Confronting the Challenges of a Participatory Culture (Part Seven)

This is the last installment of my series on the white paper which we wrote for the MacArthur Foundation on participatory culture and media literacy. If you want to read the whole paper, check it out here. If you want to learn more about the work that the MacArthur Foundation is doing on youth and digital learning, you can follow their blog -- which regularly features comments from some of the country's leading educators and experts on youth media. This last installment concludes with some general thoughts about what all of this means for parents, schools, and after school based programs. Project nml will now be turning its attention to developing a range of curricular materials and activities based on this framework, which we will be rolling out through this blog, among many other places.

Thanks for taking the time to read through this material. Do let us know what you think and do share this with others you think would be interesting.

Once again let me acknowledge the contributions of Ravi Purushotma, Margaret Weigel, Katherine Clinton, and Alice J. Robison without whom it would have been impossible to pull this report together.

Who Should Respond? A Systemic Approach to Media Education

We have identified three core problems that should concern all of us who care about the development and well-being of American's young people:

• How do we ensure that every child has access to the skills and experiences needed to become a full participant in the social, cultural, economic, and political future of our society?

• How do we ensure that every child has the ability to articulate his or her understanding of the way that media shapes perceptions of the world?

• How do we ensure that every child has been socialized into the emerging ethical standards that will shape their practices as media makers and as participants within online communities?

We have also identified a set of core social skills and cultural competencies that young people should acquire if they are to be full, active, creative, and ethical participants in this emerging participatory culture:

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

Performance -- the ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation and discovery

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

Appropriation -- the ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content

Multitasking -- the ability to scan one's environment and shift focus as needed to salient details.

Distributed Cognition -- the ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand mental capacities

Collective Intelligence -- the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common goal

Judgment -- the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources

Transmedia Navigation -- the ability to follow the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities

Networking -- the ability to search for, synthesize, and disseminate information

Negotiation -- the ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative norms.

Some children are acquiring some of these skills through their participation in the informal learning communities that surround popular culture. Some teachers are incorporating some of these skills into their classroom instruction. Some afterschool programs are incorporating some of these skills into their activities. Yet, as the above qualifications suggest, the integration of these important social skills and cultural competencies remains haphazard at best. Media education is taking place for some youth across a variety of contexts, but it is not a central part of the educational experience of all students. Our goal for this report is to encourage greater reflection and public discussion on how we might incorporate these core principles systematically across curricula and across the divide between in-school and out-of-school activities. Such a systemic approach is needed if we are to close the participation gap, confront the transparency problem, and help young people work through the ethical dilemmas they face in their everyday lives. Such a systemic approach is needed if children are to acquire the core social skills and cultural competencies needed in a modern era.


In the above descriptions of core social skills and cultural competencies, we have spotlighted a range of existing classroom practices that help children become fuller participants in the new media landscape: the use of educational simulations, alternative and augmented reality games, webquests, production activities, blogs and wikis, and deliberation exercises. Such exercises involve actively applying new techniques of knowledge production and community participation to the existing range of academic subjects in the established school curriculum. We have seen how history classes are making use of educational games, how science classes are teaching youth to evaluate and construct simulations, how literature classes are embracing role play and appropriation, how math classes might explore the value of distributed cognition, and how foreign language classes are bridging cultural differences via networking. As these examples suggest, many individual schools and educators are experimenting with new media technologies and the processes of collaboration, networking, appropriation, participation, and expression that they enable. They are engaging students in real-world inquiries that require them to search out information, interview experts, connect with other students around the world, generate and share multimedia, assess digital documents, write for authentic audiences, and otherwise exploit the resources of the new participatory culture.

We see this report as supporting these individual educators by encouraging a more systemic consideration of the place these skills should assume in pedagogical practice. We believe that these core social skills and cultural competencies have implications across the school curriculum, with each teacher assuming responsibility for helping students develop the skills necessary for participation within their discipline. Clearly, more discipline-specific research is needed to more fully understand the value and relevance of these skills to different aspects of the school curriculum. Skills that are already part of the professional practices of scientists, historians, artists, and policymakers can also help inform how we introduce students to these disciplines.

