Kids' Informal Learning with Digital Media

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"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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The Techne-mentor

By Megan Finn, PhD Candidate, School of Information, UC Berkeley

In conceptualizing the media and information ecologies in the lives of University of California, Berkeley freshmen, classical adoption and diffusion models proved inadequate. Rather than being characterized by a few individuals who diffuse knowledge to others in a somewhat linear fashion, many students' pattern of technology adoption signaled situations where various people were at times influential in different ever-evolving social networks. I use the term techne-mentor to help to describe this pattern of information and knowledge diffusion. The term “technology” is generally thought to be partially derived from the Greek word, techne, which means craftsmanship. Mentor is a figure in the Odyssey who advised both Odysseus and Telemachus, and is the source of the modern use of the word, mentor. Techne-mentor refers to a role that someone plays in aiding an individual or group with adopting or supporting some aspect of technology use in a specific context, but being techne-mentor is not a permanent role. The idea of the techne-mentor is useful for expanding conversations about adoption patterns to one of informal learning in social networks.

Growing up, Joan learned about technology on her own and acted as a techne-mentor to her family and friends. Joan started as a techne-mentor when her computer got a virus. She then helped her friends get rid of the virus:

"We got this one [virus] on AIM actually. It was on your user profile so whenever you clicked info, it would say, 'ha, ha, ha, I found the picture of insert your name here' and you would clicked on the link and then you would get this spyware.... it took me a day to figure it out... Then I got rid of it for all my friends. It’s kind of like a little game... It was a challenge, especially the first virus... I just started getting into [computer] stuff."

Many students like Joan were often driven to learn about technology on their own, when they encountered problems with the technology and did not have other support to learn how to fix them. Other students started learning about computers trying to get rid of viruses on their family's computers. For example, Ben explained, “I did get a virus once and had to learn how to get rid of it. The damn 'I love you' virus. Gosh, that nailed everybody.” Once students like Ben and Joan figured out how to get rid of a virus, they would often help the people in their social networks get rid of the virus, essentially becoming techne-mentors to others.

Joan also explicitly directed her siblings about how to use technology. “I would teach them [my siblings]. Not so much in middle school but in high school, they’re usually, 'do you know how to use Photoshop?' I’ll say, 'Yeah, do this'... Or, 'Do you know to how to get rid of this spyware?' ... for my brother at least, my [older] sister has her own tech guy."

Once Joan started at Berkeley, she found a job working for a computing help desk. Through her colleagues at work, Joan picked up a lot of information about best computing practices: “When I got my job there was this girl at work who did a yearbook and knows everything and so like whenever we have a shift she till teach me all this random stuff." In a work context Joan was mentored by her friends and colleagues, but in other social contexts, such as her family, Joan was a techne-mentor to others. It is important to note the non-static nature of the techne-mentor; the status of techne-mentor is relative to the knowledge of others within a social context. The significance of the techne-mentor is that they provide information to others, without implying absolute expertise.

Joan uses information from the work context where she has found a teche-mentor to help her friends:

"I see that they are using it [AIM]... [I say,] 'Your AIM starts playing a movie trailer with audio every half hour and it’s just annoying.' [My friends say,] 'My god, I want to get rid of that can you help me?' and so I'll go on like a downloading site and download like GAIM or DeadAIM."

We can see here that when Joan acts as a techne-mentor to her friends, she is not teaching in a traditional way. The techne-mentor interactions are very ad hoc and informal. The mentorship can be in the form of exposure to a technology. Joan, the techne-mentor in this case has pre-existing relationships with those that she mentor that is much more elaborate than just the techne-mentor relationship. It allows her to casually mentor her friends when a technology wasn't working.

Besides Joan, in the Freshquest study, we found many cases of techne-mentors. The kind of role they played varied from case to case and situation to situation. The techne-mentor may just simply make someone aware of a technology. On the other hand, they may play an integral role in demonstrating the technology practice or even installing the technology and ensuring its status as operational. Sometimes students we interviewed had one primary techne-mentor in their lives, but in turn the students would take on the role when they passed this information onto other groups. In fact, it is this constant flow of information about technology between a student’s multitude of social networks that accounts for the fluidity of the role of techne-mentor. In all of these socially-situated contexts, techne mentors were an integral part of informal learning and teaching about technology and technology practices.

Finn, Megan. 2008. The Techne-mentor. April 24, 2008.