Games, New Media and Learning in Argentina: An Interview with Ines Dussel (Part Two)

Can you tell us something about the context of this debate in your country? For example, how much access to students have to new media technology outside of school? How much exposure do teachers as a class have to new media in the course of their everyday life?

I would say that most students have access to technology, although the frequency and intensity is heavily dependent on socio-economic backgrounds. The main divide is between urban and rural/semi-rural populations, because even in low-income groups in big cities there is a push towards having multi-functional cell phones that allow most of the operations one can do on the internet. Of course, the problem is the soaring costs of the broadband or the phone service, which are still terribly high in the region. In Portugal, and in some Brazilian cities, there are state policies being effected that subsidize broadband connections to low-income populations (5 euros per month or less). This might be a really democratic move in the near future in most of Latin American countries, but we are not there yet. Anyway, I was surprised to read some recent educational research that shows that almost 50% of the children from low-income families report to have Internet connections at home. This means it is spreading quickly.

But the divide, as many people are arguing, is moving from access to use. In a research we are currently doing at FLACSO on schools and visual culture, we find a clear distinction between the type of uses young people from middle and upper classes are doing, and the ones done by young people who come from low-income families, and especially those in semi-rural areas. The first ones are making sophisticated videos, have large collections of images and music, and produce multimedia reports for schools, while the latter make basic powerpoints and have smaller collections of pictures and music, generally with less reflection on what it is, and what for, they are collecting. As always, there are exceptions, but this seems to be the trend. That is why I believe schools could be very important in providing a wide range of experiences that enrich young people's engagement with the media.

Teachers, on the other hand, do not have a special relationship to new media as a class, that is, because they are teachers. Quite the contrary: pre-service training has started to include it as a curricular content only in the last two years, and it is still a marginal trend, though increasingly important in some groups (who can be considered as "early adaptors," as in the work you are doing in the New Media Literacy project). But most of the times, one can see young teachers in low-income schools who do not have an email account or don't even know about the possibilities that new media offer. I ask myself how it is that nobody in their training, which did not happen in the 1980s but only three or five years ago, told them that having an email account and navigating the internet is important not only for them as professionals who are concerned with knowledge or as citizens of this world, but also for them as teachers in their relationship and their cultural offer to their students.

I think that this has to do with some prejudice on the part of the teacher training institutions that assume that new media is kind of a "sumptuous consumption" for low-income populations who are not getting the basics (decent employment, food, electricity or water) and so that it should not be included as a basic content. What they are overlooking is that today access and use of new media is part of the "basics," of being a member of the local or global community, of getting to be informed and participate in a public culture, even of getting a job.

And children and young people know this better than the training institutions, which are falling behind. In our research, we found multiple examples of young people from low-income families whose relatively-poor use of IT is still pivotal for themselves and their parents in doing budgets for contract works, making a website for home repairs or other informal jobs, or connecting to family in other provinces or neighbouring countries. These uses might not be as sophisticated as others, but are none the less very effective and important in helping them get better material and emotional conditions.

Most teachers do not use new media in these ways, nor do they recognize that their students are doing these kind of things with the computers. The kind of activity they privilege in classrooms, when they do anything, is that of seeking information (all they see in the internet is a gigantic library), and sometimes asking their students to write a report, preferably text-only, or produce a powerpoint with some images, but generally without further reflection on the combination of text, sound, special effects or rhythm that is implied in multimodal texts, as Gunther Kress and many others have emphasized.

So, as research notes in other countries, in Argentina the uses promoted by schools are poor when compared to the actual things young people are doing at homes or with their friends in cybercafés. It is slightly different in middle- and upper-classes, but overall I would say there is still a small proportion of schools that are promoting richer, innovative uses of new media.

How has new media been perceived by the Argentinian public? Is it still read mostly as a threat or is there an awareness of the opportunities it represents?

Well, part of the answer refers to what I said before. For some people, those in the middle classes, new media are a luxury that comes after some basic issues have been guaranteed for the society as a whole. And while this argument is sensible (you cannot think about the internet if you're not eating or have no electricity), it is not true that one thing can be solved without the other. As the examples mentioned above show, low income families use the internet to improve their work opportunities and to enrich their support networks in multiple respects. It is part of having a wider horizon and range of possibilities.

On the other hand, the public debate is still organized around moral terms which are dichotomic, and I would say that they tend to go for the pessimistic side of the dichotomy. Talks of threat, safety, danger, not only for the children but also for the Spanish language (fear of Anglo-influence) or for "the world as we know it," are visible in most of the media coverage on new media. Teachers tend to endorse this view, and complain about the supposed empoverishment of writing and oral skills that new media are causing in young people (with the support of traditional agencies like the National Academy of Letters, who has produced a report on this, with doubtful empirical evidence but with lots of media coverage).

