Yesterday I had the pleasure of speaking with the Department of Sociology at McMaster University about my work on online learning. We had a discussion about best practices for digital instruction as faculty ramp up for the inevitability of an online fall semester.

There were a lot of really good questions:

  • To what extent should the course be synchronous or asynchronous?
  • How should we think about engagement in online classes?
  • How can we protect students’ privacy in an online class?
  • How can we make sure that student interactions online are appropriate?
  • How, if at all, can we bridge aspects of in-person courses we care about to online instruction?

I won’t try to rehash the entire discussion, but one thing that really resonated in our discussion was the concept of appointing a student or TA to be a hype person. What do I mean by hype person? I mean someone whose role it is to keep the live chat exciting.

While you’re on camera lecturing most people simply can’t simultaneously keep track of everything going on in the live chat. How to solve that? A hype person. Someone who hangs out in the live chat to welcome everyone when class starts; shares an ice breaker; acknowledges when others make interesting comments so they feel heard; kindly reminds everyone about chat expectations when needed; and even surfaces key questions or themes that come up in the chat to the on-camera instructor.

For other ideas for online instruction, I wrote up a bit about a hybrid course I co-taught here.

Cassidy Puckett and I decided to consolidate some our thinking into a couple pieces about schools and digital inequality. First, we wrote a policy brief for Footnotes, the American Sociological Association’s newsletter. Second, we put together a column for the San Francisco Chronicle based on this brief:

How Robust Is the Global Technological Infrastructure?

Access to digital technology is the first level of the digital divide. Without access, you can’t teach. Thus, education reforms must make technology learning for both teachers and students a more central feature of schooling.

How Ready Are Educators and Students For Technology Learning?

But Cassidy, myself, and many other digital inequality researchers argue that digital access is absolutely not enough. There are *two* other digital divides that stand to disadvantage less privileged students of color if not address. The second is referred to as a digital skills gap. This gap applies to both students and teachers, and is most exacerbated at schools serving less affluent students and students of color. Thus, we must make technology learning for both teachers and students a more central feature of schooling.

How Might Students Be Unequally Rewarded?

As if two digital divides weren’t enough – there’s a third. It’s centered on “unequal reward” – and the Bourdieusians in the room will know how this applies to face-to-face learning but we know that it applies online, as well. Teachers tend to reward more affluent students who ask for extensions due to “tech fails,” and digital technologies are more likely to be for surveillance and discipline when users are less affluent students of color. These digital divisions require that we offer support to meet students’ needs without requiring them to ask for help, and recognize and amplify the efforts students make. Further, school districts should monitor outcomes in instructional use of technology and achievement to identify gaps along race, gender, and class.

I was super excited to attend and present at SXSW for the first time with Emeline Brulé, a friend and colleague who also studies digital technology use in schools. SXSW just published our little podcast on the topic:

Emeline Brule · When Punishing Tech Use Widens the Social Divide

Find the tl;dr and some bookmarks below:

  • 1m40s: Outline of discussion
  • 2m53s: Teacher and educator worries about tech use in school
  • 4m45s: Media coverage about tech use in school
  • 8m21s: Schools invest in tech, but then what?
  • 12m25s: Emeline’s work on assistive tech use in schools in France
  • 20m:40s: Matt’s work on disciplinary approaches to kids’ digital skills by student demographic in the U.S.
  • 29m28s: Summary
  • 30m24s: ‘Q&A’ – on research methods, implications for COVID-19, and more!

In a recent webinar (hosted by the American Sociological Association on March 19, 2020), I gave a brief talk about online learning and supports for marginalized students. This post is not meant to replicate the talk, but rather provide some supporting resources for those looking to make their online course more inclusive in the short term.

If you want to take a look at what was covered, you can find the deck I presented here.

Find below some additional resources organized by the themes in the talk:

Some light reading on how to set expectations for yourself and your students when as you switch to online teaching mid-semester:

Links to resources mentioned in the talk on tips to mitigate student digital divides in technology access:

Link to resources mentioned in the talk on tips to mitigate online participation gap:

  • Common tools used for live chat backchannels include Discord and Slack


Originally posted on Cyborgology (The Society Pages), 5.14.14:


The other day I met a friend’s extended family over dinner, including their two sons of about middle school age, and we all had a discussion about young people’s use of technology. Some pundits argue that young people do not have standards of privacy at all in the digital age. In spite of this, studies find that youth do care about privacy but perhaps in ways that are different from adults – for example, they prefer to be visible online to peers and some public audiences but not always to parents and other family members. Over the course of dinner, however, I realized that researchers occupy a complicated position between adults and the youth they study. Parents assert the need to control standards of privacy for their children, and researchers could, accidentally, jeopardize young people’s private spaces by exposing them to their families in ways that may not encourage real dialogue.

