Participatory Media Literacy: Why it matters

Those of us striving to integrate participatory media literacy practices into our classes often face resistance.  Other faculty might argue that we are turning away from the foundations of print literacy, or worse, pandering to our tech-obsessed students.  Meanwhile, students might resist too, wondering why they have to learn to use a wiki in an anthropology class.   The surprising-to-most-people-fact is that students would prefer less technology in the classroom (especially *participatory* technologies that force them to do something other than sit back and memorize material for a regurgitation exercise).  We use social media in the classroom not because our students use it, but because we are afraid that social media might be using them – that they are using social media blindly, without recognition of the new challenges and opportunities they might create.

I was reminded of this while reading Howard Rheingold’s great little article, Participative Pedagogy for a Literacy of Literacies, where he writes:

If print culture shaped the environment in which the Enlightenment blossomed and set the scene for the Industrial Revolution, participatory media might similarly shape the cognitive and social environments in which twenty first century life will take place (a shift in the way our culture operates). For this reason, participatory media literacy is not another subject to be shoehorned into the curriculum as job training for knowledge workers.

In all of Howard’s work is an understanding that a new technology may have good or bad consequences, determined largely by how people use it and how well they understand the broader implications of these uses.  In Smart Mobs, he warned that new forms of participatory media could be great “cooperation amplifiers” but without sufficient literacy on the part of the public could also become an “always-on panopticon” invoking Bentham’s haunting design for a prison in which a centralized entity could see everthing all the prisoners do, “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.”

Like Howard, I employ social media in the classroom with a sense of urgency.

Like the early days of print, radio, and television, the present structure of the participatory media regime – the political, economic, social and cultural institutions that constrain and empower the way the new medium can be used, and which impose structures on flows of information and capital – is still unsettled. As legislative and regulatory battles, business competition, and social institutions vie to control the new regime, a potentially decisive and presently unknown variable is the degree and kind of public participation. Because the unique power of the new media regime is precisely its participatory potential, the number of people who participate in using it during its formative years, and the skill with which they attempt to take advantage of this potential, is particularly salient.

Ultimately, participatory media literacy is as much about a literacy of *participation* as it is a literacy of media.  For, as Howard says, “a participatory culture in which most of the population see themselves as creators as well as consumers of culture is far more likely to generate freedom and wealth for more people than one in which a small portion of the population produces culture that the majority passively consume.”

Wesch

Associate professor of cultural anthropology. Ed Traceur. Hacker. Car-free.

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12 Responses

  1. Alex B says:

    Excellent post. I wholeheartedly agree that there is a need for teaching participatory, or social, media literacy. As a communication masters student focusing on online media I frequently get into conversations with people, including my professors, about why we would want to get involved with social media. I typically extol the virtues of a borderless community, networking possibilities, and a greater opportunity for learning and collaboration… to little success.

    One problem might be the vast number of young people who are, as you said, letting social media use them. Rather than let Facebook teach kids they can advertise their every drunken night we can teach them to advertise their talents, achievements and positive personal traits while still enjoying the social and entertainment aspects. You’re right on point and the next step is to get more educators to understand the possibilities as much as they think they understand the negatives.

  2. Michael,

    Good points by both you and Howard Rheingold. I agree using new media is no longer an option but needs to be mandatory. I also agree that using social media poses many challenges including which ones to use, how to train faculty and get them to use the tools in an archaic academic structure that does not reward innovation, how to incorporate in the curriculum, how to measure the outcomes when used, and how to work through the students resistance to using these tools (surprising-to-most people many may be that students are not familiar with most of the important tools / trends in social media).

    We are learning through personal trial and error and through thought leaders like you and Howard Rheingold. Keep up the good work.

    Thank you / Cheers.

  3. Tom says:

    Great point Mike. I’m interested that you say there is resistance to social media among colleagues. Given your views on the way in which education has been structured around print media, wouldn’t you agree that this resistance is formed by the philosophies of education that the institutional structures of old media created, articulated by it’s incumbents?

    Your point about participation and learning is such an important one – and I wonder what you’ve found to be the most effective methods for transferring new media skills to your students.

  4. Richard Hall says:

    Hmmmmh. The saddening thing for me is that there is talk of participation with no focus on emancipation or politics beyond the usual depressing themes of wealth, consumption and economics. HR writes: “I believe that a participatory culture in which most of the population see themselves as creators as well as consumers of culture is far more likely to generate freedom and wealth”.

    Accepting, exploring and making real your “literacy [literacies?] of *participation*”, and ensuring that this is centre-stage in the design of progressive pedagogies is key in levering the transformative potential of social media for increasing individual and communal agency. I’m still waiting for social media’s Dewey, Illich or Friere to emerge.

    http://dmupathfinder.blogspot.com/2008/12/obama-social-media-and-pedagogic-change.html

  5. Will Chinda says:

    Interesting points on social media’s potential for change, both positive and negative. The idea of the digital panopticon is quite fascinating, especially when you consider Facebook’s capability to deliver targeted advertising to you based on the information you put in your profile. While Mark Zuckerburg doesn’t have any desire to become Big Brother (at least as far as I know), it’s worth considering the power we give away by being connected online.

