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.


Clement Chau said...

Great post, as always. Though, IMO it would have been more appropriately titled if it reads, What is Learning with New Technologies; as Scratch represents a prime example of a new educational technology, rather than new media technology.

My response to your post was too long for blogspot, so please click here to read my response.

Jenna McWilliams said...

Your tumblr page doesn't appear to support comments, so I'll add them here.
First, I'm glad we've found something we agree on--though while we agree on the problem, we probably disagree on the solution. I believe one key is to focus more on teaching students the 'hows' of science than on the 'whats.' If they can learn to think like scientists, then it doesn't matter how much content the teacher covers--the students can engage with materials in and outside of the science discipline in interesting, thoughtful ways. Or, I don't know--maybe we really do agree on this.

Jeffrey Kaplan said...

good post, I like how you bring up the need for time and how that usually works against teachers. It's a problem I see upcoming across the board as more schools are leaning to 1:1 student computer ratio. Even though these kids are going to have computers they need to be trained, followed by doing the work, and eventually (dare I say It?) assessed. That takes a lot of tim away from teaching.

To address Clem, why cant new ed tech also be new media tech?

Ironicus Maximus said...

If learning in new media takes time, passion, and some combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations...

Couldn't that be said for all learning?

...then on its surface school seems to run anathema to a new media education.

That too.

Julie said...

So true. And with teachers trying to preserve some traditional literacies as well as throw in some of the new, the difficult task involves figuring out what to "throw out" of the curriculum. Who gets to decide what stays and what goes???

Ant said...

The issue of time is possibly why educators would prefer efficacy over deep conceptual learning. However, with informal settings, there are spaces within which learners have the time and hopefully inclination to tinker with what they are interested in. The Computer Club model for instance, is potentially useful in the classroom setting. Instead of adopting the view that learning ends when classroom hour ends, informal contexts can complement the time spent in class. Unfortunately, most attempts for the formal to permeate the informal seems to be a mere mask of school.

While experiential learning and experimentation on the surface may take a lot of time, once a certain level of proficiency has been attained, I'd argue that it's trivial to a certain extent. Most informal settings morever, have its own set of norms and function almost like a community of learners. Who's to say we necessarily need the institution called schools? That may sound like I'm trivialising the issue, but perhaps schools are still too concerned about formalisms and abstract concepts. Why can't we all send our kids to play at school, rather than to school?

Clement Chau said...

@Julie and @Jenna, I totally agree. The issue is a pragmatic one. Educators all in all have agreed that we want students to learn to learn, to appreciate learning, and to learn how to continue learning. However, the moment we begin talking about what to "throw out" is where the discussion just ends. In my humble opinion and based on my few years of training k-12 teachers in various capacities, teachers are not afraid to learn new things and teach new content. A teacher's day is already occupied by things "as important," with a big part of their day spent on classroom management and extra curricular activities. This seems true in early education (prek-2), where we continue to debate about DAPs, all the way to higher education, where we are still defining and redefining what exactly is a liberal arts education. While we can continue to talk about what education "SHOULD" be forever, the immediate question is what needs to be included in the Scopes and Sequences.

@Jeffrey, I don't mean to say that new technologies cannot be new media. But being new technologies doesn't automatically puts something in the new media category.

@Ironicus, precisely why it is important to bring into the discussion the many different aspects of school (and schooling) that is beyond "learning." The two terms are (at least for now) not synonymous.

Clement Chau said...

@Ant, I agree with you re: informal education. My little experience with the Computer Clubhouse and similar programs showed me the power of informal education to engage students. In fact, if I read Jenna correctly, the question is beyond the formal/informal distinction, but how to best support learning in any setting. At one point in our history, schooling was thought to be a good way to support learning and development. Now, some argue that this might not be the case. I agree that we should re-examine what is the best way for this time and place, while also accomplishing the various tasks that schools are mandated to do, such as getting kids into college.

@Jenna, my main point though is that educational researchers continue to raise new ideas and innovations. Which is great for science. I am going to be a hypocrite because I am talking as someone who commits the same crime. Year after year, teachers tell me that they are more confused about what to do. Dissonance is healthy for science but uneasy for practitioners. My point, still, is that we are asking a lot, demanding a lot, and wanting a lot without realistically giving teachers the space to do even one or two things well. If teachers don't have the time to do one or two things well, then it's hard to imagine how students would have the time to do one or two things well, too.

And one last point is that I urge us to continue to remember that school is only one of many spaces in which a child learns and develops. Different spaces (school, after-school, peer, family, mentorship, etc) are primed for different types of learning. I hope that we continue to focus on coordinating these experiences, identifying what is best accomplished in which space or across spaces, and provide the resources and research to best support those working in these spaces. I am not opposed to integrating and even merging these dynamically interacting spaces or experiences, but that's another discussion.

Jenna McWilliams said...

And suddenly I'm fascinated by a key question @clementchau identified: what exactly is "new media"? I don't want to tackle this question too much here (mainly because I feel a blogpost coming on...) but maybe this is one tangible thing we can offer to practitioners and researchers alike: clear ways to think about what new media is (i use the plural because 'new media' is a concept and not a set of media), how it differs from 'old' media, and why it's worth teaching in the classroom or similar learning environment.

I hate terms that divide things into 'old' and 'new,' which is why i hate the web 1.0/2.0/3.0 divide, the digital immigrants / digital natives thing, and old / new media. New media isn't a completely new thing, set apart from old media; it's a slow, often uneasy transition into a new approach to media platforms and uses.

Kylie Peppler said...

Coming back to an earlier theme on time, learning, and schooling -- I think that it is a shame that we run out of time so often in schools. It's certainly the number one complaint I hear from teachers about why it's tough to bring anything new into the classroom. However, I don't want to give up on schools and K-12 public education in favor of embracing after-school or other informal learning environments, despite how much I adore them. We've fought long and hard for public schooling as a way of promoting the ideals of democracy! I go back to Dewey in my idealistic thinking that schools still have a place in the 21st Century.


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