Wednesday, September 30, 2009

blogging as a pedagogical tool: some initial ideas and a request

I'm hoping to crowdsource some brainstorming about the pedagogical potential of blogging on learning. Lately, in my work with Dan Hickey's 21st Century Assessment Project, I've been thinking tons about how integrating blogging in the formal English / Language Arts classroom might build a rich new media environment for ELA students. I've started a provisional list below but am hoping that others (most importantly for me, people who have worked with blogs in their classrooms) can offer ideas for additions to this list.

First of all, it's worth noting that my approach to the value of blogging for teaching and learning in Language Arts is deeply informed by the work of a number of teacher-researchers from several fields. Most notable among these are Paul Allison, whose chapter "Be a Blogger: Social Networking in the Classroom" (in Teaching the New Writing: Technology, Change, and Assessment in the 21st-Century Classroom, by Anne Herrington, Kevin Hodgson, and Charles Moran) offers a glimpse into the day-to-day workings of a blogging-focused ELA curriculum; and Sam Rose and Howard Rheingold, who have devised (and made publicly available) an enormous set of resources for teaching in and through new media platforms.

My approach is also informed by my personal experience as a blogger--really, to be fair, as someone who is willing to squeeze out nearly anything in order to make time for posting. By even my most generous estimate, I spend far too much of my time blogging--unless you account for the formative value of blogging for someone like me. I am convinced that the intellectual and identity work required for me to maintain this space has led directly to my growing prowess as a researcher, reader, and writer. You cannot convince me otherwise; so do not even bother trying.

My experiences and the reading I've done about the value of blogging for learning informs everything that comes next.

Characteristics of blogging that support new media literacy

Reaching a wide(r) reader base
It's important to note that blogs differ in purpose from many seemingly similar writing platforms. It's obvious to most that a blog is different from a personal journal, in that while many of us may hope to have our journals read by a larger public some day, blogs are actually intended to support wider readership. The majority of blogs are public (meaning anybody can view them) and taggable, and they come up as legitimate sites in web searches.

Blogs also differ from forums, chat rooms, instant message programs, and social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook. Of all of these spaces, blogs are generally the most polished, the most text-based, and the most supportive of extended engagement with a single idea.

Shifting from intended audience to intended public

This idea is ripped from Howard Rheingold, who (tapping into some Habermas) writes that
[m]oving from a private to a public voice can help students turn their self-expression into a form of public participation. Public voice is learnable, a matter of consciously engaging with an active public rather than broadcasting to a passive audience.

The move here is away from the "please read what I wrote" approach to "please act on the ideas I've written down here." The regular practice required for building and maintaining a blog's readership helps to crystallize this shift and helps writers to see there is a broad, if constantly shifting, group of people whose interests align with the broad, if constantly shifting, ideas of a blog. Though the intended public is largely invisible (we have generally only met a fraction of our blog's readers), consistent practice in finding, drawing in, and engaging this target public makes them less transparent.

Blogs as (genuine) conversations
When I taught college composition lo these many years ago, I always tried to argue to my students that all writing is a conversation--that when we write, we take up ideas that were presented by other writers before us and try to present something new that might be of interest to people who care about the kinds of things we write about.

The argument always felt hollow to me. After all, college students are typically only eavesdroppers. Only a handful of people will ever read what they've written, and often the students don't really care all that much about the assigned writing topics anyway. Add to that the artificial motivator of the ever-elusive 'A' and you have a recipe for calamity.

But blogs--now blogs are authentic communication spaces. They really are. Anybody can get almost anybody to read a blogpost and, if the post is engaging enough, to comment on the post for all eternity to see. This very fact ups the ante some: Getting the spelling of someone's name suddenly matters an awful lot. Making a concise, well supported argument has real, potential consequences: A strong enough argument gets people to sit up and notice. A strong enough argument gets people to act.

A move toward increasingly public spheres of participation

An increasingly participatory culture calls for participation that's ethical, reasoned, and publicly accessible. After all, the widespread takeup of the spirit of participatory culture requires that we all act in ways that keep the barriers to participation low, the potential for contribution high, and the mentorship possibilities readily available to most or all participants. This can only happen to the extent that all or most of us are willing to operate, to express and circulate our ideas and creative works, in public online and offline spaces. Since so much discourse will increasingly happen in public spaces, it only makes sense that we use the ELA domain to prepare students for engagement in those public spaces.

Blogs as spaces for fostering both traditional and new media literacies

For language arts teachers, blogging presents a fairly obvious avenue for preparing learners for engagement in public spheres of communication, since blogs align nicely with the traditional purposes of the ELA classroom. As a group of readers engage in deep analysis of their own and others' blogs, they have to think about issues like tone, style, genre, punctuation, word choice, and organization.

The extra toy prize is that students also get to learn about the characteristics of online writing, including what danah boyd identifies as the four properties of online communication (persistence, searchability, replicability, and scalability) and three dynamics (invisible audiences, collapsed contexts, and the blurring of public and private). As my colleague Michelle Honeyford put it, "they hit all the standards and get to learn about online participation for free."

Confronting the ethics challenge
Nobody's arguing that we should sign every sixth grader up with a Blogger account. That would just be silly. Media scholar Henry Jenkins is fond of saying that the role of educators and parents is not to look over kids' shoulders but to watch their backs, and scaffolding learners toward participation in increasingly public spheres allows us to do just that. Lots of teachers (including the famously brilliant Becky Rupert at Bloomington's Aurora Alternative High School) start their students out by having them post to a private space (she uses Ning) but having them analyze writing from more public spaces. This way, they have a kind of new media sandbox to try out and engage with the norms of online communication before actually being held to the higher ethical standard, with deeper potential repercussions (both positive and negative).

That's all I have for now, though I would love to hear from you on the list above. What have I missed? What am I ignoring? What struggles are linked to bringing blogs into the classroom, and what challenges have you encountered if you've tried to do so?

I hope for this to be a multipart post that will include thoughts on the following categories:
  • Affordances of blogging as a new media writing technology
  • Challenges to integrating blogs into the ELA classroom
  • Resources (including lesson plans, other writing on this topic, etc.)
  • Assessment guidelines for working with blogs

If you have thoughts on any of the above, I'd love to hear from you. If you have any trouble posting comments (I don't know why, but some of you have) please email me at jennamcjenna(at)gmail(dot)com.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

what I do to impress my mom

I got this from the geek comic site xkcd:

Funny, right? Har har har. But it's worth thinking about why some people (generally younger, generally more immersed, more regularly, in new media technologies) feel comfortable tooling around in a vaguely solution-oriented sense, while other people (generally older, generally less immersed, less regularly, in same technologies) see their computers, cellphones, and other tools as impenetrable black boxes whose functions exist in a mysterious, perhaps dangerous ether.

This morning I had the awesome experience of hearing educational researcher and recently minted Indiana University Ph.D. Tyler Dodge talk about his research into new media, visual realism and empathy. He presented a version of the following diagram (which I have helpfully built upon with a small set of descriptors). The basic idea is that new media can be designed along two distinct continua: interactivity and immersion. Put briefly, Tyler argued that high interactivity + high immersion = awesomeness.

Tyler added that high interactivity with low immersion leads to frustration. It's what I feel when I work with the visual programming language Scratch; it's what other people feel when they look at the Twitter interface; it's what still others feel when faced with this:

I know doing something will make something happen
, we think in the various contexts that make us feel like a fish gaping in an empty bucket, but what am I supposed to do? And what will happen when I do it? What will happen if I do it wrong?

