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January 4, 2010 |
Digital Youth at Berkeley

This was a talk given for the Breakthrough Learning in a Digital Age event, held at the Googleplex in Mountain View, CA on October 27-28, 2009.

Last year we did a press release on the findings of a three-year study of youth online, funded by the MacArthur Foundation. Our message was fairly straightforward – that kids were engaging in diverse forms of learning online. What was interesting, though, was that the public uptake of our study focused not so much on learning opportunities as much as on intergenerational tension. Here’s a headline from the local paper here in Silicon Valley.


On the adult side of the equation, we often think of social life online as a place where negative peer pressure escalates for teens. And most parents see electronic games as mind-numbing addictions. But more and more kids see the online world as the first places to go to for information, social connection, and learning. Many of us may give lip service to the fact that kids are the digital innovators, but are still reluctant to really appreciate the kind of learning they pursue when they are in control of the agenda, when they have freedom to use digital tools and networks in the ways that they want to. Instead we focus on how we should limit and monitor kids online access, and how technology can reinforce existing learning agendas and institutions.

We need to bridge this generation gap and reframe these issues. I want to argue that kids online peer spaces have tremendous and underappreciated potential as new kinds of learning environments. In fact, I would go as far as to say that peer based social exchange is the key to unlocking the potential of learning in the digital age.

What do I mean by this? Let me give you an example. As parents, we may read an occasional parenting book, but we probably spend much more time talking to fellow parents, our peers, for tips and advice. Similarly, adult professionals look to peers for feedback and critique. It’s this peer-based exchange with others who are engaged in the same kinds of struggles and work that we are, where we both give and receive information and feedback, that motivate and drive learning for us. Kids are no different. Look at the kind of enthusiasm that kids bring to learning a game like Pokemon, or playing in a team sport, and then contrast that with how they learn in instructional settings. This is what I mean by the power of peer-based learning.

We can do much more to leverage digital and networked media in support of accessible, learner-centered forms of public education. In the next 8 minutes, I’m going to try to convince you of this, by giving you two examples that came out of our research and suggesting where we can go from here.

I want to start with Clarissa. Clarissa is a teen who one of the researchers in our study, CJ Pascoe, has written about. She comes from a working class home here in the Bay Area, and aspires to be a writer.

Clarissa participates in an online role-playing board, Faraway Lands, with a few of her friends from school. To join the site potential members must write intricate character applications and receive a moderator’s approval. These character applications are lengthy descriptions of a given character, its race, its history and its location. After staying up most the night to write her first character application, Clarissa received glowing reviews from the site’s administrators. For Clarissa, Faraway Lands is a place to hang out with her existing friends as well as develop new friendships. She has gotten to know people from all over the country, and even has one friend in Spain who she is developing a role-playing scenario with.


That you should generally follow but are not necessarily required to follow.
Take criticism constructively and give it out the same…

Compose your writing to the best of your ability. Do your best to be understandable and to spell all words to the fullest with conventional letters. It’s easier to read for people and generally earns you respect…

This is some text that I excerpted from the rules of another role-playing board. What I want to highlight here is the ethic of reciprocity that you see in these peer-based learning environments. Participants are both writers and critics of each other’s work. Clarissa and her roleplaying friends take their writing very seriously and constantly critique each other. The site administrators have developed a set of policies, standards, and assessments that encourage this ethic of reciprocity.

Clarissa sees her online writing as very different from the kind of writing she does in school. At the same time, the skills she has picked up in the role playing world have served her well in school. For one of her school assignments she chose to write a 100 page screenplay based on one of her characters she developed on Faraway Lands. In her college applications she writes about role playing as preparation to be a screenwriter. In her applications, she submitted creative writing samples based on her role playing writing. She was admitted to both Emerson and Chapman and she feels these writing samples were a big part of why she was accepted.

The second example I have is of Gepetto, a Brazilian fan of Japanese animation or anime that I interviewed when he was 18. Like other media fans, anime fans engage in a wide range of creative productions that revolve around the media they love. In Gepetto’s case, he is a maker of anime music videos, or AMVs. These are short videos where fans will re-edit anime to a soundtrack of the editor’s choosing, usually popular Euro-American music.

Gepetto first learned about AMVs from a fellow fan, and was immediately taken by them. In my interview with him, he says: “I was amazed at the idea that such a pretty little videoclip was made by a fan just like me.. I was really affected by the video. I put it on a loop and watched it several times in a row.” He went on to make his own video soon after seeing this first AMV.

The key here is that beginning editors see AMVs as inspiring and impressive, but also something that they can aspire to, something made by “a fan just like me.” It’s very different from his relation to professional media, whether it is the original anime, or a textbook at school. This is media he identifies with as a potential creator and contributor, not just a consumer. Gepetto made his first AMVs on his own, by looking at manuals, and using the editing software that shipped with his PC. A few years later, he is now an active member of the AMV community online, and looks to his online community of creators for help and feedback, as well as becoming an expert resource himself. “I love the forums, I love the chats, I love answering questions and having mine answered in turn. I could spend 24 hours straight discussing AMVs without so much as a coffee break.”

Although he managed to interest a few of his local friends in AMV making, none of them took to it to the extent that he did. He relies heavily on the networked community of editors as sources of knowledge and expertise, and for models to aspire to. In fact, in his local community he is now known as a video expert by both his peers and adults. After seeing his AMV work, one of his high school teachers asked him to teach a video workshop to younger students. In other words, the development of his identity and competence as a video editor would never have been fully supported within his local community; it was the networked relations mediated by the Internet that led to ongoing peer-based learning and specialization.

Both of these kids found peer-based communities online that they wouldn’t have had access to otherwise. But most kids are not like Clarissa and Gepetto. We found that it was only a minority of kids who were taking advantage of these kinds of learning opportunities. We know that kids today have a wealth of information at their fingertips, that they can find all kinds of online instructional material and tutorials if they cared enough to seek them out. They have simulations and games that provide more interactive and customized learning experiences. Then of course they have online search, aggregators, and social media that makes it all meaningful. Finally, they can connect to specialist communities online whether it is for robotics, or crafting, or chess, or gaming – communities of expertise that would have been nearly impossible for most kids to have access to in a prior era.

We are living through a fundamental shift in how we traffic in culture and knowledge, but our view of learning, and the programs we design to support learning, have not caught up to these shifts. We know the resources are out there. It isn’t a question of supply. Nor is it a question of simple technology access. It’s a question of demand. And what drives demand are social contexts that reward participation. It’s about kids identifying as contributors eventually as experts who have voice and agency in defining their own learning agendas.

It shouldn’t be up to the initiative of exceptional, highly motivated, and usually privileged kids to chart these networks on their own. As Geof argued so persuasively last night, these technologies have the potential to widen the gap between those kids who have the support and resources in the home to fully exploit what the digital world has to offer, and those who don’t. We need a proactive agenda that extends and expands on the more peer-to-peer non-institutionalized kinds of learning that kids are developing in their informal learning contexts. Without a public agenda along these lines, if it’s just up to the energies and resources of private individuals, there is absolutely no doubt that the gap will widen.

My question to all of you is this: What would it mean to think of public education as participation in public life that includes schools and academics, but is also about social participation, community engagement and play. We know that it’s taken a village, but today we have a networked village where we can reach out beyond the boundaries of a school or local community to access human and knowledge resources that radically expand our opportunities for learning.

It’s inspiring to be here in a room full of people who represent the whole range of players who are involved in defining a new kind of educational partnership. We have the potential, collectively to work across the boundaries that have divided the public and private sector, education and entertainment, home and school, kids and adult. I look forward to working with you all to bridge these divides.