Media Literacy in Action: An Interview with Belinha S. De Abreu and Paul Mihailidis (Part Three)

Paul, you make a case in the book for curation as a “media literacy imperative” in an age of participatory culture. How are you defining curation and what has made it such an urgent skill? And again, how can we think about curation in relation to the ideas of teaching about media and teaching through media you discussed above?

Paul: In a paper I recently published titled, Exploring Curation as a Core Competency in Digital and Media Literacy Education, I contextualized curation as:

The word curate derives from the Latin root Curare, or ‘to cure.’ To curate, historically, has meant to take charge of or organize, to pull together, sift through, select for presentation, to heal and to preserve. Traditionally reserved for those who worked with physical materials in museum or library settings, curation today has evolved to apply to what we are all doing online. The preservation and organization of content online is now largely the responsibility of the individual in highly personalized information spaces. This has created a need to understand how individuals choose to pull together, sift through, organize, and present information within these spaces.

I think there is an urgency to curation, at least now with some semblance of free choice online, largely because young people can design their own engagement with information with more choices and diversity than they ever have in the past. At least in terms of strict content and platform. In an age of filter bubbles, search algorithms, sponsored content, and endless aggregators trying to personal and define our information needs, I think it’s an imperative that we teach ability to organize, sift, sort and continuously recreate the type of content diets that we want and need.

As a result, I think curation becomes a core competency in media education today. From issues of access, values, identity, assessment, sharing and express, we must continue to ask how these are situated in the context of engagement with me, but also use of media. These involve social and informal information sharing and consumption, but also in civic spaces. Curation has been decentralized from the few to the many. Knowing how to effectively navigate, use and create strong media is, I argue, an essential skill for all citizens in digital culture.

Your book offers a survey of the ways media literacy is practiced in a number of distinctive countries and regions. What do you see as the most significant continuities across these various contexts? Where do you see the most significant differences emerging?

Paul: Of course the unique approaches to media literacy pedagogy and practice emerge from different educational, political, cultural and social properties of a specific society. In our book, we tried to find a nice balance of media literacy scholarship and practice to highlight. We sought voices from the Middle East, Asia, Europe, and the Americas, so we could show what’s similar and what’s unique. The similarities all rest on the aim to engage young people in competencies to critically analyze media. The more traditional model of media literacy approaches, if you will. That’s to a large degree because in places like Lebanon and Hong Kong, media literacy is still emerging as a pedagogical concept. As a result, they are still finding their footing in terms of how to implement and build media literacy as a skill set for their youth. Luckily, they have a wealth of information, content, and experience to choose from, so they’ll be scaling up rather quickly.

Most importantly, I think the differences that emerge in this space are embedded in socio-cultural practices that reflect media systems and government control. In places that have arguably less “free” media systems, media literacy is not so much about expression and voice as it is nuanced consumption. In places where political dissent is vibrant, media literacy is embedded in more narratives around corruption, propaganda, and civic inquiry. Interestingly, most forms of media literacy practice and pedagogy around the world are embedded in formal communication practices, and not many about information or participatory spaces. By that I mean that most media literacy approaches from emerging parts of the world focus on more traditional media literacy content (news, political speeches, ads) and less in newer cultural spaces (fan clubs, social networks, and so on).

I think, overall, the trends will continue to move to a more similar place, because a lot of research, pedagogy and practice are now being shared. And more media literacy scholars from around the world are meeting at conferences, publishing together, and doing more work alongside each other in general.

Many ideas about “21st Century Learning” stress the kinds of skills needed for performing well in the classroom and the workplace. Where do notions of civic or citizen-related skills fit into these models? In what ways might media literacy be understood as an effort to bring about social change?

Paul: This is a great question, and one close to my heart. I’ve just published a new book titled Media Literacy & the Emerging Citizen, that explores the role of media literacy in civic life. This is more about social change than formal pedagogy. I would argue, however, that pedagogy is at the center of long term civic engagement and social change, it’s just not explicitly made known. I think media literacy has a lot of growing to do in the social and civic change space, and that’s an area where we need to grow the field. Our book takes this topic on briefly with a chapter on citizenship by Frank Gallagher of Cable in the Classroom, but most of the work is pedagogically centered. I’d personally like to see media literacy be the civic education of the future.