I know the feeling. I know it, though computer- and internet-based troubleshooting doesn't trigger it in me--yet. My day will come, I suppose. Oh yes, it will come. So too much hubris now probably doesn't pay.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

'blogging is not serious writing': Oh, re-he-he-he-heallllly?

file under: you can't be serious.

Blogging, writes Jose Quesada over at the Academic Productivity blog, is not serious writing. Quesada references Jaron Lanier's essay,"Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism," in which Lanier argues that

writing professionally and well takes time and that most authors need to be paid to take that time. In this regard, blogging is not writing. For example, it's easy to be loved as a blogger. All you have to do is play to the crowd. Or you can flame the crowd to get attention. Nothing is wrong with either of those activities. What I think of as real writing, however, writing meant to last, is something else. It involves articulating a perspective that is not just reactive to yesterday's moves in a conversation.

Far from challenging either the notion that "writing meant to last" is not "just reactive" or that blogposts are somehow just reactive and not meant to last, Quesada agrees with Lanier's stance and adds that

[a]ll academics are painfully aware that writing well takes time, and some know that writing well is not a prerequisite for having a successful blog.

So, basically, it doesn’t pay off to painfully slowly distill ideas for a blog post. In a sense, consuming blog posts –let alone microblogging 140-character blurbs- warrants you a so-so level of refinement.... Playing to the crowd –what bloggers must do, according to Lanier- does not require incredibly solid thinking; it’s a completely different skill.

Truly, I've had enough of this outdated stance with respect to blogs. It's worth pointing out that Lanier's essay dates back to 2006--eons ago, from the perspective of the social revolution. Here in 2009, blogs have come into their own as spaces for serious engagement with serious ideas. (Author update 9/27/09, 11:18 PM: Not to press too hard on this issue, but Lanier's essay is so outdated that it refers to Wikipedia as "the Wikipedia"--not once, not twice, but twenty-one times. Just imagine the alternate universe where we talk about looking up information on the Wikipedia--akin to tweeting on the Twitter or posting a new status update on the Facebook. That would make for a very different the America, that's for sure.)

Academics have embraced the platform in a variety of ways. Media scholar Henry Jenkins uses his blog for presentation and exchange of serious ideas. Over at the Tiger Beatdown, Sady Doyle takes on the outrages of a deeply sexist society with a playful tone (she explains her blog is about "ladybusiness") that only heightens her deeply effective expression of rage. HASTAC co-founder and Duke University professor Cathy Davidson uses her blog to work through key issues (social media, literacy practices, academia) in an informal, inviting, colloquial tone. Though I've only offered three examples, academics are in fact embracing the weblog in their own interesting ways by the dozens--by the hundreds, perhaps by the thousands.

Quesada argues that "blogging will do nothing in an academic CV." I couldn't disagree more. While it may be true that blogposts don't yet count as "serious" academic discourse on par with publication in peer reviewed journals, not having a blog is increasingly a glaring omission, especially for academics who are or should be focused on the role of social media within their discipline (which is to say just about every academic).

Career advancement issues aside, Quesada seems to be arguing that producing thoughtful, intellectually challenging blogposts is not a productive enterprise for academics--that if they choose to blog, they should use it to reach a popular audience instead of using it to present deeper intellectual work. "What I think could work," he writes,
is a hybrid between a focused paper (that nobody would read other than a close circle of scientists) and a blog post that ‘plays to the masses’ and tries hard to capture attention at the cost of rigor and polish.

(Shut up! the blogger in me wants to holler. At the cost of rigor and polish? Do you even read any academic blogs? *cough* *sputter* ::regains composure::)

One of the most significant obstacles to intellectual progress is the difficulty of getting interesting but new or untested ideas circulated among other thinkers--academics and non-academics alike. This is especially true for young academics (like me!) who have an awful lot to say but neither the credentials nor the years of research to back up their ideas. My work in maintaining a blog--and using it to present ideas that I think are both rigorous and fairly well polished--allows me to not only offer up my thoughts for examination by thinkers whose opinions matter to me, but also to refine, build on, or dismiss ideas based on input from others. (I got Ted Castronova to comment on my blog!) Further, when other academics whose work I admire keep a blog, I have the opportunity to weigh in on and perhaps contribute to their ideas. (I get to comment on Henry Jenkins' blog!)

In short, academic blogs drop the barriers to participation in productive, valuable and meaningful ways--and the more seriously academics take this platform, the more likely it is that blogs will increase in significance (and, incidentally, upping the odds that blogging will come to mean something on an academic CV).

We would do well to remember that academic productivity is about much more than finding ways to get your work done efficiently. It's also about being a productive member of a larger community of thinkers and researchers, all of whom benefit from the wider circulation of more ideas, from more people, in more participatory ways.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

my first vlogpost: how blogging has shaped my reading and writing practices

You guys, I think this is my very first vlogpost.

According to Wikipedia, video-blogging, or vlogging, is

a form of blogging for which the medium is video.Entries are made regularly and often combine embedded video or a video link with supporting text, images, and other metadata. Entries can be recorded in one take or cut into multiple parts.

The open content site at public radio station WGBH clumps vlogs with blogs and offers one definition for both; presumably, this means that both offer the same kind of content, using different media delivery formats.

In that case, here you go: my very first vlogpost, a video project (filmed and edited by me!) explaining how I read and write through my primary identity as a blogger.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

asking redundant questions, repetitively, about social media practices

I just sat in on a fantastic elluminate teleconference hosted by Classroom 2.0's Steve Hargadon and starring social media expert danah boyd.

In the conversation, boyd reiterated points that she has made hundreds of times in hundreds of venues: That the scare tactics adults use to try to protect kids (don't trust anyone you meet online because they may be sexual predators) are not only inaccurate and unhelpful, but they're actually limiting kids' opportunities to learn from and interact with adults in formative ways; that while there are certainly dangers to engaging in online communities, those dangers are blown way out of proportion (boyd gave the example of Lori Drew, the woman whom the media blamed--mistakenly, boyd argued--for teenager Megan Meier's suicide); and that kids who are growing up online aren't really any less civically engaged than were kids from previous generations.

It must be exHAUSTing for boyd to have to continuously repeat herself on these points. I saw the same thing happen to Henry Jenkins over the dozen or so times I heard him speak over the last few years; I recently saw Edward Castronova speak, and I imagine the questions he had to answer about the dangers of games and social media technologies were questions he's fielded hundreds or thousands of times before.

We just can't get past the kneejerk instinct to worry about how people are engaging with social media. In part, I imagine, this is a result of evolution: We're hardwired to protect our species, and when members of the species start acting in ways that oppose the practices and activities that got us this far, sirens and whistles go off in our brains. There's a reason that cultural lessons are so hard to unlearn, and on top of the evolutionary psychology perspective, there's also the fact that human practices are deeply inscribed into the social structures that are now playing host to the social revolution. Libraries were made to house bound, printed texts and card catalogues; we made room for computers and slowly the ethernet crowded out the texts and the referencing system formerly required to manage the texts. The operations have changed while the structure has remained the same.

This is true of schools; it's true of movie theaters; it's true of houses and bookshelves and electrical outlets and bicycle racks and automobiles and couches and schools and the church and the workplace and conversations and cubicles and ice cube trays.

