Wait, why should classrooms care about participatory culture again?

Because participatory cultures are more authentic! Because they’re more democratic! Because kids love the internetz! No. No. No.

In fact, I’m going to go all out and say that classrooms may not have all that many reasons to care about participatory culture and the current form it takes in so many online spaces like fanfiction communities, massively multiplayer games and our favorite online, collaboratively edited encyclopedia. Henry Jenkins, who reminds us that they predated the internet (omg!), defines participatory cultures as spaces with low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing creations with others, informal mentorship, social connection and personally meaningful participation (see Jenkins et al. 2006 for more on this). Sound like great places, right? Like we should want classrooms to look more like them, right? And you might be saying to yourself right now “But Rafi, you’ve been talking for months about the importance of interest driven affinity spaces (a variant on participatory cultures via Jim Gee) for weeks when you’ve talked about your model for technology and learning!” Guilty as charged. I did, and will continue to, talk about these spaces as important. For learning though, not necessarily for the classroom. At least not yet.

I make two big points (among others) about the importance of participatory cultures in my model. One is that we should be figuring out ways to configure the many and varied places that youth learn in ways that get more youth get involved in participatory cultures. My reasons for this are many and varied, not least of which being that research shows that deep participation in these spaces can serve as gateways into increased civic engagement, but I’ll save these for another post since it’s a much bigger topic. But the other point I make, the one I want to take up and interrogate/revise a bit here, is that formal learning institutions such as K12 schools and Higher Education should look to participatory cultures for inspiration in terms of creating better models for learning. I should have chosen my words more carefully, and reading for class this week reminded me why. It’s because many of the tools and practices associated with participatory culture run into some interesting walls when we try to bring them into the classroom.

In an insightful, if somewhat dense, article titled “Web 2.0: Inherent tensions and evident challenges for education“, researcher Nina Dohn outlines just some of the many tensions involved in bring Web 2.0 practices into the classroom. Web 2.0, of course, is closely related to participatory culture, though as Jenkins notes, Web 2.0 is a business model more than anything else, and participatory culture focuses much more on the unique and valued practices that are mediated by these models and technological designs. Dohn makes sure to focus on practices rather than tools, which is for our purposes close enough. But I digress.

Dohn does a great job of articulating well intentioned desires of educators (herself included)  to foster Web 2.0 practices, specifically through wikis, in higher ed classrooms, but were confounded by the existing norms, expectations and structural pressures of these spaces. I’ll share an example. In a participatory culture, posting a summary of a public presentation to the internet is good practice; information about the presentation is now available to more than just the people present when it was being given, there’s a persistent and searchable record, etc. In a classroom aiming to utilize web 2.0 practices though, doing this when the public presentation was made in class by peers who did all the work to structure the knowledge and the summary post to a wiki was done for a participation requirement, well, it’s not exactly the same thing, is it? Likewise, when making edits to other people’s wiki entries becomes part of your grade, students can (and did!) come up with schemes to leave small spelling errors in their posts so that their peers have low hanging fruit to work with, and they can then reciprocate.

What Dohn really points to well is that bringing the tools, and maybe some of the practices, of Web 2.0 into classrooms doesn’t mean that you’re bringing in a participatory culture. Larger institutional requirements around individually oriented assessment, challenges to making participation personally meaningful and intrinsically motivated, and perhaps most of all, student expectations about what it means to participate well in classroom contexts serve to easily complicate and derail efforts to create participatory cultures in classrooms. In my opinion, culture is something that has to emerge organically in some ways, and also needs a bigger pasture than a semester long course. One class swimming upstream within a larger institutional river made of molasses is not surprisingly going to encounter some resistance. To me, this is why the grain size for the initial recommendation I made about participatory culture inspiring better models for formal education perhaps should have been specified as ‘larger than the classroom’. Not that the classroom isn’t relevant, it of course is, but creating a larger institutional context that supports a paradigm shift in how we value participation and think about learning becomes critical to letting participatory classrooms succeed, and in enabling other, yet-to-be-created, forms of learning groups and structures to emerge within formal education.

Really, the same could be said about the model of technology and learning that I’ve been envisioning in general. The shift in focus that stems from the challenges in just intervening on the classroom level to consider the broader school culture to me is much like my decision to not focus my model specifically on any one of the spaces where youth learn, whether it be in schools, in online communities, in afterschool spaces or libraries or even from TV. Rather, I argue that all of these contexts need to be taken out of isolation from one another in order that they can be re-conceptualized as nodes within a broader youth learning ecology. To me, all of these areas need to support and participate in a cultural shift in terms of what their relationships with youth people are, and how they envision they role in creating a culture of lifelong and lifewide learning for all.

**Disclaimer** I want to make absolutely clear my support for the many amazing, inspirational, tireless teachers out there in their canoes, some swimming upstream in seas of institutional molasses, others in free flowing rivers that they helped to make more fluid by creating cultural change from within. I don’t want this post in any way to diminish the work that you’re doing. I’m more articulating what I believe will be necessary in order for a broader cultural shift to occur that will make it so you guys don’t need to row quite as hard.

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Hi there.

Rafi in thailand, smiling

If you're reading this, then you've reached the web log of Rafi Santo. This is my little slice of the internet where I can share my passion (or whatever) with the world.

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