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!”
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?