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Laura Beth Fay
Aug 31 2010

Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: What Are the Roles of Teachers and Schools in Creating Responsible Participants?


A participatory culture is a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices. A participatory culture is also one in which members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created). (3)

According to Henry Jenkins, Director of Media Studies at MIT, this participatory culture is what our students live in outside of school, but what they are excluded from the minute they cross the threshold of formal education. In his paper, Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century published by the MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Initiative, Jenkins defines a new set of vocabulary for media literacy and outlines the roles of student, teacher, and parent in this participatory culture.

Jenkins spends some time explaining the story of Blake Ross, a 14 year old who was inspired by his participation in the gaming environment of Sim City and created the Firefox web browser. Thanks to the open source nature of Firefox, a global community emerged to develop and improve the initial version of the browser. By age 19 Ross had enough support and investment capital to launch his own business (7). There are many stories like Ross' and as educators we tend to look at these examples as unique and impossible to recreate on a larger scale within our classrooms. Jenkins argues, however, that this is exactly the type of collaborative and participatory atmosphere that we should be actively teaching in schools in order to prepare children to take the best advantage of the learning experiences that the technological world has to offer.

As new technologies have emerged many have been deemed as social in nature, therefore having very little to do with the educational environment. Many scholars have argued that children will develop the skills needed for these new technologies on their own because of a self motivation to participate. School districts often make the decision to block these social frameworks from schools entirely in the interest of protecting children from the dangers that participation in these environments can pose. While safety of the students is certainly a real and primary concern, if children are left to their own devices to navigate this new landscape, what guidelines will they rely on in order to make the right choices for their safety and well being? This is especially significant given that children are often more adept at navigating new technologies than their parents, making many parents somewhat handicapped in the supervision of these behaviors.

Jenkins supports his call for formal education on participatory culture with three main concerns that can be best addressed if handled within the school framework. He asserts that these three elements are essential to ensuring that schools are preparing students for a meaningful existence in America's modern democracy. Jenkins defines these three elements as follows:

The Participation Gap— the unequal access to the opportunities, experiences, skills, and knowledge that will prepare youth for full participation in the world of tomorrow.

The Transparency Problem— The challenges young people face in learning to see clearly the ways that media shape perceptions of the world.

The Ethics Challenge— The breakdown of traditional forms of professional training and socialization that might prepare young people for their increasingly public roles as media makers and community participants. (3)

In addition to defining these three core problems, Jenkins defines a list of core social skills and cultural competencies that need to be a part of formal education on participatory culture. These skills are: play, performance, simulation, appropriation, multitasking, distributed cognition, collective intelligence, judgment, transmedia navigation, networking, and negotiation. Throughout the article Jenkins defines each of these terms in depth and provides examples for application in multiple subject areas. This list seems formidable and daunting to teachers who already feel the pressure of overstuffed curricula. Jenkins addresses this concern with his intentions for writing the article:

Much of the resistance to media literacy training springs from the sense that the school day is bursting at its seams, that we cannot cram in any new tasks without the instructional system breaking down altogether. For that reason, we do not want to see media literacy treated as an add-on subject. Rather, we should view its introduction as a paradigm shift, one that, like multiculturalism or globalization, reshapes how we teach every existing subject. Media change is affecting every aspect of our contemporary experience, and as a consequence, every school discipline needs to take responsibility for helping students to master the skills and knowledge they need to function in a hypermediated environment. (57)

The classroom is not the only environment in which Jenkins sees learning opportunities for participatory culture. Afterschool programs are a tremendous resource for teaching and engaging children. Jenkins recognizes the emergence of the Computer Clubhouse model as a way for students to spend time experimenting with new media literacies and also to reflect on their own work as well as the work of others. These after school activities are essential to the success of media literacy in schools.

Parents are also an integral part of a child's literacy development. Just as parents lay the foundation for developmental skills in the first five years of a child's life, parents have the potential to build and support a foundation for new media literacies. Jenkins acknowledges that parents often feel inadequate in their own skills of navigating the technological field. It is also a problem that there is very little published material available as a resource for parents wanting to learn more. Therefore, it is up to us as teachers to develop programs and resources that enable us to enter into a partnership with parents in the development of their children's media literacy skills.

Jenkins' intentions for writing this article were to initiate a meaningful dialogue about participatory culture and the importance of teaching students how to be meaningful participants. He closes his piece with these questions in the hopes that all adults involved in the education of children, regardless of position of content affiliation, will work to overcome difficulties and make media literacy a reality for every child.

