interactive tools & online communities

Interactive Tools and Communities that Support Media Literacy
Media, Communication, Policy and Practice, MeCCSA 2010 Conference, London School of Economics, London, England. Spring 2010. Co-Presenter with Gretchen Rinnert of a paper and case-studies.

Contemporary discussions about interactive media, social networking and online resources often neglect conversations associated with the engagement and interpretation of these technologies. Whether we like it or not, the Internet has become a primary resource for students and teachers, but educational institutions are often not prepared to train students to understand, in a critical manner, the online content they encounter. Outside of school, teenagers are active online participants. Conversely, schools often rely on analog tools to teach an already digital generation. This disconnect results in teenagers who are not prepared to engage as critical digital citizens.

According to research by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Stanford University, teenagers tend to rely on the look and feel of online information to determine content credibility. Such findings are particularly interesting when one considers the contemporary rise of web-based applications, and as design software and image manipulation tools have become more available. Average computer users can create content that looks professional, and therefore trustworthy. Subtleties such as reserved tone, subdued color palette and balanced composition are presented to look professional to inexperienced teens, who may therefore interpret the content as credible. Online content now facilitates public discourse, but as a result, positions amateurs and experts at the same level of credibility. This flattening of source credibility is called “side-by-sideness” and is problematic for teenagers with limited cognitive abilities and life experiences; it becomes harder for them to judge what they see.

While there may be proponents for a move away from online spaces to protect teenagers from false information or untrustworthy sources, such a strategy is not in their best interest. Online participation in inevitable. Students must practice communication and peer-collaboration, activities facilitated by an educational framework that relies on online communities, specifically participatory cultures. In an effort to promote such a move in the educational environment, one must also come to understand that audiences that which we aim such strategies. In one such case, studies show that teenage girls struggle to find a voice during their adolescence. Usually, these students disengage from the physical classroom environment, but have been found to be active and vocal members in participatory cultures, such as Facebook, Flickr and YouTube. Why such a shift? Writings about participatory cultures point to their relatively low barriers to creative and artistic expression, strong support for sharing, mentorship between seasoned and novice members and a shared community value that individual contributions matter, and members feel a social connection with one another. (Jenkins “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture…”) . These communities engage participants in dialogue and aid users in exercising media literacy (Jenkins “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture…”) They would be an invaluable tool if properly integrated into the classroom and K-12 curriculum.

We cannot simply ignore participatory communities and reject interactive tools and technologies as a learning strategies. We have the opportunity to encourage media literacy new media literacy skills through peer to peer learning by leveraging already existing social participation into teachable, and quantifiable moments. These tools will aid students in being critical of content they encounter while engaging in some of the new media skills required by online environments: play, performance, collective intelligence and judgment. We propose that educational learning tools and communities be implemented. Reinforcing our arguments, we will present prototypes which visually display how the design of online tools and communities aid in critical media engagement, assessment in online environments, inspire active participation, and prepare younger audiences to become critical digital citizens.