Reflecting on “Living and Learning With New Media”

This is a reflection on the article:

Living and Learning with New Media: Summary of Findings from the Digital Youth Project” by the The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Reports on Digital Media and Learning  (November 2008). Henceforth referred to as “the report”.


Within this article there are some fascinating observations about student and adult perceptions, social implications to learning, and the obstacles that some adults may put in the path of such informal, connected learning. Disrupting that process has it’s own lessons to teach, but I came across another question that seemed to me to be at the root of the struggle facing socially connected always-on culture and traditional structured learning:

“Rather than assuming that education is primarily about preparing for jobs and careers, what would it mean to think of it as a process guiding youths’ participation in public life more generally?”

That sentiment from the McArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning report was written in 2008, eight years ago as of this writing. The children of today are connected in ways that didn’t even exist when it was written! Their work, their social lives, their learning is happening in a social context with tools and techniques they absorb from each other, from online videos and how-to guides, from others passionate about their same interests, even when adults place barriers to this type of interaction. And these students of life might hazard a guess as to the careers of their future, but as the skill needs of tomorrow’s workers change with the onslaught of new tech advancement, the jobs they’ve been daydreaming about today may just not exist anymore. Are we wasting our efforts as educators to focus on skill and career development by our outdated standards?

I think educators (and institutions!) need to reframe our thinking, and now. Heck, we’re a decade too late already. With a burgeoning supply of decentralized work opportunities, natural restructuring of workplace hierarchy, and a tremendous increase in social connectivity, preparing children for a skills-based career is selling them short. The learning discussed in the report, and the skills in the Business Insider article above, all fall into things I would describe as life skills. They are not career-specific, and they can apply to everything one might attempt to do.

So if we need to reframe our thinking, where do we go for inspiration? Although the report cautions that “children do not have all the answers” (indeed, nobody does these days) it is enthusiastic in it’s support of children as native digital media experts. Intuitive use of technology is just a part of it, as students are integrating new media into their interpersonal relationships in multiple contexts and using skills they’ve learned circumventing our obsolete routines and workflows.

Literate child problems

A recent discussion with a colleague regarding perceived research skills in primary school children beamed a glorious ray of light on the conclusions of this report: that often as adults we witness techniques that threaten “traditional” methods and disregard them as invalid or inappropriate. In this example, second grade students were building their understanding of unit vocabulary by researching varying definitions of words. Some students (including many learning English as an additional language) opted to skip the online kid’s dictionaries and encyclopedia articles and go direct for a Google image search, refining their results with varied keywords until the images matched their understanding. This wasn’t in the instructions, and a collage of imagery wasn’t the expected output. They relied on connections to thousands of peers rather than a few designed experts. To many educated adults, it simply wasn’t “academic”. But was it effective?

Although this method didn’t result in strongly written definitions, the development of understanding was clearly evident. For students struggling with English, it was a ray of hope in an otherwise dismal exercise. The accuracy of the search results varied of course, but with teacher guidance, no more so than the results of more academic descriptions and definitions. The ability to quickly and efficiently build understanding about a thing or concept is an important life skill. Perhaps even more so than the ability to define or exposit upon such a thing.

I’m working on reframing my ideas on what “skills” are valuable and my expectations for what constitutes “good work”. The criteria may have changed and it’s up to us to take a step back and consider them in context. When we teach, let’s regard the uncertain future we are preparing students for and coach our students to find new ways to engage with it. We’re likely to learn something along the way.


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