Is School Enough?: Forthcoming PBS Documentary

If you live in the Los Angeles area, I invite you to join me for what promises to be an exciting screening and discussion on Sept. 5 of Is School Enough?,  a new documentary, produced for PBS, which deals with the concept of “connected learning” as it has been articulated by the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Initiative. Details are below.

If you do not live in Southern California, I would encourage you to check online here and see when and where this documentary might be airing in your area. Here’s a preview of the film.

Many of you will already know New Learners in the 21st Century, which aired a few years back.  You can check out this film online here. For my money, this is probably the best film produced on the new forms of learning that have emerged within a networked culture, one which explains why these approaches matter to educators, researchers, students, and parents, and one which moves far beyond the usual focus on “risks” and “dangers” that have dominated some other PBS documentaries on these topics. I was proud to have been included in the New Learners documentary and even more excited when the filmmaker, Stephen Brown, consulted with me about this new production. I was able to help connect him with the incredible work being done by the Harry Potter Alliance, which becomes a key segment of Is School Enough?, and I ended up being a talking head featured in this film. Indeed, I get the Aaron Sorkin-like final speech summing up the vision as a whole. :-) I’ve seen the film when an earlier cut was screeened earlier this year at the Digital Media and Learning conference, and I am looking forward to joining this discussion at USC.

 

SCA Events

IS SCHOOL ENOUGH?

Make Reservations »

September 5, 2013, 7:00 P.M.

The Ray Stark Family Theatre, SCA 108, George Lucas Building, USC School of Cinematic Arts Complex, 900 W. 34th Street, Los Angeles, CA 90007

Cinematheque108, The Pearson Foundation, and PBS invite you and a guest to a special screening of

Is School Enough?

Followed by a panel discussion with Stephen Brown, Producer/Director of Is School Enough?; Henry Jenkins, Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts, USC; Juan Devis, Public Media Producer, KCET; Sujata Bhatt,  Founder and Lead Teacher, the Incubator School, Los Angeles; and Abby Larus, Member, the Harry Potter Alliance and student at Duke University.
7:00 P.M. on Thursday, September 5th, 2013
The Ray Stark Family Theatre, SCA 108
900 W. 34th Street, Los Angeles, CA 90007
FREE ADMISSION. OPEN TO THE PUBLIC.

Released to PBS stations on September 3, 2013.

About Is School Enough?

While policy-makers and educational experts try to determine the best “system” for delivering a world-class education to tens of millions of students across the country, many young people are finding their own ways of expressing themselves, pursuing interests, and participating in communities that are both on and offline. Largely unmediated by school and teachers, these young people, without really being aware of it, are connecting how they learn with what they care most about. Too commonly, young people are asked to solve problems in the classroom that have no relationship to the real world or relevance to their lives. Memorization and the measurement of what we know is the final basis for evaluating a students’ success; moreover, it’s the final evaluation of a teacher’s success as well. But in what ways do we ask our students to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to something that’s happening in the world outside of it?

In what ways do we reward the authentic learning and work that young people do that is not validated and evaluated by our educational institutions? In this highly connected world that is powered by what we need when we need it, is school really enough?

Designed for parents and educators inside and out of the classroom, Is School Enough? – a one hour documentary – examines how young people are using everyday tools – including today’s digital ones – to explore interests, connect with others, solve problems, and change the world around them. It is a call to action that moves the discourse away from how do we fix schools to how can we support, sustain and galvanize learning by helping students solve problems in their everyday lives.

Is School Enough? is a production of tpt National Productions, in association with Mobile Digital Arts. Not rated. Running time: 60 minutes.

Visit the Official Website: http://www.pbs.org/program/school-enough/

About the Guests

Stephen Brown, Producer/Director of Is School Enough?

Stephen Brown is President and Executive Producer at Mobile Digital Arts. Mobile Digital Arts uses film and video production as a way to showcase and advocate for innovative educational practices, digital media programs, and 21st century approaches to learning. Brown produced Reborn, New Orleans Schools, a feature documentary about the school reform movement after Hurricane Katrina; A 21st Century Education, a series of twelve short films about innovation in education; and Digital Media and Learning, eleven short films profiling the work of leading researchers, educators and thinkers on the impact that digital media is having on young learners. Mobile Digital Arts’ production – Digital Media, New Learners of the 21st Century – aired nationally on PBS in February 2011. He is also producing an on-going series of films with the OECD about the world’s best performing educational systems. Brown is currently the General Manager of the New Learning Institute for the Pearson Foundation.

Henry Jenkins, Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California

Jenkins arrived at USC in Fall 2009 after spending the past decade as the Director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program and the Peter de Florez Professor of Humanities. He is the author and/or editor of twelve books on various aspects of media and popular culture, including Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture and From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games. His newest books include Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide and Fans, Bloggers and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. He is currently co-authoring a book on “spreadable media” with Sam Ford and Joshua Green. He has written for Technology Review, Computer Games, Salon, and The Huffington Post.

Juan Devis, Public Media Producer, KCET

Juan Devis is a Public Media producer, whose work crosses across platforms – video, film, interactive media and gaming. His work, regardless of the medium is often produced collaboratively allowing for a greater exchange of ideas in the production of media. Devis iscurrently the Director of Program Development and Production for the largest independent television station in the United States, KCET. Devis has charted the stations’ new Arts and Culture initiative, Artbound, consisting of a television series, an online networked cultural hub and the creation programmatic partnerships with cultural institutions in Southern California. In addition, Devis has spear headed a new slate of series that are either in production or development, some of these include the Presidential Japan Prize Winner Departures, Live @ the Ford among others. For over a decade, Devis has worked with a number of non-profit organizations and media arts institutions in Los Angeles serving as producer, director, educator and board member. Some of these include: The City Project – Outpost for Contemporary Art – PBS World – LA Freewaves – OnRamp Arts – Center for Innovative Education – Los Feliz Charter SchoolFor the Arts.

Sujata Bhatt,  Founder and Lead Teacher, the Incubator School, Los Angeles

Sujata Bhatt is the founder of the Incubator School, an LAUSD-Future is Now Schools, 6-12 pilot school that opened this August aiming to launch the entrepreneurial teams of tomorrow. Inc. reimagines the traditional school day as a mix of individualized computer-based learning and deep, collaborative engagement via design thinking, real world problem-solving, and game-based learning.  The schooldraws upon Bhatt’s 12 years’ experience working as a Nationally Board Certified teacher in a Title 1 school in LAUSD as well as her background in education reform, technology, and startups. She has developed ‘big picture’ educational policy as a Teaching Policy Fellow with Teach Plus and with Our Schools, Our Voice, and Future is Now Schools. She has written on education reform in The Los Angeles Times, The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, Education Week, Eduwonk, and The Impatient Optimist. She also serves on the Joan Ganz Cooney Center @ Sesame Workshop’s Games and Learning Publishing Council and is a member of the founding team of Outthink Inc., a startup that produces gamified science iPad apps.

Abby Larus, Member, the Harry Potter Alliance and student at Duke University

Abby Larus is a second-year student at Duke University. She’s been involved in the Harry Potter fan community online since middleschool, when she began working with the Harry Potter Alliance, an organization that encourages civic activism by relating real world problems to the issues in the Harry Potter books. Abby started her work with the HPA as a Chapter Organizer, applying the HPA’s campaigns locally in North Carolina. She later became a volunteer on the organization’s communications staff, before taking on the role of Assistant Campaign Director. Abby has since transitioned to a position outside of the HPA, where she is the Associate Director of Logistics for LeakyCon, the largest annual Harry Potter fan convention. But she hasn’t forgotten her roots – a portion of LeakyCon’s proceeds go towards the HPA every year.

About The Pearson Foundation

The Pearson Foundation is an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that aims to make a difference by promoting literacy, learning, and great teaching. The Foundation collaborates with leading businesses, nonprofits, and education experts to share good practice; foster innovation; and find workable solutions to the educational disadvantages facing young people and adults across the globe.

More information on the Pearson Foundation can be found at www.pearsonfoundation.org.

About Cinematheque108

Cinematheque108 is an alternative screening series sponsored by the Critical Studies Department at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. The series offers a rare selection of events that highlight noteworthy experimental, documentary, and/or foreign films, many of which can not be seen anywhere else. Cinematheque108 is an educational forum that aims to expand understanding of alternative film and media. All screenings are free of charge and open to the pubic.

Check-In & Reservations

This screening is free of charge and open to the public. Please bring a valid ID or print out of your reservation confirmation, which will automatically be sent to your e-mail account upon successfully making an RSVP through this website. Doors will open at 6:30 P.M.

All SCA screenings are OVERBOOKED to ensure seating capacity in the theater, therefore seating is not guaranteed based on RSVPs. The RSVP list will be checked in on a first-come, first-served basis until the theater is full. Once the theater has reached capacity, we will no longer be able to admit guests, regardless of RSVP status.

Parking

The USC School of Cinematic Arts is located at 900 W. 34th St., Los Angeles, CA 90007. Parking passes may be purchased for $8.00 at USC Entrance Gate #5, located at the intersection of W. Jefferson Blvd. & McClintock Avenue. We recommend parking in outdoor Lot M or V, or Parking Structure D, at the far end of 34th Street. Please note that Parking Structure D cannot accommodate tall vehicles such as SUVs. Metered street parking is also available along Jefferson Blvd.

 

Raising Children in the Digital Age: An Interview with Lynn Scofield Clark (Part Three)

Your book is full of evocative phrases and concepts. One of my favorite is that of “emotional downsizing.” When and where does “emotional downsizing” occur and what does it tell us about the context in which contemporary parenting occurs?

