Sunday, January 4, 2009

Digital Ethnography

Participatory Media Literacy: Why it matters

Posted: 03 Jan 2009 06:58 AM CST

Those of us striving to integrate participatory media literacy practices into our classes often face resistance. Other faculty might argue that we are turning away from the foundations of print literacy, or worse, pandering to our tech-obsessed students. Meanwhile, students might resist too, wondering why they have to learn to use a wiki in an anthropology class. The surprising-to-most-people-fact is that students would prefer less technology in the classroom (especially *participatory* technologies that force them to do something other than sit back and memorize material for a regurgitation exercise). We use social media in the classroom not because our students use it, but because we are afraid that social media might be using them - that they are using social media blindly, without recognition of the new challenges and opportunities they might create.

I was reminded of this while reading Howard Rheingold's great little article, Participative Pedagogy for a Literacy of Literacies, where he writes:

If print culture shaped the environment in which the Enlightenment blossomed and set the scene for the Industrial Revolution, participatory media might similarly shape the cognitive and social environments in which twenty first century life will take place (a shift in the way our culture operates). For this reason, participatory media literacy is not another subject to be shoehorned into the curriculum as job training for knowledge workers.

In all of Howard's work is an understanding that a new technology may have good or bad consequences, determined largely by how people use it and how well they understand the broader implications of these uses. In Smart Mobs, he warned that new forms of participatory media could be great "cooperation amplifiers" but without sufficient literacy on the part of the public could also become an "always-on panopticon" invoking Bentham's haunting design for a prison in which a centralized entity could see everthing all the prisoners do, "a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example."

Like Howard, I employ social media in the classroom with a sense of urgency.

Like the early days of print, radio, and television, the present structure of the participatory media regime - the political, economic, social and cultural institutions that constrain and empower the way the new medium can be used, and which impose structures on flows of information and capital - is still unsettled. As legislative and regulatory battles, business competition, and social institutions vie to control the new regime, a potentially decisive and presently unknown variable is the degree and kind of public participation. Because the unique power of the new media regime is precisely its participatory potential, the number of people who participate in using it during its formative years, and the skill with which they attempt to take advantage of this potential, is particularly salient.

Ultimately, participatory media literacy is as much about a literacy of *participation* as it is a literacy of media. For, as Howard says, "a participatory culture in which most of the population see themselves as creators as well as consumers of culture is far more likely to generate freedom and wealth for more people than one in which a small portion of the population produces culture that the majority passively consume."

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