Posts Tagged 'affinity spaces'

Understanding Participation in Webmaker: Practices and Identities Spanning Communities

mozilla-webmaker_logo-only_RGB1

I’ve been variably involved with Mozilla’s Webmaker project since it started in 2010 (before it was even called that). I had the privilege to go to the first Drumbeat festival in Barcelona, and helped with some of the early prototyping around Hackasaurus, mostly contributing ideas about what sorts of web literacies (particularly, hacker literacies) the tool could promote. A lot of the time I’ve just been lurking, but lurking in the sort of way that someone with anthropological tendencies might. Lots of watching and listening to see what’s happening in the space and to understand how it’s evolving.

In one of my Fall courses though (I’m in a doctoral program in the learning sciences), I had the chance to formalize some of this lurking into some (brief) online fieldwork. Since the Webmaker team and community are going through some start of the year navel gazing (in its distinctive “less yak, more hack” Mozilla style of doing so) and planning particularly on the theme of how mentors engage in the community, I figured I’d share a small analysis I did of some of the early participation by mentors that may be useful to the conversation.

A bit of context about where this analysis came from. I was taking a great course with Dr. Sean Duncan, who recently joined the faculty of our Learning Sciences department here at Indiana University and specializes in learning in informal, digital spaces, particularly games. The course, naturally, was geared towards these themes. Titled “Learning in Participatory Cultures”, it was oriented towards understanding informal online spaces using a couple of established theoretical frameworks: Henry Jenkins’ Participatory Culture, Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger’s Communities of Practice, and James Paul Gee’s Affinity Spaces.

For an early assignment, all the students had to choose an online community they’d look at and analyze. I chose Webmaker, as it’s a community I care about and had already done some thinking on. I share the a pdf of the analysis here, and will give a couple of qualifications, and then a tl;dr version of what I saw and its implications.

Qualifications: First, this was written for an audience that had no idea what Webmaker (or even Mozilla) even was, so there’s a bit of context in there to lead up. Second, it was written for an academic course, particularly a theory one, so was written in aca-language. I use terms like “identity”, “mediation”, “contested” and “constituent practices”. Apologies. But, my sense is that it’s actually fairly readable to most folks that have an interest in Webmaker and/or online communities, but I’m of course open to feedback on that front. Third, it’s a little longer than a typical blog post at four pages (plus appendix), which is why I share it in PDF form. Consider yourself qualified.

Ok, enough pretext, here’s the PDF:

Understanding Participation in Webmaker: Practices and Identities Spanning Communities

The tl;dr version: the mentors that volunteer and participate in Webmaker come from a variety of communities and backgrounds. Looking at specific examples, I show how commitments to a number of different communities including the broader Mozilla volunteer space, the free/open source (FOSS) community and software development writ large play a central role in the way that some mentors understand and forge connections to Webmaker. These pre-existing commitments play out in their participation in Webmaker and ultimately shape what the initiative looks like. Bottom line: in thinking about the future of Webmaker, we can’t ignore the past and present identities of those that make up the movement, and how those identities shape the movement.

As always, happy to hear thoughts and feedback.

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A Model not for Technology in Education, but for Technology & Learning

For a while now I’ve been kicking around a hodgepodge of ideas about technology and its relationship to learning and education. Having worked in related fields for over five years now and gone to grad school to study more about this subject, I guess these are good questions to regularly ponder. Until  now though, I haven’t had a good opportunity to formalize these thoughts. As an assignment for the course “Computational Technologies in Educational Ecosystems“, we were tasked to create a model of our vision for technology in educational contexts, a really fantastic project that we’ll be refining over the course of the semester and that I’ll periodically post publicly about here on the old blog.

I decided to push the edges of the assignment somewhat, and rather than create a model for technology in educational contexts, I created a model for technology and learning writ large in the lives of youth. I’d be lying if I said the ideas here are all my own – for the most part, they’re a synthesis of ideas coming from emerging bodies of research and from colleagues I’ve worked with and been inspired by within the budding field of “Digital Media & Learning“, which in some respects positions itself as distinct from educational technology.