Nobody believes we should give up asking the kinds of questions boyd, Jenkins, Castronova and others field every time they speak; indeed, those questions are so commonly asked because they feel culturally important to us. But imagine what could happen if conversations could start three steps ahead of where they typically begin today, if instead of having to explain, again and again, how media outlets misrepresent the dangers of MySpace, boyd could just start from the assumption that everybody agrees that MySpace users are at less risk of sexual predation than the media would have us believe? Just think how much farther the conversation could move.

I do wonder if these guys have seen a shift in the kinds of questions they routinely get asked by general audiences in the last decade or so. Perhaps I'll do some poking around and see if I can find out.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

9 minutes, 31 seconds of American shame

I was linked via Twitter to this mind-blowing video:

I love the First Amendment. In fact, I wish we could encourage people to go ahead and exercise their right to free speech a little more often. It's not clear to me why we don't let the teabaggers, birthers, and other wildeyed right wingers speak for themselves more often.

some thoughts on what's 'new' about 'new media'

Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel, writing about "new" literacies, argue that the notion of "new literacies" is a useful way of thinking from a historical, but not temporal, perspective. There's no point in thinking about new literacies in temporal terms, they write, because:

Under conditions where time is increasingly calculated in nanoseconds and, as the saying goes, five minutes is a long time in cyberspace, there is little to be gained from speaking of new literacies in temporal terms. As soon as Instant Messaging appears, email seems like an “old” literacy. There is no future in hitching a research agenda to anything as fleeting as that.

Lankshear and Knobel then proceed to divide the "new" literacies into two categories: "technical stuff" and "ethos stuff." They explain the difference thus:
What is central to new literacies is not the fact that we can now “look up information online” or write essays using a word processor rather than a pen or typewriter, or even that we can mix music with sophisticated software that works on run of the mill computers but, rather, that they mobilize very different kinds of values and priorities and sensibilities than the literacies we are familiar with. The significance of the new technical stuff has mainly to do with how it enables people to build and participate in literacy practices that involve different kinds of values, sensibilities, norms and procedures and so on from those that characterize conventional literacies. These values, sensibilities and the like comprise what we call “new ethos stuff.”

This is the best explanation I've come across so far of the "new media literacies" we're all talking about so much: technical stuff and ethos stuff.

Of course, traditional literacies had their own technical stuff and ethos stuff--it's just that the stuff of traditional literacies had been around so long, and had been so relatively stable for so much of that time, that the adults whose job it was to foster skills in both categories felt comfortable doing so. The slate and chalk model was replaced by the pen and paper model, but that material change aside, writing was writing was writing. And anyway, the stuff clustered up in the ethos for traditional literacy practices really only mattered to the extent that people would be expected to engage in public conversations through those practices--and for the most part, this type of engagement was limited to a small, elite, and well-educated group of (rich white male) citizens.

It's not news that this model has been turned on its head--and this is what both makes the new literacies "new" and what makes them feel so new, so unfamiliar, so hard to teach. Normally (and by normally, I mean historically speaking), we'd have a generation or more to figure out the fallout from this changing cultural model, but this time around, the change is happening so fast, and is so complete, that we don't have the luxury of taking it slow.

The term "new media literacies," therefore, can be said to be making double use of the word "new": The media formats, and technical skills required to make use of them, are new to us all; and the literacies--the social and cultural competencies required to engage in the "ethos stuff"--are new as well. Thinking more broadly, the emergence of new media literacies has also, and at the same time, forced us to engage with a new model of expertise: The young tend to be much, much better at adopting and adapting, and therefore have a great deal to teach us about both the technical stuff and the ethos stuff. (By 'young,' I mean anyone up to the age of oh, say, 32. Ask me again next year and I'll say 'everyone up to the age of 33.')

We're not used to a distributed model of expertise in which all participants in a culture have something to teach all participants in a culture. Traditionally, older adults had a monopoly in this respect--early reports suggest the monopoly has been overthrown. It still takes a number of years to become a domain expert, of course, but even the established 10-year time frame required for expert status has been called into question by the ubiquity of learning environments and experiences.

This kind of revolution, as a friend recently remind me, doesn't lead to chaos in the streets. This is new, as well: Historically speaking, times of great cultural upheaval are generally accompanied by violence, riots, some sort of physical evidence pointing to revolution. We're all being quite calm and civilized (YouTube comments notwithstanding). This, in case you were wondering, makes it the perfect revolution to buy into.

Monday, September 21, 2009

update on the decline of print media

Over the last few months, I've largely kept my "print-media-isn't-viable" soapbox stowed out of public view. A new post by Northeastern University journalism professor Dan Kennedy got me lugging it back out.

Kennedy, a long-time subscriber to the Boston Globe (which he calls--and I agree with him--"the most important news organization in Greater Boston"), has decided to cancel his Monday through Saturday subscription. He writes:

Why did we do this? It’s been inevitable since early this summer, when the Globe made a couple of important changes in its distribution model. First, it unveiled GlobeReader, an electronic paper that’s a faster and easier read than the Web edition. Second, it raised the price of its print edition.

Seven-day home delivery of the Globe now costs $46.56 a month in Media Nation. With advertising in what may be a permanent decline, readers are going to have to pick up more of the cost, so I certainly don’t fault the Globe for charging more. But our family is not immune from economic pressures. For us, it makes sense to go with paper on Sundays and use GlobeReader the rest of the week.

Kennedy, like all of us who consider a thriving, free press to be the backbone of a thriving, free society, explains that he has struggled with his family's changing relationship to his local newspaper. He justifies the change with his subscription to the Globe Reader (it costs $14.95 a month it comes with subscription to the Globe--thanks for the correction, Dan) and explains that he would not have canceled his subscription if the only alternative were reading the news online, because

[l]ike virtually all newspapers, the Globe is struggling with its decision some dozen year ago to offer its content online for free. At one time, newspaper executives assumed that advertising revenues would eventually justify that decision. It didn’t happen — it may never happen — and the way out of that morass is unclear. We were not about to contribute to that pain.

Though Kennedy makes no judgment here about the net value of making news content available for free online, there are those who do, who have, and who will. I am one of those people. I believe that the decision to make news content available for free online is perhaps the single most crucial factor leading to the social revolution.

Imagine an alternate scenario: back in the 1990s, at the very beginning of the internet age, news executives decide to charge--and even a micropayment will do, for this scenario--for access to online content. Communication, creation, and circulation of individual ideas and creative works are still cheap or free, as they are today, but accessing the news will cost you. In this scenario, the power of the hyperlink gets diluted to practically zero, at least for those who choose not to pay for their news. Blogging loses its widespread appeal. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, if they even come into being, get relegated to the realm of the banal: tweets about what I had for breakfast, status updates spreading my results on a series of meaningless quizzes, achievements in Mafia Wars and Scrabulous.

It's tough to imagine this alternate universe because putting a price, even a tiny one, on access to content seems nearly unthinkable to us now. Indeed, perhaps the most significant fallout from media executives' decision not to charge for content is the general public stance exemplified by Jon Stewart's comment to Walter Isaacson, a journalist and policy guy who believes newspapers should start charging for access to online content: "Sir," Stewart said in disbelief, "the internet is free."

Since the advent of mass literacy, has there ever been a time when so many people believed so strongly that information should be free and accessible to all?

