What Happened in My Open-Laptop Exam Class? (Part Two)

Learning About Collective Intelligence

From the start, the group activities were framed in terms of notions of collective intelligence and participatory culture, themes which had been central to the first part of the semester. By the time they got to the group activities, students would have done papers exploring how Wikipedia works, would have participated in lectures and discussions explaining some of the core findings from MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning initiatives, and would have looked at a range of social media and media sharing platforms and their dynamics. We had prepared for the problem sets by having earlier inquiry based activities in discussion which were organized around groups at a variety of different scales but which were ungraded (except in terms of attendance)
Students had been given a set of exam questions about a week prior to the midterm, with a subset of the questions appearing on the exam. Students could bring their notes and other materials into the exam and consult them as they filled in their blue books.  Students had the option of sharing information or pooling insights with other students on the midterm, as long as they disclosed who they worked with. Most of the students seemed to work with at least one other person on the exam.

In one case, a team of students formed and posted online their collective responses to each question on the class mailing list the morning the midterm was to be given. This unanticipated situation posed a last minute challenge to the class instructors: we decided to write to the class, warning them that not all of the information contained in the posted answers was accurate, that they should use the material at their own risk and that they should disclose whether they had consulted these responses in preparing their answers. It turned out that one of the students had taken the liberty to posting the work of the other group members and some of them were not happy being placed in that situation. Other students said that they were afraid to even read the posted answers, but for the most part, the class took the situation in stride, there was still a great deal of diversity in the quality and content of the midterm answers. Whatever was going on behind the scenes, students did not mindlessly copy down the information that had been posted.

 

Taking the Final

The team’s performance on the final exam was uneven, but generally, the groups succeeded in creating richer, more fully documented responses than they would have been able to do individually. Some of the responses felt fragmented and contradictory, as if the teams had not been able to fully smooth out differences between members about the best way to approach a question; some of the responses included too much information, including much that was not pertinent to answering the question.  We had tried to break each question down into a series of steps, much like the weekly problem sets, so that students had a good way to structure their problem solving activities. In general, students did best where the questions were concrete and pointed to specific readings or topics from the class; they had more difficulty abstracting from the information provided, speculating about its future implications, or evaluating real world phenomenon based on proposed criteria. The collective process brought forward a strong tendency towards synthesis but set clear limits on their capacity to produce shared critiques. While some of the questions explicitly called on them to bring in their own examples, they tended to still operate within the borders of the class materials rather than going outside in search of new information. These later insights might be consistent with what we know about Wikipedia for example: that participants are often guided by a shared understanding of what an encylopedia entry looks like, that the community’s norms value “neturality” over critique and that there is a ban on publishing “original research.”  Success here rests, then, on correctly calibrating our expectations to value what works well in a collaborative context.

Student Criticisms

For those students who found this process frustrating, the largest single factor identified was a sense of loss of control over their own classroom performance.  One put it simply, “I have more control of my grade the first half of the semester and less control of my grade the second half of the semester.” Many of the USC students are very good at playing the traditional classroom game, calculating how many points they needed to get their desired grades, and giving the teachers what they wanted. If they grew up in a networked culture, they also grew up in a culture based on standardized exams, and so there was a certain degree of discomfort, among many of the students, with a more open-ended process which did not tell them what they needed to know and with a structure which meant that they were dependent on others for their mutual success. As one student explained:

“I preferred doing things on my own because I got stuff done much faster and more efficiently. I did not like relying on my other group members to do readings because I never knew if they had done them properly or not, and some of my team members did not even show up to a single class. That meant that they were going to receive the participation in lecture points based on my participation, and that does not seem fair to me at all.”

 

Others felt bruised by the lack of respect and trust shown them by other team members: “In order to work in a group, people have to understand the strengths and weaknesses of their group members and they have to be flexible.  When there are group members that don’t trust other group members and want to constantly be in control, the group fails.” One student described the final exam as a “debacle” because the group could not agree on strategies or criteria for producing a solid answer, while another complained about harsh treatment from classmates who did not value each other’s contributions: “I have never felt so disrespected in my entire life. Some of the other group members made me feel like dirt, just because they thought that they were better than two of us.”

Many of the frustrations centered around unequal sets of expectations between team members, including a different sense of how well they wanted or needed to do in the class. Here, for example, was a student who compared negatively the experience of working with an assigned group in a required class and the processes which made collective intelligence work outside the classroom:

“I did not particularly enjoy the group portion of the class because I did not trust certain members of my group to complete the work and to do it well. Although the group portion theoretically could have stimulated more conversation about the topics and inspired people to participate in their learning, a couple of members in my group seemed very uninterested and content to skate by on the work my other group members and I did…  I fully understand the value of learning how to work in groups, especially given our shift toward participatory culture; but I assume in participatory culture, the participants actually have some glimmer of interest in the content they are creating.”

 

Student Enthusiasm
For those who had a more successful experience, they felt supported by their teams and energized by the shared responsibility over the material:

“It was nice to have other people to help with the assignments. Our team worked very well together, and I think learning how to work in teams is an important skill to have. In the second half of the semester, I was pushed to do my assignments because I knew that the team relied on me. Compared to having to do assignments alone, it was nice knowing that if there was a reading that I didn’t understand, then there was somebody in the group that could help contribute.”

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“Honestly, I was a little skeptical as to how group work would ultimately play out and whether it would be successful, but to my pleasant surprise it was a great success. Just as the class was intended, different teammates were responsible for different materials and therefore were able to master different contents of the class and teach them to their team members. While I felt that the first half of the class was also well done, I had an even better learning experience in the second half of the class. While there was some participatory activity going on in the first half of the class, I believe there was a well-working participatory culture in the second half. The professor and the TA’s structured the discussions very strategically to be able to push the students to work quickly and efficiently in their teams by grouping their knowledge into a collective product. I genuinely feel that this made the team much greater than the sum of its parts.”

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“Group work is definitely more challenging. However it challenged me to practice better negotiation and communication skills. I would consider the second half a practical application for all the communication theories learned in past years”

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“I really liked having the groups for the readings and in-class discussions. I felt that I was able to cover so much more material (even if only through the short-hand of my teammates) by examining the notes for ALL of the readings on our Google Doc. I felt that I was more informed coming in to lecture. The first half of the semester, it was often difficult for me to get all of the assigned readings done. But with only one reading per night, it was a lot easier. Plus, I had the weight of my team to encourage me to actually get it done on time.”

In many cases, they were thrilled not to have to go it alone, to be able to turn easily to someone else on the team who understood a particular chunk of course material better than they did. And even some who did not have a perfect group experience saw the value in the end of the process:

“If anything it made me realize that we all have limitations. One person can not carry a group. I feel that it all worked out in the end . I wish we had better communication within our group though.”

Some of the teams clearly acquired new techniques for coordinating and collaborating within a network: “Working on assignments together via Google Docs was very helpful because we each knew our roles and could quickly add to each other’s work if needed.”

 

Assessing the Experience

For all of the frustrations expressed by some students about students getting equal points despite not doing equal work, a review of the grades by group suggests there was significant variation in their final performance in the class within each team in part because of their individual performance in the first half of the semester and in part because the mechanism of rewarding those who attended and participated in sections worked as it was designed to do.

Overall, students seemed to have reflected deeply about the advantages and disadvantages of the collaborative production of knowledge, a theme which recurred throughout the class, and in the process, they developed a stronger appreciation of  research as a process rather than imaging knowledge as a contained body of information. There’s still a lot we all have to learn about making these kinds of group processes function, especially given the degree to which they fly in the face of the ways students have been socialized throughout their formal education to think of themselves as autonomous learners. Clearly, I am troubled by the reports of some of the destructive experiences which occurred within some of the more disfunctional groups, yet, over all, many more students expressed enthusiasm for the process than shared frustrations.

Interestingly, when I taught the subject two years ago with a much more conventional grading scheme, the average GPA for the class was 3.14, while the average GPA for the class with the collective experiment was 3.21, well within the average variation from one semester to the next.

 

 

 

NEXT TIME: THE DISCUSSION SECTION ACTIVITIES
COMING SOON: THE EXAM

What Happened With My Open Laptop-Exam Class (Part One)

Background

My plans for an open-laptop exam generated a fair amount of buzz when I announced them in the fall, so I figured you would be interested to learn more about how things played out. Annenberg PhD Student Adam Kahn, who helped design this curricular intervention/innovation, is still working through a massive amount of survey data collected about the process, so any observations I share now are provisional based primarily on what I saw from in front of the lecture room and on exit surveys students completed after turning in their final exams.  In general, I think the experiment was successful, even though, with any design process, there are many things I would change on the next iteration. And, as we will see, the experience had some critics among the students in the class.

To remind you, the basic set up was this: Students completed a series of individual assignments throughout the first part of the term, which counted for 50 percent of their total grades. In the second part, they were put onto teams, which worked together on every assignment, including a series of weekly problem sets conducted in the discussion section, contributions to class discussion, and the final exam. Students had to attend the discussion section in order to receive the team’s points for their contributions, but otherwise, participants received their grades based on collective rather than individual performance. We introduced this process into a 200 level lecture hall class on New Media Technologies and Culture, with a population of 110 students, mostly Communication majors, taking what was a required subject for their degree.  You can see the syllabus for the class, including the assignment structure, here.

 

Impact on Class Discussion

My first observation was that the emotional tone of the class shifted dramatically following the midterm as we placed students on teams. The teams sat together in the lecture hall; they chose a shared name, and they used that name to identify themselves when they participated in the class discussions. From the start, there was a strong sense of team identity for most of the groups. I’ve speculated that this approach might work especially well in the context of USC where there is such a strong sports culture.

From the start, I had placed a strong emphasis on class participation during lecture sections, trying to move towards a more Socratic approach to teaching the content. There had been push back early on when I relied too heavily on discussion, and so I had tried to find a balance between short lectures designed to introduce core concepts and then more open ended discussion to allow students to share their perspectives on core debates of the digital age. We struggled a bit with managing discussion in a large lecture hall context: students balked at the mechanics of passing around microphones, but some of the students had trouble being heard in the large space and were thus more reluctant to speak. Over the course of the term, the process started to feel more natural for both the teacher and the students, and we had some very engaged and informed conversations.

As with any discussion class, there were a number of students who were quick to raise their hands and engage, while there were others who were intimidated by the large size of the class. The most active participants continued to dominate discussion in the second half, but there were many others who made their first contributions during this period, either empowered by having teammates supporting them or by the sense of competitiveness that teams introduced into the mix. As one student explained, “I liked that we all sat together during lecture. This enabled us to whisper about the lecture content and, all together, come up with a question to pose or a comment to offer.” More dramatically, team members were much more likely to anchor their statements to specific statements or information contained within the readings. Indeed, it was clear that a much higher percentage of the students had done the readings and done them closely knowing that they were dependent upon each other for the quality of information being transmitted to the group.

A highlight of the course came when we conducted a role playing activity in one of the lecture sessions focused around debates about digital piracy and the evolution of new business models for the music industry. Each team was assigned a specific role — from new artists trying to break into the industry to recording studio executives, from fans to teachers and librarians, from religious performers to international musicians who are developing a following in the United States. The teams were assigned their parts in advance and encouraged to do a little home work so that they had thought through their assigned perspectives. Each group was asked to make an opening statement, which were surprisingly well informed, for the most part, and then, they were given time to negotiate across groups to see if they could identify common interests and propose new solutions to the issues. This was the only time in the term when we encourage activity across groups rather than within groups, and multiple students pointed to this activity as transformative in terms of their understanding of the value of the team process. It also resulted in a spectacular discussion which got students out of familiar debating points around issues of digital piracy and allowed them to develop a more systemic understanding of the issues. I would love a way to create more such experiences across the class the next time I teach it.