I share here I call a Youth Technology Learning Ecology, made up of a variety of “learning nodes” that youth interact with and which I believe can form better interconnections with one another in the future for the benefit of young people. What I’m really interested in is what digital culture and technology can offer us in terms of both inspiration for redesigning the learning systems that society has available for young people, as well as practical tools and practices that allow us to do that. I offer some initial thoughts on what a redesign of these systems might include.

To check out the interactive model, click the image below, which will take you to the Scratch website where you can interact with it. For best effect, I recommend enabling full screen.

I realize that right now not everything is totally clear in the model (it assumes some prior knowledge and some terms could use definition) and over the course of the semester I hope to refine it to clarify all of what I intend to be conveyed through it. In the process, I’m sure that the model itself will shift and evolve.

One of the big ideas in the model that I’d like to address is that of looking to “Interest Driven Affinity Spaces” (a fancy name for the places that kids geek out, online or off) as inspiration for reforming other learning contexts. I’ll start by referring to some of the readings that we did for the course this week, which offer some nice perspective on how people generally think about technology and education. In his classic book from way back in 1986, Larry Cuban shares an important insight about the ways that technology fads come and go in schools. The point is well taken. In looking to affinity spaces for inspiration though, I want to be clear that the model is not really advocating the integration of technology, even done thoughtfully, as one of many “passing fads” in schools, but rather for the rethinking of what counts as learning and what pedagogical practice and larger school cultures look like.

What’s hard to convey is that a shift to thinking about learning ecologies also implies a shift in our theory of learning, and both of those imply that schools need to be organizing themselves in much different ways. To engage in this reorganization, I believe that we can take a lot of inspiration from these affinity spaces that might considered “technology in the wild” (online communities, massively multiplayer games, fan sites, blog networks and many others) and what they do well, something scholars like Jim Gee and Mimi Ito have looked at in their work. The big idea about these spaces is that they provide youth with meaningful contexts and communities that not only keep them engaged and speak to their interests, but also are built around the development and learning of extremely complex practices and processes, have authentic and just in time feedback and assessment mechanisms as well as clear standards about what counts as “good work”. Schools rarely embody these qualities. This isn’t to say that we need for school to integrate these affinity spaces and their associated technologies, but rather to look at these spaces to see what makes them powerful learning environments and aim to bring those principles and characteristics into more formal educational settings. More importantly, I believe that we can not only shift the practices of any one setting, like school, but also the larger learning ecologies of which they are a part as well.

In his book, Cuban also makes a big assumption that anyone interested in technology and education is one way or another always going to point to technology’s ability to make content delivery more efficient. To me, this is off for a couple of reasons. First, it assumes that anyone interested in technology has an “accumulation of decontextualized bits of information” vision of what learning is, as opposed to one that uses participation in meaningful activities to foster dispositions, practices and processes that young people can tap in the future. Second, the ways that I think about “efficiency” deal mostly with reformulating pedagogy so that it’s actually effective by actively connecting to the other nodes in a child’s learning ecology. This is the second big point I’m aiming to get across in the model. Affinity Spaces are good to look to for inspiration, but there’s a huge opportunity to be tapped in aligning all of these various nodes a youth’s learning ecology so that they’re working together for the sake of that young person. This is where my (extremely underdeveloped) idea of a technology driven personalization system that accomplished this function comes from, an idea which I hope to develop more as the semester goes on. Importantly though, it represents a reframe of technology from being a “teacher’s helper” (or worse, their replacement), a view that starts not with the priorities of the formal educational system, which has consistently proven that it only values the transmission of decontextualized bits of information, but rather one that starts with the ways that youth are currently using technology in their everyday lives to further their own learning (though they rarely see it in these terms) and aims to connects these to all the other parts of a young person’s life.

Finally, another one of our readings validates this idea of looking to interest driven digital affinity spaces to inspire more effective pedagogy. Roschelle et al. (2000) [pdf] point out a number of processes that effective classroom technologies foster – active construction of knowledge, participation in groups, frequent feedback and connections to real world contexts. It is in fact just these kinds of processes that are at the heart of the kinds of deep learning activities that many youth are engaged in out of school through digitally mediated affinity spaces. The authors even reference these spaces, in the form of (now antiquated) electronic bulletin boards that dominated the early internet. Its heartening to see that in 2000, which is fairly early on in our current shift to a digital culture, there were already researchers that had identified practices technology can foster to provide more effective learning experiences.