Perhaps that’s the next book :-)

Some have been skeptical of the need for media literacy education in schools because so many youth are “digital natives” who grew up with the technology and are more adept online than most of the adults around them. The Harvard Good Play project has found that most youth lack mentors who can talk with them about the choices they make as participants in online communities. And, of course, access to technologies and to meaningful experiences online are unevenly distributed across the culture. What roles might formal media literacy education play in addressing the digital divide and the participation gap?

Belinha: As I stated previously, I think the term “digital natives” is loosely used to correlate with “digital savviness,” and that’s a concern because most of the time it isn’t true. Just because we have a generation of students who have grown up with technology does not make them adept at being online. Most students I see in schools working online tend to not go past the first page of any search results, and then turn around to the teacher and say they can’t find anything on their given topic. Just because a teen can find their way through their social network does not mean that they can search for viable, truthful, or accurate information. In fact, that is evenly distributed across the line when we are looking at how youth engage with each other online and they make some major social gaffes. What I mean is that we are looking at two different problems. There is the technology component which drives how students interact with each other. There is also the adolescent maturation point where that part hasn’t caught up with the part of themselves which is engaged in an online community. They need social skills that transcend face-to-face to online. The digital divide isn’t just about technology, it is about interrelations and lack thereof. We have a generation of students who have not learned how to interact as people. They have allowed the computer to be their voice without actually having a history or a background to that voice. The mentorship that they need is in bridging their knowledge of themselves with the knowledge of how they want to be represented. Media literacy education provides them with opportunity to understand representation and what that means on a worldwide scale. It helps them to consider multiple viewpoints and not the singularity of one –themselves.

Given the lack of formal media literacy education in many American schools, media literacy creeps in around the edges, through, for example, the work of librarians or museums and institutions or churches. What roles can these organizations play in ensuring wide access to core media literacy skills?

Belinha: I think these places offer opportunity- creative opportunity for engagement which is not offered in schools as much. Besides being places which are considering the innovators and the creators of educators, museum and libraries are providing resources that would not be accessible elsewhere. They are offering classes and opportunities with new technologies because they are reaching a very public platform. Libraries in particular tend to have an open-door policy when it comes to engaging with students or other patrons. They hold up the ideas that censorship is not acceptable. They provide patrons with books, databases, and the most current materials which may oftentimes not be available in schools. They have become the house for children whose parents can’t afford certain technologies including the basics of infrastructure such as Wifi. They already offer production classes. Why not infuse those classes with media literacy? Asking key questions as students work to get them to think more deeply is important. Helping students to problem solve, consider multiple points of view, or even understanding real-world questions related to money and power. It doesn’t have to formal, but sure put it up on a sign that teaching and learning in the structure of a museum or library is done with through the guide of media literacy education.

Belinha S. De Abreu, Ph.D., is a Media Literacy Educator and Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Technology at Fairfield University. Her research interests include media literacy education, new media, visual and information literacy, global perspectives, critical thinking, young adults, and teacher training. Dr. De Abreu’s work has been featured in Cable in the Classroom and The Journal of Media Literacy. She is the author of Media Literacy, Social Networking and the Web 2.0 World for the K–12 Educator (Peter Lang Publishers, 2011) and the co-editor and author of Media Literacy in Action: Theoretical and Pedagogical Perspectives (Routledge 2014). She currently serves as the Vice President for the National Telemedia Council.

