What DOPA Means for Education

A little while ago, I got the following comments in an e-mail from one of the Comparative Media Studies graduate students Ravi Purushotma about the news that the Deleting Online Predators Act has now passed the U.S. House of Representatives:

Some of my friends commented on how bitter, angry and depressed I seemed when DOPA passed. It's really painful spending 5 years searching for a new paradigm by which this planet could communicate among itself, coming to an actual sense of what needs to happen, then the week before it culminates into a thesis it becomes illegal because some bonehead in Alaska has his neural tubes clogged.

For those of you who have not been following this story, there's some very good reporting by Wade Rough of Technology Review about the debate surrounding DOPA. The Senator from Alaska is question is Senator Ted Stevens who has been a major backer of this legislation and who seems to know very little about how digital media works.

This exchange came as I was signing off on Purushotma's outstanding thesis which centers on the ways that various forms of new media and popular culture could be used to enhance foreign language teaching and learning. His project got some attention a year or so back when the BBC picked up on a report he had done describing his efforts to modify The Sims to support the teaching of foreign languages. Essentially, the commercial games ship with all of the relevant language tracks on the disc and a simply code determines which language is displayed as they reach a particular national market. It is a pretty trivial matter to unlock the code for a different language and play the game in Spanish, German, or what have you. The game's content closely resembles the focus on domestic life found in most first or second year language textbooks -- with one exception. Most of us are apt to put in more time playing the game than we are to spending studying our textbooks or filling in our workbooks.

This is a very rich and interesting approach but it is only one of a number of ideas that Ravi proposes in his thesis. Ravi has done more research than anyone I know about into how teachers are using this technology now and what purposes it might serve in the future. He has prepared his thesis as a multimedia web document that mixes sound, video, and text in ways that really puts his ideas into practice.

There has been lots of discussion here and elsewhere about the potentially devastating effect of DOPA on the lives of young people -- especially those for whom schools and public libraries represent their only point of access onto the digital world. I have made the argument that if supporters of DOPA really wanted to protect young people from online predators, they would teach social networking in the classroom, modeling safe and responsible practices, rather than lock it outside the school and thus beyond the supervision of informed librarians and caring teachers. The advocates of the law have implied that MySpace is at best a distraction from legitimate research activities, at worst a threat to childhood innocence.

But Ravi's thesis suggests something more -- we are closing off powerful technologies that could be used effectively to engage young people with authentic materials and real world cultural processes. Here, social networking functions not as a media literacy skill but as a tool for engaging with traditional school subjects in a fresh new way.

Throughout his thesis, Purushotma is interested in linking the affordances of new media and online practices with the traditional goals of the foreign language classroom. As I suggested in a recent blog post, more and more teachers are discovering the value of getting kids to learn through remixing elements of their culture, a recurring theme throughout his project:

Remixing has, of course, always been a central theme in foreign language pedagogy. As media from a foreign country provides students a link to the culture that created it, foreign language educators have historically been at the forefront of devising activities in which students learn to navigate through and reconfigure foreign media. With the emergence of the internet, however, today's youth are finding numerous new techniques for navigating through and reconfiguring media, both domestic and foreign. As this trend continues, foreign language education designers will need to shift from designing their own activities from scratch to actively tracking what remix activities students from a particular age group are already engaged in, and then inventing ways in which those activities can be applied towards learning a foreign language.

His impressive knowledge of Web 2.0 practices allows him to lay out a broad array of different tools that teachers can use to help students engage with a foreign language and culture in a more immediate fashion:

Perhaps the most challenging task in designing an introductory foreign language curriculum is that of representing foreign culture. If we conceptualize culture as an independent-standing entity, what ultimately gets delivered to students in our attempts to "teach culture" is a series of snapshots or editorialized slices of the target culture.

For most students in an introductory language class, their goal is often not simply to describe a foreign culture, but rather to be capable of participating in that culture. Thus, our goal should be to provide students with all the assistance appropriate to help them participate in the popular activities they would be participants in had they grown up in the target country: reading the same websites, using the same social networking tools and playing the same video games with their L2 peers. In this way, we give them agency to synthesize their own snapshot of the target culture from their own experiences and interactions within it.

