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uCreate was the first completed Global Kids' Edge Project and took place within two jail facilities in the U.S.

1. Towards a Participatory Learning Culture

Leveraging Digital Media to Create a Participatory Learning Culture Among Incarcerated Youth

An Edge Project Worked Example, the first in a series

Written by Barry Joseph and Kelly Czarnecki, with Jesse Vieau and Margo Fesperman

Few would differ with the notion that all youth deserve a good education. This chapter will speak about one innovative attempt to improve the education of two groups of youth, within youth jails, through the innovative application of digital media. Are there concerns or questions already forming in you mind? If so, good, as this report is less about what we did than about the questions we too had to face, how we worked through them, and how the lessons learned might inform others similarly engaged. Before we describe the project and what we faced, we will first introduce you to the theoretical questions underlying our efforts, the unique form this report will take, and the broader initiative which framed this one project.

In October, 2006, Henry Jenkins and colleagues helped shed light on the new hidden curriculum, powered by the informal use of digital media, creating a new divide between youth prepared with the skills required to succeed in the new century and those being left behind. The report Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century defined a participatory culture as one in which there are “relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices.” A new gap was emerging, Jenkin argued: the participation gap.


Four years later, we are no longer just focusing on questions pertaining to digital media access (e.g. the digital divide) but, increasingly, inequalities in access to opportunities for participating in cultures supporting the development of these new competencies and social skills (e.g. the participation gap). Jenkins and colleagues look to afterschool programs and informal learning communities to take the lead transforming educational practices to support participatory cultural practices, given their ability to change in contrast with the resistance often found within formalized learning environments. As a participatory culture shifts the focus from one of individual expression to one of community involvement, the development of these new literacies “involve social skills developed through collaboration and networking.” Collaboration is as much a valuable tool utilized within participatory culture as a desired educational outcome. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, for example, defines collaboration as working effectively and respectfully with diverse teams, exercising flexibility and willingness to make compromises to accomplish a common goal, and assuming shared responsibility for collaborative work while valuing individual contributions.

Allan Collins and Richard Halverston’s book Rethinking Education In the Age of Technology offers one framework for developing such participatory cultures within afterschool programs. Within their list of the enhancements digital media offers for educating learners are “multimedia,” “publication,” and “reflection.” In short, digital media provides learners with new ways to express themselves (multimedia), share that expression with real audiences and demonstrate their learning in legitimate contexts outside the classroom (publication), and engage in meaningful reflection built into the learning environment (reflection). The Partnership for 21st Century Skills take a similar approach, promoting youth to develop the ability to create media products which demonstrate their understanding and ability to use “the most appropriate media creation tools, characteristics and conventions.”

Afterschool programs can combine these two - collaboration and self-expression - to develop a participatory culture. Furthermore, the transition from the privacy of the program’s learning environment to a public collaboration and sharing of youth media creates new challenges and opportunities crucial for youth to learn to navigate. Jenkins and colleagues refer to this as the Ethics Challenge, resulting from “the breakdown of traditional forms of professional training and socialization that might prepare young people for their increasingly public roles as media makers and community participants.” Howard Gardner’s GoodPlay Project at Harvard, interested in digital media and ethics, values two key related literacies - privacy and participation - that arise as youth increasingly interact in public online spaces. Developing literacies related to privacy require learning “how, where and with whom we share personal information online” while developing literacies related to participation require learning “the meaning of responsible conduct and citizenship in online communities.” So, developing educational programs that leverage digital media to engage youth in collaborative and self-expressive media practices provide opportunities to develop their ethical behaviors fit for our new digital age.

But what happens when the youth in question have been judged by society to be lacking in ethical behavior, to, in fact, be incarcerated in youth jails due to crimes committed? How can a participatory culture be created within an institution where self-expression is discouraged, where the idea of collaborating with adults and fellow incarcerated youth in other jails challenges key assumptions and structural components of the institution’s culture and practices? This worked example will explore how one collaboration, within and among youth at two youth jails, sought to create a participatory culture while negotiating the edge point where the potential of digital media and learning ran into conflict with existing cultural practices and norms.

