New Media: A Bottomless Pit of Procrastination, or a Gateway to Deeper Learning?

Often, when I talk to people about the benefits of using new media in the composition classroom, I receive looks of disbelief, terror, and confusion. One might say to me, “Wait… did you just say ‘benefits’? I thought that new media were a negative force, sucking up all of our time and distracting us from in-person relationships. I mean, come on! Haven’t we all found ourselves being sucked into a bottomless pit of Facebook postings? What about twitter? Ain’t nobody got time for that!”

Kevin Hart Really

This guy thought I was nuts for even uttering “new media” and “classroom” in the same sentence!

However, upon reading “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century,” by Henry Jenkins and “The Digital Imperative: Making the Case for a 21st-Century Pedagogy,” by J. Elizabeth Clark, I found myself smiling with satisfaction – I now have an arsenal of rebuttals against those who argue that new media don’t belong in the classroom! My encounters with skeptical folks highlight a very important point: in the midst of the media hysteria about how harmful new media can be, there is little discussion about the benefits of using new media in the classroom. For one thing, new media promote a culture of participation and collaboration (isn’t every CEO all over these like white on rice?): In fact, through the frequent use of new media, students find themselves immersed in participatory culture: “…a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices” (Jenkins, 2006, p. 3). Why does this matter? Given the fact that our society is becoming more and more collaborative (for example, in the workplace), it’s important for students to become comfortable in digital spaces. Students also must learn how to navigate new media safely – learn how to decipher whether or not sources are reliable, how to avoid online predators, how to reflect on their new media use, and how to collaborate effectively with others, for example. Merely turning them loose on new media without such guidance (what Jenkins refers to as a “laissez-faire” approach) can lead to harm. But by ensuring that students are comprehensively educated about new-media, there is much that they can gain from it.

A portion of this text I felt especially interesting was Jenkins’ discussion of the participation gap, which is “the unequal access to the opportunities, experiences, skills, and knowledge that will prepare you will participation in the world of tomorrow” (Jenkins, 2006, p. 3). Although use of new media is widespread – in contrast to the stereotype of the suburban, middle class, white male, using new media and video games in his mama’s basement – Jenkins explains that new media usage is actually higher amongst urban, rural, and female users. However, even though usage is rather widespread, there remains participation gap. For instance, many lower-income families have access to new media, but they are less likely to have access to in-home computers. This hinders their familiarity and comfort with using new media in a variety of ways. Access to technology is insufficient for eliminating the technology divide. Jenkins warns us: “Expanding access to computers will help bridge some of the gaps between digital haves and have-nots, but only in a context in which Wi-Fi is coupled with new educational initiatives to help youth and adults learn how to use those tools effectively” (13). In short, in order for everyone to have equal access to the benefits of new media, they need access not just to the technology itself, but the proper guidance about how to get the most benefits from it.

The transparency problem: “The challenges young people face and learning to see clearly the ways that media shape perceptions of the world” (Jenkins, 2006, p. 3).

I found this discussion particularly interesting. Jenkins warns us that certain forms of new media, such as video games, set up antagonistic relationships between players and games. This seems pretty harmless, right? Or… maybe not? It appears that there needs to be more research to help us draw conclusions. In the meantime, here are some of the concerns: Although video game players are gaining the benefits of strategic thinking through complex situations, they may also be developing a more antagonistic and suspicious attitude than those who do not play such games. Furthermore, students who play video games are not usually taught how do “read games as texts, constructed with their own aesthetic norms, genre conventions, ideological biases, and codes of representation” (Jenkins, 2006, p.15). How transparent can these games be, if we haven’t yet taken the time to analyze and deconstruct them? However, there is no doubt that this can be mitigated through to media literacy education.

The ethics challenge: “The breakdown of traditional forms of professional training and socialization that might prepare young people for their increasingly public roles of media makers and community participant” (Jenkins, 2006, p. 3).

Jenkins is on a roll: Again, he brings up a very important issue – the issue of ethics in the more casual, more public new media writing spaces. After all, there isn’t a long tradition of ethical norms for new media writing (unlike in more traditional media forms, such as newspaper writing). Furthermore, this newer media is often used by younger people and avoided by older adults. The widespread exposure of new media writing also may draw unwanted attention. This is certainly an issue I haven’t yet thought much about, especially in terms of using new media in my composition classroom. While I will definitely take Jenkins’ advice and encourage my students to think carefully about what they post on social media, I can’t help but wonder what else I can do create an ethical framework for my students.

