Blog Post

Digital Media and Teaching

I wrote some assorted musings about the role of educators and educator/learner power dynamics after attending several thoughtful and provocative panels and events at the DML 2011 conference -- it was great to see a few fellow HASTAC scholars!

(I've cross-posted this on my own blog.)

I had a blast at the Digital Media and Learning Conference and was thrilled and occasionally humbled to share space with some heavy-hitters, important new people and ideas, and my own colleagues, both the ones I came with and the ones I left with.

The conference also activated a deep and complicated set of problems I see for the future of American education that has a lot to do with the role of teaching -- of structuring learning experiences carefully and negotiating power and authority in learning environments.

I come at this question as a very new educator and something of an armchair-scholar/researcher. My background is in film production and theory, and though I've delved obsessively into literature on digital and media literacies, much of my understanding of it is as of yet unstructured, save a few formative graduate school experiences. My knowledge of stats and reading quantitative research is nil, and my "border-crosser" academic status made me feel alternately boldly contrarian (occasionally too bold) and shy throughout the weekend. But I do come at digital and media literacy learning from a fairly diverse set of experiences as a media-maker, an educator of kids between the ages of 5 to 15 (in workshop settings, summer programs, and occasionally in-class instruction) and, perhaps most of all, as a teacher-trainer in integrating digital and media literacy into public and charter schools in Philly, one at a time. (You can read more about my work with the Media Education Lab at Temple here.)

I've learned and experienced a lot about power and authority in the classroom, and I've ended up relying on a teaching style that doesn't quite match the one I "armed" myself to hold while reading theory and having graduate seminar discussions. I'm extremely grateful to my boss for encouraging me to read Lisa Delpit's transformational Other People's Children, where she examines many tensions and opportunities in using both "teacher-centered" authority and also encouraging student-led exploration and respect for kids' own expertise in a given, culturally-specific classroom setting.

Power and authority relationships between kids and adults didn't seem to be a primary agenda at the conference. In part I believe this is because the target audience -- a diverse group of innovative media and technology creators, academic researchers, and leaders of after-school, out-of-school, and enrichment programs -- is not a group of people for whom teacher-learner relationships are as fraught as those of many classroom teachers. My specific interest in teacher education (as both a teacher and a trainer) doesn't map on to spaces that are more flexible and adaptable to student interests and student-led composition and creation activities.

Still, there was a seeming disconnect in the way that many panels and conversations I witnessed (and of course I did not witness all, or even many, of the discussions, so my observations are limited) ignored, danced around, or name-checked without exploring the inherent power and authority relationships between the shapers of those experiences (be it in shaping the space, the tool, or the curriculum) and learners in any learning experience, from the most HOMAGO (hang out, mess around, geek out -- neologism of the year so far?) to the most authoritarian.

When I defined power and authority in a classroom setting in our own panel, which was almost exclusively "moderator-focused" (teachers, mentors, and online moderators) I used my friend Tom Ewing's extremely helpful distinction between power and authority in online communities, based on his own experiences as a moderator (see Confessions of a Moderator, a market research presentation from 2008). In his description, power relates to what a person (usually a moderator in a community) can do, whereas authority relates more to how that power is received by the community. A faceless moderator can ban users (she has great power), but she can't necessarily moderate discussions productively (she has little authority). In longstanding online communities, it is often imperative for moderators to function as "elders" -- people who know the community intimately. There is also self-moderation among users without explicit power -- Tom posits that there is a "power of positive trolling" when instigators push a community out of a comfort zone. (If trolling is a form of grabbing power by provoking visceral or emotional response, "positive trolling" is a form of using power to re-frame a conversation, often forcibly.)

I see a real problem in designing learning futures in which the role of the moderator -- usually an adult moderator, and by that I include the authorship decisions of designers themselves -- is not thought to be an issue of primary importance. This means, for facilitators, focusing intently on instructional methods and careful scaffolding of learning experiences for students in addition to creating open spaces for informal, intuitive learning and a place to value, develop, and amplify student voices.

As a side note that may be the subject of a future essay, I often believe that when I, for one, talk of "student voice," I'm making major assumptions about the verifiable concreteness of that voice and its connection to student engagement -- childhood is a place of discovery and identity formation and re-formation, and to "acknowledge voice" suggests that that voice is actually formed, even partially, when often this is not (or at least is not entirely) the case. Children often have very little sense of a genuine "voice" as it relates, particularly, to issues of civics or social justice.

When I suggested, at a panel on the beautiful and provocative environmentalism work being done by students on KarunaTree, that civics could be incorporated into the site's geo-tracking capabilities so that students can, for instance, put pressure on congresspeople, I sensed serious anxiety in "imposing a political framework" on students' "authentic voices." And yet the example given, the stirrings of a consumer boycott campaign to raise awareness of destruction of rainforests in Sumatra resulting from harvesting palm oil for multiple common products including make-up (the girls in the program targeted Sephora specifically), was notable for the way it framed the environmental debate to spur students' reactions. It was already a political framing, and the distancing from calling it that, I think, pervaded much of the discussion of opportunities to foster digital citizenship.

Teachers, mentors, curriculum developers, and designers all make crucial choices that guide learning experiences. Without this guidance, student learning is diffuse -- which is not to say that it is not valuable. But there needs to be a counterbalance to divergent, casual, and diffuse learning experiences; particularly if the DML community wants to seriously engage with schools, technology coordinators, and classroom educators as constituents. This may not be the goal, and I understand that, too, since there is great value in alternative modes of both student-centered and participatory learning. But it seems to leave a lot (I might say most) actual learners -- and teachers who identify themselves as such -- out of the conversation. In a sense, the Digital Media and Learning Conference needs to recognize its potential as a Digital Media and Teaching conference, too. And I wonder how that might shape the bigger conversation.

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