Learning in a Participatory Culture: A Conversation About New Media and Education (Part Two)

Last time, we ran part one of a four part interview I did with Spanish educational researcher Pilar Lacasa for Cuadernos de Pedagogia, a Spanish language publication, about my research on the New Media Literacies. This time, we dig deeper into the concepts of participatory culture and the participation gap and talk about how the new media literacies can impact how we teach literature.

Is there anything really new in the idea of new literacies? Is it different from other processes such as reading and writing much more related to the printed materials?

Yes and No. In many ways, they are expansions of skills we’ve always taught which is why many of them will feel familiar to teachers and will fit comfortably within existing disciplines. In some ways, they represent the expansion of research skills into the more diverse information environment or an extrapulation of what it means to read and write to cover a broader range of communication practices.

But they also reflect habits of mind that emerge in response to networked communications or a converged media landscape. So, there is a much greater emphasis on literacy as a social and collective rather than an individual practice — on learning to collaborate and exchange knowledge with others. There is a greater emphasis on the challenges of moving through a dispersed media landscape, interacting with groups who come from different backgrounds, shift attention between multiple channels of communication, or deploying different tools for processing information. These new skills do not so much emerge from new technologies as from new social, cultural, and educational opportunities that have emerged around those platforms.

Perhaps there is a generation gap when people use new media.

There are certainly generational differences in our experience and comfort with these new Technologies and their affiliated practices. Most adults encountered the computer first in the workplace, where-as many young people encountered it first in the home or the school. They approached it with different goals and expectations which means that they understand it in fundamentally different ways.

It isn’t just that young people have grown up with the technology while adults came to it later in life. They have a totally different attitude towards what a computer is and the place it holds in their lives. That said, we have to be careful about drawing too sharp a generational dividing line here. First, the most powerful forms of participatory culture are those where adults and young people interact together in more fluid ways than would be found at school, work, church, or home. They are motivated by shared interests; they actively seek to learn from each other; and they are valued less on their age than on what they can each contribute. When we assume adults are locked out of the digital realm, we close off those opportunities for transgenerational experiences.

Second, we need to be careful about assuming that all young people have had access to the full benefits of the digital age. There are many inequalities not simple in terms of access to the Technologies but also in terms of opportunities to participate. That’s what I call the participation gap. Some young people have been invited into the digital realm and feel free to express themselves there in as public a manner as is possible, while others feel excluded, cut off.. They don’t understand how participatory culture works; they haven’t been encouraged to participate; they don’t think anyone will care what they have to say.

What could do educators to overcome these participation gaps?

Educators have key roles to play here in terms of creating a space where those who have been previously excluded can be welcomed into the new knowledge communities and can find their voice through the emerging participatory culture. But to perform those roles, they need to overcome their own fears and uncertainties about the digital World. They have to learn about the online world the way many young people have learned about it — through active participation. They need to experiment with the various tools and platforms; they need to find a community which shares their interests and passions and plung into it deeply so they know what it is like to share knowledge through a social network and to create things through dispersed collaboration.

To do this, they may well need to sit down with a young person they know who is deeply immersed in this world and seek their advice and mentorship, reversing the normal role in the classroom, learning from their students or their children. In doing so, they will be trading different kinas of expertise — matching the exploratory spirit of youth with the experience and wisdom of adulthood. But they need to avoid closing off the communication and learning too quickly by assuming that they already know everything the young person is going to teach them.

In these new contexts of communication we not only speak about Participatory Culture but also about Convergence Culture.

When people in the media industry use the term convergence they are often talking about a technological process — the bringing together of multiple media functions, the uniting of multiple communication channels through a single device. Imagine say the iPhone as a tool which performs many different media functions — from playing games to taking photographs — and connects us to different networks — from telephone to the internet. That’s often what gets described as a convergence device.

I want to argue though that convergence is also a cultural process, one where stories, ideas, images, move across all media platforms, shaped both by the desire of companies to expand markets and by the desire of consumers to gain easier access to meaningful media. In many ways, it doesn’t matter whether or not our tools are talking to each other; we are forming an integrated information ecology in our heads. Storytellers are learning to disperse information and experiences across media platforms, encouraging their readers to explore and map the storyworld through a series of encounters. Educators are discovering that we learn or do research in a similar manner, putting together dispersed pieces from many different media platforms, to form a coherent picture of the world around us. So, teachers need to encourage students to develop a core competency in transmedia navigation.

Are any specific skills necessary to take part of this new Participatory and Convergent Culture?