I sat myself closer to the youth during dinner because I enjoy talking with them. Interaction habits for youth ethnographers are sometimes hard to shake; I tend to see myself as no different from the youth I interview. I sat back in my chair, relaxed, and avoided words like “kids” so to avoid creating a boundary between me and them, adult and child, and make them less comfortable. Although they seemed shy at first around new people, I tried to put them at ease by asking about school, sports, and video games. Soon enough we were happily talking about the Xbox One andsocial gaming and they seemed much more relaxed. Mission accomplished.

An hour into dinner their parents asked about my research. I said that I study how youth think about privacy and how it informs their uses of new technologies. When they probed further about my dissertation, I said that I’m hanging out with teachers, parents, and youth to try to understand the different influences on how technologies are taken up by young people in the longer term. Usually conversations about my research interests last just a couple of minutes, if not seconds. But the dinner table soon turned into a lively and concerned discussion about technology addiction among children. I enjoy these kinds of dialogues, and try to interject with research findings to anchor the debate. At one point, someone asserted that young people are too hooked on Facebook. I explained that recent studies have actually found that youth are less engaged with Facebook and have shifted their attention to other platforms like Snapchat and Instagrambecause, in part, they can find a place with their peers away from parents.

“Really?” said one adult at the table. Another looked at the boys and said, “Do you both use Snapchat?” All eyes turned to the youth and they reverted to being shy again.

In that moment I realized that, in a way, I had betrayed them.

Although research about youth practices with new media platforms is public, I was the person who wielded those findings at the family dinner table. In doing so, I had — even if it was just a little bit — breached tacit understandings of privacy and trust among youth and their habits with technology. Based on my work and my understanding of current research, I do not think most youth are addicted to technology. I also think that many kinds of tech uses and gaming experiences can be educational and highly prosocial. And, as a youth ethnographer and social constructivist, I do not believe that adults are so different from youth: everyone deserves their own private spaces with friends. Yet, by talking about my research at that dinner table, I invoked a discussion that turned the boys into collective research subjects without their permission. Youth share information about themselves in quasi-public ways: they enjoy visibility online to peers but prefer to be obscured from the vision of parents and other family members. They currently use new media platforms like Snapchat and Instagram to hide in plain sight, so to speak, and hang out and socialize with friends. Their online practices with peers are done away from the watchful eyes of some adults because they need spaces to more autonomously play and grow as people. This dinner conversation made those spaces just a little less private.

While I think my impact during dinner was minimal — youth are pretty smart and are capable of finding and maintaining safe spaces online to hang out with their friends — I am trying to think more critically about my role as a tech researcher who wants to support young people. My data, including frequent observations of classrooms and school life, online contexts where youth interact, and interviews with teachers, parents, and youth, positions me to reflect on actual technology behaviors exhibited by young people and the impacts that teachers, family, and peers have on those practices. Parents clearly want and need more informational tools to best support their children. But putting youth at ease through thoughtful respect of their privacy is necessary to having thoughtful dialogue about technology not just about them but with them.

Originally posted on the Connected Learning Research Network blog, 4.11.14:

A common topic of discussion among our team of Leveling Up researchers is how communities maintain different barriers to entry. Every community, be it an online forum for Worldwide Wrestling enthusiastsOne Direction fangirls, or Starcraft II players, has its own etiquette and sets of rules for entering the community and becoming a full participant. But for platforms that wish to continually attract a new and engaged user base, designers must think through how to minimize barriers to entry. In essence, learning communities should make central to their mission a key design principle: support the n00bs.

