Tuesday, December 12, 2006

New Media Literacies

In a fascinating new report from the MacArthur Foundation's "Building the Field of Digital Media Learning" titled Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century, the authors describes how the Internet enables a new "participatory culture" that requires the knowledge of certain skills.

The authors define participatory culture as "a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one's creation, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices. [It] is also one in which members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connection with one another..."

The report outlines several forms of participatory culture, including affiliations (memberships in online communities, like Facebook and MySpace), expressions (production of new forms, like mash-ups and modding), collaborative problem-solving (creation of "new knowledge" through Wikipedia and alternative reality gaming, like Second Life), and circulations (podcasting and blogging).

While "one-half of all teens have created media content" and "one-third of of teens who use the Internet have shared content they produced," the authors believe there is "the need for... pedagogical intervention..." One of their concerns, for example, is "the transparency problem": "The challenges young people face in learning to see clearly the ways that media shape perceptions of the world."

In response, educators are encouraged to teach a number of skills to the young, including play, performance, simulation ("the ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real-world processes"), appropriation ("the ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content"), multitasking, distributed cognitition ("the ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand mental capacities"), collective intelligence, judgment, transmedia navigation, networking, and negotiation ("the ability to travel across diverse communities").

I wonder, though, if "participatory culture" is a really new concept. While the Internet certainly provides the means for more widely disseminating information, I wonder if it really provides lower barriers to civic engagement. In fact, the Internet allows us to find people more like ourselves and shields us from dissenting points of view. When I specifically choose what feeds/blogs/Web sites I want to read and what online social communities to join, all specifically tailored to my own interests, I am less challenged by dissenting views and less likely to engage the other in the public square, whether that square is online or outside.

Many of the "new" skills educators are encouraged to teach are, in my humble opinion, developed through a solid liberal arts education. They are also the same or similar to those explicated in various information literacy competency standards. For example, the report's definition of networking ("the ability to search for, synthesize, and disseminate information") is basically the American Library Association's definition of information literacy.

Overall, these are minor criticisms, and I am not done reading the report. I look forward to finishing it.


Alec said...

This is an aside, but as I was reading my entry, I was reminded of a fascinating talk given by Jonathan Kozol. Clear language is important to him, and he criticizes the use of the word "competencies" when we should instead use the word "skills." Anyway, listen to this engrossing one hour speech by a master storyteller here.

Barbara said...

Yes, this is indeed an interesting report, and one that makes me more convinced than ever that media literacy and information literacy exist in artificial silos. We could do a much better job about including "how information works" in our instruction - including where it comes from, how it's shaped by social and economic forces, and what role the individual plays in consuming and creating media. And reports like this one could do more to acknowledge that the idea of using and transforming culture has been around a while.

Lawrence Lessig, I think, would take issue with the idea that read/write culture is new. I listened to a podcast of a talk he gave at Wikimania (actually, there were several interesting talks given there, but his was really thought-provoking). He believes that culture was read/write until the 20th century, when it became a corporate-controlled, monetized, and one-way flow from the "professionals" to the masses and argues for a return to culture that isn't industrialized.

I agree with you that a liberal arts education is (almost by definition) an invitation to join a read/write culture of inquiry, called here "networking" but recognizable, too, as what philosopher Michael Oakshott called "the conversation of mankind."

We face an intriguing problem of making what we care about much more widely valued - not just as an academic skill for college.