Digital Media and Learning 2017: A Conversation about Politics and Youth

Last week was the 8th and final Digital Media and Learning Conference, hosted by the University of California-Irvine. Starting next year, the conference will be morphing into the Connected Learning conference, which will alternate years between MIT and Irvine, and which involves the collaboration of multiple research networks -- among them, Games, Learning and Society and the Sandbox Summit. I was proud to have been asked to help organize the very first of the Digital Media and Learning conferences shortly after I arrived at USC eight years ago. We started out with a focus on issues of diversity and learning with Craig Watkins and Sonia Livingstone as our keynote speakers. It was amazing to take time to see how much more diverse and inclusive the current conference was. DML has worked because it brought together educational researchers, teachers, librarians, after school program coordinators, youth media producers, policy makers, and many others in a space which encourages active exchanges between theory and practice.

This year's keynote events centered around youth and politics. danah boyd's opening remarks posed an appocalyptic vision of the darker side of the web, describing the ways that some of the disruptive communication and information practices associated with troll culture, have grown in strength and influence in recent years and now pose a serious threat to the state of American democracy. Her remarks were critically important to those of us who care about participatory culture, politics, and learning, forcing us to confront the negative consequences of some of our choices about the media environment. She ends with a call to action, describing many of us in the room as on the front lines of a larger struggle that will define what kind of society we will inhabit. She does not offer many answers and at times, the questions she raises can feel overwhelming. I talked to people afterwords who left this talk with their heads reeling.


My instructions as moderator for the closing plenary session was to bring back some hope. I was honored to share the podium with Esra'a Al-Shafei, a young internet activist who spoke about her experiences fighting for human rights and social justice in the Gulf. Her courage, determination, and creativity inspired everyone who heard this conversation, as she described her entry into the digital realm, spoke about being censored by her government at 16, explained the role which humor, music, games, and other cultural practices played in allowing her community to maintain their struggle. These are stories we need to hear as Americans, because there is so much we can learn from activists working in the Arab world and elsewhere about how to use these platforms and practices to change the world. 

I strongly recommend my regular readers to watch both of these programs, starting with danah boyd and ending with Esra'a Al-Shafei, so that you can have the full emotional experience we felt at DML this year.