Introducing the Critical Media Project: An Interview with USC’s Alison Trope

 

As always, this blog is deeply committed to media literacy education — in all of its many formats and approaches. I started the fall with my exchange with Tessa Jolls about the ways networked communication has or has not changed how we understand media literacy. Next week, I am going to share an interview with Belinha De Abreau and Paul Mihailidis, the editors of  Media Literacy Education in Action: Theoretical and Pedogogical Perspectives. This week, I want to share with you a vital new resource for critical media literacy instruction, a data base of several hundred segments from all kinds of media, which can be used in teaching critical perspectives on race, gender, sexuality, and identity.

The Critical Media Project has been developed by Alison Trope, a cherished colleague in the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, working with a team of our graduate and undergraduate students. There’s more about the process by which the project emerged in the interview which follows. As Trope explained recently in another interview with Diana Lee for the USC News Office, ““If we can understand how our own race, gender, sexuality and class are being represented in the media, it can help us understand how these messages feed into how we live our lives and how we interact with each other. If we can learn to decode the messages, we can be better equipped to dismiss them or challenge what we’re being fed. The more active we are as consumers of media, the better.”

The archive’s selection of materials is diverse — ranging from commercials to comedy segments to news reports to clips from reality television programs. To illustrate the wealth of the collection, I am going to scatter some segments across the interview, most of which come up under the heading, “Mixed Race” or in honor of Obama’s decision last week, reflect the politics of immigration.  I have thoroughly enjoyed browsing through the collection in pulling together this post: they are well curated, carefully selected  by people who are deeply informed about issues of identity construction within contemporary culture and who has an eye towards what kinds of clips might constitute “teachable moments” in the classroom. If you go to the site itself, Her team’s commentary is designed to spark but not exhaust critical discussion around these media elements.

In the interview which follows, Trope takes us behind the scenes, sharing how the project emerged, what she seeks to achieve, and how you and your students might get involved.

 

What motivated you to create the Critical Media Project? How do you see it as contributing to the larger movement towards media literacy in American education?

 

I’ve been interested in media literacy since I was in graduate school. I primarily studied cinema and television, but was particularly drawn to the ways media studies could productively intersect with museum studies—specifically how media was and could be exhibited in the context of museums. I wrote a book (Stardust Monuments: The Saving and Selling of Hollywood) that examines the way Hollywood (via films, characters, studios, stars, etc.) has been imagined and put on display in a range of exhibition contexts, including museums, theme parks, DVD box sets and Internet sites. In my teaching, I want my students to understand the relationship of the text to the context, whether that be exhibition context, industrial context, or socio-cultural context. We can look at media or any cultural object on its own, but the broader context provides relevant meaning and resonance.

The Critical Media Project was loosely inspired by my regular use of media as a subject and object of teaching. It was more directly inspired by an invited talk I gave on mixed messages about gender, sexuality and representations of women in the media. After the talk, which was attended largely by parents and supporters of a local Planned Parenthood chapter, a few attendees asked whether the type of instruction I offered was available in high schools. It was not only the content they were interested in; it was the presentation—media rich and full of examples that were imbricated in everyday popular culture. At the time, I suggested it was likely up to the individual instructor, and surmised it might be difficult for many instructors to spend the time to find and scaffold media-rich lessons, given the curricular structure and testing standards most high school teachers must adhere to.

The question nagged at me. What kind of barriers did teachers face with regard to implementing media and media literacy in the classroom, and what kind of resources could help them? The presentation I gave that day could easily fit into a social studies class discussion of feminism and women’s rights, or a human development class on gender norms and expectations. The Critical Media Project was inspired by those questions. I wanted to create a site that didn’t simply “school” teachers in how to “do” media literacy. Rather, I wanted to provide them with the texts and resources—the actual media—that could be put in the context of their own curriculum and further framed by discussion questions designed to elicit critical analysis among their students.

This site differs from many other media literacy sites in two key ways. First, it is media-rich—with over 250 media artifacts embedded into the site and ready for teachers to use. Second, the site tackles a specific topic—identity—and asks us to think about the way all facets of identity (for example, race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, socio-economic class) are shaped by the media. Rather than taking media representation at face value and accepting what has been internalized or normalized through media conventions, the site asks us, through each media artifact, to question those representations and their broader social, cultural and political implications.

Such questioning is particularly important in the media saturated environment in which we all live. Students are coming into classrooms having engaged for years in exhaustive and casual media practices. They consume traditional and digital media across a multitude of platforms, and produce content using a variety of media production tools. It’s worth noting that much of the content they consume and produce is about identity. It’s about figuring out who they are, who their friends are, what they like to do, what their tastes are, etc. For young people, in particular, a critical perspective on identity is crucial during key developmental stages when they are gaining new life experiences and learning to define, navigate, and negotiate their online and offline identities.

What criteria did you use for the selection of materials for the archive?

 

Much of the material comes from my own “library”—media I’ve collected over several years of teaching. Other media comes from USC Annenberg PhD students, who suggested media as well as contributed annotations to the site. (I’m lucky to have such generous students, who follow a variety of blogs and sites, and regularly send me new things to look at and incorporate into my classes). The other contributors were undergraduate students in a 2012 class I used as a lab space to brainstorm and develop the site. The class was divided into different identity groups and tasked with gathering media and developing skeleton curriculum for each assigned category.

As my project manager, Garrett Broad, and I narrowed the selections for the site, we had a few criteria in mind. We strove to choose media that could stand on its own (without a lot of contextualizing). We also wanted to use media that clearly said something about at least one of the identity categories featured on the site, thereby facilitating its incorporation into a broader curricular context. (An offhand or oblique comment by a character or a judge on a reality show might not make the cut).

We did not shy away from media that was challenging or might be uncomfortable for users/viewers. In fact, we embraced nuanced and complicated texts, knowing that we provide scaffolding through the brief annotated descriptions. In some cases, we also provide “critiques” of media examples.

The critiques are used to call attention to social or political issues that might have been left out of the actual media example, but are nonetheless relevant to its interpretation. For example, a clip from America’s Next Top Model features a photo shoot in a Hawaiian sugar cane field in which the contestants are asked to transform themselves to embody two distinct racial groups. The critique for this clip comments on the way that Tyra and Jay gloss over Hawaii’s history of colonialism and cultural domination and the way in which the racial transformations via hair and makeup could be read as blackface. The critiques are designed, therefore, to highlight the complicated ways in which a media example can be interpreted, and to provoke further discussion about broader issues it may invoke.

Your central project here seems to be to focus on the roles which media play in shaping our — collective and personal — sense of identity. What theoretical models have informed your perspective on identity?

Much of my own background in film and television studies was informed by cultural studies. To that end, the work of Raymond Williams, and the notion that “culture is ordinary,” frame much of my teaching and is the foundation of the Critical Media Project. I urge my own students to consider the value and resonance of everyday popular culture, particularly media. And, I hope the Critical Media Project, through its very existence, highlights the value of such texts in the context of broader identity issues.

The site’s focus on identity and identity politics is also firmly rooted in a cultural studies perspective, which asks us to not only consider the social and cultural construction of identities, but also how those constructions are imbricated in ideologies and structures of power. Our gender, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation and class can play a critical role in determining the kind of social, political and economic power we have, how we attain that power, and how we use it. In the context of media, much power comes from visibility and agency (in the media product as well as behind-the-scenes). Such analyses of power lead to productive discussions of inequity and prejudice, ultimately raising important social justice issues.

Do you have a particular pedagogical model in mind as you think about how these materials might be used in the classroom?

The site’s approach draws theoretically from critical pedagogy (and its connections to cultural studies), which works to frame critical thinking, and the learning that comes out of it, in the context of social change. The primary goal is to change students’ perspective on media and its role in shaping their own identities as well as the meanings they ascribe to identities more broadly. Following the lead of writers such as Henry Giroux and Douglas Kellner, the site focuses on critical media literacy—interpretation as well as production and dissemination of content that can challenge dominant ideologies and play a pivotal role in fostering a multicultural, democratic society. The Critical Media Project’s focus on identity and the politics of identity speaks to social justice issues and the larger historical, sociological and political context revolving around them. The site is further designed to spark discussion and to engage students in critical praxis, thereby underscoring the participatory and communal ways in which meanings are made and, further, can make change in the classroom and beyond.

We often hear of the rigid nature of much public school curriculum and the difficulty teachers have introducing innovative materials while adhering to standards. The Critical Media Project is designed to work in the context of pre-existing curriculum and the general principles set forth by the Common Core as they broadly relate to applied critical thinking. The media on this site can be viewed as texts—akin to, if not worthy of comparison with, traditional texts read in an English Language Arts curriculum. It can be used to illustrate a lesson in social studies or history tied to civil rights, or to highlight and make sense of the racialized narratives or sexual politics tied to a particular current event. It can be used in the context of health and human development classes to foster discussion around lines between sex, gender, and transgender identification. Ultimately, the site is designed to be flexible and to work with teacher and student interest and curricular requirements.

 

How might readers who want to contribute to the project get involved? 

The site is a work in progress and we’d like to continue to build and expand on the catalogued media, in large part by crowdsourcing from potential contributors. We aim to regularly post current and relevant examples on Facebook and Twitter (@critmedpro), where we have recently included media tied to the events in Ferguson, MO as well as this summer’s viral “#Like a Girl” campaign distributed by the feminine hygiene brand, Always.

 

Potential contributors can email media to criticalmediaproject@gmail.com. We also welcome full annotated contributions, following the format on the website (with description and discussion questions). In the “class activities” section of The Critical Media Project, there is an assignment that educators can use to solicit contributions from their students. We also would be interested in piloting the site in a classroom or school, working with individual or groups of teachers, their curriculum, and students to facilitate using The Critical Media Project.

We are always looking for current and fresh examples! Please share this resource with others and send feedback.

Alison Trope, Clinical Professor in the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, teaches a range of classes on media, popular and visual culture and is the author of Stardust Monuments: The Saving and Selling of Hollywood. She directs The Critical Media Project (www.criticalmediaproject.org), a web resource that facilitates the teaching and understanding of identity in the media. 

 

Digital Youth with Disabilities: An Interview with Meryl Alper (Part Two)

 

You hint here that our perceptions of what kinds of media are appropriate for youth with disabilities tends to prioritize educational and assistive technologies over the use of new media for recreational and social purposes. What are some of the implications of these biases?

I get frustrated when talk of children with disabilities and technology drifts into a common trope in which disability is imagined as a problem that needs solving, and technology (in school and therapeutic settings) provides the solution. One implication is that it perpetuates the idea of children with disabilities as “poster children” (Longmore, 2013), defined primarily by their medical needs and deserving of charity. Often—as one of my dissertation committee members, Beth Haller, has written—technology or technologists (usually able-bodied) are emphasized in the popular press for the good they do for people with disabilities. There is far less emphasis on the ways in which individuals with disabilities appropriate and adapt technology, and are active consumers, creators, and circulators of media. For example, Bess Williamson has pointed out ways in which individuals with disabilities were pioneers of maker culture in the post-WWII era.

Another is that digital media researchers are missing opportunities to study and learn from youth with disabilities. For example, there is exciting work being done by a fellow Ph.D. student, Kate Ringland at UC Irvine, on parent and youth participation in a Minecraft server called Autcraft, which is a dedicated space for individuals on the autism spectrum. There is a lot to be learned in Autcraft not just about autism, but also with respect to the methods of digital ethnography and the study of social norms and reciprocity.

