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

Today, I am running the second part of an essay written by Erin Reilly, the Research Director of the New Media Literacies Project (NML) in which she tells you more about our new learning library. If you have not yet checked out the learning library, you can find it here. And if you want to learn more about how it is starting to be deployed across a range of educational settings, check out the special issue of Threshold magazine about "Learning in a Participatory Culture."

Exploring New Media Literacies

My work on Zoey's Room was an ideal segue to applying practice to Project NML's research into how a participatory culture facilitates learning in the 21st century. Outside their classrooms, which largely still follow a top-down model of teachers dispensing knowledge, today's children learn by searching and gathering clusters of information as they move seamlessly between their physical and virtual spaces. Knowledge is acquired through multiple new tools and processes as kids accrue information that is visual, aural, musical, interactive, abstract, and concrete and then remix it into their own storehouse of knowledge. Describing how learning and pedagogy must change in this new cultural and multimedia context, the think tank New London Group argues that "literacy pedagogy now must account for the burgeoning variety of text forms associated with information and multimedia technologies."

Indeed, they describe how "the proliferation of communications channels and media supports" sets up a need for "creating the learning conditions for full social participation." The media-literacy movement has effectively taken the lead among educators in this regard by teaching students to analyze the media they consume and to see themselves as both consumers and producers of media. However, even this learning often is relegated to electives or to after-school programs rather than being integrated across curricula. The new media literacies allow us to think in very different ways about the processes of learning, because they acknowledge a shift from the top-down model to one that invokes all voices and all means of thinking and creating to build new knowledge. For many educators, however, this raises issues of maintaining control, building trust, and providing an open-source culture of learning that allows students to share their own expertise in the classroom. At the same time, the mindsets and skill sets of the new media literacies are changing the discipline itself. In effect, we are teaching an outdated version of literacy if we do not address the sorts of practices that new media and new technologies support.

Invitation to Participate

Integrating the new media literacies into learning echoes the concept of syndesis presented by social anthropologist Robert Plant Armstrong in "What's Red, White, and Blue and Syndetic?" (1982). Syndesis is a process that strings together self-contained moments or increments of what Armstrong calls "presence" to form a whole. Syndesis has important applications to today's learning environment because it ensures that educators and students contribute to the body of knowledge being formed by the group. The end result is an environment that shares information in multiple formats that become similar only when the group pulls them together.

One major approach to the new learning paradigm at Project NML is the Learning Library , a new type of learning environment that embraces the characteristics of syndesis and participatory culture. The Learning Library is an activities-based model that aggregates media from the Web--such as a video, image, or audio file--and provides tools for users to integrate that media into a learning objective. Educators are encouraged to load their own media or draw on media by others that already exist in the Library to shape new learning challenges and to collaboratively build and share new collections based on particular themes. These challenges range from playing a physics game designed to experiment with problem-solving, to developing collaborative ways to bring innovation into the classroom, to learning about attribution while exploring issues involving copyright, public domain, fair use, and Creative Commons.

Project NML has seeded the Learning Library with its first collection of 30 learning "challenges" so that users can explore and practice applying the new media literacies to their classroom activities. One example from our first collection of challenges, called Expressing Characters, uses the new media literacy of transmedia navigation. In this activity, a student learns how plot can be extended across media by following the adventures of Claire Bennet, a character from the TV show Heroes. After exploring how Claire is already portrayed on television, in a graphic novel, and on MySpace, learners practice transmedia navigation by adapting and extending one of their own favorite characters into media forms in which the character does not currently exist. Bringing their own experiences to this challenge, students then load their creations into the Library, where they can be viewed and remixed into a different learning objective by others. By exploring and practicing the new media literacy skill of transmedia navigation, students learn to make meanings across different media types--not just in relation to print text. In this way, these new modes of communication are highlighting the need to teach new ways of expression and new methods of understanding the digital world.


A prime goal of Project NML is to understand what happens when multiple forms of media are fully integrated into processes of learning. The new media literacies build upon existing print literacy practices, making possible new literacy practices where, according to the New London Group, "the textual is also related to the visual, the audio, the spatial, the behavioral, and so on." And these practices offer new resources and pathways for learning the disciplines.

Our students are already appropriating information from the Web and turning it into new knowledge. They are already learning from each other and participating in the learning of their peers. They already connect, create, collaborate, and circulate information through new media. The goal for us, as educators, is to find new ways to harness and leverage their interests and social competencies to establish a participatory learning environment. Teachers and administrators must learn to leverage this new learning paradigm to engage our students, and we encourage you to use the Learning Library and see if it works for your context.


Armstrong, Robert Plant. "What's Red, White, and Blue and Syndetic?" Journal of American Folklore, 1982.

Building the Field of Digital Media and Learning. MacArthur Foundation.

Jenkins, Henry et al. "Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century." MacArthur Foundation, October 2006. digitallearning.macfound.org

The New London Group. "A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures." In Multiliteracies: Literacy Learning and the Design of Social Futures, edited by Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis. Routledge, November 1999.

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.

Pew Internet & American Life Project.

Zoey's Room.