence, consumers become hunters and gatherers pulling together information from multiple sources to form a new synthesis. Storytellers exploit this potential for transmedia storytelling; advertisers talk about branding as depending on multiple touch points; networks seek to exploit their intellectual properties across many different channels. As they do so, we encounter the same information, the same stories, the same characters and worlds across multiple modes of representation. Transmedia stories at the most basic level are stories told across multiple media. At the present time, the most significant stories tend to flow across multiple media platforms.

Consider, for example, the Pokémon phenomenon. As Buckingham and Sefton-Green explain, “Pokémon is something you do, not just something you read or watch or consume.” Several hundred different Pokémon exist, each with multiple evolutionary forms and a complex set of rivalries and attachments. There is no one text for information about these various species. Rather, the child assembles information from various media, with the result that each child knows something his or her friends do not. As a result, the child can share his or her expertise with others. As Buckingham and Sefton-Green explain, “Children may watch the television cartoon, for example, as a way of gathering knowledge that they can later utilize in playing the computer game or in trading cards, and vice versa. The fact that information can be transferred between media (or platforms) of course adds to the sense that Pokémon is unavoidable. In order to be a master, it is necessary to ‘catch’ all its various manifestations” .

Such information feeds back into social interactions, including face-to-face contact within local communities and mediated contact online with a more dispersed population. These children’s properties offer multiple points of entry, enable many different forms of participation, and facilitate the interests of multiple consumers.

One dimension of this phenomenon points us back to collective intelligence, given that what Ito calls “hypersociability” emerges as children trade notes and exchange artifacts associated with their favorite television shows. A second dimension of this phenomenon points us to what Kress calls multimodality. Consider a simple example. The same character (say, Spider-Man) may look different when featured in an animated video than in a video game, or a printed comic book, or as a molded plastic action figure, or in a live-action movie. How then do readers learn to recognize this character across all of these different media? How do they link what they have learned about the character in one context to what they learned in a completely different media channel? How do they determine which of these representations are linked (part of the same interpretation of the character) and which are separate (separate versions of the character that are meant to be understood autonomously)? These are the kinds of conceptual problems youth encounter regularly in their participation in contemporary media franchises.

Kress stresses that modern literacy requires the ability to express ideas across a broad range of different systems of representation and signification (including “words, spoken or written; image, still and moving; musical…3D models…”). Each medium has its own affordances, its own systems of representation, its own strategies for producing and organizing knowledge. Participants in the new media landscape learn to navigate these different and sometimes conflicting modes of representation and to make meaningful choices about the best ways to express their ideas in each context. All of this sounds more complicated than it is. As the New Media Consortium’s 2005 report on twenty-first century literacy suggests, “Young people adept at interpreting meaning in sound, music, still and moving images, and interactive components not only seem quite able to cope with messages that engage several of these pathways at once, but in many cases prefer them.”

Kress argues that this tendency toward multimodality changes how we teach composition, because students must learn to sort through a range of different possible modes of expression, determine which is most effective in reaching their audience and communicating their message, and to grasp which techniques work best in conveying information through this channel. Kress advocates moving beyond teaching written composition to teaching design literacy as the basic expressive competency of the modern era. This shift does not displace printed texts with images, as some advocates of visual literacy have suggested. Rather, it develops a more complex vocabulary for communicating ideas that requires students to be equally adept at reading and writing through images, texts, sounds, and simulations. The filmmaker George Lucas offers an equally expansive understanding of what literacy might mean today:

We must teach communication comprehensively in all its forms. Today we work with the written or spoken word as the primary form of communication. But we also need to understand the importance of graphics, music, and cinema, which are just as powerful and in some ways more deeply intertwined with young people’s culture. We live and work in a visually sophisticated world, so we must be sophisticated in using all the forms of communication, not just the written word.

