Artist’s Rights and Internet Freedom: A Public Conversation Between T Bone Burnett and Henry Jenkins

Late last year, I was lucky enough to be able to engage the great musician T Bone Burnett in a series of conversations concerning the proper balance between Copyright and Fair Use. The first of these events was held at the Futures of Entertainment Conference at MIT and also featured Jonathan Taplin, the Director of the Annenberg Innovation Lab, and was featured on this blog a while back. Today, I am able to share with you the video of a follow-up event, held in Los Angeles, at the Hammer Museum.

Here’s how the event was billed:


Award-winning producer T-Bone Burnett and communications scholar Henry Jenkins illuminate the debate over intellectual property rights versus Internet freedom. Burnett is a 12-time Grammy-winning composer and producer and a vocal advocate of artists’ rights. Jenkins is the Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism and Cinematic Arts at USC and an advocate of Fair Use and Internet freedom. His recent book is Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide.

Hammer Forum is moderated by Ian Masters, journalist, author, screenwriter, documentary filmmaker, and host of the radio programs Background Briefing, Sundays at 11AM, and The Daily Briefing, Monday through Thursday at 5PM, on KPFK 90.7 FM.

The video speaks for itself. Enjoy.

HOT.SPOT 2: Introduction: Election Season Revisited

A while back, I shared the first of a series of “Hot.Spot” blog posts created by my students and colleagues within the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism’s Civic Paths research group. The team’s back with another round, this one timed to respond to the Presidential Election and inauguration. I am happy to crosspost their efforts with you. I now hand this over to Liana Gamber Thompson, our post-doc and MC Extraordinare.

Hotspot Philosophy

These collections of mini-blog posts — “hot spots” — are organized around themes that cut across the diverse interests of participants in our research group. They’re about the things we love to talk about. And, like our in-person conversations, they play with ideas at the intersection of participatory culture, civic engagement, and new media. Our rules for the hotspot are these: No one gets to spend a million hours wordsmithing — these are idea starters, not finishers — and posts shouldn’t be a whole lot longer than five hundred words.

Election Season Revisited (Inauguration Edition!)

Live-Tweeting Laffs During the 2012 Debates
On the Separation of Cable and State
Obama’s Back Problems
Where Voting Fits In for the “Self-Expressive Citizen”
Nobody 2012
Crowns and Badges

I spent the bulk of Monday tuning in to President Obama’s inauguration and the coverage around it. I admit, no matter who is being sworn in, I’m a sucker for the pageantry, the tradition, and the ceremony of the inauguration. I love seeing the National Mall brimming with enthusiastic, if freezing, faces and studying the interactions of the political rivals, celebrities, and past presidents assembled on the stage. On that day, the campaign season that got President Obama here seemed but a distant memory, the blood, sweat and tears of staffers and volunteers receding into footnotes as the President took his oath over not one, but two historic bibles.

But as President Obama gets back to work, Michelle Obama ships her ruby red inaugural gown off to the National Archives, and the blogosphere descends into a tedious debate over Beyonce’s lip-syncing, the excitement of the inauguration fades. The significance of President Obama’s achievement, however, does not. That’s why, for our second Civic Paths hotspot*, we’ve decided to return our focus to election season and to the range of people and stories that made it such an interesting one.

Kevin [1] and Sam [2] consider the relationship between politics and entertainment during election season, while Raffi [3] dissects some of President Obama’s more perplexing campaign slogans. Neta [4] seeks to understand how the traditional civic act of voting is tied to more self-expressive acts of engagement. Kjerstin [5] also looks at voters, documenting the infectious joy behind many of the tweets of #firsttimevoters, while I [6] examine a group of young non-voters and some of their favorite memes. Lastly, Ben [7] brings us back to where we started—the inauguration—with his account of the symbols and spectacle surrounding it.

We hope these posts will bring some of the more compelling stories from election season back into relief. We also hope this hotspot inspires others to bring their own stories into the conversation because so much has yet to be explored from the 2012 Presidential election and the sometimes wild and woolly days that preceded it.

— Liana Gamber Thompson

*For more on the hotspot philosophy, see our first hotspot on DIY culture.

[1] — Kevin Driscoll, Live-Tweeting Laffs During the 2012 Debates
[2] — Sam Close, On the Separation of Cable and State
[3] — Raffi Sarkissian, Obama’s Back Problems
[4] — Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, Where Voting Fits In for the “Self-Expressive Citizen”
[5] — Kjerstin Thorson, #firsttimevoters
[6] — Liana Gamber Thompson, Nobody 2012
[7] — Ben Stokes, Crowns and Badges

Scrapbooks and Army Surplus: C. Tyler’s You’ll Never Know

For those of you who live in the Los Angeles area, I wanted to call attention to a special event I am hosting at the USC campus on the evening of Jan. 31, featuring noted underground cartoonist C. Tyler. Here’s the details.

And for those of you who do not live in Los Angeles, I will still encourage you to check out her remarkable three part graphic novel series, You’ll Never Know, published by Fantagraphic Books, and just completed at the end of last year. I plan to write an extended essay about this book as part of my new Comics…and Stuff project. Below is an abstract I wrote describing why I find this graphic novel so rich and interesting:

“And like I said, I knew he had been to war. Mom told me. He didn’t tell me. It’s not something He wanted to talk about EVER. He had buried Europe 1944-45 under tons of mental concrete. Exactly what happened — the details we never knew. Of what value would this information be anymore? That’s what he figured. And with no evidence around the house — well, why not forget it. Except for this one scrapbook album of army pictures, carefully mounted photos with no dates or information. I never knew what they recorded specifically. No text. Maybe that’s what intrigued me: a parallel world where my Dad looked like he was having fun.” — C. Tyler

One night, the underground cartoonist C. Tyler received a phone call from her usually taciturn 90 year old father, a World War II veteran, who suddenly wants to dump on her memories of long-ago experiences which up until that moment fell into “the category of ‘leave it the hell alone’ or ‘it’s none of your goddamn business.’” This phone call triggers an extended artistic practice as Tyler tried to capture her father’s memories first with a video camera and later through the panels of a trilogy of graphic novels, which in the process expand to tell the story not only of her father but of several generations of her family’s history.  If the father is stingy with the personal memories he is willing to share, even within the privacy of the family, his daughter fits within an exhibitionist streak in graphic storytelling which was partially initiated by the pioneering work of her husband, underground cartoonist Justin Green: she uses comics as a vehicle to work through personal issues and break down the culture of silence that informed her childhood. Ultimately, the books are designed as a tribute to the “greatest generation,” but they also speak with empathy about what happens when you bottle up so many powerful emotions, allowing them to come out only through actions and not through words and images.

The published books are shaped like a scrapbook album and when she tells her father’s story, she adopts a panel structure that reproduces the pages of a scrapbook, complete with rubber stamped page numbers and dates on each panel.  She adopts a much broader array of styles, some realistic, some cartoonish, some iconic. Sometimes, she uses the printed book like a scrapbook, incorporating a yellowed news clipping documenting the childhood death of her sister, or wartime letters from her father to the woman whom he would marry. She incorporates maps, charts, graphs, designed to explain aspects of her family’s experience, though often used in a less than naturalistic manner, as when she offers a diagram on blue print paper of the surgery her father would undergo in his struggles against cancer.

Ultimately, the finished product, You’ll Never Know, a Graphic Memoir, is, as Tyler told one interviewer, about “the stuff that gets passed down to the next generation,” with stuff here meant to describe material culture (including what she describes as “O.D. anomalies” (for “Olive Drab”) stored away in the basement or the buckets of acids and corrosives that she has to convince her pack-rat father to dispose of when he wants to move across the country, or the tools and nails shown in a detailed drawing of her father’s work area) but stuff also refers to the emotional baggage, equally toxic, which her repressed and sometimes overbearing father passed down to her generation. The two are brought together powerfully in a scene involving a box of old photographs and birth announcements which finally provokes her mother to talk for the first time about the death of her sister. Throughout the book, we learn about the characters through their interactions over stuff, such as the time when her father, jealous of the attention his wife is receiving, walls up several hundred carefully addressed Christmas cards behind a dry wall he is constructing, or a powerful story about what happens to the father’s old army jacket.

