Remarks by Jonathan Fanton at the Announcement of MacArthur Series on Digital Media and Learning
December 12, 2007 | Speech | Digital Media & Learning, Digital Media & Learning Competition

We gather today to mark an important milestone in our work in digital media and learning: the publication of six field-defining volumes.  We will also hear from three leaders in this emerging field as they discuss how digital media is influencing young people and shaping the future of learning.

This is one in a series of events we are hosting around the country.  In Chicago, we considered the impact of video games on young people; in Durham we took a look at how social institutions like schools and libraries might be changing; and last month, in Los Angeles, we discussed the potential and perils of kids spending so much time in virtual worlds. 

As we move around the country getting ready to celebrate our 30th anniversary, I find that audiences are often surprised to learn the MacArthur Foundation does much more than the genius grants for which we are best known.  Our international program, in 60 countries, focuses on peace and security, conservation, population and reproductive health, and human rights and international justice.  At home we concentrate on affordable rental housing preservation, urban community and economic development, juvenile justice reform, and of course digital media and learning.

Common to everything we do is the search for what is new.  We are committed to illuminating the patterns and trends that are reshaping our world, opening opportunity but also posing very complex challenges.

We and others believe that the exponential increase in access to information has brought us an important inflection point in human history.  Enabled by digital technology, people are flooded with data–some credible, much not–and they interact across age, race, gender, culture and geographic boundaries in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago.

The current generation of young people is the first to grow up digital.  They are coming of age amidst widespread use of computers, the internet, videogames and cell phones. For this generation expressing themselves and building communities with these tools is the norm.  Consider these facts:

• 50 percent of teens use a computer on a typical day
• 83 percent of young people play video games regularly
• 50 percent of young internet users have created media content
• 33 percent of them have shared their content on the Internet
• 53 percent of all youth will be active in a virtual world within two years, according to eMarket Services

Although a lot of information exists about the number of young people using technology, less is known about its impact on their lives.  How does it affect the way they think and how they learn?  Does it change how they make judgments? Does it change how they play and how they relate to their friends?  Might it be that, for many, the richest environment for learning is no longer in the classroom but online and outside of school?

Answers to these questions have important implications for families and for social and civic institutions–our schools, libraries, museums and others.

Like all of us here, MacArthur cares deeply about our young people and their futures.  We bring no agenda to our grantmaking other than a desire to learn and share the results as broadly as possible.  We have a sense of what may be happening, but we are agnostic, sometimes even skeptical, about the effects of digital media on young people.  As in all of MacArthur’s areas of interest, we are eager to know what solid research and insights from practice will tell us.

To this end, MacArthur is supporting the development of an emerging interdisciplinary field, called at this early stage Digital Media and Learning.  It is a field that engages scholars, designers and developers, educators, and commercial interests.  Building it will require traditional and new ways of communication and community-building, from scholarly publications to collaborations, conferences, and competitions, convened both online and in-person.  It will also require a robust online community that learns, debates, and shares, using the very tools that are driving its creation.  The new field’s transformative potential will require the best minds from many disciplines and many professions. 

Some of those best minds are on display in the MacArthur Series on Digital Media and Learning.  These are six field-defining volumes that have engaged more than 50 authors, six editors, an advisory panel of leading experts, and even the voices of young people themselves.  We are here today to announce the publication of these volumes by the MIT Press, one of the world’s most well regarded publishers in technology and digital media.

We have created these volumes through an iterative, interactive and very public process–a groundbreaking approach that represents the essence and the ambition of the emerging field itself.

• The authors and editors range in expertise across disciplines.  In these volumes, you will find scholars in communications, anthropology, psychology, sociology, economics, education, library sciences, history, film studies, child development – and more.

• Authors come from a variety of sectors.  Game designers, social network developers, creators of virtual worlds, and others in digital industries are represented, as are educators, after-school leaders, librarians, and museum curators.

• The development of these volumes also engaged young people at every step.  One participant in the project is Global Kids, a MacArthur grantee that develops young people’s interest in global and civic issues.  Global Kids organized a youth advisory panel and conducted surveys with hundreds of young people to provide the authors with insights on the questions they were studying.

• Writing the volumes involved collaborative feedback and discussion.  Like others, we are exploring the role of social networks and online communities in advancing scholarship.  Some of you may have participated in the online discussions hosted for each of the volumes.  The editors used a variety of tools – from virtual worlds to blogs to simple listservs–to involve experts from around the world in those conversations. 

•  A distinguished advisory group provided peer review, not just at the completion of the each article, but throughout all phases of writing and discussion.  Henry Jenkins, one the advisors, is on our panel this evening.

The topics discussed in the volumes represent a set of issues that will be at the core of any exploration of digital media, learning, and young people.  Note that the titles do not highlight technology; instead, they address critical aspects of young people’s development.  We are interested not in technology itself, but in how it alters, benefits or, in some cases, may risk the well being of individuals and our communities.

