Shall We Play? (Part Two)

Because of the importance we place on play, we call the professional development program Project New Media Liteacies is developing PLAY (which in this case stands for Participatory Learning and YOU!) (We usually accompany this definition by pointing our finger at the person we are talking to, itself a playful ritual which surrounds our collective discussion of this work.) You can read more about the core concepts underlying our PLAY approach through a series of blog posts being developed by Vanessa Vartabedian at the Project NML blog.

For the moment, I will simply offer this one paragraph explanation of our general approach:

Participatory learning is characterized by:

  • Heightened motivation and new forms of engagement through meaningful play and experimentation;
  • Learning that feels relevant to students’ identities and interests;
  • Opportunities for creating using a variety media, tools and practices;
  • Co-configured expertise where educators and students pool their skills and knowledge and share in the tasks of teaching and learning;
  • An integrated system of learning where connections between home, school, community and world are enabled and encouraged.

While there is no one-to-one mapping between the 6 Ps of Play and these principles of participatory learning, I hope it is clear that these two frameworks have informed each other in significant ways. What we are describing as participatory learning can and often is linked to new media tools and platforms but it does not have to be. We stress the value of low-tech and no-tech versions of these processes, even if we also try to model ways that state-of-the-art tools can be integrated into this kind of learning environment. The principles of participatory learning emerge from our close examination of what I call participatory culture, a topic which surfaces often here on the blog.

Blake Anderson, a student in my New Media Literacies class made this video to explain the concept, which I had to share. This graduate student was motivated by a series of YouTube videos to make a puppet for the first time, as he sought ways to translate my conceptual model for a new audience. As you will see, the protagonist of the video is The Professor who bears an uncanny resemblance to the actual instructor of his class but was also a tribute to a childhood spent in the company of Muppets. This deflation of academic authority was received with great pleasure by all involved, especially by me.

What does participatory learning look like in practice? Well, one example might be the workshops in interactive design which I ran for many years at MIT in collaboration with the late Sande Scoredos from Sony Imageworks. We formed teams of students with many different educational backgrounds and interests. Each team was to chose an existing media property and began to develop a plan for how to expand it into interactive media — most often, how to translate it into the vocabulary of contemporary video games. Students in this intensive class broke their time between hearing lectures on aspects of interactive design by faculty and industry people and working in teams, brainstorming, refining their ideas, and working towards a presentation. By the end of the week, the students “pitch” their game ideas to a panel of people from different parts of the entertainment industry, pretending to be a start up company trying to get a contract, and they got feedback on both their ideas and their presentation styles.

The result was always memorable — a rich array of imaginative ideas which showed a deep understanding of the core concepts and information running through the class. Students listened with the idea that they would be applying what they learned in this creative and playful process. I plan to adapt this approach for the Transmedia Entertainment and Storytelling class I am offering through the Cinema School in the fall.

Participatory learning might also look like what we have been doing through an after school program which we launched at the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools this semester, a program focused around themes of digital citizenship. The RFK schools (six altogether, each with different focuses and philosophies) launched this fall and they are still trying to work through their identity and norms as a community. We sought ways to get students focused on the process of defining who they were as a community through play and creative activities. Vanessa Vartabedian ran the program, with strong support from Erin Reilly and Laurel Felt, and in the end, it involved all of the current Project NML students and staff, as well as students from my New Media Literacies graduate seminar.

One activity had the students taking photographs of “invisible borders or boundaries” which shaped their social interactions, whether borders based on gender, class, or the line between student and teacher or the line between the different schools using the shared facility. This focus on norms of inclusion or exclusion was enhanced by the challenge of using photography, normally a medium for capturing the visible, as a means of representing things which are understood but often not explicit, often not seen or observed.

Another activity, developed by the Rossier Schools’ Stefani Relles sought to get students to construct an anthem for their school, using very open ended modes of visual orchestration, and then, using simple instruments, trying to produce meaningful noise together. The goal was not only to get students to articulate what their schools meant to them but also to experience music-making as a creative process, one which was structured to free them from anxieties about performance.

Another activity, developed by Meryl Alper, got them to focus on the history of the school, which had, among other things, been the site of the Coconut Grove nightclub, which has been partially preserved as a drama facility, and was also the site of the Ambassador Hotel, where Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. In fact, the media lab where the after school program meets is the kitchen where RFK died, something which students had not fully understood until Alper explained it. Alper shared with them a photograph of the Latino bus boy who prayed with and comforted RFK in his final moments, and asked them to think about their own place in the history of the school. Using an app which pastiched a range of different film stocks, she asked them to go out and stage images which conveyed something of the history of the school, and again, they were invited to creatively explore and document their physical surroundings. These are simply a few of the forms of participatory learning activities we’ve incorporated into our work at the RFK schools. Most of these activities are playful and creative, but they are not in and of themselves games.

So, let me close with the invitation to all of the educators who read (or hear) this talk: Shall we play?

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