Confronting the Challenges of a Participatory Culture (Part Three)

The following is the third installment of the white paper on youth and participatory culture which I developed for the MacArthur Foundation. You can read the whole paper here. This blog offers more information about the larger Digital Learning and Youth initiative. For the full cites of the materials referenced, please check the white paper. I was assisted in preparing this report by Ravi Purushotma, Margaret Weigel, Katherine Clinton, and Alice J. Robison.

Today's installment digs deeper into the relationship between what we are calling the new media literacies and things schools have traditionally taught, and then it starts to lay out the frameworks of social skills and cultural competencies which we think are emerging through youth involvement in participatory culture. Today, I am dealing with the first two of eleven such skills we identify in the report.

These skills are things we think young people need to acquire if they are going to be ready for full participation in the new media cultures. These skills emerge from the existing research on youth, media, and informal learning. We have tried to anchor each skill with a range of examples of existing practices from schools and after school programs which suggest just some of the ways that these skills could be linked to instructional activity. We know many educators are already trying to incorporate these skills and competencies into their pedagogy. We see this white paper as offering them support as well as hopefully more insights that can further inform their efforts.

What Should We Teach?: Rethinking Literacy

"Adolescents need to learn how to integrate knowledge from multiple sources, including music, video, online databases, and other media. They need to think critically about information that can be found nearly instantaneously through out the world. They need to participate in the kinds of collaboration that new communication and information technologies enable, but increasingly demand. Considerations of globalization lead us toward the importance of understanding the perspective of others, developing a historical grounding, and seeing the interconnectedness of economic and ecological systems." -- Bertram C. Bruce (2002)

For the moment, let's take as our starting point a definition of "21st century literacy" offered by the New Media Consortium (2005): "21st century literacy is the set of abilities and skills where aural, visual, and digital literacy overlap. These include the ability to understand the power of images and sounds, to recognize and use that power, to manipulate and transform digital media, to distribute them pervasively, and to easily adapt them to new forms" We would modify this definition in two ways.

First, textual literacy remains a central skill in the 21st century: the new media literacies include traditional literacies that took shape around print culture as well as the newer forms of literacy that have taken shape around mass and digital media. Much writing about 21st Century Literacies seems to assume that communicating through visual, digital or audiovisual media will displace reading and writing. We fundamentally disagree. Before students can engage with the new participatory culture, they must be able to read and write. Just as the emergence of written language changed our relationship to orality, and the emergence of printed texts changed our relationship to written language, the emergence of new digital modes of expression changes our relationship to printed texts. In some ways, as researchers such as Rebecca Black and Henry Jenkins have argued, the new digital cultures provide support systems to help youth improve their core competencies as readers and writers. They may provide opportunities for young people to get feedback about their writing and to gain experience in communicating with a larger public, experiences which might once have been restricted to student journalists but are now available to anyone who wants to blog or keep a live journal. So, even on the level of traditional literacies, we need to change our paradigms to reflect the media change which is taking place around us. Re-skilling involves expanding the required competencies, not pushing aside old skills to make room for the new.

Beyond core literacy, students need research skills. Among other things, they need to know how to access books and articles through a library; to take notes on and integrate secondary sources; to assess the reliability of data; to read maps and charts; to make sense of scientific visualizations; to grasp what kinds of information are being conveyed by various systems of representation; to distinguish between fiction and non fiction, fact and opinion; to construct arguments and marshall evidence. If anything, these traditional skills take on even greater importance as students venture beyond collections which have been hand screened by librarians and into the more open space of the web. Some of these skills have traditionally been taught by librarians who, in the modern era, are reconceiving their role -- less as curators of bounded collections and more as information facilitators who can help users find what they need, online or off, and can cultivate good strategies for searching out needed material.

Students also need to develop technical skills -- they need to know how to log on, to search, to use various programs, to focus a camera, to edit footage, to do some basic programming and so forth. Yet, to reduce the new media literacies to these technical skills would be a mistake on the order of confusing penmanship with composition. Since the technologies are undergoing such rapid change, it is probably impossible to codify which technologies or techniques students need to know. Schools have so far conceived of the challenges of digital media primarily in these technical terms with the computer lab displacing the typing classroom but too often, this training occurs in a vacuum cut off from larger notions of literacy or research.