Before I finish this blog without even mentioning Clark, I’d like to share some of what she discusses in her text:

“As integral as digital rhetoric has become to society at large, for the first time, many of the ideas of the academy are far behind social and cultural innovation, not leading them. Academia has been slow to adopt the teaching of these habits of thought to our students…” (Clark, 2010, p. 28).

Clark argues that the future of writing (digital, collaborative, global, and potentially public) requires educators (and the academy) to get with the times, and stop running away from using this new media in our classrooms. This new “Digital imperative” insists that we use digital media with the same enthusiasm as we use old media, such as (expensive and heavy!) books. New media should not be something we use occasionally, just to spice things up in the classroom and keep our students from falling asleep – its use should be expected, and we should accept that it is always in flux.

I can’t help but agree with Clark, and the vignette about her student, Ally, highlights how beneficial new-media is for students. Through use of new media in her composition classroom, Ally transforms from a terrified, five-paragraph-essay writer to a digital activist. And in the process, she comes understand herself better as a writer, and learned how to address a public audience. And, this is exactly what we instructors desire for our students, isn’t it?




3 comments on “New Media: A Bottomless Pit of Procrastination, or a Gateway to Deeper Learning?

  1. Hey Monica,

    I loved reading your post! Your voice on the page is always entertaining to read. You raised some very interesting points in your blog post, and many of these were the same issues that stood out to me as I read these articles. Like most forms of literacy, which involve access, there is a participation gap we must be mindful of. I think this is an extension of all previous movements, and it is a modern iteration of it.

    Jenkins’ approach to video games is, ironically, a little one-sided. Video games are not necessarily antagonistic, not anymore so than other “texts” or narratives. Video games are especially unique in a narratological sense in that they establish a point of view that causes the players to identify their on-screen counterparts as an extension of themselves. Oftentimes these characters are heroic and benevolent; I also think of many RPGs where characters are on “teams” with other friendly characters. I don’t think this is any different from novels, where readers choose to identify with different characters more than others. Every narrative has antagonistic qualities. I do agree that the fact that this is even a subject of conversation at all shows that we need to study video games as “texts,” among other things.

    Finally, as we’ve been discussing, the field simply must grow and evolve to fit the needs of today’s students. People are not just writing with pens, pencils, and paper, and we are not simply processing giant blocks of text. We must process the world around us, which in its very nature is “multimodal.” Rather than teaching students how to simply read alphabetic texts and compose them likewise, we should be encouraging students to “read the world” critically and intelligently.

  2. As someone who writes fanfiction, a product of participatory culture, and is just as involved in participatory culture as the next internet citizen, I also want to add that being involved in participatory culture also means contributing it. I’m not saying that one must always produce something to actually contribute. Simply being a member can also mean you are participating in something. For instance, Jenkins talks about the affinity space, and one example might be the fandom. In a fandom you can create fanart, fanfiction, fan sites, be part of a forum…what makes one part of the participatory culture is the fact that one is a fan, someone who shares the same interest in the fandom. I’m pointing out all of this because I think membership is an element–no matter how small–that could launch someone into being part of participatory culture. Students are members of the classroom, and if Jenkins depicts the importance of participatory culture in a lengthy white paper, I wonder how might we simulate an immersive participatory culture in the classroom. Are we already doing that, or are there things that we need to improve to really make participatory culture-ness more prevalent?

  3. I also agreed with a lot of Jenkins points on transparency and ethics. Most students are not conscious of digital citizenship. I think the investigating the transparency of specific forms of media could really bring to light a lot of the ethical issues. This got me thinking of having students research their digital footprints and the privacy issues on the sites they use the most. I think this would really grant them an awareness of how they are representing and protecting themselves online. If you are going to use highly public forums of new media in your classroom, I think it is imperative that students are educated about digital citizenship and they look at the reputation the have created for themselves online. Especially with FYC students, they are entering an academic discourse community and they are entering the professional portion of their life. Understanding that their digital citizenship is an important part of how they could be evaluated by others in the future, (especially when it come to their writing) is an extremely interesting teaching opportunity.

    Thanks for sharing!

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