Transmedia navigation is simply one of a range of new competencies which we think schools should be exploring. In a white paper I helped to write for the MacArthur Foundation, we identified a series of core skills and competencies which we think are needed for young people to be able to fully enter the new participatory culture. These skills include the ability to deal with simulations and visualizations, the ability to explore the environment through play and identity through performance, the ability to deploy information appliances and social networks in processing information, and the ability to negotiate around cultural differences encountered in diverse online communities. Project NML has been developing a range of resources to help educators acquire and promote these new skills.

Could you explain what are those resources developed in the project New Media Literacy?

Our Learning Library, for example, provides a range of pedagogical challenges (a cluster of activities which allow young people to encounter, explore, experiment with, and ethically evaluate some of the emerging media practices.) which illustrate and embody the 12 skills. The library’s resources are modular, so that they can be appropriated and used in a range of contexts from home schoolers to formal educators. They are multidisciplinary so that teachers can take ownership over those skills which are central to their own disciplines and thus we can integrate these skills across the curriculum.

The library is designed as an open platform which allows educators and students not simply to consume existing activities but also to contribute their own, sharing what works in their classrooms with other educators, appropriating and remixing each other’s content so that we can all learn from each other. In other words, the learning library takes seriously what I’ve already said here about participatory culture and collective intelligence.

Who can use this library?

We are encouraging different organizations to develop their own collections for this library and are especially excited at the prospect of educators from many different countries sharing something of their own media cultures and practices through the library, allowing us to explore and learn on a global scale. I’d like to personally invite Spanish educators to try their hand at developing challenges which reflect your local educational and cultural practices.

What could be role of the curriculum content in learning new literacies?

My philosophy has been to be conservative in content and innovative in method. That is to say, we believe that these skills have something to contribute to even the most traditional of curriculum and that they are relevant across the full range of school subjects. Every field of knowledge today has been reshaped through the changes that have impacted our information environment. Scientists and social scientists for example regularly work with digital simulations and new modes of visualization as they process their data, yet these practices have scarcely impacted the way science and social science get taught in schools. Contemporary artists and writers are deploying remix practices that transform how they think about authorship but these insights about creativity have scarcely made it into the language arts classroom.

Could you mention some examples of how the curriculum can be introduced by using methodologies emerging from these new environments?

Through our Teacher Strategy Guides on Reading in a Participatory Cultture and Mapping in a Participatory Culture, we’ve been modeling new ways for integrating these skills into the classroom. For example, our Reading project took the American novel, Moby-Dick, as its starting point, seeking to better understand how its author, Herman Melville, created through borrowing and recontexualizing stories found in Homer, the Bible, Shakespeare, and contemporary whaling lore, as the basis for his own creative expression.

We also explore how subsequent artists and authors have used Moby-Dick as a starting point for their own creation and thus how Melville has exerted a living presence in our contemporary culture. In doing so, we encourage students not simply to critically read but also to creatively rework elements from the novel to reflect their own perspectives on the issues Melville raises. And we encourage them to reflect on the ethics of appropriation — what artists can take freely, what obligations they owe to previous generations, and so forth.

I’d imagine that this same approach might be applied productively to Cervantes. Don Quixote is a novel which centers around the imaginative life at a moment of profound media change — not simply through the protagonist and his relationship to romantic fictions but also through the ongoing discussions of books and printing. There are so many ways that this novel can be taught in order to heighten our understanding of the personal and social consequences of changing the way a society receives and conveys information in a way that also opens students up to discuss the world they are entering at our present moment of profound and prolonged media change.


  1. Wow, there’s so much packed into your post that I immediately wanted to have a conversation with you! Many educators are trying to figure out how best to support these dynamic new methods of learning and communicating, but perhaps the most striking change is the genuine need for cross-generational collaboration. Now more than ever I find myself “observing” interactions to try and make sense of what’s happening within this cultural shift in the world of media and communications.

    I was particularly struck by one of your comments:

    “My philosophy has been to be conservative in content and innovative in method.” Are you suggesting that we should take greater risks with “active strategies and processes” because that’s where the greatest magnitude of change is taking place?

    Thanks for your insightful commentary!

  2. This is completely out of left field, yet a bit relevant. The push seems to be to evaluate technological literacy in very broad educational and cultural senses, but I recently came across one feature of technological literacy that precedes everything spoken about above. Sorry I can’t source the original.

    It was a tidbit on a news program about a study of people’s comprehension of screen information. People saw e-bills for payment, both on paper and on screen. Turns out, they scanned the paper bills more carefully and picked up more errors than when scanning e-bills. The authors of the study posited that a different part of the brain was engaged in the two situations. People thought more critically when reading paper-based information.

    This is a pretty basic literacy skill being called into question. If it is true, it calls into question the value and accuracy of much of our broader learning and communication skills.

    And of course, it did not make reference to e-books and tablets.

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