Teachers, Teens and Mobile Tech: An Interview with Antero Garcia (Part Two)

You have much to say about the different conceptions of time shaping the way teachers and students respond to mobile technologies at school. How do they differ and what factors have led to this gap in understanding? What are the implications of this gap for the ways we think about bringing mobile technologies into pedagogical practice?


I think how we understand the purpose of “school time” is most one of the most out of sync aspects of public education in the U.S. today. Simply put, students and teachers have different assumptions about what time means and how it is used in schools, during class time, and during breaks like passing periods and lunch. The traditional adult assumption (and one that I held for too long) is that--during class time--students should be solely working on class activities. Yes, these activities may include increasingly complex digital resources. However, these are still largely about specific kinds of practices and a relationship with technology that is oriented toward entirely academic purposes. As bluntly as I can, I want to be clear: this is not how adults function in today’s workplace. Even as I respond to these questions, my phone prods me for attention. I confess that I may have taken a peek or two at my Twitter feed and at my email inbox. Social relationships are pervasive and aren’t relegated to the time I punch the proverbial work clock.


Let’s acknowledge that the few instances where adults do not regularly check-in with their phones while working are usually service-level jobs that barely provide a living wage for employees. In our practices in implementing these kinds of policies there are two things that are alarming: we are training students to adhere to working-class kinds of employment practices and we are stifling a culture that more fully reflects how other workplace environments function; school technology policies--as innocuous as they may seem--reinforce the historical, systemic inequalities that the genie in the previous question just can’t fix.


Let’s also be clear that, at the heart of this decision around mobile use policies in schools is control. The power of teachers is threatened by the disruptive practices of mobile technologies. Instead of moving toward new pedagogies, classroom orientations, and instructional practices, we have locked down how we treat classrooms and train teachers: we double-down on enforceable and punitive policies rather than move alongside of the rest of the changing world. All of this is a reminder that schools operate from an industrial, factory model. We have bells governing the end of one shift and the beginning of the next, we separate learning into discrete, disconnected units, and we structure the school physical and social space to silence voice and individuality. Technology policies only further entrench us in the Learning to Labor practices that Willis describes more than thirty years ago.



Many of the youth pushed back at the idea that they might share contact with teachers through their normal social networking tools. Where does that resistance come from and how might teachers respect those views when designing activities that deploy social media at school?


As educators and researchers, we tend to talk about it as student resistance--we get to do that from an adult perspective of these issues of power in schools. For students, though, while their actions may indeed be resisting the desires and demands of authorities, these are issues of trust. Simply put, have teachers and school structures done enough relationship building, empathy-support, and listening for students to choose to engage socially with teachers? Particularly in schools focused on high stakes test results and district wide expansion of charter schools that have the latest snake-oil-like pitch of a better path forward, the time for relationships--online or face-to-face--simply doesn’t exist often enough.


Tied to issues of trust, we should probably also think about the meaning of mobile devices in schools today. We still tend to call them “phones” even though the vast majority of what we do on them isn’t tied to this function and--as ex-Galaxie 500 member Damien Krukowski recently wrote and discussed on a podcast series--the sounds of talk and feelings of personalization has diminished in today’s digital infrastructure. I would encourage your readers to look at their own phone right now. What case is it in? What pictures are displayed on it? How do the apps on the main screen speak to your orientation in the world? These are personal devices that support personalized activities. In schools they offer a portal to one of the few spaces closed off from the power and demands of adults. Asking students to sully such sacrosanct space is a big ask if we aren’t willing to change the other structures in schools around these relationships. In your own work and that of you and your Participatory Culture in a Networked Era co-authors, you have pointed to the fact that, on one hand these are personal devices and they often are leveraged in systems of “networked privacy.” On the other hand, students use their devices to perform publicly for their peers aspects of their identity. From ringtones to cases to content loaded on screens, what is seen and heard via mobile devices reflects the identities of their uses.


As a result of the issues of trust above, I’ve lately been encouraging teachers to start thinking about devices as ways to get to trust and engagement. I have teachers play Game of Phones to highlight an easily adaptable, commercial example. The purpose isn’t to use phone for accessing new, digital spaces or producing increasingly complex multimodal artifacts. Instead, these devices are for sharing identity, embracing multiple identities.


Many express concern that bringing mobile technologies into the classroom will result in greater distraction and that it is better to keep schools a media-free zone. How do you respond to those critiques?


In thinking about kids’ attention being pulled from classes to their devices, the inner cynic in me wonders what kids are distracted from. We have come a long way from seeing schools as drab spaces of intense work. Wonder, imagination, and even fun are posed frequently in popular media as aspects of how good schools succeed. And so, when we talk about media devices distracting kids, we need to look critically at if the materiality of schools is worthy to demand the attention of a generation of students that have many, many other ways to learn, interact, and socialize.


At the same time, there are elitist private schools that do embrace the media-free schooling utopias you suggest. Here, in the Silicon Valley, many of the wealthiest tech families send their children to schools that are “unplugged” from the media saturation that chimes for their children's attention. Such models mean we have to question whose children have the luxury of attending such a model and what kinds of home and after-school structures support these in-school practices. This points to the participation gap that you and your research team have written about.