Paul Mihailidis is an assistant professor in the school of communication at Emerson College in Boston, MA, where he teaches media literacy and interactive media. He is also the Associate Director of the Engagement Lab at Emerson College, and Director of the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change. His research focuses on the nexus of media, education, and civic voices. His new book, Media Literacy and the Emerging Citizen (2014, Peter Lang), outline effective practices for participatory citizenship and engagement in digital culture. Under his direction, the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change, a global media literacy incubator program, annually gathers 70 students and a dozen faculty to build networks for media innovation, civic voices and global change. Mihailidis sits on the board of directors for the National Association of Media Literacy Education. He has authored numerous books and papers exploring media education and citizenship, and traveled to around the world speaking about media literacy and engagement in digital culture. He earned his PhD from the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Media Literacy in Action: An Interview with Belinha S. De Abreu and Paul Mihailidis (Part Two)

Many of our earliest understandings of media literacy took place around the particular properties of broadcast media, especially television, but in some cases, before that with radio. How did those assumptions inform prevailing models of media literacy? How are those ideas being rethought as we deal with the very different properties and processes associated with networked computing?

Paul – I think media literacy has long been concerned with the the skills and dispositions needed to effectively engage with information in daily life. The outcomes around access, evaluation, comprehension and production–in essence critical thinking and critical expression–have long been applied across traditional platforms and integrated into new digital spaces. Back when film, radio and television first emerged as mass mediums, media education typically treated their pedagogy as teaching about the way that these mediums work more than deconstructing the content that they delivered. As the mediums grew more diverse and complex, there was a need for media literacy to become more critical. This coincides I think with the increasing centrality of commercial culture in media and the need to actively respond with educational initiatives.

Media literacy is still largely emerging from the “mass media” era, and I think the traditional protectionist model of media literacy is prevalent in some of the work being done, particularly in the health and advertising spaces.

The emergence of connective technologies and networked computing has led to a re-imagination of how we understand media literacy in terms of identity, community, engagement, and agency. While we still need to have foundations in media literacy education around critical analysis of media texts, it’s become equally if not more vital to apply new competencies around curation, appropriation, remix, collaboration, spreadability and production that the web now affords. Media literacy needs to leverage the connective capacity of the web for civic value, and I think that’s at the core of where media literacy is headed. Not abandoning the past, but simply using our foundations for more applied and responsive participation.

Why do you think there has been such resistance in the American educational system to fully incorporating media literacy skills into the curriculum when there has been much more widespread take up in other parts of the world? What can/should we be done to shape public policies so that they reflect the needs of students and the realities of educators in a world where more and more of our core practices are conducted through networked communications?

Belinha: At the policy level, they don’t know us. We don’t have a large body of research to support our ideas. Policymakers tend to like the research and the numbers. Yet, if we actually talk to them about what we say is the value in media literacy education, they most definitely get it. Part of what drove this book was that idea that there are a number of us who talk about it at different levels–academic, schools, libraries, advocacy organizations, non-profits, etc; each group speaking of the value of media literacy, but not necessarily with each other. Moreover, there are a number of organizations who work with policymakers who continue to promote media literacy education throughout their work such as the Aspen Institute, the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), and the Cable Impacts Foundation. In particular, every year for the last five years I have attended the FOSI conference which is a two day event in Washington DC where many people who work in government appear and listen to the conversations on digital safety. Each year, I hear people discuss or bring up media literacy and the need for media literacy education and then the conversation appears to end. There are meetings by invitation only to the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SEDTA), but I don’t know how many people are represented there who focus on media literacy education other than perhaps the Cable Impacts Foundation.

Media literacy education as a dialogue comes very close to policymakers, but then stops before entering the door. The conversation at the government level has deemed to fall into digital literacy which is more about digital technologies and the need for schools to be equipped with more of it. Yet, the discussion of literacy as a critical approach to teaching about digital technology, not heard much. In the book, I addressed the opening that the Common Core State Standards provided schools with its not clearly defined look at media literacy. I offered it up for discussion as an opportunity versus a problem because I believe when we break something down too much we limit the capacity for instruction. That being said, media literacy education still needs to be discussed in the policy documents, but where is it?