While there are a number of innovative projects with similar aims already available, what is important to consider here is what a curriculum with the goal of enabling students to participate in a foreign culture would look like if the target culture is a remix culture (as many of the youth cultures in countries for the languages commonly taught in U.S. schools are). As youth culture shifts further from independently constructing media from scratch, to instead constructing media by connecting together and reconfiguring existing media artifacts, we should also be able to construct our cultural representations directly from mixing together live target language media, without having to extract them into a secondary context.

Lets begin with the way we create images. Many teachers are already turning to the web and google images to provide students with more up-to-date or authentic images of a target country than are provided by textbooks. However, copyright provisions prevent any curriculum generated using this approach from being openly published beyond a single classroom for a limited time duration; additionally, it still leaves the teacher in the position of slicing out a snapshot of the target culture to deliver to the students. For those wishing to create publicly distributable curriculum, they often need to still rely on either self-taken photographs or expensive and often dated stock photography.

Alternatively, they could gather images from the FlickR creative commons photo set. Here, real people from all over the world using the popular FlickR photo service have designated over 13,000,000 authentic/live photos as freely usable (with attribution) in other media creations. Additionally, FlickR provides an API system, allowing programs to connect directly into the FlickR database. So, for example, a Google Earth game teaching Spanish could receive all the information necessary from the FlickR API to automatically change its game content depending on what the contents of the newest photograph someone in Puerto Rico had taken. Students could then interact with the photographer through their FlickR profile, leaving comments in the L2 about that photo and any peculiarities of its cultural representation.

Perhaps the media most desperately in need of live materials is that of music. Once again, music faces similar copyright issues as images: only individual classrooms may use copyrighted music and for only a limited duration. Additionally, musical tastes are so individual and varied that no teacher could possibly find a single song to develop curriculum around that would simultaneously inspire all students to take an interest in the music of that country.

Using a distinction in the copyright system that gives "radio" broadcasts a different copyright status from standalone music, various sites such as last.fm are emerging offering "personalized radio." Here any student can find people in the target country with similar music tastes as them, then generate a personalized radio station that plays free, full length/full quality songs from around the world based on their preferences. Combined with various sound spatialization techniques, as API's for personalized radio services develop we will be able to create live curriculum that aids students to understand whichever songs in the target culture they themselves choose.

Ultimately, the real advantage of using live materials is the possibility of then connecting with live audiences. Certainly, the motivational advantages to producing work to be shared with a broader audience than just the teacher can not be over-stressed. As Cindy Evans describes of her experiences using web 2.0 technologies in her French class in which students were simply told their work would be made publicly available:

"The prospect of creating material for an authentic audience appeared to be the main motivation for the students. Students involved in the wiki project interacted with authentic cultural material on the web and also envisioned themselves as potential teachers to future students using their site. In contrast to researching and reporting on a topic for the class as students had done in previous classes, these students assumed responsibility for interacting with information, assimilating, rewriting, and organizing it in a way they deemed worthy of future students' interest."

At the same time, although Web 2.0 technologies provide infinitely more stimulating contexts for students, self-installations of these systems can bring with them major technological headaches for any teacher who doesn't have hours of free time to kill updating their PHP and MySQL libraries. In Cindy's case, it took over half the semester just to get the system running, and even then it did not contain the freely available user interface modules that would have allowed students to achieve many of the tasks she had hoped for.

Rather than leaving teachers to perform self-installations, it is important that curricular designers work to highlight the different options available for hosted services. For example, wikia.com allows anyone to instantly create their own wiki spaces in a variety of languages with all server space and configuration provided free. Services like writely, writeboard and thinkfree offer considerably more features than a typical wiki, with a cleaner interface and zero server installation. Perhaps the most valuable hosted services for foreign language teachers are the emerging platform portals such as ning.com. Here, teachers can browse through thousands of different social web applications already created by users throughout the world. They then choose "clone this app" to create a copy of a particular application for themselves, then use a suite of user friendly tools that do not require any programming knowledge to customize the application towards their own pedagogical goals. All server management and other tasks are automatically taken care of for them.