Lastly, it is also important to understand the ways in which youth with disabilities figure into what we already know about how kids are “hanging out, messing around, and geeking out” (or the ways in which they are being excluded) so that they too are able to reap the benefits of a more participatory culture. Most high-tech educational and assistive devices are beyond the financial means of many families without additional financial support from school districts or health insurance. Parents express feeling like the professionals that work with their children lack an understanding of their family media habits (Nally, Houlton, & Ralph, 2000). Without understanding the media ecologies of youth with disabilities more fully, and their use of everyday tools like YouTube or Snapchat, the well-intentioned introduction of these technologies across the settings where children learn may not be as effective.

 

You spend a large chunk of the book dissecting and critiquing the concept of “screen time.” Why has this been such a problematic way to formulate policies shaping media use within family life? Why is this concept especially inappropriate for thinking about media consumption/participation by youth with disabilities?

For those unfamiliar, over past 15 years, the phrase “screen time” has come to signify how much time children spend with the growing array of screen-based media and technology. It entered the popular vernacular in 2001, as part of a policy statement issued by American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the leading professional group for pediatricians in the U.S. While child development experts (especially psychologists) have weighed in on children’s media use since days of radio, in the 1970s, pediatricians and the AAP began a more concerted effort to make public statements on children and media. In its current incarnation, the AAP’s policy statement on children and media specifically targets “entertainment screen media” (which is still a pretty sweeping category).

The AAP statements make the relationship between media and children seem far more clear and simple than the research actually indicates. In the book chapter, I detail a few ways in which screen time is generally a flawed concept: its oversimplification of the notion of family “time”; its negative characterization of “entertainment screen media” content as something to be avoided; its unproved hypothesis that screen time directly displaces other activities children might otherwise be doing (like homework or playing outside); and its lumping together of all screen-based communication technologies even though they have very different capabilities. I also discuss each of these critiques in relation to children with disabilities.

There also seemed to be an aspect of screen time that was potentially harmful to children with disabilities and their families. I detail in the chapter how screen time presumes a child whose diet and exercise, sleep, and attention would be “normal” were it not for screen media. This standard is implicitly projected as the ideal media-using child and essentially “others” children with disabilities. Thus, screen time is inherently “ableist,” a worldview in which disability is understood as aberrant—something for statisticians to “control for” in their data—and not a natural human difference.

I have an example from my dissertation fieldwork of how screen time can perpetuate ableism in everyday life. I conducted an interview with a mom, Perri, whose preschool-age son, Cory (both pseudonyms), has a developmental disability that impairs his ability to produce embodied oral speech. Cory primarily “talks” using an iPad with an app called Proloquo2Go. The system provides him with text-to-speech features and tools for selecting words, symbols, and images to communicate his thoughts. Perri told me that she was “of course” worried about the negative impact of “screen time,” but “as a special needs parent, you have to block out the rest of the world.” Perri felt guilty for sometimes falling on the wrong side of screen time guidelines; for example, the only thing that helped Cory sit still during difficult 45-minute daily medical treatments was watching a DVD.

She detailed a social situation that required her to shut out dominant cultural messages about screen time. When her and Cory go to the playground, she said, she feels that other parents are judging her. They must be thinking, Perri told me, “‘Look at that parent, giving that child an iPad.’” She assumed that other parents associated letting a child use an iPad on a playground as a poor parenting move. To be fair, from the vantage point of the other parents, they might not know what else Cory could possibly be using the iPad for besides recreation. He does not visibly appear to have a disability from the opposite end of the playground—he is not in a wheelchair, he can walk, and he has a lot of energy. However, the situation for Perri and Cory would be much improved by greater societal awareness about how screen media serves different purposes in the lives of diverse families. Perri should not have to “block out the rest of the world”—those on the opposite ends of the playground should be less quick to judge her and her son. A serious dialogue about screen time and disability is but one starting point to create a more enabling and supportive environment for Perri and her son.

Meryl Alper is a Ph.D. Candidate in Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.  She studies the social and cultural implications of networked communication technologies, with a particular focus on disability and digital media, children and families’ technology use, and mobile communication.  Prior to USC, she worked in the children’s media industry as a researcher and strategist with Sesame Workshop, Nickelodeon, and Disney.  She can be found on Twitter @merylalper and online at merylalper.com

 

 

Digital Youth with Disabilities: An Interview with Meryl Alper (Part One)

Meryl Alper’s new book, Digital Youth with Disabilities, releases shortly via the MacArthur Foundation’s distinguished series of reports on Digital Media and Learning, published by MIT Press. Alper is currently one of my PhD Candidates at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, where she is writing a dissertation under my supervision sharing what she’s learned through interviews and observations of the families of youth in Los Angeles who use adaptive technologies to help them deal with speech disabilities.

Alpert came to me a few years ago having already had a distinguished career working in and around children’s media, including having worked with the Sesame Workshop’s Education and Research Department where she had done field work investigating the potential for developing an animated series focused on media literacy, with Northwestern University’s Children’s Digital Media Center where she worked directly with Barbara O’Keefe (a legend in the space of children’s media) and most recently, with the research division of Nick Jr. where again she did work with preschool aged children.

Since coming to USC, she has been part of a team at the Annenberg Innovation Lab which developed a white paper in collaboration with the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, T is For Transmedia, which I have featured here before. She has increasingly been focusing her attention onto the roles new media play as adaptive and assistive technologies for families who are living with disabilities. Her work, as you will see, emphasizes the social contexts within which these technologies are situated, a topic she writes about with enormous nuance and empathy; she explores the processes by which youth and their families develop voice and assert control over their lives, while negotiating with powerful institutions, especially schools but also the medical establishment, over access to and control over these technological resources.

I am so proud of what Alper has accomplished during her time at USC and know that she is going to become an outstanding professional as she enters the academic job market this year. I wanted to use this post to call attention to her book.

You begin the book with some of the ways that the concept of disability has been rethought through critical/feminist disability studies. To what degree have these insights been translated into terms that can be understood by educators, policy-makers, and parents? Is there a gap here between theory and practice?

Before diving in, I’ll give a brief overview of some of the key intersections between disability studies and critical studies, before discussing how these theoretical developments translate to the U.S. context of education and learning.

Disability is a constantly evolving concept, and my book partially captures it at one particular moment in history. It is a dimension of human difference, while also containing a multitude of differences. For example, while some disabilities are more visible and permanent (e.g. Down syndrome, paralysis), other conditions are less immediately apparent and fluctuate in severity more frequently (e.g. chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple chemical sensitivities).

Two broad ways of thinking about disability initially grew out of the field of disability studies: a medical model of disability, in which disability is understood as undesirable, individualized, and defined by deficit; and a social model, which distinguishes between impairment (as bodily difference) and disability (as the social and structural environment that disables different bodies).

A critical approach to disability studies challenges both models. While the medical model offers needed medical solutions for pain, discomfort, and fatigue, political and social transformations are also needed to make the world more accessible and safe for individuals with disabilities, their families, and caregivers. The social model does not account for the ways that disability is experienced on an individual level, the ways that impairment and disability mutually shape one another, and how these social constructions shift depending on time and place.

Critical feminist/queer disability studies scholars (including Robert McRuer, Alison Kafer, and David Serlin) offer ways of looking at disability as political that question overlapping status quos of power and privilege. It is important to note that people with disabilities are the largest minoritized group in the U.S.—19% of the population according to the U.S. Census. Critical disability studies is engaged with other disciplinary traditions that also challenge systems and structures of oppression, such as feminist studies, queer studies, ethnicity and race studies, and indigenous studies. To study any form of institutionalized discrimination in 2014 necessitates disentangling interactions between class, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, nationality, language, age, and especially disability.

The insights of critical disability studies are far from fully incorporated into educational practice and policy in the U.S. On a macro level, the U.S. education system is centered on the “normal” student, sorting and measuring ability through the big business of standardized testing. The system is designed to prepare students to make a “productive” contribution to society. However, this model of productivity is based on narrow ideas about what it means to contribute, primarily by adding economic value to the workforce. The ideal graduate of the U.S. educational system is nearly always able-bodied and able-minded. Critical disability scholars push back against a society that seeks to cure, rehabilitate, or make disability go away, and seeks alternative models of community and coalition building.

Another area where a critical disability studies intervention is needed is in addressing disparity among youth with disabilities. Black males are overrepresented in the high-incidence disability categories of intellectual disability, emotional disturbance, and learning disabilities (Aud et al., 2013; Ford, 2012). Though youth with disabilities comprise 13% of all U.S. students aged 3-21 (according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics), they make up 25% of students receiving multiple out-of-school suspensions, 23% of all students getting a school-related arrest, and 19% of expelled students (Lhamon & Samuels, 2014).

If any group has done the most to translate the insights of critical disability studies for parents, policy makers, and educators, it has been students and individuals with disabilities (who may also be parents, policy makers, and educators themselves). Unlike most people in the field of disability studies, I do not currently identify as an individual with a disability, and I am not the parent, sibling, or partner of someone with a disability. I have to work very hard to see things from a point of view that I cannot fully understand. I personally look towards organizations such as the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism and disability rights activists such as Lydia Brown for their leadership in bridging theory and practice.

 

You also were one of the co-authors of T is for Transmedia, which advocated for transmedia play and learning. In what ways would the multimodality associated with transmedia enhance or detract from the media experiences of youth with disabilities?

A small but growing body of research suggests that emerging readers and writers with physical, cognitive, and intellectual disabilities may benefit from expanded opportunities to draw on their experiences with popular culture and leverage their multimodal text-making abilities (Flewitt, Kucirkova, & Messer, 2014; Peppler & Warschauer, 2012). However, the benefits or drawbacks of transmedia play for any one child depends not only on their specific set of abilities and disabilities, but—taking a more ecological approach to human development—also the social, cultural, and political context that underpins the child’s learning experiences in and out of the classroom.

I’ll provide an example from my dissertation research that illustrates these possibilities and limitations. Kevin is a non-speaking, 13-year-old mixed-race autistic boy from a lower-middle income family. While he is unable to articulate his grasp of the English language through embodied oral speech or handwriting, his mother, Rebecca, indicated that he demonstrated strength in print literacy and an array of new literacies including technological fluency and visual literacy.

She drew heavily on instances of her son’s media use to talk about his verbal abilities. For example, Rebecca told me that Kevin used the letter tile game Bananagrams to spell “‘Indiana Jones’ before he could spell his own name.” The Harry Potter DVD menu in particular provided rich seed material. Said Rebecca, “He would spell ‘prologue.’ Prologue was his word. Prologue, prologue, prologue. Then he would spell ‘quidditch pitch.’ He would spell ‘Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour.’”

Kevin’s wordplay with the language of DVD menus provided an opportunity for learning. However, clinicians, behavioral therapists, and sometimes parents tend to pathologize repeated viewing of movie credits by autistic youth (Liss, Saulnier, Fein, & Kinsbourne, 2006). Though Rebecca described Kevin’s transmedia play as a positive pathway to spelling, certain kinds of play by disabled children often gets promoted or prevented depending on the various institutions in which their learning is embedded (Goodley & Runswick-Cole, 2010).

 

Meryl Alper is a Ph.D. Candidate in Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.  She studies the social and cultural implications of networked communication technologies, with a particular focus on disability and digital media, children and families’ technology use, and mobile communication.  Prior to USC, she worked in the children’s media industry as a researcher and strategist with Sesame Workshop, Nickelodeon, and Disney.  She can be found on Twitter @merylalper and online at merylalper.com

Young People’s Ethical Disconnects?: An Interview with Carrie James (Part Two)


Early on, you describe some of the concerns which motivate your work: “I harbor real concerns about the local and global consequences, often hidden, of the uncivil, cruel, and harmful conduct that is common, if not routine, in some online communities. I worry that such conduct discourages participation, thus undercutting one of the central promises of the Internet. I also worry about the general lack of attention to moral and ethical concerns on the Internet, compared with the emphasis on personal safety issues.” What role do you think we as scholars and researchers can play in addressing those concerns?

