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.

Frameworks and Methodology

Theoretical Framework

Our ethnographic approach draws from theories of situated learning and the social construction of technological systems. Situated learning theory is grounded in the recognition that learning is both a social process and a cognitive one. (Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger 1991) Learners are engaged in a process of acquiring new knowledge as well as changing their modes of participation in the social world. In their foundational work on situated cognition, Lave and Wenger describe how learning can be conceptualized as a shift in social position from "legitimate peripheral participation" to more complete membership in a "community of practice." In other words, learning is a process of forming identity and membership in a social group. Conversely, failure to learn can be tied to lack of affinity with the broader social context, bringing factors such as culture and ethnicity to the foreground of our discussions of learning processes. In describing how the situated approach differs from earlier theories of cognition, James Greeno (1998) describes the shift from "focusing on behavior of individuals to focusing on behavior of systems in which individuals participate." Our goal in the ethnography is to look ecologically at "socio-technical" systems, and to understand learning as a structure of participation in these systems.

Our study of digital kids from a situated learning perspective focuses on participation in technology-mediated social worlds. In our view, technology is inseparable from culture and society, and is not something that "impacts" the social world from outside (Edwards 1995). Drawing from technology studies (e.g., Bijker, Hughes & Pinch 1987), we see technologies as embodiments of social and cultural relations that in turn, structure our social and cultural futures. For example, instant messaging systems concretize assumptions about the social world: that people have "buddies" that they want to keep tabs on in an ongoing way (through a buddy list that shows who is logged on), that you would want these buddies to know that you are "available" or "away," and that occasionally you might want to initiate conversations with an "available" buddy (by opening up a chat window). As it has become more popular, instant messaging has become a technological ambassador for these sociable assumptions and practices embedded in its design. In turn, these technosocial practices can sediment over time to create large-scale change that can alter fundamental social, institutional, and cultural alignments.

For example, our focus on digital ecologies pushes us into learning domains outside what we traditionally consider educational settings, challenging cultural definitions of learning and knowledge. In contrast to most cognitive and psychological approaches to learning, situated learning approaches are generally agnostic as to whether content is explicitly educational or not, and recognizes learning as deepening engagement with any kind of cultural content and social group, even those that our society has labeled "entertainment." In fact, this model is probably most illuminating in understanding contexts where learning is a by-product of participation in an activity, rather than a formalized process of knowledge transfer, for example, apprenticeship learning, sports, or everyday learning in the home. As digital technologies enable kids to gain knowledge and cultural competency in domains that are not framed by explicit educational agendas, we begin to see changes in how kids construct identities and reputation, and how they relate to school and academic knowledge.

In kids' digital practices, few would dispute the most intense forms of engagement happen outside of schools: video game play, instant messaging between friends, blogging, sharing music on the net, googling for information on the world wide web. Recognition of the importance of these digital practices is part of a broader recognition of learning outside of educational institutions. Educational research's current attention to after school and "informal" settings is a nod to learning as it happens in non-institutionalized or loosely institutionalized settings. Yet as our literature review demonstrated, there has been little sustained study of learning in informal settings, and almost no foundational theoretical work on the properties of unorganized or non-institutionalized learning. These emergent practices challenge our cultural and institutional definitions of learning and social participation in ways that will likely reframe our theories of education and development.

This study is an effort towards theory building in this area, by beginning with the non-institutionalized peer-based practices of young people, and understanding their inherent integrity, rather than evaluating them through the lens of academic and institutionalized forms of learning. As the "new paradigm" in childhood studies has argued, we examine kids as competent "beings" inhabiting full social worlds rather than as "becomings" on their way to developing into full adults (James, Jenks and Prout 1998). While situated learning theory took the major step of recognizing learning across a range of settings, it has so far stopped short theorizing the properties specific to non-institutionalized learning. For example, how does learning differ when it is "off the record," not tied into formalized assessment measures? How does learning and participation change when it is primarily lateral and peer-to-peer rather than dictated from a position of authority? What can we recognize as "learning outcomes" when they are not operationalized through assessment? How do people in informal communities of practice recognize leadership, reputation, and success?