In short, new media literacies involve the ability to think across media, whether understood at the level of simple recognition (identifying the same content as it is translated across different modes of representation), or at the level of narrative logic (understanding the connections between story communicated through different media), or at the level of rhetoric (learning to express an idea within a single medium or across the media spectrum). Transmedia navigation involves both processing new types of stories and arguments that are emerging within a convergence culture and expressing ideas in ways that exploit the opportunities and affordances represented by the new media landscape. In other words, it involves the ability to both read and write across all available modes of expression.

What Might Be Done

Students learn about multimodality and transmedia navigation when they take time to focus on how stories change as they move across different contexts of production and reception, as they give consideration to the affordances and conventions of different media, and as they learn to create using a range of different media tools.

• Students in literature classes are asked to take a familiar fairy tale, myth, or legend and identify how this story has been retold across different media, different historical periods, and different national contexts. Students search for recurring elements as well as signs of the changes that occur as the story are retold in a new context.

• French language students in New York recreate characters from various French literary works in the best-selling video game The Sims 2. Students then tell new stories by playing out the interactions between different characters inside the game world. Characters are projected onto a screen in front of the class for students to do live performances with their characters. see http://www.mylenecatel.com

• An exercise developed by MIT’s New Media Literacies asks students to tell the same story across a range of different media. For example, they script dialogue using instant messenger; they storyboard using Powerpoint and images appropriated from the Internet; they might later reenact their story and record it using a camera or video camera; they might illustrate it by drawing pictures. As they do so, they are encouraged to think about what each new tool contributes to their overall experience of the story as well as what needs to remain the same for viewers to recognize the same characters and situations across these various media.

Networking — the ability to search for, synthesize, and disseminate information

In a world in which knowledge production is collective and communication occurs across an array of different media, the capacity to network emerges as a core social skill and cultural competency. A resourceful student is no longer one who personally possesses a wide palette of resources and information from which to choose, but rather, one who is able to successfully navigate an already abundant and continually changing world of information. Increasingly, students achieve this by tapping into a myriad of socially based search systems, including the following popular sites.

• Google.com: At the core of the now ubiquitous Google search engine is an algorithm that analyzes the links between websites to measure which sites different website creators consider valuable or relevant to particular topics.

• Amazon.com: Suggests books a customer may like on the basis of patterns gleaned from analyzing similar customers.

• Movielens.org: Predicts if a particular user will like a given movie based on preferences from similar users.

• Ebay.com: Creates a complex reputation system between users to establish trust for a given seller.

• Epinions.com: Establishes reliability of a given product on the basis of previous consumer experiences

• last.fm: Generates personalized radio stations on the basis of correlations between similar listeners’ music preferences.

• Del.icio.us: Suggests relevant websites for a given term on the basis of other users’ bookmarking habits

• Answers.google.com: Offers a mass collective-intelligence marketplace in which users can offer money to anyone worldwide who may have answers to their questions.

• Citeulike.org: Academic citation manager that both helps users locate relevant articles on the basis of other users’ citation management and allows users to flag important information about given articles, such as inaccuracies.

• Getoutfoxed.com: Allows trusted friends and users to provide annotations and meta-discussion about a given website that a user might be browsing, such as warnings about inaccurate content.

• RSS: Intelligently aggregates and consolidates content produced by friends and trusted sources to help efficiently share resources across networks.

Business guru Tim O’Reilly has coined the term, “Web 2.0″ to refer to how the value of these new networks depends not on the hardware or the content, but on how they tap the participation of large-scale social communities, who become invested in collecting and annotating data for other users. Some of these platforms require the active participation of consumers, relying on a social ethos based on knowledge-sharing. Others depend on automated analysis of collective behavior. In both cases, though, the value of the information depends on one’s understanding of how it is generated and one’s analysis of the social and psychological factors that shape collective behavior.

In such a world, students can no longer rely on expert gatekeepers to tell them what is worth knowing. Instead, they must become more reflective of how individuals know what they know and how they assess the motives and knowledge of different communities. Students must be able to identify which group is most aware of relevant resources and choose a search system matched to the appropriate criteria: people with similar tastes; similar viewpoints; divergent viewpoints; similar goals; general popularity; trusted, unbiased, third-party assessment, and so forth. If transmedia navigation involves learning to understand the relations between different media systems, networking involves the ability to navigate across different social communities.

