Kids' Informal Learning with Digital Media

About Digital Youth

"Kids' Informal Learning with Digital Media: An Ethnographic Investigation of Innovative Knowledge Cultures" is a three-year collaborative project funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Carried out by researchers at the University of Southern California and University of California, Berkeley, the digital youth project explores how kids use digital media in their everyday lives. Read more

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Photo Credits: Ritchie Ly and Geert Allegaert.

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What We've Learned So Far

The Digital Youth project began in 2003 with three questions about informal learning and digital media.

  • How is digital communication – the mobile phone and the Internet – changing the scale, scope and the dynamics of kids’ social worlds?
  • What new learning skills and knowledge practices are developing from the use of digital media – ranging from seeking information to the creation of new expressions of ideas? How are digital authoring tools enabling kids to create new kinds of cultural products?
  • What do kids think that they learn from games, and how do these skills transfer to other learning places like schools – if they do? What do kids learn from participation in gamer communities and communication?
  • What have we learned so far, half way through our ethnographic research project to explore these questions?

    Digital communication has two dimensions in our research: the uses of instant messaging (IM) in kids’ lives; and social networks creating and sustaining online communities.

    We have found that IM is a constant silent communiqué among kids about their feelings about the world, a bit like a Greek chorus always commenting in the background while kids are living in the world. We began by thinking about the importance of mobile phones before messaging was important in the US, by research upon the importance of phones in Japan, and reading about mobile phones in Norway. Today messaging is ubiquitous – often sent on computers, but now on all sorts of handheld devices (phones, games, etc). Messaging is about not feeling alone, and while “alone” at home kids can be messaging to dozens of friends. Today we are looking at ‘media ecologies’ in order to incorporate mundane technologies like cell phones, ipods, video and television programs in our framing of lifestyles. Digital communication has tacit politics, and we’re observing how kids formulate their ideas of status, reputation and perhaps power. (See Rachel Cody on Final Fantasy XI; Patricia Lange on YouTube and video blogging; and Mimi Ito on Anime)

    Social networks describe how kids of different ages create identities and a sense of community online. danah boyd writes about teens and twenties on Friendster and MySpace. Others are working with online worlds for younger children, such as Neopets. Sarita Yardi observed college students holding IM conversations during class lectures, called “the back channel.” In a sense informal and formal learning are always mixed together. We’ve begun thinking about online communities as a kind of civil society; we note, however, that kids’ favorite online worlds and services are increasingly commercialized. Many of our research sites are located in after school activities and community centers. We’ve also found that digital community sites are being commercialized: Viacom bought Neopets; Fox bought My Space and Google is buying You Tube.

    Digital communications are always someplace. How do differences between groups of kids shape different communication cultures-- different neighborhoods, different races and ethnicity, different ages, rural and urban places (see Christo Sims)? How do civic places -- such as libraries, community centers and even malls -- encourage learning?

    Finally, how do kids understand the differences between private and public communication? For example, blogs are a medium for the expression of identity and participation in community. danah boyd has been studying the way kids write an identity online, and build group cultures and practices by exchanging ideas. Although kids tend to think about blogs as private spaces, blogs are also public spaces that have the potential to make kids vulnerable (i.e., by sexual predators; by bullies)

    Creativity. Our research is focused on the way kids use technology in creating distinctive life styles, a phrase that brings together consumption of media and technology with the production of new expressions. Digital media are supporting a variety of forms of new media creation and sharing online. Kids are developing new genres of remix and parody, as kids experiment with digital media. How does the process of creating and sharing their own amateur media online change young people's sense of identity and agency?

    How does the process of creating and sharing their own amateur media online change young people’s sense of identity and agency? (See Becky Herr) And the creation of new ideas leads to a developing sense of property. At the start, among teens we observe kids defining and defending their status as creators in their peer groups; later we see teens thinking about careers, and making a living online. Judd Antin observing a community center saw teens moving to the computer in the back of the classroom to keep their ideas and innovations private; they allowed others to use their creation only by asking, and paying for innovation by respect and status.

    Learning, then, is not only about mastery of a body of knowledge, as in school; informal learning is also the mastery of skills in using digital tools in the online civil society.

