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Monday, April 14, 2014

Brief Redux of AERA 2014 and Participatory Learning



I was at the American Education Research Association (AERA) Annual Meeting in Philadelphia a couple of weeks ago, and in addition to meeting a whole slew of amazing scholars, particularly in the field of the Learning Sciences, I was greatly encouraged by the research and work being done with technology in support of student learning. Interest in educational technologies is growing fast, and is gaining a lot of momentum due to large philanthropic organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Macarthur Foundation, both of which seem to be fueling a rapidly innovating field. This is exciting. In years past, it seems that much of the research being done in education technology surrounded behaviorist theories of cognition and learning, and focused heavily on the concept of “transfer” - being able to apply the knowledge gained in one domain in other areas. Nowadays, it seems that “learning as participation” has garnered a lot of attention, placing a much-needed focus on student autonomy, authority, and the production of learning artifacts. These form much of the basis of student-centered pedagogies, and are part of the growing popularity in interest-driven learning, such as maker-spaces and digital media hubs, and even “gaming*”.

*I put the word “gaming” here in quotes, because typically, the term “educational game” inspires a lot of suspicion and skepticism, and belief that “gaming” is synonymous with “entertainment”. A lot of media attention and venture capital have been given to educational games that fit this description, and while this is great for Silicon Valley, such games have questionable value for education on the whole (test preparation, maybe, but critical thinking, collaboration, civic action?). But while these entertainment games seem to dominate our perception of gaming in school, there has been considerable research done on what aspects of games actually foster learning, and promote engagement, persistence, and reflection. Anyone familiar with James Paul Gee’s work for instance, will tell you that education has a lot to learn about gaming, without watering down content, or sacrificing rigor, in favor of entertainment.

A great primer on the “participation as learning” approach is Henry Jenkins’ work on “Participatory Culture”. Basically, this approach to learning suggests that by engaging in community-based practices, such as collaborating on a media project together, contributing to the knowledge of fan forums (such as the Minecraft forum), remixing songs or other cultural artifacts, we are in a sense, learning by doing - coordinating distributed knowledge resources (people, tools, websites, etc.) across multiple multimedia, jointly solving problems (especially community-based problems), appropriating materials to remix them for an audience, apprenticing people into the valued practices and ways of thinking about the world around us.



A central part of this type of learning is developing literacies across multiple domains, and applying those literacies in ways to empower our students and ourselves. Nichole Pinkard, whose work focuses on youth-based programs for developing digital literacies. Through the use of mentors to learn various digital tools, students in Pinkard’s Digital Youth Network who develop a strong passion for a medium can then go on to mentor younger/less-experienced students with similar interests.

Another significant aspect of this type of learning, and one is seems to be just finally gaining some legitimacy in schools, is social networking - building connections across settings to access knowledge resources. Facebook and Twitter come to mind as obvious examples of social networking, and these have largely been used for un-academic purposes. But that does not mean they are not powerful tools for things like mobilizing political action (remember the Arab Spring?), or building connections with professionals and experts in a field (see Jen Lavenberg’s post on Personal Learning Networks).

These areas of participation and learning are invaluable for our children, especially since many of them are already doing these things. The trouble is that many children might not see the connection between participating in digital ecologies and “what counts” as learning in school. The question we need to start asking, is how we can legitimize their participation as a valued part of learning, and how we can incorporate the vast range of resources we now have access to into ways of teaching that actually empower students.

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