Schools are beginning to teach youth how to search out valuable resources through such activities as “webquests.” In the last ten years, webquests, that is, activities designed by teachers “in which some or all of the information that learners interact with comes from resources on the Internet”, have exploded in popularity. In a typical webquest, students are given a scenario that requires them to extract information or images from a series of websites and then compile their findings into a final report. For example, students might be told they are part of a team of experts brought in to determine the most appropriate method for disposing of a canister of nuclear waste. They are provided a series of websites relevant to waste disposal and asked to present a final proposal to the teacher. For many educators, webquests provide a practical means for using new media to broaden students’ exposure to different perspectives and provide fresh curricular materials. Rather than requiring textbook authors to develop “neutral” accounts of facts, teachers develop and share webquests by simply referencing existing web content. This both exposes students to a variety of opinions and trains them to synthesize their own perspectives. Yet, critics argue that most existing webquests fall short of fully exploiting the potential of social networks–both in terms of teaching students how to exploit networking to track down information and in terms of using networks to distribute the byproducts of their research.

Networking is only partially about identifying potential resources; it also involves a process of synthesis, during which multiple resources are combined to produce new knowledge. In discussing “The Wisdom of Crowds,” Suroweicki describes the conditions needed to receive the maximum benefit from collective intelligence:

There are four key qualities that make a crowd smart. It needs to be diverse, so that people are bringing different pieces of information to the table. It needs to be decentralized, so that no one at the top is dictating the crowd’s answer. It needs a way of summarizing people’s opinions into one collective verdict. And the people in the crowd need to be independent, so that they pay attention mostly to their own information, and not worrying about what everyone around them thinks.

Because new research processes depend on young people’s resourcefulness as networkers, students must understand how to sample and distill multiple, independent perspectives. Guinee and Eagleton have been researching how students take notes in the digital environment, discovering, to their dismay, that young people tend to copy large blocks of text rather than paraphrasing it for future reference. In the process, they often lose track of the distinction between their own words and material borrowed from other sources. They also skip over the need to assess any contradictions that might exist in the information they have copied. In short, they show only a minimal ability to create a meaningful synthesis from the resources they have gathered.

Networking also implies the ability to effectively tap social networks to disperse one’s own ideas and media products. Many youth are creating independent media productions, but only some learn how to be heard by large audiences. Increasingly, young artists are tapping networks of fans or gamers with the goal of reaching a broader readership for their work. They create within existing cultural communities not because they were inspired by a particular media property, but because they want to reach that property’s audience of loyal consumers. Young people are learning to link their websites together into web-rings in part to increase the visibility of any given site and also to increase the profile of the group. Teachers are finding that students are often more motivated if they can share what they create with a larger community. As students make their work accessible to a larger public, they face public consequences for what they write and, thus, they face the kind of ethical dilemmas we identified earlier in this document.

At the present time, social networking software is under fire from adult authorities, and federal law makes it more difficult to access and deploy these tools in the classroom. Yet, we would argue that schools have a different obligation–to help all children learn to use such tools effectively and to understand the value of networking as a means of acquiring knowledge and distributing information. Learning in a networked society involves understanding how networks work and how to deploy them for one’s own ends. It involves understanding the social and cultural contexts within which different information emerges, when to trust and when not to trust others to filter and prioritize relevant data, and how to use networks to get one’s own work out into the world and in front of a relevant and, with hope, appreciative public.

What Might Be Done

Educators take advantage of social networking when they link learners with others who might share their interests or when they encourage students to publish works produced to a larger public.

