Participatory Culture Literacy

Recently I’ve been invited to co-instruct (with the CEO of Pleiadas, Patrick Edwards-Daughtery) a workshop on Participatory Culture through Mount Saint Vincent University in Canada. Needless to say, I was excited to be able to interact with a group of K-12 educators and see if their experiences were any different than mine (which are ultimately limited to college-level teaching.

I have to say, the day started with a big bang. For a workshop aimed to discuss, and possibly promote, the uses of new technologies like the Internet and Virtual Worlds in education, the day began in a hopeless tone, but certainly was an eye-opening experience. Here’s a shortlist of our misfortunes:

6:00AM: Woke up early to double-check my powerpoint slides and make sure the links to all the cool videos worked. Nothing out of the ordinary… anyone who intimately works with technology knows that this is a must. As I always say, technology is wonderful, but when it fails, it fails big time. And sure enough, I realized all of a sudden, perhaps for the first time, that I was in Canada and that it was altogether a different country. My links to Colbert Report and Daily Show skids were being rerouted to a different Comedy Central site, one which was unknown to me, one that had South Park episodes instead of what I wanted to show… My initial reaction was panic. How can Comedy Central change its site in two days? Only when I clicked the Lonelygirl15 interview link on the MTV site did I realize that it was because of copyright issues that I was not able to view or show any of the proprietary videos that I so wanted to show to prove some of my points in my talk. But thankfully, the YouTube videos, which relied on user-generated content, worked. How silly! I realized only then, that while I may not use the proprietary videos to prove some of the points I was planning on making, the failure to do so, proved an even more important point of the workshop: the way participatory culture perceives copyright issues is altogether different than the way previous generations viewed them. The current laws are lame and useless, they impede creativity and education to some extent.

8:00AM: Got packed within two minutes and rushed out of my door to meet Patrick downstairs at the lobby to grab a cup of coffee and finalize loose ends. I called the elevator, the doors opened, I got in, the doors closed, pressed the lobby button and… lights went out! I was stranded until Patrick notified the Elevator Gods who resided up in the heavens above and negotiated my safe return…

9:00AM: Picked up our game developer, Tim Maly, only to realize that neither of us knew the name of the school that the workshop was going to be held in. Opening his shiny MAC, Patrick assured me that he can dig up the school’s name from his cached e-mail files in his computer, and he did. He diligently entered the name of the school (Kindree School) into our GPS navigation system that we so affectionately called “Garmin.” Garmin choked, croaked,and after many pleas and kisses, it spit out an address, without directions. Driving around, almost hoping that we would stumble into the school or recognize the address, we looked around. It was indeed a gorgeous day, the first beautiful day of the season, with the sun gloriously shining ahead of us. Which led me thinking… we’re going the wrong direction according to the address! Turned back, keeping the sun behind us to make sure that we are going West (not East), I started thinking about the irony of this situation: Garmin, which we paid and additional 9 dollars per day to use, ultimately failed us. But the sun, which has been free for millions of years, came to our help in this dire moment. Our game developer ultimately managed to speak Garmin’s language and informed me that I hadn’t pressed the relevant buttons and showed me the direction. My second lesson of the day: It takes three people to talk to Garmin and only one to understand the sun!

10:00AM: Touch down! As we enter the building almost an hour late and set the equipment up, running into password and child protection problems, I thought about the day ahead of us… And felt a bit conflicted about what I was about to tell these educators about the uses of technology in classrooms or even talk to them about how virtual worlds can be implemented in schools. After having worked with technology for a decade now, I know for a fact that what can go wrong, will go wrong. And the morning just proved that. But are the difficulties worth while taking???

Sensing that I may have a bit of a resistant crowd (as I did the entire semester with my students), I laid down my disclaimer: I don’t want to make a believer out of you, I just want you to understand so that you can guide our youth through these times of change and make them understand…

Challenges that the educators seemed to be facing aren’t all that surprising. Questions I got:
Q) How can we protect out youth from what is *bad* out there?
A) Blocking things off is not going to help anyone. Any firewall, any security can be breached. Internet is here to stay, so are the bad people. We need to teach them the new literacy that arises with this medium so our youth is well-equipped to deal with that sort of thing on their own and are able to recognize good from the bad. They themselves know how to use it more efficiently, for good purposes. If we don’t teach them to make good use of technology, the dark side wins.

Q) How do we convince the parents?
A) One at a time. You fear what you don’t know, we need to educate them as well. And that’s not going to happen over night.

Q) Games, virtual worlds, education? What the hell is educational games anyway?
A) As our game developer so aptly put it: We should focus on making educational GAMES, not EDUCATIONAL games. Education should be something we slip into their milk, not a sour pill to swallow.

Q) Don’t the youth know more about this stuff than we do?
A) Actually no. They know the technical aspects of it, sure, they know how to use it, but are they able to express its cultural effects, make some sense out of their experience? That’s what we need to teach our youth. How can they make sense of the cultural changes that are happening at this time.

After a day-long workshop on participatory culture and great discussion, I left the building content without feeling that I did a cheap sales pitch on new technologies. Oh, BTW, did I mention we rented a convertible for the occasion? See below for our glory shots:

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