Much of the resistance to media literacy training springs from the sense that the school day is bursting at its seams, that we cannot cram in any new tasks without the instructional system breaking down altogether. For that reason, we do not want to see media literacy treated as an add-on subject. Rather, we should view its introduction as a paradigm shift, one that, like multiculturalism or globalization, reshapes how we teach every existing subject. Media change is affecting every aspect of our contemporary experience, and as a consequence, every school discipline needs to take responsibility for helping students to master the skills and knowledge they need to function in a hypermediated environment.

After School

Afterschool programs may encourage students to examine more directly their relationship to popular media and participatory culture. Afterschool programs may introduce core technical skills that students need to advance as media makers. In these more informal learning contexts, students may explore rich examples of existing media practice and develop a vocabulary for critically assessing work in these emerging fields. Students may also have more time to produce their own media and to reflect on their own production activities. The approach proposed here takes the best of several contemporary approaches to media education, fusing the critical skills and inquiry associated with media literacy with the production skills associated with the Computer Clubhouses, and adding to both a greater awareness of the politics and practice of participatory culture.

The media literacy movement emerged in response to the rise of mass media. Here, for example, is a classic definition of media literacy created by the Ontario Association for Media Literacy in 1989:

Media literacy is concerned with developing an informed and critical understanding of the nature of the mass media, the techniques used by them, and the impact of those techniques. It is education that aims to increase students' understanding and enjoyment of how the media work, how they produce meaning, how they are organized, and how they construct reality. Media literacy also aims to provide students with the ability to create media products.

Although some media literacy educators have instituted groundbreaking work on digital media, the bulk of presentations at national conferences are still focused on more traditional media -- print, broadcast, cinema, popular music, advertising -- which are assumed to exert the greatest influence on young people's lives.

Media literacy educators are not wrong to be concerned by the concentrated power of the media industry, but they must also realize that this is only part of a more complex picture. We live in a world in which media power is more concentrated than ever before and yet the ability of everyday people to produce and distribute media has never been more free. Existing media literacy materials give us a rich vocabulary for thinking about issues of representation, helping students to think critically about how the media frames perceptions of the world and reshapes experience according to its own codes and conventions. Yet these concepts need to be rethought for an era of participatory culture.

Consider, for example, the framework for media literacy proposed by Thoman and Jolls:


Who created the message?

• What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?

• How may different people understand this message differently than me?

• What lifestyles, values, and points of view are represented in - or omitted from - this message?

• Why is this message being sent?

There is much to praise in these questions: they understand media as operating within a social and cultural context; they recognize that what we take from a message is different from what the author intended; they focus on interpretation and context as well as motivation; they are not tied up with a language of victimization.

Yet, note that each question operates on the assumption that the message was created elsewhere and that we are simply its recipients (critical, appropriating, or otherwise). We would add new complexity and depth to each of these questions if we rephrased them to emphasize individuals' own active participation in selecting, creating, remaking, critiquing, and circulating media content. One of the biggest contributions of the media literacy movement has been this focus on inquiry, identifying core questions that can be asked of a broad range of different media forms and experiences. This inquiry process seems key to overcoming the transparency problems identified above.

By contrast, education for the digital revolution stressed tools above all else. The challenge was to wire the classroom and prepare youth for the demands of the new technologies. Computer Clubhouses sprang up around the country to provide learning environments where youth could experiment with new media techniques and technologies. The goal was to allow students to set and complete their own tasks with the focus almost entirely on the production process. Little effort was made to give youth a context for thinking about these changes or to reflect on the new responsibilities and challenges they faced as participants in the digital culture. We embrace the constructivist principles that have shaped the Computer Clubhouse movement: youth do their best work when engaged in activities that are personally meaningful to them. Yet, we also see a value in teaching youth how to evaluate their own work and appraise their own actions, and we see a necessity of helping them to situate the media they produce within its larger social, cultural, and legal context.

