November 10th, 2009

New Media Literacy: An interview with Hillary Kolos

kolos-thumb-100x100Last week, when John Merrow’s post on technology in schools generated a long discussion in its comments section, we learned just how important this issue is to educators and students.  This week we spoke with Hillary Kolos, who worked with Learning Matters from 2002-2005, and is now a graduate student in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program.  She’s a research assistant for a project we’ve mentioned here before–Project New Media Literacies–which is attempting to explore what media literacy means in the 21st Century, and how students–and their schools–can learn to do it well.

Where and who did the idea for this project come from?

Project New Media Literacies
was started by Henry Jenkins while he was co-director of the Comparative Media Studies (CMS) program at MIT, and is now housed at USC.  The research grew out of Jenkins’ previous work on fan practices and participatory culture in his books Textual Poachers and Convergence Culture. His use of the phrase “participatory culture” is meant to describe the shift from viewing media audiences as passive spectators to active participants who are part of a community where the line between media consumer and producer is blurred.   Participatory culture didn’t start with Web 2.0, but we are finding a lot more communities embrace participatory practices because of the networked nature of the web and the ability to quickly and easily translate media and communicate with others online.

In 2006, Jenkins and his team at the time published a white paper called Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century.  This paper was the reason why I decided to apply to the CMS program at MIT because it so fundamentally changed my view of the relationship between technology and education. I had been teaching video for a couple years in day and after school programs in NYC public schools, and I was finding myself frustrated by my students’ obsession with social networks and video games.  I came across the whitepaper and realized that they were “obsessed” because these new media both engaged them and allowed them to be a part of a community inside and outside of the school walls that was relevant to their lives.
social media
What are the New Media Literacies?  What are a few of your favorites, and why?

The New Media Literacies are a set of social skills and cultural competencies that we believe are necessary for students to participate fully in society - this includes being a good student, a successful worker, and an engaged citizen.  The whitepaper, which you can access here, explains the conditions that are necessary for a participatory culture to exist.  It also outlines three major challenges we must deal with moving forward.  First, while we are making strides in the digital divide by putting computers and broadband in most schools, we are now facing a participation gap, which is “the unequal access to the opportunities, experiences, skills, and knowledge that will prepare youth for full participation in the world of tomorrow.”  Second, there is a transparency problem, which means that young people are unable to see the ways that media is shaping their perceptions of the world.  And third, there is an ethics challenge, stemming 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.”

With these three challenges in mind, Jenkins and NML created a list of 11 (now 12) social skills and cultural competencies that broaden the idea of what it means to be literate today.  (Read the full list here.)

We all go back and forth about which skill we think is most important because they so often overlap and interconnect, it’s hard to just choose one.  That being said since I’m currently doing research around using digital games in education, I am a little partial to the benefits of play.

Tell me a little about what the project “does” and why you think it is important.

I’ll answer the second part of your question first.  Academics get some flack for never leaving the university and thinking up new ideas, but NML makes sure it grounds its research in practice.  We learn a lot developing our resources, but we probably learn even more when we take them into educational settings and see how teachers and students use them.

Over my past year at NML we’ve been very busy.  Since the publication of the whitepaper, NML has created several resources that are putting the new media literacies into action.  NML developed a web-based activity center called the Learning Library, that introduces users to skills through what we call challenges.  These challenges are interactive multimedia lessons that pull in elements from the web, such as videos, images, or audio.  The Learning Library is a tool that encourages educators and students to participate in learning, allowing both to create, remix, or share a challenge.  You can check it out here, and see some of the challenges the NML team created or even make your own challenge, if you like.

NML, working under the idea that media literacy should be incorporated across the curriculum, has also been working on Teacher Strategy Guides for use in formal education.  The first one, Reading in a Participatory Culture, was piloted in several schools last year.  It is a modular curriculum that  consists of four units, each of which focuses on a handful of skills.  While the idea was that the guide could be used with many different texts, our example uses as source texts, Moby-Dick and a contemporary theater adaptation by Ricardo Pitts-Wiley called Moby-Dick: Then and Now.  As Jenkins often says, we wanted to “be conservative in content, and transformative in method.”

Our website has more information about these resources, and others like our Digital Ethics Casebook collaboration with Howard Gardner’s GoodPlay project.  We also presented much of our research in Threshold magazine’s spring ‘09 issue which you can find here.

I’m interested in the fact that appropriation is one of the literacies–this one seems particularly specific to internet culture and is something that all internet journalists grapple with all the time.  How do we learn to successfully “sample and remix” content generated by others?

We’ve found that appropriation is a particularly complex skill when it comes to schools.  Teachers are concerned with the apparent ease of plagiarism and confusions around copyright and fair use.   We tend to talk about appropriation in terms of remix culture because most young people are more familiar with it.  In the Teachers’ Strategy Guide, we even talk about Herman Melville as a remixer because of the way he incorporated elements from many sources, including the Bible and scientific texts, with a classic story of revenge in his novel Moby-Dick.  With remixes we don’t just mean a creative work that borrows pieces from others, but a creative work that builds on and transforms the meaning of the original source or sources.  We see in the process of making remixes a way for students to think about media critically, become an author, and understand their audience.

That being said we understand educators and students want to know more about their rights around copyright and fair use.  NML made several required challenges in the Learning Library that explore real-world situations and provoke discussion around the state of copyright and how our use of new media is challenging it.

On John Merrow’s blog and in general at Learning Matters, we’ve been thinking a lot about access to technology in schools and whether traditional public schools, especially, will be resistant to the flow of technology into the classroom.  What do you think?  What–if anything–has your work with NML shown you about the disparities in access across lines of race, class, etc?

As I mentioned above, NML is very concerned with the participation gap.  Many schools today have computers and broadband internet access, but these are not useful to teachers or students if they don’t know how to use them as full participants. A growing trend seems to be that schools ban access to YouTube and social networks because they are distractions or liabilities, but these are also resources that students will need to learn how to navigate and use once they are out of school.  Students with access to these resources at home usually have ample time to become proficient in using them.  Students who are not able to engage with new media resources at school or only for a limited amount of time could be less likely to develop the skills, knowledge, opportunities and experiences that are required for students to fully participate in our increasingly digital society.

Do you think you are new media literate?

I am lucky that I was able to learn video production in high school, go to film school, work in documentaries at LMI, and now study media at MIT.   After all that, though, with the pace of technology innovation increasing, I still find it hard to keep up with the latest gadget, app, or social network.  Above any technical skills I’ve acquired though, I think I most value the skills I’ve learned that help me navigate across a range of media, evaluate and synthesize the information I find, and express my point of view in a variety of ways.

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For those of you interested in NML, join in a conversation with Henry Jenkins this evening at 8 p.m. EST, 5 p.m. PST - see

Excellent site you have here but I was wanting to know if you
knew of any community forums that cover the same topics
talked about here? I’d really love to be a part of community where
I can get feedback from other experienced individuals that
share the same interest. If you have any recommendations, please
let me know. Many thanks!

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