This is the first in a series of posts wherein I blog my way through studying for the doctoral certification exam in the Communication, Media, and Learning Technologies Design Program at Teachers College, Columbia University.
The process will culminate February 9 in a three-hour, open-note (but “closed Internet”) test where I’ll be expected to bring social, cultural, and cognitives perspectives and research to bear on an open-ended question about the intersection between media and technology, learning and education, and my own research interests. I’ll be posting article summaries, “mini-sprints,” sketches of arguments—basically anything to get me reading and writing a little bit each day.
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One of the things that’s unique (or at least unusual) about our program is its breadth. Thus, the “three-pronged” question structure asking for social, cultural, and cognitive perspectives is pretty much a constant across the sample questions we’ve received. So it seemed like a quick explication of each prong was in order.
Social perspectives on learning and technology are interested in interpersonal kinds of questions. That might happen on the micro-level, with researchers putting some sort of learning-oriented activity system under the microscope. There’s also a strong current of macro-level social analysis running through educational policy research generally and the matter of educational technology in particular (e.g., the history of research on the “digital divide”). Sociologists of education are important resources here, of course, but so too are technologists who work on formal and informal learning tools that have person-to-person (or person-to-“agent“) interactivity at their core.
The “social bin” work that I’m most tuned into is concerned with studying learning generally and literacy more specifically (though still broadly conceived) as an inherently social enterprise. For example, Lave and Wenger have studied learning as it happens in particular situated and social contexts. The idea here is that communities engaged in some shared practice bring people “into the fold” through a process called “legitimate peripheral participation.”
So, for example, if you’re a religious educator or church communicator interested in how technology is changing religious life and leadership, you might get connected with a community of practice collectively engaged in the work of reflective practice in this area. You’d likely start out at the periphery of such a group, “lurking” on relevant Facebook pages, Twitter hashtags, email newsletter lists, etc. or even attending a conference or other gathering. You might try out a couple ideas in your own practice, based on resources or inspiration you encountered in those social spaces.
But eventually you encounter some sort of challenge. So you put a question out to the group. Those who are thoroughly engaged in this work already might point you in some promising directions or connect you with individuals working on similar problems in similar contexts. If that happens enough times, and you do the hard work of trying out the ideas and integrating them into your practice, you might slowly become one of those go-to leaders, becoming a resource for others. You’ve moved from peripheral or novice participation to something closer to expert. Preece and Schneiderman take this sort of perspective in developing their “reader to leader” framework for studying technology mediated social participation.
I think my research is heading in the direction of studying how people make (religious) meaning making media together. So, for example, if I’m part of a Digital Storytelling circle and I have a draft of a video about my experience going “on pilgrimage” to Comic Con, I might get a question about what a pilgrimage is, why this trip was so drenched in personal meaning for me, or whether it’s entirely appropriate to compare my experience to visiting a sacred religious site. The question might shape where I take my draft, might force me to articulate more clearly that the connection for me is about having an embodied experience of sharing and gratitude. Perhaps a fellow participant or the group’s mentor shows me how a certain editing technique or script revision can get me closer to the message they hear me trying to communicate. This is the kind of learning that researchers and designers working in the social perspective and tradition are especially keen to observe, understand, and cultivate.
If the social perspective is concerned with those learning interactions as such, the cultural perspective cares about the sort of aggregate properties of larger groups with something in common. Indeed, Raymond Williams writes that culture is common in two senses of that word. Cultural phenomena are ordinary; they are the stuff of the everyday and (often) unexamined. They’re also shared—the practices, rituals, beliefs and artifacts that “feel like home” to a group of people.
Educational anthropologists (like my advisor, Lalitha Vasudevan) are among those who contribute in this area. But I’m also especially excited by the work of practitioners who respond to the cultural spaces where they work in order to design new kinds of learning opportunities. This move is generally known as “culturally relevant pedagogy” and my favorite example is this video by Leah Buechley thinking about how to diversify maker culture.
For the purposes of my program’s self-understanding, I see religion as a largely cultural phenomenon. In future posts I’ll be fleshing out some theory about storytelling as an anthropological phenomenon, a universal human meaning-making experience made especially engaging and accessible by cheap and ubiquitous media making tools. And I think my work has always been interested in the intersections between cultures: currently it’s digital culture and church culture, and probably also youth culture.
For example, what happens what you turn a church’s parish hall into a maker space for young people? Well for one thing, the adult mentor(s) need to act less like teachers and more like colleagues. Soep and Chávez have done a lot of both academic and more popular writing on their pedagogy of collegiality, in the context of their work as adult participants in Youth Radio. They’re realistic about the limits of shared power, but they do their best to jointly frame projects with their young collaborators and to let those young people take the lead in investigating and reporting stories once the editorial team has decided on a direction.
For another thing, everyone involved needs to be open to just how elusive truly “shared” values can be. Anytime we advance a monolithic idea of what’s important, there’s a good chance we’re discounting and disadvantaging the wisdom and experience of marginalized groups. Thus, educational researchers with a cultural lens on their work have been among the most critical voices in pushing back on “what counts?” in various learning settings.
OK, I’m approaching my time limit today. And I’m still sorting through my notes from Cognition and Computers this semester, so I’ll save the cognitive perspective for tomorrow. Until then!