This video shares a segment from her interview with her father and shows how she has been able to convert this raw material into a rich autobiographical comic.

C. Tyler’s work on the graphic novel has brought her into closer contact with many veterans — not only of the Second World War but more recent armed conflicts. Tyler has been helping veterans to learn how to produce comics as a vehicle for sharing some of their memories and working through some of their emotions in the aftershock of their time under fire. Here’s a video about her work.

What’s All the Fuss About Connected Learning?

Last week, the MacArthur Foundation released a significant new report, Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design, which should warrant the close attention of my regular readers, especially those of you who are strongly invested in thinking about the nature of education within a networked era. The report comes more than six years after the launch of the Digital Media and Learning initiative and represents an important re-assessment of what’s working and what’s not as institutions at all levels have responded to the changes which are impacting our information environment. The authors of the report include some of the most important American and British thinkers about youth, new media, and education:

Mizuko Ito…Kris Gutiérrez…Sonia Livingstone… Bill Penuel…Jean Rhodes…Katie Salen..Juliet Schor…Julian Sefton-Green….S. Craig Watkins 

The report is sobering in its acknowledgment of some of the real challenges confronting us, especially in its focus on the growing inequalities in terms of access not simply to the technological infrastructure but to the skills and opportunities required to meaningfully participate in the new media environment:

Despite its power to advance learning, many parents, educators, and policymakers perceive new media as a distraction from academic learning, civic engagement,and future opportunity. Digital media also threaten to exacerbate growing inequities in education. Progressive digital media users … are a privileged minority. There is also a growing gap between the progressive use of digital media outside of the classroom, and the no-frills offerings of most public schools that educate our most vulnerable populations. This gap contributes to widespread alienation from educa- tional institutions, particularly among non-dominant youth. Without a proactive educational reform agenda that begins with questions of equity, leverages both in-school and out-of-school learning, and embraces the opportunities new media offer for learning, we risk a growth in educational alienation by our most vulnerable populations….

This report is skeptical and hard-nosed, challenging some of the optimism which has fueled previous work in the Digital Media and Literacy tradition, raising concerns about what is happening to those who are being excluded from meaningful participation. The authors raise alarms about how all young people are impacted by an educational process which gives them few chances to pursue their own passions and interests within a regime of standardized testing and a fragmented media environment where children have much greater access to highly commercial sites than to those which speak to them as citizens and learners.

The report raises these issues while also recognizing the very real educational opportunities DML scholars have identified when we look at those communities which have proven rewarding for a growing number of young participants, communities which have a shared ethical commitment to encouraging and scaffolding their participation. The authors believe something valuable is taking place in many corners of the web (and in the context of young people’s everyday engagements with media.):

Young people can have diverse pathways into connected learning. Schools, homes, afterschool clubs, religious institutions, and community centers and the parents, teachers, friends, mentors and coaches that young people find at these diverse locales, all potentially have a role to play in guiding young people to connected learning. Connected learning takes root when young people find peers who share interests, when academic institutions recognize and make interest-driven learning relevant to school, and when community institutions provide resources and safe spaces for more peer- driven forms of learning.

Examples of learning environments that are currently integrating the spheres of peers, interests, and academic pursuits include athletics programs that are tied to in-school recognition, certain arts and civic learning programs, and interest-driven academic programs such as math, chess, or robotics competitions. These connected learning environments ideally embody values of equity, social belonging, and participation. Further, connected learning environments are generally characterized by a sense of shared purpose, a focus on production, and openly networked infrastructures.

The report is skeptical, not cynical. It asks hard questions precisely so we can empower meaningful change. The authors do not fall prey to the paralysis which consumes so much academic writing, but rather they offer a number of concrete recommendations about what new kinds of educational structures and practices need to emerge. What I admire most about this report is this movement between critique and advocacy, between analysis of existing problems and the willingness to find concrete solutions. I have admired these pragmatic qualities in many of these authors individually in the past. See, for example, my previous interviews with Mimi Ito, Craig Watkins, and Sonia Livingstone, about their research.  

The report includes rich case studies, demonstrating the kinds of experiences some youth have enjoyed through joining the Harry Potter Alliance, enrolling in New York City’s Quest to Learn School, or participating in the after school offerings of the Chicago Public Library’s YouMedia Center. Such projects illustrate what happens when everything comes together. Here, for example, is a bit from a sidebar written by Sangita Shresthova and Neta  Kliger-Vilenchik, two researchers from my Civic Paths team at USC’s Annenberg School, dealing with the learning culture which has grown up around the Harry Potter Alliance:

Although fun and social in nature, involvement in HPA pushes young people to connect their recre- ational interests to social and political issues that they might not otherwise be familiar with. Because HPA turns its attention to many issues, ranging from net neutrality to fair trade and voter registra- tion, this forces participants to study up in a range of new areas. Almost every campaign is accompa- nied by a period of learning about the new issue and making sense of it. Chapter leaders will often educate the group on a new issue. Participants also talk about how involvement in HPA helped them see the political messages within Harry Potter. One chapter has gone as far as opening a 6-week study group on “Harry Potter as a tool for social change,” discussing links between the narratives and real-world issues. In other words, HPA is a site of hybridization and translation between political and fantasy-centered frames of reference.

Coincidentally, Andrew Slack, HPA’s Founder and Leader, also released a new TED talks video last week, which is a wonderful illustration of the HPA approach at work.

Here, Slack is very much in his element, speaking to a room of youth, giving himself over to his inner fan boy, and at the same time, encouraging critical media literacies and informed engagement with social issues. You also get a sense here of how Slack and others in his organization are moving beyond a focus on Harry Potter fandom and seeking to demonstrate how we might learn from a range of popular media and literary texts.

Such educational opportunities are exciting — they have sustained my own enthusiasm over the better part of a decade now — but they are not in and of themselves enough, not as long as many young people lack the kind of adult mentorship which might help them to identify meaningful online experiences or make connections between what they are learning in these communities and the demands of more formalized education.

The heart of the report seeks to identify design principles which might address these concerns:

Our hypothesis is that in order to develop these cross-cutting repertoires of practice, young people need concrete and sustained social networks, relationships, institutional linkages, shared activities and communication infrastructures that connect their social, academic, and interest-driven learning. It is not enough for young people to have knowledge “in their head” and expect that they can apply it appropriately and effectively in varied settings on their own. They need caring adults, supportive peers, shared cultural references, and authentic ways of contributing to shared practices in order to mobilize their skills and knowledge. In contrast to the voluminous literature and research on cognitive and individual models of transfer, there has been very little work that looks more ecologically at the relational, infrastructural, and institutional settings that undergird effective translation and transfer between formal instruction and varied practices.

I can’t begin to do justice to this report. You need to read it yourself, and then, we need to launch some serious conversations about its implications for our own practices.


Once You Open Your Laptop…: Final Exam

For the past week, I have been sharing insights and materials from my Technology and Culture class last semester. As I described last week,  we had explored how to integrate transactional memory, collective intelligence, and participatory culture practices into the design and implementation of the class. We built collective problem solving into the class from day one, gradually formalized student’s membership into teams which would acquire skills at working through challenges together, and culminated the term with a collective final exam, which would demonstrate what these teams could do when they pooled knowledge and worked together under deadline pressure. What follows is the exam, exactly as it was presented to the students. We are offering it as an example to help other educators think about how they might redesign their teaching practice to encourage students to be more effective at producing and sharing knowledge through online networks.


Teams should select three (3) of the following four (4) questions to address on the exam. Collectively, you should strive to answer the questions as fully as possible. Be sure to address each part of the question.

Responses to three (3) of these questions should be emailed to your TA no later than 3:30 pm on Wed. Dec. 5.  Please be sure to list all of the members of your team who participated in responding to these questions and also identify any other people or resources you consulted with in preparing your answers.