As media literacy advocates have claimed over the past several decades, students also need to acquire a basic understanding of the ways media representations structure our perceptions of the world, the economic and cultural contexts within which mass media is produced and circulated, the motives and goals which shape the media that they consume, and alternative practices which operate outside the commercial mainstream. Such groups have long called for schools to foster a critical understanding of media as one of the most powerful social, economic, political, and cultural institutions of our era. What we are calling here the new media literacies should be taken as an expansion of rather than a substitution for the mass media literacies.

What New Skills Matter?: New Social Skills and Cultural Competencies

All of these skills are necessary, even essential, but they are not sufficient. And that brings us to our second point about the notion of 21st century literacy described above: the new media literacies should be seen as social skills and cultural competencies -- ways of interacting within a larger community -- and not simply as individualized skills to be used for personal expression. The social dimensions of literacy are acknowledged in the New Media Center document only in terms of the distribution of media content. We really need to push further by talking about how meaning emerges collectively and collaboratively in the new media environment and how creativity operates differently in an open-source culture based on sampling, appropriation, transformation, and repurposing. The social production of meaning is more than individual interpretation multiplied; it represents a qualitative difference in the ways we make sense of cultural experience and in that sense, it represents a profound change in how we understand literacy. In such a world, youth need skills at working within social networks, at pooling knowledge within a collective intelligence, at negotiating across cultural differences which shape the governing assumptions of different communities, and of reconciling conflicting bits of data to form a coherent picture of the world around them. We need to integrate these new knowledge cultures into our schools - not only through group work but also through long distance collaborations between different learning communities. Students need to discover what it is like to contribute their own expertise to a process which involves many intelligences, a process which they encounter readily in their participation in fan discussion lists or blogging, for example. Indeed, this may be what is most radical about the new literacies -- that they enable collaboration and knowledge sharing with large-scale communities who may never interact on a face to face basis. Right now, schools are still training autonomous problem-solvers, whereas as students enter the workplace, they are increasingly being asked to work in teams, drawing on different sets of expertise, and collaborating to solve problems.

Changes in the media environment are altering our understanding of literacy and requiring new habits of mind, new ways of processing culture and interacting with the world around us. We are just starting to identify and assess these emerging sets of social skills and cultural competencies. We have only a broad sense of which of these competencies are most apt to matter as young people move from the realms of play and education and into the adult world of work and society. What follows, then, is a provisional list of eleven core skills needed to participate within the new media landscape. These skills have been identified both by reviewing the existing body of scholarship on new media literacies and by surveying the forms of informal learning that are taking place within the participatory culture we are describing here. As suggested above, mastering these skills remains a key step in preparing young people "to participate fully in public, community, [Creative] and economic life." In short, these are skills some kids are learning through participatory culture but they are also skills that all kids need to learn if they are going to be equal participants in the world of tomorrow. We identify a range of activities which might be deployed in schools or after school programs, across a range of disciplines and subject matters, to foster these social skills and cultural competencies. These activities are by no means an exhausted list but rather are simply illustrations of the kind of work already being done in each area. Part of the goal of this report is to challenge those who have responsibility for teaching our young people to think more systematically and creatively about the many different ways they might build these skills into their day-to-day activities in ways that are appropriate to the content they want to teach.

Play-- the capacity to experiment with your surroundings as a form of problem solving

Play, as psychologists and anthropologists have long recognized, has a key role in shaping children's relationship to their bodies, tools, communities, surroundings, and knowledge. Most of children's earliest learning comes through playing with the materials at hand. Through play, children try on roles, experiment with culturally central processes, manipulate core resources, and explore their immediate environments. As they grow older, play can motivate other forms of learning.

Anthropologist Mary Louise Pratt describes what her son and his friend learned through baseball card collecting:

"Sam and Willie learned a lot about phonics that year by trying to decipher surnames on baseball cards, and a lot about cities, states, heights, weights, places of birth, stages of life.... And baseball cards opened the door to baseball books, shelves and shelves of encyclopedias, magazines, histories, biographies, novels, books of jokes, anecdotes, cartoons, even poems.... Literacy began for Sam with the newly pronounceable names on the picture cards and brought him what has been easily the broadest, most varied, most rewarding, and most integrated experience of his 13-year life."