Worked Examples are a new approach to scholarship pertaining to digital media and learning practices. The practice is best articulared by James Paul Gee in his March, 2010 report from the MacAthur Foundation, New Digital Media and Learning as an Emerging Area and "Worked Examples" as One Way Forward. Those engaged with building the emerging fields of Digital Media and Learning (DMAL) “would publicly display their methods of valuing and thinking about a specific problem, proposing them as examples of ‘good work’ in order to engender debate about what such work in DMAL might come to look like and what shape the area itself might take. The goal would not be for the proposed approach to become the accepted one but for it to become fodder for new work and collaboration.” (http://tinyurl.com/workedexamplesreport) As such, these are not case studies, per say, describing something the authors did which others should copy. Rather, they are more concerned with explaining why the authors did what they did, rather than how, and what they had to negotiate to get there.

Finally, before learing more about the actual project and getting into the details of the worked examples, some context might prove useful to understand why certain program decisions were made. This work with incarcerated youth was performed not in isolation but within a broader collection of innovative digital media programs, called The Edge Project, coordinated by Global Kids, Inc. Global Kids is a New York City-based educational non-profit that supports urban youth to become global citizens, community leaders, and successful students. The Edge Project was a Global Kids initiative funded by the MacArthur Foundation with the goal of expanding the capacity of civic and cultural institutions to use new media as innovative educational platforms that engage youth in learning and promote youth civic participation. More specifically, the Edge Project is interested in civic and cultural institutions bringing cutting edge digital media into their youth educational programs. It is equally interested in where this type of programming - due to technology, its pedagogical implications or both - is a disruptive force challenging the educators and/or the institutional cultural to work on the edge of their comfort level. There is a balancing act they must undertake, being receptive to how new media challenges their current educational culture and practice while, in turn, challenging the educational potential of new media through interacting with that very culture and practice. At the end of the day, Global Kids seeks to better understand the following questions: how do institutions find their balance working on this edge and do different types of institutions respond in different ways?


To be clear, those speaking about innovative practices often use the term "edge" in a different way, as if contrasting, say, the outside and center of a record, as in John Hagel and John Seely Brown's assertion: "To transform the core, start at the edge.” We mean something else. Picture the edge of a knife, sharply dividing two things inextricably linked. Better yet, picture the edge where the ocean (the vast potential of digital media for learning) meets the beach (the hard but ever shifting cultural practices and norms of institutions), an edge that is never the same from one moment to the next but is continually in play as forces press from either side. We are cognizant, as well, of Clayton Christianson's work on innovation, such as his book Disrupting Class, which contrasts "sustaining innovations," which build on existing innovations to meet the needs of current markets, with "disruptive innovations," which create new markets and redefine the measure of success. The Edge Project leans towards the later, attempting to introduce "disruptive innovations" into civic and cultural institutions.

While there is a wide range of new media practice within civic and cultural institutions, the Edge Project has deliberately selected a common set of criteria for its programs which may distinguish it from other initiatives and contextualize our findings. The primary site of learning will not be online but in person, facilitated by an adult within the institutions. The programs will be informed by youth development and youth media pedagogies. Finally, the program designs will focus less on scale and breadth and more on innovation and depth with the understanding that developing good theory through iterative practice is just the first step towards scalable designs.


The Edge Project explored these questions over two years (2009-2011) through a series of short-term educational projects developed and implemented in partnership with a variety of national civic and cultural institutions that are exemplars within their communities of practice. These demonstration projects were designed to challenge institutions to incorporate one specific form of digital media into their ongoing youth programs and to do so in a way that builds upon the organization's existing strengths and interests. In addition, the program designs were geared to address the specific needs of the organization and its constituencies, and to highlight how the organization serves as a leader within their professional networks whose work in this area can provide a model from which others can learn. The projects all aimed to conclude with at least one Worked Example, such as this, to explore how each went to their “edge” to support learning through digital media.


The first Edge Project was named uCreate.

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