The Kids Are All Right
A major study on the impact of digital technologies on learning
argues that students' online pursuits are productive and edifying,
and should be exploited by teachers for educational gain.
WHEN THE JOHN D. AND CATHERINE T.
MacArthur Foundation launched its $50 million digital
media and learning initiative three years ago, the
expectation was that research in this area would
expand our understanding of the impact of digital
media and communications technologies on how
young people will learn in the future. By the time the
first study funded by this initiative was underway,
that expectation had shifted dramatically.
"We decided we would peer over the horizon to see
if new digital media tools might affect how kids think
and learn in, say, five to 10 years," says MacArthur
Foundation Vice President Julia Stasch. "Then reality
hit: It's not the future. It's not 10, five, or even two
years. It's now."
The results of the first study, entitled "Kids' Informal
Learning With Digital Media: An Ethnographic
Investigation of Innovative Knowledge Cultures," were
published earlier this year. As an ethnographic study,
it was anthropologic in nature, inquiring into the
texture and culture of youth life, and billed as "the
most extensive ethnographic study of youth and new
media to be conducted in the United States." A team
of 28 researchers and collaborators at the University
of Southern California and the University of California,
Berkeley, interviewed more than 800 young people
and their parents over a three-year period. They spent
more than 5,000 hours observing teens on websites
such as MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, and other
networked communities. And they conducted "diary
studies," in which the youthful subjects documented
their everyday use of digital media.
"When they avoid these technologies, teachers mark
themselves as irrelevant in youths' eyes."
The researchers believe their findings fill significant gaps in
our understanding of how young people learn and develop social
skills online, and that the awareness gained in the study offers
much that teachers can use to cut into the distance between them
and their students that the digital age has lengthened.
"What we have been looking at are the properties of learning
and participation that happen in networked publics of digital
media creation and sharing," Mimi Ito told attendees at a
Stanford University forum last year in a preview of the then
forthcoming research. Ito, a research scientist in the Department
of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine (UCI),
was a principal investigator on the study and the report's lead
author. "When you have an ecology of culture and communication
that supports peer-to-peer/many-to-many connections,
how do kids exploit it for their own learning agendas?"
How Invested Are They?
THREE LEVELS OF KIDS' ONLINE PARTICIPATION
AS ONE ASPECT of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation study, "Kids' Informal Learning With Digital Media:
An Ethnographic Investigation of Innovative Knowledge Cultures,"
researchers explored the concept of media ecologies, which are collections
of interconnected technologies and activities involving new media.
Within these ecologies, they identified three "genres of participation,"
which they labeled "hanging out," "messing around," and "geeking out." They
used these genres to describe students' varying "levels of investment"-- that
is, participation-- in new media activities.
Hanging Out. This is the level at which students engage in what the
researchers call lightweight social contact. Contact moves more or less
seamlessly between online and offline worlds, compensating in some ways
for their increasingly restricted lives.
"This level is largely about friendship-driven practices," explains Heather
Horst, one of the researchers who contributed to the examination of media
ecologies. "In the old days, nobody worried about kids hanging out in public
spaces, like the mall or the parking lot of In-N-Out Burger. Kids' public
spaces are increasingly restricted today, so online-- the Facebooks, the
MySpaces, mobile phones, etc.-- those are the ways in which they carve out
these spaces to be together, and where they learn critical social skills."
Messing Around. Horst calls this a hybrid level, drawing from both hanging
out and geeking out. "This is the space in which kids start to explore an
interest," she says. "It's self-directed, and we see a lot of search activities
and general learning about how to find information. It's a level of playing
around that leads to interest-driven activities. The activities are not graded.
Maybe they turn into something great, maybe they don't. It can be a way
that kids gain reputation and status among their friends. It's what they're
doing when you ask them and they say, 'Aw, nothing.'"
Geeking Out. A level of intense interest, even a high level of commitment,
with media or technology. Here, students delve deeply into an area of
interest, develop expertise, learn how to evaluate media content, and build
reputations. It's also a level at which the researchers observed "intensive
mobilizing" of interested parties to share resources and information.
To geek out doesn't necessarily label the user as "geeky." In other words,
it's not about the technology, but the subject. Students at this level can be
passionately interested in just about anything, from Harry Potter to skateboarding,
"This is the level of engagement that teachers love," she says.
"Unfortunately, the kids are not typically geeking out on algebra. It's things
like media fandom and music. The trick for educators is to find a way to be
open and receptive to it, and to pull from the passion that the kids feel for
these sorts of things. Be on the lookout for kids who have these interests,
and figure out a way, in the classroom, to facilitate them. The idea is to
open up to the possibilities and not squelch that passion.
"We've been trying to think of how to translate some of these concepts
for teachers," Horst adds. "Ethnographic research like this tends to use
terms that the kids would actually use, but it's hard to imagine a principal
saying, 'We're going to help kids geek out more this year.'"