 

Scholars and researchers in the digital media and learning space have an important role to play here. While a number of scholars attend to these issues in their work (e.g., Whitney Phillips forthcoming book), I’ve often perceived a lack of interest – and sometimes even push back – in the DML community about focusing on digital misdeeds or areas of concern. I do appreciate the importance of calling attention to the positive learning, civic, and other opportunities that the internet provides for youth. I also appreciate the need to push against media panics that often dominate the discourse around the internet.  But what sometimes feels like an over-emphasis on the “good stuff” is at odds with the reality that online spaces can be unfriendly, hostile, and aggressive non-communities for some participants (female bloggers and gamers are a case in point).

 

With those thoughts on the table, I think we can do more to support one another in doing research that attends to all sides of digital life — from the very positive, supportive, and promising to the very troubling, disconcerting, and discouraging examples, and everything in between.

 

But research is really just the beginning, or only part of developing effective approaches to addressing negative behavior online. Scholars need to make their work accessible to parents, educators, and youth. We need to support them and, when appropriate, even partner with them to raise the status of these issues on the educational agenda. Some of this work is being done as part of efforts to stem cyberbullying. However, I worry about the emphasis on bullying and cyberbullying in the strict sense, which can exclude attention to more subtle acts of exclusion and meanness often propagated on social media sites, through apps and other digital means.

 

As noted, a big part of our work on the Good Play Project has been the educational piece. We’ve collaborated with your group and with Common Sense Media in the past to develop supports for conversations about digital citizenship in schools and other learning environments. Through our Project Zero summer institutes and offsite conferences, Katie Davis and I convene educators for workshops related to this work. In these sessions, we share ideas and tools for reflection on the ethical dilemmas that often arise online.

 

One of the most common misperceptions about youth today is that they have little to no interest in privacy. Yet your findings show something different. How would you characterize the attitudes towards privacy that emerged from your interviews?

 

When we spoke with youth even as young as 10 about online privacy issues, we found that they were keenly aware of and concerned about privacy risks online. For those of us in the digital research community, this is not news. A number of other studies have shown that youth care about privacy (e.g., boyd & Marwick, 2011). The misconception that they don’t is often based on cases where privacy isn’t perfectly handled by youth. Further, there may be misalignments between youth and adults about what should be private vs. semi-public vs. public.

 

Pushing beyond the question of whether or not youth care about privacy, I also sought to understand how they approached online privacy more generally. I wondered about their mindsets about privacy and, given the focus of my book, the extent to which their mindsets were attentive to the moral and ethical aspects of online privacy given the opportunities digital technologies afford for breaching other people’s privacy.

 

The findings here were quite interesting. Nearly all the youth we spoke with conveyed support in some way for the mindset that privacy is largely “in your hands” online. That is, they argued that it’s up to the individual to adjust privacy settings, to consider audiences, and to make thoughtful decisions about what to post or not. However, many of these youth also suggested that privacy is not fully in your hands online. This argument was part of the mindset that “privacy is forsaken” in a digital age – that full privacy is unattainable online, so one must be careful about what one posts or be resigned to fact that privacy lapses are bound to happen. Both mindsets are attentive in different ways to the privacy risks that exist today, yet they also contain blind spots. The privacy is “in your hands” approach, taken in absolute terms, can be blind to the numerous ways in which one’s privacy can be broken online, despite efforts to control it. The forsaken mindset is more realistic. Yet, we also observed that it sometimes went along with an “anything goes” attitude with respect to other people’s privacy. In other words, for some youth, the fact that everyone gives up some measure of privacy online justifies looking at, circulating, or leveraging any information found about someone online.

 

Given these blind spots, it was gratifying to find evidence of another mindset that attends more directly to moral and ethical themes: the “privacy is social” mindset. Here, youth spoke in eloquent terms about the need to be vigilant about other people’s potential privacy concerns online. Some youth spoke about routine practices of checking in with friends before posting any photos featuring them on social media. Others said they developed guidelines with friends, siblings, and parents for protecting and respecting each other’s privacy online. These measures are impressive in taking seriously that privacy is a social, moral, and ethical issue in an environment in which we can search and share freely about one another. Unfortunately, the privacy as social mindset, and explicit measures to achieve it, didn’t come up as often as the other attitudes. Related to this, messages from adults about online privacy almost always supported the privacy as forsaken and “in your hands” mindsets along with individual-centered (and ultimately insufficient) strategies for privacy protection. This is a front where educators and parents could be doing much more to shift the conversation in ways that support social, moral and ethical approaches to privacy.

 Carrie James is a Research Director and Principal Investigator at Project Zero, and Lecturer on Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her research explores young people’s digital, moral, and civic lives. Since arriving at Project Zero in 2003, Carrie has worked with Howard Gardner and colleagues on The Good Project. She co-directs the Good Play Project, a research and educational initiative focused youth, ethics, and the new digital media, and the Good Participation project, a study of how youth “do civics” in the digital age. Carrie is also co-PI of the Out of Eden Learn project, an educational companion to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek’s epic Out of Eden walk. Her publications include Disconnected: Youth, New Media, and the Ethics Gap (The MIT Press, 2014). Carrie has an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Sociology from New York University. 

 

Young People’s Ethical Diconnects?: An Interview with Carrie James (Part One)

Today, we begin the second in a series of interviews with members of the Good Play team at Harvard, a team headed by Howard Gardner and associated with the longstanding Project Zero. The following is excerpted from a foreword I wrote for Carrie James’s Disconnected: Youth, New Media, and the Ethics Gap, and it serves as well as anything I could write here to provide a set up for the interview which follows.

 

A working-class black woman lingered after I spoke about youth and digital media at Detroit’s Wayne State University. She pushed her way through the crowd to ask a simple question: “Will my boy be all right?”

 

Her adolescent son spent a great deal of time online, talking with friends, building his home page, playing computer games, doing his homework. She had heard conflicting reports-teachers claiming Net access fostered educational growth, and media reformers warning about teens “running amok” on the Net. And now, like so many other parents, she worried that she was wrong to let her son explore cyberspace when she knew so little about computers herself. She feared that she did not know enough to give him the guidance he needed and wondered if perhaps the only answer was to unplug the expensive device she had brought into her home.

 

This is one of many such encounters I’ve had with parents and youth (of all races and economic backgrounds) through the years as people asked some core questions about whether these new media platforms and practices are helping to make us better or worse people. Many parents were asking whether their children would be alright and often looking at particular choices their sons and daughters had made online and asking “what were they thinking?”

 

I’ve often wished I could give them a book like Disconnected to read — a book which responded not with fear and panic, but spoke directly about how we might foster more responsible digital citizens, how we can encourage more participation and healthier communities. Over six years, a team of 14 researchers at Harvard’s Good Play Project has been interviewing young people — both teens and tweens — about their digital lives, the ethical challenges they face online, and the values which govern the choices they make about how to treat people they encounter on social media or web 2.0 platforms. What emerges here is a complex picture — one which sees these emerging platforms and practices as “not either-or, but this-and-that,” both a “burden” and a “blessing.” Some of what Carrie James shares about young people’s ethical choices may alarm us, some may give us hope, but most of all, the book reveals what many of us have come to recognize — the online world is neither an ideal society nor hell on earth, but a place where we go to conduct very routine aspects of our daily lives and often we think less than we should about the consequences of the choices we are making there.

 

As I’ve read this book, I’ve found myself thinking about its evocative title, about the various ways we might describe American youth as “disconnected,” even as they are more heavily wired than previous generations. Some of them are disconnected from any kind of online community, having little to no understanding of the participatory mechanisms or shared norms that apply to different forms of online social interactions. Some of them see little to no connection between what they do online and what gets valued by their parents or schools. Some seem not to be able to meaningfully connect what they do online with the consequences of their actions on others or to connect digital avatars with the flesh and blood people whose feelings may be hurt by their hateful words and actions. Some have little or no connection to adults who might provide them with meaningful insight into the situations they encounter and some have no real access to older ethical and spiritual traditions as they make decisions that can sometimes have serious implications for their lives and the lives of others.

 

Carrie James states early in the book that she is offering a “glass half empty” perspective: “I harbor real concerns about the local and global consequences, often hidden, of the uncivil, cruel, and harmful conduct that is common, if not routine, in some online communities. I worry that such conduct discourages participating, thus undercutting one of the central promises of the Internet. I also worry about the general lack of attention to more and ethical concerns on the Internet, compared with the emphasis on personal safety issues.” I share those concerns, even though I am a “glass half full” guy. James and I have had healthy debates through the years around many of these questions, but where we would agree is that we are still looking at half a glass and that more needs to be done to support our young people’s moral development in the digital age. Howard Rheingold warned some decades ago, “those who would prefer the more democratic vision of the future have an opportunity to influence the outcome, which is precisely why online activists should delve into the criticisms that have been leveled against them.” I care very much about the issues James raises here because I believe that our goal should be to expand who has access to the means of cultural production, circulation, and participation and the best way to realize those potentials is to soberly assess and meaningfully address the roadblocks we encounter along the path towards a more participatory culture.

 

 

      You open the book with a provocative quote from Neil Postman: “Every technology is both a burden and a blessing; not either-or, but this-and-that.” In what senses do you think digital technologies have been both a burden and a blessing to young people?

 

In quoting Postman at the outset, I wanted to make clear my view that digital technologies are not the direct perpetrators of the ethics gaps I write about in the book. Rather, as other scholars have acknowledged too, technologies provide affordances (Gibson, 1977) – they enable certain perceptions and actions, and constrain others. The ways in which we seize their affordances – our habits and norms of use – are key. (Related to this, my colleagues Howard Gardner and Katie Davis’s recent book, The App Generation, provides a nuanced account of the mixed blessings associated with digital life. They argue that the outcomes depend on how we use apps and other digital media.)

 

In my view, digital and social media are a blessing in the expansive opportunities they provide to young people – to explore and express their identities; to maintain social ties; to forge new connections with people with shared interests and passions; to access information and cultural goods; to participate in the creation of cultural content, and so on. To my mind, though, one of the most significant blessings of the digital landscape are the opportunities afforded to youth to be active participants in the public sphere – sharing their voices, showing support for and mobilizing others on behalf of social justice issues. (Our ongoing work with you and others as part of the MacArthur Youth and Participatory Politics research network is focused on that particular set of opportunities).

 

Yet, these digital age blessings are vexed in various ways. The invitation to participate on the web can feel risky given that one’s contributions can be taken out of context, misinterpreted, and shared with a wider audience than intended. Add to this the persistent, replicable and searchable qualities of digital content that danah boyd has often written about and – per my point above about our norms of use – the ways in which employers and college admissions officers can (and reportedly do) leverage them to judge young people. These practices place a burden on young people to manage the digital trails they leave behind, as best they can.

 

As other research has shown, participation in some social media sites can feel more obligatory than engaging (Pew 2013), and can even contribute to low self-esteem, especially if one’s news feed gives the impression that everyone else’s life consists of non-stop happiness and success. Further, as I discuss in my chapter on Participation, along with the opportunity to participate comes the risk that one’s contributions will be mocked or that one will become a target of subtle or explicit acts of cruelty or digital abuse. The public or semi-public nature of digital contexts can certainly magnify the sting of a negative comment or of an embarrassing photo posted by an online contact. EXAMPLE

 

Finally, as our recent work on youth online civic expression shows, backlash and other forms of uncivil discourse may have the unfortunate effect of quieting or even silencing youth voices on social network sites (Weinstein, 2014). A Pew study published in late August showed a similar alarming “spiral of silence” trend among adults, 18 and over.