Working Within Teams

Students were placed randomly on teams, in the hopes of insuring greater diversity. On the one hand, we felt that if students self-selected teams, they would be more likely to choose people with whom they already shared many common interests, i.e. people who were like themselves. On the other hand, we also wanted to avoid the common pattern of consciously combining strong and weak students onto teams together, which tends to result in the stronger students being asked to carry the load by themselves.  In the exit surveys, students were sharply divided between those who felt that the random assignments insured that they met new contacts and brought more diverse knowledge together and those who felt that some of the logistical problems they encountered would have been minimized if students had been able to work with people they already knew.  Here, for example, was a student who valued being randomly assigned: “When my group worked, we worked efficiently because we didn’t know each other at all, so there were few distractions. We were friendly, but didn’t have a lot in common, which was conducive to learning the subject material.” Yet this student also noted that their lack of familiarity with each other could sometimes result in a lack of accountability:” I didn’t make it to class the first day and realized later that no one in my group had taken any initiative to do the necessary organization for future readings, in-class work, etc. No one was really a leader. We couldn’t count on each other. There were no ground rules set, etc.”  Some students wanted better mechanisms for dealing with students who failed to contribute to the collective good: ““I think the students should either be able to choose their own groups or somehow get rid of the weakest link.” The large scale of the lecture class makes it particularly likely to attract students who are not strongly motivated by the subject matter and who are likely to exploit the good will of their classmates.

Each team consisted of 3-5 students (with the unevenness a product of the uneven number of students who had registered for the different discussion sections which met at different days and times). It was clear from the start that the larger teams worked better, overall, with smaller teams more vulnerable to individual students who let down their team through under-performance.

Most of the teams became effective learning communities, but not all of them did. We had taken steps to insure shared expectations of members, asking each team to write a contract together so that they had a mutual understanding of their responsibilities to each other. We had built in one core check on group participation — i.e. the students had to attend the discussion section and work on the problem set in order to gain credit for that assignment.  Otherwise, we relied on social mechanisms to insure that they held each other accountable. Through these weekly problem sets, students gained practice working together, learning each other’s strengths and vulnerabilities. We had felt using the discussion sections in this way would insure some regular face-to-face time between group members (as did having students sit in team during lecture).

Overall, attendance in discussion sections increased with the emergence of a team structure, though there were still many students who still did not attend class regularly, a manifestation of the “free loading” problem which often crops up when working within a commons. And for those teams which were struggling with the process, there was a perception that the instructors were not doing “anything” about it. We wanted to resist the temptation of shuffling the teams once the process began, since doing so would be likely to disrupt the coherence of those teams which were functioning well, since we wanted to encourage teams to find ways to work through their own problems seeing learning to self-correct their process as an important learning opportunity. In many cases, teams that did not gel at first did find their footing over time, part of the value of repeated experiences working in teams, while in some cases, teams that had worked well up until that point hit real friction when they turned their attention to dealing with the high stakes final exam. Here, for example, was a student who felt the group had gotten in the swing of things just in time for the exam: “My group members let me down on numerous occasions but our final went so well and so smoothly that I’m having a hard time deciding how I felt about the whole thing overall.”  TAs did give advice to team members who were having a frustrating time; we felt that there were penalties built into the system for those members who under-perfomed — again, the fact that they did not get points for sections which they missed and the likelyhood that underperforming students had also underperformed during the individual portion of the class.  Next time, I want to provide much greater advice to the students about strategies for insuring team cohesion and meaningful interaction.

We struggled with the question of whether we should have introduced some self-evaluation process where team members could assess what each contributed to the process and so that we could adjust grading accordingly. We choose not to do so for several reasons: We feared that such a practice might further fracture teams which were struggling to survive, raising the tension level at the time when we wanted teams to be developing greater trust in each other, and as importantly, we felt that it would be inappropriate to change the rules of the game mid-process.  Next time we do this, I am going to weigh this question again more closely, since the lack of such formal mechanisms was the single most frequent complaint we heard about the group activities.

 

Designing Problems

Designing the problem sets for the discussion section proved challenging for a number of reasons. We wanted the questions to be sufficiently challenging so that students were motivated to put in the extra efforts and also be able to see that they could indeed do more collectively than they would have been able to do individually. We wanted the questions to be open-ended enough so that students could show what they knew, bring their individual and collective knowledge beyond the class into the process, and have a chance to dig deeper into their own passions and interests. We also wanted to have questions which relied on as many of the readings from the week as possible, since we were encouraging students to divide up the readings between them and then deploy what they needed in response to each problem. Early on, it was clear the teams needed more guidance on the best way to find the information they needed, and the challenges of working in a hour long discussion section (well, 50 minutes really) meant that we needed to simplify the options in order to allow students to get out of the gate quicker. Here, for example, is how one student described their team’s frustrations:

“The assignments given in discussion sections were rather long and difficult for the amount of time allotted to students to complete them. The assignments also placed a large emphasis on the skill of being able to produce quick thoughts and responses to questions that students were not fully prepared to answer. If the questions were given prior to coming to class, it would have helped to allow students to come in more prepared and produce more thoughtful and engaging responses.”

We streamlined the problems week by week, but students still complained that they did not have time to fully complete the assignments during the class period. (I am going to share with you the assignments in a follow up series of posts).  We had been reluctant to extend the time working on the problem sets because we were afraid the most anxious students would turn them into a much bigger project than intended and because extending them beyond the class time would increase the logistical challenges involved in working with teams.

While most of the students complained about the time constraints, some felt like we had achieved an ideal balance: “I think that the discussion section questions struck the perfect balance in that they pushed the students to produce a lot of quality work in a short amount of time, yet it was completely fair as our knowledge was collaborated from what we obtained throughout the week. I was always very satisfied and impressed with the work we were able to produce in such short periods of time.” Some students used the practice runs to rehearse strategies and refine skills in preparation for the final: “The activities done during discussion section were also beneficial because you could kind of gage what people’s strengths and weaknesses in the course material were and how it can be applied to the final.”

Overall, we felt the quality of the problem set responses were strong, with most of the teams scoring in the A-B range, and with signs of general improvement over time, suggesting that, in most cases, the teams were learning to work better together each time they confronted a new problem.

(MORE TO COME)

 

PLAY (Participatory Learning and YOU!)

Last time, I shared Shall We Play?, a report funded by the Gates Foundation and distributed by the Annenberg Innovation Lab. Today, we are releasing its companion report, PLAY (Participatory Learning and YOU!), which is authored by Erin Reilly, Vanessa Vartabedian, Laurel Felt, and Henry Jenkins. It continues our exploration of insights gained from our year-long work with elementary and secondary teachers from the Los Angeles Unified School District as they sought to develop a more participatory environment in their classroom.

Through this research, our teams has identified five core principles for participatory learning:

1.     Participants have many chances to exercise creativity through diverse media, tools, and practices;

2.     Participants adopt an ethos of co-learning, respecting each person’s skills and knowledge;

3.     Participants experience heightened motivation and engagement through meaningful play;

4.     Activities feel relevant to the learners’ identities and interests;

5.     An integrated learning system – or learning ecosystemhonors rich connections between home, school, community and world.

In this report, we will discuss each of these principles, describing specific examples of how they were applied through the workshop process, what impact they had on the teachers and students involved, and what some of the challenges we face in bringing about this kind of change within the current public schools system.

 

 

 

How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Spain

Madrid, Spain

My time in Madrid was one of the most intense legs of the trip: I delivered five talks in three days and most of the time in between was spent doing interviews with the local media. As a consequence, I had very limited time to see this great city and my exposure to its culture mostly consisted of quick meals in between talks.

While in Madrid, we stayed in a really luxurious grand hotel, the aptly named Westin Palace, just a few blocks away from the Prado Art Museum, thanks to the generosity of Telefonica, which was sponsoring my big public talk here.

After checking in, we wandered over to the Prado to soak up a little culture. Personally, what drew me here was the chance to see Hieroymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, a work which has fascinated me since I first wrote a paper about it in high school: I still can’t figure out how to place Bosch in the context of his times. Where did this guy come from? Almost as astonishing to us were some of the religious paintings — such as one where milk shoots out of the breast of the Virgin Mary and across the room into the mouth of a praying saint. (We found that there was a consistent fascination with this particular bodily fluid in religious art across Europe.)

Not surprisingly, Spanish artists, such as El Greco, Goya, and Velazquez, were especially well represented in the collection, and it was breathtaking to experience the size and intense colors of some of these works. Perhaps my favorite discovery on this visit was Velazquez’s Christ in the House of Mary and Martha.

 

First, I was intrigued by the way the picture manages to combine three genres — the still life, the domestic portrait, and the religious painting — within a single image. Second, I was fascinated by the ways that the picture juxtaposes and contrasts two very different spaces of action — the foreground in the kitchen, the background in the dining room — and links them thematically to the core Biblical story of the two sisters, Martha busily preparing the meal, while her sister, Mary, sat at Jesus’s feet and listened to his word. I have been spending lots of time thinking, especially about still life paintings, but also other works which include a strong attention to material culture, in relation to my new Comics and Stuff project. I ended up grabbing a picture off the internet and incorporating this work intoa talk I gave in Madrid about this project.

The following morning, Pilar Lacasa picked me up at the hotel and drove me out to the University of Alcala to present “The Samba School Revisited: Play, Performance, and Participation in Education. Lacasa has been a frequent visitor to the Comparative Media Studies program through the years, where she sat in on classes, participated in conferences, and contributed to our research. I’ve featured her own work on games-based learning and new media literacies through the blog before. It was meaningful for me to finally get a chance to visit her at her host institution and interact with her students. The talk was adapted from this blog post, which I wrote about the ways my own thinking about participatory culture was influenced by Seymour Papert’s classic essay about the Samba School as a site of informal learning. The talk started with my own observations about how one of Rio’s Samba Schools encouraged multiple forms of participation in the creative process.

Here, you see Pilar sitting next to me on the podium during the talk:

and me interacting with some of her students in the coutryard afterwords.

That evening, I paid my respects to another friend, Nacho Gallego Perez, who asked me to present my Future of Content talk at the Campus of Leganes, organized by Research Group about Television, Cinema, and Culture at Universidad Carlos III. Perez, who does work on grassroots use of digital radio and podcasting in Spain, had given a guest lecture in my New Media and Culture class at USC and participated in a workshop my Civic Paths group organized for MacArthur’s Digital Media and Culture conference.  Nacho and Luis Albornoz took me out afterwards to enjoy Tapas.

After a morning of interviews organized by Telefonica, I went out to give a talk about “Comics..and Stuff” at Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, hosted by Jose M. Alvarez-Monzoncillo, who is a leading thinker about the cultural industries. I featured Alvarez-Monzoncillo’s book, Watching The Internet: The Future of TV? on my blog shortly before I left for the trip.  You can see me here trying to reach up high enough to point out some details on a Richard Outcault comic page.

 

 

No sooner did I arrive back at my hotel, then another host, the international media literacy advocate Roberto Aparici, arrived to pick me up. I met Roberto years ago at MIT, when Textual Poachers was first coming out and he was in residence working on an early interactive media project.  Roberto and I sat down in a studio at a local educational television station to record a most enjoyable conversation which explored our shared interests in new media literacies and participatory politics.

And then, I talked about Play and Pedagogy as the final speaker at the Seminario internacional Redes sociales, educacion mediatica y apprendizaje digital, an event which brought together practicing teachers and educational researchers.

 

 

My talk was preceded by a presentation on the affordances of social media by Gunther Kress (University of London). Kress’s work on “Multimodal Literacy” offers some valuable conceptual tools for thinking about transmedia learning, and so I was honored to have a chance to chat with him, however briefly. Here’s a video interview with Kress I found on YouTube.

 

And, then, after a full day of talks, I arrived back at the Telefonica Foundation’s headquarters in time to join a group tour of the old sector of Madrid and a wonderful dinner with my fellow speakers.

 

 

Telefonica’s Transmedia Living Lab had pulled together some of the top thinkers about transmedia in Europe for a three day event, which tackled its implications for storytelling, learning,  and social change. My other commitments kept me from attending most of the events, but I very much enjoyed getting to chat with my fellow speakers over dinner.

I was especially taken with Lina Strivastava, a transmedia consultant who has been developing a tool kit for transmedia activism, inspired by her experiences developing a campaign around the Born in Brothals documentary, and Bill Boyd, a educational consultant and teacher working in Scotland, who has been doing some serious thinking and writing about new media literacies through his blog. Boyd has shared some interesting thoughts about the Madrid conference. You can find video and slides from the conference here.


My talk, “‘Occupying’ the Transmedia Landscape: Spreadable Media, Fan Activism, and Participatory Learning”  used the Occupy Wall Street movement as a point of entry into thinking about how activists are embracing grassroots practices which combine remix, transmedia, and spreadability, to get their messages out to the widest possible audience. The talk was partially inspired by this blog post on the discursive and visual tactics of Occupy.