I know that as it currently stands this is an incomplete model, and some things might be unclear, so feel more than welcome to leave a comment with any questions or thoughts and I’ll do my best to address them. And of course any critical feedback is definitely helpful on this first draft.

Delfest, Participatory Culture, and Life as Data

Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
-Rilke

Photo from Magic Hat BreweryI spent this past weekend with a great group of friends in the Cumberland Water Gap, a rural area in Western Maryland where we were attending a Bluegrass music festival called Delfest. I’ve never actually been to a music festival of any sort (crazy it’s taken me this long!), so I didn’t have a lot of expectations coming into the weekend save having a good time and spending time outdoors.

The festival, in short, rocked, totally going beyond the pretty basic things I’d hoped for. It was pure summertime goodness; we saw great music, camped out at the foot of a mountain, went tubing down a river that looped around the grounds, made friends with strangers, and lost our sense of time for two days. (The answer to “What time is it?” was invariably: “it’s Del o’clock.”, or, every so often “ten to Del.”, and occasionally, “half past Del.”) And so a big part of being there was just about enjoying myself – getting some space from an increasingly busy, stressful and packed upcoming month, spending time with friends, soaking in the good vibes and remembering the spontaneity and adventure that can come with arriving in an open space with no real plans.

At the same time, the budding learning scientist in me was having a whole other experience of the festival. As someone planning on studying the learning that happens in informal environments, those outside of school and not traditionally thought of as ‘educational’, I was also viewing the event as part of what media scholar Henry Jenkins would call a Participatory Culture, and as what learning theorist Jim Gee calls a Semiotic Domain with an associated Affinity Space. All pretty high concepts for sure, each with their own useful nuances, but in the most basic sense I was seeing an open community of people dedicated to a particular idea or practice, in this case Bluegrass music, come together to do their thing, share and learn from each other (though likely not framing it as such) and in doing so define and redefine what that space means both in terms of its core practices as well as its broader culture and associated quirks.

Photo from Magic Hat BreweryI saw amateurs working with experts – small jam circles of musicians with varied levels of talent playing around campfires with assorted string instruments where anybody could come and join in, contributing whatever they could even if it was just singing along or playing some simple chords, along with main-stage shows featuring artists recognized as being at the top of their trade, setting a (perhaps contested) standard for what good practice looks like in the community.

I saw plenty of things not immediately related to the musical practice itself but that emerged around it; the throwing of small, soft glowsticks amongst a concert-going crowd, each landing and then getting hurled up into the air again, fans dancing with wanton abandon in varied styles, substance use and perhaps abuse, and a do-it-yourself camping culture where people constructed elaborate tents, fires and meals. These are the sorts of things that give nuance, character and attitude to these kinds of informal spaces, and are an expression of the underlying values of the community – each points to a certain ethos or narrative endemic to the larger whole.

I noted various demographic groups as they became visible; low income local white folks from Appalachia that I’d associate with NASCAR and country music, “hippy” types in tie-die and dreadlocks, young professionals from DC, New York and other metropolitan areas, often working in politics, journalism or education (forgive the heuristics here) – as well as noticing those that were absent. I counted about 15 people of color and no one that was easily identifiable to me as queer while I was there out of what was easily over a thousand people.

And I reflected on what it meant for me to be doing pretty much all of this observation and analysis automatically, remembering a line that references Rilke from a great short piece by Mark Federman called The Tao of Thesis [pdf], about how one engages in thesis-level work:

“You will view the world and your entire existence through research-coloured glasses. The thesis process becomes less an effort to find answers, and more a vehicle through which you can live your question.”

My time at Delfest is interesting because it is one of several experiences that I’ve had as I near the beginning of my doctoral work where I started to consistently notice the world as data parsed by a particular lens, and it’s prompting me to wonder what it will be like to put on these glasses full time when I enter graduate school – what’s gained, what’s lost, and what the edges are to look out for when doing this strange exercise while still trying to live an integral life, one viewed through many lenses and that acknowledges the limitations of a singular viewpoint. I’m excited to find out.


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.

Research. Meditation. Learning theory. Spirituality. Activism. Cooking. New Media. Pedagogy. Photography. It's all fair game, and will likely coalesce into some unholy mixture thereof. But hey, that's the integral life.

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