 

So there are many opportunities afforded by online spaces, but along with the promises come new risks to be managed, but also new responsibilities in relation to others. Henry, you’ve often quoted Peter Parker’s uncle Ben who said that “with great power comes great responsibility.” One of the key messages of my book is that we need to have more conversations about the moral and ethical responsibilities that go along with participation in digital cultures.

 

      You called the book, Disconnected, which seems ironic, since in some senses, young people today are more connected than ever before. In what senses do you see this word as an appropriate description of what you found through your research?

 

Yes, young people are more connected to one another than ever before. But what I found in our research is that youths’ thinking about online situations can often be glaringly disconnected from the ethical dimensions. In other words, youth (and adults for that matter) were often not alert to the distant, potentially far-reaching, implications for others of the things they post and circulate online.

 

In the opening chapter of the book, I talk about two distinct types of thinking shortfalls that often characterized youth approaches to online situations: blind spots and disconnects. Drawing from Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrunsel’s work (Blind Spots, 2011), I describe digital blind spots as failures to be sensitive to the moral or ethical implications of one’s tweets, Facebook status updates, or uses of online content. For example, when youth spoke about music piracy, their thinking and decision-making was typically keyed to self-focused concerns: how much (or little) money they had, the possibility of getting caught or downloading a virus. While some youth engaged moral or ethical arguments about piracy (either in support of it or against it), many of them evinced a blind spot to these dimensions of property issues – they simply didn’t consider how musicians might be affected by their choices.

 

I contrast blind spots with disconnects, which involve awareness and some consideration of moral or ethical concerns, yet a conscious dismissal of their importance. For example, one might acknowledge that a friend or stranger online might be offended by a misogynist online comment or tweet, but decide that the humor that others might see in the joke – and the resulting “likes” and praise – makes it worthwhile to post. Thinking of recent events, Perez Hilton’s regrettable – and regretted – decision to circulate nude photographs of Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton is an example of the kind of disconnected thinking that concerns me. This case shows how disconnects aren’t just found among youth; indeed, adults’ thinking is often disengaged from ethical considerations. I emphasize youths’ thinking gaps, however, because youth were the focus of our research.

 

Certainly, I also observed, and describe in the book, mindsets about online life that are more sensitive to moral and ethical concerns. However, my aim was to call attention to and explore the nuances of gaps, shortfalls, and attitudes that sometimes thwart the development of socially positive online communities. Thus, my decision to call the book, Disconnected.

 

Can you tell us something of the context that this book came out of? What is the relationship between the Good Play Project and the earlier work done through the Good Work project? What methods have you deployed to develop a better understanding of the kinds of ethical choices young people are making in their online lives?

 

Great question. The Good Play Project was definitely informed by prior research my colleagues and I conducted as part of the Good Work Project (1995-2006). Our Good Work studies explored how professionals in different lines of work negotiated market forces and other aspects of social change impinging on the professions and strived to do work that was excellent in quality, personally engaging, and ethical. We refer to excellence, engagement, and ethics as the three e’s of good work. Our studies included young professionals and those in training to enter fields such as journalism, genetics, and theater. A notable finding from our interviews was that young people felt an inordinate amount of pressure to succeed, and often in contexts in which their peers and even their role models cut corners in order to get ahead. Wendy Fischman, Becca Solomon, Deborah Greenspan and Howard Gardner wrote about these issues in their book, Making Good: How Young People Cope with Moral Dilemmas at Work.

 

As Howard Gardner and I launched our studies of youth and digital life around 2007-2008, we were mindful of this prior work and its findings. We decided to focus our studies on how youth negotiated moral and ethical issues in new digital contexts, where codes of conduct are established more informally than in fields of work and can shift rapidly, and where participants may enter with radically different purposes, values, and investments in the community.

 

Our methods for exploring these themes were largely qualitative, also continuing the tradition of our prior work. We conducted in depth interviews with young people in which we elicited narratives about their online lives – including the bright spots and points of struggle.  We asked about how they got involved in different online communities; their goals and sense of responsibility; perceived norms and violations of norms; their role models, mentors, or other supportive as well as negative influences. We also presented participants with hypothetical scenarios that contained a moral or ethical dimension, and talked with them at length about their responses and connections to lived experiences they’ve had on the web. In my book, I open each thematic chapter with one of these scenarios and describe both typical and rare responses.

 

For example, I open the privacy chapter with a scenario in which Facebook photos posted by friends reveal that a college student athlete was attending a party in violation of a sports team policy. Our study participants were asked to reflect on how they might handle such a situation. Most youth responded that they would untag themselves and perhaps even ask the friends to remove the photos from Facebook all together. While such responses are expected and understandable, we were also curious to see the extent to which youths’ thinking pushed beyond consequences for themselves. Indeed, some youth did reflect on their responsibilities to their teammates, coach, and a wider community of students. Yet, on the whole, self-focused concerns really dominated youths’ thinking. Most youth connected the hypothetical situation to personal experiences they’d had or observed among friends. So the hypotheticals really stimulated deeper discussion of dilemmas they’ve lived out online.

 

Overall, these methods gave us tremendous insight into how the young people with whom we spoke think about their online lives, the considerations that guide their choices online, and their hopes and areas of concern related to the internet and other aspects of digital life.

 

Our activities on the Good Play Project were also informed by our commitment, as part of the Good Work Project and Project Zero, to creating practical tools and supports based on our research for educators and other important stakeholders. With encouragement from the MacArthur Foundation, we joined forces with your Project New Media Literacies team (then at MIT, now at USC) to co-develop a casebook of classroom materials called Our Space: Being a Responsible Citizen of the Digital World. Our work with your group really pushed our thinking in new directions and helped us appreciate the great learning opportunities of the digital landscape for youth.

Carrie James is a Research Director and Principal Investigator at Project Zero, and Lecturer on Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her research explores young people’s digital, moral, and civic lives. Since arriving at Project Zero in 2003, Carrie has worked with Howard Gardner and colleagues on The Good Project. She co-directs the Good Play Project, a research and educational initiative focused youth, ethics, and the new digital media, and the Good Participation project, a study of how youth “do civics” in the digital age. Carrie is also co-PI of the Out of Eden Learn project, an educational companion to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek’s epic Out of Eden walk. Her publications include Disconnected: Youth, New Media, and the Ethics Gap (The MIT Press, 2014). Carrie has an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Sociology from New York University. 

Are Apps a Trap?: An Interview with Howard Gardner and Katie Davis (Part Three)

My readers are apt to be especially interested in your discussion of creativity in the era of apps. You draw some interesting conclusions by looking at student artworks and how they have evolved over the past few decades. One of the counterintuitive trends you identify is a shift from fantastical subject matter towards more faithful reconstruction of everyday realities. This is surprising to me in part because of the stereotype, which is grounded in some reality, that this is a generation which grew up reading Harry Potter, but some research suggests that schools have tended to have a strong towards realist or at least naturalistic reading, especially in a world where we moved away from the study of literature and towards a focus on deciphering short fragments in preparation for reading comprehension exams. What factors might contribute to this emphasis on realistic rather than fantastical forms of expression?

Perhaps the most innovative research in the book entailed the development of detailed coding categories that can be administered, blindly, to works of art and literature produced by young people between 1990 and 2011. The scrupulous application of these codes led to the conclusion that visual art by young people today seems more imaginative than art produced by young people in the early 1990s, while literary productions by today’s cohort are less imaginative, in our sample of creative works.

This is a single study and we’d be foolish to draw excessive conclusions one way or the other. We very much hope that other scholars and educators, both in the US and abroad, will make use of these or similar tools and see whether they come up with essentially the same findings.

With this disclaimer, we initially shared your surprise about the creative writing findings. It’s not what you’d necessarily expect from youth who grew up immersed in the extremely imaginative world of Harry Potter! But these youth are also growing up in a world of standardized testing, with its pressure to master the perfect five-paragraph essay;and in schools that, with the introduction of Common Core standards, increasingly emphasize nonfiction reading. These trends must certainly have an effect on their use of language.

Others have pointed out to us that young people may be more imaginative in the writing that they do online, for friends and in interest-driven communities, than in writing produced for school or for publication. That’s an interesting idea worth pursuing and one that Mimi Ito and colleagues in the Connected Learning Research Network are shedding light on. Of course, we are talking about general trends—no one would claim that there are no young people producing imaginative works. Indeed, perhaps in other areas—ranging from the visual arts to the creation of new businesses—they are more imaginative than peers in earlier eras. And it may even be the case that we come to think differently of creativity in a digitally-suffused era.

Many of us have argued that contemporary remix practices can encourage certain kinds of critical and creative responses to the culture around them, but you seem to be siding a bit more with Jaron Lanier that such forms of creativity are limited or constrained in so far as they build upon pre-existing cultural materials. Can you explain your position here?

Early in their careers, artists are always producing in relation to the works around them and the works that are most valued—either emulating them or consciously rejecting them….or both! We see mash ups, remixing, and sampling with digital media as an extension of an age-old practice of artists. And, like you, we recognize exciting new opportunities for youth to create, share, and receive feedback on their creative productions. Indeed, we observed these opportunities firsthand in our study of young fan fiction authors on LiveJournal. At the same time, perhaps it is easier in an app world than it was before just to keep remixing, with the constraints already present in the current technologies; and if so, perhaps, fewer individuals will go out entirely on a limb.

To illustrate the effects of technological constraints on the artistic process, we draw on the work of computer scientist and cultural critic Jaron Lanier. Lanier uses the expression “lock-in” to describe the limited range of actions and experiences open to users when they interact with computer software. As a result of a programmer’s (often arbitrary) design decisions, certain actions are possible—indeed, encouraged—while others don’t even present themselves as options.

Lanier’s primary example of lock-in involves MIDI, a music software program developed in the 1980s to allow musicians to represent musical notes digitally. Because its designer took the keyboard as his model, MIDI’s representation of musical notes doesn’t encompass the textures found in other instruments, such as the cello, flute, or human voice. Lanier argues that something important is lost when one makes explicit and finite an entity that is inherently unfathomable (or, to invoke another lexical contrast, when one seeks to render as digital what is properly seen as analogue). Moreover, since MIDI was an early and popular entrant into the music software industry, subsequent software had to follow its representation of musical notes in order to be compatible with it. As a result, the lock-in was reified. MIDI is a good example of how early design decisions can circumscribe subsequent creative acts.

Drawing on a well-known distinction within the study of creativity, we have suggested that there may be a new trend at work. In the past, scholars made a distinction between little c creativity (the way that most of us show some originality in how we plan a meal or a holiday) and BIG C creativity (the radical innovations that we value in an Einstein, a Virginia Woolf, a Steve Jobs). Perhaps going forward, there will be more “middle C creativity”—individuals working together online to push the envelope in certain directions, but perhaps less dramatically.

Steve Jobs is an interesting case-in-point here. On the one hand, he had as much to do with creating the “APP world” as anyone. And yet, Steve Jobs was the least likely person in the world to be constrained by the apps that anyone else had created.

You make clear by the end of the book (and now in the new preface) that you are not opposed to all apps. Can you share some of your criteria for judging what constitutes a good or bad app? What are some examples of apps which you think have indeed fostered greater creativity, more exploration of identity, and more prospects for intimacy with others?

We’re often asked for examples of apps that are enabling and apps that promote dependence. Our response is that any app can be used in a more enabling or more dependent way depending on what one does with it. Consider the drawing app, Doodle Buddy. In one setting of this app, users select a drawing implement and proceed directly to fill their canvas in a free-form way, much as they would an actual canvas. Another setting in the same app presents the user with an array of pre-fabricated images and backgrounds, which users select and arrange on their canvas in a paint-by-numbers way. In the first setting, users are encouraged to engage the app in an open-ended way, with few constraints imposed on them. In the second setting, users’ actions are highly constrained by the limited range of choices given to them.