But there are some perspectives that are trying to build a more balanced approach, which value the opportunities while they point to the challenges the new media are posing to us. My own concern has been to produce something in that line. I believe that a deeper discussion is needed that addresses the profound changes brought about by new media, part of which I signaled when talking about the 1-to-1 strategy. I particularly like Bernard Stiegler's discussion in The YouTube Reader on the breakdown of the synchronized access to a flux of programmed texts such as the ones provided by broadcast TV, and the emergence of a cardinal access that can be produced and controlled by the user. I think that there are many issues to be debated around the possibility of a common, public culture that goes beyond what each ones of us chooses to look at, consume, produce in our individual screens and in our own time or pace; and that is why I also do not want to give up on the presence of a common screen in the classroom, be it the blackboard, the smart board, or any other common point of attention. In that respect, I also align myself with the comments done by you, Mimi Ito, and many others, on the reports done through the MacArthur Foundation initiative, that posit the discussion of new media in the light of the production of a public culture.

I got a sense from some of the questions I was asked that new media is understood through some of the same paradigms that were applied to broadcast media -- concerns that it exposes Latin Americans to cultural imperialism from Hollywood and elsewhere. How big a concern do you think this is for parents and educators?

I believe that anti-Americanism is more prevalent among progressive intellectuals (including educators) than among the general public, but I do not know of any serious study on this so I will speculate in the next paragraphs. There might be a reemergence of a certain nationalism or LatinAmericanism in the last decade, after the 2001 crisis which put the region in the verge of a collapse, and also backed by the center-left governments in the region that have stressed a rhetoric of autonomy and self-determination for Latin Americans. And of course Bush's government has done lots to increase the anti-imperialist rhetoric. I know that the rates of disapproval of Bush in Argentina were among the highest in Latin America, and that people welcomed Obama's election as a hope of a new external policy in the US.

But these are the only data I recall to make a statement about the public's relation to the US, and I don't think this translates into a relationship to broadcast media or anti-Hollywood: blockbusters are the same ones than in the US, with the exception of some Argentinean films. But even speaking of "Argentinean films" is ambivalent: the best Argentinean filmmaker today is Juan José Campanella, whose movie El secreto de sus ojos(The Secret in Their Eyes) won the Oscar for foreign films in 2010. Campanella works in LA and has directed some episodes of House, M.D. and other major TV series in the US. So whether his narrative style and aesthetics is anti-Hollywood remains quite debatable... I don't think he even considers that a problem or a question that deserves attention.

Anyway, in some respects, your perception is right in terms that anti-imperialism is a significant force in terms of how educators react to new media (I'm less sure about parents). Many teachers feel that they have to defend the nation and the Spanish language against any kind of imperialism, and that they have to do it in the schools, through their teaching. I would say that, as a general rule, teachers in Latin America are more politicized than in the US, and think of themselves as constructors of the nation, as producers of a new type of citizen.

I did my Ph.D. in the US, at UW-Madison, and I was surprised when teachers said that their primary task was to develop the full potential of the individual child and spoke almost exclusively in psychological terms. You don't see that kind of talk in Argentina or in most Latin American countries. Even the less politicized teachers make reference to the nation, to the society, to social functions and ideals. They might do it in a conservative way, but they still feel part of a social mission, of a political project.

But the question you raised takes me in another direction, that is how the global and the local are negotiating in and through new media. Being an otaku in New York or in a small village of Salta, Argentina, is similar and different, in ways that we need to analyze much more carefully than simply celebrating cosmopolitanism and global culture, or rejecting it by refuging ourselves in an anti-Hollywood or anti-US culture position. Watching a TV series like 24 in the US might reaffirm a certain power narrative about geopolitics and the imperial domination, but when seen in Latin America it might say quite the opposite.

I like very much the work done by Carlos Monsiváis, a wonderful Mexican cultural critic who just passed away, on the dispositions and sensitivities of the audience in our region -which is extremely diverse, of course. He said that, contrary to Hollywood's happy ending movies where the cowboy saves the girl, it is very likely that in Latin American melodramas the girl dies right before her hero comes to her rescue. For him, melodrama was a "structure of understanding," a "unifying device for experience" that was built into politics, religion, and social bonds. This structure (which he thought of as something loose, not rigid) comes from the verbal blocks of 19th century novels, the filmic melodrama, or TV's telenovelas.

So, following his lead, I would say that for most Latin American viewers there is not an epic of triumph when seeing these TV series, but we put them along or inside a narrative that is sadder, more nostalgic, definitely not victorious (may be it derives in identifications with the bad guys, which is extremely dangerous). Images and audiovisual texts might be the same, but the locality of the viewing makes a great difference in understanding the narratives in which they are inscribed, and the meaning which we produce. So yes, going back to your question, I would say that locality plays a role in new media, and the structures of understanding still seem more local than global.

Inés Dussel graduated from the University of Buenos Aires in Educational Sciences and got her Ph.D. at the Dept of Curriculum and Instruction, University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is a Principal Researcher at Flacso/Argentina, a centre for research and graduate teaching in the social sciences, and Educational Director of Sangari Argentina. She's currently interested in the intersections between schooling, new media, and visual culture, and is doing research and producing materials for classroom teaching.