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?




Consuming Creativity with Creativity

When it comes to societal advancement there is a running theme of fear and resistance by older generations; a sense that the ways they were brought up is somehow superior.  If history is any indication, this theme will only continue. What’s so interesting about its recurrence now is that the older generation fears technology will do to their children what it had done to them – create passive consumers of creativity, or what Lawrence Lessig refers to as a “read only” only culture in his TED Talk titled “Laws That Choke Creativity.”

Under this light, I suspect today’s fear comes from a lack of understanding. This generation is not consumed with creativity without any outlet for creativity, they are engaged in (re)creativity as Lessig coined it. Users take creative pieces and recreate them in their own image. Lessig champions this new read/write culture where users consume creativity and (re)create. The problem is the legal obstacles attempting to limit the growth of the read/write culture. These obstacles are forcing the read/write culture to “live life against the law.” I can’t help but wonder if that isn’t part of the appeal to the emerging culture, however. Being told not to do something has always sparked an interest that might not otherwise be there. It’s as old a theme in our culture as resistance to technology.

More than likely, the appeal of “living life against the law” only appeals to a fraction of users. As Jenkins points out in Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century creating media creates a higher form of respect for other users media.  By letting users (re)create creativity they in turn have more respect for the creativity of others, just as they want their own creativity to be respected. Jenkins seems to suggest that the problem could take care of itself.

For better or worse, education is influenced by the culture we live in, at least I hope it is. As long as we’re living in a read/write culture, and what better culture to be a part of, we need to find out where we fit in as educators. While our students are consuming and creating media, they’re not always doing it critically, appropriately, legally, or safely.  Students could benefit from instructors that helped define these blurred lines, validating what students do, and helping them do it better. This can contribute to an affective learning environment where it’s clear that students are learning from teachers and teachers are learning from students.

None of this is to say it’s easy, the world wide web is infinite and omnipresent; there is so much out there to be gained and lost over and over again. We all fear the unknown; the internet can be a big and scary place. The benefits of using media, however, far outweighs the risks as Will Richardson points out in his Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Tools for Classrooms. Richardson acknowledges this tension between school (parents included) and the literacy activities students participate in outside of school, and shares some ways for working around it. Ultimately, Richardson claims that teachers need find their own balance – that’s the most important takeaway.

Teachers and parents resistance to new practices and the immersion of the read/write culture only hurts students in the long run leaving them less prepared. Richardson also points out that “communicating and collaborating with peers using instant or text messaging [social media], accounts allows them to be ‘always on’ and always connected. That is their expectation, one that has changed greatly in just the past ten years.” This expectation isn’t going away. They expect to “always be on” and they’re expected to be as well.  Some teachers try and remove distractions from their classrooms, but those distractions are still there and they’re not going away. By ignoring this expectation, I wonder if we’re only leaving them less prepared. .

Jenkins touches on this idea of expecting to be expected when he describes multi-tasking. He describes it as “the ability to scan ones environment and shift focus onto salient details on an ad hoc basis.” This idea of consuming endless media while trying to perform is rooted in the fear of the effects of technology on the upcoming generation – the so called “ADD” generation. Their attention spans are so short because they are switching tasks at such a rapid pace. That multitasking will somehow ruin the ability to concentrate and problem solve.

The need to multitask and the expectation of constant communication isn’t going anywhere. As valuable as it is to be able to really devote your concentration to one thing, we cannot dismiss the value of being able to “scan your environment and shift focus”; it is a skill they need. Students need to know how to take in information through a variety of mediums, prioritize it, and assert some control over its effect on their lives.

No Thanks Coach; I’m Comfortable on the Bench.

Currently, Girl Talk is the hit mashup musician. He also happens to be a biomedical engineer specializing in tissue engineering. (This is almost not surprising because, really, what’s more remix-y than using tissues to substitute or improve biological functions?)  In addition to his “lawsuit waiting to happen” style of unauthorized sampling, he offers up his music on a “pay what you want” per download basis (a la Radiohead). This is an awkward sentiment considering the fact that, had he been sampling music some 15 years ago, most people would say he was stealing. Girl Talk creates music via online digital technologies, but it is the live performances that come out of this music–by him and others–that seem to resonate with his listeners.

In fact, Anne Marsen became famous overnight when she was featured dancing to Girl Talk’s album All Night in the online edition of The New York Times Magazine. By responding to a Craigslist ad from aspiring art photographer Jacob Krupnick asking for dancers:  “all skills, all ages, all bodies,” Marsen became a part of an “epic” 71 minute video in which she and two others dance across Manhattan.  In the article, Krupnick describes Marsen’s own mashup style:  “She’s playing with her body movement the way a rapper might play with words.” She dropped out of ballet school and takes classes in ten different styles of dance–from salsa to West African to pole.  This is a kind of remix on its own.  It’s one that is physical, but whose aesthetic appeal gained popularity via a combination of digital media: film, Girl Talk’s All Night album, and the online edition of The New York Times.

Clealy “participatory culture” isn’t limited only to online communities, but what I’m interested in is the influence of one on the other.  When I read Henry Jenkins’ definition of participatory culture, I got nervous.  This is mostly because I realized that I’m not a part of it, at least not really.  I’m blogging here, for class, but I don’t have my own blog that I’ll continue to update after this semester.  I’m on Facebook, but I hardly consider my snarky comments or sharing of Democracy Now! clips to really matter–they don’t seem to be changing the world or even my own little community in any way. I find that I do more reading and watching than writing when I’m supposedly “participating” in online digital culture. If anything, the more time I spend online, the less involved I feel in my community–or any community for that matter.

Larry Lessig explains to his audience that kids are taking the songs of their parents’ generation and remixing them. He goes on to say that this technique has been democratized, that “anyone with access to a fifteen hundred dollar computer” can take both “sounds and images from the culture around us and use it to say things differently.”  I’m sure that if I learned, I too could do this.  But the truth is that I’m comfortable not (really) participating, not producing things online.  I enjoy consuming the videos, commentary, news, and remixes that others create, but I have little desire to join in and create alongside of them (Unless, that is, I’m creating a hyperlink to their online product like I did above).

I’m wondering what it means to not be a part of online participatory culture, what the spaces inbetween the online and offline worlds can create (that couldn’t (wouldn’t?) be created without one or the other), or if it’s even possible to not be a part of participatory culture.