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
Walter Isaacson
Daily Show Full EpisodesEconomic CrisisPolitical Humor

Sunday, September 20, 2009

putting some trust in "those little bastards"

Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, H. William Rice has posted a thoughtful opinion piece titled "Don't Shrug Off Student Evaluations." (The piece is locked to nonsubscribers; because I'm all about open access, I will helpfully link you to a free version here.)

Rice, a long time higher education faculty member, describes a pair of colleagues who took distinctly negative approaches to the notion of students evaluating their professors: One, whom Rice describes as "an elderly faculty member," explained to Rice that he saw student evaluations as
“an absolute violation of academic freedom,” while jabbing a trembling, crooked finger in my face with a swordlike flourish. “No one has the right to come in my classroom,” he said. (I assume he allowed the students in.)

The other colleague, whom Rice calls "Professor X," confided in Rice that he read his students' evaluations before submitting final grades. Professor X had received nearly universally negative reviews and wanted Rice's advice on whether he should lower students' grades "to show 'those little bastards'."

Rice, of course, takes the more contemplative path by arguing that student evaluations have an important place in academia because they offer educators insight into how well they're doing their job, where they can improve, and in what areas they continue to succeed. He writes:

Sure, student evaluations have their limits. They should never be the only means of evaluating faculty members, and they should never be used to snoop on professors who deal with controversial subjects in their classes. Yes, administrators have been guilty of misusing them. But the benefits far outweigh the risks, and faculty members who actually want to become better teachers—and who believe that good teaching skills are not bequeathed to them in perpetuity with the awarding of a Ph.D.—should read them over and over again.

Professor X’s great objection to student evaluations was one I frequently hear: “The student does not know the subject, so how can he or she judge my teaching?”

True, students’ perspectives are limited. But so are professors’. A professor cannot know what it is like to be 20 in an age of text messages, Facebook, and YouTube, and to be forced to endure lectures from someone who does not inhabit their socially networked world. I’m not suggesting that faculty members necessarily use that technology in their teaching, only that the point of view of those who do use it might be valuable.

As a former college instructor, I can attest to the deep value of student evaluations, though the danger of misinterpretation is always present. Often, we think about student ratings as a kind of popularity contest for educators--in some ways, I think, rightly so. After all, it's fairly easy to get high marks from lots of students: Just be friendly, funny, and a soft grader. It helps to make interesting use of new media resources.

Because so much of the student evaluation process hinges on faculty popularity, it's easy to overlook the much more important questions that only students can answer: Did the professor change the way you thought about the subject? Did you leave the class a better thinker than when you went in? Can you apply what you've learned to real-world contexts?

Here I draw from Ken Bain's excellent text, "what the best college teachers do." He writes about an experiment conducted by Arizona State University physicists in the early 1980s. They examined whether introductory physics courses changed the way students thought about motion. Most students came in with an intuitive set of theories about how the world works; most of these theories aligned with what the physicists called "a cross between Aristotelian and 24th-century impetus ideas." The goal of the course was to introduce students to Newtonian physics, which was in many ways directly oppositional to the Aristotelian approach. Given that most undergraduates went in "thinking like Aristotle," did they leave "thinking like Newton"?

Bain writes:
Did the course change student thinking? Not really. After the term was over, the two physicists...discovered that the course had made comparatively small changes in the way students thought. Even many "A" students continued to think like Aristotle rather than like Newton. They had memorized formulae and learned to plug the right numbers into them, but they did not change their basic conceptions. Instead, they interpreted everything they heard about motion in terms of the intuitive framework they had brought with them to the course.

....Researchers have found that...some people make A's by learning to "plug and chug" memorizing formulae, sticking numbers in the right equation or the right vocabulary into a paper, but understanding little. When the class is over, they quickly forget much fo what they have "learned."...Even when learners have acquired some conceptual understanding of a discipline or field, they are often unable to link that knowledge to real-world situations or problem-solving contexts.

Of course, there's no way to use end-of-semester student evaluations to gauge what kind of long-term impact on learning an instructor has had. Aside from the too-short time scale, there are the real pressures on students to perform, achieve, succeed--and, strange as it may seem, the only way they can definitively prove they've done this is through their grade point average. This means that evaluations are nearly inextricably linked to students' perceived achievement in the class; linked, that is, to what they think will be their final grade.

This isn't to say that student evaluations don't have a place in higher education: I firmly believe that they do, if for no other reason than to boot the universally bad instructors who either don't care about or aren't capable of teaching effectively and to toss the best instructors a little closer to the tenure finish line.

Most of us fall somewhere in the middle of the good-teacher continuum, which means that if we want to find out whether we've had an impact on students' thinking, we may need to supplement student evaluations with some evaluations of our own.

Here's one thing we might try: A set of surveys, administered at the beginning of the class and again at the end, that zero in on the key conceptual frameworks of the course's domain. While in introductory physics the key issue may be "how students think about motion," in geometry it may be "how students think about shapes." In English, my field of choice, it may be something like "how students think about effective written communications." You start there, think about the key issues that shape your conceptual framework, and design a set of questions that can gauge students' intuitive answers (at the beginning of the course) and informed answers (at the end of the course). The nice added benefit of doing this sort of thing is that it forces you to think about and articulate your foundational approach to the subject matter--useful for any educator, no matter how expert.

Indeed, the goal for all educators, no matter what discipline, no matter what the age of their students, should be to help all learners move, even a little, toward how real practitioners in the subject area engage with the world.

And let's try to put a little more faith in our students: "Those little bastards" may care more about grades than we'd like, but they also tend to recognize real, effective teaching when they encounter it. They may not, as one of Rice's straw men explained, be expert enough about the subject area to teach the class, but they're certainly experts in learning--they've been doing it their whole lives. Let's trust that, given the right questions, they'll offer up the answers we need in order to improve our teaching practices.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

a new political model: "just in time" civic engagement

Over at Empathetics: Integral Life, my pal Rafi Santo just published a post about his experience voting in his city's Democratic primary election.

He explains that despite his commitment to civic participation--which, for him, includes casting a ballot in primary elections--he has struggled to keep up with electoral news. He writes:

While I’m motivated to vote in these elections, realize that my vote will make a real difference in deciding who gets into office, and understand that these politicians have probably the most impact on the issues immediate to my city ranging from education and real estate development to local environmental laws and criminal justice, I just can’t seem to get motivated enough to actually follow these races.

His solution: Whip out his laptop, plug in to his polling station's free Wi-Fi, and search for details on the candidates before casting a vote. In doing this, Rafi writes, he engaged in "just in time" learning, which he contrasts against
“just in case” learning, where the learner learns something on the chance that they might need to know it at a later point, but the situation in which they might apply it is certainly not present, and may never be. For a great example of just in case learning, think back to a good bit of your high school experience. I swear I have never used trigonometry.

Given the historically low voter turnout in primary elections, Rafi argues that it's not that people are too busy or don't care but that "they don’t want to waste their time with something they know nothing about." He suggests we leverage our capacity for supporting "just in time" learning by offering research terminals at polling stations so people can gather the information they need, when they need it.

I find this to be one of the most sound and cost- and time-effective ideas I've heard for fostering greater participation in the electoral process. Though clearly significant issues of equity and fraud could emerge (would certain sites be blocked? could hackers crash the system? what if some polling places lost their internet connections? would activists use the terminals to spread electoral results or other [mis]information?), the payout is potentially enormous. After all, more democracy is generally better than less democracy, and dealing with the fallout is therefore worth the investment.

