My Presentation on Participatory Learning

My turn to present this week and I found this to be quite a challenge. There are so many different aspects to the way we participate online that it’s difficult to get your arms around them all. The authors themselves found themselves butting heads over how to define the problems they saw – the solutions, of course, are that much harder to identify.

Chapter 4 begins with an exploration of what connected learning/participatory learning is all about (they argue about the differences, but it is essentially a difference in the scope of the type of learning as far as I can see).  The idea that connected learning can be an entry point for young people of all persuasions and interests is enticing. Yes, we need some basic digital know-how, but other than that, the idea is that anyone with interests can join the education conversation and everyone has something to learn from everyone else. As I will explore in my presentation, that raises an obvious question: if every is on equal footing – teachers and students alike – then what role should teachers play going forward? And if we take the argument to its next most obvious conclusion, do we actually need teachers at all?  (Sorry Dr. Z – not talking about you). The point is that this kind of learning is something we all do together – a hallmark of Web 2.0. It also runs directly counter to the traditional educational model where communication is all too often one way, involves clear power structures and often inhibits instead of promotes participation. I know that even in today’s schools (which is certainly leaps and bounds beyond what I experienced in terms of engaging with each other), there is still a lot of obstacles when it comes to learning from fellow students. What I’ve witnessed is that outside of school groups, the education is still very much one way (or Web 1.0) – the kids look up info, pass it on to the teacher and get it back.  There is no engagement or anything that would make it come alive. (Like using the information in real-world situations).

As for the responsibilities we have for managing the information, I thought it was interesting to consider the parallel to the turn of the 20th century when more signs and lights and things like that cropped up. However, the big difference between then and now is that I feel the individuals were more in control of the information – they were the sole active participant while the information itself was static. I think you could argue that today, the information itself is active – pummeling you through ads and web pops and blogs and our phone that is constantly beeping to tell us about a new text or message. The information is happening to us in a real and active way.  It acts upon us like a force and changes our behavior before we change it.  I think that is much different than the way things were 100 years ago.

I don’t think it’s a major surprise that the stupidest and most salacious material in the digital environment gets the most attention. I don’t think they explored enough of why (although maybe that’s for a psychology class) but I did think it’s interesting that danah boyd argues that we need to be careful about boiling things down to good and bad and thereby imposing our own value judgments on digital media. However, I wonder if the imposition of value judgments is a way to explain the rise of niche movements. Perhaps that’s explaining something that has a positive cause (people have strong interests in lots of things and want to explore the myriad of those things deeply) with a negative one (there needs to be lots of options for people because they are so particular and judgmental about the material thats out there..).  Nonetheless, I wonder if there is a parallel between the rise of niche communities online and the evolution of cable television over the last few decades when we saw the explosion of channels catering to every single type of person and personality out there. In the same way that many of those channels are struggling to find an audience today, many of those niche spaces online are no doubt struggling to grow as well. I would imagine however, that the bar for simply existing is much lower when it can be achieved with just a computer and a person and not a major television studio.

The idea of moving from “they the media” to “we the media” hit home for me since I am part of the media. I have seen firsthand the way the public’s participation in the media influences and changes the way news is portrayed and communicated and, in some cases, the national narrative as a whole. I have used the case of Sandra Bland as an example in the past – and although her family started the movement by calling for justice in her police custody death, it was pressure from the public at large that helped lead to indictments in her death. We in the media have benefited greatly from people on the ground participating in “news coverage” – whether it’s from pictures that are sent in, or from guys that used to listen to ham radios and call in fires and accidents to our newsroom at News 12 back when I started.

The authors argue that we need to be more mindful of what media is and cast a critical eye on it to avoid being exploited. I would argue that’s already being done. The vast majority of people I meet rightly or wrongly see the media is being biased or under the influence of some greater power. My concern with that is that eventually the public will have no so-called “honest brokers” and no uninfluenced body to turn to for the facts or the truth. What then? We all become consumers of our prechosen news outlet, being fed the news we already know we agree with and reflexively denying anything we believe comes from a biased source (which would be every place else).  That, to me, puts us in a very precarious position when it comes to finding common ground upon which we can discuss differing points of view.

Moving ahead to Chapter 5, the crux of the authors’ discussion centers around the clash between capitalism and digital creation. The problem comes when corporations set the terms for audience participation. Automatically, we are now longer free to act however we wish. Of course that’s not necessarily how the corporations want it – a point made clearly by the authors. In fact, I thought it was interesting that they went out of their way to point out that companies often try to remove all restrictions only to discover later that it’s either an invitation to chaos (like with MySpace) or simply not viable (countless broke online companies). So we see these competing desires: companies trying to balance users taking part in what they are doing without taking it over while users try to have a say without having their creations co-opted or exploited. I also found it fascinating that Mimi asks whether exploitation can go the other way when participatory users can actually change and exploit commercial culture. Napster anyone?  That leads us into the idea of free labor – and whether people can or should expect money for something that, in the past, was considered a hobby or an act of pleasure. Certainly, if you look online, you’ll find millions of people getting involved and actively participating online just for the fun of it. I was shocked when I went on a fan fiction site and discovered that there were not only hundreds of stories there (many quite long and well-crafted) but also that there were hundreds of reviews of those stories.

The answer (to me) is that there is no answer. Some people who make videos and put them on YouTube will argue that they are simply for fun and have no inherent value (other than emotional). Others will argue that they are budding film producers and therefore they should be paid anytime it’s reproduced. Still others may assume they feel one way but change their minds once someone waves a couple of bucks. Is that bad? No, it’s human nature. But I agree that we should be careful of assuming everything we create is #1 worth money or #2 fit or worthy of public consumption. Sometimes it’s still worth it just to do things for fun…..