On Schools, Sackboys, and Sponsors: a Tale of Two Online Communities

Originally posted on the Connected Learning Research Network blog, 10.21.13. Leveling Up is a research team focused on learning practices within interest-driven online and face-to-face contexts. Ksenia Korobkova and Matt Rafalow draw on their unique cases to compare and contrast literacy practices in online communities.

Chris, a 10th grader, has passions for theater, English literature, and gaming. Although he describes himself as an average student, he’s definitely “more of an English/history person” and excels in those subjects. When not in school, he enjoys playing the Playstation 3 game LittleBigPlanet 2 (LBP2) and hanging out on Sackboy Planet, a web forum for the game. A friend introduced him to the game a couple years ago — he was hooked immediately and began experimenting with the level editor. “I liked it right away. I would build little cars…it was fairly simple at first but when I started to try more advanced things it got more difficult.” Like other Sackboy Planet members, Chris finds connections between his own academic interests and the types of design challenges he tackles in the game. In particular, his experience with English literature lends itself to level creation. As an English student, he writes lots of stories which help him brainstorm better level designs. “I learn to develop a story arc which then I use for LittleBigPlanet to create the beginning, the middle, and the end of the story level I’m making. Currently I am writing and making a murder mystery point-and-click adventure game.” For Chris, the skills he developed in school as a student of English literature have productive overlap with level design. To create a successful level, he mixes both computer programming with story development to make a murder mystery game.

Chris’ self-motivated design pursuits are examples of self-sponsored literacy practices, or forms of learning that are student-driven and self-guided (Brandt 1995). As part of the Connected Learning Research Network, we looked into two very different digitally-mediated and interest-fueled communities that enabled self-sponsored production of new media objects. Ksenia’s research focused on an online writing community centered on sharing fanfiction stories about a popular boyband named One Direction. Matt’s case delved into a video game community in which members designed and critiqued new levels for a game called LittleBigPlanet 2. Both studies highlight how connected learning environments, as compared with most school contexts, often encourage self-sponsored learning activities. The cases focus on young people participating in new media composition practices, albeit in very different contexts.

On a story-sharing website called Wattpad.com, fans fueled by a shared passion for the popular boyband One Direction create fan narratives that include stories, pictures, video montages, and animated .gif files. Fans create, share, and critique stories, book covers, and trailers, often remixing real life content (members of the band and their romantic involvements) with fictional content (vampire storylines or currently existing fictional worlds, such as Harry Potter). Community members describe the composition practices on the site as literate acts inspired by their own interests and enacted of their own accord.

LBP2 players and members of the Sackboy Planet forums are actively engaged in self-sponsored design and composition projects. A central facet of LBP2 is that players can author their own content in the form of levels, or new games, and share them with other players in online contexts like Sackboy Planet. For example, Sackdude is a player that created a side-scrolling air fighter game using the level design editor. Using the game programming, he designed the level to allow players to press a particular button in order to shoot a laser beam, and upon contact, an object is destroyed. This requires mapping particular objects with actions, as well as knowledge of physics. Through programming and use of the game design tools, Sackdude determines how, exactly, the ship moves through space, at what speed, and what direction objects fly when they are attacked with weapons. He described his design philosophy with regard to replayability and the difficulty settings he constructed: “I take game replay value very seriously. I like playing games that continue to give me a challenge.” Through video game design, Sackdude and other members of the Sackboy Planet community engage in self-sponsored design learning.

In looking at the kinds of literate practices performed in these two spaces, it became important to note the motivations and ecologies of the work in these spaces, as explained by interviewees, and ways in which they were often contrasted with practices taking place in school. Participants often talked about pursuing their interest (e.g., favorite band or game) on their own terms and how following the thread of the interest unraveled new learning ecologies, skills, and practices.

Deborah Brandt’s concept of sponsorship (1995) centers on contexts in which literate practices live. Literacy sponsors, such as schools, libraries, teachers, parents, games, and the learners themselves, can be thought of as underwriters of literacy, enabling, constraining, and enfranchising values and practices connected to literacy and learning. Literacy researchers have often contrasted school- and self-sponsored literacy activities to differentiate ways children conceptualize their learning practices when they arise out of commitment to “school” or to themselves.

Within our case studies, participants broadly discussed their design and composition practices as self-sponsored, meaning that their individual interests animate their participation in the community. When asked about the writing they do for the One Direction fanfiction community, participants painted a picture of the writing process that differed sharply from their school-sponsored writing process. Katie, a 16 year-old 1D fan, was not sure that both processes can be called “writing” because they are so distinct:

“I guess it’s also writing, but it’s so different. In writing that you do for school, there’s usually a set topic, picked by the teacher. And like, you don’t want to write something that the teacher wouldn’t like because it’s for a grade.”

School-sponsored writing, for Katie, has the hallmarks of being regimented and disciplined. Self-sponsored writing is something she does when inspiration hits, not worrying about grammar, spelling, or grades. Other 1D fans echo this distinction, describing self-sponsored literacy practices on fanfiction sites as fueled by inspiration, collaboration, and the participatory ethic, unlike composition practices sponsored by school. Sandra, 15, uses “collab” accounts to illustrate this distinction. Collab accounts are usually created to follow one story arc or theme: she participates in a collab account with three other girls as they write a story that mixes the 1D and Hunger Games fandoms, borrowing characters from the boyband and their “real-life” acquaintances but exploring the stories and themes from the Hunger Games franchise. Because everyone uses the same account to log in and write, authorship is not clearly demarcated and “everyone sort of writes and critiques as one person when they can”. Distributed authorship and asynchronous participation, for Sandra, are features that could not be found in school-sponsored composition, since school is invested in providing credit to individual students for work it has assigned.

Recent scholarship on Do It Yourself (DIY) media projects (Jenkins, 2010) suggests that it might be more apt to index new media projects as Do It Together (DIT). The same vein of thought applies here. Literacy learning, design, and composition practices often have multiple “sponsors”. By the same token, “self-sponsored” literacy practices can occur in schools and school-sponsored literacies can inform literate practices happening in other contexts. Thus, the interest-driven communities themselves can become literacy and learning sponsors for their constituents. Still, tracking sponsorship becomes important as we see how learners carve out cultural spaces for self-determined design and composition practices, such as the 1D fanfiction site and the LBP2 online community. Connected learning researchers and educators would do well to consider how different institutional contexts, including schools and informal sites, can better link youth interests with academic outcomes.

References:

Brandt, D. (1995). Accumulating literacy: Writing and learning to write in the twentieth century. College English, 57(6), 649-668.

Brandt, D., & Clinton, K. (2002). Limits of the local: Expanding perspectives on literacy as a social practice. Journal of literacy research, 34(3), 337-356.

Jenkins, H. (2010). afterword in Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel’s book DIY Media: Creating, Sharing and Learning with New Technologies.  Retrieved from: http://henryjenkins.org/2010/05/why_participatory_culture_is_n.html#sthash.hCRsqFnB.dpuf

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