Central to the dynamic and fluid nature of participatory learning is the concept of a participatory culture. Digitally mediated practices make visible the negotiated and co-constructive nature of students’ learning ecologies. Youth, and adults alike, are becoming authors and developing videos with circulation on YouTube, writing blogs and recording their experiences in LiveJournal, writing fan fiction and exchanging it on the web, and sampling and mixing music. As Jenkins et al (2009) point out, a participatory culture is one with “relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing creations with others, some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices, members who believe that their contributions matter, and members who feel some degree of social connection with one another (at least, they care what other people think about what they have created)” (pp. 5-6).

Given radical differences between participatory culture and traditional schooling practices, students who may appear disengaged in classroom practices are often at the cutting edge of a more participatory culture. A recent study from the Pew Internet & American Life project (Rainie, 2009) indicates that 93% of teens use the Internet, and of teens who use the Internet: roughly three-quarters have created content for the Internet, 39% have shared their creations, and 20% have remixed content online into their own artistic creations. Our hope is that we will find evidence to support new approaches for teachers and students to co-learn in the classroom, a better understanding of the need to close the gap between afterschool and in school and an awareness that participatory culture has a place in these long-established learning systems and teachers have the means to incorporate new practices into their discipline and a disposition to be advocates for 21st century learners.

Teachers play a monumental role in facilitating opportunities for students to become critical thinkers, proactive citizens, and creative contributors to the world. In our rapidly shifting digital and social landscape, unequal access to experiences that help build the skills and knowledge necessary to contribute in these evolving environments can prevent youth from meaningful participation in them. This “participation gap”, we believe, cannot be wholly addressed when teachers themselves are not afforded these same opportunities to grow and learn.

The movement from talking about the digital divide to confronting the participation gap shifts the conversation from access to technology to questions about access to the skills, competencies, and mental dispositions required to meaningfully engage within participatory culture. Our commitment to address the participation gap, therefore, means harnessing the skills that many youth are acquiring through their informal participation in the online world, and providing opportunities for people of all ages to learn these social and cultural ways of navigating through the online environment. Being a part of participatory culture not only requires having access to a networked computer (or a comparable mobile device), but also involves gaining a familiarity with habits of mind and skills that are necessarily for participating in the new digital culture. Of course, participation isn’t a single acquired disposition or something that can be taught in a single class or, even, over the course of a school year. There are many routes to—and diverse forms of— participation, and the goal of giving more people the opportunity to develop the knowledge, skills, and dispositions for becoming full participants in the world is more of a long-term endeavor. It is a commitment -- at each grade level and in all subject areas and in the community -- to support the development of participation skills for engaging with the world critically and creatively, making meaningful contributions to their culture, and developing a fully realized and empowered civic identity.

PLAY! (Participatory Learning and You!)

The central goal for Project New Media Literacies (Project NML) is identifying and creating educational practices that will prepare teachers and students to become full and active participants in the new digital culture. The Common Core Standards define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, but not how teachers should teach. Following Horst and colleagues (Horst, Herr-Stephenson, & Robinson, in press), NML’s program PLAY! uses the concept of ecology to describe the “characteristics of an overall technical, social, cultural, and place–based system, in which the components are not decomposable or separable” (p.26). Student daily practices are situated within their learning ecologies and hence are dynamically interrelated to their existing conditions, infrastructures of place, and technologies. Although the classroom and interaction among teachers and learners is at the center of this ecology, adults’ and youths’ worlds are co-constituted, suggesting that school, after-school, home, and online places are all organic parts of the ecosystem.

Through integration of the new media literacies into the classroom, both teachers and students alike will gain the ability to make and reflect upon media and in the process, acquire important skills in teamwork, leadership, problem solving, collaboration, brainstorming, communications, and creating projects. Designing and implementing a participatory learning environment fosters:
· Heightened motivation and new forms of engagement through meaningful play and experimentation
· Learning that feels relevant to students' identities and interests
· Opportunities for creating and solving problems using a variety media, tools and practices
· Co-configured expertise where educators and students pool their skills and knowledge and share in the tasks of teaching and learning
· An integrated learning system where connections between home, school, community and world are enabled and encouraged


PLAY!’s overarching question is, “How can we integrate the tools, insights, and skills of a participatory culture (as defined in the NML white paper) into the public education system in the United States?” However, as we see this program as a form of intervention, our goal is to not come in with an already formulated research plan with a set of pre-determined questions without being on the ground and listening to participants’ needs in order to include them in the process.

With past NML research, we have had success in integrating the new media literacies into core subjects taught during the school year. NML's teachers’ strategy guides are the product of new possibilities that group action has shifted the focus on literacy development from being primarily about individual achievement to being more about community involvement and the ability to exist and thrive in increasingly public and distributed activity systems. In line with this shift, our vision for how to support the literacy needs of today’s youth focuses on figuring out ways to bring more collaborative and collective meaning-making practices into the formal classroom.

Currently, educators make distinctions between “formal” and “informal” learning. Lying outside these boundaries are the spontaneous, interest-driven activities young people pursue during their free time. These activities are fueled by a passion and an excitement that any teacher would love to see in the classroom. Young people learn negotiation skills as they move between communities with differing social norms, for instance; they learn to voice their opinion and also to listen to others as they participate in discussions focused on arriving at a mutually agreed-upon framing of an issue to be displayed on the main page content of Wikipedia. Students’ interest-driven practices can illuminate and inform what is taught in both formal and informal contexts, and classroom content can help learners apply new knowledge to their own interest-driven experiences.

Describing how learning and pedagogy must change in this new cultural and multimedia context, the New London Group (2000) argues that “literacy pedagogy now must account for the burgeoning variety of text forms associated with information and multimedia technologies.” (p. 9). Indeed, they describe how “the proliferation of communications channels and media supports” sets up a need for “creating the learning conditions for full social participation” (p.9). The media-literacy movement has effectively taken the lead in this regard by teaching students to analyze the media they consume and to view themselves as both consumers and producers of media. However, this learning often is relegated to electives or to after-school programs rather than being integrated across curricula. The new media literacies allow us to think in new ways about the processes of learning, because they reflect a shift from a top-down model of learning to one that invokes all voices and all manners of thinking and creating new knowledge.

The PLAY! Framework