In our review of various apps, we’ve found that many educational apps lean toward the app-dependent end of the spectrum—drill and kill apps for memorizing times tables, spelling, and state capitals that reward students with virtual smiley faces, candy, or pets that have little or no meaningful connection to the learning task at hand. So, when we judge an app—whether it’s an app used for educational purposes, self-expression, communication, or creative production—we judge it based on the degree to which it encourages users to engage with it in an open-ended way, as non-constrained as possible. Some promising examples of apps that promote open-ended exploration include Minecraft, Scratch, and Digicubes.

 

Howard Gardner is Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Best known for his theory of multiple intelligences, he has also written about creativity, leadership, and ethics in the professions. A member of the MacArthur Foundation network on “youth and participatory politics”‘, he has collaborated with Carrie James and Katie Davis on several studies of the effects of digital media on young people today.

Katie Davis is an Assistant Professor at The University of Washington Information School, where she studies the role of digital media technologies in adolescents’ academic, social, and moral lives. She also serves as an Advisory Board Member for MTV’s digital abuse campaign, A Thin Line. Katie holds two master’s degrees and a doctorate in Human Development and Education from Harvard Graduate School of Education. Prior to joining the faculty at the UW iSchool, Katie worked with Dr. Howard Gardner and colleagues at Harvard Project Zero, where she was a member of the GoodPlay Project and the Developing Minds and Digital Media Project research teams.

Are Apps a Trap?: An Interview with Howard Gardner and Katie Davis (Part One)

A bit more than a decade ago, I met Howard Gardner for the first time. I had been aware of his work for much longer. My graduate mentor, David Bordwell, had assigned us his book, The Mind’s New Science when I was in graduate school, and the book had such an impact upon me that I had sought out his other works. When our paths crossed in the real world, I was a first intimidated, but also fascinated to find myself part of a conversation with him about the ways digital media was impacting how we thought and lived at the cusp of the 21st century.

Gardner is of Harvard; I was then of MIT, and that sums up about as well as I can imagine the intellectual and philosophical differences through which we saw the world. What separates Harvard and MIT for me has always been more than two subway stops on the Red Line. I went to Harvard Square to buy my comics but I usually stopped short of entering its gates. It was a different world — “the other place” — and you either understood that or it was impossible to explain.

Yet, for all of his enormous accomplishments and intellectual rigor, Gardner is also an incredibly modest and generous man, someone I love to bounce ideas against, someone with whom I frequently but always productively disagree, someone who is connected in his personal biography to some of the great thinkers who passed through Harvard in the second part of the 20th century, and someone who has the vision to think through what it means to continue that great humanistic tradition into the 21st century. Over the past years, I have had many chances to collaborate with Gardner – first as a contributor to a book he was editing (and a conference he was hosting) with Marcelo Saurez-Orozco, Globalization: Culture and Education in the New Millenium, then as collaborators (along with our entire teams) on the development of OurSpace:Being a Responsible Citizen of the Digital World, a curricular guide designed to help foster serious reflections on ethics in the age of participatory culture, and most recently, as fellow members of the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics Network.

I have always resisted trying to put a label on the various points around which we disagree. We wrote about it some in the introduction to OurSpace. But both of our thinking is too complex and layered to be easily described and to much at risk of being caricatured by those who only partially understand where we are each coming from. You will get some suggestions of points of convergence and divergence from the interview which follows, but you will also get a sense of the challenge we each have in putting the other in a bottle, since we are both prone to actively think and rethink our core assumptions on a regular basis, and open to being persuaded by new developments. What I hope you also will see is the tremendous respect and affection we have for each other.

Along the way, I have come to know many of the younger members of Gardner’s research team, including Carrie James and Katie Davis. I knew them as part of the “Good Play” and “Good Participation” projects, funded by the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Initiative. They were part of the team that worked alongside my research staff and graduate students at MIT as we developed the OurSpace project, an effort led on the MIT side by Erin Reilly. I’ve watched James and Davis emerge as serious thinkers about youth, digital media, and learning in their own right, each carving out an identity for themselves as researchers, and each producing and publishing  significant scholarly works.

Over the next week and a half, I want to showcase some recent works to emerge from this remarkable research team, two books, both relatively new, each speaking to key themes of the Digital Media and Learning movement: first, Howard Gardner and Katie Davis’s The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World, which was released this month in a revised paperback edition, and second, Carrie James’s Disconnected: Youth, New Media, and The Ethics Gap, which came out only a few weeks ago. Gardner, Davis, and James have offered up thoughtful and substantive responses to my sometimes challenging questions, in the process offering us insights into the thinking behind these two books. The books are, as Gardner noted to me in a recent email, very different projects, and yet, each in their own ways shows the legacy of a particular way of thinking through problems  I associated with Project Zero.

The App Generation starts with a deceptively simple consideration: the ways that apps may be pre-determining what we do with computers and mobile devices. But, the focus on apps on the most literal level turns out to be a point of entry for what is a deeper mediation on the current state of education, curiosity, and creativity, in a world where such digital devices are taken for granted and often provide the most compelling models for how our minds work and how we relate to other people around us. Like a good conversation with Gardner and his team, the book shifts layers, sometimes expressing concerns or worries about the state of our world, yet never giving up hope; sometimes asking very pragmatic questions while at other times digging deep into their philosophical implications; all the while writing in simple, straightforward prose that can communicate effectively with a concerned parent, a dedicated teacher, a perplexed policy maker, or an overloaded undergraduate….

WE START OFF BY THANKING YOU, HENRY, FOR POSING THESE THOUGHTFUL QUESTIONS. WE’VE LEARNED FROM PONDERING THEM AND BELIEVE THAT OTHERS WILL ALSO PROFIT FROM THE EXCHANGE HERE.

 

You end the book with a provocative sentence, “For ourselves, and for those who come after us as well, we desire a world where all human beings have a chance to create their own answers, indeed, to raise their own questions, and to approach them in ways that are their own.” How do apps fit — for better and for worse — into the world you desire?

We are enthusiastic supporters of a liberal arts education, but we recognize that it is currently under severe pressures in the US for various reasons, including growing costs and competition from online education services. Analogous to our arguments in other parts of our book, we see technologies as having both the potential to be a handmaiden of liberal arts education (as in a well run flipped classroom) and as an obstacle (e.g. students sit in class and pay only partial attention to the instructor and their classmates as they update their Facebook status, browse pictures on Instagram, and scroll through their Twitter feed).

Turning specifically to apps, they can certainly help students do research efficiently, collaborate with fellow students, and frame cogent answers to certain kinds of questions. But, consistent with our discussion of ‘the app mentality,’ apps may also convey the misleading impression that everything has a quick, definite answer and therefore nudge students to avoid issues that are complex and apparently not susceptible to app treatment.

We can also make apps themselves the focus of education. Apps are part of a broader technology landscape that requires a new set of literacies and skills, including computational thinking. An education in our time should help students understand how apps work, what they can and cannot do, how they may nudge you in certain directions and not others, and how to make your own apps or tweak those designed by others.

 

A striking feature of this book is the ways you draw on the life experiences of Howard and Katie, the two authors, and Katie’s sister, Molly, who each came of age during different moments of media evolution. What role do you see such autobiographical reflections playing in relation to the other kinds of research deployed in the book, whether focused interviews from your field work or larger statistical data sets?

As social scientists, we are well aware that anecdotes, no matter how powerful, are no substitute for, and do not add up to data. Most of our book is quite data driven, we have a methodological appendix in which we outline our methods, and we have also published several related papers in peer-reviewed journals or posted them on appropriate websites (e.g. here , here , here).

Except for scholarly monographs, books by scholars are meant to convey ideas and findings to a broader public. We hoped that, in addition to scholars of youth and/or digital media, our book would speak to educators, parents, and to that elusive category “the general educated public.”   For this kind of communication, stories, anecdotes, biographical reflections are often the most effective way to communicate the importance of the questions being raised and the nature of the ideas, frameworks, and explanations at which the authors have arrived.

In the particular case to which you refer, we did not have the idea of a trans-generational conversation until we were close to writing the book. The conversation with Molly, which allowed us to span three generations, elicited many useful points about the ways she and her peers use media; the story about the senior girls ‘marrying’ the freshmen boys on Facebook was an unanticipated bonus, since it offered a comfortable and vivid way of introducing the three Is of Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination.

The conversation with Howard’s grandson Oscar occurred even later, when the book was largely drafted. Again, what Oscar said captured beautifully the strengths and opportunities of digital media, as well as the distinct challenges they pose. And since Oscar represents the future, the conversation provided an opportunity, in the final pages of the book, for us to state—looking ahead– what we admire, and what causes us serious concern.

There are times in the book where you seem to be using “apps” metaphorically to identify and describe certain dimensions of the current generation’s cultural and social experiences and other places where you seem to be making causal claims, suggesting that the presence of apps have result in certain shifts in social behavior. You also make clear that demonstrating causality here would be difficult if not impossible. So could you say a bit more about what status apps hold in your argument?

We should perhaps have made it clearer when we were talking about apps literally—for example, what it means when a young person has never gotten lost. We should have specified when we were talking about apps metaphorically—what we call an app mentality (expecting everything to be slick, efficient, and branded) or a Super-App (the belief that life can or should consist of ‘one damned—or glorious — app after another’).

You and we both point out that one can never attribute a certain outcome confidently to the proliferation of apps or, indeed, to the effect of digital technologies more generally. We can’t do the experiment and we can’t eliminate the effects of other factors (e.g. the move toward high stakes, standardized testing in the U.S. and its possible effect on young people’s literary capacities, or the impact that economic uncertainty has on youth’s willingness to take risks in their education and career trajectories).

But an important goal of social science is to create terms, frameworks, and theories that help us to make sense of our time—and, in this particular case, of the minds and behaviors of young people. This is what psychoanalyst Erik Erikson did when he wrote about the identity crisis; it is what sociologists David Riesman, Nathan Glazer, and Reuel Denny did when they were writing about ‘the other-directed generation.” Less grandly, our goal has been to help readers understand what might be distinctive about young people in the early years of the 21st century.

While we do not see ourselves as techno-determinists, we do call attention to the distinct qualities of apps and various other digital media, such as round-the-clock connectivity and the public, searchable nature of networked communication. These qualities do not in themselves cause people to behave in certain ways—the introduction of the first transcontinental railroad did not cause Americans to move Westward in the late nineteenth century, but it did facilitate this trend. When the distinct affordances and constraints of digital media play out in specific social contexts—with their own set of norms, values, and practices—we believe the interaction between technology and society encourages certain forms of behavior, self-expression, and communication at the same time as it discourages others.

 At other places, you seem to imply that we are making choices about what role we allow these apps to play in our lives, distinguishing for example between “app-dependent” and “app-enabled” activities. To what degree are these choices under our control? What factors help to determine what choices individuals make in their relationship to these technologies?

This question gets to the essence of our inquiry and our concerns. Howard is a strong believer in “free will,” but he does not believe that people are in any sense born as free agents. It’s the messages in society—personal but also technological—that determine whether we live in a relatively free society (to which the United States and many other countries aspire) or in a totalitarian society where free will is the enemy (the totalitarian societies of the 20th and earlier centuries, and also the dystopias portrayed by Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Dave Eggers and other well- known literary figures).

The particular habits and practices that emerge in a society shape our relationship to other people, to ideas, to ourselves. In our research, we observed closely young people’s habits and practices around their use of technology and identified two distinct patterns. The app-enabled individual uses technology as a starting point, an introduction to new experiences, modes of expression, and social connection. App-dependent individuals, by contrast, look to their technologies first instead of looking outside to the non-technological world or examining their own thoughts and imaginative powers for a path forward—for these individuals, technology has become in effect a starting point, midpoint, and endpoint. We have the ability to shape our habits around technology and decide its role in our lives. But we must be deliberate about it, or we run the risk of abdicating our agency by outsourcing more and more of ourselves to our devices.

