Funder Seeding Work in the Emerging Field of ‘Digital Learning’

By Rhea R. Borja — November 14, 2006 3 min read
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At a time when technology has changed how K-12 students learn, create, and interact with others, schools are behind the curve in teaching the skills they need to be savvy consumers and producers of digital media.

That’s the conclusion of a study commissioned by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to kick off a five-year, $50 million “digital learning” initiative announced last month.

The broad-ranging project will support projects to research technology’s effects on students; use social networking and other online tools to help students learn; design and develop online games; and create media-literacy curricula for a digital age.

One of the initiative’s main goals is to figure out what and how students are learning through podcasting, blogging, video games, and other Web-based activities in an online environment, said Jonathan Fanton, the president of the Chicago-based foundation.

Learn more about the MacArthur Foundation’s digital-learning Web site.

“Given how present these technologies are in their lives, do young people act, think, and learn differently today?” he asked in a statement. “And what are the implications for education and for society?”

One implication is that educators need to recognize the power of the Web’s “participatory culture,” in which anyone can critique student work and offer advice, said Henry Jenkins, the director of the comparative-media-studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, Mass.

Mr. Jenkins, the lead researcher for “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century,” the MacArthur-supported study, said that the virtual worlds that students move around in are unlike anything resembling the traditional learning environment.

Those online communities include the 3-D virtual world assembled on the Web site known as Second Life, at More than 1.3 million people worldwide use the site, where “residents” can buy land with virtual dollars, “attend” live audio-streamed town hall meetings, watch live concerts, and talk to one another via Skype, an Internet phone service.

The MacArthur Foundation simulcast its Oct. 19 event in New York City announcing its digital-learning initiative on Second Life, garnering about 80 online attendees.

But not all students have equal access to the Web or other technology tools, Mr. Jenkins said. In addition, the students who are online have limited analytical skills to assess what they see, read, and create. And no established guidelines govern what personal information students should post online about themselves or their friends, Mr. Jenkins added.

“Kids don’t have a critical vocabulary on the effect of media in their own lives,” he said. “If [students] play a [video] game about history, that’s how history was.”

Given those gaps, educators should integrate media-literacy skills into core academic subjects, Mr. Jenkins said.

For example, he said, teachers can use online robotics simulations to help explain algebraic concepts and introduce students to physics.

“This is about a paradigm shift,” Mr. Jenkins said. “These are skills that can be integrated across the curriculum.”

Considering Trade-Offs

As part of its digital-learning initiative, the MacArthur Foundation has given grants to 18 organizations, some of which had received previous support from the foundation for their work on digital learning.

See Also

Read the accompanying story,

Grants for R&D

See also a related story,

The foundation has also set up a Web site to house the project, and next year it will publish six books, online and in print, on innovative uses of digital learning and its relationship to such issues as civic engagement, identity, race, and ethnicity.

“Just as the printing press … changed how knowledge works, we have hypothesized that these new digital media will have the same effect,” said Connie Yowell, the director of education grantmaking for the MacArthur Foundation. “It’s critical that we understand [digital media’s] benefits and its unintended consequences. There are implications for both of those for schools.”

The unintended consequences, she said, could include less physical play and less time to think and explore offline.

“What may be lost?” said Ms. Yowell. “Does something happen to daydreaming? Creativity?”

A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2006 edition of Education Week as Funder Seeding Work In the Emerging Field Of ‘Digital Learning’


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