DML Reflections: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Start Looking Ahead

I know I’m already three posts into discussion of DML and, for those of you looking for other things on this blog (like, erm, Codeacademy, which I will duly resume at the end of this month), this may not be that exciting. But! The DML experience was really compelling for me and it ties directly into so many of the issues I’ve been grappling with this quarter, not only in my Literacy and Technology class, but in assessing what niche I want to carve for myself in the world of academia.

I maintain my concern that DML did not promote enough writing-centric concerns (for my tastes) nor did it address concerns of teacher education and reaching out to the “non-gamer,” “non-tech” teacher, but with all of that aside, I think DML was an incredible place for fostering dialogue about:

a. rethinking educational paradigms

b. addressing the politics of technology (and its impact on the U.S. schooling system)

c. raising questions about the intersections between industry, non-profits, and education

There’s a lot I could say about all three of these points, but I’m going to take the self-centered way out and focus my reflection on all three of these points in terms of my own anxieties about the future of education: where is change going to take place and how might I best position myself to be a part of this change?

Allow me to clarify: there was an explicit current beneath the whole conference that initiatives to capitalize upon the affordances of digital technology for education will not happen in the classroom. They will happen in the non-profit sector. They will happen in educational start-ups. They will happen in industry.

None of this surprises me. Institutions (and especially the institution of public education) is slow to change. ¬†This is no fault of educators or even of administrators: this is the fault of bureaucracy, the hundreds of people who have to agree to make a decision in order to enact change. Inevitably, there is a group of people who is scared by change, threatened that it undermines their livelihoods and experiences. This is understandable, of course, but fear never propels change. Every change involves a risk and a loss, and when we don’t know precisely what those losses are going to be, of course we’re terrified. As a habitually change-adverse person myself, I can understand this desire to seek the stability and security implicit in what’s known.

But I recognize that as a professional, I can’t avoid change. I’ve entered humanities research at a pivotal moment, a time in which we’re questioning and assessing how students’ ways of thinking about writing are changing with the adoption of digital technology. We won’t have the answers to this right away, and yet we need to begin anticipating how to maximize our teaching and administrative practices to adapt. There’s no point in resisting: the computer is not going away and online usage is only becoming more ubiquitous.

What this brings me to is the importance of developing multiple literacies: as a (developing) scholar, I feel it is my responsibility now more than ever to become functionally, critically, and rhetorically literate. Attending DML has convinced me that I need to be aware of the digital tools available and know how to use them, I need to be aware of the politics of computing practices, noting the “digital divide” and recognizing that the Internet is not always a space for equality, and I need to remain mindful of how my online practices (both in design and in writing) shape meaning.

In short, I need to be modeling the best kinds of digital practices in the hopes of contributing to a more educational, open-minded digital space.

I feel like this is getting into real “Chicken Soup for the Digital Soul” territory (hey, maybe that’s how I’ll make my millions!), but in all seriousness, it’s becoming increasingly clear that those with a handle on digital tools are those that are wielding the power. Huge foundations are looking for new and innovative projects to fund that will do more with the tools we have online. The question I, again, have as an academic is, “How can I look to bridging the divide between industry and academia and how might I see which tools outside of academia could foster the kind of open-mindedness and growth that is not always a part of academia?”

I’m not a self-loathing academic; I’m continually honored to be a part of a strong, welcoming department and to have access to unparalleled research resources. Further, the undergraduates I teach impress me; they are enthusiastic, motivated, and eager to understand new things. I’m happy to be here. But I also recognize that I have to be careful in my professional development; I have to keep grounded goals in mind for what I actually want to do with my degree. I may not be looking at at a traditional, tenure-track route, but as educator James Gee expressed in one of Saturday’s panels, “Academia as we know it is dead.” According to the United States Department of Education, only 30% of faculty in American universities are tenure track. This is a sharp decline from ~47% tenure track faculty in 1989 and is, indeed, a bleak figure for any of us looking for job security in the academy.