1. In his short story, “To Market, To Market: The Re-Branding of Billy Bailey,” Cory Doctorow presents both a celebration and a sharp critique of pervasive marketing and advertising in the 21st century.  Through Billy’s character development, and his interactions with Mitchell McCoy and Ronnie Ryan, Doctorow touches on many of the larger contemporary debates around “spreadable media,” advertising’s most recent “creative revolution,” and the current state of the music industry.

Through an analysis of specific quotations and overall themes in “To Market, To Market,” write an essay that answers the following questions:

  • How does Doctorow present “the power of youth” in advertising?  How does this representation of young people relate to the various roles that youth may take in the consumption, creation, and spread of contemporary media messages?
  • How might the practices Doctorow depicts represent a logical next step in the evolution of the advertising industry’s relations to its consumers which Prof. Jenkins described in his lecture?
  • Does Doctorow portray advertising positively, negatively, or a combination of the two?
  • What tensions exists between “identity” and “industry” in the world of music among different players (specifically fans, artists, and record label representatives)?  How does Doctorow illustrate the ways that “identity” and “industry” converge and diverge?
  • What assumptions does the story make about the ways consumer’s choices are influenced by those made by other consumers? What might be other ways to discuss the role of consumers in contemporary culture?

To support your claims, use at least five (5) class readings (besides “To Market, To Market”), with at least one (1) reading being from each of the following three (3) different days of class readings:

10/29 “How Does Media Spread?”
11/12 “What Will Be the Future of Advertising?”
11/14 “Are Pirates a Threat to Media Industries?”

2. In the United States, women are currently the majority of registered voters, and vote in larger numbers than men.  In addition, the 2012 election ushered in a record number of women elected to the Senate.  However, issues directly related to women’s rights (e.g. reproductive health, equal pay) were infrequently discussed in the recent presidential election and debates.

Two sets of political memes in 2012 focused very specifically on women’s equality issues:

“Texts from Hillary” (
“Binders Full of Women” (

Through an analysis of EITHER “Texts from Hillary” OR “Binders Full of Women,” address the following questions. Based on what you’ve learned from earlier discussion section activities, trace the flow of these meme across at least three (3) online communities:

  • Which groups most readily embraced this meme?  How did these memes connect to ongoing discussions within these communities?
  • What kinds of commentaries do these memes make about gender inequalities and power?  How are these commentaries made using elements from popular culture?
  • Find responses to these memes from mainstream journalists. Do they see these kinds of participatory political practices as enhancing or detracting from meaningful political discussion?
  • Did the meanings associated with these memes change over time as they moved across different online communities? If so, how?
  • How open was this meme to expressing alternative ideological perspectives?

To support your claims, use at least five (5) class readings, with at least one (1) reading being from each of the following three (3) different days of class readings:

10/24 “What Roles Do New Media Play in American Politics?”
10/29 “How Does Media Spread?”
10/31 “How Generative are Online Communities?”

3. Recent readings have focused on hopes and fears for the printed word, as well as the way narratives can extend across various media.

Describe how your group sees the format of two (2) of the following literary genres evolving over the next ten years: comic book, class textbook, religious tome, science fiction novel, technical manual, children’s picture book, newspaper or news magazine. Be specific in terms of the contexts in which they will be used, and by which communities. Keep in mind that communities are also always in flux. Address the following questions:

  • Which traditional functions of these publications are best served by print? What might digital publication offer that would create new value as compared to print-based counterparts?
  • Cite examples of current digital publishing in this space.  In what ways are these experiments are offering new affordances and demonstrating new relationships to the reading public?
  • What economic factors might push publishers to adopt digital publication, even in those cases where there is not “value added” features?
  • What aspects of these traditional publishing genres are being served by grassroots producers and online communities?
  • What concerns might critics, such as Sven Birkerts or Nicholas Carr, raise about the movement of these functions into digital media?

To support your claims, use at least five (5) class readings, with at least one (1) reading being from each of the following three (3) different days of class readings:

10/31 “How Generative are Online Communities?”
11/26 “Is Print Culture Dying?”
11/28 “Has Networked Communication Changed the Ways We Tell Stories?”

4. Trace the rise of “Web 2.0” and which of its components can still be seen in today’s web.

  • How was it a new paradigm? What are its key defining traits?
  • Cite several examples of exemplary Web 2.0 companies and the ways they relate to their consumers.
  • Discuss the relationship of Web 2.0 to other key concepts from the class, especially participatory culture, collective intelligence, and circulation.  What aspect of participatory culture are absorbed into Web 2.0 practices, what remains outside of commercial logic, and what are core sources of tension between Web 2.0 and these more grassroots practices?
  • Drawing on critics of Web 2.0, including Geert Lovink and Jenkins/Ford/Green, discuss what concerns people have raised about these emerging corporate practices. Which of these criticism do you agree with and which would you refute or qualify?
  • Does the current incarnation of the web facilitate discussion, self-expression and civic engagement?

To support your claims, use at least five (5) class readings, with at least one (1) reading being from each of the following three (3) different days of class readings:

11/5 “Have There Been Twitter Revolutions?”
11/7 “What is Web 2.0?”
11/14 “Are Pirates a Threat to Media Industries?”

Spreadable Media and the Global South: Punathambekar, Shahani, Zuckerman

As of today, all of the essays we commissioned for our book, Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture, are alive on the book’s website extension and we are hearing that people who advance ordered the book via Amazon are receiving their copies.  There is also NOW a Kindle addition available.

I have an ambitious series of talks planned for the coming semester, including appearances at Tools for Change (New York City, where I will be on a panel with Brian David Johnson and Cory Doctorow, Feb. 14), The Society for Cinema and Media Studies (Chicago, March 7 with other contributors from the book) , South by Southwest (Austin, TX, March 8 with Sam Ford and Joshua Green), Digital Media and Learning Conference (Chicago, March 16), Transmedia Hollywood (Los Angeles, April 12), and most likely Media in Transition (MIT, May 3 ). So, be on the look out for Henry Sightings in your area. 🙂


Meanwhile, I did an in-depth interview about the book with Frank Rose, author of The Art of Immersion. I had run an interview with Frank about his book through this blog a while back and he’s been nice enough to return the favor.  Part one is up already and part two goes up on Tuesday and will be linked here once it does.


Today’s selection furthers the project begun last time of expanding our discussion of spreadability to deal with transnational media flows and in this case, with what does and does not flow between the Global South and the Global North — two dealing with India and one with Africa.


“Desi,” which means “from the homeland,” is a term that refers to people within the South Asian diaspora. It also signals the emergence of a dynamic and transcultural South Asian youth culture, speaking to a shift in the place of South Asians in U.S. public culture. No longer imagined simply as atomized immigrants nostalgic for a home elsewhere, South Asians in the U.S. are increasingly viewed as “public consumers and producers of distinctive, widely circulating cultural and linguistic forms” (Shankar 2008, 4).

This sociocultural and political shift has shaped, and been shaped by, the constructions of Desis as a sought-after marketing demographic, with the result that a growing number of media corporations have targeted Desi audiences over the past four or five years. These corporate media initiatives are all the more striking, given that the production and circulation of Desi media has been primarily shaped, since the early 1970s, by the efforts of enterprising individuals and families. Furthermore, we can draw an arc from the late 1970s to the current moment—from VHS tapes that circulated via Indian grocery stores to remix music events (DJ Rekha’s Basement Bhangra in New York City, for example), one-hour shows featuring Bollywood song sequences broadcast on public-access stations, performances on college campuses, and, now, vast pirate networks that make Desi media content available to audiences across the globe—to show that the notion of spreadability has always been a defining feature of Desi media culture.

How do media corporations understand and become a part of such a mediascape? Focusing on two recent media initiatives—MTV Desi, a television channel that sought to target South Asian American youth but only lasted about twenty-two months; and Saavn, a New York–based digital media company that has emerged as one of the most prominent distributors of Bollywood programming outside India—this brief study shows that responding to and participating in the cultures of media circulation that were already in place is crucial for media companies interested in diasporic audiences.



