What Is Learning in a Participatory Culture? (Part One)

The "Learning in a Participatory Culture" conference last weekend was hosted by Project New Media Literacies in part to showcase the work we've been doing over the past year with teachers who were field testing our curricular materials and in part to publicly launch our Learning Library. The Learning Library is intended as a multimedia activity center where people can come to learn more about the new media literacies, acquiring skills and testing them through challenges, and ultimately, producing and sharing content with other users. Much as the Media Lab's Scratch project has enabled hundreds of thousands of young people around the world to learn about coding by building, sharing, and remixing projects with each other, we hope that the Learning Library will provide young people and educators alike a chance to remix the materials of their culture in order to learn what they need to do to become full participants in the contemporary media landscape.

The library started with short documentary segments we produced on topics such as cosplay, wikipedia, graffiti, dj culture, and animation, but it was increasingly clear that if we were to put our theories into practice we needed to create a more robust system for active participation in the learning process. The result was the current learning library where the materials we produced -- and countless other sites of cultural production and participation which are already in the web -- become resources for challenges which require a mixture of exploration, experimentation, self reflection, and communication. We are now moving to work with existing organizations -- from the Organization for Transformative Works which produced segments on fan vidding to the Center for Social Media which has done segments on interviews and citizen journalism -- to produce their own materials which can form the basis for future challenges.

We are encouraging teachers to build challenges as class projects -- as I have already been doing through some of my classes this year. And we hope to see international content which can be shared with schools around the world -- we've been working to get some challenges not simply translated into Spanish but also rethought for a Latin American context. We are finding that teachers are using these challenges in a range of different ways: some are using the challenges themselves in order to get a better grasp on the new media literacy concepts and practices; some are taking the challenges directly into their classrooms; but many more are adapting them to different curricular contexts, taking their core principles to develop their own challenges, and in short, appropriating and remixing them for their own ends.

The challenges are designed to be modular -- to be able to fit into classroom and after school learning contexts or to be embraced by home schoolers and others for self learning. The challenges are designed to be flexible so they can be used in a range of disciplines with young people at different stages in development. Many of them are designed to have low-tech variants for those classrooms where there is no laptop per child since our emphasis is on the skills and mental models as much as on the tools and techniques of new media. I will be sharing more about the learning library in the weeks ahead and I am very much looking forward to hearing your reactions to this new center of media literarcy resources. So far, we've built more than 30 challenges and have produced almost a hundred videos which can serve the basis for future challenges. Check them out.

Below, I am sharing the beginning of an essay written about the library for Threshold magazine by Project NML's research director Erin Reilly. You may recall an interview with Reilly which I ran on this blog at the beginning of the process of developing the learning library. Check out the online edition of the special Threshold issue on Project New Media Literacies for other discussions of the challenges and opportunities for learning in a participatory culture.

What is Learning in a Participatory Culture?

by Erin Reilly

Educators are learning how to engage today's digital kids to share

and distribute knowledge within learning communities.

Today, we have endless possibilities for taking media into our own hands to connect with others in meaningful ways. We have new ways of working together to develop knowledge, and new ways to use media to shape how we present ourselves to others and learn from them. To connect and collaborate with each other to produce and circulate information in this new participatory culture, we have developed new tools such as game engines and new institutions such as YouTube and Facebook.

In the white paper, "Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century," the Project New Media Literacies (Project NML) team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology addressed the need to engage learners in today's participatory culture. Young people are actively creating and circulating media content within social networks that extend from their circle of friends to those in the virtual world community. However, the team believes that young people also must learn to reflect upon their new media creations in ways that encourage the important learning skills of teamwork, leadership, problem solving, collaboration, communication, and creativity.

Our education system also is in the midst of this paradigm shift, where new methods, environments, and assessment models need to be acquired to keep pace with our increasingly networked culture. As the conversation about the digital divide shifts from questions of technological access to ones concerning participation, educators must work to ensure that every young person has access to the tools, skills, and experiences needed to join in this new participatory culture. Educators also have a chance to give students the cultural competencies and social skills they need in their future roles as 21st-century citizens and workers.