I’m inspired by the ideals of connectivity and open sharing at the heart of communities like that at DML. I hope I can keep this momentum going as I continue to assess my goals and how I want to make an impact.

Early Reflections: Digital Media and Learning Conference 2012

Over the past two days at DML, I’ve come to realize just how perfect it is that we’re in San Francisco. A city committed to openness and liberal thinking with progressiveness at its ideological core, even its city streets reflect a kind of hybrid juxtaposition of old and new: curved and winding streets bleed into different neighborhoods seamlessly. Though I am new to this community, it seems as though digital media scholars, practitioners, and industry specialists are open to each other’s ideas, willing to collaborate, motivate, and inspire each other regardless of their differences.

As a graduate student, it sometimes feels as though academia is separated from the rest of the working world. However, here, communication flowed freely between educators at all levels as well as software designers, industry specialists, and project/program managers. Refreshing, indeed!

It’s overwhelming to know where to start. I have pages of notes (some of which are coherent, some of which are not). There’s a part of me that wants to do a blow-by-blow summary, but what perhaps may be most valuable (and interesting) is not a run-down of the proceedings (after all, you can always read through all of the Twitter feeds from the past few days (look up #dml2012) if you’re interested in the specifics), but rather a reflection on the most thought-provoking discussions for me and the kind of work I’m considering doing.

Sound fair? Let’s go!

Something that has really struck me about this conference is the emphasis on “play” as a guiding principle through which to engage students academically. There’s been a lot of talk of “gamification” and the potentials for creating lighthearted challenges of students via the creation of fantasy spaces and structured games. I went to a panel discussion today on “gaming experiences for the freshman experience” in which the designers for USC’s School of Cinematic Arts’ Reality Ends Here” (which I DESPERATELY want to play) game and Rochester Institute of Technology‘s “Just Press Play” presented the platforms they used to develop their games and the “results” of the gaming experiences. USC and RIT designed whole “gaming environments” for their students, in which students received “cards” or “badges” to show that they had completed certain “challenges.” I mean, just check out the “trailer” for RIT’s program This looks bomb, right?

But “gamification” in learning seems to go beyond the organization of a game.

“Gamification,” to me, seems to suggest a shift in a learning philosophy: school CAN be fun and educators can help school become even MORE fun if we use a different kind of rhetoric: a rhetoric of gaming.

What is the rhetoric of gaming? It’s a rhetoric committed to individual customization, to finding the best solutions for you to succeed. It’s a rhetoric committed to collaborating with others to customize in optimal ways, to form “guilds” and to work through struggles as though they were simply levels and challenges. In short, gamification encourages students to think of their schooling experiences not as chores to be completed or items to check off a list, but a series of “quests” that they, as noble heroes, must fulfill in order to gain… whatever it is they want to gain.

On some levels, this is controversial. Indeed, one of the conference’s biggest hot topics is “the badges system.” Developed by the non-profit Mozilla, badges were designed to help students earn “credit” for acquiring particular sets of skills that may not be acknowledged in any kind of institutionalized setting (like programming, designing, etc). I joined in on the “Occupy Badges” session a little bit late (led by Cathy Davidson and Erin Knight), but learned a lot about some of the questions and controversies. The “Occupy” group seemed to be more positively inclined towards badges than not, and from what I could gather, the guiding philosophy is that earning badges will motivate students to master the skills they already may be acquiring “for fun” and give them some credit that they could take to potential employers as “proof” of their hard work.

I bring this up in conjunction with gamification because I think the principles behind badge-earning and gamification are the same: student motivation can be driven not necessarily by a desire to MAKE AND DO. That’s what games are about after all, right? We play Minecraft in order to construct new spaces. We play LoL or WoW in order to become “better warriors.” We play tetris in order to break a puzzle.