Pratt's account suggests this playful activity motivated three very different kinds of learning. First, the activity itself demanded certain skills and practices, which had clear payoffs for academic subjects. For example, working out batting averages gave Sam an occasion to rehearse his math skills, arranging his cards introduced him to the process of classification, and discussing the cards gave him reason to work on his communication skills. On another level, the cards provided a scaffold, which motivated and shaped his acquisition of other forms of school knowledge. The cards inspired Sam to think about the cities where the teams were located and learn map- reading skills, the history of baseball provided a context through which he understood 20th century American history, and the interest in stadiums introduced some basics about architecture. Third, Sam developed a sense of himself as a learner: "He learned the meaning of expertise, of knowing about something well enough that you can start a conversation with a stranger and feel sure of holding your own" (Pratt, 1991, p. 34).

Game designer Scot Osterweil (The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis) has described the mental attitude which surrounds play as highly conducive for learning:

When children are deep at play they engage with the fierce, intense attention that we'd like to see them apply to their schoolwork. Interestingly enough, no matter how intent and focused a child is at that play, maybe even grimly determined they may be at that game play, if you asked them afterwards, they will say that they were having fun. So, the fun of game play is not non-stop mirth but rather the fun of engaging of attention that demands a lot of you and rewards that effort. I think most good teachers believe that in the best moments classroom learning can be the same kind of fun. But a game is a moment when the kid gets to have that in spades, when the kid gets to be focused and intent and hardworking and having fun at the same time.

You will note here a shift in emphasis from fun (which in our sometimes still puritanical culture gets defined as the opposite of seriousness) to engagement. When you play a game, a fair amount of what you end up doing isn't especially fun at the moment. It can be grindwork, not unlike homework, which allows you to master skills or collect materials or put things in their proper place in anticipation of a payoff down the line. The key is that this activity is deeply motivated. You are willing to go through the grindwork because it has a goal or purpose which matters to you. When that happens, you are engaged -- whether we are talking about the engagement many of us find in our professional lives or in the learning process or the engagement which some of us find through playing games. For the current generation, games may represent the best way of tapping that sense of engagement with learning.

While to date much of the discussion of games and education have seen games as motivating kids to learn other kinds of content (Pratt's move from baseball cards to geography), there has been a growing recognition among researchers that play itself -- as a means of exploring and processing knowledge, as a mode of problem-solving -- may be a valuable skill children need to master as preparation for subsequent roles and responsibilities in the adult world. In other words, by itself, play is helpful for understanding a content area in the sense that it allows a player to "experiment" with a learning environment. Playing with baseball cards won't teach a student the principles of statistics, but it will orient him or her to the experience of thinking about statistical variations.

Part of what makes play valuable as a mode of problem solving and learning is that it lowers the emotional stakes of failing: players are encouraged to suspend some of the real world consequences of the represented actions, to take risks and learn through trial and error. The underlying logic is one of die and do over. As literacy expert James Gee has noted, children often feel locked out of the worlds described in their textbooks through the depersonalized and abstract prose used to describe them. Games construct compelling worlds players move through. Players feel a part of those worlds and have some stake in the events unfolding there. Games not only provide a rationale for learning: what players learn is put immediately to use to solve compelling problems with real consequences in the world of the game. Game designer Will Wright (Sim City, The Sims) has argued, "In some sense, a game is nothing but a set of problems. We're actually selling people problems for 40 bucks a pop....And the more interesting games in my opinion are the ones that have a larger solution space. In other words, there's not one specific way to solve a puzzle, but, in fact, there's an infinite range of solutions. .... The game world becomes an external artifact of their internal representation of the problem space." For Wright, the player's hunger for challenge and complexity motivates them to pick up the game in the first place.

Games follow something akin to the scientific process: Players are asked to make their own discoveries and then apply what they learn to new contexts. No sooner does a player enter a game than she begins identifying core conditions and looking for problems which must be addressed; based on the available information, the player poses a certain hypothesis about how the world works and what are the best ways of bringing its properties under their control; she tests and refines that hypothesis through actions in the game which either fail or succeed; the player refines the model of the world as she goes. More sophisticated games allow her to do something more -- to experiment with the properties of the world, framing new possibilities which involve manipulation of relevant variables and see what happens. Meta-gaming, the discourse which surrounds game play, provides a context for players to reflect upon and articulate what they have learned through game play. Here, for example, is how Kurt Squire describes the meta-gaming which occurs around Civilization III: "Players enroll as advanced players, having spent dozens, if not hundreds of hours with the game and having mastered its basic rules. As players begin to identify and exploit loopholes, they propose and implement changes to the games' rules, identify superior strategies, and invent new game rule systems, including custom modifications and scenarios."

