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.