Blog Post

Closing session of Digital Media & Learning Conference: Diversifying Participation

Sonia Livingstone, speaking on Youthful Participation: What have we learned, what shall we ask next?

(Here's a link to Sonia's bio: Also, a link to Sonia Livingstone and David Buckingham on YouTube from a few years ago. Thanks to someone on the #dml2010 feed for that link, apologies I didn't catch your name.

Sonia: So many great constituencies here, educators, political scientists, civics, people primarily committed to young children and youth. Technologists, designers, what can be made and done, to encourage new ways of thinking and acting? My constituency originated more on the media, less on the digital. My fascination is with the shift, increasingly a thoroughly mediated and networked world, popularized by hybridized texts and forms, and socially contrained participants and readers.

Media were nouns, but as analog were replaced by digital (adjective), it seems that everything is mediated. Superficially homogenous, yet in actuality very heterogenous. Can no longer limit or bound our task. Orginally was a social psychologist, looking at media. Once interviewed people on sofa while watching television, now interviews children in their bedroom while looking at their activities online. Digital media means following it where it goes. Need a broader view, away from the screen.

Four fundamental processes at work: globalization, individualization, commodification, and mediatization (quoting someone, missed his name). Life without digital media it would not be life like we know it. Took centuries to say that about the book. What is digital media life, what could it be? Still puzzling over it.

Empirical: what's going on. Explanatory: how shall we explain it. Ideological: how should we react to it.

Need to be asking what claims are being made about digital media and are they being sufficiently well-defined? Have we examined the contrary claims and the evidence that doesn't fit? Opens up a debate about a generation of digital natives that needs to be questioned. Seeing a lot of struggles, context matters.

If we overestimate their skills, we underestimate their support. (17 year old, quoted: "With books it's a lot easier to research. I can't really use the internet for studying.") Another, "Every time I try to look for something, I can never find it. It keeps coming up with things that are completely irrelevant."

Teens often didn't know how to change their privacy settings, unsure about what to click to manage this task. (Nervousness about unintended consequences: stranger danger, parental anxiety, viruses, crashed computers, unwanted advertising, etc.)

Ask not what can or does the digital offer participation and learning, but ask ourselves: among all the factors shaping learning and participation, when and why and how might the digital contribute? Can we scope all other elements that frame children's learning, also methodological: how can we include those in our research?

Given all the other things going on in youth life, many not being anything about the Internet, what can be said about participation, or detraction?

Does it matter if civic engagement, participating in the Internet and social life do not come together? Does it matter that youth does not use the Internet for civic engagement if it is happening elsewhere, offline?

Seems that children are getting older at younger ages, subject to greater competitive pressures, commercialization, more expected of them younger and younger, and at the same time they are staying younger for longer. Financial independence is delayed, in a state of tension between childhood and adulthood. Expectations on them to compete and succeed greater than ever.

Digital is mediating their identities and their wider connections. What knowledge do parents have to pass on when they understand it only partially, often with much anxiety? Look wider than useful uses of technology. Childhood is becoming the last place of enchantment. Imbuing childhood with enchantment also drives the construction of children as risky and fragile. Celebrating creative and positive values, but may unintentionally keep them under surveillance. Risks have lurked, but not always spoken aloud.

Children don't draw the line where adults do. What they call meeting up with friends, we call meeting up with strangers. They might remix forms, we worry about copyright. Fused activities. Second, many design of digital resources confuse risks and opportunities in collision. Searching for teens without safe search filter on Google is quite something. We cannot draw these neat lines in online digital world. Learning involves risk-taking, to expand experience and expertise, children have to push against adult-imposed boundaries. Fourth participatory genre: playing with fire. Explore what adults have forbidden, take calculated risks to show off to others. Trying to work out for themselves what adults consider strange and dangerous. This is not so very new.

May look like young people are creating, participating, but it may be playing with fire. Those adult goals are being attained, but let's examine closely the adult structures next to or imposed upon young people. Child: create, explore, network, subvert. Child: state, school, parents, commerce.

Repeated finding: children engaged in online participation are generally the already engaged, not the newly motivated. Backgrounds of the children shape their digital use more than the digital technology affordances itself.

(Example of site for youth from UK called ePal) Producers claimed it is "about participation in the broadest sense" because services for young people "need to engage with young people in a participatory way. Such vague expectations regarding engagement contrast with the considerable planning of project funding and design. When pressed, they could not state what kind of participation they aimed for. Teenagers, not surprisingly, resist this approach and find the site "boring." In well-meaning statements as young people "need to know about a lot more these days to make the right choices.

Questions: Should digital participation:

Invite youth to use digital media in their own right, or provide a route to change some other domain that affects their lives? Reach out to new groups who may be disaffected or alienated, or to provide opportunities for the already motivated? Enable youth to realize their present rights and responsibilities, or to help them develop skills they'll need as future citizens? Connect youth to each other as a peer to peer activity or facilitate connections between youth and adults? (missed the rest).

Example of an afterschool computer club: learning by doing seemed impeded rather than enabled by a game. Software was intolerant, one small mistake and the whole game was lost, no matter how much effort was put in or whether one had understand the math. Error message was always the same, whether for a serious mistake or, frustratingly, after 30 minutes a a very minor mistake. One child hadn't read the instruction and mnissed the importance of the compass. Receiving no feedback from the game or her teacher, she gave up and played a simpler drawing game instead. A pair of boys had a different experience, after an hour of crashing, playing around, and typing in rude words, they eventually succeeded. They were pleased, they learned about navigation, direction and distance.

What should digital learning be for? Are these new ways to learn traditional curriculum or new ways to learn new things? Is the use of digital technology best for helping more disadvantaged kids, or will the already-privileged succeed better here too? How are we going to assess the knowledge produced by more creative activities, compared with tried and tested means of assessment? How shall we go beyond the findings that evaluations show little is gained from using technology in class, while more innovative uses have been little evaluated? Do we really expect schools to radically transform their teaching styles and structures, or do many parents, employers and policy makers really just want technology to solve present problems?

Quote from 2004: "Media literacy is a a range of skills including the ability to access, analyse, evaluate and prodeuce communications in a variety of forms. Or put simply, the ability to oeprate the technology to find what you are looking for, to understand that material, to have...(missed it!)

Quote from 2007: "Media literacy refers to skills, knowledge and understanding that allow consumers to use media effectively and safely." (Sorry, didn't catch references.)

So many kinds of literacies: financial, health, scientific, on and on. Where does the responsibility fall? On people if they lack financial literacy, when they lose everything in the stock market?

Conclusions: This generation is under a huge amount of surveillance. Need a wider gaze that contextualizes the uses of digital media, but of children's life more fundamentally. Careful to avoid switch from academic tower to control tower.






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