Posts Tagged 'participatory culture'

Understanding Participation in Webmaker: Practices and Identities Spanning Communities


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.

Maker Faire 2012: Nerdy Derby as Inspirational Pedagogy

This past weekend I had the privilege of going to the World Maker Faire with my fellow colleagues from the Creativity Labs at Indiana University. Our lab is engaged in a number of efforts to envision intersections of the DIY and Maker sub-cultures and contemporary education, thinking about how these communities that have a strong focus on hands-on problem-solving, collaboration, arts and STEM might help us move teaching and learning forward.

The New York faire, held at the Hall of Science in Queens (a place I have fond memories of visiting as a kid), is in many ways chaotic and carnival-esque – dozens of tents dot the landscape of the museum grounds displaying everything from handmade robots that play basketball to PVC pipes configured to shoot marshmallows across a room. All manner of high and low tech can be found – 3D printers, woodcutting machines, sewing and embroidery stations, even a super-sized thumb-wresting apparatus. You can see some of the fun through the photos I took and at the Maker Faire site.

Nerdy Derby
Rather than talking about the whole fair from an educational standpoint, I want to focus one great example of how we can be inspired by the Maker movement: the Nerdy Derby. The Nerdy Derby is a reboot on the classic Pinewood Derby where people (usually kids) create handmade model cars and race them on wooden tracks. You can check out a neat little video of the derby below to get a sense of the experience.

The Nerdy Derby had a lot of features that I think we should include when we create well designed learning experiences for kids. I want to briefly take you through what I saw happening there from the perspective of good education and good learning.

  1. The Derby railsA Clear Context of Application – kids working on their derby cars in one part of the tent knew exactly why they were working on what they were working on. They could see, right across the tent, the real world space of the three competition rails where their work would be applied and judged. The problem they were trying to solve was made transparent by the design of the space.
  2. Multi-generational Creation and Collaboration – adults and kids worked together to tinker, hack and refine their derby car models. When kids got stuck, parents and folks running the derby were there to help out and assist in problem solving.
  3. Multiple Avenues to Success, but Clear Standards – derby cars took many forms, and no one was there telling kids that their cars needed to look a certain way. Lots of different types of material resources were provided in the environment that let kids try out different approaches. At the same time, the kids couldn’t create just anything – the problem space they were in meant that there were standards for what would work and what wouldn’t. The design of the track, for example, made two wheeled vehicles impossible to race.
  4. Derby test railSafe Contexts for Testing – before kids moved their derby cars to the big leagues on the main rail, they were able to try out their models on test rails to see how they worked. Nobody expected that their cars would be perfect in this environment, and kids weren’t afraid to fail – after all, that’s what the test rails were for.
  5. Performance as Feedback – when derby cars were finally completed and they were ready to race one another, the context of application itself provided feedback – kids got to see how well their cars performed in relation to others. I even heard people making some hypothesis after a race about why a car performed in a certain way, information that could be used to change car designs.
  6. Opportunities for Iteration – after their cars were raced and they got that performance feedback, they could go back to the workspace to iterate on their designs, tweak them based on what they saw, and try them out again.

For me, one of the things that made this such a powerful learning environment is that all the feedback loops were tight – kids were able to see what they were going for, what counted as good participation, what resources were available. They were able to create based on this consequential information, test and refine, put their creations out there, learn from the experience and iterate all within this self-contained experience. Compare that to our current models of education – kids rarely understand why they’re working on something, their work so often has no actual application to even a fictional problem space, stakes are incredibly high and so testing and iteration are discouraged, and feedback is more often about telling kids how they did after long times scales (think tests) rather than being ongoing and on-demand while they’re involved in their work (like the test-rails in the derby).

This is only a small example of how the Make movement might inspire better pedagogy, but its clear contrast to what current classrooms look like is a testament to just how much room we have for improvement.

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.

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.

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.

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