The fundamental question of development economics, my late mentor Dick Sabot taught me, is simple to formulate and hard to answer: “Why are some people wealthy and some people poor?” Why is the Democratic Republic of Congo, blessed with valuable minerals and timber, desperately poor, while resource-constrained Singapore is well off? (Birdsall, Ross, and Sabot 1995). In Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997), geographer Jared Diamond suggests that the natural environment is destiny: people who had access to easily domesticated crops and animals were able to generate food surpluses and build complex cultures, while those less fortunate had to focus more on survival than on constructing complex societies. Looking toward the more recent past, statistician Hans Rosling (2009) sees reason to blame slow development on colonialism, observing that many postcolonial societies are only now showing improvements in life expectancy seen in colonial powers in the early twentieth century. Economist Paul Collier, in The Bottom Billion (2007), places the blame on bad governance, arguing that governments which find it more profitable to rob their coffers than to build infrastructure are doomed to underdevelopment.

We might think of these as helpful, but incomplete, answers to the question of uneven development. There’s another set of unhelpful answers that center around the idea that certain peoples are inherently, biologically smarter than others. This idea gained traction in the middle of the nineteenth century as racial anthropology or “scientific racism.” More recently, a variation on the idea has emerged in the pseudoscientific study of associations between IQ scores and race in books such as The Bell Curve by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray (1994). Critiques of Herrnstein and Murray’s association between IQ and race point out that massive differences in educational opportunities available to rich and poor people might explain these different test scores (Jacoby and Glauberman 1995). The time I’ve spent traveling in the developing world suggests that it’s dangerous to discount the significance of opportunity. In societies where daily survival is a struggle, it can be very difficult to tell who’s a genius.

My work over the past two decades in sub-Saharan Africa has convinced me that intelligence, creativity, and humor are evenly distributed throughout the world. People’s ability to express their intelligence, creativity, and humor are heavily dependent on local circumstances, and the odds that we will even encounter these traits across barriers of language, nation, and culture are profoundly constrained by infrastructure, geography, and interest.



When I consider India, the main question that comes to my mind about spreadability is what is being spread and what is not. But which India are we talking about? There are many. A popular practice is to differentiate between “India” and “Bharat,” the Hindi name for India. You could say that India is rich, while Bharat is poor; India is English speaking, while Bharat speaks in regional languages; and India is urban, while Bharat is rural. All of these would be partially true oversimplifications. (There are rich farmers and landlords in rural Bharat, just as there are poor slum dwellers in urban India, and so on.) I think of the divide as all of these but, most of all, as one between those who have for decades been able to avail of opportunities for growth and those who are now catching up.

“India” is on par with anywhere else in the world in terms of sophisticated technological practices. The mainstream media is becoming fairly savvy in seeding spreadable content. Indian telecommunications provider Bharti Airtel ran a contest in August and September 2010 inviting Indians to upload their own new “crazy” cricket fandom videos to an Airtel YouTube channel, with the makers of the most popular videos winning a trip to watch the Airtel Champions League Twenty20 Cricket competition in South Africa. Airtel’s channel became one of the top sponsored channels on YouTube from India in terms of subscribers as well as views.

Today, it can seem as though almost every actor in Bollywood tweets incessantly, from superstars Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, and Salman Khan to newly famous directors such as Punit Malhotra and actresses such as Sonakshi Sinha. Bachchan was perhaps the earliest leader of the blogging trend among Bollywood stars. Each of his daily posts on his personal blog receives several hundred comments on average. Bachchan also has several hundred thousand Twitter fans, and his tweets and blog posts are amplified by the mainstream press that tracks him, as well as by his legion of fans, some of whom—for instance, Rahul Upadhyay—translate each blog post within a few hours into Hindi to further spread his message to non-English-reading Internet audiences. Bachchan also innovatively maintained a voice blog (that claimed to be the first of its kind in the world) called BachchanBol (Bachchan Says), where fans could dial into a number for 6 rupees per minute on their mobile phones and listen “in the most intimate and personal way about what he is doing, his thoughts and feelings, his experiences throughout his life—anytime and anywhere—at the push of a button” (OneIndia Explore n.d.).


This is the last of the essays we commissioned for the book, but we hope that the conversation doesn’t end here. We are going to be actively inviting others to share their responses to the book’s framework both through the book’s homepage and through this blog. If you have some thoughts you’d like to share, we’d love to hear from you. You can reach me at, or simply send along your comments attached to this blog. And as always, please help us spread these essays.

Once You Open Your Laptop… Activities from My Technologies and Culture Class (Part Two)

These next activities mark the shift towards graded group work in the class. By this point, the students are working in permanent teams and these activities are explicitly presented as practice runs towards the final exam.

Week 10 Tracking Viral Success (Henry Jenkins)

Each video on YouTube has a story. While it can be hard to trace the origins of some of these videos, each was posted by someone, for some reason. Most reflect ongoing conversations within particular subculture communities. Each may inspire comments either as written texts or response videos. And each may travel from YouTube to other communities through social networking tools. Teams should choose one example from amongst those which have spread the furthest and gained the most hits. Select from one of the following:

Gangnam Style
Call Me Maybe
S**t Girls Say
Someone I Used to Know

Your team’s task is to help us to  better understand where it came from, how YouTube users responded to the video (find at least two remix/response video), how it spread beyond its original community, and how mass media responded to the video’s sudden popularity .  Here are some steps which members of your team can take to get the information they need to answer this question.

  • Start with Youtube itself. Look at the video and the information that surrounds it.
  • Read the comments section on the YouTube page and see how people there responded to it.
  • Check to see if there are more than one versions of the same video on Youtube. You might also broaden your search to look at other common video sharing sites, such as Vimeo.
  • On Youtube, look for videos which responded to the original.  Or other related videos which surface alongside it and may help give us clues about its context.
  • Use a search engine to track references to the video on blogs or news coverage of its spread. See if you can find out anything about who produced the video and why.
  • Allow time to write out your answer using googledocs. You may want to take notes as you go so if you run out of time, we can at least trace the steps you took and what you found, before you consolidated your responses.

Your final response should include an evaluation of how such current theories as “viral media,” “Memes,”  and Spreadable Media might have addressed the specific patterns of production, circulation, and response you have identified.  Try to draw on at least three readings in a meaningful way. You will be evaluated based on the amount of research performed, on the quality of the analysis you offer, on how you build off concepts from the readings and the lectures to help frame your analysis (including, ideally, direct references to specific readings), and on how well you understanding the nature of the new communications environment.


Activity for Week 11: Kickstarter as a Web 2.0 Company (Andrew Schrock)

Kickstarter is a website for “crowd funding,” a way to finance creative and technical projects where small amounts of money are pledged with no guarantee of success, similar to a benefactor model spread across many parties. Projects must not be for charity, finite, and rewards should be intrinsically related to the project. Project proposals are reviewed by Kickstarter for adherence to guidelines, and funding is given only if projects meet their goal. About half of approved projects got funded in 2011, for an average funding rate of 46%, over a million pledges, with an average pledge of $86. The most popular projects are Film/video and music, although Technology has a larger average amount for successful financing.


Your assignment today is to summarize and contextualize a successful Kickstarter project, as selected from the list on the next page. Your tasks should include:



Your response should first be descriptive: tell us a story of who these people are, what their project is, and why you think this project succeeded over others. How does the project speak to particular communities through rewards and the video pitch? Second, you should draw on the readings from class to discuss the role Kickstarter played in the team’s personal / professional lives, and how crowdfunding operates in the larger funding ecosystem. Are they amateurs or professionals? How does Kickstarter serve as an alternative for established modes of funding, recall earlier models, or reinforce criticisms made of “web 2.0”? Were there controversies or discussions of this project on news sites and discussion forums? Be sure to employ concepts from at least three readings from this week.


List of Kickstarter Projects



Week 12 Intellectual Property in the Music Industry (Rhea Vichot)


William Fischer, in discussing the role of technology within the contemporary media landscape, envisions an alternative system for artists to be compensated for their work.

Utilizing either the role you were assigned in lecture on Wednesday or, if you choose, one of four roles below:


  • Artist
  • Record Label
  • Intellectual Property Law Firm
  • Fan


Analyze FIscher’s Alternative Compensation system through one of these perspectives. In doing so, be sure to reference at least three other readings. What are the advantages and disadvantages to such a system for the specific role you are writing as? How does this model address piracy and does it do so to the satisfaction of your role? What is the role of advertising in this alternative system? What changes would you want to make to Fischer’s recommendation based on our readings and discussions?