 

 Barcelona

My main professional reason for coming to Barcelona was to participate in a dissertation defense for Manuel Garin, a gifted PhD student in Humanities and Audiovisual Communication at Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona. I first became aware of Garin’s work on The Visual Gag, when he shared with me this remarkable video that juxtaposes a sequence from Buster Keaton’s silent film, Seven Chances, and footage from the Super Mario Brothers games, to help construct an argument about the ways that classic stunts and gag structures have traveled across time and across media.

 

 

Garin presented some of his preliminary ideas about games and silent cinema through  this blog post and he had spent some time in California doing research through the USC Cinema School for his project. Garin has an encyclopedic knowledge of the history and aesthetics of gags, not the mention to read across a range of European languages, and thus, to make connections between different theoretical traditions which have sought to understand the place of the gag in media history. Across the dissertation, he explores thousands of gags from films, television, comic strips, games,and popular theater, moving fluidly across national traditions and criss-crossing divides between popular culture and avant grade practice.

The process of the dissertation defense was very different from my experiences in American universities. For one thing, the defense is public — in this case, very public, since it was attended not only by Garin’s family and friends, but also by the attendees of a conference his university was hosting that day on the cinematic gesture, and thus, we conducted everything in front of a packed auditorium. For another thing, it is a highly performative. The candidate gives extensive remarks presenting the core ideas from his project — in this case, complete with power point and video clips. Then, each committee member speaks about the project for 10-15 minutes and finally the candidate gets to offer a formal rebuttal/response to what has been said. There is no chance for back and forth exchange between the parties involved, as I might have expected back in the States. In this case, each person who presented spoke a different language — Spanish, Catalan, Italian, and English. I was told in advance that there would be no translation, since it was less important that the committee members understand each other than that what they had to say was understood by the candidate, but we were able to take advantage of the translation services organized by the conference.

 

 

 

Afterwards, I was approached by Robert Figueras and Gemma Dunjo, who are responsible for Panzer Chocolate, which is being billed as the first major transmedia project in Spain. I had been told about it multiple times by this point in the trip. This horror story is told across a feature film, a video game, a motion comic, an alternate reality game, mobile interactivity and “an Internet surprise.’  Here is a trailer they have produced which gives some sense of their approach.

My other formal business in Barcelona involved a meeting with Felipe G. Gil, a digital artist, theorist, and activist, based in Seville, who has been promoting the concept of “CopyLove.” Inspired by feminist theory and modeled on the idealized concept of maternal love, this approach seeks to imagine what copyright regimes would look like if they were shaped by ideas of reciprocity, caring, nurturing, and sharing, rather than property, mastery, control, and profit.    I had shared on my blog some of Gil’s reflections on transmedia and digital literacy, which drew on the remix practices of his young cousin, a few years ago.  Here’s a Ted video where Gil explains some of his concepts in Spanish.

Afterwards, we were free to explore the city. Perhaps it was simply that my schedule had been so intense for the past week, perhaps it had to do with the considerable charms of Barcelona, but I felt giddy and liberated, and fell pretty madly in love with this city.  I suspect I am far from unique in saying that my fascination with Barcelona is to a large degree shaped by my engagement with Antoni Gaudi’s amazing buildings. Gaudi is perhaps the best known exemplar of what has become known as Catalan Modernism, creating a series of remarkable residences, apartment buildings, churches, and public parks, especially in Barcelona, in the first part of the 20th century. Gaudi took certain tendencies in the Art Nouveau movement and pushed them in other worldly directions. The sensuousness of his structures have to be seen and experienced to be fully understood, but they are such a wonderful play with shape, color, light, and texture, that I found utterly seductive. Here, Cynthia’s photographs only give you a taste.

 

 

 Gaudi’s work is strongly informed by his close study of structure in nature — Above, for example, you see some of the windows from Casa Batllo, a residence, which are clearly inspired by bones, where-as below, you see some details from the same building’s roof, which are organic in their shapes, if not in their colors.

 

 

At the same time, there is a strong geometric pull in Gaudi’s work, which elaborated on gothic traditions of architecture in order to explore arches in ways that open up radically different kinds of spaces within his buildings.

 

 

 

 

 

Every room in a Gaudi building is a surprise — most of them, breathtaking. Here, you get a sense of how consciously he plays with light, exploring the relationship between interior and exterior spaces, to create a series of thresholds which we pass through as we move from room to room. Here, also, one gets a sense of the subtle and expressive use of color throughout his designs.

 

 

We spent more time with Gaudi’s residences — Casa Batllo and La Pedrera — rather than his public buildings. But here, you see Sagrada Familia, his massive cathedral, which has been under construction for the better part of the past century. Given the centrality of the Cathedral to any visit to Europe, it was fascinating to see how Gaudi brought his idiosyncratic touches to this genre.

 

 

 

We also made our way out to Park Guell, a public space and gardens, which is enriched by Gaudi’s sculptural and architectural elements. This park is a very active element in the public and everyday life of Barcelona, so while the residences now have the feel of museums, and are cut off from their original use, here, you can see contemporary Catalans interact in casual and everyday ways with his designed environments.

 

 

OK, by now, I have demonstrated why I chose to enter media studies and not architecture. My relationship to this work is largely emotional and intuitive, rather than intellectual, and I lack the basic vocabulary to describe what I saw when I visited these buildings. I should note that from time to time in these photographs, you will see me wearing a white baseball cap. I actually purchased it at one of the Gaudi gift shops. I was looking for something to protect my bald head from the sun and couldn’t decide on what to advertise on my pate. The hat features simply the letter, J, as rendered in a font which Gaudi designed.

We were consistently amused by the vividness with which European street signs conveyed the many risks that surround us in the modern world. Sign after sign depicted what could happen to us if we make a single misstep in navigating a world of danger. I came to see them as a kind of conceptual humor, or perhaps the pictorial equivalent of slapstick comedy. I am going to share some in future posts. This sign, spotted in Barcelona, might be suggesting “slippery when wet,” or more imaginatively, “please do not jump rope on these stairs,” or perhaps, “beware of snakes.” In any case, you should try to avoid this poor sucker’s fate.

 

We spent the better part of two days playing tourists in Barcelona, taking advantage of the red hop-on, hop-off buses to sample many different sectors in the city. And as the day started to turn into night, we visited the Aquarium and then walked along the water front.

 

 

And, as the night continued, we took a lively midnight walk up La Rambla, where we stopped to watch street gambling, a range of live performances, and simply the back and forth bartering between visitors and merchants. As someone who is a  bit of a night owl by temperament, it was exciting to be some place where there is so much public life still being conducted in the wee hours of the morning. We were exhausted from an intense day of sight-seeing and pretty much limping back to our hotel, but you had a sense that many of these people were just getting started.

 

 

NEXT UP: ITALY AND SWITZERLAND

 

Participatory Culture: What Questions Do YOU Have?

Question Mark Graffitidanah boyd,  Mimi Ito, and I have embarked on an interesting project for Polity. Through a series of dialogues, we’re hoping to produce a book that interrogates our different thoughts regarding participatory culture. The goal is to unpack our differences and agreements and identify some of the challenges that we see going forward. We began our dialogue a few weeks ago and had a serious brain jam where we interrogated our own assumptions, values, and stakes in doing the research that we each do and thinking about the project of participatory culture more generally. For the next three weeks, we’re going to individually reflect before coming back to begin another wave of deep dialoguing in the hopes that the output might be something that others (?you?) might be interested in reading.

And here’s where we’re hoping that some of our fans and critics might be willing to provoke us to think more deeply.

  • What questions do you have regarding participatory culture that you would hope that we would address?
  • What criticisms of our work would you like to offer for us to reflect on?
  • What do you think that we fail to address in our work that you wish we would consider?

For those who are less familiar with this concept, my white paper for the MacArthur Foundation described a “participatory culture”  as one:

  1. With relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement
  2. With strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others
  3. With some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices
  4. Where members believe that their contributions matter
  5. Where members feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created).

This often gets understood through the lens of “Web2.0″ or “user-generated content,” but this is broadly about the ways in which a networked society rich with media enables new forms of interaction and engagement. Some of the topics that we are considering covering include “new media literacies,” “participation gap” and the digital divide, the privatization of culture, and networked political engagement. And, needless to say, a lot of our discussion will center on young people’s activities and the kinds of learning and social practices that take place. So what do *you* want us to talk about?

danah kicked off a discussion around the project last week on her blog, so you can go there to see what others are already thinking, or I am very happy to receive your comments and suggestions here, especially as my tech support people just moved this blog to a new platform and we are eager to see how well the new response functions are working.

A Pedagogical Response to the Aurora Shootings: 10 Critical Questions about Fictional Representations of Violence

The horrifying and tragic news of the shooting in Aurora, Colorado this weekend requires some degree of reflection on our parts. As someone who found himself very much involved in the national debates surrounding the Columbine Shootings in the late 1990s, there is a terrible sense of deja vu: we all know all too well the twists and turns the national debate will take and the dangers of what happens when “moral panic” spins hopelessly out of control.

I was deeply moved this weekend by a video blog produced by a young woman — Lauren Bird — from the Harry Potter Alliance who has so many thoughtful things to say about the social value of popular entertainment, the shared ritual of the midnight movie, and the dangers of pathologizing our desire to participate in the culture. (But, of course, the national AMC chain has already announced that they are banning the wearing of any costumes into their theaters, as if the problem with the shooter in this case was that he was a “crazy fan” who showed up in costume.)

Today, I wanted to share some pedagogical materials which I developed through the New Media Literacies Project in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings, where, once again, anxieties about popular culture substituted for serious reflections on the many root causes of violence in American culture.

To be extra clear, I do not think media is where this debate should be focused. The conversation needs to be centered around the root causes of violence and the need to develop a much stronger infrastructure around mental health issues in this country. But, media violence issues are often used as a distraction from serious conversations about public policies in the aftermath of such incidents. If we are going to be discussing “media violence,” we need to do so with sufficient nuance to have a meaningful discussion, and ideally, we need to do so in a way which moves us from thinking about simplistic models of “media effects” towards a focus on the meanings of representations of violence as understood in the context of the work as a whole. See my essay on “The War Between Effects and Meanings” in Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers, for an explanation of this distinction.

First, I wanted to share a passage from a statement about violence I wrote for teachers, which expresses something I was unable to meaningfully communicate via Twitter in an online exchange yesterday:

Why is violence so persistent in our popular culture? Because violence has been persistent across storytelling media of all kinds. A thorough account of violence in media would include: fairy tales such as Hansel and Gretel, oral epics such as Homer’s Iliad, the staged violence of Shakespeare’s plays, paintings of the Rape of the Sabine Women, and stained glass window representations of saints being pumped full of arrows, or, for that matter, talk show conversations about the causes of school shootings. Violence is fundamental to these various media because aggression and conflict are core aspects of human experience. We need our art to provide some moral order, to help us sort through our feelings, to provoke us to move beyond easy answers and to ask hard questions.

Our current framing of media violence assumes that it most often attracts us, that it inspires imitation, whereas throughout much of human history, representations of violence were seen as morally instructive, as making it less likely that we are going to transgress against various social prohibitions. When we read the lives of saints, for example, we are invited to identify with the one suffering the violence and not the one committing it. Violence was thought to provoke empathy, which was good for the soul. Violence was thought to make moral lessons more memorable.

Moral reformers rarely take aim at mundane and banal representations of violence, though formulaic violence is pervasive in our culture. Almost always, they go after works that are acclaimed elsewhere as art–the works of Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino, say–precisely because these works manage to get under their skin. For some of us, this provocation gets us thinking more deeply about the moral consequences of violence, whereas others condemn the works themselves, unable to process the idea that such a work might provoke us to reflect about the violence that it represents. The study of literature offers a remarkable opportunity to engage young people in conversations about such issues, expanding the range of stories about violence which they encounter, introducing them to works that encourage reflection about the human consequences of revenge and aggression, and broadening the range of meanings they attach to such representations.

