OurSpace: Being a Responsible Citizen of the Digital World (Part One)

Our Space: Being a Responsible Citizen of the Digital World is a set of curricular materials designed to encourage high school students to reflect on the ethical dimensions of their participation in new media environments. Through role-playing activities and reflective exercises, students are asked to consider the ethical responsibilities of other people, and whether and how they behave ethically themselves online. These issues are raised in relation to five core themes that are highly relevant online: identity, privacy, authorship and ownership, credibility, and participation. The casebook is available for free online and you can access it here, on the Project New Media Literacies team website, among other places.

Our Space was co-developed by Project New Media Literacies (established at MIT and now housed at University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism) and The GoodPlay Project (Harvard Graduate School of Education). The Our Space collaboration grew out of a shared interest in fostering ethical thinking, and conduct, among young people when they exercise their new media skills. We recently released the finished product to the world, after many years of hashing through these complex issues together, and we are eager to get response from other educators who are interested in applying some of these activities in their own contexts. Today, I am going to share my own reflections about the project, which are part of a joint afterword which I wrote in conversation with Howard Gardner, the leader of the GoodPlay project. You can read that full exchange here. Next time, I will share one of our initial activities — “Our Space, Our Guidelines” — which is intended to help teachers develop a safe space through which students can engage in conversations about ethical issues.

Excerpt from How We Got Here:

Peter, a typical American teenager, lives in a major metropolitan area in North America. The product of a broken home, he currently is under the supervision of his aunt and uncle. Peter considers himself to be a master of the Web, able to move rapidly from site to site and applying his emerging skills to promote social justice. Peter has engaged with typical identity play, adopting a flamboyant alter ego, an avatar that allows him to do and say things he would be hesitant to do otherwise. Peter belongs to a social network with kids from a nearby private academy who share his perception of being different from others around them. Peter uses Flickr to publish his photographs, some of which have been published professionally by the local newspaper under a Creative Commons attribution; the editor has been so impressed by Peter’s work that he now lets him work freelance. Peter often interacts with adults who share his geeky interests online. Peter uses his computer to monitor suspicious activities in his community and is able to use a range of mobile technologies to respond anytime, anywhere to issues that concern him. He uses Twitter to maintain constant contact with his girlfriend, Mary Jane, who often has to stay after school to rehearse for drama productions.

Peter and his other friends are part of a generation that has embraced the expanded capacities of new media to more actively participate in their society. Peter doesn’t like to consider himself a hero, but he has made a difference in the lives of the people around him. Indeed, Peter’s Uncle Ben has told him that he enjoys the kind of power and knowledge that previous generations could only imagine but warns him that “with great power comes great responsibility.” Peter knows less than he thinks he does, but more than the adults around him realize. While he makes mistakes, some of them costly, he is generally ready to confront the responsibilities thrust upon him by his circumstances.

Alert readers will have already recognized that Peter Parker is the protagonist of Marvel comics long- standing Spider-Man franchise. I’ve treated his story as if it were a case study from our research to make a point. Most of us already accept the idea–at least through fiction–that young people might be able to assume greater responsibilities than previous generations, that they might learn ways to use their emerging “powers” responsibly and ethically, and that the value of doing so may outweigh the risks or challenges. Within the pages of a comic book, things, such as identity play, which sometimes worry adults, are much more normative, much as they are for the young people who have grown up defining their identities in relation to the online world. And there, we come to accept the value of young people “geeking out,” rehearsing and deploying their skills within communities defined more through their shared interests than through fixed relations between adults and youth, and we come to recognize that young people may take on their own “missions” that motivate their learning and shape their understanding of their place in society.

The Spider-Man comics even allow us to see Peter and his friends at Xavier Academy (The X-Men) make and learn from mistakes, often as part of a supportive social network which is there to pick up the pieces and offer valuable advice on the next steps in their personal journey. And it’s a good thing that the Avengers, the predominantly adult organization of superheroes to which Spider-Man belongs, are not age-conscious, since one longtime member, Thor, is a five-hundred-plus-year-old immortal god and compared to him, all of us are “immature.” Many of us grew up reading such stories, though we often forget them when we are confronting the messy business of helping adolescents acquire and master adult responsibilities.