  6. Howard Rheingold says:

    Thank you, Mike. To be linked and called out by you is an honor. I certainly hope I didn’t convey the idea that I have the last word. I certainly didn’t intend to be a Dewey, Illich or Freire. And I’ve learned what I know from others like you and Henry Jenkins and most of all from students.

    I see no problem with creating wealth, along with promoting liberty. It’s easier for people who can feed their children to scoff at commerce. It really wasn’t until I had to meet a payroll, and to fail to meet a payroll, that I began to think that my intellectual(‘s) contempt for capitalism had failed to distinguish between the mom and pop market, the startup, and the transnational corporations.

    Knowing something about privacy and the ways online behavior can have consequences at home, at work, in school, along with some sense of how to determine the credibility of information found online, ought to be taught in high school, or at even younger ages. But one of the big questions I don’t have a clue about is how educational institutions are going to be able to adapt quickly enough to a world in which being able to learn, fine, verify, collaborate, and communicate online requires acquisition of active skills, not an easily transmitted collection of facts.

  7. Todd O'Neill says:

    I am a professional media producer, for a couple of decades now, and I’ve taught at universities and community colleges for nearly the same amount of time.

    Not to be anti-intellectual — and maybe I’m saying the same thing in different vocabulary — but the participatory media literacy issue is more base than what I’ve read or heard here.

    From my perspective the issue is the free desk copy. The embedded syllabus. It’s making sure classes “make”. It’s the political machinations of departments and schools within large institutions vying for funding and students and/or both.

    Participatory media literacy is hard because it’s hard. It’s new work for instructors. It’s new thought for administrators who have to authorize the activity. (Intellectual freedom gets parked at the door of the classroom when it comes to teaching against a mandated syllabus.)

    Teaching is a craft and participatory or social media implementation is a skill. A new skill. It is in essence a retooling of our educational industry and a retraining of our workforce (to use a Rustbelt metaphor.)

    The trick is that no one really knows how to fully implement social media in the classroom (or is it “learning environment”?). And the idea of iterative progress is so alien to our current culture; although it’s said that Thomas Edison developed the light bulb this way; that it will take a few heavy hitter pioneers or significant business or government incentives or a revolution in educational thought to make it happen.

    Based on the the minor political campaign revolution we just had I’m hopeful. In the long term.

  8. Jenna says:

    I’ve been reading a lot of Rheingold and thinking a lot about social media and pedagogy in my work at Project New Media Literacies. You can read a recent blogpost on this topic here: http://newmedialiteracies.org/blog/2009/01/and-what-rough-beast-its-hour.php

  9. Participatory media literacy is everywhere! As a postdoc at MIT, I used to worked for two years as an academic advisor to the New Literacies Project that Jenna mentions above (hi Jenna!), for which Jenkins is the P.I. In the white paper that launched that project, we wrote about this in terms of the “transparency problem” of the new media literacies. Generally speaking, what that means is that we operate under the assumption that users and participants–by their very involvement–understand automatically what’s at stake when it comes to making sense of what media (and communities) can and cannot do. In that sense, critical media literacy pedagogies are relelvant and needed. I would argue too that what’s needed is participation by those who are doing the teaching.

    Note too Dan Gillmor’s new work on participatory media literacies from the perspective of citizen journalism: http://citmedia.org/blog/2008/12/27/principles-for-a-new-media-literacy/

    As a literacy scholar it’s particularly exciting to me to see so many people talking about it, especially with regard to social media. What’s interesting too is to understand the many different ways we define literacy in these contexts.

  10. Peter Pappas says:

    Teaching should strive to create learning experiences that provoke student reflection. As social media redefine information flow, our classrooms will need to adapt with new instructional methods.

    Years ago I taught Media Studies in TV-centric info landscape. Here’s a 1-minute video I shot in 1983 to get my students thinking about media literacy. Ignore my bad acting! http://bit.ly/yV2w8

  11. As a new participant, a parent, child care provider and community citizen in the world of media literacy and media education, I agree with Howard Rheingold that it is important that young people, starting in elementary know something this thing called “media literacy” which includes the very fast moving “social media” elements. My observation is that the parent(s), teachers and other adults are terrified and some think it is a phase that will disappear. Some remarks I have heard ” I am standing on the curb waving at the technology as it goes by.

  12. As a new participant, a parent, child care provider and community citizen in the world of media literacy and media education, I agree with Howard Rheingold that it is important that young people, starting in elementary know something this thing called “media literacy” which includes the very fast moving “social media” elements. My observation is that the parent(s), teachers and other adults are terrified and some think it is a phase that will disappear. Some remarks I have heard ” I am standing on the curb waving at the technology as it goes by.”