Internationally, I think there has been a better acceptance of it at the policy level because it was introduced with the concerns with television and such. For years, I would have said that the Europeans, and the Canadians were ahead of us with media literacy education, and then the Internet hit us all simultaneously and that generated another conversation regarding media literacy education which was inclusive of all these new technologies. Yet, here again there is the worry as expressed best by David Buckingham in the UK that the rhetoric of today may actually be problematic for media literacy education. That it has become so saturated with the discussion of digital technology, digital footprints, and digital infrastructure that the capacity for understanding and learning has been set adrift by good intentions. However, at least in the UK and in the EU, policymakers talk about it and welcome the idea of growing this type of literacy. And, they demonstrate this further positive appeal by providing government resources to develop curriculum and ideas.

Several of your contributors make the case that media literacy means teaching about media and not simply teaching through media and that the goal should be to incorporate “critical production” rather than simply a focus on production practices. I agree, but the distinctions being made here between doing and thinking may not be fully adequate to a culture of participation, where many are arguing that “making” or “tinkering” or visualization or simulation or games each represent distinctive modes of thought and not simply tools and practices. Would you agree? If so, has there been a shift in what it might mean to teach about and through media?

Belinha: I think I allude to what you are suggesting here earlier. Sometimes ‘critical production’ is very individualized. I do believe that when students are “tinkering” and “making” that they are processing and making some key decisions as to what is useful to them and what is not. Does that mean that they have gone far enough? This is where there tends to be some push back. Watching someone craft together a presentation at any grade level there is a certain amount of thought going into that product. Is this the right picture? Does this mean what I want it to say? Depending on the level of the learner and the maturity of the producer, you can see a growth in thinking when they disengage with themselves and consider the audience. Many times that isn’t a step that is complete at for example the middle school years, but that is a step that can be seen later. Not for all, but for some. When I see this type of work happening in schools, I am mostly surprised by the people who are either overly surprised and pleased by very simplistic pieces of work by students or stumped that their students aren’t as media-savvy as they expected them to be.

When I work with future teachers, I always remind them that just because students are engaged in their technology doesn’t meant that they are critically thinking. Or for that matter, that they even know how to produce or create? There is an overall assumption because this generation has the most technology that they are in fact technology literate. Neither is true. Many students know what they know, but not much else. For example, they know how to play an online game or participate in social networks, but that doesn’t mean that they can work within some basic platform tools such as word documents or presentation tools. Yet, they can move quickly through various programs once they have been taught and they can create given the time. They just don’t tend to have many opportunities to do so at school because of the regimented curriculums. Outside of school, they may have more opportunity, but once again they tend to stick to what they know and are most comfortable.

Belinha S. De Abreu, Ph.D., is a Media Literacy Educator and Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Technology at Fairfield University. Her research interests include media literacy education, new media, visual and information literacy, global perspectives, critical thinking, young adults, and teacher training. Dr. De Abreu’s work has been featured in Cable in the Classroom and The Journal of Media Literacy. She is the author of Media Literacy, Social Networking and the Web 2.0 World for the K–12 Educator (Peter Lang Publishers, 2011) and the co-editor and author of Media Literacy in Action: Theoretical and Pedagogical Perspectives (Routledge 2014). She currently serves as the Vice President for the National Telemedia Council.

Paul Mihailidis is an assistant professor in the school of communication at Emerson College in Boston, MA, where he teaches media literacy and interactive media. He is also the Associate Director of the Engagement Lab at Emerson College, and Director of the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change. His research focuses on the nexus of media, education, and civic voices. His new book, Media Literacy and the Emerging Citizen (2014, Peter Lang), outline effective practices for participatory citizenship and engagement in digital culture. Under his direction, the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change, a global media literacy incubator program, annually gathers 70 students and a dozen faculty to build networks for media innovation, civic voices and global change. Mihailidis sits on the board of directors for the National Association of Media Literacy Education. He has authored numerous books and papers exploring media education and citizenship, and traveled to around the world speaking about media literacy and engagement in digital culture. He earned his PhD from the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Media Literacy in Action: An Interview with Belinha De Abreu and Paul Mihailidis (Part One)

Earlier this term, I ran a lengthy conversation with Tessa Jolls, the the President and CEO of the Center for Media Literacy. We discussed some of the core, underlying concepts behind the Media Literacy movement and considered their potential relationship to the work being done by the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning initiative. Today, I am happy to be sharing with you some reflections on many of those same issues from two of the Next Generation leaders of the Media Literacy Movement.