For me, this project started with the recognition that there was a whole generation of youth who, like Peter, are deploying new media technologies and the processes associated with them to develop a clearer understanding of themselves and their place in the world. Many of these youth are becoming media makers, expressing their emerging understanding of the world through fan fiction, game mods, mp3 downloads, websites, YouTube videos, social-network profiles, Flickr photographs, and a wealth of other grassroots production practices. As they do so, some, though not all of them, are stepping into the support systems around what we call participatory culture. They are using these technologies to construct their identities, to make sense of their social networks, and to gain respect from adults who share their goals and backgrounds. Some of them are joining online communities that, at their best, meet their needs, but in other cases, fail them. Despite a tendency to talk of “digital natives,” these young people are not born understanding how to navigate cyberspace and they don’t always know the right thing to do as they confront situations that were not part of the childhood worlds of their parents or educators. Yes, they have acquired great power, yet they–and the adults around them–don’t know how to exercise responsibility in this unfamiliar environment.

Those of us on the Project New Media Literacies (NML) team felt that it was too easy to talk about “media effects,” as if these young people were simply victims of these new technologies, or to identify risks without recognizing the many potential benefits of teens’ online lives. As a society, we have spent too much time focused on what media are doing to young people and not enough time asking what young people are doing with media. We need to embrace an approach based on media ethics, one that empowers young people to take greater responsibility for their own actions and holds them accountable for the choices they make as media producers or as members of online communities….

The pronouns surrounding these digital practices suggest an uncertainty about the balance between individual and collective experience in the online world. Consider, for example, the “you” in YouTube. In English, “you” can be both singular and multiple, blurring distinctions that are carved into other languages. So when we talk about YouTube, do we see it as a space of personal or individualized expression, or do we see it as a space for shared, networked communications? What about the “my” in Myspace, given the fact that our personal sites are simply portals into a much more fully integrated social network that links us, directly or indirectly, to every other user of the site? We’ve chosen to call this guide “Our Space” to emphasize the social dimensions of participatory culture: “Our” suggests a shared ownership and responsibility over what happens in the online world. Ideally, transforming the pronoun here encourages us to recognize that our individual choices have social consequences, that what we do online may impact others, and as such, online sites should be sites of ethical reflection….

Our conversations with the GoodPlay Project have been generative for all involved, bringing a much broader array of experiences and expertise to the table than either team could have mustered on its own. Howard and I came to this project with different disciplinary backgrounds, different intellectual commitments, and different experiences with digital media and popular culture. These differences were reflected as well in the graduate students and researchers who worked on our respective teams. We have not always agreed and, indeed, we’ve sometimes had heated disagreements. Bringing these teams together has meant that in any given conversation, there was a healthy skepticism displayed towards all claims, allowing for a finished product that reflects both the risks and the benefits of the online world, explores both the decisions of individual agents and their larger socio-cultural context, balances traditional and emerging pedagogical practices, and can be deployed in a school that has one laptop per child and one that has no laptops at all. We hope that educators will not simply embrace those materials that match their preconceptions but rather will integrate the disagreements and debates around new media into their pedagogy. None of us know where all of this is going, so it is far too soon to adopt fixed positions.

Not every activity proposed here will work in every educational context. We are trusting educators to make their own decisions about which activities to deploy and how to adapt them or adjust them to local particulars. But we hope that educators will seek the same balanced perspective that has emerged through our multi-year conversations together–not giving themselves over to fear of the new media landscape, but always taking a skeptical, though not cynical, perspective….

While the activities we’ve developed often expose students and their teachers to new tools and technologies, our real emphasis is on helping all involved to explore some of the emerging cultural practices that have grown up around new media platforms. Even those students who have rich and remarkable online lives may be too narrow in their exploration of the online world, while we imagine that future generations will need to acquire skills in navigating and negotiating across multiple communities, each with its own norms, practices, and traditions, and each posing its own standards and expectations. At the same time, because our emphasis is on skills and competencies, rather than on technologies, we have sought low-tech activities that might help those who have limited digital access to acquire habits of mind that will enable a fuller transition into cyberspace when and if the opportunity presents itself. Many of the skills we identify are not new; many have long been part of the educational process; but they have acquired new importance and new meaning in response to shifts in our information infrastructure.

These emerging skills are unevenly distributed across the culture, making it difficult to create a “one- size-fits-all” intervention that will serve the needs of these diverse constituencies. NML, thus, has developed a more modular approach: one that provides scaffolding for new teachers and inexperienced students but also serves the needs of more experienced participants. We see educators as important partners who are themselves appropriating and remixing our content on the ground and often on the fly. We want teachers to apply their own knowledge and experience to flesh out our activities. As we’ve seen our materials brought into school and after-school programs, they are deployed most effectively when teachers trust young people to make meaningful choices and value their own insights. Wherever possible, we want our activities to be open-ended and flexible. And wherever possible, we want students and teachers to go to the actual sites where cultural change is occurring rather than simulating these practices in the classroom.