Hypotheses and Research Foci

Our focus on digital learning ecologies is motivated by these theoretical issues as well as the urgent need to understand and intervene in a broad-based set of social, cultural, and technological changes. The literature review and our prior research in this area have led us to hypothesize the following broad-based technosocial shifts:

  • Digital authoring tools provide a mechanism for kids to produce culture and knowledge in different and more kid-driven ways. Tools for creating digital music, art, and movies are now standard in consumer PC packages and are increasingly part of the toolkit for kids to express themselves and communicate in their native vernaculars of popular culture.
  • Digital culture and knowledge are being exchanged and monetized in new ways through online, networked ecologies. Kids are participating in online social environments where they can exchange ideas, and cultural products, enabling new kinds of identity formation, affiliation, community, reputation, and perhaps even career trajectories. For many kids, these identities and social environments are as central and identity shaping as those mediated by school. We need to understand what this means and under what conditions these new activities can be a positive, and what the proper role of adult guidance might be.
  • These developments in digital culture are leading to a new set of institutional realignments in the relationship between popular and academic cultures, between schools and home. While tension between entertainment and education, popular and academic cultures and institutions are long-standing, we believe that digital ecologies are tied to the growing importance of out-of-school public cultures in kids' lives. These changes might lead to a new model of public education that is not contained strictly within the boundaries of schooling. Given this, it is crucial that educational policies are keyed to an understanding of how social differentiation and stratification is related to these emergent and shifting socio-technical dynamics.

In identifying these loci of change, we are not assuming that these kid-driven learning environments are superior to those that educators have constructed. Rather, our primary goal is to understand, followed by the design of targeted interventions in this space. While we know that online environments have captured the attentions of many young people, we are less certain as to whether these trends are tied into pro-social and intellectual development, social equity, and a vital public sphere. Our assumption is that principled and well-designed interventions in this space are necessary to transform the viral and atomized activities of young people into a social agenda that we might be able to call public or civic education.


Our primary methodology will be ethnography which includes the core method of participant-observation as well as other qualitative methods such as interviewing, focus groups, and conversational or content analysis of online narratives. Our research design will be optimized for different kinds of field sites, thus often we will combine more than one method. Some guidelines for these decisions are based upon the characteristics of the field sites (i.e., what kind of access will we have to kids), of human subjects considerations (what kinds of setting will it be), the kinds of hypotheses or theories we have about what we are seeing, and costs. In brief, however, this is our view of the strengths and weaknesses of these methods.

Participant-Observation is our baseline choice of methodology, for our goal above all is to understand learning and digital media from the kids' point of view. The goal of ethnography is always to uncover and describe the indigenous knowledge and culture of those you are studying; kids' worlds have more often been studied from adult points of view, that of parents or teachers or the workforce, but we want to begin by understanding kids' cultures. Note that we intend to conduct ethnographic studies of both virtual and physical places, and to think about how they are related. We recognize that there is no one culture surrounding digital media, so the choice of field sites is critical, if it is to be possible to generalize from the in-depth case studies that ethnography can provide.

Interviews. For all of these reasons, after we have established a baseline sense of how kids' digital cultures work, we will complement ethnographic participant observation with interviews and focus groups, particularly with key informants like parents and siblings, as well as to confirm our observations of kids' public behavior.

Conversational and content analysis. In addition to the study of activity and conversation, we will also conduct textual analysis of online publications. A great deal of our data will be narratives taken from online sources - such as blogs, emails, text messages - as well as multi-media productions created by kids - such as videos, software, games.

Technology-supported methods. While not all strictly ethnographic in nature, we also plan to experiment with technologies to systematically measure online activity. For example, it may be useful to build software to run on lab machines that keeps track of how kids use machines, or which asks them from time to time to comment on what they are doing, creating a record. Similarly, digital cameras can be given to kids to record their activities, and software written to combine the images they create with interview data that is based upon those images. We could also design online surveys to gather data from a larger proportion of our target population.


Bijker, Weibe E., Thomas P. Hughes, and Trevor Pinch Eds. The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in Sociology and History of Technology. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989

Ducheneaut, Nicolas, and Moore, Robert J., "Gaining more than experience points: Learning social behavior in multiplayer computer games." Palo Alto: PARC, 2003.

Edwards, Paul. "From Impact to Social Process: Computers in Society and Culture," in Sheila Jasanoff, Gerald E. Markle, James C. Peterson, and Trevor Pinch Eds., Handbook of Science and Technology Studies. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1995, pp. 257-285.

James, Allison, Chris Jenks and Alan Prout. 1998. Theorizing Childhood. New York: Teachers College Press.

Greeno, James. "The Situativity of Knowing, Learning, and Research," American Psychologist. 53(1), 1996, 5-26.

Lave, Jean and Etienne Wenger. Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.