Week 14 Mapping Transmedia Worlds (Meryl Alper)

Transmedia storytelling, as defined by Prof. Jenkins, “represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience.”  Each medium contributes something unique to the world of the story.  Images, characters, stories, and songs travel between different media platforms, shaped in various ways by both corporations and consumers.


Your team’s task is to choose a media franchise, physically map how individual texts stand alone but also contribute to a larger transmedia story, and answer some questions on how your transmedia franchise reflects larger historical, cultural, political, and economic factors.


Choose one (1) of the following global transmedia franchises (and just a few texts to consider for each – there’s many more for you to map than the examples listed listed here):


1. Harry Potter (J.K. Rowling, Pottermore, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter)

2. Wizard of Oz (The Wiz, ruby slippers, L. Frank Baum, Wicked)

3. The Muppets (“Sam and Friends,” Cookie Monster and Rowlf in IBM commercials (e.g., Jim Henson, movies and movie trailers, “Sesame Street,”

4. Batman (Why So Serious? ARG, Batman Live, live-action and animated TV series)


Mapping (Approx. 20 min.)


Your group will receive a marker, a large piece of white paper, and a pack of Post-Its.  On the Post-Its you’ll write out different textual elements (e.g. for Harry Potter, on one Post-It you might write “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (The Movie)” and on another, you might write “Platform 9 ¾ in London’s Kings Cross Station”).  You’ll “map” the Post-Its onto one of the sheet of white paper, and use the marker to draw connections between the elements.  “Map” is a loose term and there’s no wrong way to do this – it doesn’t have to be neat and pretty, but should reflect connections and distance between elements.

Questions (Approx. 30 min.)

After the mapping exercise, your group should then answer the following questions.  In your responses, please meaningfully incorporate material from Prof. Jenkins’ book chapter, his blog post you were assigned, AND at least one of Nick DeMartino’s blog posts from this week:

1) How does the franchise engage different types of transmedia logics?:

  • Storytelling (e.g. recurring minor characters like Boba Fett in Star Wars, story arcs across texts like Kermit and Miss Piggy’s relationship)
  • Branding (e.g. iconography like the Ruby Slippers in Wizard of Oz, consumer goods)
  • Rituals (e.g. holiday movie viewings, Harry Potter movie premieres, Super Bowl commercials)

2) Explain how one of your Post-It note “texts” relates to specific trends impacting the entertainment industry at the time of its creation.


3) Identify who owns one texts in your transmedia franchise (e.g. The most recent Muppet movie was produced by Disney, not the Jim Henson Company, because Disney now owns the Muppets).  How does media concentration play a role in transmedia?

4) In his “Transmedia Storytelling 101” post, Prof. Jenkins writes, “Transmedia storytelling is the ideal aesthetic form for an era of collective intelligence.”  Based on your experience working collectively during the second half of the semester and in today’s section, why or why not do you agree with that statement?

Next Time: Final Exam


Once You Open Your Laptop…: Activities from My Technology and Culture Class (Part One)

Last time, I shared some of the results of a semester-long effort to integrate forms of transactive memory and collective intelligence into the teaching of an undergraduate lecture hall class on communication technology and culture.  Over the next few installments, I am sharing the discussion prompts and exam questions we developed in this context. Each is designed to support the efforts of small scale 3-4 person teams as they seek to apply concepts from lecture into the investigation of contemporary digital phenomenon. I am sharing these prompts in part because they incorporate so many resources which may be useful for other media scholars and in part because they illustrate the kinds of questions and activities that work on the scale of social interaction we are exploring.

As you will notice, the activities became a bit more streamlined as the course went along, reflecting what we learned in terms of how much material the teams could process within the designated classtime and how much background they needed in order to be able to perform the activities. Your experiences will certainly differ in terms of the abilities and backgrounds of your students.

The chunk of activities featured on today’s post were ungraded, but intended to give students a chance to work in groups. I will signal when we shifted to graded activities.

I was lucky to be working with three very dedicated and creative Annenberg PhD students, Meryl Alper, Andrew Schrock, and Rhea Vichot, and I’ve given credit where credit is due here, indicating which activities each of them developed for the class.


Week 3: Facebook and Privacy (Andrew Schrock)

Introduction: The terms of service (TOS) describe the uses that parent companies that maintain platforms and other web services deem acceptable. Among other things, Facebook’s terms of service describes the ways that Facebook captures, analyzes, and uses data related to our online identities and interactions. boyd and Marwick described privacy as “both a social norm and a process” – an entirely public or private life would not be feasible (or particularly enjoyable). Privacy is an extremely complex notion, reliant on culture and social context. Feelings of “privacy violations” are often sudden and leave us feeling confused or helpless, such as when our personal information is displayed in unexpected ways. To help us think through the complex negotiations that occur between individuals, platforms, and privacy, we can interrogate the TOS for possible areas of friction between platform-endorsed uses and individual practices.


Team activity: Your assignment is to read the terms of service for Facebook with a critical eye. In teams of 2-3, read a section of the terms of service at You will be assigned one of the following sections: 2 (sharing), 3 (safety), 4 (registration), 5 (protecting rights of others), 9 (special provisions to developers), or 11 (special provisions to advertisers). Please spend 10 minutes reviewing your section and prepare brief responses to the following questions.


Questions: What does Facebook consider private? How does it differ from yours? Do you see clauses that strike you as potential violations of privacy? If so, why?


What do you think Facebook frames the terms of service this way? How do you think Facebook uses the data it collects? How does Facebook exercise power?


Have you altered the privacy settings of Facebook or used social strategies to deliver messages to friends (“steganography” from danah/alice article)? Can you think of times you or your friends have accidentally or deliberately violated the TOS? If so, why did you?


Week 4 Wikipedia Mechanics (Rhea Vichot)
Warmup (5 Minutes)
[Citation Needed:]




  • Why is this funny? What kinds of critiques are being made about Wikipedia?

○      the humor is in the failed attempt at creating an “authoratative voice”. There are some critiques of the editorial policies of WIkipedia as well as the attempts to treat all subjects, no matter how trvial or transitory, with the same voice

○      I also feel there is a subtle poke at how white and nerdy Wikipedia editors are, but that’s just my take – RAV
Main Activity: How is Wikipedia Structured (Two Parts: 30-35 Minutes Total)
Part I (10-15 Minutes)
In groups of 2-3, have students look at one of the following Main and Talk Pages (5-10 minutes):


After 5 minutes, have each group provide a quick summary of the main points of their assigned page as well as an interesting discussion thread on the talk page.




  • What ideals are being espoused on these pages?

○      SIngular voice

○      Being not a research circle, but a repository for secondhand research

○      WIkipedia believes in “meritocracy” whether or not that is what happens in reality

  • What kinds of concerns are these policies hedging against?

○      Trolls, Abuse

○      Misinformation

○      Infighting, Faction building

  • Does this make you more or less likely to contribute content to Wikipedia?



  • Understand what Wikipedia’s editorial policy
  • Understand that these editorial Policies are agreed upon and what assumptions may go into those conventions

Part II (20-25 Minutes)
In the same groups, they should visit a Wikipedia page on a topic they are familiar with (A novel, Film or TV Show, Comm theory from another class, A piece of technology, or a historical figure or event). They should look at: (1) The structure and content of the main page, (2) The Talk Page and relevant discussion Points, and (3) The history of the Page and Talk, including the first version of the Page. (5-10 Minutes)




Dr. Pepper


Steve Jobs:


The Assassination of John F. Kennedy:


50 Shades of Grey:



  • What aspects of the topic were on the page. What was relegated to separate pages? What was missing, if anything?
  • What were the main points of controversy in the talk page?
  • What kinds of changes were made over time? Were they updates to the topic? Were they major changes to the content and form of the article?
  • How do the Editorial Policies above shape the content of the page and the discussion on the Talk Page?

