Saturday, February 20, 2010

Charting the Course

Yesterday's plenary session "Digital Media and Learning: The State of the Field" featured a number of researchers whose reports have offered findings that contradict depictions of new media practices by the mainstream media and indicate a more complicated story to tell about the so-called "digital generation." In their rapid-fire presentations, speakers were limited to ten minutes to summarize what was often years of work.

Pew researcher Amanda Lenhart discussed the recent report on "Social Media and Young Adults," which indicated that commenting on blogs by young people was down as well as blogging itself, and that remix activities were less of a focus of digital activity than a simple sharing of content. She also noted that game consoles, as well as cell phones, were important portals for Internet access.

Stanford's Brigid Barron of the Youth Lab project looked at a spectrum of interactions with technology from more common publication activities to less common membership in robotics clubs. Researchers created a "technobiography" that examined how social networks played a key role and that not all young people were in the "hothouse environments" that seemed most revolutionary. Barron advocated more attention to "process not outcomes" and critical thinking about "what do we care about assessing."

Eszter Hargittai began her remarks by noting a conversation that she had had with Harvard's John Palfrey in which he reminded her that the fact that "there is a field" was itself a significant finding. Hargittiai, known for her focus on the "question of skill and digital literacy," announced to the audience that there were "no numbers in this presentation." In thinking about "learning about the average user," Hargittai unpacked the notion of "skill" to connect it to its "uses" and "dimensions," which may include activities such as "evaluating credibility" and "managing material at the end." She also defended her seemingly instrumental interest in "what explains variations in skills and uses" by arguing that "skill can be intervened in more easily than other issues." For her references, she directed her listeners to the publications in the Web Use Project and encouraged them to continue to look at "risks and problems."

In his plenary session, Joseph Kahne described his study of 430 youths that looked at "interest-driven" and "politically-driven" forms of digital participation to note that there was "political but not civic participation" and that this political participation may still be at a lower level than cyber-utopians might hope. He depicted a more complicated spectrum of "skills" and "agency" among digital young people and summarized his findings as showing "no relationship to voting from politically-driven participation and interest-driven participation," but "some friend-driven participation" that correlated to voting. (I had already interviewed for this DML blog posting.)

Kevin Leander
of Vanderbilt University explained how his own research was "not site-based" but oriented in "flows and networks" that might include "imagery" and "spatial analysis" to characterize "hotspots for learning" such as instant messaging or networks in a town. He showed a diagram of visual markers of the hybridized digital life of a young immigrant to the Netherlands with family back in Morocco, which included a headscarf nexus, one for Moroccan "male hotties," as Leander put it, fashion outlets like H and M, and "I love Holland" branding. I liked the fact that Leander argued that their goal in digital media and learning should not be "to recreate institutional sciences" and that he noted the presence of "scholars in the room trained in the humanities. At the same time, he said that although "bodies aren’t stable," "they aren’t moved by critical theory." In another case study he showed an image of someone decked out in Naruto costume accessories for whom "swordplay is not just about texts and tools." Although he cited Deleuze and Guattari and Massumi, he also cited the more prosaic work of CNN's infographics-map maestro John King as an example of "learning to see" in a new way that included "spatial analysis" and "new ways to understand" that expand learning and offer an alternative to "memorizing state capitals," which certainly wouldn't help contemporary students who "need GIS and spatial–navigational work." (He closed by noting that his Space, Learning, and Mobility Group were looking for a postdoc who could speak Dutch.)

Lynn Schofield Clark introduced herself as someone studying "parenting in the digital age" from the dual perspective of "Mom/social scientist" in project in which her own pre-teens were "collaborators" as well as subjects, as she explained her Guitar Hero mom persona.

In closing Mimi Ito described the Digital Media and Learning community as "at a place where the field is coalescing, diversity of sites both on the level of research and on the level of intervention" for which "multiple approaches" were needed. Of course, Lev Manovich, who was sitting next to me, couldn't help but point out how much he was reminded of the dawn of sexology as a similarly interdisciplinary scholarly enterprise.

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