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.

The Kids Are All RightWHEN 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?


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, Horst says.

"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 the classroom."

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 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."

Transferring Control

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."

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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.