With live materials and customized social applications becoming increasingly available to non-programmers, the primary challenge will be to find models for how to connect various web applications together into coherent learning experiences. In the last ten years "webquests," that is, activities designed by teachers "in which some or all of the information that learners interact with comes from resources on the internet", have exploded in popularity in schools. According to Google Adsense, search popularity for the term "webquest" is now even approaching that of the term "lesson plan" (85 click per day rate for "webquest" versus 120 for "lesson plan" [Based on a $100 maximum cost per click estimate]). In a typical webquest, students are given a scenario which requires them to extract information or images from a series of provided websites and then compile their findings into a final report. For example, students might be told they are part of a team of experts brought in to decide on the most appropriate method for disposing of a canister of nuclear waste. They are then provided a series of websites relevant to waste disposal and then asked to present a final proposal to the teacher.

While webquests provide a popular framework for extracting information from new-media sources, little innovation has followed for what to do with that extracted information. For some students, simply compiling information into a report is unfortunately viewed as "overly structured clicking and reading." As the original webquest creator Bernie Dodge describes "It's true that most WebQuests are boring, but I think that's because they aren't really well designed, not because they don't have flashy graphics and interactivity. I'd like to think that getting engaged in a problem that requires synthesis and problem-solving is motivating in a deep and useful way that goes beyond Prensky's arcade-game type learning."

Already in the entertainment world we are seeing cases of games entirely devoid of flashy graphics or traditional game elements, yet compelling enough in their synthesis and problem-solving depth to motivate hundreds of thousand of players purely for entertainment purposes. Dubbed "Alternate Reality" games, these games are able to construct massive scale game universes simply by harnessing and mixing together numerous real-world web applications. By studying the learning that takes place in alternate reality games we can gain valuable insights into how to create engaging experiences around web content from other languages and cultures.

What is interesting about I Love Bee's is that it was a game constructed entirely out of technologies more commonly used for other purposes. In fact, at no point during the game did I Love Bee's even admit that it was a game. For many of the players, the result was a confusingly immersive experience in which they began to see much of the real world in the context of the game world. As one of the players described in an online posting "here we are, every one of us excited at blurring the lines between story and reality. The game promises to become not just entertainment, but our lives." In numerous cases, sites and mysteries not connected to the game were solved by confused players thinking that they were still in the game.

Foreign language educators have long struggled with how to ensure the language proficiency students gain while studying for a language exam successfully transfer to proficiency outside of the classroom in real life situations. Across all educational disciplines we see examples of how poorly human beings transfer abstract knowledge from one real world case to another...

As new-media usage transforms the entertainment culture of youth, if we do not adapt our curricular materials they will unfortunately bare a diminishing resemblance to the outside of school contexts in which youth live. However, by learning how to remix foreign popular culture and intelligently insert pedagogical aids at the points of connection, we can instantly appropriate automatically up-to-date media contexts that youth would naturally be engaging with if they were they living in a country speaking the L2.

Additionally, by remixing interventions inside media used throughout the day for other purposes, we naturally blur the lines between time set aside for everyday tasks and time exposed to the pedagogical interventions. For example, when a Google Earth Wars player uses Google Earth to look up driving directions to the movie theater or exploring different cities for an upcoming vacation, there is always the chance that the user will stumble upon a hidden game jewel or a poorly defended city to attack. In this way, players never really leave the game, but continue playing it throughout their everyday life. Foreign language teachers have long advised students that they need to try and continue thinking in the L2 around the clock, yet homework assignments are designed to be completed during a single block of dedicated study time. By closer integrating entertainment culture with educational interventions we can better assist students in connecting these often distinct parts of their lives.

Imagine how vibrant our schoolhouse culture would become if teachers adopted even a small portion of the recommendations this thesis provides. And so far, we are focused only on the foreign language classroom.

As Purushotma notes, foreign languages are simply one of a range of school disciplines that benefit from being able to deploy social networking and other Web 2.0 resources in the classroom setting. Here, for example, is a middle school Literature teacher who has students prepare profile pages for the characters in Shakespeare's Richard III. This exercise offers students a rich opportunity to dig deeper into fictional characters and understand what makes them tick. You could of course do much the same thing in a written paper but let's face it -- the activity would not be nearly as engaging.

Or here's the testimonial of a writing instructor who incorporated blogging into his 8th grade class and saw immediate shifts in the ways that children thought about their assignments:

My community of grade eight student bloggers became so big and so engaging that I spent every spare moment reading and writing within this community. My class community suddenly blossomed and I started seeing myself as an important part of the classroom community and no longer as a teacher who peddles content. I became a participant in a series of dialogues...