I used the term “emotional downsizing” to talk about parental expectations regarding family life and how media fit into these expectations. This comes up in a specific example about a mother who talks about how she wishes that her family could do more activities together, but they don’t due to the time pressures they face (the parents have demanding jobs and the teen and preteen children have school, activities, and for the younger child, time in child care rather than at home). The mother wished that they could engage in different kinds of activities together – like hiking or playing board games together – that would require them to be “unplugged.” Yet sometimes, the pressures of everyday life meant that she needed to lower her expectations about what was realistic and possible. This is how “movie night,” while not a preferred activity for this mom (and for many of the parents I interviewed), became nevertheless a positive instance of “family time.” Doing something together, even if it’s a less parentally approved activity, is still worthwhile and sometimes it’s the best we can do in what can be an exhausting schedule of family life. Parents therefore lower their expectations of an “ideal” family activity, or engage in emotional downsizing, coming to see the up side of engaging in mediated activities together.

Incidentally I discovered after writing my book that I use this term in a way that differs from sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s use of it, although I refer to her work on family life throughout my book (e.g., I use her term “emotion work” to talk about what parents go through when justifying the decisions they make in relation to emotions rather than rational decision-making). In her book The Time Bind, Hochschild uses the phrase “emotional downsizing” to refer to what happens when parents assume that their children need them less than they do, which is followed by “emotional outsourcing,” or leaving children in the supervision of hired caregivers. I observed both of these, but I wanted to highlight how television, movies, YouTube sharing and other mediated leisure activities – often discussed as less desirable than other activities – come to be part of something that family members view positively as “family time.”

At a time when many of us are writing about the values of “connected learning,” your book offers a “reality check.” What kinds of obstacles or challenges do you see in trying to create richer educational opportunities for youth through the informal learning sector or for connecting what takes place in the home with school-based learning?

That is a great question. U.S. families across the economic spectrum are so busy these days, whether that’s due to work and activities in the best of situations, or due to the chronic health issues, doctor’s visits, and inconvenient transportation and work schedules that tend to be part of the most challenging family experiences. I love the ideas involved in connected learning: the interest-powered, peer-supported, and academically oriented learning principles and the production-centered, openly networked, and shared purpose design principles. But I do see two key issues.

First, both parents and young people need to see how connected learning is in the interests of the young people themselves. This is obviously the point of developing case studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of learning in places like Quest2Learn and the Digital Youth Network. These will demonstrate that connected learning helps young people develop skills and literacies they will need to survive in education and beyond.

But secondly, both parents and young people need to see how connected learning is consistent with their goals as a family. How can programs of connected learning give parents opportunities to share their values and life experiences with their children? How can programs of connected learning help young people to feel that their experiences and perspectives are valued by their parents? Of course, connected learning isn’t a “program” so much as an approach, but parents may need to see specific programs in order to recognize how it is that their child’s school wants them to engage and will value their life experiences and familial goals in the process. I think that embracing a family-centric approach will move “connected learning” out of the headspace of “homework” or “youth after school activities” and into the space that I think the connected learning innovators want to go, which involves strengthening bridges between home and school life.

While the book is primarily descriptive of a range of different models of parenting in the digital age, you end with some normative advice about the ways parents might improve upon the quality of experiences they have with digital and mobile technologies. What philosophical commitments govern this advice for you?

I wanted to avoid giving very specific advice about hours spent in front of screens or with mobile devices. Instead, going back to your first question, I wanted parents to be able to think about the “parent app” that best fit their own situation and needs. For me, I think my primary philosophical commitments are to the inherent worth and dignity of every person and to the interconnectedness of all people and living beings of nature. I believe that we each need relationships of trust, mutuality, and compassion to survive, and we each have responsibilities to act in ways that foster those relationships. Maybe this is especially so in our primary relationships with our families. So I wanted to end the book with some suggestions rooted in the idea that all of us share a desire for meaningful relationships of mutuality and respect. I have a longer list in the conclusion, so here’s the edited version:

1. Be clear and fair about expectations regarding digital and mobile media, but be willing to change as children grow older and their needs change
2. Model the behavior you want, which includes prioritizing time together
3. Let children take the lead in teaching you about their media lives

But I also didn’t want to lose sight of the fact that for a lot of people, our experiences are related to and limited by not just what we can choose to do, but our cultural and social environment. So, I wanted to propose that collectively parents can work with others to shape an environment that better meets our desires for trust, mutuality, and compassion.

Thus, in relation to the bigger picture:
1. Change the situation for young people
2. Change the media to change the culture

As I write at the end of the book, the digital and mobile media that are so much a part of our lives may seem inevitable, but the particular forms they take and the organizational patterns governing the industries that make and distribute them are not. It is up to us to choose how these media will fit into our collective lives and how they will shape the lives of our children and families in the future.

 

Lynn Schofield Clark is Associate Professor, Director of the Estlow International Center for Journalism and New Media, and Interim Chair of the Media, Film, and Journalism Studies department at the University of Denver.  In addition to co-parenting two teens, she is author of The Parent App: Understanding Families in a Digital Age (Oxford U Press, 2012), From Angels to Aliens: Teenagers, the Media, and the Supernatural (Oxford U Press, 2005), and co-author with Stewart Hoover, Diane Alters, Joe Champ, and Lee Hood of Media, Home, and Family (Routledge, 2004).  She teaches qualitative research methods and journalism courses, and is currently involved in a community engaged youth participatory action study of news and story-sharing among high school aged recent immigrants to the U.S..

Raising Children in the Digital Age: An Interview with Lynn Scofield Clark (Part Two)

Another core theme running through the book has to do with different experiences and expectations about media depending on the economic class background of parents. How would you characterize those differences?

I describe two different ethics that guide family approaches to digital and mobile media: an ethic of respectful connectedness, and an ethic of expressive empowerment. I’m really building on a lot of work in sociology of the family in this area (see, e.g., Annette Lareau and Allison Pugh as well as Roger Silverstone, each of whom looks at how family economics shape everyday experiences). The term “ethic” is meant to signal that there are guiding principles that help parents and young people determine a course of action in relation to communication practices. I use the phrase “Ethic of expressive empowerment” to refer to those families that seek to use the media for education and self-development, and the phrase “Ethic of respectful connectedness” to refer to those families that want to use media in ways that honor parents and reinforce family and cultural ties.

The differences are most stark at the extremes. The ethic of expressive empowerment can lead parents to think of their children as in need of constant guidance and oversight. When parents assume that they need to ensure the most empowering activities and the most appropriate forms of expression for their children at all times, they can rather easily slip into using technologies for covert helicopter parenting.

On the other hand, parents who are very concerned about the ways that technology use might undermine respect for parents can be drawn to a sort of “tough love” approach, using their children’s social networking accounts to engage in publicly humiliating their children as a means of demanding respect, or being quite restrictive and “strict” about technology use.

Most parents fall between these two extremes, but each approach seems in some ways related to class-based ways of thinking about risk and technology. Upper income families in my study worried that their child might miss some opportunity that would secure their ability to compete in the increasingly merciless economic environment, and this drives the desire to oversee appropriate uses of time spent with technologies (and hence also supports covert helicopter parenting). Lower income families worry about their children’s futures as well, but because many in my study had experienced the failures of society’s institutions, they place more trust in close relations – which is why undermining respect for one’s closest family members can be so threatening (and why engaging in a “tough love” response of public humiliation or strong restrictions on technology seems appropriate).

I wanted to outline these different approaches not so much to tie one or another specifically to class, but to highlight the idea that not all families have the same concerns about how technologies are playing a role in the lives of their young people. I think that many of us in education tend to embrace an ethic of expressive empowerment and so we see the positive potential in technologies. But I wanted offer some clues as to how counselors, educators, and parent advocates might discuss technology and its risks in family life in relation to differing ethics that frame a family’s course of action.


You try to challenge and complicate prevailing myths about cyber-bullying. What advice do you have for parents who are concerned that their children may be being bullied?

First of all, parents need to resist the urge to jump in and “save” the child. Ultimately, our goal as parents is to raise children who have resilience. We parents need to see ourselves as resources who can help our children solve their own problems. We do this when we talk with them about different strategies of response and tell our own stories of how we respond when we feel bullied or harassed.

Of course, some incidents escalate beyond what a young person might be able to address on his or her own.

I’ve been doing another study specifically on cyberbullying among teens, and one of the things I’ve found is that teens don’t like the term “cyberbullying.” “That’s what happens to younger kids,” as several high school students told me. They prefer the term cyberharrassment, which suggests the seriousness of the issue.

And so I also really like Common Sense Media’s approach to cyberbullying and in my book I echo what they suggest. It’s important for parents to encourage their children to stand up, not just stand by when they witness such harassment, and it’s equally important for those who are victimized to seek sources of support so that they are standing with others in response to the perpetrator.

You acknowledge throughout the book that some of your findings push against your own values as a parent. What would be some examples where you were forced to question your own assumptions about good parenting?

Even though I think of myself as someone who loves to spend time with my children, writing this book made me realize that this often comes into conflict with my sense that part of being a good parent is balancing work and home life appropriately. When it comes to children, there’s really no balancing or multitasking, there’s just the attention you can focus on one thing or another at any given time. In other words, if I really want to spend time with my children, I’ve got to put away my laptop and phone. And I’ve also decided to be much more intentional about spending time doing media-related things with them. Fortunately, we all like the Just Dance 2 DVD we received from a grandparent over the holidays!