Finally, as I mentioned earlier, we need to remember that we don’t live in media-free zones. I increasingly believe that schools offer one of the places for students to actually learn authentic and real-world ways of utilizing their mobile devices in social environments. All of the multimodal composition stuff that kids do in classrooms is great, sure. However, just as valid and more often denied, the skills kids learn about how to deal with what is shared in online spaces (as explored in Carrie James’s Disconnected), how to utilize digital tools for mobile forms of activism, and how to meaningfully integrate (or not) the lives we live in online environments into our day-to-day interactions. If not in schools, where do kids learn (and get meaningful support) in how to be on and with their mobile devices? Teachers and teacher educators are not being prepared for this shift in responsibility and this has, increasingly, been a space of continuing research for me.


As a brief, related note: In work since completing Good Reception, I have been studying non-digital forms of tabletop gaming, including a two-year ethnographic study of tabletop roleplaying game communities that play games like Dungeons & Dragons in gaming stores and cafes. Though there are several factors that led me into this nerdier sub-sector of educational research, one of the key reasons is that educational research on technology and gaming too often ignores the sociocultural aspects that surround these tools and practices. At the same time that Gamergate has violently harmed women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community in videogame spaces, educational research has been boasting about the advances and possibilities of the medium. I am interested, then, in thinking about the civic lessons and responsibilities that can be found in how we support and guide student thinking with technologies in schools.



Your key case study in the book centers around the development of Ask Ansi as a classroom experience -- in effect, an alternate reality game -- which you felt dramatically increased some of your students’ engagement with learning. Why? What factors led to its success?


The story of Ask Anansi starts a decade ago with how I found my way into the DML community. Collaborating with now good friend and recent co-author, Greg Niemeyer, we created an alternate reality game (ARG) for students in my class several years before Ask Anansi. That game, The Black Cloud, proposed that the pollution in Los Angeles had grown sentience and was communicating with my first period class via Twitter (then a very new platform). Through measuring air quality around their community, students took on new identities as storytellers and citizen scientists. Though we had an abundance of resources for this game (and the technology is currently being used to measure air quality via Google Street View cars), I was interested in how to replicate the possibilities of learning and identity that emerged in this game even with less resources.


With a different premise and different intended outcomes, I designed Ask Anansi as an ARG for my 9th grade students (I share the design document and key principles in the game’s DIY design in several appendices in Good Reception). This game, like much of the ARG design I have engaged in, speaks to how ARGs can lead to radical transformation. Greg and I write about this in the conclusion to our edited collection of ARG scholarship.


One of the key factors of success to an ARG like Ask Anansi is an intentional focus on the kinds of identities and feelings that the game is expected to foster. If students are exploring issues of inequality and playing with ideas of social transformation, we push on the boundaries of what Johan Huizinga refers to as the “magic circle” that inscribes “play,” in order to consider what identities and practices are taken outside of games and into the real world.


Often, teachers assume that games-based learning means digital-games, but in this case, Ask Ansi was a game played in physical space but that led students to think more deeply about both the physical and digital worlds they inhabited. Can you say about more about the underlying assumptions about technology that shaped this project?


The point of giving devices out to students and playing an ARG was never about the technology. Instead, by looking at points in school structures that could be adjusted, this was a study in how things like technology and play can transform the meaning, value, and opportunities of schooling. As the final chapters of the book highlight, the bigger outcomes of the study weren’t simply about improving academics or doing fancy things on expensive devices. Instead, relationships were what were most transformed during the time of this study. If we stop assuming technology will fix schools, its shortcomings in doing so won’t seem so problematic. That is: just like we don’t assume giving every student in school a set of pencils and paper makes them better learners, we shouldn’t assume a Chromebook, iPad, or any other commercial product will do so either. Instead, we should recognize that pencils enable certain kinds of learning practices, as do mobile technologies. At the end of the day leveraging these practices (and transforming schools) is going to be about transforming the relationships between students, teachers, and their broader community. No technological advance is going to magically fix relationships, trust, or power in schools. Once we can take this previous sentence for granted we can probably make better collective decisions about instruction, school funding, and the structures of


Antero Garcia is an Assistant Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University where he studies how technology and gaming shape youth learning, literacy practices, and civic identities. Prior to completing his Ph.D., Antero was an English teacher at a public high school in South Central Los Angeles. His two most recent research studies explore learning and literacies in tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons and how participatory culture shifts classroom relationships and instruction. Based on his research, Antero co-designed the Critical Design and Gaming School--a public high school in South Central Los Angeles. Antero’s research has appeared in numerous journals including The Harvard Educational Review, Teachers College Record, and Teaching and Teacher Education. His most recent book--Good Reception: Teens, Teachers, and Mobile Media in a Los Angeles High School—is an ethnographic look at technology and gaming in an urban high school. Some of his other books explore critical research methodologies (Doing Youth Participatory Action Research: Transforming Inquiry with Researchers, Educators, and Students--with Nicole Mirra and Ernest Morrell), techniques for shifting English language arts pedagogy (Pose, Wobble, Flow: A Culturally Proactive Approach to Literacy Instruction with Cindy O'Donnell-Allen), and changes in the consumption of young adult literature (Critical Foundations in Young Adult Literature: Challenging Genres). Antero received his Ph.D. in the Urban Schooling division of the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.