My students started blogging two years ago. It did not take me long to realize that a class blogosphere helps students see themselves as writers, as people with ideas. It helps them learn to substantiate their ideas, it helps them acquire confidence as learners, it gives them a context in which to investigate and question knowledge. Finally, it shows them a completely different understanding of knowledge as something that one constructs, arrives at, or co-constructs with others....

But then, about two months ago, there was a sudden shift. The community took on a life of its own. Imagine a place where students start with a literary text and then, rather than spend most of their time responding to literature, they are given opportunities to explore the relevance of this text in the world around them. Imagine starting with The Diary of Anne Frank and moving on to World War II, the Holocaust, genocide, human rights issues, and the work of the United Nations. Granted, it did not happen automatically. I did quite a bit of facilitating and guiding. I wrote about some of these topics on my own teacher blog within the class blogosphere. I took time to talk to each individual writer. I commented extensively on their work. I used my own blog to link to many entries, to show my students the connections between many individual posts. I suggested electronic and print resources. I talked about their work in class. We discussed individual entries.

Then, for a while, they kept composing individual responses. While certainly aware of the community around them, they continued to write as solitary writers. Then, one day at the end of April, it all changed. They started linking to each other's work because they found other entries meaningful and relevant. No, I do not mean that they linked to entries that explored the same topics. No. They started linking to entries that helped them expand their own understanding of issues that they were struggling with.

We learned about this teacher's project through Weblogg-ed which provides an important community resource for educators deploying these kinds of technologies in their classes.

As he notes in his conclusion, adopting these existing digital practices for classroom use has major advantages over developing digital classroom resources from scratch -- in terms of the level of authenticity, youth engagement, development costs, usability, and teacher training demands.

With the rise of the internet, our world today is radically different from even a decade ago. It is my belief that we can leverage these advances to greatly facilitate the evolution of actual communicative approaches into digital spaces. At the core of this is a recognition that meaningful communication is already happening inside entertainment media not explicitly designed for educational purposes. Thus, computers provide us not just devices for aiding language learning, but are an intrinsic part of the cultures for the L2's commonly taught in U.S. High schools. As such, we need to focus more on devising systematically and scalable ways of extend Communicative and TBLT methodologies to use existing new-media content in manners similar to the ways we use any other authentic media materials.

Although basic materials for this approach are naturally cheaper than for specially created materials, the real cost is, of course, the requisite teacher training and technological infrastructure maintenance. Thus, it becomes critical that we adopt the remix practices now ubiquitous in digital culture to make the use of real-world web applications more teacher friendly, and take advantage of the numerous hosted services available to give teachers the agency to bypass any technological infrastructure roadblocks imposed by their school's IT services.

All of this helps to explain why so many professional organizations of teachers and librarians have come out in opposition to DOPA. As Purushotma remarks at the opening of this post suggest, many of these potential classroom practices will be shut down if DOPA becomes law. Keep in mind that DOPA adopts a very broad definition of social networking software and nobody is really sure where the limits will fall. It will have a chilling effect where people are apt to restrict their behavior even further than the law provides for fear of potentially costing their schools federal funds needed to meet No Child Left Behind criteria.

DOPA provides some modest provisions for schools to opt out of its restrictions for legitimate classroom purposes. But, DOPA will create a climate where the pathologization of social networking will have been codified in law. American public school teachers will face an uphill battle against school administrators and parents if they want to deploy such practices in their class. And frankly, American school teachers face enough battles everyday that most of them aren't going to be fighting this one.

Part of the advantages of tapping live materials for use in the classroom is that motivated students may continue to engage with them on their own beyond the class period. In my new book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, I discuss the importance of informal, out of school learning -- or what James Paul Gee calls affinity spaces -- for encouraging exploration, experimentation, and mastery of important cultural materials. Ravi's work suggests ways of connecting what takes place in schools with the kinds of informal learning that is part of young people's recreational lives. For him, it is abolut embedding language learning throughout the day rather than trying to cram it into 50 minute class periods and cut and dry homework assignments. But if many students are blocked from doing so under DOPA, then again the schools will hit another roadblock. At the very time when schools should be exploring the use of Web 2.0 technologies and practices, the Federal government is actively discouraging them from doing so.

What a profound loss!