• Noel Jenkins, a British junior high teacher, created a geography unit in which he asks students to play the roles of city planners determining the most appropriate location for a new hospital in San Francisco. First, students familiarize themselves with the city layout by exploring satellites imagery of the city, navigating through three-dimensional maps and watching webcam streams from different parts of the city. Next, students are shown how to layer the data most relevant to their decision atop their city maps. Finally, students are asked to decide on a final location for their hospital and illustrate their maps with annotations justifying their decision. See http://www.juicygeography.co.uk/googleearthsanfran.htm

• Students use online storefront services such as cafepress.com and zazzle.com to share their artistic creations and personal hobbies with the general public. In many cases, young entrepreneurs are able to make up to $18,000 per year doing so.

• Educational Technology enthusiast Will Richardson used the community news application crispynews.com to create edbloggernews.crispynews.com, an online nexus for teachers to share educational resources with one another. Each participant helps to rank the different curricular suggestions using collaborative filtering technologies.

• Students at Grandview Elementary School publish an online newspaper and podcast their works. See http://www.grandviewlibrary.org/Fold/GrandviewNews.aspx

• Outraged by a House bill that would make illegal immigration a felony, more than 15,000 high school students in Los Angeles staged a protest coordinated primarily through Myspace.

Negotiation– the ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative sets of norms

The fluid communication within the new media environment brings together groups who otherwise might have lived segregated lives. Culture flows easily from one community to another. People online encounter conflicting values and assumptions, come to grips with competing claims about the meanings of shared artifacts and experiences. Everything about this process ensures that we will be provoked by cultural difference. Little about this process ensures that we will develop an understanding of the contexts within which these different cultural communities operate. When white suburban youth consume hip hop or Western youth consume Japanese manga, new kinds of cultural understanding can emerge. Yet, just as often, the new experiences are read through existing prejudices and assumptions. Culture travels easily, but the individuals who initially produced and consumed such culture are not always welcome everywhere it circulates.

Cyber communities often bring together groups that would have no direct contact in the physical world, resulting in heated conflicts about values or norms. Increasingly, critics are focusing on attempts to segregate membership or participation within online social groups. The massively multiplayer game World of Warcraft has faced controversies about whether the formation of groups for gay, lesbian, and bisexual players increased or decreased the likelihood of sexual harassment or whether the formation of groups based on English competency reflected the importance of communication skills in games or constituted a form of discrimination motivated by stereotypes about the ethics and actions of Asian players. The social networking software that has become so central to youth culture can function as a vehicle for expressing and strengthening a sense of affiliation, but it can also be deployed as a weapon of exclusion and, as a consequence, a tool for enforcing conformity to peer expectations.

In such a world, it becomes increasingly critical to help students acquire skills in understanding multiple perspectives, respecting and even embracing diversity of views, understanding a variety of social norms, and negotiating between conflicting opinions. Traditionally, media literacy has addressed these concerns by teaching children to read through media-constructed stereotypes about race, class, sex, ethnic, religious, and other forms of cultural differences. Such work remains valuable in that it helps students to understand the preconceptions that may shape their interactions, but it takes on added importance as young people themselves create media content, which may perpetuate stereotypes or contribute to misunderstandings. If, as writers such as Suroweicki and Levy suggest, the wisdom of the crowd depends on the opportunity for diverse and independent insights and other inputs, then these new knowledge cultures require participants to master new social skills that allow them to listen to and respond to a range of different perspectives. We are defining this skill negotiation in two ways: first, as the ability to negotiate between dissenting perspectives, and second, as the ability to negotiate through diverse communities.

The most meaningful interventions will start from a commitment to the process of deliberation and negotiation across differences. They depend on the development of skills in active listening and ethical principles designed to ensure mutual respect. Participants agree to some rules of conduct that allow them to talk through similarities and differences in perspective in ways that may allow for compromise, or at least agreeing to disagree. In either case, such an approach seems essential if we are going to learn to share knowledge and collaborate within an increasingly multicultural society. Such an approach does not ignore differences: diversity of perspective is essential if the collective intelligence process is to work well. Rather, it helps us to appreciate and value differences in background, experience, and resources as contributing to a richer pool of knowledge.

