Remarks by Jonathan Fanton at the 2009 Digital Media & Learning Competition Award Luncheon
April 16, 2009 | Speech | Digital Media & Learning, Digital Media & Learning Competition

Good afternoon and thank you, David, for that kind introduction. It is my pleasure to welcome you to The MacArthur Foundation and to Chicago. We have planned work at a couple of venues so you will have a chance to see some of our beautiful city. We also will be pleased to introduce you to the Foundation and the historic Marquette Building at the informal closing reception after the showcase on Friday.

Let me begin by thanking HASTAC — Cathy and David — for doing such a terrific job in developing and managing the competition in its second year.

I also want to acknowledge members of our staff with responsibility for Digital Media and Learning. Julia Stasch heads up our grantmaking in the U.S. Connie Yowell is director of education. Connie has led the effort to build the field. Part of her job has been to identify and introduce us to the terrific people who are at the forefront in each of the disciplines and sectors that make up that field. You met Craig Wacker earlier this morning and he is the one who has superbly coordinated this competition with HASTAC, and Ben Stokes, is a program officer on the team.

On behalf of the Board and staff of the MacArthur Foundation, I congratulate you — the winners of the competition. We received more than 700 applications from the U.S. and the other ten countries that were eligible to enter this year. It was exciting to see so many creative, high-quality entries inspired by a deep commitment to making our world a better place. From a very strong pool, a distinguished panel of judges chose you as the very best.

You should all be proud of your accomplishments.

We look forward today to learning first-hand about your projects and giving you a chance to explore common interests. Tonight, at the PLOrk concert and reception, you will meet last year’s winners and tomorrow their projects will be on display for you and the public. We will do the same for you next year. I am sure we will all feel the excitement for this new field we are calling Digital Media and Learning.

This competition is part of an initial five-year, more than $50 million dollar initiative that MacArthur announced in October 2006. Our goal is to understand more about how young people are changing through their use of digital media — how they think, learn, play, make judgments, interact with others, and become civically engaged.

This emerging field needs academic research spanning many disciplines and knowledge-sharing that is both traditional and takes advantage of Web 2.0 technologies. It also requires innovative approaches to learning and practices whose development will demand the best thinking and implementation from designers, educators, parents, engineers, industry partners, and young people themselves. It will require institutional leaders to look beyond their boundaries, collaborate with industry partners, and experiment in new and powerful ways. Digital media and learning is a field for the 21st century — truly interdisciplinary and cross-sector.

Let me share the elements of our work and how we are helping to build the field.

First, through research and theoretical work, we aim to help establish a robust base of evidence about how young people are learning and participating with digital media — and how this information may challenge longstanding notions about teaching and learning.

Second, armed with this new knowledge, we are funding the design of new learning environments that take advantage of games, social networks, virtual worlds, and mobile devices. That is what this competition is all about.

Third, we are exploring new models for traditional institutions — schools, libraries, museums, and more. Some examples: a public school in New York called Quest to Learn, with pedagogy and curriculum based on principles of games design and play. An innovation called a “thinkeringspace” in libraries that invites young people to explore — or tinker with — a library’s books and other assets through technology. A teen environment at the Chicago Public Library called YouMedia, based entirely on new MacArthur-funded research about how young people spend their time online. Learning networks of schools, museums, libraries, zoos and other institutions in New York and Chicago that make it possible, through technology, for young people to engage with their resources in-person and online anytime.

Fourth, and finally, we aim to support the building blocks of this new field:

  • A growing group of the best scholars grappling with the most interesting and most challenging questions;
  • More universities committed to work at the nexus of the numerous disciplines that make up this field;
  • Robust public discourse,
  • Seminal publications, like the six-volume MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning, and the path breaking new International Journal of Learning and Media launched just last month, and
  • Its online community for debate and discussion about the articles.

This competition makes an important contribution to this new field. To be robust and sustainable, it must constantly seek and embrace the new and innovative. An open competition does just that. The process brings people together in teams. The proposals acknowledge the fast pace of technology development. The best and most innovative efforts bubble up to the top. Further, in selecting a theme of participatory learning, we are reflecting findings from research, including the Foundation-funded Digital Youth Project. Some of the winning proposals will allow learners of any age to participate in virtual communities where they share ideas and comment on one another's projects. Others make it possible to explore issues ranging from the condition of humanity around the world, the ocean, the history of Canada, the power of game design, entrepreneurship, the cell and principles of biology.

A growing field needs leaders willing to take a risk. We took a risk on you, selecting you on the basis of a brief proposal. We are meeting most of you for the first time today — very different from our traditional approach to grantmaking.