We have developed an integrated approach to media pedagogy founded on exercises that introduce youth to core technical skills and cultural competencies, exemplars that teach youth to critically analyze existing media texts, expressions that encourage youth to create new media content, and ethics that encourage youth to critically reflect on the consequences of their own choices as media makers.

School-based and afterschool programs serve distinct but complementary functions. We make a mistake when we use afterschool programs simply to play catch-up on school-based standards or to merely reinforce what schools are already teaching. Afterschool programs should be a site of experimentation and innovation, a place where educators catch up with the changing culture and teach new subjects that expand children's understanding of the world. Afterschool programs focused on media education should function in a variety of contexts. Museums, public libraries, churches, and social organizations (such as the YWCA or the Boy Scouts) can play important roles, each drawing on its core strengths to expand beyond what can be done during the official school day.


We also see an active role for parents to play in shaping children's earliest relationship to media and reinforcing their emerging skills and competencies. The new media technologies give parents greater control over the flow of media into their lives than ever before, yet parents often describe themselves as overwhelmed by the role that media plays in their children's everyday activities. As UK Children Go On-line concluded, "Opportunities and risks go hand in hand...The more children experience one, the more they also experience the other." Rather than constraining choices to protect youth from risks, the report advocates doing a better job helping youth master the skills they need to exploit opportunities and avoid pitfalls.

Parents lack basic information that would help them deal with both the expanding media options and the breakdown of traditional gatekeeping functions. Most existing research focuses on how to minimize the risks of exposure to media, yet we have stressed the educational benefits of involvement in participatory culture. The first five or six years of a child's life are formative for literacy and social skills, and parents can play an important in helping children acquire the most basic versions of the skills we have described here. Throughout children's lives, parents play important roles in helping them make meaningful choices in their use of media and in helping them anticipate the consequences of the choices they make. Adults often are led by fears and anxieties about new forms of media that were not a part of their own childhood, and which they do not fully understand. There are few, if any, books that offer parents advice on how to make these choices or that offer information about the media landscape. Few education programs help parents to acquire skills and self-confidence to help their children master the new media literacies. There are few sites that provide up-to-date and ongoing discussions of some of the issues surrounding the place of media in children's lives.

The Challenge Ahead: Ensuring that All Benefit from the Expanding Media Landscape

Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education (May 19, 2006), Bill Ivey, the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and Steven J. Tepper, a professor of Sociology at Vanderbilt University, described what they see as the long term consequences of this participation gap:

Increasingly, those who have the education, skills, financial resources, and time required to navigate the sea of cultural choice will gain access to new cultural opportunities....They will be the pro-ams who network with other serious amateurs and find audiences for their work. They will discover new forms of cultural expression that engage their passions and help them forge their own identities, and will be the curators of their own expressive lives and the mavens who enrich the lives of others....At the same time, those citizens who have fewer resources--less time, less money, and less knowledge about how to navigate the cultural system--will increasingly rely on the cultural fare offered to them by consolidated media and entertainment conglomerates...Finding it increasingly difficult to take advantage of the pro-am revolution, such citizens will be trapped on the wrong side of the cultural divide. So technology and economic change are conspiring to create a new cultural elite--and a new cultural underclass. It is not yet clear what such a cultural divide portends: what its consequences will be for democracy, civility, community, and quality of life. But the emerging picture is deeply troubling. Can America prosper if its citizens experience such different and unequal cultural lives?

Ivey and Tepper bring us back to the core concerns that have framed this essay: how can we "ensure that all students benefit from learning in ways that allow them to participate fully in public, community, [Creative] and economic life?" How do we guarantee that the rich opportunities afforded by the expanding media landscape are available to all? What can we do through schools, afterschool programs, and the home to give our youngest children a head start and allow our more mature youth the chance to develop and grow as effective participants and ethical communicators? This is the challenge that faces education at all levels at the dawn of a new era of participatory culture.