In order to encourage such reflections in the classroom, I developed a set of basic questions we should ask about any representation of violence. There are persistent references throughout this to Moby-Dick because it was part of a teacher’s strategy guide for Moby-Dick. Our book on this larger project, Reading in a Participatory Culture , is coming out from Teacher’s College Press later this year. I was struck re-reading this today that I had already written here about the role of violence in the Batman saga, though this came out prior to the Dark Knight films by Christopher Nolan.

TEN CRITICAL QUESTIONS TO ASK ABOUT FICTIONAL REPRESENTATIONS OF VIOLENCE

1. What basic conflicts are being enacted through the violence?

Literary critics have long identified the core conflicts that shape much of the world’s literature: Human vs. Human, Human vs. Nature, Human vs. Self, and sometimes Human vs. Machine. Such conflicts spark drama. Moby-Dick can be understood as including all three conflicts: the conflict between Ahab and Starbuck embodies deeper divisions within the ship’s crew over the captain’s decision to place his own personal goals above their collective well being or above the business of whaling; the conflict between Ahab and Moby Dick may be understood as a human being throwing himself full force against the natural world; Ahab struggles with his own better nature and Starbuck searches his soul trying to figure out how to respond to his conflicting duties. Any of these conflicts can erupt in violence–directly against other people, against the natural world, or against ourselves.

You might ask your students to identify which of these forms of conflict are most visible in contemporary video games, on television, or in the cinema and why some forms of conflict appear more often in these media than others. For example, video game designers have historically found it difficult to depict characters’ internalized conflict (human vs. self), in part because contest or combat are central building blocks of most games.

2. Do the characters make conscious choices to engage in acts of violence? How do they try, through language or action, to explain and justify those choices?

In the real world, an act of violence may erupt in a split second: one moment, people we care about are alive; the next, they are dead. The violence may be random: there is no real reason why these victims were singled out over others; they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yet, works of fiction often focus our attention on moments when characters make decisions, often based on aspects of their personalities which they little recognize or control, and those choices may have repercussions that echo across the work as a whole.

So, the act that took Ahab’s leg may have been totally random, and we see several examples throughout the novel where a split-second decision may cause a character to be wounded or killed. We might compare Ahab’s amputation with the events that lead to Pip being thrown from the boat, left adrift, and ultimately driven insane, or to the unnamed man who falls from the ship’s mast and drowns. By contrast, the novel invites us to consider the choices Ahab makes at each step and how the other characters respond to those choices. Melville shows us many points where the ship could turn back and avoid its fate. He spells out what the characters are thinking and why they make the decisions they do.

The events could take a different shape, though the shape of a plot can give depicted events a sense of inevitability. Some forms of tragedy, for example, rely on the notion that characters are unable to escape their fates, no matter what choices they make, or that the final acts of violence and destruction flow logically from some “tragic flaw.” In trying to make sense of a fictional representation of violence, you want to encourage your student to seek out moments where the characters make choices that ultimately lead towards acts of aggression or destruction. Often, authors provide those characters with rationalizations for their choices, offering some clues through their words, thoughts, or actions about why they do what they do.

At such moments, the work also often offers us alternatives to violence, other choices the characters could have made, though such choices may remain implicit rather than being explicitly stated. Different works and different genres may see these alternatives to violence as more or less plausible, attractive, or rational. So, if you are being chased by a mad man waving a chain saw in a horror film, engaging him in a conversation may not be a rational, plausible, or attractive alternative. Genre fiction constructs contexts where the protagonist has no choice but to resort to violence, though what separates heroes from villains may be their relative comfort in deploying violence to serve their own interests. In many American movies, the hero is reluctant to turn towards violence, seeing it as a last resort. By contrast, the villain may deploy violence in situations where she has other alternatives, suggesting cruelty or indifference.

In dealing with violence in video games, then, you may want to ask what options are available to the player for dealing with a certain situation. In some games, there may be no options other than violence, and the game itself may spend very little time offering the character a rationalization for such actions. It is fight or flight, kill or be killed. Many games are simply digital versions of the classic shooting galleries: the game space is designed as an arena where players can shoot it out with other players or with computer-controlled characters. In other games, there may be options that allow the protagonist to avoid violence, but they may not be emotionally satisfying; they may put the player at a significant disadvantage; they may be hard to execute. So, helping students to interpret the options available to characters in a literary fiction may help them to reflect more

consciously on the more limited choices available to them as gamers.

3. What are the consequences of the violence depicted in the work?

Many popular stories don’t pay sufficient attention to the consequences of violence. Rambo may slaughter hundreds and yet, much as in a video game, the bodies simply disappear. We get no sense of the human costs involved in combat on such a scale. Many medieval epics consisted primarily of hack and slash battle sequences; yet, periodically, the action would stop, and the bard would enumerate the names of the dead on both sides, acknowledging that these warriors paid a price even if their actions help to establish the nation state or restore order to the kingdom. Gonzala Frasca has argued that video games inherently trivialize violence because they operate in a world where the player can simply reboot and start over if their character dies.

In contrast, westerns follow a basic formula: the protagonist (most often male) would resort to violence to battle other aggressive forces that threaten his community; his heroic actions would restore justice and order, but the hero could not live within the order he had helped to create and would be forced to ride off into the sunset at the end of the story. Susan Sontag has written about “the Imagination of Disaster,” suggesting that films about apocalyptic events often create a rough moral order in which characters are rewarded or punished based on the values they display under extreme circumstances.

Moby-Dick can be said to have its own mechanisms for punishing violence: Ahab’s search for vengeance at all costs means that he and his crew must pay the ultimate price.

4. What power relationships, real or symbolic, does the violence suggest?

In many cases, storytellers deploy violence as a means of embodying power. We should not be surprised by this tendency given the way sociologists have characterized rape as the deployment of male power against women or lynching as the enactment of white power against blacks. Historically, wars have been seen as a way of resolving conflicts between nations through the exercise of power, while trial by combat was a means of deploying power to resolve individual conflicts and disagreements.

Media representations of violence can give viewers a seductive sense of empowerment as they watch characters who are hopelessly out-numbered triumph or they watch segments of the population who seem disempowered in the real world deploy violence to right past wrongs. Some have argued that young people play violent video games, in part, as a means of compensating for a sense of disempowerment they may feel at school.

Conversely, stories may encourage our sense of outrage when we see powerful groups or individuals abusing their power, whether in the form of bullies degrading their victims or nations suppressing their citizens. This abuse of power by powerful forces may prepare us for some counter-balancing exercise of power, setting up the basic moral oppositions upon which a story depends.

As you teach students to think critically about representations of violence, a key challenge will be to identify the different forms of power at play within the narrative and to map the relations between them. Which characters are in the most powerful positions and what are their sources of power? Which characters are abusing their power? What sources of power are ascribed to characters who might initially seem powerless, and to what degree is violence depicted as a means of empowerment?

5. How graphic is the depiction of violence?

One of the limits of the study on violence in American cartoons released by the American Academy of Pediatrics is that it counts “violent acts” without considering differing degrees of stylization. In fact, children at a pretty young age–certainly by the time they reach elementary school–are capable of making at least crude distinctions between more or less realistic representations of violence. They can be fooled by media which offers ambiguous cues, but they generally read media that seems realistic very differently from media that seems cartoonish or larger than life. For that reason, they are often more emotionally disturbed by documentaries that depict predators and prey, war, or crime, than they are by the hyperbolic representations we most often are talking about when we

refer to media violence.

While most of us have very limited vocabularies for discussing these different degrees of explicitness, such implicit distinctions shape the ways we respond to representations of violence within fictions. We each know what we can tolerate and tend to avoid modes of representation we find too intense or disturbing. Most ratings systems distinguish between cartoonish and realistic forms of violence. We need to guard against the assumption, however, that the more graphic forms of violence are necessarily “sick” or inappropriate. More stylized forms can make it much easier to ignore the gravity of real world violence through a process of sanitization. In some cases, more graphic depictions of violence

shatter that complacency and can force us to confront the human costs of violence.

Literary critics have long made a distinction between showing and telling. We might extend this distinction to think about media representations of violence. An artist may ask us to directly confront the act of violence, or she may ask us to deal with its repercussions, having a character describe an event which occurred before the opening of the narrative or which took place off stage. Some very famous examples of media violence–such as the torture sequences in Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction –pull the camera away at the moments of peak intensity, counting on the viewer’s imagination to fill in what happens, often based on cues from the soundtrack, or in the case of Pulp Fiction , the splattering of blood from off-camera. Again, we need to get students to focus on the creative choices made by the storytellers and artists in their construction of these episodes, choices especially about what to show and what not to show.

6. What function does the violence serve in the narrative?

Critics often complain about “gratuitous violence.” The phrase has been used so often that we can lose touch with what it means. According to the dictionary, “gratuitous” means “being without apparent reason, cause, or justification.” So, before we can decide if an element in a fictional work is gratuitous, we have to look more closely at why it is present (its motivation) and what purposes it serves (its function).

Keep in mind that we are not talking here about why the character performs the violent act but rather why the artist includes it in the work. An artwork might depict senseless killings, as occur at certain moments in No Country for Old Men where the killer is slaughtering people seemingly at random. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the violence is “gratuitous” since in this case, the violence sets the action of the story into motion, and the work is very interested in how other characters react to the threat posed by this senseless violence. There is artistic motivation for including the violence, even if the directors, the Coen Brothers, are uninterested in the killer’s psychological motives.

An element in a work of fiction may be motivated on several different levels: it may be motivated realistically, in the sense that a story about contemporary urban street gangs might be expected to depict violence as part of their real world experience; it might be motivated generically, in the sense that people going to see a horror movie expect to see a certain amount of gore and bloody mayhem; it may be motivated thematically, in the sense that an act of violence may force characters to take the measure of their own values and ethical commitments; it may be motivated symbolically, in the sense that a character dreams about performing violence and those dreams offer us a window into his or her thinking process. In each case, the violence has a different motivation, even though the actions depicted may be relatively similar.

By the same token, we might ask what functions an act of violence plays in the work. One way to answer that question is to imagine how the work would be different if this element were not included. Would the story have the same shape? Would the characters behave in the same way? Would the work have the same emotional impact? Some acts of violence motivate the actions of the story; some bring about a resolution in the core conflict; still others mark particular steps in the trajectory of the plot; and in some rare cases, the violent acts may indeed be gratuitous, in that their exclusion would change little or nothing in our experience of the work

But keep in mind that the violence which disturbs us the most on first viewing is not necessarily gratuitous and is often violence which has ramifications throughout the rest of the story. Describing a scene as “gratuitous” is easy, especially when it shortcuts the process of engaging more critically with the structure and messages of the work in question. For example, the film Basketball Diaries became the focus of controversy following the Columbine shootings primarily because of a single scene in which the protagonist wears a long black coat and imagines shooting up a school. Those discussing the sequence failed to explain that it was a dream sequence, not an action performed by the film’s protagonist, and that it is part of a larger story which explores how a young man overcame his rage, his addictions, and his antisocial impulses to become a poet. Without the representation of his aggression, the power of the story of redemption would be weakened, whereas the scene removed from context seemed to endorse the antisocial values the work itself rejects.

7. What perspective(s) does the work offer us towards the character engaging in violence?

Media theorists have spent a great deal of time trying to determine what we mean when we say we identify with a character in a fictional work. At the most basic level, it means we recognize the character; we distinguish the fictional figure from others depicted in the same work. From there, we may mean that the work devotes a great deal of time and space to depicting the actions of this particular character. Typically, the more time we spend with a character, the more likely we are to see the world from her point of view. Yet, this is not always the case. We may be asked to observe and judge characters, especially if their actions and the values they embody fall outside of the stated perspective of the work. We may grow close to a character only to be pushed away again when the character takes an action we find reprehensible and unjustifiable.

There is a distinction to be drawn here between the structuring of narrative point of view and the structuring of moral judgments on the character. Part of what helps us to negotiate between the two is the degree to which we are given access to the thoughts and feelings of the character (and in the case of an audio-visual work, the degree to which we see the world from his or her optical point of view).

Consider, for example, the use of first person camera in a work like Jaws where scenes are sometimes shot from the perspective of the shark as it swims through the water approaching its human prey. At such moments, we feel fear and dread for the human victims, not sympathy for the sharks. Filmmakers quickly learned to manipulate this first person camera, sometimes duplicating the same camera movement, tricking us into thinking the monster is approaching, and then, demonstrating this to be a false alarm.