Not only is Rafi's idea an important one to consider, but it also pushes us to rethink our definition of "civic engagement." Voting, after all, is not exactly the tippy-top of the civic engagement mountain--though we do like to believe it is, since it's fairly easy to measure and stands in nicely for everything that civic engagement means to our culture. But it's not the casting of the ballot that matters, but the symbolic drive behind the vote. Culturally, we carry in our head this icon of the Engaged Voting Citizen who stands up when the times call for it; who stands up in earnest and urgency to make herself heard on the matters at hand.

The days of the Engaged Voting Citizen, if those days truly ever existed, are long past. When it comes to voting for POTUS, it's almost a no-brainer for most of us, and the results are generally decided long before Election Day by pro-am journalists and media outlets whose reportage dictate not only what choices we will have, but upon what criteria we will make our decision. They fill our space up with information, just in case, and we try our best to remember as much as possible in case the time comes to act upon it.

Compare that to what we might call "just in time" civic engagement: It often emerges organically, from inside of an online or offline community that forms or unites around a perceived injustice, problem, or challenge. One example: The thousands of people who united to save the TV show Jericho for one more season were, for all intents and purposes, as engaged as the most energized campaign organizers. They didn't need to be heckled or cajoled into participating; they understood the need and, just in time, gathered and circulated the necessary information on how to react effectively and efficiently.

In Here Comes Everybody, technology guru Clay Shirky considers why so much collective action focuses largely on "relatively short-term and negative goals." He points to political protests in the Philippines, flash mobs, and protests against corporate policies as examplars of this, then writes:

Despite the number of stories about collective action, though, they have one thing in common: they all rely on "stop energy," on an attempt to get some other organization or group to capitulate to the demands of the collected group.... Everywhere we look, social media makes creativity not just possible but desirable enough that these examples and millions of others are all out there, with more added every day. Everywhere, that is, except collective action.

Perhaps collective action is more focused on protesting than creating because collective action is simply harder than sharing or collaborating.

Perhaps Shirky's right; but then again, I'd be hard pressed to think of a powerful example of civic engagement, either online or offline, that didn't emerge out of a need for "stop energy." I suppose voting is our best example of "go energy" engagement, coming around as it does like clockwork; but when do we get the largest voter turnout? When it's time to kick someone out, of course.

It's time to move past the lamentation that young people don't vote; they're used to models of civic engagement that feel more powerful, more effective, and more directly relevant to their everyday interests and desires. If we want (and I agree that we do) to get young people engaged in local and national politics, then we need to find ways to leverage this new ad hoc, "just in time" model for a range of civic needs, both large and small. Bringing in research stations and offering (hack-proof) online voting are two interesting strategies for doing this; and as we continue to rethink what we mean by the terms "civic engagement," "community" and "participation" we need to continue to develop and shift our long-established notions of what it means to be a good citizen in an increasingly participatory culture.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

rerun: educational philosophies, in up to 20 words

Because this blog has recently attracted a new learning-leaning public, I thought it might be time to retread an older post I tossed up about 6 months ago about educational philosophies.

Here's mine:

Schools are not benign. Kids learn to be what they're labeled relative to other students. Then they bear that out.

What's yours? The only rule is this: You only get up to 20 words.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

...and yet I don't use Facebook much lately

This blog has been an unofficial Don't Say Facebook is Over zone. I'm not quite willing to let go of that stance, especially since statistics suggest that Facebook activity continues to increase worldwide.

But you guys, I really don't use Facebook that much anymore. And I'm not alone: Lots of my friends have drifted away too. Most of us prefer Twitter now, which means that one of the more interesting features of Facebook--the friend newsfeed--is clogged up by lame quiz results and remediated tweets that I've already read. All of the interesting stuff is going on over at twitter now, and Facebook is starting to feel like the social networking version of a print newspaper: I already got all the important news elsewhere, and the rest of what's there feels like filler.

More significantly, gaining a new Twitter follower feels like a bigger win to me than adding a Facebook friend does.

Now, I don't want to open myself up to accusations of Virginia Heffernanism. I'm not going to argue that my experience is symptomatic of any larger social networking trends. As far as I can tell, Facebook is far from an "online ghost town." In fact--and this seems important--as Facebook increasingly becomes the domain of an older and generally less social networking-savvy demographic, it's shifting to accommodate its new users' needs and interests. Though it has certainly tried, Facebook just can't keep up with the dynamic, socially complex Twitterspace; and the more it embraces this fact, the more it attempts to fortify the features it can uniquely offer, the more likely its continued success becomes.

Monday, September 14, 2009

RIP Patrick Swayze

They just keep blinking out, don't they?

"Pain don't hurt," he said, while reading Jim Harrison. Pain don't hurt? What kind of a line is that? And that blond lady with the glasses--jesus.

Rest in peace, Swayze. Fifty-seven years got you installed as an icon. A brighter body, over a brighter firmament, none of us could hope for.

some stuff I like

Lest I open myself up to accusations of being that kind of graduate student (or, for that matter, this kind of graduate student), I want to point out that I don't hate everything, despite evidence to the contrary. Below, in no particular order, is a list of five awesome things that I've encountered so far as a graduate student at Indiana University.

1. The opening page of Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology: The Digital Revolution and Schooling in America. Open up to the preface of this excellent new text by Allan Collins and Richard Halverson, and you read this epigram:

I have not even intended to judge whether this social revolution, which I believe to be irresistible, is advantageous of disastrous for mankind. I have acknowledged that this revolution is already accomplished or about to be so and I have chosen among those people who have experienced its effects the one in which its development has been the most comprehensive and peaceful, in order that I may make out clearly its natural consequences and the means of turning it to men's advantage. I confess that in America I have seen more than America itself; I have looked there for an image of the essence of democracy, its limitations, its personality, its prejudices its passions; my wish has been to know it if only to realize at least what we have to fear or hope from it. (de Tocqueville, pp. 23-24)

The alignment with de Tocqueville, the great chronicler of democracy in early America, is significant. The drive of the Collins & Halverson text, as with many new texts focusing on the social revolution, is to identify and describe, without making a judgment of value gained or lost, a fundamental shift in the large-scale and day-to-day operations of a culture. The authors hope to observe and describe, not to judge, and if Collins and Halverson tend at times to follow de Tocqueville's lead in revealing their underlying attitudes toward this revolution (about which more later), the effort to approach the ongoing cultural shift toward participatory practices and cultures is valuable and necessary.

2. Early September in south central Indiana. Here in Bloomington, it's been 72 degrees and sunny for about a million days in a row, and at night the church clock's quarter-hour chimes slide through my open window. If I could only get my neighbors to close up their beer-pong table on Saturday nights, I'd be able to listen to the chimes and the crickets all weekend long.

3. Seymour Papert. I liked him already for explaining back in 1984 that he believed the computer would blow up the school, but now I'm grooving on him for his foundational work on constructionism. In attempting to define this movement, he explains the challenges of describing someyhing that is based on the premise of learning-through-making:
[I]t would be particularly oxymoronic to convey the idea of constructionism through a definition since, after all, constructionism boils down to demanding that everything be understood by being constructed. The joke is relevant to the problem, for the more we share the less improbable it is that our self-constructed constructions should converge. And I have learned to take as a sign of relevantly common intellectual culture and preferences the penchant for playing with self-referentially recursive situations: the snake eating its tail, the man hoisting himself by his own bootstraps, and the liar contradicting himself by saying he's a liar. Experience shows that people who relate to that kind of thing often play in similar ways. And in some domains those who play alike think alike. Those who like to play with images of structures emerging from their own chaos, lifting themselves by their own bootstraps, are very likely predisposed to constructionism.