In your discussion of teen’s online play with identity, you introduce the concept of “interpretive reproduction.” Can you explain this concept and discuss what it helps us to see about teen’s strategies for using social media?

Sociologist William Corsaro introduces the term “interpretive reproduction” as a way of challenging our tendency as adults to think about children in terms of “socialization,” or in terms of what they will become in the future rather than in relation to what they are doing presently. The term “interpretive reproduction” describes the process that young people go through as they interpret and then innovate as participants in society. They’re not just internalizing and absorbing culture; they’re actively contributing to how it is changing, even as they’re doing so in relation to existing social processes. I used this term as I was trying to sort out what was “new” about the context of digital and mobile media in teen identity work, and what was pretty consistent with the way teens had been engaging in identity work for a long time.

I think the term helps to remind parents that parenting is a process that involves not only parental intentions but also the creativities of young people as they respond to their environments. As parents it’s easy to feel nervous about the fact that we can’t control a lot of what happens in new media environments. I think it’s helpful for parents to look for patterns that relate to what came before, so that we can see that young people are using these new media to address needs that have remained remarkably similar from their generation to ours. At the same time, for sociologists interested in the role of media in social change, it’s important to see that the innovations of young people do matter. They are contributors to culture, which is why it’s important to look at their practices not just in relation to parental intentions but also in relation to how the collective uses of technologies among all generations are changing our social lives.

 Lynn Schofield Clark is Associate Professor, Director of the Estlow International Center for Journalism and New Media, and Interim Chair of the Media, Film, and Journalism Studies department at the University of Denver.  In addition to co-parenting two teens, she is author of The Parent App: Understanding Families in a Digital Age (Oxford U Press, 2012), From Angels to Aliens: Teenagers, the Media, and the Supernatural (Oxford U Press, 2005), and co-author with Stewart Hoover, Diane Alters, Joe Champ, and Lee Hood of Media, Home, and Family (Routledge, 2004).  She teaches qualitative research methods and journalism courses, and is currently involved in a community engaged youth participatory action study of news and story-sharing among high school aged recent immigrants to the U.S..

Raising Children in the Digital Age: An Interview with Lynn Schofield Clark (Part One)

A few posts back, I shared with you my interview with art historian Amy F. Ogata, author of Designing the Creative Child: Playthings and Places in Midcentury America. Ogata was nice enough to discuss with me her thoughts on the ways contemporary ideas about the digital child might have been informed by the thinking of the postwar era. Today, I want to push us to think even further about the nature of childhood and parenting in the digital age. My interviewee is Lynn Scofield Clark, author of the 2013 book, The Parent App: Understanding Families in the Digital Age.

The Parent App builds upon a rich tradition of work on the intersection of media and the family, going back to early work in this space by writers such as James Lull, Roger Silverstone, and Ellen Seiter, as well as more recent work by scholars such as Sonia Livingstone in the UK or the Digital Youth Project in the United States. Clark is clearly familiar with this literature,  but she also pushes well beyond it — not simply because of her central focus on digital and mobile technologies, but also because she is so attentive to the shifting conditions — economic, social, technological — which impact the lives of American families today. There is an admirable balance here between the broad view — an account of significant shifts in the relations between work and family — and a more focused attention to the specific narratives of the individual families she describes.

She has a particularly nuanced concern for notions of class, as they operate on much more ambiguous terms in Amercan culture than in the British tradition that informs her work. She helps us to understand how the choices which parents make about their children’s access and use of new media technologies are strongly shaped by class — in the literal sense, in terms of access to technologies, time, space, and cultural capital  and in the more figurative sense, in terms of very different ideologies of parenting that determine what value families attach to different kinds of activities within and beyond the home.

She is a gifted ethnographic storyteller: each segment offers a vivid portrait of the people involved, the choices they are making, the impact of the those choices on their lives, and the contexts within which these choices get made.  She does an admirable job here at moving between descriptive and normative agendas, being clear about her own stakes as a mother in researching and understanding how decisions get made about media in the context of family lives.  She makes it clear that some of the choices parents make clash with her own norms and expectations as a mother, but she looks at each of her subjects with sufficient sympathy and empathy that she can explain why these choices make sense to them, and she also observes that stricter regulation does not always result in estrangement between parents and children.

All told, this is important work, especially at a time when a growing number of scholars in the Digital Media and Learning field are seeking to understand the learning ecology — the ways that informal and participatory learning opportunities outside of school may become part of a “connected learning” system that supports children’s educational growth. She clearly understands the stakes behind this work, but she also brings a healthy dose of realism to the conversation, noting that even middle class parents who may buy into the ideology of participatory learning often do not devote much time to enhancing or contributing to these kinds of opportunities for their off-spring. She also offers us some insights into why lower income families suffer from diminished opportunities — not simply because of constraints on resources, but also due to hostility from others in their immediate environment towards certain goals or norms  they might associate with social striving and upward mobility. Clark finds that even professional, college education, upper middle class parents often lack the skills and knowledge to meaningfully mentor their sons and daughters about their online lives; she finds that even in close families youth often involve themselves in activities behind their parent’s backs, circumventing rules designed to protect them from exposure to risks. She suggests that parents still look upon their relationship to new media primarily in terms of regulating exposure, limiting time, and managing risks, much more than creating and sustaining opportunities.

What do you mean here by “parent app?” How does the title speak to parents’ expectations about the ways that digital and mobile media devices are impacting their relationship with their children?

I used the phrase “the parent app” in a tongue-in-cheek way, as in, “wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were an app that could provide parents with an answer to every possible dilemma that emerges in relation to parenting and technology?!”

The title also plays with the film title, “The Parent Trap,” in that I found that parents do often feel trapped, or at least overwhelmed, by the fact that they think that their children are growing up in a digital culture that they may not fully understand and to which they think they have limited access. This parental anxiety drives us as parents to want some neat-and-tidy way to address technologies in family life. So, I used the title to signal that mine *wasn’t* going to be a straightforward “advice” book, because I really believe that every parenting situation is unique and therefore I think it would be impossible to create such a book, let alone an app, that would address what is a constantly changing situation.

What I wanted to create was a book that was more like the kinds of conversations I participate in with parents and, less officially, with research friends, when we share stories and try to make sense of what they mean for our unique situations and dilemmas. So, the book itself is very story-driven in terms of its approach. My hope is that the stories help parents consider their own situations and to then build our own “apps.”

Throughout the book, you are attentive not only to what teens and adults say about their relations to and through these media, but also the contexts in which your interviews were conducted. In what ways did both teens and parents use the interview process to deliver messages to other family members?

We all live in such busy times that in U.S. families, it’s pretty easy to focus on the immediacies in our conversations with one another. The interviews for this book gave parents and young people a chance to sit together and discuss something important, and that in itself often made for a positive experience. The interview experience allowed parents to reinforce the message of how important it is to value the time we can spend listening to one another. Of course, this means that the parents who feel “too busy” to talk with their children didn’t participate in the interviews, and I believe that this skewed the sample somewhat. But it also gave the study a chance to explore what happens when those families that do prioritize being together actually focus attention on the sometimes-contentious issues that arise in relation to digital and mobile media.

Risk is a central theme running through the book. How do parents and youth understand the “risks” of networked communications in different ways? Why are we as a culture so often pre-occupied by these risks and so often disinterested in the potential value of teens online lives?

In the U.S. we live in a culture of fear, as sociologist Barry Glassner has argued. In my book I discuss the role that the news media have played in relation to appealing to this fear, which in turn contributes to our sense of risk. TV news in particular highlights unusual yet poignant occurrences that their viewers will find troubling – they have to do this because they need to appeal to the lucrative audience of young parents in the 25 – 40 age category in order to stay on the air. So stories about children and Internet-related concerns, while important, receive attention that tends to magnify the sense of risk in a manner that’s disproportionate to the actual risk.

I found that even though parents and teens voiced many of the same fears about potential risks that you see in the news, young people in their teens and preteens tended to recognize and know how to avoid the most-publicized risks, such as predators and encounters with strangers. The preteens and teens in my study were concerned about risks that they related to identity: what you might call dissing, drama, and disregard (or being ignored). This is consistent with a lot of research that’s been done by Pew Internet & Microsoft’s danah boyd (who spoke of “drama” as a word teens prefer to describe what adults might call cyberbullying).

I think you’re right, Henry, that many parents are pre-occupied with potential risks and less interested than they might be in the value of their teens’ online experiences. Parents tend to see safety as their first order of business, so I guess that orientation isn’t surprising. Yet as digital and mobile media become more integrated into family life, parents are coming to see the benefits of such media, particularly in relation to parental goals of enhancing family connection in a time that’s characterized by our sense that we’re busier than ever.

Lynn Schofield Clark is Associate Professor, Director of the Estlow International Center for Journalism and New Media, and Interim Chair of the Media, Film, and Journalism Studies department at the University of Denver.  In addition to co-parenting two teens, she is author of The Parent App: Understanding Families in a Digital Age (Oxford U Press, 2012), From Angels to Aliens: Teenagers, the Media, and the Supernatural (Oxford U Press, 2005), and co-author with Stewart Hoover, Diane Alters, Joe Champ, and Lee Hood of Media, Home, and Family (Routledge, 2004).  She teaches qualitative research methods and journalism courses, and is currently involved in a community engaged youth participatory action study of news and story-sharing among high school aged recent immigrants to the U.S..

