The Digital Youth Project – Kids Need Time to “Hang Out,” “Mess Around” and “Geek Out”
The Digital Youth Project has released the results of an extensive study that offers a very thorough and revealing look at what our youngsters are doing online. Featuring four principal investigators, Peter Lyman, Mizuko (Mimi) Ito, Michael Carter, and Barrie Thorne, the study not only creates some useful category descriptors that will help any adult analyze online behaviors, it takes an in-depth look at the implications these behaviors have for parents as well as those who work in education.
First dividing online behavior into two basic arenas, “peer-driven” and “interest-driven,” the researchers go on to create three sub categories that help define specific behaviors. They range from “hanging out” (socializing) to “messing around” (tinkering, perhaps to the level of becoming a local technology or media expert) to “geeking out” (experiencing internet-inspired inquisitiveness).
Cory Doctorow over at Boing Boing offers a superb snapshot of the key findings. The report “conclusions are sane, compassionate, and compelling,” notes Doctorow, “in a nutshell, the ‘serious’ stuff we all hope kids will do online (researching papers and so on) are only possible within a framework of ‘hanging out, messing around and geeking out’.”
He also goes on to summarize the most important point for parents and educators when it comes to the issue of time online. “That is to say, all the ‘time-wasting’ social stuff kids do online are key to their explorations and education online.”
For teachers, the section on geeking out is a must read though we wish that the Youth Project might have selected a different phrase to describe teen online behaviors related to learning. There is absolutely no similarity to the use of the term in the Youth Project report matching the traditional definition that is used in the urban setting.
Some Great Stories
Within the report there are many stories that parents and educators will want to hear. There is the tale of Zelan, a 16-year-old youth driven by economic necessity, tinkering and fixing a neighbor’s broken PlayStation 2 so as to have better access to games. Then there is the story of Mac Man, a 17-year-old boy, who after learning that some teachers were about to throw away their old computers took them off their hands. Mac Man not only fixed them, he started a computer club with the throwaway items.
And though we might cringe if it happened to be our child, we can at least chuckle at the story of Toni, a 25-year-old who emigrated from the Dominican Republic as a teen. Even though he was entirely dependent on libraries and schools for his computer access through high school, the young man “set up a small business selling Playboy pictures that he printed from library computers to his classmates.”
While such entrepreneurial tales represent a very small segment of the youth studied, they nonetheless articulate the concrete examples of the step from simply “hanging out” online to that of “messing around.” What makes these stories all the more compelling is the fact that most transcend socioeconomic barriers.
The report notes, “These are not privileged youth who are growing up in the Silicon Valley households of start-up capitalists. Instead, they are working-class kids who embody the street smarts of how to hustle for money” and were “able to translate their interest in tinkering and messing around into financial ventures that gave them a taste of what it might be like to pursue their own self-directed careers.”
As we noted earlier, educators would do well to spend some time with the section on “geeking out.” The report describes the behavior as “the ability to engage with media and technology in an intense, autonomous, and interest-driven way.”
The concept is extremely important to kids that have access to the latest technology and a high-speed Internet conenction. In essence, the Internet can provide “access to an immense amount of information related to the particular interests” of a youngster. The intense commitment to or engagement with media or technology demands participation in “communities that traffic in these forms of expertise.” The report notes a “mode of learning that is peer-driven, but focused on gaining deep knowledge and expertise in specific areas of interest.”
Therefore, for our youth to geek out, they must not only have ongoing access to digital media, they must have a form of social network to help them facilitate their technology use. That network can come from family and friends but it can also come from other peers in on- and offline networking spaces. Therefore, geeking out “requires the time, space, and resources to experiment and follow interests in a self-directed way.”
In addition, the report notes that such behavior requires “access to specialized communities of expertise. Contrary to popular images of the socially isolated geek, almost all geeking out practices we observed are highly social and engaged, although not necessarily expressed as friendship-driven social practices.”
Impact on Education
It is interesting to note the specific learning properties that come as a result of interest-based communities. For the folks at Digital Youth, “Participation in the digital age means more than being able to access ‘serious’ online information and culture; it also means the ability to participate in social and recreational activities online.”
As a means to that end, public institutions can be important sites for enabling participation in these activities and enhancing their scope. Accordingly, educators should take careful note of the report suggestions.
“Social and recreational online activities are jumping-off points for experimenting with digital media creation and self-expression. Rather than seeing socializing and play as hostile to learning, educational programs could be positioned to step in and support moments when youth are motivated to move from friendship-driven to more interest-driven forms of new media use. This requires a cultural shift and a certain openness to experimentation and social exploration that is generally not characteristic of educational institutions.”
As but another aspect of the entire process, “fluent and expert use of new media requires more than simple, task-specific access to technology.” Therefore, the open-ended nature of the practice of geeking out, though extremely challenging for schools to implement, more accurately reflects the real world where it is extremely difficult to quantify and parcel up learning into distinct packages.
Another critical component is the feedback loop and how it changes from the traditional school format.
“Unlike what young people experience in school, where they are graded by a teacher in a position of authority, feedback in interest-driven groups is from peers and audiences who have a personal interest in their work and opinions. Among fellow creators and community members, the context is one of peer-based reciprocity, where participants can gain status and reputation but do not hold evaluative authority over one another.”
In these settings our youth are engaging in the use of specialized ‘elite’ vocabularies from either the gaming or social networking world. For example, in the online profile arena there is an “important literacy skill on both the friendship- and interest-driven sides” that can ultimately mobilize a genre of “popularity and coolness” as well as a certain level of geek credibility
In the gaming world where both teens and adults can establish their identity, there is the category defined by elite gamer status. In each of these arenas, “the focus of learning and engagement is not defined by institutional accountabilities but rather emerges from kids’ interests and everyday social communication.”
Adults could “still have an important role to play” but in such a setting “it is not a conventionally authoritative one. Unlike instructors in formal educational settings, however, these adults are passionate hobbyists and creators, and youth see them as experienced peers, not as people who have authority over them.”
The report notes the similarities between community norms and what educators might call “learning goals” but it clearly denotes a new position for the adult who serves as an educator. Simply stated, schools are not known for allowing “plenty of unstructured time for kids to tinker and explore without being dominated by direct instruction.”
Instead of classroom teachers, there would be lab teachers or leaders who would have a different responsibility, one that does not focus on assessing kids’ for competence. Instead, these adults would be “co-conspirators” practicing a “pedagogy of collegiality.”
The report takes the thought one step further to produce a whole new possible vision for public education, one that is full of incredible possibilities.
“Rather than thinking of public education as a burden that schools must shoulder on their own, what would it mean to think of public education as a responsibility of a more distributed network of people and institutions? And rather than assuming that education is primarily about preparing for jobs and careers, what would it mean to think of education as a process of guiding kids’ participation in public life more generally, a public life that includes social, recreational, and civic engagement?”
“And finally, what would it mean to enlist help in this endeavor from an engaged and diverse set of publics that are broader than what we traditionally think of as educational and civic institutions? In addition to publics that are dominated by adult interests, these publics should include those that are relevant and accessible to kids now, where they can find role models, recognition, friends, and collaborators who are co-participants in the journey of growing up in a digital age.”