In my book Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (Jenkins, 2006), I warn about some of the challenges of bringing participatory culture into formal education:

“It is not clear that the successes of affinity spaces can be duplicated by simply incorporating similar activities into the classroom. Schools impose a fixed leadership hierarchy (including very different roles for adults and teens)…. Schools have less flexibility to support writers at different stages of their development. Even the most progressive schools set limits on what students can write compared to the freedom they enjoy on their own.”

And indeed, NML’s field testing of our materials has shown just how realistic many of these concerns are. The fixed power relations between students and teachers sometimes ensures the imparting of knowledge across the generations, but may also constrain youth from seeking meaningful advice about ethical dilemmas they encounter from adults around them. By comparison, young people and adults who share the same interests are meeting online, often collaborating on projects together, in ways that respect and value what each participant has to contribute. Teachers in the classroom struggle with how to preserve their own expertise without recognizing that young people also may know things that need to be brought to the table. Popular culture often embraces values at odds with those of the schoolhouse, and students and teachers need to negotiate a set of guidelines about appropriate or inappropriate use of those materials in the classroom.

In the digital age, classrooms are no longer isolated environments, cut off from the surrounding society, but rather nodes in a complex learning network. Our materials exploit the porousness of this new learning ecology, expanding the range of opportunities schools have historically offered their students, connecting learners to larger knowledge communities, and encouraging young people to voice their perspectives and share their creations with a larger public. As we prepare young people for a world that is more and more defined around collaboration and collective problem solving, we must help them acquire the social skills necessary to meaningfully contribute to a network of other learners. In a world where people who pool their knowledge and share their expertise can solve more complex problems than those working alone, we need to offer our students more difficult questions and give them an opportunity to confront them together.

Too often, educators are adopting positions that close off the exploration of the new media, rather than encouraging young people to acquire the skills needed to meaningfully participate, and fostering an ethical perspective that allows them to deploy their resources responsibly and safely. The activities included in this casebook adopt a different perspective, suggesting ways that teachers and young people might engage with Facebook and MySpace, Wikipedia, YouTube, Second Life and World of Warcraft. Without such training, young people are being left to deal with these new environments on their own. Some of them are being left out or left at risk as a consequence. Some teachers are advocating “just say no” to Wikipedia, for example, rather than helping young people understand the processes and norms through which Wikipedians evaluate and assess the reliability of information they are providing. Some schools are shutting out YouTube rather than helping young people to reflect on their roles as the

producers and distributors of media content. Some educational programs stress the rights of copyright holders but do not expose students to the fundamentals of fair use or to the emerging practices around Creative Commons licensing. And many adults worry about issues of personal privacy without understanding why young people might also place a value in sharing their personal experiences and insights within their extended social networks.

All of these, and many other issues, have been debated back and forth by the two teams in the course of developing this casebook. We know that different teachers will take different perspectives on these cultural, ideological, and pedagogical concerns. We’ve tried to design these materials in such a way that they can be taken in many different directions and still convey some fundamental ethical concepts that will help young people chart a meaningful course for themselves as media producers and members of online communities.

David Buckingham has suggested the value of approaching young people’s use of technology in terms of their “beings” (respecting who and what they are now) rather than their “becomings” (seeing their present state as some stepping stone to their adult identities). While some of our activities confront the long-term consequences of their decisions, we also are trying to take seriously the activities that young people are already engaging with and the ethical issues they are already confronting in their day-to-day interactions with online communities.

We also know that young people are not the only ones who will be learning as they work through these units: Many adults still know little about these emerging social communities and cultural practices; most are uncertain about what parts of our existing ethical toolkit still apply in these unfamiliar situations. We hope that educators will use these materials to test and strengthen their own conceptual frameworks, remaining open to new possibilities, even as they hold tight to long-standing values and standards. As educators, we are obligated to act through reason and not out of fear; that responsibility requires us to continually ask questions of ourselves and of our students. We are teaching them not to be too trustful of the information they read on Wikipedia; perhaps we also should learn not to trust sensational news stories that provoke moral panic about young people’s digital lives.

Like Spider-Man, you have been given both great power and great responsibility. What are you going to do with it?

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