The “Creative Child” Meets The “Digital Native”: An Interview with Amy F. Ogata (Part Two)

You write extensively in the book about the design of playrooms, suggesting that there is a shift in terms of children’s access to physical space within the home during this period. What factors led to the shift and what were the prevailing ideas about the design of play spaces for children?

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Yes, I spent a lot of time thinking not only about playrooms and playhouses of the domestic sphere, but also public schools and museums. In the single-family dwelling, the shift I am trying to trace is the growing belief that children, whose numbers exploded in the U.S. after World War II, needed their own spaces and that these were not just utilitarian leftover spaces but rather specially designed to promote their imaginations. In architect-designed houses, there were often playrooms on the plans. Even in builder houses, there were special places indicated for children’s activities. One of the main ideas was that children should have “correctly” outfitted spaces. The American Toy Institute commissioned a series of model playrooms to house numerous toys and make playing indoors attractive. Others, such as the anthropologist Margaret Mead argued that children should be left alone in their bedrooms to think and develop their own ideas. Isolation is one of the themes but proximity to the rest of the family, especially the mother, is also written into some of these houses. And the making of a “creative” home environment was stated in magazines and guidebooks as an expectation of postwar parents.

As you note, there was a dramatic increase in the number of children’s museums across this period, as well as a changing philosophy about what forms of creative engagement such museums should support. What has been the lasting impact of these ideas on current museum practices?

The form children’s museums take today is, in part, a result of the enduring notion that the sensory encounter of objects will enhance learning and stimulate new thoughts. Children’s museums as a type were not new, but they did increase very quickly during the Baby Boom. And while early museums emphasized nature study, their postwar versions were more likely to ask the child to experience something, whether it was being under a city street or climbing through a giant molecule. In the case of the Exploratorium, which was never specifically a children’s museum but engaged lots of children, visitors were encouraged to experiment with perception. Several museums I discuss look very different today–the Exploratorium, for example, has just moved to a new facility–they now attract a much younger child than museums in the 60s and 70s, and many of the exhibits are less open-ended or they go straight for entertainment, emphasizing dramatic play over, say, studying waves in a ripple tank. I think the most long-lasting aspect is the general belief that children should be active in the museum space.

It seems to me that some contemporary efforts to develop alternative kinds of spaces for children and youth still owe a great deal to the design approaches of this era. I was hoping I might get you to comment on what someone from the 1960s would recognize or find strange about two contemporary educational spaces for children? The first is the YouMedia Center at the Chicago Public Library

Sounds like a great space and in some ways it resembles the kinds of open school ideas of the late 60s and 70s. In that age, the push for large open spaces and team teaching was promoted as an answer to a teacher shortage, and to enable use of “teaching machines” and media (in that day it was film, television and sound recording), and a way of engaging children in hands-on projects, like producing TV shows for their schools. While architects thought that the spaces they created would ensure that teachers and students behaved in certain ways–smaller classrooms would encourage small group instruction, larger spaces might promote collaborative projects, moveable furniture would lead to flexible spaces–however, that didn’t necessarily happen. YouMedia is obviously not a space where core subjects are taught on a daily basis, but instead is an auxiliary space for exploration after school, perhaps more like the Exploratorium or the Brooklyn Children’s Museum as it was a long time ago. There, children and teens could operate machines, mix soils in a greenhouse, graffiti a concrete wall, or retreat to read in a library housed in a leftover gas tank.


The second is the Los Feliz Charter School for the Arts. Again, what commonalities and differences do you see between the ideal creative spaces of the 1960s and this school?

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This is another great example of the ways that progressive educational ideas are resurgent, however, this is a charter school with access to the kind of private funding that is not available to regular public schools that depend on tax revenue. The schools I discuss were all publically funded (some were in extremely wealthy neighborhoods and others in poor rural areas) and aimed to accomplish some (but certainly not all) of these same learning objectives. Many of them were small and have been changed over the years. It seems that the Los Feliz school has tried to use space to encourage curricular outcomes. Like some schools in the postwar era they have given over far more teaching space to projects like art, music and drama. Increasingly these are the subjects that are getting squeezed out of the public school day by constant budget cuts, emphasis on standardized testing, and in places like New York City, by demands on limited space. The sentiment that one teacher in this video conveys–that they are not trying to turn out artists but rather confident, well-balanced people–echoes exactly the discourse on creativity in the postwar years. The notion that creativity is a lifelong benefit that will eventually help children become competitive in the workplace has also found its way to college campuses. I don’t mean to sound skeptical of creativity itself (I am an art historian!), but I think that the schemes we adopt to instrumentalize it reveal that we lionize creativity as a cultural myth at moments when we feel insecure.

Amy F. Ogata is associate professor at the Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture in New York City. She is the author of Art Nouveau and the Social Vision of Living. Her new book, Designing the Creative Child: Playthings and Places in Midcentury America was recently published by the University of Minnesota Press.

The “Creative Child” Meets the “Digital Native”: An Interview with Amy Ogata (Part One)

 

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The Post-War American family turns out to have been a much more complex phenomenon than our stereotypical images of Leave It To Beaver might suggest. The Baby Boom generation, invested in critiquing the values of their parents, left us with an image of the era which is highly conservative, ideologically repressive, emotionally sterile, and materialistic — there’s some truth to these cliches, of course, but there was much more going on. In particular, there was an attempt, coming out of the Second World War, to embrace a conscious project of designing and developing a new generation which would be free of the prejudices of the old, which would be capable of confronting global problems and making intelligent decisions about the Bomb, which would be democratic to its core and thus resistant to future Hitlers, and above all, which would be free of inhibitions which might block their most creative and expressive instincts.

I’ve long been fascinated by this period but rarely have I seen it written about with the depth and insights that Amy F. Ogata brings to her new book, Designing the Creative Child: Playthings and Places in Midcentury America. Ogata brings a design/art history perspective to bear on the period, telling us more about the ways that ideas about children as expressive beings helped to inform the design of toys, playspaces, schools, libraries, museums, and other public institutions, and beyond that, she offers some glimpses in how these ideas about creativity helped to shape children’s books, television, and other popular culture texts. I came to the book for the insights that it might give us into the children’s media of the 1950s and 1960s, but I left with a much more immediate sense of how a deeper understanding of how ideas about childhood during that period might speak to our present concerns. As I wrote as a blurb for the book:

At a time when the news media is again concerned about a crisis in American creativity, schools are cutting funding for arts education, major foundations are modeling ways that students and teachers might ‘play’ with new media, and museums worry about declining youth attendance, Designing the Creative Child makes an important intervention, reminding us that these debates build on a much longer history of efforts to support and enhance the creative development of American youth. I admire this fascinating, multidisciplinary account, which couples close attention to the design of everyday cultural materials with an awareness of the debates in educational theory, public policy, children’s literature, and abstract art that informed them.

So, the following interview is designed to explore those points of intersection between the “creative child” as imagined in the post-war period and the “digital native” as conceived in the early 21st century. As a careful historian, Ogata was careful to make some nuanced distinctions between the two, yet she was open to exploring the ways that these older concepts about childhood might still be informing some of our current discussions about digital media and learning.

You open the book with a quote from Arnold Gesell who writes that “by nature” the child was “a creative artist of sorts….We may well be amazed at his resourcefulness, his extraordinary capacity for original activity, inventions and discovery.” This formulation reminds me of contemporary formulations of children as “digital natives” who “naturally” know how to navigate the online world. What do you see as some cornerstones of this belief in the “creative” child? Is the goal for adults to facilitate and support this creativity or to get out of the way and avoid stiffling it?

This is an interesting analogy and one I had not considered. Gesell is articulating a sense of surprise and admiration, and it resembles how we speak about children navigating digital devices. What the concepts of the “creative child” and the “digital native” share is an essentialist belief that children are somehow “naturally” inclined toward certain expressions or activities, and it is very hard to support these kinds of overwhelming generalities. Moreover, while we might praise the “naive” and untutored, behind these sentiments I also detect both a patronizing quality and a sense of loss or regret on the part of the adult. The idea of the creative child is one invented by adults and, as I argue, it serves many different interests, from toy manufacturers to art museums, Cold War ideologues to serious scientists.

The cornerstone of the idea of the creative child is that he or she possesses “natural” insight that comes out in play. Another related belief is that childhood creativity is a fleeting quality that has the potential to provide future gains for the child, her parents, and the nation. Because the idea of nurturing creativity in children was so widespread (and such a big business) after World War II, we tend to understand children’s creativity in limited, usually positive terms and we expect it to take certain forms. This, perhaps, is where the creative child and digital native part ways, given the lingering popular suspicion around children and the digital environment (the belief that kids might get themselves or others in trouble). In the historical case I outline, it is a parent’s responsibility to facilitate a child’s creativity by providing toys, amusements, and spaces for play. But the public was also invested in some of these notions, evident in new public schools, spaces for exploration such as museums, and in art education programs.

What connection existed between the ideal of the creative, expressive child and the growing consumer culture of the post-war period? What kinds of products were able to attach themselves to this particular construction of childhood?

The consumer dimension was a powerful one and has become even more so today. It’s hard to escape the rhetoric of creativity if you’re shopping for toys or games, or other things like clothing and schools. The child’s block, the cardboard box, and crayons were some of the most romanticized and widely prescribed amusements of the postwar age. In addition there were some objects, created by architects and designers, which were deliberately arty and were sold specifically as creativity toys.