What Might Be Done

Educators can foster negotiation skills when they bring together groups from diverse backgrounds and provide them with resources and processes that insure careful listening and deeper communication.

• Researchers at Stanford University’s Center for Deliberative Democracy have been experimenting with new forms of civic engagement that depend on bringing people together from multiple backgrounds, exposing them to a broad array of perspectives, encouraging them to closely examine underlying claims and the evidence to support them, and creating a context in which they can learn from one another. Their initial reports suggest that this process generates powerful new perspectives on complex public policy issues, which gain the support of all parties involved. For some participants, the process strengthens their commitment to core beliefs and values. For others, it creates a context in which they are more open to alternative points of view and are able to find middle-ground positions. The project’s focus on the process of deliberation–and not simply on the outcome–represents a useful model to incorporate into the classroom. Rather than having traditional pro-con debates that depend on a fixed and adversarial relationship between participants, schools should focus more attention on group deliberation and decision-making processes and on mechanisms that ensure that all parties listen and learn from one another’s arguments.

• The Cultura project, developed by Furstenberg, links students in classrooms in North America and France. In the first phases, they are asked to complete a series of sentences (“A good parent is someone who…” ), address a series of questions (“What do you do if you see a mother strike a child in the grocery store?”), and define a range of core terms and concepts (“individualism”). The French students write in French, the American students in English, allowing both classes to practice their language skills and understand the links between linguistic and cultural practices. Students are then asked to compare the different ways that people living in different parts of the world responded to these questions, seeking insights into differences in values and lifestyles. For example, individualism in France is seen as a vice, equated with selfishness, whereas for Americans, individualism is seen as a virtue, closely linked with freedom. These interpretations unfold in online forums where students from both countries can respond to and critique attempts to characterize their attitudes. As the process continues, students are encouraged to upload their own media texts, which capture important aspects of their everyday lives, artifacts they believe speak to the larger cultural questions at the center of their discussions. In this way, they learn to see themselves and one another more clearly, and they come away with a greater appreciation of cultural difference.

• Rev. Denis Haak of the Ransom Fellowship has developed a series of probing questions and exercises intended to help Christians work through their responses to popular culture. Rejecting a culture war rhetoric based on sharp divisions, these exercises are intended to help Christians to identify and preserve their own values even as they come to understand “what non-believers believe.” The Discernment movement sees discussing popular culture as a means of making sense of competing and contradictory value systems that interact in contemporary society. For this process to work, the program encourages participants to learn how to “disagree agreeably,” how to stake out competing positions without personalizing the conflict.

• Schools historically have used the adversarial process of formal debate to encourage students to do research, construct arguments, and mobilize evidence. Yet, there is a danger that this process forces students to adopt fixed and opposing positions on complex problems. One might instead adopt a deliberative process in the classroom that encourages collaboration and discussion across different positions, and thus creates a context for opposing parties to learn from one another and reformulate their positions accordingly.

• Sites such as Wikipedia and Wikinews include a tab labeled “discussion” above each article or news entry. Here readers can view or participate in an online discussion with people of different viewpoints to arrive at a neutral point-of-view framing of the issue to be displayed on the main page.

We began this

discussion by suggesting that literacy in the twenty-first century be understood as a social rather than individual skill and that what students must acquire should be understood as skills and cultural competencies. Each of the skills we have identified above represents modes of thought, ways of processing information, and ways of interacting with others to produce and circulate knowledge. These are skills that enable participation in the new communities emerging within a networked society. They enable students to exploit new simulation tools, information appliances, and social networks; they facilitate the exchange of information between diverse communities and the ability to move easily across different media platforms and social networks. Many of the skills schools have been teaching all along, although the emergence of digital media creates new pressure on schools to prepare students for their future roles as citizens and workers. Others are skills that emerge from the affordances of these new communications technologies and the social communities and cultural practices that have grown up around them.