Monday, February 28, 2011

Reading :: Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture

Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century
By Henry Jenkins with Ravi Purushotma, Margaret Weigel, Katie Clinton, and Alice J. Robison

I probably shouldn't admit this, but this book-length report is the first thing I've read by Henry Jenkins. But between the fact that I know his coauthor Alice Robison and the fact that the book's link (free PDF download) was tweeted by Howard Rheingold, I decided that I really ought to read it. I'm glad I did. This report provides a good overview of the changes we face in media literacy and how we might respond to those changes.

What's the issue? As the report argues, "more than one-half of all teens have created media content, and roughly one-third of teens who use the Internet have shared content they produced." These teens are often involved in participatory culture: "a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing creations, and some type of informal men- torship whereby experienced participants pass along knowledge to novices" (p.xi). Participatory culture includes affiliations, expressions, collaborative problem solving, and circulations (pp.xi-xii). Jenkins et al. see the mastery of these as "key skills and competencies" (p.xii), but they are concerned with three issues that need interventions: the participation gap, the transparency problem, and the ethics challenge (pp.xii-xiii). So the authors urge that we teach the following skills: play, performance, simulation, appropriation, multitasking, distributed cognition, collective intelligence, judgment, transmedia navigation, networking, and negotiation (p.xiv).

That's the overview from the Executive Summary. Let's dive into some of the more interesting parts of the report.

Jenkins et al. begin by defining participatory culture:
For the moment, let’s define participatory culture as one with
1. relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement,
2. strong support for creating and sharing creations with others,
3. some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices,
4. members who believe that their contributions matter, and
5. members who feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least, they care what other people think about what they have created). (pp.5-6)
They continue: "Participatory culture is reworking the rules by which school, cultural expression, civic life, and work operate" (p.10). For instance, "We suspect that young people who spend more time playing within these new media environments will feel greater comfort interacting with one another via electronic channels, will have greater fluidity in navigating information landscapes, will be better able to multitask and make rapid decisions about the quality of information they are receiving, and will be able to collaborate better with people from diverse cultural backgrounds" (p.13). The flip side, of course, is that many will not have access to such environments and therefore will not be able to develop such skills. The authors add:
As we think about meaningful pedagogical intervention, we must keep in mind three core concerns:
  • How do we ensure that every child has access to the skills and experiences needed to become a full participant in the social, cultural, economic, and political future of our society?
  • How do we ensure that every child has the ability to articulate his or her understanding of how media shapes perceptions of the world?
  • How do we ensure that every child has been socialized into the emerging ethical standards that should shape their practices as media makers and as participants in online communities? (p.27)
To address these concerns, the authors lay out "a framework for thinking about the type of learning that should occur if we are to address the participation gap, the transparency problem, and the ethics challenges" (p.27). That framework includes the core media literacy skills mentioned above: play, performance, simulation, appropriation, multitasking, distributed cognition, collective intelligence, judgment, transmedia navigation, networking, and negotiation. They address each of these, using examples to demonstrate what they involve and how they can be developed.

Let's drill down to some of the more relevant bits. Some readers of the blog might find this quote interesting:
This focus on teamwork and collaboration is also, not coincidentally, how the modern workplace is structured—around ad hoc configurations of employees, brought together because their diverse skills and knowledge are needed to confront a specific challenge and then dispersed into different clusters of workers when new needs arise. Cory Doctorow has called such systems ad­hocracies, suggesting that they contrast in every possible way with prior hierarchies and bureaucracies. Our schools do an excellent job, consciously or unconsciously, of teaching youths how to function within bureaucracies. They do almost nothing to help youths learn how to operate within an ad-hocracy. (pp.74-75)
The report cites a 2005 blog post of Doctorow's, which is unfortunately no longer there. But you may remember that the term dates back at least to 1970's Future Shock. Nice to see it getting some play; since Doctorow's blog post is gone, I can't tell whether he took the term from Toffler's book or invented it independently, although it sounds like the same usage. In any case, nice to see that it still has some currency.

In any case, Jenkins et al. develop this thought: Whereas school attempts to develop generalists, "The ideal of a collective intelligence is a community that knows everything, with individuals who know how to tap the community to acquire knowledge on a just-in-time basis" (p.77). Among other things, this point leads the authors to conclude that "In a world in which knowledge production is collective and communication occurs across an array of different media, the capacity to network emerges as a core social skill and cultural competency" (p.91). And
Learning in a networked society involves understanding how networks work and how to deploy them to achieve particular ends. It involves understanding the social and cultural contexts within which different information emerges, when to trust and when not to trust others to filter and prioritize relevant data, and how to use networks to get individual work out into the world and in front of a relevant and, with hope, appreciative public. (p.96)
So: lots of gold in this report. There is also some dross. For instance, the authors cite the notion of distributed cognition but don't seem to really come to grips with what that notion entails - they see distributed cognition as being a sort of skill rather than a way of understanding cognition as a whole (pp.65-71). But overall, the report pushes us to think through what a participatory-culture classroom might look like. Definitely find some time to read it.

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