Belinha S. De Abreu, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Technology at Fairfield University, currently serves as the Vice President for the National Telemedia Council. Paul Mihailidis, an assistant professor in the school of communication at Emerson College, is the Associate Director of the Engagement Lab at Emerson College, and Director of the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change. Mihailidis sits on the board of directors for the National Association of Media Literacy Education. Together, they have edited an important new anthology, Media Literacy Education in Action: Theoretical and Pedagogical Approaches, which offers us a snap shot of Today’s media literacy movement.

The table of content reads like a who’s who of the most important doers and thinkers around the world, including Julian McDougall, Tessa Jolls, Neil Anderson, David Buckingham, Erin Reilly, Eric Gordon, Sonia Livingstone, Frank Gallagher, David M. Considine, and many others. The book shares cutting edge research and words of wisdom from founding figures, offering us insights into the struggle to get media literacy in the curriculum and what happens when we do.

I am just getting to know Abreu and Mihailidis, but what I’ve seen so far impresses me greatly, including the thoughtful and substantive responses they offered to my interview questions here. Enjoy.

In his opening chapter, Julian McDougall describes media literacy as an “unfinished project,” while David Buckingham’s foreword suggests that “we are unlikely ever to arrive at a point where we can all sign up to a single definition and prescription for media literacy education.” What are some of the reasons why media literacy as a field seems so unsettled and unresolved — is it simply that the media landscape itself has changed so rapidly over the past few decades? Is it that media literacy advocates see the movement as addressing very different problems that stem from their own rather different perceptions of the role which media plays in our lives?

Paul: I think there are a confluence of reasons for the continued struggle of media literacy to find a cohesive foundation and concrete direction. Firstly, media literacy education has cast a wide net, perhaps intentionally but also because the movement and it’s core principles advocate for outcomes like critical thinking and critical engagement. These mirror outcomes for a lot of pedagogy. And while useful, they often lack direction or application. So we see spaces like digital media and learning, news literacy, civic literacy, science literacy, information literacy, and more, all find more coherent and concrete homes, funding, and support. At the same time, media literacy tries to claim a part of all these spaces. I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing. But rather it makes it difficult to grow in a cohesive way. I think of it as: If media literacy tries to be everything related to literacies, it will at the same time be nothing.

Stemming from this, I do see media literacy advocates, scholars, and educators using the term to advocate for their projects and approaches to how they understand media’s role in daily life. Many apply the term to their work in discipline-specific areas, while at the same time, others come into media literacy with their own perceptions of what it should do, and because media literacy has such a broad purview, there isn’t a conceptual grounding from which such uses of the term can be sorted, sifted, and understood.

Perhaps, however, what McDougal and Buckingham are alluding to is something that they may think of as positive. That media literacy can be an agile and adaptable movement provides greater space to engage in pedagogical and scholarly dialog where it is meaningful and related.

I think personally media literacy will continue to struggle as a cohesive disciplinary space without more conceptual agreement, directional engagement, and scholarly recognition.

In the late 1990s, Bob McCannon, a teacher at Albuquerque Academy in New Mexico and leader of the New Mexico Media Literacy Project, noted that “Whenever media literacy educators get together, they always circle the wagons– and shoot in!” Is this still the case? Have we found better ways to work through differences between competing visions of media literacy?

Belinha: I don’t think we are circling the wagon any longer, but I do think we still suffer from a bit of a complex regarding who we are in the field. We are still somewhat confused about the term that we use to describe ourselves —Certainly there continues to be a discussion about whether we are a field or a movement, but frankly does it matter? What it comes down to is that we are talking and we are talking to each other. More and more, I see conversations that push the limit of what we do and question approaches. You had one of those such conversations in your blog recently with Tessa Jolls which really tried to go through the layers of conversations from the DML perspective and the media literacy perspective. I appreciated the line that you used about “people talking past each other.” Your blog and other conversations, I believe brings about more dialog as long as we can keep egos out of the way. They happen at conferences all the time — all over the world. The best conversations seems to happen at the most unexpected times with people who you didn’t think you had a common language when in fact it is there. Media literacy is an active engagement of thinking and if it happens from various groups then it is growing the dialogue.