How do we guarantee that the rich opportunities afforded by the expanding media landscape are available to all? What can we do through schools, after school programs, and the home to give our youngest children a head start and allow our more mature youth the chance to develop and grow as effective participants and ethical communicators? This is the challenge that faces education at all levels at the dawn of a new era of participatory culture. (63)

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<p>In this piece "Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: What are the Roles of Teachers and Schools in Creating Responsible Participants?" interesting questions are posed about the roles schools play in fostering social media conversations.&nbsp; I think this is an invaluable conversation.&nbsp; So much of learning is social and we need to integrate what happens in the world around us into our curriculum.&nbsp; As a high school teacher, I find this question interesting for my own context through the examination of the role of student.&nbsp; I currently teach an expository writing class designed to prepare students for college level writing.&nbsp; My department has been very forward thinking and has crafted this course to be a blended writing class.&nbsp; This is my second year teaching the course and so far, I am again surprised at resistance that students pose toward the technology portion of the course.&nbsp; Some of it is because students have to check emails, when they would rather check a text message, but even more of their resistance stems from some desire to unplug and not be as connected as we may often assume our students to be.&nbsp; So, I would pose another question, what role do students have in engaging in the digital culture?&nbsp; We know that they will need digital skills to participate in various academic and career ventures, but what do they imagine for their involvement?&nbsp; I appreciate how this piece challenges us to contemplate the role of participation in our digital environment from teacher to school to parent.&nbsp; This is certainly one to continue to push forward on in our thinking and practice.</p>
<p><span style="FONT-SIZE: 7.5pt; COLOR: black; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">Dawn, I am absolutely fascinated by your experiences with your high school students.&nbsp; I wonder if they see technology in school and technology in the world as so different that they have a hard time reconciling them.&nbsp; At least in my experiences with technology in school, we as the educators block so much of the authentic uses in an effort to protect students&nbsp;that we have built an artificial technological experience.&nbsp; I can't help but feel a sense of responsibility for my middle school students if they arrive at the high school level with apathy towards our technology integration program.</span></p> <p><span style="FONT-SIZE: 7.5pt; COLOR: black; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">I am hopeful that our school culture towards technology is changing.&nbsp; What your comments bring to life for me is that we need to make the students a part of this conversation.&nbsp; I would love to know what your students say is the reason for their reluctance.&nbsp; I am also inspired to contact the high school teachers in my district to find out if their students express similar feelings.&nbsp; </span></p> <p><span style="FONT-SIZE: 7.5pt; COLOR: black; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">I agree with you that this is an important conversation and I am glad to know that others feel the same.&nbsp; Thank you.</span></p>
<p style="background: white;"><span style="font-size: 7.5pt; font-family: &quot;Verdana&quot;,&quot;sans-serif&quot;; color: black;">Laura,</span></p> <p style="background: white;"><span style="font-size: 7.5pt; font-family: &quot;Verdana&quot;,&quot;sans-serif&quot;; color: black;">Thank you for your response. &nbsp;Your post is helping me start to craft my own inquiry on this topic. &nbsp;What I've gathered so far is that they don't want to be on the computer. &nbsp;They also don't like due dates that are not in class. &nbsp;They expect something is due when they show up, not online. &nbsp;Some of them like seeing the responses from peers, but some don't. &nbsp;Some are concerned about the challenge of sharing their writing with others. I think this transition for students is an interesting one.<span>&nbsp; </span></span></p> <p style="background: white;">&nbsp;</p> <p style="background: white;"><span style="font-size: 7.5pt; font-family: &quot;Verdana&quot;,&quot;sans-serif&quot;; color: black;">They don't really seem to like that the role of being a digital citizen is prevalent throughout their courses now.&nbsp;I think a major piece is about the transition.<span>&nbsp; </span>You raise an interesting observation about how school often tries to keep students off of certain websites, etc.<span>&nbsp; </span>In general there are mixed messages about technology use from computers, to mp3 players to cell phones.<span>&nbsp; </span></span></p> <p style="background: white;"><span style="font-size: 7.5pt; font-family: &quot;Verdana&quot;,&quot;sans-serif&quot;; color: black;"><span>&nbsp;</span>There are various conversations and in some instances the technology makes sense and in others, it doesn't.<span>&nbsp; </span>As educators we keep objectives of the curriculum in mind.<span>&nbsp; </span>I wonder if students are weaving through those concepts too or lumping their response to technology and what they can and cannot use together.<span>&nbsp; </span>Interesting point.<span>&nbsp; </span>I will continue to explore and observe their reactions to the blended course.</span></p>
<p>Dawn</p> <p>It's interesting your comment about wanting to text, not email, and how that becomes a hurdle. I think it may point to the (generalized) observation that many young people dive into technology without the ability to draw back and observe the meaning of what they are doing, and how they are doing it. That's why the role of teachers is as important as ever -- the learning of perspective in a media world.</p> <p>What role do they have? I would say they have a responsibility to understand that the media and technology they use is shaping the way they think, and the world itself (echoes of Marshall MacLuhan "The medium is the Message"). I don't imagine that many students have had a chance to think this through, and they need more guides.</p> <p>Kevin</p>
<p>Kevin,</p> <p>Thank you for your response.&nbsp; I completely agree with you here.&nbsp; I find the entire role of technology with students and the shift that it takes for them as society continually changes with technology trends to be interesting and very important.&nbsp; The role of teacher as facilitator of analysis of writing situations, mediums, audiences and purposes is perhaps even more important as the mediums in which we communicate expand and change.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Dawn</p>