    • We see kids employing visual literacy, an important topic in educational reform in England and elsewhere; here the focus is on You Tube (Sonja Baumer).
    • We observe kids developing a sense of information and knowledge; Laura Robinson is beginning a study of kids’ use, interpretation and, in some instances, editing of Wikipedia stories.
    • Kids often treat social status as a kind of economy, thus we often hear angry conversations negotiating ownership of new ideas. This is usually a gift economy where kids compete for status, although there is a money economy using Pay Pal to buy capital for Second Life.

    We are working on understanding how class, ethnicity and gender relate to kids’ access to digital tools for creativity. We remember Penny Eckert’s comment in Jocks and Burnouts, that jocks like school because they see education as a path to a middle class job, while burnouts can see no path to success through school. For example, Dilan Mahendran is observing an after school program where kids learn how to make hip-hop music using digital technologies. These kids often think of hip-hop as a path to success. And, we’ve seen that teenage kids often commute long distances to attend these workshops; they are not based in the neighborhood. Likewise Kaytynka Martinez’s work explores how kids’ interpret their own neighborhoods and spaces in the creation of video games in after school programs designed to explore kids’ creativity.

    Understanding the way that participation in My Space, anime fandom, Harry Potter fan fiction is contextualized within other practices is important because if we want to talk about lifestyle and participation. For example, Katynka Martinez’s work in Los Angeles reveals that although immigrant kids in Los Angeles rate the use of the Internet and blogging low on their radar of practices, they still possess a rich media environment through activities such as television and games. Similarly, Heather Horst’s work among middle class families in Silicon Valley reveals that some of the individuals with the least access, who use dial-up modems, may be the same individuals who participate in blogging or writing fan fiction. These case studies suggest that we need a more complex understanding of the relationship between things like class, economic status and lifestyle.

    Games. We began our research on the learning possibilities in the world of games with a participant-observation project at a Cybercafe where boys have access to online war games, in this case Warcraft 3 and Counter-Strike. Based on Arthur Law's research, here are some of the things about a Cybercafe that caused us to think about gamers and learning in new ways.

    • When a player is ‘killed’ in the game – a term used by kids to refer to losing a game – an IM conversation begins about the play; one value of online games is a sense of community.
    • The conversations often focus upon game skills and performance, which produces status in the group; today there are international competitions to win reputation.
    • We asked the kids (12-14) why they liked games, and they compared gaming to other sports – basketball, football – with the focus on teamwork and skills.
    • The Cybercafe was both a public space for kids play, and a supervised place. Parents would sponsor birthdays at the Cybercafe, and we noted that one Father dropped his son there every day as a kind of childcare service, picking him up every day at 6PM.

    This was the starting point for us to think less about games and more about gamers. How do gamers think about games?

    How do kids describe their experience playing videogames? Adults tend to see antisocial imagery in many videogames, yet the kids we interviewed describe videogames as a form of sport, like football or basketball. That is, kids know that games are imaginary, not real activities, yet there is a kind of arousal to competition through violent imagery. If kids think that the purpose of games is recreation, then kids think of playing games as a skilled performance that earns social status. Most adults talk about the violent imagery of videogames, particularly war games and Grand Theft Auto. Matteo Bittanti’s history of games shows its roots in movies, and anticipates the current concern with pornography, sex and violence has always been expressed in media. (See From GunPlay to GunPorn: A techno-visual history of the first-person shooter).

    We are also watching online worlds that operate as civil societies, such as Final Fantasy XI or Neopets where players may join sub-communities within the games and negotiate complex social, political and economic structures in their game worlds. Kids also know how to make up games, that is, the capacity to collaborate to define rules and to play, earning a reputation as a gamer. Most generally, we recognize that there is an element of play in most online activities, in that kids are playing roles, experimenting with identity and membership. This is not to say that online play is always fun, it may be also cruel and hurtful.

    At the same time, we’ve begun research about other forms of play, such as participation in online ‘words.’ SimCity was the first important play space, where kids could build worlds; my daughter began in the fifth grade by redesigning Pasadena (where we lived), and today she is a city planner. We know that kids play games with peers, but we’ve learned that sibs and parents also often play games with their children, or talk about games.

    So we always remember that hobbies have always been an independent activity of learning, and sports have always been part of individual status and group identity. In sum, we know that games are entertainment, and yet digital play is also a lifestyle by which kids build skills, build social status, and learn to work together.


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