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 Cacophony: Evidence of Unexpected Collaborations in Sound and Space

By Judd Antin, PhD Student, School of Information, UC Berkeley

Along with several other DigitalYouth-ers, I spent almost a year, off and on, observing and participating with a group of kids in an arts and technology afterschool program (hereafter ‘the Center’). During my time with the group, kids sat down together many times to work on collaborative projects. Sometimes they did so at the behest of their instructors and other times on their own. This story, however, is about a different kind of collaboration, one which sprung up spontaneously and serendipitously around creative practice. It represents, I think, an enlightening case study in the synergy of digital technologies and co-located collaboration.

The setting for this vignette is a long narrow room, windowed on one side, packed full of Apple computers. The machines are arranged around the outside walls and in the center in clusters of 4 (Figure 1). At one end of the room sits a restless crowd of participants, aged 11-17, who have chosen to spend their afterschool time at the Center learning about digital audio and video. Today, the exercise is to experiment with a software called GarageBand. GarageBand is a simple but powerful graphical platform for creating music based on libraries of samples, sounds, and pre-recorded instruments. The kids have experimented with the software before – enough to eagerly anticipate one of their first full-scale music-making sessions.

Figure 1

(Note that the following is a narrative constructed from field notes taken on several occasions. It is meant to be illustrative of a type of event that occurred several times. All the names have been changed.)

Jake and Dawan leap out of their seats and head for the bank of about a dozen computers, eager to keep working on a beat they’d come in early to play around with. The fastest kids can make a conquest of the ‘cool’ computers, which are in the back, near the wall. Without headphones, however, the sense of individuality that the space affords them is mingled with the group as soon as the experimentation with sound begins.

The volume in the room is low at first, and it’s easy to pick out the individual loops of sound and rhythm. As Jake and Dawan begin creating the first sounds, Tyesha, April, John, and the remaining crowd are dawdling and chatting as they amble over to the banks of computers and sit down. Soon the volume creeps upwards as more kids bring GarageBand online. The sounds gurgle and swell, becoming muddled. As the music becomes cluttered, kids turn the volume all the way up – they have no headphones. Some pick up the small speakers that sit next to their computers and press them to their ears to hear better.

A few minutes pass and the room is a cacophony of discordant instruments and rhythms. Themes begin to pop-up seemingly at random – Dawan finds a Latin trumpet rhythm she likes, plays it a few times and soon, without discussion the trumpet appears elsewhere. Three or four other kids are exploring Latin rhythms as well. They set the flavor for the beats that the group will produce today. The kids begin to exercise their personal creativity by stacking sounds and piecing them together, though many are beginning to notice the patterns. April hears a sound she just worked with coming from across the room and yells out to no one in particular (she must yell to be heard) ‘Hey! Who stole my beat?’ No one responds. Jorge finds a catchy hip-hop rhythm and speeds the tempo up, catching the attention of John who is sitting near by. ‘That’s tight!’ John yells. ‘Where’d you find that?’, though he is unsure of who to address the question to. And Jorge, choosing to take credit, dances over to John, eager to share the treasure with him. But he only stays a moment, sensing the urgency of finishing his masterpiece before time is up.

The preceding narrative outlines a situation in which a supposedly individual activity became unexpectedly collaborative. A few factors seem relevant to understanding how it worked. First, the presence of many computers in a shared space combined with the lack of headphones created the cacophony that became a creative melting pot. The Center’s instructors occasionally complained about the noise (which, to be fair, could be ear-shattering at times), and hoped one day to purchase headphones for the computers. Headphones, however, would have cut kids off from the social environment that enabled the collaboration. The noise was not merely an annoying din but a communal canvas for creative ideas. The ‘out loud’ quality of the experience also appeared to help transcend the physical barriers to collaboration with computers. Kids could share their ideas, learn from others, and collaborate without needing to move around the room or engage in the cumbersome sharing of a single keyboard and mouse.

Ultimately, the out-loud, co-located nature of the experience seemed to create a ‘safe’ environment for creative learning and experimentation. First, the spatial orientation of the computers in small clusters provided the kids with the ability to hide the visual evidence of their creativity from other kids. They were safe from prying eyes. Second, that same spatial organization allowed the audio evidence of creativity to spill into the room. There, the stewing together of many beats made it difficult to trace their origins or attribute ownership without the participation of the creator. The ability to hide evidence of perceived failures and choose whether or not to take credit for successes seemed to be freeing. Indeed, we observed that kids varied widely in their responses to both ridicule and praise, sometimes chiming in to take credit or fire back and sometimes choosing to stay quiet. At the same time, each kid was the master of her own computer, and so could benefit from the sense of agency and power that comes from control. Together, the spatial, technical, and social characteristics of the situation appeared to create a rich playground for creative collaboration.

One might argue, however, that this type of interaction isn’t collaboration at all, that it’s simply what happens when kids work individually on a task in the same space. But just as the DigitalYouth project has aimed to identify different kids of informal learning, we can also think about the cacophony as a kind of informal, impromptu collaboration. We saw kids sharing tricks they had learned and showing their friends where to find a particular audio loop. Spontaneous contests sprung up on more than one occasion when two kids would battle for the honor of owning the 'best beat'. Furthermore, we can identify at least two specific, collaborative products. First, the chaotic interchange of musical ideas in a safe space produced a rough consensus on the day’s musical styles. In the vignette presented above, Latin instruments and rhythms came to dominate over the many other possibilities, on other days it was hip-hop or orchestral sounds. No one in the room made explicit suggestions or took a poll. Instead, the debate was carried out through the cacophony, through the implicit give and take of ideas. In this way we can also view each participant’s individual musical product as having a collaborative component. Though each was in control of his or her own mouse and keyboard, the flow of creative ideas, the avenues chosen for exploration, and the development of the ultimate musical product came to be collaborative in an unexpected but powerful way.

(This posting is based on writing and analysis that was done in collaboration with Dan Perkel and Christo Sims.)

Antin, Judd. 2008. The Cacophony: Evidence of Unexpected Collaborations in Sound and Space. June 2, 2008.