This week I’m addressing a big education planners group and I’ve been thinking about what I’m going to say. I plan to make a case for why more educators should begin taking the new media practices of young students more seriously.
In her closing keynote address at the Digital Media Learning conference in San Diego last weekend Sonia Livingstone, a professor from the London School of Economics, asked a provocative question that went something like this: “what is ‘learning’ in today’s digital media environment?” Sonia’s question evokes one of the core claims proposed by some of the researchers connected with the MacArthur Foundation’s initiative on youth, digital media, and learning: that we should expand our notions of learning to include the often informal modes of literacy that take place while young people are spending time online “hanging out,” “messing around,” and “geeking out.” In its three-year study of kids participation in digital media culture, Living and Learning With New Media, the research team carefully makes the point that while teachers and parents may believe that kids are wasting their time online that they are really developing important social and technical skills.
A recent story in the New York Times, “To Impress, Tufts Prospects Turn to YouTube,” provides anecdotal support for this claim. I plan to use the story to support my argument for why schools should be more flexible in the kinds of literacy skills that they acknowledge, support, and reward.
The Times piece refers to the growing number of students who are creating YouTube style videos as part of their college application. The article mentions schools like Tufts, Yale, University of Delaware, and Dartmouth. Getting into the top universities is more competitive than ever. So, it’s interesting to learn that social media is emerging as one of the tools young applicants are using to make a more compelling case for admission into their preferred college. The videos vary. Some may highlight a particular talent such as music, dancing, or athletics. In other cases, it may be a short documentary or day in the life of the applicant.
These productions represent new forms of literacy, in this case, using video, animation, and digital video editing technologies to tell a story and submit a college application. The new media ecologies that kids are immersed in today are often peer-directed. In other words, kids learning from other kids. This is an interesting example of how the skills they are learning from each other and the culture of user-generated content translates into viable skills and visible outcomes.
The dean of undergraduate admissions at Tufts, Lee Coffin, says that his office is not turning its back on the traditional personal essay. “We will never abandon writing,” Mr. Coffin told the Times. “No matter what, it’s important to be able to express yourself elegantly in writing.”
On a personal note, writing is central to my professional identity and my wife and I encourage our daughter, she’s nine, to write. But while writing is an important literacy skill the ability to tell stories, organize your ideas, and communicate lucidly through visual forms of communication in an age of proliferating media platforms is also a valuable expression of literacy.
Another interesting point: the videos submitted to Tufts appear to be fairly democratic. Sixty percent of the videos submitted are by women and two-thirds are from financial aid applicants. In today’s economy even middle class families need help paying for college so this last fact may not mean what a similar fact may have meant fifteen years ago. Nevertheless, kids from many different households are acquiring new forms of literacy in the peer-directed media ecologies that they participate in everyday day. Participation in the digital world, as so many researchers pointed out at the DML conference in San Diego last week, is expanding.
It’s also time to expand our notion of what it means to be a learner in the world today.