Because the work of educational research is often grim, sometimes excruciatingly so, Papert's sense of play and delight in his work is not only refreshing but very deeply necessary.

4. Week 7 of Kylie Peppler's class, Learning in New Media.
The readings for that week look like this:

Literacies as Multiple and Situated

Scribner, S., & Cole, M. (1981/1988). Unpackaging Literacy. In E.R. Kingten, B. Kroll, and M. Rose (Eds.) Perspectives on literacy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Press, 57-70.
Scribner, S. (1984). Literacy in Three Metaphors. American Journal of Education 93, 6-21.

The New Literacy Studies
Lankshear, C. & Knobel, M. (2003). New Literacies: Changing Knowledge and Classroom Learning. Berkshire, England: Open University Press, 3-49.
The New London Group (1996). A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures. Harvard Educational Review, 66(1).

Multimodal Literacy
Kress, G. (2003). Literacy in the new media age. New York: Routledge, 35-60.

For me, one of the most fantastic features of graduate school has been its promise to help me situate the various, undisciplined readings I've gathered up into respective schools of thought: to sort my knowledge, fill in the blanks, and build a backbone into my education.

5. The yellowjacket nest just outside my bedroom window. jk jk jk I actually hate the yellowjacket nest just outside my bedroom window. If they don't cut it out, I'm going to smack those yellowjackets down on my blog and with this can of Raid I have sitting right here.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

weighing in on the natives / immigrants metaphor

Just FYI, "digital" isn't actually a language, no matter how badly Marc Prensky wants it to be.

Prensky's notion of "digital natives" and "digital immigrants" has gained cultural traction because it gives us a way to talk about the generational differences in approaches to technology. We get it when he writes that

[a]s Digital Immigrants learn – like all immigrants, some better than others – to adapt to their environment, they always retain, to some degree, their "accent," that is, their foot in the past. The “digital immigrant accent” can be seen in such things as turning to the Internet for information second rather than first, or in reading the manual for a program rather than assuming that the program itself will teach us to use it. Today's older folk were "socialized" differently from their kids, and are now in the process of learning a new language. And a language learned later in life, scientists tell us, goes into a different part of the brain.

My mom prints emails that interest her and trusts the information delivered in print form to her front door, but not the information delivered digitally to her computer screen; the kids I work with don't really bother with email and gather digital data like it's Super Mario Brothers coins. Ha! we say. Digital immigrants! Digital natives!

Fine. Except "digital" is not a language.

"Digital" is a way of conveying information. "Digital" is a cultural tool for delivering language, not the language itself.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the problems with the natives / immigrants metaphor. More troublesome is the question of who gets to decide which of us are the natives and which are the immigrants. We need to consider how this metaphor--taken up so widely in our cultural conversations--continues to reify a divide in participation based on gender, class, and ethnicity.

Even those who subscribe to the Prensky metaphor have to concede that not all young people can be considered "natives" by his definition, and not all old people can be considered "immigrants." When we make the sweeping proclamation that kids these days are digital natives, what we're really doing is identifying the type of kid whose practices and ways of being in the world have gone mainstream.

Had we but world enough, and time, this cultural approach, Prensky, were no crime. But what we actually have is a desperate divide: (largely middle and upper class, largely white) kids with excess time and access to resources and support for developing a technological fluency; and (largely lower class, often nonwhite) kids without the resources or support to develop the kinds of social competencies that will enable them to join the larger cultural conversation.

The digital natives / digital immigrants metaphor is yet another tool that gets used, intentionally or unintentionally, to support our culture's dominant Discourse, dominated as it is by the same members of the privileged classes who have historically monopolized cultural conversations.

One of the most thrilling aspects of the social revolution is its potential to overthrow gender, class, and ethnic divides. So far, we haven't come anywhere near realizing even a fraction of this potential, and sweeping terms like Prensky's--steeped as they are in a long history smacking of hegemony--make the revolutionary potential of new media technologies increasingly difficult to realize.

Related posts by other writers:
Marc Prensky: Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants--A New Way To Look At Ourselves and Our Kids
Marc Prensky: Overcoming Educators' Digital Immigrant Accents: A Rebuttal
Henry Jenkins: Reconsidering digital immigrants...
John Palfrey: Born Digital
danah boyd:some thoughts on technophilia
Timothy VanSlyke: Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants:Some Thoughts from the Generation Gap

Saturday, September 12, 2009

new media literacy with an attitude

In an act that feels like the intellectual equivalent of flipping through old photo albums, I recently re-read the Project New Media Literacies white paper, Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century.

That white paper (now, FYI, a book published by MIT Press) was the guiding force behind all my work for the two years I spent with ProjectNML, first as an education outreach coordinator and then as a curriculum specialist. Now, as an emerging learning scientist (and a kind of social justice-y one, at that), I've had the chance to reconsider the piece through a fresh, clean lens. I'm still a fan, though from my new outsider's perspective I find myself leaning on some problem areas along with admiring the core of this paper's intellectual work.

the awesomeness: a nod to open source culture
First, and to my great surprise (I had not remembered this), the white paper actually describes the new media era as "an open-source culture based on sampling, appropriation, transformation, and repurposing" (p. 20). The authors argue that "we must push further" in considering the social aspects of literacy, especially in a culture that increasingly values collaborative knowledge-building and collective meaning-making.

Readers of this blog know that I embrace the free/libre/open source movement as a crucial driver of real and lasting social change, so I'm thrilled to see this nod to open-source culture.

In general, however, I'm disappointed that this notion is not taken further. Perhaps this paper aligns more with the open-source contingent than with the free/libre contingent. The difference, briefly, is that open source adherents generally want to see better products made available to more people, and believe that opening up the source materials will support this; free/libre adherents generally believe in making source materials available so as to destabilize economic, political, and cultural institutions. As a free/libre kind of guy, I can attest that there are those who might worry that the key tenet of this white paper doesn't go quite far enough:

Not every member must contribute, but all must believe they are free to contribute when ready and that what they contribute will be appropriately valued.

Too often, the rules of contribution are set nearly in stone before any potential contributor comes along--which means that questions of what will be contributed, and by whom, and where, and why, and so on have been decided by some vaguely defined powers that be. In America and many Western countries, this isn't an issue of literal censorship; it's more a question of paradigm. Take, for example, the recent finding that 87% of all Wikipedia editors are male. Or consider the dearth of women in the open source movement. Or what about Anna Everett's argument that "[f]rom 1995 to the present...the structured absences of black [and by extension other minority] bodies that have marked most popular imaginings of the brave new world order were in danger of reifying [or naturalizing] an updated myth of black intellectual lag, or black Technophobia"?

on participatory democracy
Which brings me to my next point: Considering the nature of "participation." Having worked with Henry Jenkins directly for two years, I know how deeply he values civic engagement. This includes political involvement as well as the kinds of everyday interactions in which consumers-turned-producers engage. I happen to know that his current project is focused on a consideration of "participatory democracy," which good lord, I can't wait to read what comes out of the ethnographic work he and his team are working on now.