As a group, you are wonderfully diverse. From a broad pool representing ten countries and every region in the United States, the nineteen winners come from ten U.S. states and four other countries. Half have a university affiliation. And an encouraging number of nonprofit and for-profit organizations are among the winners — a reflection, we think, of the interdisciplinary and public/private/commercial/academic nature of the emerging field. Four very different projects are from outside of the United States. And the projects represent the great diversity of technology itself — mobile devices, social networks, games, wikis, blogs and even a radically-affordable $12 TV-Computer.

We look forward, in a year, to understanding better how to use these new digital media tools to advance a field. I am familiar with Facebook and MySpace, traveled around and held discussions in Second Life, blogged a little bit, and even had a Twitter tutorial last month. Each of these experiences tells me just a little more about what can be accomplished. They remind me as well to keep my eyes open, keep asking the tough questions and, perhaps sometimes express a healthy skepticism.

I will do this at the same time that I admire what your projects can be — true exemplars of why digital media may be transforming how we think and learn, and perhaps even how we participate in our democracy.

I also am struck by how profoundly your values and interests resonate with those of the MacArthur Foundation. Our aim is to advance the quest for a more just, verdant world at peace. We work in 60 countries on human rights, conservation, reproductive health, migration, and peace and security. At home, we focus on community development, affordable housing preservation, juvenile justice, digital media and learning and important policy issues that cut across the program areas, like the fiscal health of the U.S. You may know us better for our support of public radio and television and the 25 “genius” awards we make each year to especially creative individuals.

Our concern for the environment links to Constance Penley’s DigitalOcean Project, David Gibson’s Global Challenge, and Jared Lamenzo’s WildLab. We are helping to build an Encyclopedia of Life, which depends on citizen scientists to contribute their findings.

In India, we work on women’s health issues, which are closely tied to access to education and jobs. Sapna Shahani’s “She Creates: Young Women Blogging India’s Stories” connects powerfully.

Poverty alleviation underlies everything we do abroad as we look to protect rights and open opportunity. Jeff Kupperman’s GameWorks: Changing the World One Game at a Time will bring young people information they can use to better their lives. So will Yolanda Heredia and Jose Icaza’s project in Chiapas, which is one of the places where MacArthur works.

Another MacArthur interest is in the global mobility of people, many in search of better opportunities but also recruited to fill real needs. We believe migration can be a triple win for countries of origin, receiving countries and individuals. But integration often is a challenge, addressed by Francois Bar’s Mobile Voices, or Jeremy Liu’s Participatory Chinatown.

Here in the U.S., MacArthur has long believed that reliable public information about critical issues is essential to a well functioning democracy and active citizen engagement. So I am happy to see that this value is so prominent in the Young Innovators Awards. I think of Laura Staniland’s, Daniel Poynter’s Digital Democracy Contest, and Bingxia Yu’s Networked Newsroom.

These examples — and apologies to others I did not mention — show the powerful connection between your interests and ours. You are now part of the MacArthur family and we want you to draw on our intellectual resources and worldwide network of expertise. We have invited some of our staff working in these fields to be here today.

Seated strategically among you are: Elspeth Revere, head of our General Program, and program officer John Bracken, who heads up our cross-Foundation technology grants committee. Sharon Burns, our chief technology officer. Valerie Chang, who works in policy and is interested in digital media and democracy. Raoul Davion, works in Africa with a special interest in education in South Africa. Craig Howard, director for community and economic development in the US. John Slocum, who works in our international program and leads our interest in migration and global mobility. Our general counsel, Josh Mintz, is here as well and he is thinking about what happens when a new learning environment turns out to have commercial appeal.

All of these MacArthur staff members are very interested in your work and I hope that interest comes through in the conversations at your table.

We also see you and your work as integral to the emerging field. Over the coming year, you will find that you are learning lessons worth sharing. We look forward to seeing them on blogs and other informal vehicles HASTAC has established for communication, including a special digital media and learning competition winners’ hub set up to help you collaborate. I know that last year’s winners found such collaboration worthwhile.

Four years from now there may be as many as 75 to 80 of you who have offered innovations for the future of learning. By that time, we imagine a burgeoning, sophisticated and informed public discourse about the powerful benefits to learning that digital media brings, and, of course, an honest exploration of its negative and unintended consequences.

You are here today to celebrate the selection of your projects as future contributions to a truly exciting new field. Tomorrow, you will have the opportunity to see the fruits of the first competition and meet the group of innovators you will be joining. We honor you for that and for the promise your projects hold — the promise of transforming learning for the 21st century.


I am joining you for lunch and would be pleased to chat informally about questions you might have about the competition, the work in digital media and learning and about the MacArthur Foundation itself.

Thank you.

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