○      Calls for citations, for better sources, and for discounting personal anecdotes as Original research and, thus, unsuitable.


  • Practice skills needed for the Research Paper
  • Remembering that Wikipedia Pages are Dynamic, both temporally, and content-wise
  • Understand how the editorial Policies above shape the pages displayed

Pull Back: Some Recent Issues  (5-10 Minutes)
Gender Gap among Wikipedia Editors:

Define Gender Gap? Look Up Wikipedia’s Contributor List:


Philip Roth encounters trouble editing his own Wikipedia page

“An Open Letter to Wikipedia” – Phillip Roth


  • In what ways do the editorial policies act as a barrier to contribution?

○      the weight of citations overwhelms even claims made by the subject of the article in question.

○      The community’s emphasis on meritocracy and “correctness” mobilizes privilege under the guise of “correct voice” and “citable sources” which shuts out marginalized voices.

  • What possible alternatives could there be to increase participation and the kinds of voices represented on Wikipedia?


Week 5 Advertising a New Medium (Meryl Alper)

Warmup (10 min): “Advertising” New Media


Screen 2 YouTube clips:

1)Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear Commercial (circa 1983)

2)Japanese Lots-o-Huggin bear commercial


Who do you think is the intended audience for these commercials?

What do you think these videos are trying to sell?


Main Activity: Advertising “New” Media (30 minutes: 20 minutes in group, 10 minute share with class)


Humans tend to overestimate the “newness” of new media.  Not only do many technologies build on what innovations came before them, but the way a medium is advertised also builds, incrementally and creatively, on prior advertisements and advertising styles.


In the book chapter you read, Lynn Spigel talks about “popular media discourses” – ways people talk about or represent (through media) how society experiences media.  Spigel’s big claim is that popular media discourses about television and the family reflected sometimes conflicting viewpoints: that TV would bring families together, drive them apart, but also a hybrid of the two.  She analyzes popular magazine ads as evidence for her claims.


This activity will be an exercise in meaningfully comparing and contrasting two print advertisements from different eras but that share some common themes and styles.


Students will break into groups of 3 or 4.  All students will have had the PowerPoint sent to them prior to section.


The PowerPoint has 6 different pairs of advertisements:


1A – RCA VideoDiscs – “How to improve your social life” – 1980s

1B – Hohner Harmonicas – “The Hero of Amateur Hour” – 1940s


2A – Dumont Television – “Once upon a time…” – 1940s

2B – Atari – “‘New Frontiers’: Learn to brave new worlds.” – 1980s

3A – Sony – “Sound of a different color – 1980s

3B – Majestic – “For sparkling, vivid colorful tone…” – 1940s


4A – Western Electric – “There are still some things Americans know how to do best” – 1970s

4B – Tobe Filterette – “YOU BET the war has changed us!” – 1940s


5A – Douglas – “How satellites can give us low cost emergency telephone service” – 1960s

5B – Panasonic – “With a new Panasonic cordless phone, you won’t sounds like you’re calling from another planet” – 1980s


6A – Sharp – “The first laptop designed to be your first laptop” – 1980s

6B – Bell Telephone System – “Television” – 1940s


Each group will be responsible for one pair of advertisements.



1. Briefly do an online search for major US & global events during the era of each ad.  How might these ads fit into larger historical trends (e.g. wars, economic up turns and down swings)?


2. Read the “copy” (written text) that the ads use.  A) On it’s own, what meaning does the copy have?  B) When taking into account the full visuals of the ad, does the copy take on additional or different meanings? (You’ll want to zoom in to take a closer look at the ads with smaller text.)


3. What kinds of anxieties and hopes do each of these ads reflect about:

  • Family life?
  • Social life?
  • Political life (in the US and internationally)?
  • Culture/stylistic trends?
  • Gender?
  • Economic issues?


4. Are the people in the ads are actually using the technology or are people are props around the object?  What does the space around the media look like?  How does this make a difference in the ads message?


5. Finally, don’t just describe each ad on its own; Put both of these ads in conversation with each other.  How might they complement and/or contradict each other?

Week 6 Hacker Week Discussion Activity (Andrew Schrock)

Introduction – What is open-source? (25 mins.)

Stephen Fry explains free software-

What do you make of open-source? How does it relate with previous concepts we’ve encountered in the class? Why do hackers like open-source? How can it be contrasted with more restrictive control over source code?


Protei – open-sourced hardware project – oil skimming  bots


Who is involved with this project? How does hardware hacking differ from software? What observations can you make about the progression of the project?

Second part – Software hacking hands-on activity (20 mins.)


One theme of this class is thinking not just about how systems exist in isolation, but how information flows across systems that can talk to one another. Hacking describes a way of viewing technology with a critical eye to understand their inner workings.


If-this-then-that is a website that connects “triggers” to “channels.” Triggers are activated when something happens, and channels are what is triggered. The combinations are called “recipes” and can be shared publicly and modified. For example, every time you are tagged in a Facebook photo (trigger), you receive an SMS text (channel).


In groups of 2, think of a cool or interesting recipe. Look to see if one has been created already. Either use that or create one of your own and make it active. Test it out. Did your idea already exist in a recipe? Can you think of triggers that you want but can’t find?


Week 7 YouTube’s Many Communities (Rhea Vichot)

Group Activity 1: YouTube as Site of Community and Remix Culture
In groups of 2-3, look through and choose a video from a participatory culture you are familiar with. If you can’t find one, you can also browse the YouTube charts: ( and look through the Most Discussed and Most Favorited videos for the past week or month.

1) Is it a commercial or amateur production? How can you tell?

2) What kinds of communities are these videos a part of? Is this a convergence of multiple communities?

3) Is the video critiquing or curating commercial content? In what ways?

4) Who are the creators of the content? How might that affect what is either being expressed or what sorts of comments are being made about the video?

5) What sorts of Intellectual Property (IP) are used? Are the uses if IP in your example defensible by Fair Use? How?

Group Activity 2: Creating Remix Videos

Using the YouTube Doubler: (, create a mashup of video and sound. Use the google URL shortener ( to post a link on Blackboard.


“Ant on a Treadmill Vs. Breakfast Machine-Danny Elfman”:


“Rooster Vs. Alex Jones”:



1) What sorts of Intellectual Property (IP) are used? Are the uses if IP in your example defensible by Fair Use? How?

2) What kind of juxtapositions does your example make? Do the juxtapositons made, either in your example or the ones provided, make a critique about the media used?


What Happened in My Open-Laptop Exam Class? (Part Two)

Learning About Collective Intelligence

From the start, the group activities were framed in terms of notions of collective intelligence and participatory culture, themes which had been central to the first part of the semester. By the time they got to the group activities, students would have done papers exploring how Wikipedia works, would have participated in lectures and discussions explaining some of the core findings from MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning initiatives, and would have looked at a range of social media and media sharing platforms and their dynamics. We had prepared for the problem sets by having earlier inquiry based activities in discussion which were organized around groups at a variety of different scales but which were ungraded (except in terms of attendance)
Students had been given a set of exam questions about a week prior to the midterm, with a subset of the questions appearing on the exam. Students could bring their notes and other materials into the exam and consult them as they filled in their blue books.  Students had the option of sharing information or pooling insights with other students on the midterm, as long as they disclosed who they worked with. Most of the students seemed to work with at least one other person on the exam.

In one case, a team of students formed and posted online their collective responses to each question on the class mailing list the morning the midterm was to be given. This unanticipated situation posed a last minute challenge to the class instructors: we decided to write to the class, warning them that not all of the information contained in the posted answers was accurate, that they should use the material at their own risk and that they should disclose whether they had consulted these responses in preparing their answers. It turned out that one of the students had taken the liberty to posting the work of the other group members and some of them were not happy being placed in that situation. Other students said that they were afraid to even read the posted answers, but for the most part, the class took the situation in stride, there was still a great deal of diversity in the quality and content of the midterm answers. Whatever was going on behind the scenes, students did not mindlessly copy down the information that had been posted.