The New Media Literacies white paper doesn't go far enough in this area. It couldn't possibly, of course, since it provided the groundwork for Henry's current focus on civic participation. My concern, though, is that this paper is being taken up in so many ways, by so many different types of people, and with such great force, that it may be interpreted as the definitive argument about new media education. As such, it merits a caveat.

This paper does give a brief nod toward the notion that "civic participation" may not necessarily be about politics, by explaining that
the new participatory culture offers many opportunities for youth to engage in civic debates, to participate in community life, to become political leaders, even if sometimes only through the “second lives” offered by massively multiplayer games or online fan communities.
In the end, however, this section of the white paper asserts that the primary goal of a civics education is "to help learners to connect decisions in the context of our everyday lives with the decisions made at local, state, or national levels."

Political engagement is about more, much, much more, than elections and the law. Indeed, as Jennifer Earl and Alan Shussman argue, in a culture where corporate entities have an increasingly powerful and important role in the lives of citizens, many people "are protesting against corporations themselves in hopes of directly changing corporate policies or products." This is, as I wrote in an earlier post,

the new model of civic engagement, a type of activism that goes largely unrecognized by political scientists, cultural theorists, and pollsters but that offers a new model of democratic participation—the struggle over ownership and definition of public spaces, both physical and virtual. It's hard to identify, harder to measure, because it's deeply integrated into the everyday activities of an entire generation whose lives, identities, and self-making increasingly extend into virtual spaces.
Part of the difficulty in designing and defining civics education is that learners don't seem to care about politics--why should they care about something that Jenkins et al. rightly identify as something happening far outside of their spheres of consequence, when they have so much more power, so much greater ability to influence decision-making, within the social networks, the community spaces, that they navigate online every day? Facebook users, angry at a change in their terms of service contract, pushed back hard enough to get admins to reverse their stance. MySpace users have worked for ad-free zones. Fans of TV series have successfully petitioned to keep floundering shows on the air long past their intended expiration date.

Like it or not, this is civic engagement too, and it has its value alongside of the kinds of actions that push for health care reform, election or rejection of politicians, and the overturn of unjust laws.

...and a word on copyright, intellectual property, and breaking the law
I do not know Henry's official stance on copyright laws and intellectual property, but this white paper appears to take a fairly conservative view on these things. In addressing the new media literacy practice of appropriation, the authors write:
Artists build on, are inspired by, appropriate and transform other artists’ work. They do so by tapping into a cultural tradition or deploying the conventions of a particular genre. Beginning artists often undergo an apprenticeship, during which they try on for size the styles and techniques of other,more established artists. Even well established artists work with images and themes that have some currency within the culture. Of course, this is not how we generally talk about creativity in schools, where the tendency is to discuss artists as individuals who rise upon or stand outside any aesthetic tradition....

Many of the forms of expression that are most important to American youth accent this sampling and remixing process, in part because digitization makes it much easier to combine and repurpose media content than ever before.... Despite the pervasiveness of these cultural practices, school arts and creative writing programs remain hostile to overt signs of repurposed content, emphasizing the ideal of the autonomous artist. Yet, in doing so, they sacrifice the opportunity to help youth think more deeply about the ethical and legal implications of repurposing existing media content, and they often fail to provide the conceptual tools students need to analyze and interpret works produced in this appropriative process. (pgs. 32-33)

Let's take this one step farther: Sometimes, creative appropriation is mistaken for copyright violation; and, importantly, some things that would currently be considered copyright violation are simply a product of a legal system threaded through with corruption and corporate greed (cf. the Disney Corporation). Sometimes, people purposely violate intellectual property and copyright laws for political purposes. Indeed, scads of creative types oppose the current copyright system, steeped as it is in corruption and corporate domination. There is great value in teaching not only the longstanding tradition of appropriation but also the political ramifications of appropriative practices.

I was recently called a conspiracy theorist by a colleague. I wasn't offended: I am a conspiracy theorist. I believe that a deep if largely unintentional conspiracy exists whose goal is to help maintain the status quo at all costs. The institution of education is an important element in achieving this goal; it transmits a set of core values, beliefs, and discourses that allow continued cultural domination by a vastly outnumbered subset of our culture. There is deep value in challenging our culture's primary Discourse, even if a complete overthrow would be impossible (and maybe even undesirable).

About a year and a half ago, I heard Ernest Morrell call media literacy "a matter of life and death" for the urban youth he works with in Los Angeles. At the time, I thought he was exaggerating for effect. I no longer think he was exaggerating.

on virtual worlds as petri dishes

avoiding the pitfalls of researching games

Yesterday I attended a talk by virtual worlds economist Edward Castronova.

I wasn't as impressed as I had hoped to be, given how much I love Castronova's writing--though my friends later told me not to judge Castronova too quickly. The talk was intended, they explained, as a presentation to a general audience, so Castronova perforce needed to simplify and streamline his big ideas.

Okay, fine, so I won't perform my typical Final Judgment on Ted Castronova. But I do want to take up one point that I found problematic, not only in the context of his talk but in the larger context of research into games and virtual worlds.

The talk was called "Virtual Worlds as Petri Dishes," and it was linked to his recent paper, "A Test of the Law of Demand in a Virtual World: Exploring the Petri Dish Approach to Social Science." Castronova's basic argument, in the paper and in the talk, was that virtual gaming environments offer a rich space for researching a wide range of social issues. Because Castronova is an economist, his focus is on how economic principles apply (or don't apply) in virtual worlds. In his talk, he argued that many people refuse to consider the possibility that human behavior in game spaces can offer us insight into human behavior in the "real" world--even though it's clear that at least certain key human traits carry over into virtual environments.

It's an interesting point, and one well worth exploring. But where Castronova went wrong yesterday was when he made this point, paraphrased below:

Game makers and policy makers are basically the same--they both need to create worlds that work for the people operating inside of them.

I shot my hand up.

"This point," I said, "seems fairly central to your research" (he nodded) "and it also seems fairly simplistic--especially since if you're a game maker and I don't like your game, I can just go play another one."

"Well," he answered (and remember that I'm paraphrasing in an effort to avoid misattribution--though I'm fairly certain I'm getting the points right), "the same thing is true in the real world--people can invest internationally, or they can relocate to another jurisdiction."

"Yeah, if (my voice was shaking; I was nervous) they have the money to do that--but there are tons of people who don't have the choice to just move to another country if they don't like the one they're living in."

"We say the same thing about Mexico, but lots of Mexicans who don't like where they're living leave every day."

"But lots don't," I said. "Lots (my voice was shaking; I was mad) stay right where they are."

Castronova ultimately ceded the point, kind of, but the larger issue isn't whether I got him to admit I was right. The larger issue is the sweeping claim that the choices people make in games are the same sorts of choices they can make in real life.

They're not. For one thing, people choose to play games, or not to play games, and they make choices about which kinds of games they want to play, and when, and for how long. We don't, by contrast, choose to be alive--and almost without exception, being alive means living in a society whose rules were created outside of your influence. You don't get to decide whether to play; you only get to decide how to react to the rules of the game. You can't choose not to play the game at all.

Sure, tons of people relocate, looking for a game whose rules suit them better. The wealthy can move to Switzerland or Casablanca or Canada; the most desperate poor can sneak across a border and live each day at risk of being sent home. But everybody in the middle is kinda stuck where they are, and if they're not happy with the game they're playing, they can try to game the system right back. Or they can try to crash the game, if only for a short while.

