January 30, 2008

Thoughts on "Participatory Culture"

The New Participatory Culture: Benefits, Concerns and Questions

In “Confronting the Challenge of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century� the authors tackle the definition and possible outcomes of what they call a “participatory culture�. Many of the implications for youth learning through this culture are exciting, but the authors also caution that problems have and will arise in this emerging forum for social engagement. I’d like to take a look at a few of the positive and negative aspects of this phenomenon.
Peer to peer learning can be an extremely useful and motivating tool for youth. A vast number are already online creating and learning from each other through social networks, games, etc. I would argue peer to peer learning on such a wide scale is bound to change how youth interact with each other and their teachers. Many of us grew up with a concept of learning meaning rote memorization or taking notes on long lectures. In this system the teacher possessed all the knowledge (whether they understood much about the subject being taught or not) and students were expected to dutifully except the knowledge handed down to them. Now youth can challenge and learn from each other online and have the opportunity to question what is being taught to them in school. Students can feel empowered that they can teach each other as well as learning from adults.
Creative expression for youth through online participation has become almost limitless. The idea of making a video, adding music or digital effects, and editing content so that anyone could view it online is something I could not have comprehended even in high school. Now creative skills like movie making or web page creating are often second nature to youth growing up in this participatory culture.
Maybe one of the most positive possibilities of this new culture is the opportunity for students to come into contact with different cultures and experience diversity. It’s amazing that today an 8th grader in small town USA can see pictures of and talk to an 8th grader in Germany or South Africa. There is no doubt that learned prejudices will play a part in these encounters, but they are also opening up a world of new understanding.
There are drawbacks to this participatory culture. One of the biggest difficulties being, who can participate? If youth have no access to online opportunities where will they be left? The achievement gap is already one of the most difficult issues plaguing the American school system. Combining an achievement gap and a participatory gap could possibly become our greatest challenge in 21st century education.
Along with the problem of “who� can participate is the aspect of transparency. The authors of this article define the transparency problem as “The challenges young people face in learning to see clearly the ways that media shape perceptions of the world.� Children and youth may not always be aware of the underlying commercial interests behind informational websites and therefore may often rely on faulty information. This idea of sifting through a vast array of media content to find reputable information may prove difficult for students. I think the verdict is still out on how educators and parents will guide students in this arena. Courses on navigating true and false information online may need to become part of standard Junior High and Senior High curricula. Skills in evaluating online content may be one of the most prominent skills taught in the future just like reading and writing.
Overall, I find the implications about the new participatory culture to be exciting because of the engaging and creative ways in which youth are part of it. However, great attention will need to be paid to making sure all youth can participate. It will be equally important that youth have a framework of guidance in this new culture so that they can make the most out of the information provided to them. Maybe one of the biggest questions is: how will we as educators understand and participate in the culture ourselves?