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Magnet Master was a magnetic building toy designed by Arthur Carrara and developed as a product of the Walker Art Center. There were no instructions or diagrams because, the museum reasoned, children didn’t need them and would do better on their own. The Philadelphia architect Anne Tyng developed a building toy she attempted to market under the idea of stimulating children to build and explore. Charles and Ray Eames’s 1950s paper toys were similar but used different materials and were more widely available and for a longer time. But other products, once so ubiquitous, have now completely disappeared. The simple indoor fabric playhouse that draped over a card table is gone, in part because people no longer have those standard-sized card tables.

To what degree was the ideal of the creative child bound up with particular experiences of class, race, and gender? This is, was the expressive child more likely to be middle class, white and male, or did these writers offer a more multicultural understanding of what constituted creativity?

CPlaythings1The figure of the creative child in this historical era is extremely middle class, but not exclusively male and not exclusively white. In the early 1950s, white children are implied in the toy ads and housing schemes, by the early 60s, this is still dominant but less so. Creative Playthings placed ads in Ebony, for example, and the Brooklyn Children’s Museum’s 1970 renovation was very much designed with the local Crown Heights neighborhood in mind. The creative child is a construction that aims to overlook difference while simultaneously selling exclusivity. This is one of the paradoxes of the idea. Creativity is described as something that all children are supposed to possess “naturally,” but at the same time parents and teachers are told that it needs careful tending and stimulation, usually through specific kinds of toys and materials.

What role did television play in promoting and supporting this concept of childhood creativity?

 

 

Television was of course a central force for the representation of childhood in postwar America and had a role to play in helping to create the specific figure of the creative child. I spend most of my book describing material and spatial forms that do this work, but there are several programs that also had an important role in the making of the idea. Winky Dink, which asked the child to “finish” the story by drawing on a special screen affixed to the TV itself, is an obvious example for harnessing the child’s agency, but the character who, I think, best represents the image of the postwar creative child is Gumby.

Gumby’s energy and imagination are represented in the many physical forms he takes, and the way he and his sidekick Pokey move in and out of stories, eras, and places. His exuberant inquisitiveness sometimes brings havoc upon himself and his family, but this is of course resolved before the end of the program. The way creativity is constructed on television and in children’s books emphasizes the positive and tends toward happy endings.

Often, across the book, it seems that children’s imaginations are linked to various forms of abstraction. What was the relationship between childhood and the modern art world during this period?

You are right about this. Abstraction is one of the recurring motifs of the designed objects and spaces I discuss. Frank Caplan, who was one of the founders of Creative Playthings, believed that undefined shapes and unpainted forms would help to stimulate a child’s imagination. The company sought out artists to design toys and playgrounds to enhance their business and for cognitive developmental reasons, but also because they were genuinely interested in the links between modern art and design and objects for children; they collaborated several times with the Museum of Modern Art. This occurred at a time when abstract painting and sculpture was gaining prestige in both the U.S. and Europe, and had a propagandistic role in the Cold War. However, the twinning of abstraction and a child’s imagination (evident in forms like children’s drawings) is an older idea. Early twentieth-century European modernists deeply admired the representational strategies of children’s art. This notion comes back with new vigor in the “Creative Art” education curriculum that asked pupils to express their experiences rather than copy models. There was, then, a demand placed on children to be creative, and often abstract.

 Amy F. Ogata is associate professor at the Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture in New York City. She is the author of Art Nouveau and the Social Vision of Living. Her new book, Designing the Creative Child: Playthings and Places in Midcentury America was recently published by the University of Minnesota Press.

What Do We Know About Participatory Cultures: An Interview with Aaron Delwiche and Jennifer Jacobs Henderson (Part Three)

As your book illustrates, participatory culture is a global phenomenon, but so far, most of the research has focused on participatory culture in the English speaking world, and mostly, in the United States. What might we learn about participatory culture if we expanded our investigation to consider, for example, the Global South?

At one time, we had an excuse for such oversights.  We researched where we lived because it was physically and financially prohibitive to do otherwise.  This is no longer the case. There is no doubt that some of the most interesting participatory cultures are situated far beyond North America and it is time we all start looking closely at those cultures.

We are also optimistic that this imbalance will begin to be righted during the coming decade as youth across the globe synthesize social awareness, fluency in multiple languages, and expertise in communication technologies.  We predict (or at least hope for) a flood of research efforts on participatory cultures in the next ten years.

Addressing the geographical research gap is essential if we are to better understand and act upon the potential power of participatory cultures.  Since the emergence of fan studies in the 1980s, we (academic researchers) have built a robust body of literature on participatory fan cultures.  The same can be said for research on participatory democracy and budgeting as well as online gaming cultures.  There are enormous gaps in the literature, though, as far as other participatory cultures are concerned.

This is one reason that we chose to expand the boundaries of our book beyond the field of communication and invited authors who could speak to fields and cultures with lengthy and diverse research agendas – for example, poetry and literature, science, social action.  If we are lucky enough to publish a second collection, currently under-researched geographic locations and topical areas will be a primary focus.

What do you see as some of the major hurdles before we are going to be able to achieve a more participatory culture? What are the most important battles right now in terms of defining the terms of our participation?

As with other institutionalized problems, we must change the perceived value of participation.  This shift must occur in everything from education to economic structures.  For example, students are told they have violated the Honor Code if they work with others to find solutions to a homework assignment.  Team members are rarely rewarded equally for workplace outcomes (team “leaders” always get paid more).  Diplomacy is seen as less valuable than conquering.  We don’t expect participation to gain value overnight.  Power is diminished or at least transformed when it is divided, and we all know there are many people who would like to hold on to their power.

Altering the perception of participation is particularly challenging in cultures that value individualism over collectivism.  We do believe this perception is shifting, if only slightly.  In recent years have we begun to hear public figures talk about the possibility of making money and doing good, of elected officials articulating a basic standard of health and opportunity, and of parents questioning the value of memorization rather than participation in their children’s education.

How might we increase the value given to diversity and dissent within participatory cultures? Is there a danger that such communities tend to be consensus-based and thus are more apt to exclude people who persistently disagree with shared goals and values?

We do not value diversity and dissent as much as we can and should in participatory cultures. Many people do not see online spaces as open and inviting.  In fact, “incivility” and “nastiness” are the concerns most often voiced in opposition to participatory engagement.  Honestly, it’s hard to convince people otherwise when the “comments” sections of spaces such as YouTube and CNN are filled with illogical, unsupportive, and hateful commentary.

Consensus is hard to come by these days; in fact, it is much harder than in years past. This is both a good thing and bad thing. Our touch points of shared experience (mediated and otherwise) are far less than even one generation ago.  Reading and relying only on opinions with which we agree has become commonplace.   Combine this echo-chamber reality with online anonymity and you face an impressive foe.

So, on one side we have an age of disagreement mingling with anonymity and on the other we have cultures that derive success from consensus.  Diversity and dissent can get lost on either side.  Only a culture that can instill the value of listening survives this war.  And we all know that listening is tough, especially when people feel they have something important (or more insightful) to say.

This delicate balance of agreement is what sustains hope in some participatory cultures and destroys others. The strongest participatory cultures are ones in which all voices carry the same weight, all opinions are heard, and all ideas are deliberated.  The weakest participatory cultures are those that allow the crush of consensus or the minority voice to dominate.  Participatory cultures are difficult to build and maintain but, when they work, they are extremely powerful forces in the lives of their participants and across society at large.

 

The book closes with an ethical framework for thinking about participatory culture. What do you see as the core values which might govern an ethics of participation? What mechanisms might exist for inspiring greater ethical reflection within existing and emerging participatory cultures?

 

Almost all ethical frameworks are grounded in the concept of selflessness.  Almost all activities in online participatory cultures are inherently self-centered.  We read. We search. We post. We share.  Most often we do these things for us, not for any greater good.  It might not be easy to flip the switch from selfishness to selflessness in these spaces, but we do see stronger communities where the balance has tipped.

We could begin a movement toward selflessness by gently nudging participants in online communities to consider others in their visual and rhetorical choices.  The ethics chapter of the Handbook calls on people to start standing up for each other in online communities – to take on flamers and to support those who are ridiculed.  Encouraging constructive responses would also help with this move from selfishness to selflessness.  We see this work well on fan fiction sites where member read, help edit, and provide encouragement to fellow writers.

Quite honestly, ethical reflection occurs infrequently.  Most ethicists would claim you need at least five steps to make a good decision: identification of the ethical problem, acknowledgment of the parties involved and your loyalties to each, conscious deliberation, purposeful action, and reflection.  The current ethical decision-making process is most often reduced to just two steps: act and justify those actions. We could make participatory cultures more ethical if we could convince people to engage in even the briefest contemplation prior to posting, uploading, or commenting.  This is something few people do and more should.

Critical studies writers, including the Janissary Collective, featured in the collection, express concern that participation is illusionary and coercive, that we only participate on the terms which powerful groups allow us. What might those of us advocating for a more participatory culture learn from those critiques? 

If one believes that human history provides examples of ever-greater participation, and if one accepts that there are more opportunities for political, economic, and cultural participation than ever before, it is easy to get caught up in idealistic fervor. If we drink too deeply of our own theoretical Kool-Aid, we become irrelevant at best and tyrannical at worst. Critiques such as those authored by Janissary Collective and the British cultural critic Paul Taylor are invaluable because they remind us that things are never that simple.

There are many version of pessimistic critique in cultural studies and critical theory. One variant argues that that democracy is hopeless. According to this view, attempts to foster greater participation and inclusion are the enemy of individual freedom. As expressed by the Janissary Collective, this position holds that “participatory culture can never provide the basis for the good life – in fact, it can be its worst enemy” (p. 264).