My one concern which actually takes us a step back from Bob McCannon’s statement is that those who lay claim to media literacy as a body of work tend to not have a history of what that means. They don’t seem to know the Len Masterman’s, David Considine’s, and even David Buckingham’s who have generated some of the best thinking and most in depth work in the field whether it is through their research or through their development of future educators at the school or academic level. Even to the wider audience of people who have been in media literacy whether through their different organizations such as the Alliance for Media Literacy in Canada or Cary Bazelgette out of the UK, these people and organizations have had longevity in the field, yet they tend to go unnoticed at times.

Renee Hobbs’ “Seven Great Debates in the Media Literacy Movement” sought to map some of the core fault lines in the field. You are coming in more than a decade later to similarly lay out some of the core strands in the media literacy movement. Which of Renee’s debates are still active? Which if any have been resolved?

Belinha: Fault lines is a very good depiction of some of the cracks in the media literacy movement. Perhaps, we could even say that those cracks have been broken into factions although this may be where the argument starts to go adrift. My point is that if we keep bringing up the same issues or problems over and over again, we tend to not generate any movement past these ideas. The debates of the past could still be held up and do. People who are protectionists in the movement are still there, but there are just as many who are saying that teaching and learning are more important. Banning and censorship don’t seem to resolve what worries parents or other protectionists groups which is how to make the media less important in children’s lives.

Our mediated worlds have shifted drastically since the time that Renee Hobbs wrote that piece. Producing media which was conceptually thought to be a part of media literacy education has shifted with the fact that many students are already media-makers because technology has made it accessible. Is that media literacy? Are children/teens being critical, conscious producers of media? In most cases, the answers would be “no.” Does that mean that they fall away from the ideals of media literacy? I would say they miss the mark in some points especially when it comes to evaluation or discernment. However, they may argue that they did evaluate and did discern. We just don’t like their conclusions. What I value most in the debated questions that Hobbs proposes is the commentary that “all points of view are heard, respected, and accommodated.” I think here is where we are starting to see some headway. As a group of individuals who are interested in media literacy we do disagree, we do challenge, but we also like the engagement. Whether one method is better than the other will always be its own debate, but we can still find a middle ground to work together which makes those fault lines just a bit smoother.

Belinha S. De Abreu, Ph.D., is a Media Literacy Educator and Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Technology at Fairfield University. Her research interests include media literacy education, new media, visual and information literacy, global perspectives, critical thinking, young adults, and teacher training. Dr. De Abreu’s work has been featured in Cable in the Classroom and The Journal of Media Literacy. She is the author of Media Literacy, Social Networking and the Web 2.0 World for the K–12 Educator (Peter Lang Publishers, 2011) and the co-editor and author of Media Literacy in Action: Theoretical and Pedagogical Perspectives (Routledge 2014). She currently serves as the Vice President for the National Telemedia Council.

Paul Mihailidis is an assistant professor in the school of communication at Emerson College in Boston, MA, where he teaches media literacy and interactive media. He is also the Associate Director of the Engagement Lab at Emerson College, and Director of the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change. His research focuses on the nexus of media, education, and civic voices. His new book, Media Literacy and the Emerging Citizen (2014, Peter Lang), outline effective practices for participatory citizenship and engagement in digital culture. Under his direction, the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change, a global media literacy incubator program, annually gathers 70 students and a dozen faculty to build networks for media innovation, civic voices and global change. Mihailidis sits on the board of directors for the National Association of Media Literacy Education. He has authored numerous books and papers exploring media education and citizenship, and traveled to around the world speaking about media literacy and engagement in digital culture. He earned his PhD from the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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.