In the volume entitled Civic Life Online, the chapters explore how digital media is influencing civic engagement.  More than 100 million people participate in social networks such as MySpace or Facebook.  This year saw the first presidential debates broadcast on YouTube, in a forum that allowed anyone to submit questions via video and memorably included an animated snowman asking a question about global warming.  The volume considers the impact of these new experiences on how young people understand community participation, civic responsibility, and even the role of institutions in our democracy.

In Learning Race and Ethnicity, the authors explore topics that are at the nexus of race and ethnicity, youth culture and digital media.  They ask: Do young people’s understanding of race and ethnicity improve because of online interactions? Or do they exhibit patterns of intolerance in cyberspace?  The volume presents a comprehensive, and guardedly enthusiastic, view of the potential of digital media, particularly because of the many ways that minority youth appropriate digital media to suit their own generational concerns. Its chapters range from a discussion of the digital divide in the 21st Century to how the Internet can help overcome racial disparities in health services.

The Ecology of Games explores the notion that young people play differently than they have in the past.  Many of us may have concerns about their engagement with video games while others, such as Arizona State University scholar Jim Gee, see games as a new and highly engaging learning environment.  This volume looks not at the game alone, but at the entire community and experience surrounding the game.  The editor of this volume, Katie Salen, is on our panel this evening to provide us with more insight on this important topic.

In Digital Media, Youth, and Credibility, the authors consider one of the most pressing questions for the education community–credibility and information overload.  Think about the debate over the credibility of Wikipedia versus the encyclopedia.  How will young people manage the enormous amount of information to which they now have access? How will they recognize credible information? Most research on this topic focuses on adult use of information in areas such as medicine.  So we recently awarded additional funds for more in-depth studies on young people and information credibility.

The articles in Youth, Identity, and Digital Media present new data, and reflect on how digital media is influencing young people’s emerging identities.  A passage in one chapter reads, ”Millions of teens who grew up with a mouse in one hand and a remote control in the other now pour out their hearts, minds and angst in personal online diaries.  And, anyone with a connection – including would-be predators – can have a front-row view of this once-secretive teenage passion play.” 

Harvard professor Howard Gardner, from whom you will hear tonight, is looking at identity and ethics in cyberspace.  How are young people grappling with the age-old question of “Who am I?” and how are they addressing unfamiliar ethical challenges such as privacy and intellectual property rights.

Last, and perhaps most important, it is critical that this field balance the positive possibilities of digital media with an acknowledgement of their unintended or negative consequences. The last volume, Digital Youth, Innovation, and the Unexpected, does just that.  It ranges from a historical consideration of technology to a futuristic view of learning in 2020.  It raises the question of whether the Internet and digital media tools bring more trouble and disruptions into the lives of young people than benefits.  For example, over 32 percent of young people report having experienced some form of bullying online.  Is this the same adolescent behavior we see on school playgrounds or is this a new form of interaction that requires more robust intervention?  This volume explores the role and responsibility of adults–-teachers, parents and mentors–and of public policy in young people’s online behavior. 

The volumes are available here on the table in the rear of the room, at the Harvard Coop and online at the MIT website.  We think they are required reading for anyone seeking to understand the implications of digital media for our young people, our institutions, and our society.

We also want to introduce you to, the MacArthur Spotlight Blog, where we hope you will join us in a continuing discussion of these topics.

The Digital Innovations Group and Games for Change helped to develop this very active blog and next year will launch a new knowledge network for the field that will serve as a resource depository, social network site and on-line meeting space. 

With these wonderful volumes now available, what comes next? 

With MIT Press and its partner the Monterrey Institute, I am pleased to announce the launch in 2008 of the International Journal of Learning and Media.  MacArthur will provide the initial support for the new journal and the vigorous online community we hope it will stimulate.  With this announcement, we are issuing the first public call for papers and participation.

Journals play an important role in field-building.  As such, this new quarterly journal must be rigorous and scientific.  Breaking new ground, it also will be highly participatory, through a complementary online community managed by the Monterrey Institute for Technology and Education.  Its inaugural editors are Katie Salen, David Buckingham and Tara McPherson.  As you can see, we have selected individuals whose expertise and international reputation represent the breadth and global nature of this emerging field. 

In 1995, Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of the Media Lab here at MIT, predicted, “Ten years from now, teenagers are likely to enjoy a much richer panorama of options because the pursuit of intellectual achievement will not be tilted so much in favor of the bookworm, but instead cater to a wider range of cognitive styles, learning patterns, and expressive behaviors.” 

It is now time to see if his prediction is becoming true and what it means for our society.

I will be pleased to respond to questions about the new volumes, the journal, or about the Foundation in general, after our panel of experts shares insights from their work in this emerging field.  Connie Yowell, MacArthur’s director for education will introduce the panel and moderate tonight’s discussion.

With energy, imagination and exquisite taste, she has assembled a portfolio of 25 grantees who are at the center of the field of Digital Media and Learning.  We are very proud of her work.

Thank you.

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