So, it is possible to follow characters but not get inside their head, and it is possible to have access to characters’ thoughts and still not share their moral perspective.

And indeed, all of these relationships may shift in the course of reading a book as we may feel the character’s actions are justified up until a certain point and then cross an implicit line where they become monstrous. Homer shares Ulysses’s point of view throughout much of the Odyssey, but we still are inclined to pull back from him at a certain point as he brings bloody vengeance upon Penelope’s suitors in the final moments of the epic.

Wyn Kelley identifies a similar pattern in Moby-Dick where we are invited to experience what whaling would be like from the point of view of the whale, and in the process, we are encouraged to reflect on the bloody brutality of slaughtering an innocent animal, stripping the meat off its bones, and boiling its flesh to create oil. Here, a break in the following pattern gives us an opportunity to reassess how we feel about the characters with whom we have up until that point been closely aligned. We might think about a common device in television melodrama where we’ve seen a scene of conflict between two characters who believe they are alone and then at the end, the camera pulls back to show the reaction of a previously undisclosed third-party figure who has been watching or overhearing the action. Such moments invite us to reassess what we’ve just seen from another vantage point.

In video games, the category of “first person shooters” has been especially controversial with critics concerned about the implications of players taking on the optical point of view of a character performing acts of violence; often, critics argue, the player doesn’t just watch a violent act but is actively encouraged to participate. Gamers will sometimes refer to their characters in the third person (“he”) and sometimes in the first person (“I”), pronoun slippages that suggest some confusions brought about by the intense identification players sometimes feel towards their avatars.

Yet, even here, we need to be careful to distinguish between following pattern, optical point of view, and moral attitude. In games, we typically remain attached to a single character whom we control, and thus we have a very strong following pattern. In first person shooters, we see the action through the optical point of view of that character, though we may feel no less connected to the characters we control in a third person game (where we see the full body of the character from an external perspective). The Second Person video game confounds our normal expectations about optical point of view, inviting us to see the action from an unfamiliar perspective, and thus it may shake up our typical ways of making sense of the action.

Those who have spent time watching players play and interviewing them about their game experiences find that in fact, identification works in complex ways, since the player is almost always thinking tactically about the choices that will allow her to beat the game. Winning often involves stepping outside a simple emotional or moral connection with an individual character. Players are encouraged to think of the game as a system, not unlike taking a more omniscient perspective in reading a work of fiction, even as other aspects of the game’s formal structure may encourage them to feel a close alignment with a

particular character whose actions are shaped by their own decisions.

Game designer Will Wright (The Sims, Sim City) has argued that games may have a unique ability to make players experience guilt for the choices their characters have made in the course of the action. When we watch a film or read a novel, we always reserve the ability to pull back from a character we may otherwise admire and express anger over choices he or she has made or to direct that anger towards the author who is reflecting a world view we find repugnant. Yet, in a game, because players are making choices, however limited the options provided by the designer, they feel some degree of culpability. And a game designer has the ability to force them to reflect back on those choices and thus to have an experience of guilt.

8. What roles (aggressor, victim, other) does the protagonist play in the depiction of violence?

Many of the media texts which have been most controversial are works which bring the viewer into the head of the aggressor–from the gangster films of the 1930s through contemporary films like Natural Born Killers and American Psycho, television series like Dexter and The Sopranos, and games like Grand Theft Auto. All of these works are accused of glamorizing crime.

As we’ve already discussed, we need to distinguish between following pattern, optical and psychological point of view, and moral alignment. Many of these works bring us closer to such figures precisely so that we can feel a greater sense of horror over their anti-social behavior. Consider, for example, Sweeney Todd, which depicts a murderous barber and his partner, a baker, who turns the bodies of his victims into meat pies she sells to her customers. We read the story from their perspective and we are even encouraged to laugh at their painful and heartless puns about the potential value of different people as sources for human meat. Yet, our strong identification with these characters allows us to feel greater horror and sorrow over the final consequences of their actions.

At the other end of spectrum, literary scholar James Cain describes how a whole genre of literary works arose in the Middle Ages around representations of saints as victims:

“The persecutions of early Christians gave rise to an extraordinary collection of tales commemorating the supernatural endurance of victims who willingly suffered heinous atrocities and ultimately gave their lives bearing witness to their faith. From accounts of the stoning of the first martyr, St. Stephen, to the broiling of St. Lawrence on an open grill, the strapping of St. Catherine to a mechanical wheel of torture, the gouging-out of St. Lucy’s eyeballs, the slitting-open of St. Cecilia’s throat, the slicing-off of St. Agatha’s breasts, the feeding of St. Perpetua and St. Felicitas to the lions, the piercing of St. Sebastian with a barrage of arrows–the graphic brutality undoubtedly exceeds even the most violent images in media today…. The strong emotional responses these images conjured up in their observers were deliberately designed to produce lasting impressions in people’s memories and imaginations, to enable further reflection.”

Far from being corrupting, representations of violence are seen as a source of moral instruction, in part because of our enormous sense of empathy for the saints’ ability to endure suffering.

Most American popular culture negotiates between the two extremes. In the case of superheroes, for example, their origin stories often include moments of victimization and loss, as when young Bruce Wayne watches his mother and father get killed before deciding to devote his life to battling crime as the Batman, or when Peter Parker learns that “with great power comes great responsibility” the hard way when his lack of responsibility results in the death of his beloved uncle. In the world of the superheroes, the villains are also often victims of acts of violence, as when the Joker’s face (and psyche) are scarred by being pushed into a vat of acid. The superhero genre tends to suggest that we have a choice how we respond to trauma and loss. For some, we emerge stronger and more ethically committed, while for others, we are devastated and bitter, turning towards anti-social actions and self-destruction.

A work like David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence is particularly complex, since we learn more and more about the character’s past as we move more deeply into the narrative and since the protagonist moves from bystander to victim and then reverses things, taking his battle to the gangsters, and along the way, becomes increasingly sadistic in his use of violence. Cronenberg wants to have the viewer rethinking and reassessing the meaning of violence in almost every scene of the film.

The filmmaker Jean Renoir famously said “every character has his reason.” His point was that if we shift point of view, we can read the aggressor as victim or vice versa. Few people see themselves as cruel; most find ways to justify and rationalize acts of even the rawest aggression. And a literary work may invite us to see the same action from several different perspectives, shifting our identifications and empathy in the process. So, for example, the moment when we see the hunt from the whale’s point of view reverses the lens, seeing Flask and his crew as the aggressors and the whale as the victim, a perspective we don’t get in the rest of the novel.

Even when the artist doesn’t fill in these other perspectives, critics and spectators can step back from a scene, put themselves in the heads of the various characters, and imagine what the world might look like from their point of view. Consider the novel and stage play, Wicked, which rereads The Wizard of Oz from the vantage point of the Wicked Witch and portrays Dorothy as a mean spirited trespasser who has murdered the witch’s sister.

9. What moral frame (pro-social, antisocial, ambiguous) does the work place around the depicted violence?

Some fictions focus on violence as the performance of duty. The police, for example, are authorized to use certain sanctioned forms of violence in the pursuit of criminals and in the name of maintaining law and order. Some of these–for example, the television series The Shield–find great drama in exploring cops who “cross the line,” seeing brutality or unnecessary use of force as a symptom of a police force no longer accountable to its public.

Similarly, much fiction centers on themes of war, with works either endorsing or criticizing military actions as forms of violence in the service of the state and of the public. There is a long tradition of national epics, going back to classical times, which depict the struggles to establish or defend the nation with violence often linked to patriotic themes and values. In the American tradition, this function was once performed by the western, which depicts the process by which “savagery” gave way to “civilization,” though more recent westerns have sometimes explored the slaughter of the Indians from a more critical perspective as a form of racial cleansing.

So, even within genres that depict the use of force in pro-social or patriotic terms, there are opportunities for raising questions about the nature and value of violence as a tool for bringing about order and stability.

On the other hand, many stories depict violence as anti-social, focusing on criminals, gangsters, or terrorists, who operate outside the law and in opposition to the state or the community. The cultural critic Robert Warshow discusses the very different representations of “men with guns” found in the western, the gangster film, and the war movie, suggesting that all three genres have strong moral codes which explain when it is justifiable to use force and depicting what happens to characters who transgress those norms. The westerner can not live in the community he has helped to create through his use of force; the gangster (see Scarface for example) frequently is destroyed by the violence he has abused to meet his personal desires and ambitions; and the hero returns home at the end of the war, albeit often psychologically transformed by the violence he has experienced.

Just as fictions that seem to depict the pro-social use of violence may contain critiques of the abuse of power by the police or the horrors of war, fictions which depict the anti-social use of violence may include strong critiques of the gangster lifestyle. Robin Woods has famously summed up the basic formula of the horror films as “normality is threatened by monstrosity.” In such a formula, there are three important terms to consider–what constitutes normality, what constitutes the monstrous, and what relationship is being posited between the two. Some horror films are highly moralistic, seeking to destroy anything which falls outside of narrow norms; others use the monster as the means of criticizing and questioning the limits of normality.

In many works, there is a core ambiguity about the nature of the violence being depicted. We may be asked to identify with several characters who have different moral codes and thus who see their actions in different terms. Our judgments may shift in the course of the narrative. The characters may understand their actions as pro-social even as the author invites us to read them as antisocial. Or the work may be saying that there’s no simple distinction to be drawn between different forms of violence: it’s all equally destructive. We might even imagine a truly nihilistic work in which all violence is justified. It isn’t that we want students to fit works into simple either/or categories here. Rather, asking this question can force them towards a more complex understanding of the moral judgments the work is making–as opposed to simply those being made by the characters–about the value of the violence to society.

10. What tone does the work take towards the represented violence?

We’ve already seen the importance of distinguishing between the forms of violence being depicted in a work and the position the work takes on those actions. We’ve seen that identification with a protagonist is fragile and shifting across a work, so that we may sometimes feel a strong emotional bond with a character for much of the story and yet still feel estranged from her when the author reveals some darker side of her personality.

A work may depict the pro-social use of violence and either endorse or criticize the Establishment being depicted. A work may depict anti-social forms of violence in ways which are conservative in their perspective on those groups who use force outside legal contexts. Or a work may depict forms of violence that are hard to classify in those terms and thus invite readers to struggle with that ambiguity.

Similarly, we need to consider the range of different emotional responses a work may evoke through its use of violent images. Some fictions about violence, such as the action sequences in an Indiana Jones movie, may thrill us with exciting, larger than life heroics. Some, such as Saving Private Ryan or Glory, may appeal to our sense of national pride towards the brave men who gave their lives defending their country. Some, such as the scene in Old Yeller where the boy is forced to shoot his dog, may generate enormous empathy as we feel sorry for the characters who are forced to deploy or suffer violence against their will. Some, such as depictions of human suffering around the world, may seek to shock us into greater social consciousness and civic action. Some, such as slapstick comedy, may encourage us to laugh at highly stylized depictions of physical aggression. And still others, such as Saw or Nightmare on Elm Street, may provoke a sense of horror or disgust as we put ourselves through a series of intense emotional shocks in the name of entertainment.

We can not understand what representations of violence mean, then, without paying attention to issues of tone, and part of teaching close reading skills is helping students identify the subtle markings in a text which indicate the tone the author is taking towards the depicted events. Popular texts tend to create broadly recognizable and easily legible signs of tone, though many of the works of filmmakers like Tarantino or Scorsese generate controversy because they adopt a much more complex and multivalent tone than we expect from other texts in the same genre. We might compare Tarantino or Scorsese to certain writers–William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor come to mind–who also seek complicated or contradictory emotional reactions to grotesque and violent elements in their narratives.

How to Earn Your Skeptic “Badge”

Learning today happens everywhere

But it’s often difficult to get recognition for skills and achievements gained outside of school. Mozilla’s Open Badges project is working to solve that problem, making it easy to issue, earn and display badges across the web. The result: recognizing 21st century skills, unlocking career and educational opportunities, and helping learners everywhere level up in their life and work.

Get recognition for new skills and achievements

The web and other new learning spaces provide exciting ways to gain skills and experience — from online courses, learning networks and mentorship to peer learning, volunteering and after-school programs. Badges provide a way for learners to get recognition for these skills, and display them to potential employers, schools, colleagues and their community.