Howard Gardner is Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Best known for his theory of multiple intelligences, he has also written about creativity, leadership, and ethics in the professions. A member of the MacArthur Foundation network on “youth and participatory politics”‘, he has collaborated with Carrie James and Katie Davis on several studies of the effects of digital media on young people today.

Katie Davis is an Assistant Professor at The University of Washington Information School, where she studies the role of digital media technologies in adolescents’ academic, social, and moral lives. She also serves as an Advisory Board Member for MTV’s digital abuse campaign, A Thin Line. Katie holds two master’s degrees and a doctorate in Human Development and Education from Harvard Graduate School of Education. Prior to joining the faculty at the UW iSchool, Katie worked with Dr. Howard Gardner and colleagues at Harvard Project Zero, where she was a member of the GoodPlay Project and the Developing Minds and Digital Media Project research teams.

The Value of Media Literacy Education in the 21st Century: A Conversation with Tessa Jolls (Part Three)

Henry: I really appreciate the work the CML does in translating research into awareness and action, in trying to build a more sustainable and scalable movement for media literacy. As someone who sees themselves first and foremost as a researcher, I am deeply committed to translating our research into language that can be broadly accessible and providing resources which can be deployed within important conversations; I see this blog as part of the work I try to do to broker between different groups of people who should be talking to each other.

My team through the years has done a fair amount of applied work with educators, trying to get our materials out in the field. We’ve come to the same conclusion you have that media literacy is at least as much about rethinking education as it is about rethinking media. We found very early on that developing resources were never enough unless you also helped to train the teachers who would be using those materials. This took us down the path of developing and running teacher training programs in New Hampshire and California, and then publishing a series of white papers which dealt with what we saw as best practices in fostering participatory learning, practices that both dealt with how to integrate the new media literacies into school curriculum but also how to couple them with progressive pedagogies that are very much in line with those that Masterman describes above — pedagogies that are very much informed by thinkers such as Dewey and Freire. See, for example:

 

http://henryjenkins.org/2012/12/play-participatory-learning-and-you.html

http://henryjenkins.org/2012/12/shall-we-play.html

http://henryjenkins.org/2012/09/designing-with-teachers-participatory-approaches-to-professional-development-in-education.html

 

We are back in the trenches again with the latest phase of our work, this time emerging from extensive research (interviews with more than 200 young activists) about the political and civic lives of American youth: We’ve now built an archive featuring videos produced by young activists around a range of causes, many of them appropriating and remixing elements from popular culture, many of them using tools and tactics associated with participatory culture. This time, we are testing these materials in collaboration with the National Writing Project, and working with their teachers (as well as the organizations we study) to develop activities and lesson plans which might allow educators to integrate our materials and insights into their teaching. One thing we’ve learned through the years is that our core strength is ultimately in cultural theory and research and thanks to my move to USC, coupled with media production capacities; we have some understanding of core pedagogical issues; but we do better working hand in hand with classroom teachers to develop the actual activities that make sense in the public schools. And we count on the power of various networks — including both the Media Literacy Movement and those folks involved with the DML world — to get word out about what we’ve created. This is why I place such a high priority in building partnerships which can help us work together to achieve our shared goals.

 

The issue of whether representation remains the core of contemporary media literacy is a complex one, it seems to me. Representation is a powerful principle, one which helps to explain the ways we use media to make sense of ourselves and our lives, and it remains very pertinent in a world where we are encouraging young people to develop a stronger sense of their own public voices, to tell their own stories, to create their own media. Looking critically at existing representations, thinking ethically about the choices they make as they create their own representations as media producers remain core to any understanding of media literacy, but young people are also participating in media which are more focused on social exchanges and personal interactions in which the creation of texts is secondary to the cementing of social bonds.  If we were developing media literacy in response to the telephone rather than television, would we be asking different questions, have different priorities?

 

Representation is itself a process, to be sure, but we also often use it to refer to a product or text: a representation. The disciplines which do much of the heavy lifting on media literacy education — especially language arts but also arts education — tend to focus heavily on texts, and so as the term representation gets translated into their vocabulary, it is not surprising that it comes to circle around texts. This focus on texts can lead us to think in terms of readers and writers/producers but not in terms of participants in an ongoing communication process. And this is a key reason why my vocabulary tends to place a greater emphasis on notions of participation than on notions of representation.

 

TESSA:  Ah…and so down the rabbit hole we go. And we are going on a slippery slope because as you said, it’s complicated.  I’m enjoying the ride!

Which universe are we describing? The physical world that surrounds us and that we perceive on a local and physical level — the world that surrounds us with physical media like logos and traffic signs and billboards and movies and music and candy wrappers — or the alternative global village or digital media that we access only through the assistance of hardware and software media like the internet in general or Instagram or Facebook or games?  In each case, the media are man-made, which means that men (and oh yes let’s be sure to be inclusive and say women too) construct these media messages and devices. Construction always calls for decisions on the part of the creator(s), who sets the initial limits and boundaries through which we may experience his or her creation — media construction, whether digital or not, is a physical representation of the creator’s intention.

So fundamentally, construction and (implicitly) representation must take place before participation is possible.  And participatory culture (whether we participate online or off) is both an input to and an outcome of construction/representation — and the fusion constantly changes the nature of and the expression of the construction, which always has emotional, social and cultural implications. There is a chicken-or-egg quality to the cultural issues and their intersection with media, but it can also be argued that an individual’s mind and group culture itself are also constructions/representations.

But back to media…As an example, let’s think about video games.  The games are media constructions and they provide a software “box” in which players operate, and this software box is constrained by the hardware platform.  The creator of the game designed the game intentionally — to share a worldview and/or to profit from game purchases. Players engage with the game text itself and interact with each other to experience the game in a myriad of ways — visual, verbal, social, emotional — and often players invent new ways of experiencing the game through mods or hardware and they amplify their experiences together.  But because the construction itself is constrained, there are inevitably frames and experiences that are included and excluded.

So much depends on how we parse the world we live in!  But at the same time, to take a scientific approach towards media literacy, we need boundaries and concepts that define and describe a specific field of inquiry — that of media, in this case. While the cementing of social bonds through media use may be a primary goal for youth or adults, media are still the means toward an end, while also acknowledging that digital spaces (constructions) multiply possibilities for and the nature of social engagement exponentially.

I agree with you, Henry, that the focus on the word “texts” — because of its traditional association with physical media — generally limits people’s perceptions about participating in an ongoing communication process that digital media enable.  In today’s context in the global village, the notion of text expands so that “text” may become the entire “box” that encompasses the digital world itself, and the cultural representations within the box and outside it. We now have the physical world and the digital world and their intertwining and as Steve Jobs famously espoused, we need to “think different.”

 

Henry: Your phrase above, “construction and (implicitly) representationmust take place before participation is possible,” hints at the core hesitation which I am trying to flag here. I absolutely agree on the term construction in this sentence and with your discussion of the many different ways that construction takes place on the level of technological constraints and socio-cultural conventions. I have always been drawn to Lisa Gitelman’s definition of media: she argues that a medium is a technology that enables communication and also a set of associated ‘protocols’ or social and cultural practices that have grown up around the technology. She writes, “Protocols express a huge variety of social, economic, and material relationships. So telephony includes the salutation ‘Hello?’ (for English speakers, for example) and includes the monthly billing cycle and includes the wires and cables that materially connect our phones…And protocols are far from static.” These features change over time, work differently in different cultural contexts, and are influenced by the other media that intersect with them at any given moment. So, our models of different media and of the media ecology have to be very nimble to respond to those transitions. But, all of this can be described in terms of the construction of media messages, audiences, and contexts. I would just expand contexts to include not simply forms of production but also the terms, the social norms, that shape our participation.

 

However, I do have some questions about whether “representation” can stand in for the totality of the communication process. We might start with the distinction art critics might draw between representational and abstract art: surely, an abstract painting is a media text, but does it fall under the category of representation. Sure, in an abstract or “implicit” way, such a painting represents the artist’s vision  but at some point, we need to agree either that representation is not the only thing going on here or that the word representation has been stretched so thin that it no longer serves a useful purpose.  So, I would absolutely agree that representation is an important concept to draw into discussions of media literacy, especially given the links between representation (as a mimetic process) and representation (as a political concept) so that we can speak of the struggles of marginalized groups to gain media representation as a struggle that impacts their power in society.

 

But, if we go back to my earlier question about what would have happened if media literacy had taken shape in response to the telephone rather than radio, film or television (depending on which strands we are discussing), we should think about the properties of the telephone (as Gitelman invites us to do here). We do not talk about telephone calls as texts — unless of course we are talking about transcripts or recordings of them. We might ascribe to phone calls a broader range of motives besides power and profit. We do not talk about telephone calls in terms of authors and readers — but rather in terms of participants. There are certainly all kinds of representations involved in telephone calls — from Goffman’s performance of self in everyday life to the narratives we are recounting with each other — but we might well argue that the call allows for communication that operates on other levels and that perhaps the most important thing going on through the call is the establishment of interpersonal relations between the participants. When we say to each other, “I just wanted to hear your voice,” we are speaking about the telephone call as something much closer to pure expression — like the abstract painting — than representation (in much the same way that Marshall McLuhan argued that the light bulb was a medium of “pure information”). Not quite, of course, which is why this is complicated.Yes, there is interpretation involved in the telephone call and definitely construction. In no sense do I mean to imply that the telephone call is somehow transparent. But the media literacy skills we need to understand the telephone call may focus much more on the social relationships being performed and the ways they are embodied through Gitelman’s protocals than they have to do with any notion of texts or audiences which seems to go hand in hand with representation as it is being discussed here.

 

As we turn towards digital media, some of it does generate texts in the classical sense of the term — a podcast or a YouTube video or a blog post, though it matters that these are forms which we can directly engage and respond through the same medium to the same audience and that these tools enable many-to-many forms of communication. Some forms and uses of digital media are much more important because of the communication processes they enable than they are in terms of the product of that communication — text messaging, for example, or Twitter, come to mind, as having more in common with the telephone than with television. So, what I would argue for is not the displacement of media literacy’s historic focus on representation but an expansion of concepts to be able to more fully capture the roles that these new media platforms and processes play in our lives.

 

I know in doing this I am edging back towards the idea that you are obejecting to, the idea that media literacy has historically been framed in terms of mass media literacies — and this is somewhat unfair on the conceptual level. Yes, media literacy covers a broad array of different media in theory but the fact remains that if I went to a media literacy conference at the time that our white paper was first published, the over-whelming majority of talks would have centered around various forms of mass media, including film, television, advertising, and print based media, with some noteworthy exceptions. What gave Media Literacy its urgency throughout most of its history was the pervasive role of television in American culture just as the digital is what gives new media literacies their urgency. When I looked at the production projects being proposed, most of them were modeled on the public service announcement, itself a product of the one-way communication practices of broadcast media, rather than the kinds of dialogic production practices we are finding on Youtube or Tumbler. I like Jessica Clarke’s term, “public-moblizing media”, which stresses a different dynamic between those participating in these media exchanges.  This has changed dramatically over the past decade, we are seeing more work done on the participatory dimensions of media, we are seeing more projects that involve remix practices, though there is still a tendency to think about media in terms of texts rather than process, practices, or to use your word above, relationships that are being mediated through various kinds of communication technologies. Organizations like NAMLA have more than caught up with the changing media environment, but I would argue there needs to be a process of continuous questioning of core assumptions as we work through what if anything is different about the media environment today than at the time some of the founding work in media literacy was first produced.

