Learning in a Participatory Culture: A Conversation About New Media and Education (Part One)

A few weeks ago, I received a message in the mail from Ariel Glazer at University of Buenos Aires sharing this video, which remixed some footage from the interview I gave to the producers of Digital Nation. In many ways, it captures some of my core themes and concerns better than the PBS documentary and in the process, it helps us make connections with a range of other conversations taking place around the world about New Media Literacies.

When I taught my New Media Literacies class last semester at USC, I asked my students to interview a student or teacher about the ways that the issues in our class impacted their lives. Because these students came from many different countries, we ended up with glimpses of what was taking in classrooms from the Laplands to India, from Bulgaria to India. In almost every case, the young people interviewed described deeply meaningful forms of learning which were taking place through their engagement with affinity groups and social networks online, yet they each described school practices which shut off that learning once they entered the classroom. The teachers, on the other hand, talked about struggling to keep up with their students, about a lack of formal training to help them make the transitions being demanded, and about their fears of losing control over their classroom.

I wanted to stress the international nature of these exchanges because this week I am going to be sharing with you an extended interview which I did with Pillar Lacasa, a Spanish researcher, who has spent two blocks of time as a visiting scholar in the Comparative Media Studies Program and whose work has been featured on this blog before. Lacasa is a close friend and she knows enough about my work to ask questions which help position it for readers back in Spain. Since this interview will appear later this week in Spanish in Cuadernos de Pedagogia, I asked her if I could share the original English language version here. I hope that this will be of interest especially to the many parents and educators who read this blog and may represent a response to some of the issues raised in the Digital Nation documentary.

Children and young people like to spend their free time in front of the screen. Could you give us some good reasons to that could persuade educators to introduce new media and screens in schools

At the end of the day, it isn't about the technology. It certainly isn't about the screen per se. It is about the informational affordances and cultural practices which have taken shape around the computer and other interactive technologies. It isn't about the computer replacing the book. It is about a world where students learn with a book in one hand and a mouse in the other, rather than one where they are taught that book culture is so fragile it needs to be protected from the computer.

Jenna McWilliams, until recently, part of our Project NML staff, writes powerfully about reading with a mouse in your hand. She tells us that teachers often encourage students to read with a pencil in their hands -- not simply letting the words pass over their eyeballs but critically engaging with them, taking notes, asking questions, critiquing as they go. When students read with a mouse in their hands, they take this one step further: they assume that they must actively respond to what's been put in front of them; they are poised to participate; they take responsibility over the quality of information and correct it publically if it is wrong.

Yochai Benkler, author of The Wealth of Networks, tells us we respond to the culture differently when we see it through the eyes of a participant rather than a consumer. And it is this participatory culture which has been facilitated by the new digital media in a way that stretches far beyond the imagination of previous generations.

Reading your book I noticed that you establish an interesting distinction between mass media and technology. How do you understand both of these concepts?

For me, a medium is more than simply a technology. It also includes the social and cultural practices that have grown up around us. So, when we talk about television, we are not simply talking about an electronic appliance; we are talking about the programming strategies and conventions which have emerged to shape our experience of television and we are referencing the particular mind set that has evolved around watching television often in our homes with little chance of engaging with its contents directly or publically. When we are talking about the internet, we are talking about all of the activities we perform through this new information infrastructure and the mindset which emerges through our ongoing engagement and participation in the great public conversation that emerges through it.

Beyond the individual medium there is a media ecology -- all of the different kinds of communications systems which surround us and through which we live our everyday lives. Right now, for example, we inhabit a world where mass media, top down systems of communications, co-exist with grassroots media, which enable much broader opportunities for our participation. We are just starting to understand what happens when these two systems collide.

You introduce the idea of a Participatory Culture in relation to new media. Can you explain the relation between the two concepts?

Participatory culture didn't begin or end with the internet. Most of what I am describing as participatory culture can be found in any thriving folk culture. At its best, a folk culture is defined through the expanding opportunities for participation. Everyone who wants to join is accepted. Everyone who has something to contribute is embraced. Experienced members share what they know through informal mentorship with newcomers because it expands the expressive resources of the community. The exchange of folk artifacts is reciprocal, based on the ideals of a gift economy, rather than hierarchical or commercial.

This idea of dispersed expression broke down in the 20th century as most forms of cultural production became professionalized and commercialized. We moved into a world where we consumed but did not produce the resources of our culture -- never totally but largely. Throughout that period, though, there were all kinds of underground and grassroots practices which held onto the idea of shared cultural expression and participation. These practices have re-emerged and gained greater public visibility in the era of Flickr and YouTube.

These technologies have brought cultural expression down to a human scale; they have placed the exchange of stories or songs in a social context; and they have opened up a space where all of us can be welcomed as potential participants. All of the research shows that the communities of practice which grow up around this participatory culture are powerful sites of pedagogy, fueled by passion and curiosity and by a desire to share what we learn and think with others. As with older folk cultures, informal pedagogies thrive as people get together to learn based on shared interests rather than fixed roles and responsibilities.

Participatory Culture could be relate with a Collective Intelligence as present in the media too?

In a networked society, literacy is a social skill not simply an individual competency. Understanding how information circulates becomes as important as knowing how to put your ideas into words, sounds, or images. Creation is iterative: we reshape what we've created in response to critical feedback from others in an ongoing process of innovation and refinement.

There are new forms of collective authorship which have emerged around principles of collective intelligence. Take Wikipedia for example, where any given entry may have multiple authors, each vetting and refining what was written before, each adding what they know to what others have already contributed. This is different from traditional forms of individual expertise and autonomous learning.

Pierre Levy tells us that in a networked society, nobody knows everything (Forget about the ideal of the Renaissance Man), everybody knows something (expand the range of possible expertises) and what any given member of the community knows is available to the group as a whole as needed. The result is an ethics of information -- an obligation to share what you know with the group, a need to respect yet critically engage with multiple ways of knowing, an active push to embrace diversity because it expands the creative and knowledge capacity of your network.

We are evolving towards this much more robust information system where groups working together can solve problems that are far more complex than can be confronted by individuals. And schools can actively prepare students for such a world -- by allowing them to develop and refine their individualized expertise, by providing complex problems which require collective effort to resolve, by teaching them the ethics involved in working in such a highly collaborative and open-ended context. Right now, schools are often using group work but not in ways which encourage real collaboration or shared expertise -- in part because they still assume a world where every student knows everything rather than one where different kinds of knowledge come together towards shared ends.

The project New Media Literacy relates participation to new forms of literacy?

What we are proposing is an expanded conception of literacy which includes all of the ways which we communicate our ideas to each other. This concept moves beyond the idea of critical consumption which is often what people call media literacy. You wouldn't consider someone literate if they could read but not write text and we shouldn't consider someone literate if they can consume but not produce media. Over the past fifty years, we have expanded the resources through which humans can communicate with each other, in some cases making tools like video cameras more widely available, and in others creating an infrastructure which allows anyone who goes online a chance to communicate their thoughts to the world.

Schools need to prepare young people to use these new resources creatively, effectively, and responsibly if they are going to prepare them for the lives they will lead in the 21st century. Such power can be under-used if they are not taught to use it creatively or effectively; it can be abused if they are not taught to use it responsibly. Teachers need to recognize both the risks and the possibilities of these new opportunities for human expression.