Blog Post

Toward a New Ecosystem of Learning: Reflections on the Digital Media and Learning Conference

Had to share! Great recap of the Digital Media & Learning: Diversifying Participation conference by Barbara Ray of MacArthur's Spotlight Blog (@dmlspotlight on Twitter)

Barbara writes:

Highlights include talks on the participation gap by S. Craig Watkins, and Sonia Livingstone on learning and risk taking.

We were lucky enough to spend a few days in San Diego last week at the first Digital Media and Learning Conference supported by the MacArthur Foundation and organized by the Digital Media and Learning Hub at University of California, Irvine.

Lucky not only because it was 70 degrees in February (apologies to those of you still digging out from this month’s blizzards) but because listening to smart people in academia, government and technology talk about a burgeoning digital ecosystem is our idea of a good time.

We came away with lots of material for future Spotlight features. Here’s some of what we heard at the conference and what we continue hear around the web upon our return (Check out the conference’s Twitter feed at #dml2010 or see DMLcentral’s highlight post.) Join the conversation in the comments.

Learning Involves Risk Taking: Playing with Fire

Some of the most thought-provoking remarks were made by keynote speaker Sonia Livingstone, a professor of social psychology and head of the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Sheryl Grant from HASTAC has a great recap of Livingstone’s talk on “Youthful Participation: What Have We Learned, What Shall We Ask Next?”

Livingstone argued that learning involves risk taking, and young people must push against adult-imposed boundaries to work out where those boundaries are—and why adults consider what kids do strange and dangerous. Children don’t always draw the same lines as adults do. What they call “meeting up with friends,” adults might call “meeting up with strangers,” or what they call “remixing” media, adults call copyright infringement.

Livingstone made us think about our role in raising, mentoring and teaching young people. How do we help them understand their rights and responsibilities as digital citizens? How do we allow them to take advantage of peer-to-peer work, DIY, remixing or participatory learning opportunities in a way that is safe and doesn’t underestimate their need for adult support?

It also made us think about this question: What is the role for experts? When the barriers to participation in digital worlds are low, when and where is mentoring, teaching and curating needed? And who assumes these roles? Could this mentoring/gatekeeper role be a new role for teachers going forward—less “sage on stage” and more a tour guide through web content?

Two presentations by graduate students in visual design might point the way to this “editing/curating” function. Gretchen Rinnert and Marty Lane at Kent State School of Visual Communication Design, are building web-based applications that can help kids pause and reflect about what they’re seeing and reading online. As one participant noted, we don’t suffer for lack of information, but we do risk a new “reflection deficit disorder.” 

Lane, for example, is creating collaboration tools to help kids understand how photos are manipulated for different political and ideological purposes. After all, she noted, kids today are much more likely to search and use visual content than written content. By allowing students to alter photos and peek behind the editorial selection process, students are able to lift the curtain on these decisions.

Rinnert in turn has created a social network of sorts that allows students across the country to collaborate on 21st-century “book reports.” “Video Book” is pretty amazing. The suite of tools ultimately lets students take part in a form of collective intelligence with tools such as live chat, public notebooks, collaborative storyboards and—the most fun—film and authoring tools that allow students to create a documentary based on a book they’re assigned using stored clips from movies, music and other media. In other words, they get to experience the written word visually. Teachers curate the Video Book content students draw from in putting together their reports, and thus help shape the learning experience. They can also monitor students because assessment is built in. At numerous points, teachers can quickly see whether students are comprehending the book they are reading. A working prototype can be viewed at

The Participation Gap

The opening keynote by S. Craig Watkins, author of “The Young and the Digital,” on how black and Latino youth are remaking the participation gap, and subsequent conversations related to the conference theme of “Diversifying Participation,” got us thinking more about a participation gap versus an access gap.

Watkins notes that black and Latino youth spend more time online than white youth, and they more often access the web via mobile phones than desktops. He calls them “resilient adopters,” because they need to adapt and find ways to use media when equipment is broken or access is limited. Although they are accessing digital media as or more frequently than white youth, the concern shifts now to one of participation—are there differences in how different groups of young people participate and, if so, what are the ramifications of these differences? Mobile affords youth much more privacy after all—and again raises the question: What is the role for adults and mentors? Spotlight will feature a more in-depth look at Watkins’s work next week, in particular its link to hip hop culture.

For more about Watkins’ talk, read the write-ups by Liz Losh and Case Insights. Losh, who teaches rhetoric and composition at University of California, Irvine, points to some red flags Watkins raises about participation barriers and ways in which young people’s online experiences in social networks may be “racially coded.”

The participation gap was raised at other points over the four days as well, though the gaps discussed were not between racial-ethnic groups as much as between social classes. One audience member wondered aloud whether we didn’t risk creating unintentional divides between elite children and others with digital media.

Annette Lareau, a sociology professor at University of Pennsylvania and author of “Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race and Family Life,” has described a growing divide between parents who consciously cultivate their children’s habits and environments and those who tend to believe in the “free range” style of child-rearing—the school of hard knocks, if you will. Are the kids whose parents play a more central role in their child’s activities more able to take advantage of the many learning environments outside of school where digital media abound? In other words, are we creating a system for the elites to opt out of the public system?

The Mozilla Foundation, for example, built a peer-to-peer learning network at the college level. Some driven kids took the courses and then negotiated with their colleges to get credit. But what happens to those who are less driven—who don’t, or can’t, hop on that train? Won’t the most motivated kids/parents take full advantage of these new systems, simply because they have more social capital? 

You can see how easy it was to get hooked on the excitement and ideas buzzing around at the conference. Between heady discussions of the future and more grounded discussions of the realities of on-the-ground teaching, it is an exciting time to be part of a new vanguard of learning. As the Digital Media and Learning Initiative enters Phase 2 of its work, the conversation is bound to only generate more innovation and experimentation. The call to action now is to take everything we’ve learned from Phase 1 and start building an “ecosystem” of learning for today’s youth, where public/private ventures and hybrid organizations come together to create new spaces for learning in the 21st century.



1 comment

Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with the comment about "adult-imposed boundaries," a point.


As parents, we enjoy giving our children some latitude...but with limits. There's a fine line and it's not easy. far so good!




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