The Value of Media Literacy Education in the 21st Century: A Conversation with Tessa Jolls (Part Two)

Tessa:  I found myself nodding yes Yes YES! as I read your response. The law of unintended consequences always follows any meaningful action — and some of our discussion falls into that category and Henry, I applaud your action and know that your intentions are the absolute best.  Most importantly, we agree on the primary goal of media literacy education:   as you said, media literacy requires a fundamental paradigm shift in ways to teach all subjects.  Media literacy education— whether it is high tech or low tech — primarily concerns itself with teaching and learning the conceptual underpinnings beneath contextualizing, acquiring and applying content knowledge.

 

Learners gain content knowledge through using their media literacy skills — and these skills are applicable to any content anytime, anywhere on a lifelong basis.  Sometimes this process has little or nothing to do with technology, although I will note that access to technology in the U.S. Is widespread:  in our experience at CML, in the poorest communities in the U.S., cellphones and applications like video games proliferate, but these technologies are frequently barred in the classroom.

 

This changed education paradigm is a radical shift in cultural and education systems where formal learning worldwide has traditionally been confined to content silos whose subject matter is warehoused in physical textbooks and dumped into students’ heads. Since these traditions have dominated since Gutenberg’s invention of the press, they are rooted deeply in our culture.  “Mastery” is no longer the goal for education; constant improvement on a continuum of learning is what we are seeking, while recognizing that some will inevitably be more skilled than others in various domains.  As Len Masterman, a professor from the University of Nottingham and a media literacy visionary, said his his Eighteen Basic Principles in 1989, “…you can teach about the media most effectively, not through a content-centered approach, but through the application of a conceptual framework which can help pupils to make sense of any media text (this includes media texts created by users and software “texts”).  And that applies every bit as much to the new digitized technologies as it did to the old mass media…The acid test of whether a media course has been successful resides in students’ ability to respond critically to media texts they will encounter (or create) in the future.  Media education is nothing if it is not an education for life.”

 

We at CML like to say that thanks to technology, the content is infinitely variable, plentiful and available, but that the media literacy process skills of “learning how to learn” and to be critically autonomous are the constants that learners need to practice and employ and constantly improve — and because of the lack of understanding and training of both teachers and learners, these skills are scarce.  It is going to take more than a village to institutionalize media literacy education. Policy initiatives, coalitions, professional associations, researchers etc. will all play a vital part in realizing this global imperative.

 

Which brings me to the point that being media literate, undertaking research and development, teaching media literacy, and institutionalizing media literacy are widely divergent roles which require various degrees of media literacy knowledge and skills. Who needs what knowledge when, and for what purpose?  Masterman noted that …”media are symbolic sign systems that must be decoded (and encoded). The central unifying concept of media literacy is that of representation (what is represented through media to us and what we represent to others through media).”  Researchers who explore the vanguard of media literacy — such as you and many of those who are part of the DML community — may have a different goal for media literacy education than preschool teachers. Yet each is in the business of sharing knowledge about media literacy  and helping youth and adults to understand and to be able to describe and navigate symbolic media systems — whether these systems are technology-based or not. I do not see conflict — I see coalescence.  Common understanding fuels coalition-building — which is highly desirable and needed!

 

To grow media literacy education at the pre-K-12 level, we need to have pedagogy that can be replicated, measured and scaled.  Only then will media literacy be common knowledge rather than privileged information.  Some of the basic components for achieving this goal have already been developed in ways that fit with new curricular approaches — highly encouraging.  And in the meanwhile, it is also encouraging to note that media literacy education has survived through the grassroots for many years, because some early adopters recognized its importance and refused to abandon their first-hand experience with its benefits and promise (anyone who is interested in this evolution may want to check out CML’s Voices of Media Literacy Project, which features 20 media literacy pioneers active prior to 1990).  Yet in spite of these past efforts, we are at the beginning of the beginning, although Marieli Rowe, president of the National Telemedia Council and I have joked for years that “media literacy is just around the corner.”  So far it’s been a very long block to walk!!

 

Henry: There’s no question in my mind that the work we are doing today would not be possible without the work of the kind of media literacy pioneers you have been documenting and it is an enormous service to capture those voices and their memories of the early days of the media literacy movement while it is still possible to do so. There has been a tendency for those people who have jumped into this space in the wake of the MacArthur Digital Media and Learning initiatives to forget this history, to see these projects as a new beginning, and as a consequence, we are losing much wisdom, not to mention the opportunity to forge a stronger alliance with those veterans who have much experience in the field of this struggle. This is why I have made a point of remaining connected to NAMLE and serving on the editorial board of the Journal of Media Literacy to make sure those links remain strong.

 

Once we wrote the white paper and turned our attention to developing our own curricular resources, our first major project, which became the book, Reading in a Participatory Culture, sought to bridge between the literary practices of the 19th century (those which gave rise to Moby-Dick), the traditions of the media literacy movement, and today’s remix practices, whether those associated with hip hop or digital media; we wanted to help teachers to understand the differences between plagiarism, fair use, and remix, and we wanted students to think not only critically but also creatively about the many different kinds of texts they encountered in their everyday lives as readers and writers within contemporary culture. Our goal was not about promoting new media per se; we wrote that we hoped to raise a generation which had a mouse in one hand and a book in another. And the approach we took was comparative to its core, seeking to identify connections across media as well as differences.

You are right to say that technologies are becoming more widely available (and thus, one case for teaching media literacy is that we need to help young people think critically about tools and practices that are very much part of their everyday environments.) We certainly still are finding cases where young people lack access to these technologies — or meaningful access — outside the classroom, so that having twenty minutes of restricted access in a public library does not equal the unlimited, anywhere-anytime access enjoyed by other youth. But, we are also finding other inequalities in access to skills and knowledge, mentorship, networks, etc. which result in gross inequalities of opportunity between different youth — this is what we called in the original report, the Participation Gap, and this also is why it is so vital to incorporate media literacy experiences, including experiences working with new media technologies, into every institution that touches young people’s lives, but especially through schools.  MacArthur’s original focus was on spaces of informal learning, which was an important first step, but increasingly, the DML folks are focused on “connected learning,” which emphasizes  building a more fluid set of relations between home, out of school, and in school practices. All of this is why I have shifted from talking about “a participatory culture” to “a more participatory culture” to stress the work which still needs to be done in insuring equity of opportunity.

 

Yes, schools often block access to the technologies which young people use outside of school: for some, this is not a problem, since they see value in a low tech learning environment. But, for me, the bigger issue is that they are blocking ways of knowing and processes of meaning-making which young people are using outside the classroom. In many cases, we’ve wired the classroom and hobbled the computers, cutting them off from any and all forms of participatory culture and learning practices, blocking social media, dismissing Wikipedia, stigmatizing games, and rejecting YouTube and other video sites. All of this means that we are not addressing the consequences of those tools through our teaching and thus losing out on opportunities to help young people develop more meaningful and ethical relations to these platforms and practices.

 

The one phrase here which gave me some pause was your term, “Critically autonomous.” On the one hand, yes, of course — the goal is to get youth to think for themselves, to critically analyze the messages which they receive, to question authority, to be skeptical of motives from other communicators, and to ask probing questions. This goes to the heart of what we both mean by media literacy. But, at the same time, I have called for a recognition that media literacy is a “social skill” having to do with the ways we interface with each other, how we participate collectively within the activities of a networked society. I fear that our schools place too much emphasis on the autonomous learner and not enough emphasis on how we create and share knowledge together. This is perhaps a key way in which the new media literacies differ — we are focusing on notions of collectivity and connectivity more. Our emphasis on participation begs the question, participation in what? I’ve made this a key concern in some of my own recent writings, but the answer necessarily involves something larger than the individual, or it is by nature not participation.

 

Tessa: Hmmmm…you raise a lot of compelling points. I appreciate your exploring the question of “participation in what?” Maybe there are no set answers to this question — maybe our role in media literacy education is to help increase the capacity of participants to participate effectively in whatever they choose to engage with?

 

I certainly agree with you that media literacy is a social skill in regards to how we relate to each other and how we participate collectively within the activities of a networked society. Relationships are — and have always been — central to media literacy and media literacy education. First and foremost, through media literacy we explore our relationship with media itself. We engage with media and given its pervasiveness in our lives, divorce is not an option!

 

In understanding our media relationship, we come to see that there are relationships between the text, the audience and the producers/participants, and as technology has offered increased capacity for interaction and world-wide connectivity, that relationship becomes more and more dynamic and expansive. At the same time, our media relationship affects our very identities as individuals and as affiliative groups — we have private selves (what goes on inside), public/representational selves (how we extend and represent ourselves to others alone or as a group/entity) and what I call “commercialized” selves (that allow marketing and/or ideological elements, such as branding or big data, define who we are or whom we affiliate with and whom we are seen to affiliate with). These notions apply to individuals as well as organizations or groups.

 

I agree with you, that schools emphasize individual autonomy and not enough emphasis on how we create and share knowledge together. (And I believe that higher education is the tail that wags the Pre-K-12 dog in this regard — SAT scores and college admissions departments reward individuals). But sharing is not a new idea — sharing has been part of enlightened media literacy pedagogies for many years. I quote Masterman’s 18 Basic Principles again because — well, he is my master (and I am continually wowed to see how his words resonate through the years): “Media Education is essentially active and participatory, fostering the development of more open and democratic pedagogies. It encourages students to take more responsibility for and control over their own learning…”

 

As technology has enabled the classroom walls to break down through more connectivity, good media literacy pedagogy becomes more and more feasible — and desirable — in both formal and informal settings. “Underlying Media Education is a distinctive epistemology” Masterman wrote. “Existing knowledge is not simply transmitted by teachers or ‘discovered’ by students. It is not an end but a beginning. It is the subject of critical investigations and dialogue out of which new knowledge is actively created by student and teachers.” This dialogue arises in many contexts, not just the formal classroom. And as you said (and it can’t be said enough!), we have a moral and economic challenge in our society to insure that these opportunities are widely and equitably available.

 

Because of the lack of education system imperatives to teach media literacy and to encourage critical autonomy alone and through groups — rather than to meet fill-in-the-bubble testing deadlines — it is difficult at best to deliver media education in a credible and evidence-based way.  Often, media researchers have no clue about what pedagogy is or how school systems work — and it is for this reason that we often say that media literacy is more about education than about media.  The education imperative is paramount:  the promise of the technology in putting power into the hands of the people is squandered if people don’t have the critical thinking skills and complementary new media skills to use technology wisely and to amplify benefits from its use.

 

But then the questions become, what skills are necessary and how do we help people gain media literacy skills?   Your 2006 white paper outlined new media skills that are needed — play, performance, simulation, appropriation, multitasking, distributed cognition, collective intelligence, judgment, transmedia navigation, networking and negotiation.  These are sophisticated skills that are highly suited to the technology and the digital world that enables their use. They rest on the basic foundations of media literacy skills that are usually  missing for students, or that are taken for granted by media researchers who may already have a conceptual understanding of media representations, deconstruction and construction. However — and yes I repeat myself — this basic foundation is absent in American education systems.  Quite simply, teachers cannot teach what they do not know and what the system has not valued.

 

And so we — as educators and as citizens —  have skipped teaching and learning an enormous media literacy underpinning for new media  as well as for non-digital media like the logos on shirts, the billboards, the theater plays, the food packaging, the school posters.  And this lack of understanding of basic media literacy concepts translates from the playground to the Twitter feed.   And as you said, Henry, it also robs researchers of a rich base of knowledge that should inform their work  Yet it’s important to have unity as a field so that we can gain traction and scale our work in a significant way amongst the general population — to translate the Research & Development (R&D) into awareness and actions of use to citizens nationally and globally.