Taking the Final

The team’s performance on the final exam was uneven, but generally, the groups succeeded in creating richer, more fully documented responses than they would have been able to do individually. Some of the responses felt fragmented and contradictory, as if the teams had not been able to fully smooth out differences between members about the best way to approach a question; some of the responses included too much information, including much that was not pertinent to answering the question.  We had tried to break each question down into a series of steps, much like the weekly problem sets, so that students had a good way to structure their problem solving activities. In general, students did best where the questions were concrete and pointed to specific readings or topics from the class; they had more difficulty abstracting from the information provided, speculating about its future implications, or evaluating real world phenomenon based on proposed criteria. The collective process brought forward a strong tendency towards synthesis but set clear limits on their capacity to produce shared critiques. While some of the questions explicitly called on them to bring in their own examples, they tended to still operate within the borders of the class materials rather than going outside in search of new information. These later insights might be consistent with what we know about Wikipedia for example: that participants are often guided by a shared understanding of what an encylopedia entry looks like, that the community’s norms value “neturality” over critique and that there is a ban on publishing “original research.”  Success here rests, then, on correctly calibrating our expectations to value what works well in a collaborative context.

Student Criticisms

For those students who found this process frustrating, the largest single factor identified was a sense of loss of control over their own classroom performance.  One put it simply, “I have more control of my grade the first half of the semester and less control of my grade the second half of the semester.” Many of the USC students are very good at playing the traditional classroom game, calculating how many points they needed to get their desired grades, and giving the teachers what they wanted. If they grew up in a networked culture, they also grew up in a culture based on standardized exams, and so there was a certain degree of discomfort, among many of the students, with a more open-ended process which did not tell them what they needed to know and with a structure which meant that they were dependent on others for their mutual success. As one student explained:

“I preferred doing things on my own because I got stuff done much faster and more efficiently. I did not like relying on my other group members to do readings because I never knew if they had done them properly or not, and some of my team members did not even show up to a single class. That meant that they were going to receive the participation in lecture points based on my participation, and that does not seem fair to me at all.”


Others felt bruised by the lack of respect and trust shown them by other team members: “In order to work in a group, people have to understand the strengths and weaknesses of their group members and they have to be flexible.  When there are group members that don’t trust other group members and want to constantly be in control, the group fails.” One student described the final exam as a “debacle” because the group could not agree on strategies or criteria for producing a solid answer, while another complained about harsh treatment from classmates who did not value each other’s contributions: “I have never felt so disrespected in my entire life. Some of the other group members made me feel like dirt, just because they thought that they were better than two of us.”

Many of the frustrations centered around unequal sets of expectations between team members, including a different sense of how well they wanted or needed to do in the class. Here, for example, was a student who compared negatively the experience of working with an assigned group in a required class and the processes which made collective intelligence work outside the classroom:

“I did not particularly enjoy the group portion of the class because I did not trust certain members of my group to complete the work and to do it well. Although the group portion theoretically could have stimulated more conversation about the topics and inspired people to participate in their learning, a couple of members in my group seemed very uninterested and content to skate by on the work my other group members and I did…  I fully understand the value of learning how to work in groups, especially given our shift toward participatory culture; but I assume in participatory culture, the participants actually have some glimmer of interest in the content they are creating.”


Student Enthusiasm
For those who had a more successful experience, they felt supported by their teams and energized by the shared responsibility over the material:

“It was nice to have other people to help with the assignments. Our team worked very well together, and I think learning how to work in teams is an important skill to have. In the second half of the semester, I was pushed to do my assignments because I knew that the team relied on me. Compared to having to do assignments alone, it was nice knowing that if there was a reading that I didn’t understand, then there was somebody in the group that could help contribute.”

“Honestly, I was a little skeptical as to how group work would ultimately play out and whether it would be successful, but to my pleasant surprise it was a great success. Just as the class was intended, different teammates were responsible for different materials and therefore were able to master different contents of the class and teach them to their team members. While I felt that the first half of the class was also well done, I had an even better learning experience in the second half of the class. While there was some participatory activity going on in the first half of the class, I believe there was a well-working participatory culture in the second half. The professor and the TA’s structured the discussions very strategically to be able to push the students to work quickly and efficiently in their teams by grouping their knowledge into a collective product. I genuinely feel that this made the team much greater than the sum of its parts.”

“Group work is definitely more challenging. However it challenged me to practice better negotiation and communication skills. I would consider the second half a practical application for all the communication theories learned in past years”

“I really liked having the groups for the readings and in-class discussions. I felt that I was able to cover so much more material (even if only through the short-hand of my teammates) by examining the notes for ALL of the readings on our Google Doc. I felt that I was more informed coming in to lecture. The first half of the semester, it was often difficult for me to get all of the assigned readings done. But with only one reading per night, it was a lot easier. Plus, I had the weight of my team to encourage me to actually get it done on time.”

In many cases, they were thrilled not to have to go it alone, to be able to turn easily to someone else on the team who understood a particular chunk of course material better than they did. And even some who did not have a perfect group experience saw the value in the end of the process:

“If anything it made me realize that we all have limitations. One person can not carry a group. I feel that it all worked out in the end . I wish we had better communication within our group though.”

Some of the teams clearly acquired new techniques for coordinating and collaborating within a network: “Working on assignments together via Google Docs was very helpful because we each knew our roles and could quickly add to each other’s work if needed.”


Assessing the Experience

For all of the frustrations expressed by some students about students getting equal points despite not doing equal work, a review of the grades by group suggests there was significant variation in their final performance in the class within each team in part because of their individual performance in the first half of the semester and in part because the mechanism of rewarding those who attended and participated in sections worked as it was designed to do.

Overall, students seemed to have reflected deeply about the advantages and disadvantages of the collaborative production of knowledge, a theme which recurred throughout the class, and in the process, they developed a stronger appreciation of  research as a process rather than imaging knowledge as a contained body of information. There’s still a lot we all have to learn about making these kinds of group processes function, especially given the degree to which they fly in the face of the ways students have been socialized throughout their formal education to think of themselves as autonomous learners. Clearly, I am troubled by the reports of some of the destructive experiences which occurred within some of the more disfunctional groups, yet, over all, many more students expressed enthusiasm for the process than shared frustrations.

Interestingly, when I taught the subject two years ago with a much more conventional grading scheme, the average GPA for the class was 3.14, while the average GPA for the class with the collective experiment was 3.21, well within the average variation from one semester to the next.





What Happened With My Open Laptop-Exam Class (Part One)


My plans for an open-laptop exam generated a fair amount of buzz when I announced them in the fall, so I figured you would be interested to learn more about how things played out. Annenberg PhD Student Adam Kahn, who helped design this curricular intervention/innovation, is still working through a massive amount of survey data collected about the process, so any observations I share now are provisional based primarily on what I saw from in front of the lecture room and on exit surveys students completed after turning in their final exams.  In general, I think the experiment was successful, even though, with any design process, there are many things I would change on the next iteration. And, as we will see, the experience had some critics among the students in the class.

To remind you, the basic set up was this: Students completed a series of individual assignments throughout the first part of the term, which counted for 50 percent of their total grades. In the second part, they were put onto teams, which worked together on every assignment, including a series of weekly problem sets conducted in the discussion section, contributions to class discussion, and the final exam. Students had to attend the discussion section in order to receive the team’s points for their contributions, but otherwise, participants received their grades based on collective rather than individual performance. We introduced this process into a 200 level lecture hall class on New Media Technologies and Culture, with a population of 110 students, mostly Communication majors, taking what was a required subject for their degree.  You can see the syllabus for the class, including the assignment structure, here.


Impact on Class Discussion

My first observation was that the emotional tone of the class shifted dramatically following the midterm as we placed students on teams. The teams sat together in the lecture hall; they chose a shared name, and they used that name to identify themselves when they participated in the class discussions. From the start, there was a strong sense of team identity for most of the groups. I’ve speculated that this approach might work especially well in the context of USC where there is such a strong sports culture.