A second form of pessimism presents itself as even more negative about participatory culture, but there is a glimmering ember of optimism lurking beneath the surface. This view does not argue that democracy is intrinsically flawed. Rather, it unleashes withering criticism of those thinkers and activists who gloss over the many ways that participatory culture and participatory technologies are abused, exploited, and farcically celebrated by political and economic elites. When Paul Taylor observes “whether interacting in a self-consciously local fashion as consumers of lattes or technologically as hackers of computer systems… we are all perhaps still ultimately passive” (p.255), he implicitly mourns the loss of authentic participatory culture.

Both critiques are essential. The “democracy is hopeless” position reminds us that we must respect the individual right to resist participation. The “participatory culture is a web of false promises” position helps us diagnose where the dream risks becoming a nightmare. Embedded in the passionate prose of Taylor’s piece, participatory culture activists can tease out guideposts that will help us determine our next steps.

Aaron Alan Delwiche (Ph.D., University of Washington) is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at Trinity University. His research interests include participatory culture, intergenerational gaming, and wearable computing. In 2009, with support from the Lennox Foundation, he organized the lecture series Reality Hackers: The Next Wave of Media Revolutionaries. In 2010, he delivered a talk titled “We are all programmers now” at TEDx San Antonio. He is also co-editor of the The Participatory Cultures Handbook (2012).

Dr. Jennifer Jacobs Henderson (Ph.D., University of Washington) is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Communication at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.  Her research addresses the boundaries of speech in media and participatory cultures as well as the ethics of this speech.  Jennifer is the author of the 2010 book Defending the Good News: The Jehovah’s Witnesses and Their Plan to Expand the First Amendment and co-editor of the The Participatory Cultures Handbook (2012).

 

What Do We Know About Participatory Cultures: An Interview with Aaron Delwiche and Jennifer Jacobs Henderson (Part Two)

As you note, the term, “participatory culture,” can be seen as emerging from the cultural studies tradition, but there is also a strong history of writing about “participatory politics.” Are these separate conversations? What might these two strands of research have to say to each other?

The participation conversation is a very broad one, and rightly noted, one that has ebbed and flowed across the centuries.  Rather than the concept of participation, it is the dominant focus of the participation that is unique to the time period – political participation, economic participation, social action.  Of course, even when one topic dominated the push for participation, thousands of smaller participatory cultures also thrived around issues such as crafting, gamesmanship, agriculture, and invention.  The communication technologies of this century have simply divided and amplified the topics allowing many more participatory cultures to flourish in unison.

Some have argued that all cultures are by definition participatory. What distinguishes contemporary forms of participatory culture from their predecessors within, say, folk culture?

Participatory cultures are not new.  They are simply the most recent manifestation of human’s desire to be a part of something. One of the reasons there is so much attention placed on participatory cultures now is that they are starkly contrasted by the postmodern theories that immediately preceded them.  Postmodern theorists valued resistance, disruption and divergence, while participatory cultures value contribution and collaboration.  Today’s participatory cultures are both uniquely new and comfortably traditional venues – like returning to your family home for Thanksgiving to find your bedroom is the new home office.

 

Writing about participatory culture poses a different set of questions than writing about audience resistance, a concept that dominated cultural studies a few decades ago. Resistance to what? Participation in what? What are some of the current models for describing what people “participate” in when they are part of a participatory culture? Is participatory culture necessarily a collective phenomenon or does it make sense to talk about participating as an individual?

The concept of audience resistance played an important role in cultural studies, but the notion of resistance seems almost quaint when one considers the nature of political, economic, and cultural power in the early 21st century. As individual citizens, each one of us is situated within multiple power networks.

In many instances (e.g. the physical borders of the nation-state, the globally dispersed contours of global capitalism), power relationships are imposed upon us at birth. We might be proud to be Americans (or Chinese or Canadians), but our national pride is a lucky accident. The physical coordinates of our birthplace and the citizenship status of our parents determine our initial location in the networks of state power. Financial power networks are also imposed upon us; we are born into capitalism. We might choose to remedy the shortcomings of the economic status quo by building alternative exchange networks (e.g. farmers markets, cooperatives, gift economies, remix culture), but it is almost impossible to completely subtract ourselves from the domination of global capital.

The good news is that we can also situate ourselves in political, economic, and cultural power networks of our own choosing. This is hardly a new phenomenon – Alexis de Tocqueville celebrated free associations in Democracy in America as far back as 1835 – but the emergence of the global Internet and affiliated communication technologies has accelerated our ability to create alternative networks from the ground up at the same time that we work to transform dominant institutions.

Is participation necessarily a collective phenomenon? To the extent that we participate in networks with other human beings, there is always a collective dimension. We engage, we share, we mentor, we feel connected, and we care about what other members of the community think. This is necessarily social.

However, the decision about which networks we select as meaningful outlets for participation is almost always an individual decision. If we truly value participatory culture, we must recognize the right of individuals to choose to not participate.

 

Pedagogical concerns remain central to these discussions, if we are to insure that the widest possible range of people have access to the skills and resources they need to meaningfully participate. What insights might the book offer to educators who want to bring more participatory practices to schools, libraries, and other public institutions?

 

The difficult part about participatory pedagogy is that educators must be willing to relinquish absolute control over the conversation.  For a very long time, especially in Western educational settings, teachers were situated at the top of hierarchical learning models. In educational participatory cultures, learning does not necessarily happen quickly, it is not delivered in a tidy, self-contained package, and it certainly does not conform to government standards.  Learning emerges from the conversational and collaborative journey; it is not located in “the correct answer to the teacher’s question.” Members of participatory cultures find their own way to solutions, often not by the most direct or conventional paths.

Your book discusses practices such as participatory budgeting which involve the interface between citizens and governments. What has been the track record so far for such initiatives? What are the biggest challenges in opening existing institutions to greater forms of democratic participation?

Neither of us are experts in participatory budgeting, but we were encouraged to see related panels at the SXSW Interactive Conference this year in Austin. For example, one panel focused on participatory budgeting and the use of crowdsourcing to determine how government funds should be spent.  To date, most of the successful initiatives have taken place in Latin America and Europe.  It was heartening to see similar discussions in the United States.

 

Aaron Alan Delwiche (Ph.D., University of Washington) is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at Trinity University. His research interests include participatory culture, intergenerational gaming, and wearable computing. In 2009, with support from the Lennox Foundation, he organized the lecture series Reality Hackers: The Next Wave of Media Revolutionaries. In 2010, he delivered a talk titled “We are all programmers now” at TEDx San Antonio. He is also co-editor of the The Participatory Cultures Handbook (2012).

 

Dr. Jennifer Jacobs Henderson (Ph.D., University of Washington) is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Communication at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.  Her research addresses the boundaries of speech in media and participatory cultures as well as the ethics of this speech.  Jennifer is the author of the 2010 book Defending the Good News: The Jehovah’s Witnesses and Their Plan to Expand the First Amendment and co-editor of the The Participatory Cultures Handbook (2012).

 

What Do We Now Know About Participatory Cultures: An Interview with Aaron Delwiche and Jennifer Jacobs Henderson (Part One)

I am happy today to be introducing Aaron Delwiche and Jennifer Jacobs Henderson, the editors of an important new anthology, The Participatory Cultures Handbook. Anyone who has followed this blog over the years will recognize the names of many of the contributors to this collection, which includes Christopher M Kelty, Jason Mittell, Suzanne Scott, Mia Consalvo, Benjamin Stokes, Owen Gallagher, Pierre Levy, Daren Brabham, Howard Rheingold, Barry Joseph, and Paul Taylor, among many others, each represented by an original essay which expands their earlier writings on this topic and seeks to contribute to a larger conversation about the nature of participation (cultural, political, educational) in the early 21st century. The core topics include collective intelligence, new media literacies, crowd-sourcing, participatory democracy, fandom, serious games, blogging, and the digital arts, among much much more. In short, there’s something in this book which will speak to pretty much anyone who regularly checks out this blog. I have been raiding this book for my teaching and my writing ever since I first got my hands on it, and my students have found it a valuable resource for a broad range of projects. (Full disclosure: I have a short essay in this collection written in conversation with Suzanne Scott about her work on contemporary “fan boy auteurs.” Both essays add some more specificity to oft-made claims about the blurring boundary between fan and author.)

Over the next few posts, I am going to be grilling Delwiche and Henderson about some of the core themes that cut across the collection. I have to admit that I had a lot of fun framing these questions, since many of them are questions I am often asked in other interviews or that I am currently struggling with in my own work, and the two editors do a great job of putting forth some original reflections about these core and recurring concerns that we all confront as we seek to better understanding the participatory turn in contemporary culture. From my perspective, their responses, like the book itself, strikes an appropriate balance, embracing the collective push towards greater and more meaningful participation while also expressing skepticism about the ways that the term has been taken up and deployed rhetorically by a range of powerful and entrenched institutions. They welcome both writers who are excited about contemporary developments and those who offer strong critiques of some of the underlying assumptions driving this work. In the end, their work brings much greater rigor to our understanding of participatory culture, both by expanding the range of case studies we have to work with and pushing for more precise distinctions between different models of participatory practice.

The book includes a range of different practices, from those associated with fandom to those associated with crowd sourcing or community organizing or citizen science or digital poetry. How are you defining the core concept of participatory culture?