 

This translation goal has been the Center for Media Literacy’s (CML’s) mission since its founding by Elizabeth Thoman in Los Angeles in 1989 (and with CML’s predecessor organization the Center for Media&Values springing from Thoman’s work beginning as a USC Annenburg graduate student in the late 1970’s).  I applaud your work and that of others, to operationalize and to “package” these powerful media literacy ideas and practices into pedagogy and curricula available for all of our citizens and youth — so needed! We must always keep in mind that we are trying to reach and inspire millions of people and so our task is enormous — but other movements, such as the environmental movement, provide us with inspiration and hope for fulfilling our mission.

 

In the meanwhile, we have a foundation to lay, with an expanded repertoire of media literacy skills that are needed in the 21st century (thanks to your groundbreaking work). What are the media literacy fundamentals that have been so neglected these past decades?

 

Earlier I noted that Mastermanfocused on priorities for media literacy education by saying: ”Media are symbolic sign systems that must be decoded (and encoded)… The central unifying concept of media literacy is that of representation (what is represented through media to us, and what we represent to others through media).”

 

He went on to say, “Without this principle, no media education is possible. From it, all else flows.”  This idea is as relevant to today’s media as it was to the media of Masterman’s time.

 

The Value of Media Literacy Education in the 21st Century: A Conversation with Tessa Jolls (Part One)

Tessa Jolls has been a long-time advocate of media literacy education in the United States and around the world. I was honored to be able to attend an event last year at which she was presented with the Jessie McCanse Award from the National Telemedium Council in recognition of her lifetime commitment to fostering media literacy. Jolls was one of the very first media literacy advocates to welcome me to the field and to rally behind the work of our New Media Literacies initiative. Since 1999, she has been the President and CEO of the Center for Media Literacy, where she has pushed hard to develop some shared principles and core questions that might inform a diverse array of media literacy initiatives, and where has shown consistent flexibility and vision in redefining media literacy for the 21st century.

Thus, I was troubled when she told me that she was seeing the Media Literacy movement and the Digital Media and Learning communities talking past each other, often failing to recognize and grab onto moments of potential collaboration. We decided it would be helpful to have a public conversation together which explored some of these issues. Our hope in doing so is that we can expand this discussion to include other media literacy/DML leaders and find ways to be more effective at working together around common concerns.

Across this five part exchange, we talk through core assumptions guiding our work, including dealing with the relationship between research, pedagogy, and practice, the importance of construction and representation as concepts in media literacy work, and how media literacy principles do or do not change as they confront new technologies and new environments. We both throw ourselves — heart and mind — into these e-mail exchanges this summer and we both learned plenty in the process.

 

Henry: When I and other researchers from MIT wrote the 2006 white paper, Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century, we were very aware of building on the foundations of the Media Literacy movement as it had taken shape in North America over the prior several decades.

 

We made a number of gestures across the paper, which were intended to pay tribute to what had been accomplished, to signal the continuities as well as differences  our vision for the “new media literacies.” For example, early in the paper, we emphasized that the newer skills and competencies we were identifying built on the foundation of traditional print-based literacies, core research skills, core technical skills, and media literacies. We wrote, “As media literacy advocates have claimed during the past several decades, students also must acquire a basic understanding of the ways media representations structure our perceptions of the world; the economic and cultural contexts within which mass media is produced and circulated; the motives and goals that shape the media they consume; and alternative practices that operate outside the commercial mainstream….What we are calling here the new media literacies should be taken as an expansion of, rather than a substitution for, the mass media literacies.” (20).

 

Later, in the document, we do challenge whether some of the core frameworks of the media literacy movement have been adequately framed to acknowledge and take account of instances where young people are themselves producing and circulating media, rather than consuming media produced by others, but these were intended as fairly local critiques in recognition of the need to continually re-appraise and reframe our tools to reflect new developments and new contexts. This same passage flags what we saw as some of the core virtues of those same conceptual frameworks: “There is much to praise in these questions: they understand media as operating within a social and cultural context; they recognize that what we take from a message is different from what the author intended; they focus on interpretation and context as well as motivation; they are not tied up with a language of victimization….One of the biggest contributions of the media literacy movement has been this focus on inquiry, identifying key questions that can be asked of a broad range of different media forms and experiences.” (59)

 

If we flash forward to the current moment, it seems that there remain many mutual misunderstandings between advocates for media literacy (who come from these rich traditions) and newer researchers who have entered the field through the Digital Media and Learning tradition.

 

I am hoping we can use this conversation as a means of clearing the air and clarifying our mutual perspectives around these topics. I had felt at the time and rereading it now, I still feel, that it was very clear in signaling my enormous respect for all who have come before in promoting media literacy and Tessa, you have been an early and key supporter of my efforts. So, it troubles me to hear of some of the misperceptions you’ve encountered. Can you share with us some of the things that concern you?

 

Tessa:  I remember well the excitement that I felt when you published your white paper in 2006 (Confronting the Challenge of Participative Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century) — it was (and is!) a profound and significant examination of the new media emerging from the technology advances of our time, and a document that contributed great advances to understanding media literacy skills needed in our society.   Personally, I’ve always embraced your work because I see the added-value to the field and how it builds upon and is compatible with what has come before, and I’ve been puzzled as to why there seem to be rifts when it is far more beneficial to acknowledge our commonality and to leverage it to gain traction in the bigger world of education. Now is an excellent time to reflect and to see “where we are now” and where we might go.

 

I agree with you, that there are mutual misunderstandings between media literacy advocates who have long practiced in the field and newer researchers who have entered the field through the Digital Media and Learning tradition.  Maybe part of the friction comes simply from the words “new media literacies.”  By definition, what is not new is now old — and in our society, being “old” is often considered neither attractive nor cutting edge nor fashionable nor relevant.  But we need to continue to challenge and confront.   When you issued your white paper, It was like you were the town crier shouting, “The British are coming! The British are coming!”  Yes, the internet had arrived, along with (and these were cited in the report) Friendster, Facebook, MySpace, message boards, metagaming or game clans…Twitter was yet to come, as well as Tumblr, Snapchat and Instagram and and and….

 

But in response to your challenge — beyond a small group of media literacy advocates and academic researchers and some concerned parents — most people in the education world particularly were saying “Why should we fight? and  “If it’s so important, where are all the troops?”  Thankfully, the fear surrounding using the internet, the need for tools of discernment — and the genuine opportunities that the internet and social media present to empower people — have helped instill in the public more of a sense of urgency that has propelled renewed interest in media literacy education.

 

BUT because media literacy education has been ignored and neglected in schools through the years, there was no foundation laid for why media literacy is important, for its foundational concepts and for how to deliver the pedagogy (more on the foundation needed later).  There were few if any troops to call on to be able to deliver media literacy education — very few had been taught, and no one could then teach it on the mass scale that is needed.  And efforts to penetrate the education system in the U.S. meet with resistance since the system itself is based on a 20th century approach emphasizing content knowledge over process skills and a factory model that is incompatible with the collaborative networks and new curricular approaches needed today.

 

One response to the frustrations of dealing with the education system was — and is — to put technology in the hands of the youth and have faith that they will figure it all out.   Using the technology approach, the iPhone is the “school” and anyone who uses it adeptly is the master and anyone over 30 is, well, handicapped at best.   New technologies enable this approach because now, hardware and software are available and production has been democratized — everyone is a producer, a collaborator, a distributor and a participant.  While experiential and project-based learning is truly exciting and an important component of media literacy, it is not synonymous because the outcome of the technology approach is often limited to technical proficiency without critical autonomy. Whether using an iPad, a pencil or a videocam, pressing the right buttons is important but not enough!   This is where many media literacy advocates, including myself, feel that the train has left the station because some researchers, educators and parents, too, think that just learning to use the technology is enough (they probably don’t know about or have access to  alternatives) and they pursue technology projects with no credible media literacy components.

 

Henry: What’s in a name? Nothing but headaches, it would seem.

 

MacArthur was pretty committed to the phrase, New Media Literacies, so we worked hard to try to figure out what kind of meaning to attach to it. We grappled with the issue of whether the emphasis should be the New Media Literacies, the New Media Literacies, or the New Media Literacies. I did want to signal continuities with the Media Literacy movement, so it did not seem altogether a problematic term, but I was also worried about the connotations you describe here. This is one reason why I was so explicit that we were not leaving behind traditional literacies, media literacy, research skills, or technical skills, but that what we were describing were an added layer or an extension of each that now needed to be factored into our consideration of what an ideal curriculum looked like. I did not want to imply that these skills were entirely new — many were things we should have and some of us had been teaching all along — nor were they exclusively about new media per se. We’ve always insisted that these were not technical skills but rather social skills and cultural competencies, and that these were things that can be taught in low tech or no tech ways (and should be, rather than waiting for low income schools to catch up in terms of their technical infrastructure before introducing these literacies into the curriculum.) Despite having spent much of my career at MIT, I have worked hard to avoid any and all forms of technological determinism.

 

Still, there’s some power to attaching yourself to the digital revolution rhetoric (as well as many pitfalls) insofar as it provides some urgency to the message, but ultimately I frame these skills in relation to the idea of a participatory culture rather than in terms of digital change. This is also why I have had reservations all along about MacArthur’s phrase, Digital Media and Learning, since it implies that we are interested only or exclusively in digital media, and that has never been my focus. Keep in mind both that I wrote the white paper in the wake of writing Convergence Culture, which was all about “Where old and new media collide,” and that it emerged from the context of the Comparative Media Studies program, which studied the interplay across media. We find that when we do workshops for teachers and students, they often anticipate that technologies are going to be much more central to our work than they are. Our first task is always to achieve that shift from a focus on technologies to a focus on culture.

 

I share your concern that in many cases, we are now bringing technologies into the classroom as if doing so would substitute for a more comprehensive approach to media literacy. As Liz Losh notes in her recent book, the focus on technology turns media education into something that can be sold — like getting whole school districts to buy iPads — and can be purchased from the school budget, rather than something which as the white paper suggests, should require a fundamental paradigm shift in the ways we teach all school subjects.

 

That said, I got into some trouble with the original white paper in reducing the rich kinds of conceptual models that surround, say, the Computer Club House movement to purely technical skills comparable to penmanship.  (Sorry Mitch) Most of the work which gets presented at the DML conference is about the fusion of hands-on technical processes, whether tied to hacking, games-based learning, the Maker movement, etc., with rich conceptual frameworks which are intended to allow people to understand at a deeper level how the constraints and affordances of digital media impact the world around us. To me, this is a kind of media literacy, though less tied to notions of representation or messaging than previous kinds of media literacy work has promoted. If one does not displace the other, they certainly can co-exist within a more comprehensive model which considers the nature of platforms and programming alongside the questions about who produces which representations for which audiences with which motives. 

In many ways, what we were trying to do with the white paper was to build a coalition which would include people interested in engaging with new media platforms and practices, people committed to promoting media literacy, and teachers seeking new ways to animate the teaching of their disciplines. Where our work has been successful, we have brought together these interests. Such an approach has tended as you suggest here to pull media literacy advocates into more active engagement with notions of media change and new technologies, but it also has the intent to draw people who want to teach using new technology to confront the participation gap, the transparency issues, and the ethical challenges we identify in the white paper and through doing so, to pull media literacy more actively into their teaching practice.

 

MORE TO COME

Tessa Jolls is President and CEO of the Center for Media Literacy, a position she has held since 1999. She also founded the Consortium for Media Literacy, a nonprofit which provides research and a monthly newsletter publication. During her tenure at CML, she restructured the organization to focus, grow and change, preparing to meet the demand for an expanded vision of literacy for the 21st Century. Her primary focus is working in partnership to demonstrate how media literacy works through school and community-based implementation programs.