Schools train students to meet criteria, not to create and innovate. Students are compelled to earn grades to get into a “good” college to get a “good” job. But what does getting into a “good” college mean? Do students have a conception of what a “good” job (aside from one that makes a lot of money)? The principles of achievement are abstract: good grades simply mean advancement for advancement’s sake. Good grades don’t mean contributions.

A caveat: gamification could be about simply earning points for the sake of earning points. But no one likes playing with someone who just wants to rack up a high score. That’s boring. The best players are those who want to approach the game in different ways, who want to find new ways to solve the same puzzles or find the most efficient ways to destroy the enemies. Sure, there may be one surefire way to “slay the dragon” each time you play a fighting game, but the game is no longer fight if one relies on the same solution repeatedly.

Applying this philosophy to education is powerful to me.

More than that, applying this philosophy to WRITING education is powerful to me.

Perhaps the one thing that has disappointed me at this conference is the seeming lack of attention to conjunctions between writing education and digital literacy. There’s a lot of talk about tinkering, hacking, programming, and designing, but where does writing fit into all of this?

Mary and I went to a panel this afternoon about “the multiplicities of composition,” but even there, we only really got to talk about how writing fits into digital literacy when Mary went up to a couple of the panelists at the end with Peter Kittle and Chad Sansing and asked them some pointed questions about teaching freshman composition.

This seems like a huge missing piece in the conversation: we can’t tinker if we don’t write. We can’t “remix” if we’re not writing. Why are we not talking about this?

Why are we not discussing the writing conventions emerging from blogs and wikis? Why are we not considering how the creation of these discourse communities affects literacy education? At this conference, we’ve all been tweeting away and yet there’s not been one “meta” conversation about the implications of this kind of written dialogue rippling beneath the tides of this conference.

To take this one step further, why are we not applying “gamification” to writing study? I’d say the process of writing an essay is a LOT like playing a game: you have to create a challenge, find evidence to help you “solve” the challenge, and then, like any master detective, put all of the pieces together to “unlock” the challenge (i.e. write a thesis statement, build that thesis statement, complete a coherent piece).

Wouldn’t writing be so much more FUN if we explored it through the lens of a game? If we see the essay as a product we can construct, that we can tinker, that we can “remix,” can’t we reinvigorate this writing education with some extra energy?

During the first night’s “Ignite Talks” (I’d describe them as “shotgun TED talks,” but they’re more formally described as five-minute “mini-presentations” to present a personal philosophy or project accompanied by twenty slides), there was a lot of exciting discussion of remixing and shifting pedagogy (I was especially interested in David Cooper Moore‘s challenges to help students assess “why they hate” certain kinds of art/pop culture, Tessa Joseph-Nicholas‘s re-imagining of cyberspace as a “zombie space,” and Rafi Santo‘s culture subversion via hacking). So, yes, we’re thinking a lot about web culture, but… I feel like we could think even more about writing. This doesn’t necessarily mean creating narratives; this means putting pen to papers and expressing ourselves verbally in an online space.

I hope these insights make some sense after a very long two days!

We have one more full day tomorrow and, by then, I’m sure there will be even more to talk about.

Digital Media and Learning Conference 2012 teaser post

OK, I’m writing this quickly during a break at the 2012 Digital Media and Learning Conference in San Francisco.

There is A LOT to write about here (one only has to look to Twitter to see), but let’s just say that:

– “Play” is a big buzzword here (thanks in no small part to John Seely Brown‘s keynote talk on the important values of the “21st century¬†entrepreneur”)

– “Tinkering” is highly encouraged

– Pragmatism a la John Dewey is highly favored.

Badges are a MAJOR hot topic and possible means of revitalizing higher education assessment and skills-based recognition.

I will provide some more thorough reflections when I have:

a. Recovered from awakening at 5:00 A.M. to make it to the city.

b. Have had time to process my notes and the slew of Tweets/Google Doc notes I’ve been reading.

… and this is just the start to three days of discussion!