Through a simple framework that’s open to all


Using Mozilla’s Open Badges infrastructure, any organization or community can issue badges backed by their own seal of approval. Learners can then collect badges from different sources and display them across the web — on their resume, web site, social networking profiles, job sites or just about anywhere. Unlocking new career and learning opportunities. 
By displaying skills and achievements that traditional degrees and transcripts often leave out, badges can lead to jobs, community recognition, and new learning opportunities. — from Mozilla Open Badges Wiki

Let me make a few things clear from the start: First, I was an Eagle Scout. Technically, I am an Eagle Scout since what you learn in scouting is something you carry with you for the rest of your life. I not only made Eagle but I had multiple additional palms, which means that I earned a hell (pardon my un-Scout-like language) of a lot of merit badges through the years.

I certainly valued the learning which went into each of those badges, but I also took pride and joy in that full sash of merit badges, in and of themselves, and I was motivated to see how high a rank I could earn before I aged out of the organization.

Scouting does several things right where badges were concerned: there are some badges which every Scout is expected to earn if they want to move up rank but there are also a vast array of different badges which a scout chooses from as they map their own route through scouting. The badges I remember most vividly were those having to do with journalism, communications, drama, and photography, all aspects of the person whom I would become when I grew up. The skills which the badges represented were in most cases skills which we actively deployed in our life in Scouts, so they were not simply things which I learned to earn a badge. Well, there were a few of those — in my troop, Basket Weaving was the joke badge we all earned at summer camp because the requirements were simple and pretty lame and it was funny to have the badge on your sash. We can say that Scouting thus combines intrinsic and extrinsic motivations to create a system within which the badges are meaningful to those who opt to participate.

That said, even as a lad, I knew that Scouting and its badges were not for everyone. Many of my friends, especially during the late Vietnam War era, did not like the idea of wearing a uniform of any kind, they did not really understand the appeal of badges, they did not want adults telling them what to do. (Today, I might add my own increased questioning of the values of the organization, which has today embraced overt homophobia in its dealing with queer scouts and scoutmasters.)

For the most part, the current drive for badges in education is being pushed by people like me — people who were proud to wear merit badges, get good grades, or otherwise, display their achievements. The problem is that badges are being designed for people who may or may not share those values and assumptions.

Second, I believe fully and totally in the value of informal learning, seeing much that youth learn outside of school as more essential to who they are and who they become than the more narrowly restricted curriculum imposed by the national standards. I was always someone who learned more outside the classroom than inside, even if I played the game of school well enough to progress to a high place in the system. Scouting was part of that and so I was glad it had such a flexible framework. But, many of the things I did outside school — like watch and develop a knowledge of 1930s monster movies, which, ultimately, led me to get graduate degrees in cinema studies — were not something anyone every gave me a badge for. I see the importance of recognizing, respecting, supporting, and deploying the expertise developed through informal learning and fear that when schools seek to close it out of their formal practices, they also shut what is learned in school for what kids do with the rest of their waking hours.

I fully support the ideas about “connected learning” which were announced by the MacArthur Foundation at the recent Digital Media and Learning Conference. Something very important occurs when we develop a more integrated learning ecology and when kids know how to map what they learn outside of school into categories that they can meaningfully deploy inside the system. That’s part of the power of Scouting — to convert the activities into badges into ranks which can be read and appreciated as accomplishments by adult authorities, including those who decide whether we get jobs or can move through the system of higher education.

That said, I remain deeply skeptical of the massive push going on right now to promote the use of badges across a broad array of different informal learning contexts. I am writing this as I wait in the airport on my return from the DML conference, and what I heard there was a push for badges as if they were a one-size-fits-all-solution to a range of ills in the current educational system (at least from the podium) and then a lot of people on the fringes of the party asking each other whether we really believe that badges are uniformly the way to go. Many of us fear that MacArthur, Mozilla and other foundations have jumped too quickly on the badges bandwagon. I was happy to support badges as one interesting model for thinking about how to insure greater respect for the value of informal learning; I am less prepared to accept the premise that badges might someday be the universal currency by which young people get credit for (or in some models get motivated to participate in) a range of informal learning activities.

As someone who helped to build up the current field of Digital Media and Learning, I am concerned that, if badges start to feel too much like a “party line,” many are going to feel excluded from the field. This has the potential to be the first major divide in a field which many of us see as our intellectual and spiritual home. We remain silent because we do not want to disrupt the party and because we respect the leadership of the DML initiative so much, but there is much that is at risk in that silence.

So, let me spell out some of the reasons why I want to see us go slower and think through the advantages and disadvantages of badges:

1. Many young people have deep ambivalences about the kinds of “credit” adults choose to give (or withhold) around their activities. There are plenty of smart kids who don’t say things in class, may not do as well as they can on assignments, and certainly would not join an organization like scouting because these kinds of achievements are not “cool” within their peer cultures. Many of these kids are learning now outside of school through participating in activities that are intellectually demanding and socially rewarding without bearing the imprint of adult approval. Some of these activities even have an air about them of transgression or subversion which make them safe for their participation. So, what happens when the scoutmasters move into these spaces and start giving out merit badges, gold stars, cookies, whatever they do, to single out those kids they think are doing what the system wants them to do. Do we not run the risk of chasing away the kids who need these kinds of informal learning the most? Admittedly, there is a value in helping these youth find ways to value what they are doing as intellectual pursuits and there is a value in seeking to validate these experiences and help them learn how to mobilize that knowledge as they learn to work through the formal structures that exert power over their lives. Much of that value may come in helping them articulate for themselves what they are getting out of these kinds of experiences. But, making the badges too central to the process may alienate them before they have a chance to exert ownership over the knowledge they are acquiring. (This problem only grows when we seek to move the system of badges from its original American context into a global phenomenon, since badges will mean very different things across a range of different cultural contexts.)

2. Badges run the risk of becoming “gamification” by another name — that is, a system which does not trust the power of intrinsic motivation and feels the need to add a layer of extrinsic motivation. Again, scouting, I would argue, succeeds in doing both. James Gee argues that games-based communities do also. But, some forms of gamification rely so heavily on points schemes that there is far less effort to make the activities meaningful in and of themselves, and it can be easy to replace learning with “playing the game.” American education is already gamified: for too many students, even good students, it is already about collecting badges and they calculate carefully what they need to do to make the ‘A’. I worry that badges can become just another points system and as a consequence, undercuts the motivational structures which have historically led young people to engage in these kind of practices. Otherwise, do we run the risk of turning game modding or fan subbing into the contemporary equivalent of my Basketweaving merit badge — something kids do because it is an easy way to get recognition or because they think it is a joke. And, as they do so, what happens to those kids who value these activities on their own terms.

3. What’s working about the kinds of informal learning which takes place in participatory culture is that it is emergent and ad hoc: activities spring up, last as long as they interest participants, disappear again; young people feel empowered to create their own activities and set their own goals within these organizations; young people can feel like the experts in a subject matter which has not yet been fully integrated into the systems of formal learning. Not every child participates in such activities, and our goal should be to expand the range of options available and to provide stronger motivations and scaffording for their participation. But, informal learning works because it is informal. Yet, any coherent system of badges requires systems and structure; there have to be requirements which help to standardize forms of participation and which rank some kinds of contributions as more valuable or at least more central to the group than others. In that sense, too quick a move towards badges runs the risk of destroying the complex but fragile ecosystem within which participatory learning thrives. Our philosophy should be above all do no harm. There is a high potential of harm in a badging system which is badly applied.

4. Another thing that’s working about these informal learning communities is that they are relatively nonhierarchical. They are often spaces where youth and adults interact without fixed relations of power and authority — the adults are not parents and not teachers, they are people who share interests with the younger participants, and the mentorship that emerges is organic to the activities in which they are engaged. In some cases, the adults even learn from youth who have developed greater expertise or have more experience. This fluidity of relations across generations is threatened by a system where some people (you can call them Den Mothers or Scout Masters, Teachers or Principals, you can even call them Fearless Leader and Grand Poohbah) are giving badges to others (who are now seen as their subordinates). These roles will not necessarily break down along conventional adult-child lines, but there’s a high likelihood of those roles reasserting themselves into the process, especially if the granting of badges becomes more bureaucratic or requires communications with more formal institutions and organizations.

5. Badges may work well in some circumstances or for some participants. They should certainly be explored as one way of validating and supporting informal learning. But, the rush to badges means that we have not spent as much time in the past few years as we should be trying to understand what other mechanisms for promoting participatory learning might be. It means that we are overlooking or over-riding systems of support which already exist in many of these sites of informal learning. So, even if we think badges are a potentially good idea in some contexts (and, again, my first response to this badges talk was generally supportive), we may not think it is the best or only possible solution in every situation.

6, No system of badges is going to be adopted uniformly. Mozilla’s description of where learning takes place encompasses mostly forms of learning which schools and employers are likely to already recognize as valuable — “from online courses, learning networks and mentorship to peer learning, volunteering and after-school programs.” Yet, much of the early work in DML focused on informal learning sites which many adults did not yet fully appreciate — from gaming communities to fandom. If we move to see badges as a common currency of achievement in informal learning, then what happens to those activities which chose, on principle, not to give badges or which lack the formal infrastructure to even decide who should be issuing badges. Do these activities, in fact, become even more marginalized, because they are now neither part of the formal system of schooling or part of the informal system of badging. This is another way that badges potentially disrupts what’s working about participatory culture.

I guess what I am saying is:

  • Experiment with badges but really experiment — that is, try to figure out if these mechanisms really do what you hope they will do and be particularly attentive to the ways that they have unintentional consequences and damage the very activities you are seeking to recognize.
  • Also seed other kinds of research and experimentation which looks more closely at other mechanisms for promoting and appraising participation, including those which may already be in place within such communities of practice.
  • Be aware that the process of badging is going to make things more comfortable to those who are comfortable with getting recognition from adults and may make things less comfortable for those who have not yet fully bought into the values of the current educational system.
  • And above all, if you are embracing badges, make sure you are doing so because you agree with the core premises, because it’s the right thing to do for your group, and not because someone is offering a bucket of money to those who are willing to “give it a try.”

Connected Learning: Reimagining the Experience of Education in the Information Age

This weekend, I am attending the Third Digital Media and Learning Conference, hosted by the MacArthur Foundation, as part of their efforts to help build a field which takes what we have learned about young people’s informal learning, often through the more playful aspects of participatory culture, and apply it to the redesign and reinvention of those institutions which most directly touch young people’s lives — schools, libraries, museums, and public institutions.

Today, the MacArthur Foundation is releasing an important statement about the underlying principles they are calling “connected learning,” a statement which helps to sum up the extensive research which has been done by the DML network in recent years. Their goal is to foster a wide reaching conversation not simply among educators but involving all of those adults who play a role in shaping the lives of young people — and let’s face it, that’s pretty much all of us. The document is a collective statement from some of the smartest people thinking about contemporary education:

  • Kris Gutierrez, professor of literacy and learning sciences who is an expert in learning and new media literacies and designing transformative learning environments, University of Colorado, Boulder
  • Mimi Ito, Research Network Chair, a cultural anthropologist with deep expertise in the implications of how youth are engaging with technology and digital media who led benchmark three-year study of digital youth, University of California, Irvine
  • Sonia Livingstone, a leading expert on children, youth, and the internet, including issues of risk and safety, and author of a massive study of 25,000 European children and their parents on internet usage, London School of Economics and Political Science
  • Bill Penuel, expert in learning with digital media in both formal and informal settings, literacy, and using digital tools for digital storytelling, University of Colorado, Boulder
  • Jean Rhodes, clinical psychologist with expertise in mentoring, adolescent development, and the role of intergenerational relationships in digital media and learning, University of Massachusetts, Boston
  • Katie Salen, a game designer who has founded two 6th-12th grade public schools that employ game principles for learning, Depaul University
  • Juliet Schor, economist and sociologist who has published broadly on work, family and sustainability, Boston College
  • S. Craig Watkins, expert on young people’s social and digital media behaviors and is piloting new programs for in-school and out-of-school learning, University of Texas, Austin
  • I promised them that I would share this important statement with the readers of my blog, and I hope that you will in turn help pass this along to the many communities you represent.