 

In The Participatory Cultures Handbook, we use the definition of participatory culture from the 2006 white paper Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century that you and your co-authors wrote for the MacArthur Foundation. As a starting point, we rely on your explanation that participatory cultures are characterized by “relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations, and some type of information mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices” (p. 7). A participatory culture “is also one in which members believe that their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connectedness with one another (at least they care what other people think about what they have created” (p. 7).

After completing the book, we would now suggest there are three primary kinds of participatory cultures: consensus cultures, creative cultures, and discussion cultures.  While we acknowledge these are fuzzy categories, they do offer a structure for thinking about what it means to participate. We believe the nature of participatory cultures shifts just as it does in real world settings where cultures are shaped by venue, topic, participants, and interest level.

The most traditionally “productive” participatory cultures are often consensus cultures, or agreement-based.  They frequently reside in the realm of “work” where there is a goal or outcome to be met.  Something must be completed or solved or fixed.  These could easily be subdivided into expert cultures where people with specialized knowledge join together to leverage the power of collective intelligence and democratic cultures where “average citizens” do the same thing.  In the book, chapters about CERN and crisis mapping tend to the former while those about participatory budgeting tend to the latter.

Creative cultures are those in which participants are encouraged to create, share, and comment all within a safe and supportive environment.  Remix cultures live in this space, as do art and writing cultures.  The creative portion of fan cultures reside here – the fan fiction and fan-art sub-sites, for example.  In these spaces, participants are passionate about their creativity and the topics that spur those passions.  They are often lifers, who join a culture and stick with it.

Discussion cultures are ones where a topic rather than an outcome is at the heart of participation.  Sports fandoms, news sites, and food blogs all fall within the realm of discussion cultures.  Here, we often see more disagreement than support with participants engaging in sometimes heated, often real-time, exchanges on topics of personal and professional interest.  Participants in discussion cultures are not always long-time residents; they often roam from site to site as they chase the topic.

 

­­I have been seeing increased skepticism about the concept of participatory culture as a rhetoric of participation gets applied to many different sets of relationships between consumers and commercial interests. What qualities need to be in place before meaningful participation may occur?

This skepticism is well founded. One can think of many instances in which organizations use the rhetoric of participation to legitimize non-participatory relationships. This often happens when commercial interests leverage participatory culture practices to promote marketing goals (e.g., crowdsourcing slogans for a new flavor of tortilla chips), but corporations are not the only entities that attempt to pass off faux-participation as something more meaningful. The rhetoric of participation is regularly applied (and misapplied) to relationships between governments and citizens, as well as to relationships between activist groups and their members. This happens in groups of all sizes — from smaller community groups to national political associations.

In some ways, the pretense of participation is more troubling than the absence of participation. When authentic participatory energy turns out to be little more than democratic window dressing for top-down decision-making, those who devoted time and energy to the process might walk away feeling cynical, hopeless, and discouraged. This is why it is so important for us to ask questions about participatory procedures.

To what extent can the objectives of a participatory project be defined and refined by all participants? If the power to articulate project goals is concentrated in a handful of individuals, the process does not deliver meaningful participation.

To what extent are participants’ contributions filtered and edited before they are shared with the broader community? Often, organizations include “talk back” sections on institutional web sites; these components give the appearance of engaged member feedback. However, when one takes a closer look, it becomes clear that user comments are carefully filtered before they are posted. Meaningful participation is inversely proportional to the extent of censorship and editorial control.

It is true that there might be some situations in which community moderation is necessary – for example, in participatory communities that include minors. In these instances, participants have every right to scrutinize the transparency of moderation practices.

Some would argue that meaningful participation is a binary concept: it exists or it does not. However, it might be more useful — and more realistic — to think of participatory culture in analog terms. Some processes offer more authentic participation than others, and we should agitate for arrangements that are as close to the participatory ideal as possible.  There are times when we can only nudge. There are times when we push harder. And, every once in a while, as Mario Savio reminds us, “you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels… upon all the levers, upon all the apparatus… and you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people that own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.”

 

Some argue that opportunities for meaningful participation still rest almost exclusively within groups which have enjoyed various forms of privilege in the past — especially those within elite or dominant segments of the population. What do we know about inequalities in opportunities to participate? Are there compelling cases of participation “from the bottom” and what lessons might we learn from these examples that would help us broaden opportunities for participation?

Privileged elites have always had greater access to participatory technologies and political structures. In Athens, direct democracy was erected on the backs of women and slaves who were excluded from the polis. In America, representative democracy was erected on the backs of women and slaves who were excluded from the voting booth. Thankfully, the history of democratic institutions is progressive, and more people have access to participatory culture than ever before.

This progress stems directly from the fact that disenfranchised human beings have agitated for full and equal participation, often risking their lives in the process. The most crucial battles for civil rights have been waged “from the bottom” by networks of individuals who have wrestled communication tools (literacy, the printing press, radio, music, film, video, computers) from the hands of elites. In turn, activists have used these tools to penetrate and transform political and economic systems in which they are located.

How can we broaden the opportunities for meaningful participation? First, we should nurture media literacy projects at all levels of society, making sure to address what you termed “the participation gap” in the report (Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture) that you co-authored for the MacArthur Foundation. In practical terms, this means fostering the competencies and social skills identified in the report: play, performance, simulation, appropriation, multitasking, distributed cognition, collective intelligence, judgment, transmedia navigation, networking, and negotiation.

However, redefining media literacy to include an emphasis on skills required for participation is only the first step. If we want to preserve and extend opportunities for participation, we must broaden our thinking about the term “digital literacy.” It is no longer sufficient for citizens to understand how to use computers; we must also learn how to program the machines that rule our lives.

If we continue to accept technological gadgets and protocols as neutral gifts from benevolent technical elites, we pave the way for our future subjugation. As Douglas Rushkoff observes in Program or Be Programmed, digital technologies are always embedded with external purposes. “They act with intention,” he warns. “If we don’t know how they work, we won’t even know what they want. The less involved and aware we are of the way our technologies are programmed and program themselves, the more narrow our choices will become; the less we will be able to envision alternatives to the pathways described by our programs; and the more our lives and experiences will be dictated by their biases” (p. 148-149).

Scholars and activists often mystify digital technologies even as they celebrate them. We convince ourselves that computer programming is conceptually difficult or ideologically suspect. But nothing could be further from the truth. It is not difficult to learn basic programming, and it is easy to master the fundamental concepts that empower us to “speak back” to technology. Yet, even as progressive iterations of computer programming languages become more and more accessible, our fellow citizens seem increasingly willing to think of themselves as users rather than programmers – as consumers rather than coders.

It is only possible to sustain and broaden participatory culture for all citizens if we take up this challenge. If we dodge this responsibility – if we fail to teach our neighbors and ourselves how to program, and thus control, the ubiquitous machines that regulate our lives – we squander the accomplishments of those who have fought to expand the boundaries of participatory culture throughout human history.

We are all programmers now. Or, at least we can be, if we are willing to try.

 

Aaron Alan Delwiche (Ph.D., University of Washington) is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at Trinity University. His research interests include participatory culture, intergenerational gaming, and wearable computing. In 2009, with support from the Lennox Foundation, he organized the lecture series Reality Hackers: The Next Wave of Media Revolutionaries. In 2010, he delivered a talk titled “We are all programmers now” at TEDx San Antonio. He is also co-editor of the The Participatory Cultures Handbook (2012).

 

Dr. Jennifer Jacobs Henderson (Ph.D., University of Washington) is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Communication at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.  Her research addresses the boundaries of speech in media and participatory cultures as well as the ethics of this speech.  Jennifer is the author of the 2010 book Defending the Good News: The Jehovah’s Witnesses and Their Plan to Expand the First Amendment and co-editor of the The Participatory Cultures Handbook (2012).

 

T is for Transmedia…

T is for Transmedia from Annenberg Innovation Lab on Vimeo.

Today, the Annenberg Innovation Lab at USC and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center announced the release of “T is for Transmedia: Learning Through Transmedia Play.” The report is written by Becky Herr-Stephenson and Meryl Alper, under the supervision of Erin Reilly. This paper provides a much-needed guidebook to transmedia in the lives of children age 5-11 and its applications to storytelling, play, and learning. Building off of a review of the existing popular and scholarly literature about transmedia and children, this report identifies key links between transmedia and learning, highlights key characteristics of transmedia play, and presents core principles for and extended case studies of meaningful transmedia play experiences.

“We really have two goals for the report,” says co-author Becky Herr-Stephenson. “Our first is to get educators thinking about how they might incorporate transmedia play into activities, lesson plans, or projects. Our second goal is to put the design recommendations before media makers in the hopes that the principles will reinforce the good work people are already doing as well as encourage others to bring play and learning to the forefront of their transmedia projects.”

“T is for Transmedia” is embedded below and is also available for download here.

I know that this report is going to generate a lot of interest from the transmedia enthusiasts and new media literacy educators who constitute this blog’s most loyal readers, so to give you a taste of what to expect, I am sharing with you the introduction I contributed to this project.

There’s a Monster at the End of This Report

There is a monster at the end of this report (well, maybe there is, but you won’t know for sure until you turn all of the pages and read what we have to say).

