Remarks by Jonathan Fanton at the Launch of MacArthur's Digital Media and Learning Initiative, New York, NY
October 19, 2006 | Speech | Digital Media & Learning

Good morning.  I am Jonathan Fanton, President of the MacArthur Foundation.  Thank you for joining us for an important announcement and an interesting panel on building a new field of digital media and learning.  I also want to welcome those watching our live webcast, those joining us in the virtual world of Second Life, and those who are reading our live blog, which is guest-written today by Danah Boyd who is with us here at the American Museum of Natural History. 

We are here today to talk about the future. 

Today, we announce a 5-year, $50 million initiative to investigate the role and impact of digital technology in the lives of young people.  We seek to explore the implications for schools and other social institutions – our families, our economy, even our democracy. 

We believe there is a new interdisciplinary, cross-sector field in the making – and MacArthur wants to support, develop and build this field of digital media and learning.  It will require the best minds from many disciplines and many professions.

We have begun to think with others in the education community about the ways our children are changing – about how different the world is now than it was just a decade ago, and how different it will yet be in the decades ahead.

Young people today are more technologically savvy than in the past. This is the first generation to grow up digital – coming of age when the use of computers, the Internet, videogames, and cell phones is common. Expressing themselves and building communities through these tools is the norm.

Consider these facts:

  • On a typical day, more than half of US teenagers use a computer.
  • 83 percent of young people play video games regularly. 
  • 72 percent use instant messaging. 

Although a lot of information exists about the number of young people using technology, much less is known about how they are using it – how they think about it, the role it plays in their lives, and what it means to them. It is clear that for many, the richest environment for learning is no longer in the classroom, it is outside the classroom – online and after school.

So the key questions today are these:

  • What skills do our young people need for the future? What will help prepare them best for a life of individual growth, useful work, and responsible citizenship?
  • Even more fundamentally: how are new technologies changing the way young people reason and make ethical judgments; acquire content and analytical skills; interact with others; and relate to teachers and authority? In short, how are digital media of all types changing the way our children learn and develop?
  • Finally, how are these technologies affecting young people's sense of identity and community, their attitudes toward civic participation, their awareness of other cultures?

These are the challenging but critical questions our society must be asking today if we are to create educational and social institutions that can meet the needs of this and future generations.

Our aims are straightforward. 

  • First, we want to explore how young people are actually incorporating digital media into their daily lives and with what effects.
  • Second, we want to help them be better at navigating, judging, and using digital information and tools in school and beyond.
  • Third, we want to understand the implications of all this for the institutions that prepare our young people for the future.  And we want to help these institutions adapt to a new reality.

This is a global phenomenon.  While our initial focus is on the United States, over time, the initiative will expand to consider other countries where the saturation of digital devices is high and the patterns of use may be different in significant ways.

Like all of us here, MacArthur cares deeply about our young people and their futures.  We bring no agenda to these questions other than a desire to learn and share the results with as broad an audience as possible.  We have a sense of what may be happening, but we are agnostic, even skeptical, about the effects of technology on young people.  We are eager to know what solid research will tell us. 

Our first grants range across research, media literacy, game design, and are early efforts to build this field.

With MacArthur support, a large-scale ethnography is underway, directed by Professors Mitsuko Ito at the University of Southern California and Peter Lyman from the University of California at Berkeley.  It is one of the most significant attempts yet made to explore the influence of digital media on youth.  It will collect information on-line and in person about young people's social networks and peer groups, their family life, how they play, and how they search for information and learn.

We also have launched the MacArthur Series on Digital Media and Learning. It is run by the New Media Consortium and the Monterrey Institute for Technology and Education.  The Series is devoted to topics of deep interest to this emerging field — identity, race, and ethnicity; the ecology of games; and judging the credibility of information, among others.  It will produce edited volumes in print and electronic versions. Expert dialogues about the topics are taking place on-line right now.

We already know that children should be learning more than reading and math to prepare them for productive adulthood in a digital world.  With funding from MacArthur, Professor Henry Jenkins and his colleagues at MIT have developed a new framework for media literacy. Its aim is to help young people filter, judge, synthesize, and use information on the Internet and from other sources.  A pilot application is underway in after-school media literacy programs directed by Nicole Pinkard at the University of Chicago’s charter school.

A final example.  In collaboration with GameLab here in New York, a team at the University of Wisconsin is working on an application called "Game Designer." It promotes media literacy through making digital creations, including games. Game Designer will help students learn about ethical judgment, aesthetic design, systemic thinking, and collaborative problem-solving.  

It is easy to get caught up in awe and admiration of the new. So let us be clear: we do not believe that digital media tools will replace the book, paper and pen, face to face interaction, or all the other ways that we socialize, learn, and communicate – not anytime soon.  But they are taking their place along side these other means and modes of learning and communication. MacArthur's new initiative aims to help all of us understand the possible shape and consequences of these changes and to support students, parents, schools, and communities as they adapt to this new reality.

I will be pleased to respond to questions about this new area of work, or about the Foundation in general, after a panel of experts shares insights from their work in this emerging field.

Three panelists join us today:

  • Henry Jenkins is Director of Comparative Media Studies at MIT.  He is a media scholar who is a critical thought leader in this emerging field, which he demonstrates in his new paper on the participatory culture and media literacy. 
  • Mimi Ito is Research Scientist in the University of Southern California's Annenberg Center for Communication.  She’s an anthropologist with remarkable expertise in how young people learn through using digital media, such as mobile phones, anime, and games. 
  • Nicole Pinkard is Director of Technology and Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Chicago’s Center for School Improvement.  She is doing exceptional work using digital media to integrate young people’s learning across educational, family and community environments. 

Each of our panelists will share with us some of the early implications of their work, then we will open up the discussion.

The panel will be moderated by Connie Yowell. Connie is the Director of Education in MacArthur’s domestic program and the primary architect of this initiative, which brings together all of the people you saw in the video earlier and many more.

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