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.

Proposal Summary

Since the early eighties, digital media have held out the promise of more engaged, child-centered learning opportunities. Personal computer based digital authoring tools and educational software have become well established in public education. Interactive media, particularly gaming formats, have become the medium of choice for young people; as a consequence, interactive gaming has become a larger industry than cinema. The advent of the Internet-enabled personal computers has added a new layer of communication and social networking to the interactive digital mix. More recently, the mobile phone is becoming a platform for social and information access that has become ubiquitous in all of the settings of everyday life. While this evolving palette of technologies has demonstrated the ability to capture the attention of young people, the innovative learning outcomes that educators had hoped for are more elusive.

Although computers are now fixtures in most schools and many homes, there is a growing recognition that kids' passion for digital media has been ignited more by peer group sociability and play than academic learning. Catch phrases such as "edutainment" and "informal learning" are a kind of recognition that an important field of endeavor has yet to coalesce into a defined set of frameworks or an established field of study. This gap between in-school and out-of-school experience represents a gap in children's engagement in learning, a gap in our research and understandings, and a missed opportunity to reenergize public education.

This project works to address this gap in understanding and practice with a targeted set of ethnographic investigations into three emergent modes of informal learning that young people are practicing using new media technologies. These are areas not well understood in the literature, and are promising sweet spots for exploring whether kids' media culture can be adapted to support new modes of learning.

  1. Communication. The mobile phone and the Internet are changing the scale, scope and dynamics of kids' social worlds. Kids use these new social networks to build identity and reputation, to share ideas and solve problems. Might these tools and practices be adapted to promote learning?
  2. Learning and Knowledge. New technologies for the expression of the imagination - such as blogs, wikis, web communities, multimedia films and fan fiction - are changing the way kids produce knowledge, publish their works, and build their own learning communities. What can we learn from kids about the future of learning and knowledge? How can we link kids' conceptions of learning and knowledge to those of education?
  3. Play. While we are interested in the power of interactive games to capture kids' attention, our primary focus is upon play and gaming, the social activities in which kids teach each other how to play, gain prestige and build fan communities, learn how to interpret new media, and to design and build their own games. Might the social dimension of gaming and play be linked to learning experiences?

The project will explore these themes and questions through ethnographic research. We will conduct a two-pronged multi-sited ethnographic study by investigating two kinds of sites - physical places and virtual spaces. First, we will investigate a group of physical places where kids are engaging in the three emergent learning and communication practices described above, such as information learning at museums, after school programs, schools, and community centers. In the physical sites we will see how kids' real life activities combine all three of our analytic categories in unique ways, but in selecting a variety of sites we hope to survey of the diversity of experiences in engaging with digital media across different genders, ethnicities, regions, and social classes. Secondly, we will investigate a group of virtual places and networks, such as online and alternate reality gaming ("ARGing"), blogs, instant messaging practices, and fan fiction groups. In looking at online emergent cultural practices among digital kids, we seek to anticipate future developments and identify positive learning opportunities by observing kids in their natural digital ecologies.