Early readers of this report have expressed some skepticism that schools should or could teach young people how to play. This resistance reflects the confusion between play as a source of fun and play as a form of engagement and experimentation. While it is certainly not a bad idea to introduce more fun into our schools, we are really focusing here on a mode of active engagement, one which encourages experimentation and risk-taking, one which sees the process of solving a problem to be as important as finding the answer, one which offers clearly defined goals and roles which encourage strong identifications and emotional investments. As we will see, this form of play is closely related to two other important skills, Simulation and Performance.

What Might Be Done:

Educators (in school and out) tap into play as a skill when they encourage free-form experimentation and open-ended speculation.


History teachers ask students to entertain alternative history scenarios, speculating on what might have happened if Germany had won World War II or if native Americans had colonized Europe. Such questions can lead to productive explorations centering on why certain events occurred the ways that they did and what impact they had. Such questions also don't have right and wrong answers; they emphasize creative thinking rather than memorization; they allow diverse levels of engagement; they allow students to feel less intimidated by adult expertise; yet they also lend themselves to the construction of arguments and the mobilization of evidence.

*Art and design students are turned loose with a diverse array of everyday materials and encouraged to use them to solve a specified design problem. Such activities encourage students to revisit familiar materials and everyday objects with fresh perspectives, to think through common problems from multiple directions, and to respect alternative responses to the same challenge. This approach is closely associated with the innovative design work of Ideo, a Palo Alto consultant, but can also be seen in various reality television programs, such as Project Runway or The Iron Chef, which require contestants to adopt distinctive and multiple approaches to shared problems.

*Games offer the potential to learn through a new form of direct experience. Physics teachers use the game Supercharged, which was developed as part of the MIT Games to Teach initiative, to help students to better understand core principles of electromagnetism. As a means for learning the laws of electromagnetism through first-hand experience, students navigate electromagnetic mazes by planting electrical charges that attract or repel their vehicles. Teachers can then build on this intuitive and experiential learning in the classroom, introducing equations, diagrams, or visualizations that help them to better understand the underlying principles that they are deploying and then sending them back to play through the levels again and improve their performance.

Simulation -- the ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real world processes

New media provides powerful new ways of representing and manipulating information. New forms of simulation expand our cognitive capacity, allowing us to deal with larger bodies of information, to experiment with more complex configurations of data, to form hypotheses quickly and test them against different variables in real time. The emergence of systems-based thinking across a range of academic and professional fields has gone hand in hand with the development of digital simulations. Simulations can be effective in representing known knowledge or in testing emerging theories. Because simulations are dynamic, and because they are governed by the systematic application of grounding assumptions, they can be a tool for discovery as researchers observe the emergent properties of these virtual worlds.We learn through simulations by a process of trial and error: new discoveries lead researchers to refine their models, tweaking particular variables, trying out different contingencies. Educators have always known that students learn more through direct observation and experimentation than from reading about something in a textbook or listening to a lecture. Simulations broaden the kinds of experiences users can have with compelling data, giving us a chance to see and do things which would be impossible in the real world.

Contemporary video games allow kids to play with sophisticated simulations and in the process, to develop an intuitive understanding of how we might use simulations to test our assumptions about the way the world works. John Seely Brown tells the story of a 16 year old boy, Colin, for whom the game, Caesar III, had shaped his understanding of the ancient world:

"Colin said: "I don't want to study Rome in high school. Hell, I build Rome every day in my on-line game" ... Of course, we could dismiss this narrative construction as not really being a meaningful learning experience, but a bit later he and his dad were engaged in a discussion about the meaningfulness of class distinctions - lower, middle, etc - and his dad stopped and asked him what class actually means to him. Colin responded: "Well, it's how close you are to the Senate." "Where did you learn that, Colin?" he said, "The closer you are physically to the Senate building, the plazas, the gardens, or the Triumphal Arch raises the desirability of the land, makes you upper class and produces plebians. It's based on simple rules of location to physical objects in the games (Caesar III)". Then, he added, "I know that in the real world the answer is more likely how close you are to the senators, themselves - that defines class. But it's kinda the same."