A Need for Openness
A bedrock conclusion of the study is its defense of the constructiveness
of the time kids spend online, whether they're on
Facebook or MySpace participating in, as the study denotes,
"friendship-driven" activities, or indulging their offbeat pastimes
in "interest-driven" pursuits with other like-minded users. In
fact, the researchers found that the internet is empowering
a tech-savvy generation to pursue a central element of 21stcentury
education-- self-directed learning, performed on kids'
own terms and time schedules. It's a finding that compels
educators to disregard any lingering notions that the internet
is strictly unproductive playtime.
"One of the most important things I think educators should
take away from this study is that they need to find a way to be
open and receptive to the things students are doing online on
their own," says Heather Horst, an associate project scientist
at UCI and a researcher on the project.
Horst was part of a research group whose work identified differing
degrees of kids' online involvement, which the group
called "genres of participation." Together, these genres provide
a framework for understanding youth participation in different
social groups and their online cultural associations. Though they
come with the rather unscientific tags of "hanging out," "messing
around," and "geeking out" (see "How Invested Are They?"), they have an applicable teaching benefit, Horst asserts.
"I think the challenge for educators is to recognize the value
of these levels of participation," she says, "to stop seeing them
as distracting from school, and to find ways to exploit them in
Horst explains that the MacArthur study estimates-- "We
don't have hard numbers, but we expect to quantify this
research in the next phase of this project," she says-- that 80
to 90 percent of young people are using new media tools and
environments for peer-group socialization that is standard for
the teen years. The internet simply extends these friendshipdriven
interactions. But it's in the activities of the minority
where the educational opportunities can be seen-- "that 10
percent or so who are geeking out on science fiction," Horst
says, "or who love to learn how to build computers, or just really like an activity or subject
and don't have a local community
in which they can pursue those
interests, to participate in communities
in a way that feels comfortable."
These "niche" or "marginalized" activities, as termed by
the study, can be brought into the classroom and given legitimacy
by the teacher, and can be used to draw out students and
allow their abilities and creativity to fully emerge.
To make her point, Horst describes a high school girl she
interviewed during the course of her research who she discovered
was an accomplished writer of "fan fiction." The term refers to
stories written about existing fictional characters from movies,
TV, comics, and even video games. Fan fiction is published
online and read primarily by other fans. The girl's fan fiction
subject was the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (Samples of
fan fiction can be found at the FanFiction.net website.) Unfortunately,
the girl's notable online accomplishments went
unseen by her teachers, both because this wasn't an area they
focused on, and because she, herself, all but hid her activities.
"She was a pretty good student and her stories were very
good. She had even won some awards, but none of her teachers
knew anything about it, and she refused to put it on her college
application," Horst says. "Why? Because it was undervalued.
Educators need to be on the lookout for kids who are pursuing
their interests through these new media, and find spaces in
the classroom where popular culture or media is appreciated,
because it facilitates that sort of passion. It might be about
Buffy the Vampire Slayer instead of Tom Sawyer, but in the end
it's still a passion for learning."
Teachers might find another of the study's conclusions comforting:
As weird and unintelligible as kids' online expressions may
be, the basic values they learn in the offline world follow them
into their new media practices. In a nutshell, good kids tend to
be good kids, whatever the environment. The MacArthur
researchers believe that this finding should persuade educators
to see the internet as less potentially corrupting to students and
to loosen the leash on students' web-based activities.
"We do not believe that educators…need to bear down on
kids with complicated rules and restrictions and heavy-handed
norms about how they should engage online," the researchers
write in the report's conclusion. "For the most part, the existing
mainstream strategies that parents are mobilizing to structure
their kids' media [use]…are more than adequate in ensuring
that their kids do not stray too far from home."
That teachers continue to worry about the value of students'
online activities points to a gap they should work to bridge themselves,
says Danah Boyd. An author,
a researcher at Microsoft Research
New England, and a fellow at Harvard
Law School's Berkman Center
for Internet and Society, Boyd was the lead author of the
"Friendship" chapter of the study, which focuses on the friendship-
driven practices of kids' involvement with new media.
"Teachers have a responsibility to learn how social media is
reconfiguring aspects of everyday life and to help youth navigate
these shifts," Boyd says. "This means that teachers need
to participate in these systems, understand why youth are
engaging with them, and distinguish between what youth
practices are part of normative youth culture and what are
inflected by new forms of social media. When they avoid
these technologies, teachers mark themselves as irrelevant in
youths' eyes. This is dangerous because teachers have important
information to impart."
It's important to note, however, that the online relationship
between teachers and students practically turns on its head
how the two groups relate offline. In interest-driven activities
online, adults and kids are on equal footing; if anything,
youthful expertise has the upper hand. In the classroom, the
teacher, traditionally, dictates. For this new model of instruction
to work, for teachers to open their classroom up to self-directed
learning that takes full advantage of students' familiarity with
digital tools, they have to relinquish a certain amount of control
and allow the students to take the wheel.
"One of the best things that teachers can do is to have their
students teach them how to navigate the technology," Boyd
says. "When teachers are willing to change the power dynamics
and learn from their students, trust is built."
If you would like more information on digital learning, visit
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Browse by Topic menu, click on digital learning.
John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Palo Alto, CA.
This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2009 issue of THE Journal.