From the start, I had placed a strong emphasis on class participation during lecture sections, trying to move towards a more Socratic approach to teaching the content. There had been push back early on when I relied too heavily on discussion, and so I had tried to find a balance between short lectures designed to introduce core concepts and then more open ended discussion to allow students to share their perspectives on core debates of the digital age. We struggled a bit with managing discussion in a large lecture hall context: students balked at the mechanics of passing around microphones, but some of the students had trouble being heard in the large space and were thus more reluctant to speak. Over the course of the term, the process started to feel more natural for both the teacher and the students, and we had some very engaged and informed conversations.

As with any discussion class, there were a number of students who were quick to raise their hands and engage, while there were others who were intimidated by the large size of the class. The most active participants continued to dominate discussion in the second half, but there were many others who made their first contributions during this period, either empowered by having teammates supporting them or by the sense of competitiveness that teams introduced into the mix. As one student explained, “I liked that we all sat together during lecture. This enabled us to whisper about the lecture content and, all together, come up with a question to pose or a comment to offer.” More dramatically, team members were much more likely to anchor their statements to specific statements or information contained within the readings. Indeed, it was clear that a much higher percentage of the students had done the readings and done them closely knowing that they were dependent upon each other for the quality of information being transmitted to the group.

A highlight of the course came when we conducted a role playing activity in one of the lecture sessions focused around debates about digital piracy and the evolution of new business models for the music industry. Each team was assigned a specific role — from new artists trying to break into the industry to recording studio executives, from fans to teachers and librarians, from religious performers to international musicians who are developing a following in the United States. The teams were assigned their parts in advance and encouraged to do a little home work so that they had thought through their assigned perspectives. Each group was asked to make an opening statement, which were surprisingly well informed, for the most part, and then, they were given time to negotiate across groups to see if they could identify common interests and propose new solutions to the issues. This was the only time in the term when we encourage activity across groups rather than within groups, and multiple students pointed to this activity as transformative in terms of their understanding of the value of the team process. It also resulted in a spectacular discussion which got students out of familiar debating points around issues of digital piracy and allowed them to develop a more systemic understanding of the issues. I would love a way to create more such experiences across the class the next time I teach it.

Working Within Teams

Students were placed randomly on teams, in the hopes of insuring greater diversity. On the one hand, we felt that if students self-selected teams, they would be more likely to choose people with whom they already shared many common interests, i.e. people who were like themselves. On the other hand, we also wanted to avoid the common pattern of consciously combining strong and weak students onto teams together, which tends to result in the stronger students being asked to carry the load by themselves.  In the exit surveys, students were sharply divided between those who felt that the random assignments insured that they met new contacts and brought more diverse knowledge together and those who felt that some of the logistical problems they encountered would have been minimized if students had been able to work with people they already knew.  Here, for example, was a student who valued being randomly assigned: “When my group worked, we worked efficiently because we didn’t know each other at all, so there were few distractions. We were friendly, but didn’t have a lot in common, which was conducive to learning the subject material.” Yet this student also noted that their lack of familiarity with each other could sometimes result in a lack of accountability:” I didn’t make it to class the first day and realized later that no one in my group had taken any initiative to do the necessary organization for future readings, in-class work, etc. No one was really a leader. We couldn’t count on each other. There were no ground rules set, etc.”  Some students wanted better mechanisms for dealing with students who failed to contribute to the collective good: ““I think the students should either be able to choose their own groups or somehow get rid of the weakest link.” The large scale of the lecture class makes it particularly likely to attract students who are not strongly motivated by the subject matter and who are likely to exploit the good will of their classmates.

Each team consisted of 3-5 students (with the unevenness a product of the uneven number of students who had registered for the different discussion sections which met at different days and times). It was clear from the start that the larger teams worked better, overall, with smaller teams more vulnerable to individual students who let down their team through under-performance.

Most of the teams became effective learning communities, but not all of them did. We had taken steps to insure shared expectations of members, asking each team to write a contract together so that they had a mutual understanding of their responsibilities to each other. We had built in one core check on group participation — i.e. the students had to attend the discussion section and work on the problem set in order to gain credit for that assignment.  Otherwise, we relied on social mechanisms to insure that they held each other accountable. Through these weekly problem sets, students gained practice working together, learning each other’s strengths and vulnerabilities. We had felt using the discussion sections in this way would insure some regular face-to-face time between group members (as did having students sit in team during lecture).

Overall, attendance in discussion sections increased with the emergence of a team structure, though there were still many students who still did not attend class regularly, a manifestation of the “free loading” problem which often crops up when working within a commons. And for those teams which were struggling with the process, there was a perception that the instructors were not doing “anything” about it. We wanted to resist the temptation of shuffling the teams once the process began, since doing so would be likely to disrupt the coherence of those teams which were functioning well, since we wanted to encourage teams to find ways to work through their own problems seeing learning to self-correct their process as an important learning opportunity. In many cases, teams that did not gel at first did find their footing over time, part of the value of repeated experiences working in teams, while in some cases, teams that had worked well up until that point hit real friction when they turned their attention to dealing with the high stakes final exam. Here, for example, was a student who felt the group had gotten in the swing of things just in time for the exam: “My group members let me down on numerous occasions but our final went so well and so smoothly that I’m having a hard time deciding how I felt about the whole thing overall.”  TAs did give advice to team members who were having a frustrating time; we felt that there were penalties built into the system for those members who under-perfomed — again, the fact that they did not get points for sections which they missed and the likelyhood that underperforming students had also underperformed during the individual portion of the class.  Next time, I want to provide much greater advice to the students about strategies for insuring team cohesion and meaningful interaction.

We struggled with the question of whether we should have introduced some self-evaluation process where team members could assess what each contributed to the process and so that we could adjust grading accordingly. We choose not to do so for several reasons: We feared that such a practice might further fracture teams which were struggling to survive, raising the tension level at the time when we wanted teams to be developing greater trust in each other, and as importantly, we felt that it would be inappropriate to change the rules of the game mid-process.  Next time we do this, I am going to weigh this question again more closely, since the lack of such formal mechanisms was the single most frequent complaint we heard about the group activities.


Designing Problems

Designing the problem sets for the discussion section proved challenging for a number of reasons. We wanted the questions to be sufficiently challenging so that students were motivated to put in the extra efforts and also be able to see that they could indeed do more collectively than they would have been able to do individually. We wanted the questions to be open-ended enough so that students could show what they knew, bring their individual and collective knowledge beyond the class into the process, and have a chance to dig deeper into their own passions and interests. We also wanted to have questions which relied on as many of the readings from the week as possible, since we were encouraging students to divide up the readings between them and then deploy what they needed in response to each problem. Early on, it was clear the teams needed more guidance on the best way to find the information they needed, and the challenges of working in a hour long discussion section (well, 50 minutes really) meant that we needed to simplify the options in order to allow students to get out of the gate quicker. Here, for example, is how one student described their team’s frustrations:

“The assignments given in discussion sections were rather long and difficult for the amount of time allotted to students to complete them. The assignments also placed a large emphasis on the skill of being able to produce quick thoughts and responses to questions that students were not fully prepared to answer. If the questions were given prior to coming to class, it would have helped to allow students to come in more prepared and produce more thoughtful and engaging responses.”

We streamlined the problems week by week, but students still complained that they did not have time to fully complete the assignments during the class period. (I am going to share with you the assignments in a follow up series of posts).  We had been reluctant to extend the time working on the problem sets because we were afraid the most anxious students would turn them into a much bigger project than intended and because extending them beyond the class time would increase the logistical challenges involved in working with teams.

While most of the students complained about the time constraints, some felt like we had achieved an ideal balance: “I think that the discussion section questions struck the perfect balance in that they pushed the students to produce a lot of quality work in a short amount of time, yet it was completely fair as our knowledge was collaborated from what we obtained throughout the week. I was always very satisfied and impressed with the work we were able to produce in such short periods of time.” Some students used the practice runs to rehearse strategies and refine skills in preparation for the final: “The activities done during discussion section were also beneficial because you could kind of gage what people’s strengths and weaknesses in the course material were and how it can be applied to the final.”

Overall, we felt the quality of the problem set responses were strong, with most of the teams scoring in the A-B range, and with signs of general improvement over time, suggesting that, in most cases, the teams were learning to work better together each time they confronted a new problem.