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

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

Written by Laura Beth Fay
August 31, 2010

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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