It may very well be, as Castronova argues, that human behavior in virtual worlds mirrors human behavior in the "real" world. But if we agree that virtual worlds can serve as research petri dishes, then we also need to, as Castronova himself said yesterday, "test the test tube." We can't ignore the fact that games are worlds that people enter by choice, often as a refuge from the compulsory "games" they play every day, regardless of their physical location. We can't ignore the difference in stakes. We can't ignore the differences in mindfulness, attention, and choice. We can't ignore the fact that gamemakers' primary goal is to make a world fun enough for people to want to stay, whereas policymakers' primary goal is to make a world livable enough for people to want to survive.

I agree with Castronova that research into games and virtual environments holds enormous promise. But as a believer in games research, I get anxious when people make sweeping proclamations that don't hold up under closer scrutiny. If we want our work to be taken as seriously as we believe it should be, then we have a responsibility to present it in serious ways. Games research is as complex, nuanced, and knotty as any other kind of social research, and we owe it to interested publics to explain it as exactly that.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

in case you were looking for a reason to like Yoko Ono

This is "L'Eclipse," from Sean Lennon's 2006 album Friendly Fire.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

what is learning (in new media)?

Alert blogtrollers may have seen multiple posts recently with titles identical to the one accompanying this post--that's because we've been asked by learning scientist and new media researcher Kylie Peppler to address this very concern. The question--what is learning in new media?--is too broad for anyone to address within the context of a single blogpost, but if we all set to work, we might get that turkey stripped down to its bones by the end of the night.

My chunk of the turkey is time.

When I joined Twitter, I lurked for months and months without tweeting a thing. When I finally did join the community as a good, earnest citizen, I started out slowly and picked up speed as I learned to negotiate the community's norms and embrace the valued practices of the space. Now, a year and a half later, I can communicate fairly clearly the spoken and tacit norms of the Twitterspace.

I did the same thing with Facebook, Wikipedia, and blogging--looking around for months before joining the community. By doing so, by taking the time to consider the space I was entering, I was able to reflect on others' practices before offering up my own. I read thousands of blogs before starting my own. I worked with friends to learn how to edit Wikipedia. And I was coerced by another friend to join Facebook; the rest was up to me.

I recently spent some time working with Scratch, a simple visual programming language designed for young learners. As the site explains,

Scratch is designed to help young people (ages 8 and up) develop 21st century learning skills. As they create and share Scratch projects, young people learn important mathematical and computational ideas, while also learning to think creatively, reason systematically, and work collaboratively.

I've designed exactly two projects in Scratch; the first was about a year ago, when a colleague spent the morning helping me work up a little thing I call Jimmy Eats World.

To play this project, click the green flag in the upper right.

I'm annoyed with myself that I didn't make the flying hippo actually disappear at the end of the project, and if I wanted to I could open up the program and make it so. Or I could turn the main sprite, the walking cat, into a hammerhead shark announcing my blog's url.

I could do that if I wanted to, because I am a highly resourceful independent learner who has the passion and the time to devote to projects like this. I find them personally and epistemologically meaningful--I feel enriched, and I feel that the time I devote to these kinds of projects makes me a better, more useful and proficient blogger and educational researcher.

Time, the friend of the highly resourceful learner, is the enemy of teaching. Time: There's never enough and even if there were, it couldn't be spent on tinkering. There's content to cover, and not just in the name of high stakes tests. A teacher's job--one made ever more challenging by the social revolution--is to equip learners with the knowledge, proficiencies, and dispositions that will suit them well for future learning. There comes a time when the teacher must say, It's time to stop with Scratch and start on something else.

Which is a deep shame, because it's the tinkering, the ability to immerse oneself in participatory media or a learning platform, that fosters a real fluency with the space.

This is a key feature of what it means to learn in new media: the choice to engage with certain tools, to join up with certain affinity spaces, beyond the time required by schools. Clay Shirky writes that the days are gone when we could expect to do things only for money; we're in an era when the greatest innovations emerge not for money but for love.

If learning in new media takes time, passion, and some combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, then on its surface school seems to run anathema to a new media education. In fact, it may be that engagement with participatory practices is exactly what schools need at a time when they are struggling to remain relevant to the real world needs, experiences, and expertises into which learners will ultimately emerge.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

why educated elites are lame, by a member of the educated elite

Great piece this morning at Technollama about the struggle between technophobia and technophilia.

The blog's author, Andres Guadamuz, cites a quote he attributes to Douglas Adams:
“There’s a set of rules that anything that was in the world when you were born is normal and natural. Anything invented between when you were 15 and 35 is new and revolutionary and exciting, and you’ll probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re 35 is against the natural order of things.”

(If Adams is right, then I better speed up my tech-immersion: I turn 32 on Monday. Also, I'm officially putting all innovative technology designers on notice: Everything awesome must be designed and made public within the next three years.)

The Adams quote aligns with that old political axiom: If you're not liberal when you're young, you have no heart; if you're not conservative when you're old, you have no brains.

Both point to a key characteristic of most humans: the impulse toward self-preservation. For all their whinging about the dangers of participatory media, many if not most anti-tech curmudgeons will, when backed into a corner, acknowledge the democratic possibilities of new media, even if they're not sure those possibilities will ever be realized. As I explained in a recent post, I believe that people who engage in pro/con debates about social media become more strident in public than they are in private.

Guadamuz addresses a key issue of what he calls "the war between old media and the internet": the fact that when everyone is a potential media outlet, a lot of what gets published is drivel and dross. He writes:

We will always need some authoritative and well-written version of events, and for that the traditional publishing mechanisms will continue to exist. However, social media has come to allow more people’s voices to be made available. Is this a good thing? I personally think that it is a fundamental and empowering change in society, one that could potentially create a more participative and rich intellectual environment. Is there a lot of dross out there? Certainly! But there is also a lot of dross in traditional media, as any thinking person who picks up a copy of Heat magazine will attest to.

Guadamuz is right, of course. But, more importantly, the dross that exists on the internet has always existed; it's just that until the emergence of participatory media, the educated elites never had to lower themselves to engaging with it. Lame ideas, poorly designed creative works, ignorant or bigoted political stances, and individual identity work had no avenue for widespread expression, and so the people in charge got to act like none of the above actually existed. And, for all cultural intents and purposes, none of the above actually did exist.

Let me put a finer point on this: The decline-in-quality argument is an elitist stance in reaction to the transformative democratic potential of social media for the unwashed masses. I say this as an educated elite, as someone who has benefited as much as the next guy from the ability to participate in the dominant group's dominant Discourse.

People have always had stupid ideas and uninformed opinions; but what makes social media so powerfully transformative is that it allows people to not only communicate but also to refine, clarify, and potentially reject those ideas and opinions. Private opinions brought out in the sun are nearly always better than private opinions, privately held--especially when nearly everybody has approximately the same ability to express and circulate their beliefs.

This does not, by the way, make me an uncritical utopianist. I am aware that participatory media platforms allow stupid ideas to gain adherents and to therefore gain power. I'm also aware that these platforms make it so that more stupid ideas are more readily available, and that it becomes increasingly difficult--both individually and culturally--to separate the wheat from the chaff.

That's ok by me. Worrying about how to filter more opinions is way better than worrying about how to provide more people with platforms for expressing their opinions.*

*Note: We still need to worry about how to provide more people with platforms for expressing their opinions.

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