    Although the name, “connected learning” could sound like another attempt to describe the impact of new media on our lives, it goes far beyond a focus simply on the technologies which connect us together, and instead, is focused on the cultural practices and social communities through which this connection occurs, and more generally, on the consequences of these new kinds of connectivities and collectivities on the learning process.

    I share with the authors a deep appreciation for the idea of a learning ecology, within which learning occurs everywhere, and with their goal to remove some of the obstacles which block the flow of information, knowledge, skills, and wisdom between different sectors. I especially value the focus here on participation — in the learning process, in the governance of society — since the struggle to achieve a more participatory culture remains one of the central battles of our times. Like other previous work from the DML realm, the focus is on valuing the kinds of learning that children and youth value, the kind that is deeply motivating and tied in meaningful ways to their construction of their identity, recognizing that the goal of education in the 21st century should be in allowing young people to discover and refine their own expertise as they follow their passions and inform their interests. It is not simply about providing rich databases of information, though such resources help, but rather about providing rich and diverse contexts which support many different kinds of learning and many different kinds of learners.

    As they suggest in the statement, the concept of “connected learning” remains a “work in progress,” and the best way to make progress is for thoughtful people, across a range of fields, to read, debate, and respond to their provocation and for those of us who find something here to value, to try to put its core principles into play through our work.

    For more information, check out this website.

    CONNECTED LEARNING:

    REIMAGINING THE EXPERIENCE OF EDUCATION IN THE INFORMATION AGE

    We are living in a historical moment of transformation and realignment in the creation and sharing of knowledge, in social, political and economic life, and in global connectedness. There is wide agreement that we need new models of education suited to this historic moment, and not simply new models of schooling, but entirely new visions of learning better suited to the increasing complexity, connectivity, and velocity of our new knowledge society. Fortunately, we are also able to harness the same technologies and social processes that have powered these transformations in order to provide the next generation with learning experiences that open doors to academic achievement, economic opportunity, and civic engagement.

    Specifically, we now have the capability to reimagine where, when, and how learning takes place; to empower and motivate youth to pursue knowledge and develop expertise at a pace, to a degree, and on a path that takes advantage of their unique interests and potential; and to build on innovations across a growing spectrum of learning institutions able to support a range of learning experiences for youth that were unimaginable even 15 years ago.

    We propose a new approach to learning — connected learning — that is anchored in research, robust theories of learning, and the best of traditional standards, but also designed to mine the learning potential of the new social- and digital media domain and the heart of which is aimed at the following questions:

    • What would it mean to think of education as a responsibility of a distributed network of people and institutions, including schools, libraries, museums and online communities?
    • What would it mean to think of education as a process of guiding youths’ active participation in public life that includes civic engagement, and intellectual, social, recreational, and career-relevant pursuits?
    • How can we take advantage of the new kinds of intergenerational configurations that have formed in which youth and adults come together to work, mobilize, share, learn, and achieve together?
    • What would it mean to enlist in this effort a diverse set of stakeholders that are broader than what we traditionally think of as educational and civic institutions?

    Connected learning is a work in progress, building on existing models, ongoing experimentation, and dialog with diverse stakeholders. It draws from social, ubiquitous, blended and personalized learning, delivered by new media, to help us remodel our educational system in tune with today’s economic and political realities. Connected learning is not, however, distinguished by a particular technology or platform, but is inspired by an initial set of three educational values, three learning principles, and three design principles.

    At the core of connected learning are three values:

    Equity — when educational opportunity is available and accessible to all young people, it elevates the world we all live in.

    Full Participation — learning environments, communities, and civic life thrive when all members actively engage and contribute.

    Social connection — learning is meaningful when it is part of valued social relationships and shared practice, culture, and identity.

    In order to realize these values, connected learning seeks to harness and integrate the learning that young people pursue in the spheres of interest, peer relations, and academics based on the following three learning principles:

    Interest-powered – Interests power the drive to acquire knowledge and expertise. Research shows that learners who are interested in what they are learning, achieve higher order learning outcomes. Connected learning does not just rely on the innate interests of the individual learner, but views interests and passions as something to be actively developed in the context of personalized learning pathways that allow for specialized and diverse identities and interests.

    Peer-supported – Learning in the context of peer interaction is engaging and participatory. Research shows that among friends and peers, young people fluidly contribute, share, and give feedback to one another, producing powerful learning. Connected learning research demonstrates that peer learning need not be peer-isolated. In the context of interest-driven activity, adult participation is welcomed by young people. Although expertise and roles in peer learning can differ based on age and experience, everyone gives feedback to one another and can contribute and share their knowledge and views.

    Academically oriented – Educational institutions are centered on the principle that intellectual growth thrives when learning is directed towards academic achievement and excellence. Connected learning recognizes the importance of academic success for intellectual growth and as an avenue towards economic and political opportunity. Peer culture and interest-driven activity needs to be connected to academic subjects, institutions, and credentials for diverse young people to realize these opportunities. Connected learning mines and translates popular peer culture and community-based knowledge for academic relevance.

    Connected learning builds on what we’ve long known about the value and effectiveness of interest-driven, peer-supported, and academically relevant learning; but in addition, connected learning calls on today’s interactive and networked media in an effort to make these forms of learning more effective, better integrated, and broadly accessible. The following design principles involve integrating the spheres of interests, peers, and academics, and broadening access through the power of today’s technology.

    Shared purpose — Connected learning environments are populated with adults and peers who share interests and are contributing to a common purpose. Today’s social media and web-based communities provide exceptional opportunities for learners, parents, caring adults, teachers, and peers in diverse and specialized areas of interest to engage in shared projects and inquiry. Cross-generational learning and connection thrives when centered on common interests and goals.

    Production-centered — Connected learning environments are designed around production, providing tools and opportunities for learners to produce, circulate, curate, and comment on media. Learning that comes from actively creating, making, producing, experimenting, remixing, decoding, and designing, fosters skills and dispositions for lifelong learning and productive contributions to today’s rapidly changing work and political conditions.

    Openly networked – Connected learning environments are designed around networks that link together institutions and groups across various sectors, including popular culture, educational institutions, home, and interest communities. Learning resources, tools, and materials are abundant, accessible and visible across these settings and available through open, networked platforms and public-interest policies that protect our collective rights to circulate and access knowledge and culture. Learning is most resilient when it is linked and reinforced across settings of home, school, peer culture and community.

    The urgent need to reimagine education grows clearer by the day. Research has shown that too many students are disengaged and alienated from school, and see little or no purpose to their education. Business leaders say there is a widening gap between the skills of the workforce and the needs of businesses seeking competitive advantage. Additionally, technology and the networked era threatens to stretch the already-wide equity gap in education unless there is decisive intervention and a strong public agenda

    The principles of connected learning weren’t born in the digital age, but they are extraordinarily well-suited to it. Connected learning seeks to tie together the respected historical body of research on how youth best learn with the opportunities made available through today’s networked and digital media. Connected learning is real-world. It’s social. It’s hands-on. It’s active. It’s networked. It’s personal. It’s effective. Through a new vision of learning, it holds out the possibility for productive and broad-based educational change.

    To find out more about the connected learning community and ongoing research, please visit connectedlearning.tv and clrn.dmlhub.net.

    Teaching Harry Potter: An Interview with Catherine Belcher and Becky Herr-Stephenson (Part Three)

    Becky, you looked at Harry Potter fan culture as part of your involvement in the Digital Youth Project. What insights did you gain there about fandom as a site of informal learning and how did they feed into this current project about Harry Potter in schools?

    The research I did with Potter fans for the Digital Youth Project focused on understanding interest-driven participation and was primarily concerned with media makers–podcasters, fan fiction writers, artists, and so on. Key to the way we on the Digital Youth Project understood interest-driven participation was an element of independence from school curricula or conventional status hierarchies; the practices we examined were things that young people seemed to pick up on their own rather than embarking on them as part of a class project or because of shared interests with friends from school or their neighborhoods. (Of course, we found that interests rarely develop completely independently. There is usually a person/persons or shared experience that kick-starts interest-driven participation.)

    Working with fans was an amazing experience and extremely helpful for understanding learning in “informal” sites. I put “informal” in quotes here because one of the most interesting things I found working with fans was just how much organization, dedication, and expertise go into fans’ practices. The rules and hierarchies of fandom are different from those that dominate school or the paid workforce–in general, more inclusive, less concerned with traditional markers of status (like age), and a bit more flexible–but I they certainly have a structure and logic to them. Some of the teens I interviewed in my research spent as much time producing podcasts, maintaining websites, or writing as they would if it were a full-time job. Others balanced Potter activities with others at school, such as working on the yearbook or school newspaper, mixing and matching the practices and skills involved in each activity to create their own style of production.

    My fandom research fed into Teaching Harry Potter in a number of ways. Most importantly, it’s how Cathy and I met and became colleagues and friends! (We just happened to sit next to each other at the closing feast at E7–a Potter camp for families we describe in the book–and, as they say, the rest is history.) Beyond that, having seen numerous, diverse examples of rich learning and motivation for participation emerging around the Potter series helped me better understand and describe what was (and what could be) happening in schools. As readers will see in our chapters on technology and “imagining more,” we believe that learners (regardless of the setting) have specific needs and rights that can be addressed through thoughtful, careful resourcing and approaches to teaching and learning. Further, we believe that civic participation and a commitment to social justice are essential to meaningful learning and participation–something we learned from our friends at the Harry Potter Alliance and various Wizard Rockers. (More on that in a minute.)

    One of the challenges I faced in shifting my focus to the school based research was not setting up a dichotomy of interest-driven fan practices versus what was happening in classrooms. Certainly, the students in Andrew, Allegra, and Sandra’s classrooms had a different kind of shared reading experience than did many of the fans I worked with, one that was not independent from school but rather prompted and scaffolded by their teachers and shared with their classmates through specific assignments and classroom activities. This doesn’t mean that it was inferior to what the fans were doing–just different. As we worked on Teaching Harry Potter, I think I came to a better understanding of how powerful school experiences can be for introducing and supporting interests on one hand–and just how treacherous it can be for teachers and students alike if schools do not allow for experiences that can lead to exploring deep interests.

    You close the book by imagining what a more perfect school structure would look like and what it would mean in the lives of the kids you studied. Can you share some of that vision?

    We use the image of the Mirror of Erised–the powerful magical mirror that allows one to see his/her deepest desires–to frame our discussion of what public education could (and should) look like. Although multiple reveals from the Mirror are not canon, we take four glimpses into the mirror to see the following things:

    Expert teachers engaged as leaders and trusted professionals: as the featured teachers’ stories reflect, opportunities to exercise agency, make decisions about curriculum, and be creative in one’s teaching are not always available to teachers. In our ideal vision of schooling, this situation would be different and teachers would be not only allowed to teach in the ways they feel are best for their students, but encouraged and supported in doing so.

    Universal access to technology and new media learning tools: in the book, we described some of the ways that schools use educational media and technology as similar to using the Polyjuice Potion–using technology to disguise bad pedagogy, resulting in those technologies being used in insignificant and spurious ways. Instead of continuing to “Polyjuice” technology and new media, we’d like to see schools learn how to adopt and integrate them in ways that support robust, student-driven learning.

    Emphasis on Experiential, Student- Driven Learning: We want to see students and teachers working side-by-side on projects that matter to them. As we mentioned earlier, there is a strong social justice component to the Potter series that has been picked up by various groups within the fandom, the Harry Potter Alliance in particular. The HPA is a great example of experiential learning, as its campaigns focus on getting young people out into the world to enact change. While we recognize that not every student nor every teacher will have the same commitment to social justice, we value the notion of experiential learning–whether that is in relation to world events or mathematics–and wish for more equitable access to such experiences.

    Authentic Tasks as the Central Form of Student–and Teacher–Assessment: in our final look in the Mirror, we see one outcome of the above-mentioned emphasis on experiential learning–an educational system that does not rely on standardized assessment and scripted curriculums. Instead, both teachers and students are assessed in ways that are sensitive to their particular needs and that encourage confidence in future practice.

    These four elements are certainly not the only positive changes we can imagine for schools, but they represent a significant start. They also represent a turn toward a more caring, trusting, and loving educational system. After all, it is the power of love, not magic, that is the most important lesson Harry has taught us.