But, it is telling that most of you probably recognize this phrase as a reference to a classic children’s book, written by Jon Stone, illustrated by Michael Smollen, released in 1971 just a few years after Sesame Street debutted on PBS, and “starring lovable, furry old Grover.” Much has been made of the ways that Sesame Street reinvented children’s television, embracing rather than running away from the properties of its medium, incorporating tricks from advertising, parodies of popular culture, songs and skits, into something which encouraged the active engagement of its young viewers. Yet, far less has been made of the fact that Sesame Street from the very start encouraged its young fans to follow it across media platforms – from television to records, books, stuffed toys, public performances, feature films, and much more. Certainly, the then-Children’s Television Workshop’s steps in that direction were cautious, given the anxieties many parents have about the commercialization of children’s culture. But, over time, much of the American public came to embrace those experiments in transmedia storytelling as part of what made Sesame Street such a powerful learning system. In a 2007 online poll, the American Education Association voted The Monster At the End of This Book onto a list of “Teachers’ Top 100 Books for Children,” and a few years later, the School Library Journal gave it a prominent spot on its list of the Top 100 picture books.

Part of what makes The Monster so compelling is that it is as reflexive about the nature of the printed book as a medium as Sesame Street was about our experiences of watching and learning from television. Reading this book becomes a kind of play as children scream with a mixture of fear and delight as we turn each page, wondering when the scary monster is going to appear, only to discover that it is “lovable furry old Grover” who is the monster we warmly welcome at the end of the book. Grover tries to do everything he can to block us from turning the pages, from tying knots to constructing brick walls, from begging to harranging us, yet the desire to read overcomes all of the walls he might try to erect. The children’s book has long been a site for domestic performance, as parents and children alike try out different voices, make sound effects, respond with mock emotions, to the pictures on the page.

This book had effects which go beyond the printed page: Grover emerges as an early fan favorite on Sesame Street as his personality took shape across platforms. When young people pick up The Monster, they already know who Grover is, they know his back story, they understand his motivations, they identify with what he is feeling, and as a result, there is an immediacy about our experience of this book.

Predictably enough, Monster has in recent years evolved into a digital book, an interactive experience children on their iPad. We certainly do not want to exclude adults from the fun – reading books together across generation is perhaps the most powerful way to foster a deeper appreciation of the pleasures of reading. But, Sesame Street has always understood that children do not enjoy equal opportunities to learn. Some children are left on their own while their parents work long hours. Some parents do not have good models for active reading with their children and look for prompts that might allow them to learn how to play and perform and speculate around the printed page. The experience of an e-book version of Monster will ideally supplement and scaffold the experience of reading the traditional picture book, not replace it, but it also adds a new layer to the ever expanding “supersystem” which constitutes the world of Sesame Street. So does The Putamayo Kids Presents Sesame Street Playground, a CD/DVD set which shares with children songs from the many versions of the program which have been localized to languages and cultures around the world, and video clips featuring the original casts in India, Mexico, Russia, or South Africa. And Sesame Street, the longest street in the world, just keeps growing.

Today, we might describe Sesame Street as a transmedia experience – that concept did not exist in 1971 when Monster was first published. Transmedia is an idea that has come into sharper focus over the past decade, having emerged from active conversations between academic researchers, creative artists, policy makers, fan communities, anyone and everyone interested in the future of entertainment and storytelling. Transmedia, by itself, means “across media” and it describes any number of possible relationships which might exist between the various texts that constitute a contemporary entertainment franchise. Marsha Kinder (1991), a media scholar who has written extensively about children’s media, coined the term, “transmedia,” to refer to the “entertainment supersystem” which had emerged around characters such as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Muppet Babies, or the Super Mario Brothers, as personalities and characters that move across media platforms, encouraging their fans to follow them where-ever they appeared. In my own work (Jenkins, 2006), I extended her concept to talk about transmedia storytelling, which refers to the systematic unfolding of elements of a story world across multiple media platforms, with each platform making a unique and original contribution to the experience as a whole.

Monster at the End of the Book builds off what we know of Grover on television but it creates a new kind of experience that takes advantage of the distinctive affordances of the printed book, which is designed to be read aloud in the child’s bedroom or playroom. Follow that Bird expands upon the time we get to spend with Big Bird while watching the television series in order to flesh out his backstory, situate him within a quest narrative, and suggest how much he means to the larger Sesame Street community. Neither example builds on extensive narrative information that must be remembered across different texts — that would not necessarily be appropriate for younger viewers — but it does reward fans who apply what they learned in one context to each new appearance of the characters.

Each of these texts, thus, contributes something to our knowledge of this fictional realm, and each takes advantage of those things their respective medium does best. We want the depiction of Oscar or Cookie Monster or the Count in a Sesame Street game to be consistent with what we see on television, but we also want the game to provide us with an interactive experience that is only possible in digital media. By combining media with different affordances, we create a more layered entertainment experience. Or at least, that’s the theory. A good transmedia narrative uses these various cross-platform extensions to flesh out the world, to extend the time line, to deepen our familiarity with the characters, and to increase our engagement.

With an educational property like Sesame Street, transmedia does something else – it reinforces the learning both by encouraging us to reread and re-experience a particularly pleasurable narrative (something, as we all know, kids are often inclined to do with little or no adult encouragement) and because they are invited to connect together pieces of information across multiple installments. In his book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell (2000) describes the original Sesame Street as “sticky,” suggesting that young people become so drawn to its vivid characters that they keep coming back for more and in the process, these repeated encounters reinforce what they learn from its curricular design.

Transmedia encourages additive comprehension. We learn something new as we follow the story across media. This distinguishes it from cross-media, which refers to the use of these other media platforms as simple delivery mechanisms for the same old content. So, if we watch Sesame Street online or on a DVD and change nothing else about the content, that’s cross-media. We might also distinguish transmedia from multimedia. Multimedia might use multiple kinds of media – words, pictures, sounds, videos – which are brought together in a single package: so, in the old days, there might be a CD-ROM developed around Sesame Street, where clicking a button opens us up to a range of different kinds of media. In transmedia, there’s something powerful about how the reader is incited to search out dispersed content and reassemble it into a meaningful mental model.

In a hunting society, children learn by playing with bows and arrows. In an information society, they learn to play with information. That’s part of why we think transmedia learning is such a potentially transformative concept. A science fiction writer has to construct a world which can extend across media platforms, but there already exist many rich worlds – the world under the sea, the universe beyond the Earth, the ancient world, the people who live on the other side of the planet — which are central to our desired curriculum. Perhaps, the best way to learn about them is to explore their stories, their environments, across media platforms, much as we acquire a deeper affection for Grover through repeated encounters.

Like any other kind of storytelling, transmedia is something which can be done well or badly. You can be attentive to the possibilities of expanding a story in new directions or you can simply slap a logo on something and pretend like it’s part of the same franchise. Transmedia can be enriching or exploitative, can be motivated by the crudest of economic motives or shaped by the most cutting edge learning science. But, when transmedia is done well, it creates a deeply engaging, immersive experience, which multiplies the number of learning opportunities.

Young people do not simply consume transmedia narratives; rather, transmedia encourages playful participation. In my book, Convergence Culture (2006), I talk about attractors (things that draw together an audience) and activators (elements which give the audience something to do, especially in a network society, ways to interact with each other around the shared content). Narrative-inflected play is hardly new. Go back and reread the great children’s books of the 19th century. There’s Meg in Little Women developing a backyard game based on Pilgrim’s Progress. There’s Tom Sawyer in Mark Twain’s novel pretending to be a pirate or Robin Hood. There’s Anne, she of the Green Gables, who re-enacts the story of the Lady in the Lake. Each of these books remind us that children before the era of mass media actively engaged with stories told to them by adults and transformed them into resources for their own creative play.

In the 20th century, mass media displaced many traditional forms of storytelling, but children’s play with narrative remained meaningful as a way of trying on adult roles and expanding core stories that matter to them. And this is what this report means by transmedia play. Certainly, adults have some legitimate worries about commercial media “colonizing” their children’s imaginations, but keep in mind that the human imagination feeds upon the culture around it and children show enormous capacity to re-imagine the stories that enter their lives.

Transmedia encourages this kind of creative reworking. The scattered fragments of a transmedia story are like pieces of a puzzle; they encourage curiosity, exploration, experimentation, and problem solving. Transmedia’s process of dispersal creates gaps which require our active speculation: some call this negative capability. Transmedia processes show us that there are more than one way to tell story, that there is always more we can learn about the characters and their world, and that represents a provocation to imagine aspects of these characters that have not yet made it to the screen. Young people make these stories their own through their active imaginations. The stuffed toy becomes their avatar: they use it to work through their problems; they use it as a vehicle for their emotions; they project their own personality onto the plush or for that matter, they use it a a stand in for some other powerful figure in their life. For a short moment, as they are reading about or manipulating Grover, they become the monster, and again, that’s a valuable experience. The child psychologist Bruno Betellheim (1976) tells us that young people need to read stories which acknowledge the darker sides of life, because children know that they are not always good and they need resources for thinking through how they should respond to the things that frighten them in the real world.

So, there you have the core concepts of this report – transmedia stories, transmedia play, transmedia learning. Put them all together and something magical happens.

Transmedia is not the monster at the end of the book; it’s not something you need to be afraid of encountering. So far, we know more about transmedia in entertainment and branding contexts than in relation to learning. That’s not a reason to take off running down the street. That’s a reason for people who care deeply about insuring the most diverse learning opportunities for our children to take transmedia seriously, to try to understand how to link multiple media together to create new pedagogical experiences, to be ready to explore how we might play together around the materials of a transmedia franchise, to invite children to explore what it means to read a story across the borders and boundaries between different texts and different media. This report offers some rich exemplars of groups who are doing well by children through their creation of powerful and transformative transmedia experiences, and it offers some design principles so that educators and producers might generate more meaningful, even mind blowing, transmedia experiences for the coming generation.