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On Participation and its Consequences

Henry Jenkins et al., in their e-book, Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century, discussed some of the more significant features of participatory cultures and how they pertain to education. By definition, participatory cultures are groups of people who share a common interest, and work collaboratively, informally, to share information about this interest, and improve their skills within the field. Jenkins et al point to middle school students who write fan fiction, elementary age students who design their own maps in Sim City, and how these examples point to a shift in the way young people consume, and now, produce media.

It is amazing to see that popular culture is providing young people with such valuable texts to work with. Whereas I always felt guilty when I was a kid spending hours reading Sports Illustrated or Electronic Gaming Monthly, and ignoring the work I should have been doing in my English class, I was really building my literacy skills that was just as good as the kids who did their homework. If I began writing my own feature articles, maybe I could have been better. In any event, the scholarship on participatory culture the the super-literacy of alienated youth always strikes a chord with me.

One of the features about the book I found most telling is how the authors look at such diverse and varied skills as writing, game playing, video editing, and music editing¬† all falling under the umbrella of “new media literacy.” But really, this makes a great deal of sense when we consider the remediation of older media on the web and the carbon copy nature of digital reproduction. We can make limitless copies of any media on the web. To creative and industrious youth, they are quickly becoming indispensable tools, just as much as words and numbers to the generations before.

However, Jenkins et al. make the seemingly obvious, but all-too-rare statement that new media literacies cannot simply replace the old, but most augment them. They explain: Before students can engage with the new participatory culture, they must be able to read and write. Just as the emergence of written language changed oral traditions and the emergence of printed texts changed our relationship to written language, the emergence of new digital modes of expression changes our relationship to printed texts” (p. 19). This is a sticking point with many. We cannot throw¬† away the wonderful utility and cultural richness of centuries of traditional written language. At the same time, however, we cannot stand pat and ignore the changes technology has wrought on communication, learning, knowledge, and meaning-making. I think the position that Jenkins et al. take, which builds on the definition of literacy by the New Media Consortium covers all the bases.

Jenkins et al will take this argument a step further, and argue that traditional literacy skills are even more important than they were previously. They explain: “If anything, these traditional skills assume even greater importance as students venture beyond collections that have been screened by librarians and into the more open space of the web” (p. 20). Fair enough. Information that students encounter in schools is largely sterilized, approved, and largely trustworthy. Such is not the case in the Wild, Wild, Web, and I believe that Jenkins et al are correct in saying that traditional literacy skills take on a much greater importance because it is that much more difficult to ascertain where a give piece of information came from.

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