Colin's story helps us to see two important aspects of simulations for learning: first, students often find simulations far more compelling than more traditional ways of representing knowledge; consequently, they spend more time engaging with them and make more discoveries. Second, students experience what they have learned from a robust simulation as their own discoveries. These simulations expose players to powerful new ways of seeing the world and encourage them to engage in a process of modeling which is central to the way modern science operates. Many contemporary games -- Railroad Tycoons for instance -- incorporate spread sheets, maps, graphs and charts, which students must learn to use in order to play the game. Students are thus motivated to move back and forth across this complex and integrated information system, acting upon the simulated environment on the basis of information gleamed from a wide range of different representations.

As games researcher Eric Klopfer cautions, however, simulations enhance learning only if we understand how to read them:

"As simulations inform us on anything from global warming to hurricane paths to homeland security, we must know how to interpret this information. If we know that simulations give us information on probabilities we can make better decisions. If we understand the assumptions that go into simulations we can better evaluate that evidence and act accordingly. Of course this applies to decision makers who must act upon that information (police, government, insurance, etc.); it also is important that each citizen should be able to make appropriate decisions themselves based on that information. As it is now, such data is either interpreted by the general public as 'fact' or on the contrary 'contrived data with an agenda.' Neither of these perspectives is useful and instead some ability to analyze and weigh such evidence is critical. Simulations are only as good as their underlying models. In a world of competing simulations, we need to know how to critically assess the reliability and credibility of different models for representing the world around us."

(personal correspondence).

Students who deploy simulations through learning have more flexibility in being able to customize models and manipulate data to explore questions which have captured their own curiosity. There is a thin line between reading a simulation (which may involve changing variables and testing outcomes) and designing simulations. As new modeling technologies become more widely available and as the toolkits needed to construct such models are simplified, students have the opportunity to construct their own simulations. Ian Bogost argues that computer games foster what he calls procedural literacy -- a capacity to restructure and reconfigure knowledge, to look at problems from multiple vantage points, and through this process, to develop a greater systemic understanding of the rules and procedures which shape our everyday experience. Bogost writes, "Engendering true procedural literacy means creating multiple opportunities for learners --- children and adults -- to understand and experiment with reconfigurations of basic building blocks of all kinds". Young people are learning how to work with simulations through their game play and schools should build upon such knowledge to help them to become critical readers and effective designers of simulation and modeling tools. They need to be given a critical vocabulary for understanding the kind of thought experiments which get performed through simulations and the way these new digital resources inform research across a range of disciplines.

What Might Be Done:

Students need to learn how to manipulate and interpret existing simulations and how to construct their own dynamic models of real world processes.

*Teachers in a business class ask kids to make imaginary investments in the stock market and then monitor actual business reports to track the rise and falls of their "holdings." This well-established classroom practice mirrors what kids do when they form fantasy sports leagues, tracking the performance of players on the sports page to score their results, and engaging in imaginary trades to enhance their overall standings. Both of these practices share a movement between imaginary scenarios (pretend investments or teams) and a real world data set. The simulated activities introduce them to the logics by which their real world counterparts operate and to actual data sets, research processes, and information sources.

*Groups such as OnRampArts in Los Angeles, Urban Games Academy in Baltimore and Atlanta, or Global Kidz in New York City involve kids in the design of their own games. These groups see a value in having kids translate a body of knowledge -- the history of the settlement of the New World in the case of OnRampArts's Tropical America -- into the activities and iconography of games. Here, students are encouraged to think of alternative ways of modeling knowledge and learn to use the vocabulary of game design to represent central aspects of the world around them.

*Simulation games like SimCity provide a context for learning a skill Andy Clark calls "embracing co-control". In this game, creating and maintaining a city requires exerting various forms of indirect control. Instead of having a top-down control to design a happy thriving city, the player must engage in a bottom-up process, where the player "grows" a city by manipulating such variables as zoning and land prices. It is only through gaining a familiarity with all the parts of the system, and how they interact, that the player is able to nudge the flow in a way that respects the flow. Such a skill can be understood as a process of "com[ing] to grips with decentralized emergent order" , a mandatory skill for understanding complex systems.

*Students in New Mexico facing a summer of raging forest fires throughout their home state used simulations to understand the way flames spread. Manipulating factors such as density of trees, wind and rain, they saw how even minute changes to the environmental conditions could have profound effects on fire growth. This helped them understand the efficacy of common techniques such as forest thinning and controlled burns.