    Catherine Belcher works with LA’s Promise, a nonprofit organization focused on improving schools and empowering neighborhoods in South Los Angeles. She currently serves as the Director of Teaching and Learning at West Adams Preparatory High School. She earned her Ph.D. from the School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania in 2006, where her work focused on Latino educational history and language access. She then served as a new teacher supervisor at St. Joe’s University in Philadelphia and as an Assistant Professor in the School of Education at Loyola Marymount University. A lifelong educator, Catherine taught social studies at both the secondary and middle school levels, and has served as a mentor, lead teacher, and curriculum designer. She has presented on the use of Harry Potter in educational spaces at several conferences, including Enlightening 2007, Azkatraz (2009), Infinitus (2010) and NAMLE (2011). Catherine lives in LA with her husband and 11 year old daughter, a Potter aficionado in her own right who proudly displays the Ravenclaw banner in her room, although some days she joins her mom in the Gryffindor common room so they can talk books and dare each other to try eating the grey Bertie Botts Beans.

    Becky Herr-Stephenson is a media researcher focused on teaching and learning with popular culture and technology. She earned her Ph.D. from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California in 2008. She has been a part of several organizations and projects aimed at informing and inciting innovation in education, including the Digital Media and Learning Hub within the Humanities Research Institute at UC Irvine and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. Currently, she is working as a Research Associate with the Annenberg Innovation Lab through a partnership between USC and the Cooney Center. She is a co-author (with Mizuko Ito and others) of Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media (2009, MIT Press). Becky has presented papers on Harry Potter and youth culture at a number of conferences, most recently, Infinitus (2010) and NAMLE (2011). She lives in Los Angeles and is anxiously awaiting the arrival of her first child, who she hopes will be sorted into Ravenclaw (not Slytherin).

    Teaching Harry Potter: An Interview with Catherine Belcher and Becky Herr-Stephenson (Part Two))

    One of your teachers faced pushed back from students that the Harry Potter series were books for white kids. Perhaps many readers are thinking the same thing. Yet your title stresses their value for the “multicultural classroom.” So, what do the books offer for children of color? How does this approach to “multiculturalism” differ from approaches which seek to match students with writers from the same ethnic and racial background?

    In the book, we talk about what we mean by “multicultural” education (all the students and teachers in Teaching Harry Potter are of color and therefore bicultural, meaning they negotiate their home and school cultures on a daily basis) and what we believe, and have seen, the Potter books contribute to the educational process within these settings. The first thing we question is the idea that the “whiteness” of the books negates their use in multicultural classrooms. The nature of the books themselves – their complexity and Rowling’s willingness to take on difficult and contemporary issues such as racism, genocide, classism, and difference – make them uniquely valuable, and each of the three teachers illustrate this to great effect in their accounts.

    We discuss three features that make the Potter books central to the teachers in our book: Harry’s status as a “newcomer” to the Wizarding world – to which Sandra’s largely immigrant students relate, a normalization of difference – utilized to great effect by Allegra with her special education students, and the opportunity for multiple interpretations of the text – particularly useful for Andrew’s students, but employed by all three teachers. Again, teacher capacity and quality are paramount here. We’re looking beyond a base reading of the text; the quality of the approach, interaction and reading experience makes all the difference. One can certainly read Harry Potter simply as a book about white kids in an English boarding school. None of the Teaching Harry Potter teachers took that route – which one might call the dark and easy path. Instead, they challenged their students to use Harry Potter to help them tackle difficult social topics and academic exercises, and to do this with the belief that there was definitely something in Harry’s story they could use to help them grow as learners and people.

    It’s also important to note that we firmly believe in access to literature from multiple arenas; classics and books reflecting a diversity of authors, including those matching the students’ background, are vitally important for young readers. But access to a particularly valuable popular work like Harry Potter is important because of its accessibility and all it has to offer. On another level, it is also important because so many white, middle to upper middle class kids DO have ample access to Potter and other popular series at home and at school. In many ways, building students’ reading confidence, helping them discover that yes, they too can tackle a book of this length or “that style,” whether they end up feeling it is ultimately for them or not, is the most valuable accomplishment.

    What’s striking about the teacher stories running through the book is the degree to which each adopted their instruction to the particular needs of their students, finding the Harry Potter books to be a highly flexible resource in that regard. How does this customization and remixing process differ from the standard ways that schools are thinking about curriculum in this age of No Child Left Behind?

    Finding space for customizing/remixing curriculum was one of the biggest challenges the teachers in our book faced. By not following the standardized curriculum, they were doing something subversive–and, as their stories reflect, they often had trouble getting support from administration and colleagues. Despite the challenges they faced, however, each of the teachers featured in the book did a beautiful job of adapting Potter for their classrooms. Whether we are talking about Sandra, who read the book in Spanish with her ELL students, Allegra, who used the audio books to support her special education students’ particular needs for reading support, or Andrew, who approached the book as an accessible gateway to challenging AP content, it is clear in each teacher’s story that the needs of her/his students were primary influences on the decisions made around reading the books. In talking with the participating teachers, it seems that the rich stories in the Potter books provided unique opportunities for discussion, analysis, and connection with students’ lives. Moreover, just the experience of reading an entire popular book together–as opposed to the excerpts and readers associated with the standardized curriculum–appears to have offered opportunities for deep, meaningful learning.

    This kind of responsive teaching is radically different from the standardized curricula commonly found in schools, not because teachers prefer standardization (although some certainly must), but because standardization is thought to be more efficient and its results more easily measurable. As we discuss in more detail in the book, most current policy initiatives reward efficiency and demand accountability–and neither reward nor require responsiveness, flexibility, or creativity. All of this adds up to a demoralizing and frustrating culture for teaching in which teachers’ expertise is put to the side in favor of standardized content and methods. Fortunately, the teachers featured in Teaching Harry Potter pushed back hard against these negative forces, instead focusing on how they could provide meaningful learning opportunities for all of their students, even when reading Potter meant working around (and/or subverting) the prescribed reading curriculum–and taking considerable criticism from colleagues and supervisors for doing so.

    While each teacher had his/her own approaches to customizing the reading/learning experience, Allegra’s story stands out as particularly salient to the topic of adaptation/remixing. A creative and dedicated teacher, Allegra wanted to support her students’ developing reading skills and practices and felt that multimedia tools like the series’ audio books could supplement the instruction and assistance she could provide for students one-on-one as well as to the class as a whole. As they worked through the first Potter book, Allegra’s students moved fluidly between the printed text and multimedia by reading along with the audio books. The highly-engaging audio books provided students with a model for fluent reading as well as created a situation in which students could focus more attention on listening to and comprehending the story rather than struggling to decode every word themselves.

    Allegra’s story also stands out in relation to adaptation because Allegra was working with special education students. As discussed in Allegra’s chapter, Harry Potter is a great book series for use in special education for a number of reasons, a key one being the prominence of “difference” as a theme in the series. All Hogwarts students are special in that they have magical abilities; some (like Neville) require more support for learning than others (like Hermione), and others (like Harry) seem to benefit from an alternative, customized curriculum. As Allegra notes in her chapter, seeing varied, positive representations of difference was beneficial to her students.

    Harry Potter‘s status in the literary canon is still being debated and many teachers may see it as “mere popular culture” and not sufficiently literary to bring into school. Given the choices they face in schools with a diminishing focus on reading in any form, what’s the case for why we should teach Harry Potter and not say Animal Farm?

    Why not both? Granted, the limitations you speak of do exist and districts, schools and teachers must make increasingly difficult decisions about what to include, there are creative ways to include popular books in the curriculum. Andrew, who is the high school AP English teacher in our book, never actually reads complete Potter books with his students. Instead, he uses key excerpts from both the books and the movies to support teaching particular literary aspects. In using these regularly, his students gain a sense of the stories and many end up reading the books on their own. Sandra does read one book a year with her students, but it takes a great deal of planning to make it work, including framing her rationale for using the books. The key for all three of the teachers in our book is a set of very clear goals for their students around using Harry Potter. They don’t just read Harry Potter because it’s fun or the teachers like the books.

    Each teacher uses the texts or movies to teach specific points in the curriculum, encourage habits of mind, or build stamina around reading. All three share the goal of building their students’ confidence as readers; because Harry is accessible and also smartly written (it links to so many literary traditions, for example) each teacher uses it to catch his/her students by surprise – eventually each class realizes they’ve engaged the story, understand it, can connect it to other stories and text, and can discuss its merits and/or weaknesses, in many cases using high level academic language, as in the case of Andrew’s AP English class. His students would certainly be primed to critically examine Animal Farm, for example. They hold a “literary confidence” not necessarily present previous to discussing/analyzing Potter.

    The debate around including popular texts in school curriculum will certainly remain a constant, especially since debates around which “classics” to include in English courses seems never ending. But there is certainly a current wave of coolness around reading – prompted by Potter and sustained by such series as The Hunger Games – that if recognized, harnessed, and used could serve to help students connect to the “classic” texts that have actually influenced a great deal of popular works.

    How do we measure the success of these teachers’ attempts to use Harry Potter to engage with their students? And why do you think that school systems are so slow to recognize and reward this kind of success?

    Measuring teacher success – successful teaching – is probably the biggest educational debate right now. The growth over time data we talked about above is one example of how teachers are increasingly measured by one of the few types of hard data that are produced by teachers and schools en masse. Otherwise, the criteria for “success” becomes more objective and therefore difficult to define and evaluate in large numbers. In the book, we include a list of 9 “shared commonalities” – characteristics the Teaching Harry Potter teachers hold in common that we believe serve as the basis for (and evidence of) their success. One of these does include standardized test scores, but that serves more as one criteria, not the central identifiable aspect of the teachers’ success. To our mind, these commonalities are identifiable and clearly contribute to student success. However, we spent time talking with the teachers, getting to know their philosophy and role in their respective schools. It took time to identify the roots of their success, something schools and districts don’t have a lot of to work with.

    We also hold a particular view of what it means to be a successful teacher. For example, we believe popular culture and media are valuable in school and consider wise and appropriate use of them with students a mark of great teaching. Many would disagree, however. We could spend a long time arguing our point, which we’ve done, actually, and still not have any kind of consensus on the issue, let alone on how to measure what using popular culture successfully would look like. This is one of the major obstacles faced by each of the teachers in our book, they had to constantly justify their use of Harry Potter books and media and in some cases were actually allowed to use the books because of their successful testing records. So, in the end reading Harry Potter with one’s students became the reward for the kind of “success” that could be easily and “objectively” measured – and that’s where school districts and policy makers live right now.

    Catherine Belcher works with LA’s Promise, a nonprofit organization focused on improving schools and empowering neighborhoods in South Los Angeles. She currently serves as the Director of Teaching and Learning at West Adams Preparatory High School. She earned her Ph.D. from the School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania in 2006, where her work focused on Latino educational history and language access. She then served as a new teacher supervisor at St. Joe’s University in Philadelphia and as an Assistant Professor in the School of Education at Loyola Marymount University. A lifelong educator, Catherine taught social studies at both the secondary and middle school levels, and has served as a mentor, lead teacher, and curriculum designer. She has presented on the use of Harry Potter in educational spaces at several conferences, including Enlightening 2007, Azkatraz (2009), Infinitus (2010) and NAMLE (2011). Catherine lives in LA with her husband and 11 year old daughter, a Potter aficionado in her own right who proudly displays the Ravenclaw banner in her room, although some days she joins her mom in the Gryffindor common room so they can talk books and dare each other to try eating the grey Bertie Botts Beans.

    Becky Herr-Stephenson is a media researcher focused on teaching and learning with popular culture and technology. She earned her Ph.D. from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California in 2008. She has been a part of several organizations and projects aimed at informing and inciting innovation in education, including the Digital Media and Learning Hub within the Humanities Research Institute at UC Irvine and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. Currently, she is working as a Research Associate with the Annenberg Innovation Lab through a partnership between USC and the Cooney Center. She is a co-author (with Mizuko Ito and others) of Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media (2009, MIT Press). Becky has presented papers on Harry Potter and youth culture at a number of conferences, most recently, Infinitus (2010) and NAMLE (2011). She lives in Los Angeles and is anxiously awaiting the arrival of her first child, who she hopes will be sorted into Ravenclaw (not Slytherin).