Formal schools have been slow to react to the emergence of the participatory culture, however, due to an exaggerated interpretation of the perils of social media and to a lack of understanding of the promises and affordances of a networked society. In their stead, after-school programs and informal learning communities are stepping in with programs and activities that demonstrate the learning potentials of participatory culture accelerated through social media. To help educators and learners become more proficient in adapting to today's rich media landscape, the white paper identified 11 social skills that we all must acquire if we are to be active participants in our own life-long learning. And since then, Project NML has expanded the original list to also include the skill of visualization. These social skills and cultural competencies--the new media literacies--shift the focus of traditional literacy, for example, from individual expression to also encompass community involvement. The new media literacies then can be understood as offering ways of thinking (mindsets--for example, "collective intelligence") and ways of doing (skill sets--for example, "transmedia navigation") that recruit the traditional literacies of reading and writing into new kinds of literacy practices.

Learning in Zoey's Room

The Digital Youth Project, a grantee of the MacArthur Foundation's Digital Media and Learning Initiative, recently completed a three-year study of the learning and innovation that accompany young people's everyday engagements with new media. The goal of the study was to understand the ways youth use new media, focusing on how they play, communicate, and create, and how these interactions affect their friendships as well as their aspirations, interests, and passions. In its final report, the project team, led by anthropologist Mimi Ito, explained that children use digital tools and broadband media to "hang out" with friends, "mess around" with programs, and "geek out" as they dig deeper into subjects they love, from rock stars to rocket science. Beyond what they are learning in school, they are connecting socially and are being influenced by each other's knowledge. These informal mentors have effectively taken their place among the many sources influencing children's processes of knowledg-building and identity-forming.

I began to understand this new way of learning in 2001 when I co-created an online community for middle school girls called Zoey's Room. Armed with the knowledge that 93 percent of tweens and teens are using the Internet and that girls are the power users of social networking sites such as MySpace and YouTube, we launched Zoey's Room as an interactive technology club for girls in Maine. The project quickly expanded into a national mentoring community that creatively engages girls in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) activities through peer-to-peer learning and mentoring by female employees at companies such as National Semiconductor and Microsoft who volunteer their STEM expertise.

Today, Zoey's Room is a social network and blended learning environment in which teens learn STEM subjects via online interaction and through offline practical applications of science and math challenges in after-school programs run by organizations like the YWCA. The collaborative environment allows girls to feel safe to explore and tinker, fail and try again, and rely on a group of peers and mentors who will circulate STEM material, support their learning, and build ongoing relationships. Learning occurs as girls move between the online community and their extended community of peers and mentors, who validate the results of their experiments. In short, Zoey's Room allows young women to "geek out" on their love for girlhood and STEM projects.

Zoey's Room's blend of the social aspects with a positive learning environment has demonstrated that access to a participatory culture functions as a new form of the hidden curriculum. In a sampling of 100 Zoey's Room members in 2007, 46 percent participated via an after-school club and 54 percent participated on their own at home--showing that school is just one of the nodes in these students' learning eco-system. When these 100 girls answered very specific science, technology, engineering, and math questions we put to them in the survey, the majority of girls got 12 out of 13 of the answers right--proving that they actually learned terms, concepts, and principles of certain STEM topics by doing the various activities in the program.


Erin Reilly is a recognized expert in the design and development of educational content powered by virtual learning and new media applications. As research director of MIT's Project New Media Literacies, Reilly helps conceptualize the vision of the program and develop a strategy for its implementation. Before joining MIT, Reilly co-created Zoey's Room, a national online community for 10- to 14-year-old girls, encouraging their creativity through science, technology, engineering, and math. In 2007, Reilly received a Cable's Leaders in Learning Award for her innovative approach to learning and was selected as one of the National School Boards Association's "20 to Watch" educators.