Our cases show a number of different ways that n00bs, or new folks, are (and are not) supported through community design. For this post, I will review a few features from my two cases — Sackboy Planeti and Fashion Camp — that illustrate how both infrastructural and cultural design can render communities, in the words of one of my respondents, “a nice place to be part of”:

Guided Introductions

Hanging out in a new community for the first time can be an intimidating experience. Both Sackboy Planet members and Fashion Camp leaders make it a priority to welcome new members and guide them through the basic features of the community so they can begin to familiarize themselves with their environment. For example, new players are encouraged to post on a page for “Introductions” to share a bit about themselves and why they joined Sackboy Planet. Every introductory post is responded to within a matter of hours by existing members. Many responses to introductory posts are welcoming and identify resources:

Hello and welcome to Sackboy Planet! This is the perfect place to you. To help you get started, I’ll provide some links just for you. You might want to check out the Level Arena where you can share ideas you have for new levels to create. You can also ask others for help on your ideas and can receive advice about design.

Players join Sackboy Planet for a variety of reasons, and many community members actively assist in guiding new members to the resources that might best suit their interests, including specific directions and links to resources provided by other community members on how to improve those skills. Fashion camp leaders, too, make every effort to welcome their new fashion designers. Before every lesson begins the teachers introduce themselves to new students and ask about their general interests in fashion, like which styles they love at the moment. Before one lesson, Amy, the camp leader, learned from a new student that she thought ombre print was really cool. Amy briefly left the conversation to dart to the other side of the room where she pulled a bolt of fabric and brought it back to the new student. “Well look at that, we have ombre!” She then talked with the student about how she could apply her interest in ombre design to the fashion sketching lesson for that day that would start in just a couple of minutes. This type of interest-focused introduction, which is typical at both Sackboy Planet and Fashion Camp, maintains a low barrier to entry by providing opportunities for rapid engagement in learning activities.

Empower the Existing User Base

A community design strategy that works well to engage new users, especially as a community scales in size, is to empower the existing user base with key roles. For example, Fashion Camp leaders typically oversee a camp lesson of about 15-20 youth. Since the courses are project based, participants work on widely different designs at different stages and at varied levels of expertise. The camp leaders often do not have the bandwidth to help each student one-on-one throughout the course of a given lesson. To address this issue, teachers identify youth who have expertise with particular design sets to help other students who need help. This strategy has two important outcomes: it makes the helper youth feel good about their growth as designers, and it empowers them to distribute the mentoring work throughout the community.

Sackboy Planet members also empower select users with roles and titles that are assigned key regulatory tasks. For example, the community leaders identify users who are active and helpful and ask them to serve as Moderators. Moderators are tasked with welcoming new members (per the “Guided Introductions” section above) as well as mediating conflicts when other members alert them to a problem. Moderators also typically pursue their work with gusto; being selected by the Sackboy Planet leaders to moderate is considered to be a flattering signal of their budding fluency with community practice and procedure. Just like at Fashion Camp, Moderators on Sackboy Planet take on important work that the leaders themselves could never accomplish. Moderators, with the help of other community members, comb through hundreds of new posts a day and interact with new players in ways that maintain low barriers to entry and participation.

Design for “Thumbs Up,” not “Down”

Reputation systems, including badges or metrics like “thumbs up,” “thumbs down,” or “favorites,” exist on many web platforms.Sackboy Planet leaders experimented for months with different sets of reputation designs to try to establish a supportive culture among members. For example, through an iterative design process, the leaders learned that certain reputation features breed negativity and elitism:

What I wanted to avoid was giving people the feeling of elitism or building false classes into the site. You get that a lot in other sites where users who have been around longer tend to treat new users like they are less worthy.

One way Sackboy Planet leaders minimized obstacles to a culture of inclusivity was by designing the infraction system metrics out of public purview:

We have infractions, like saying you did something bad, and we have record of it…and that is private. It’s between us and the user. No one else can see the infraction. That can cause a lot of problems…especially if you want to give them the opportunity to improve.

Sackboy Planet leaders design for “thumbs up,” not “thumbs down,” as a way to cultivate a community of support, validation, and improvement. When “thumbs down” features did exist on the forums years ago, players reported higher instances of trolling, or bad behavior and negativity.

Community design, in the form of both infrastructural changes (like metrics and infraction systems) and cultural features (such as empowering users with roles), plays a powerful role in establishing the level of inclusivity in a particular environment. Designing to support the n00bs is a critical extension of Connected Learning theory. Learning communities need to maintain low barriers through inclusivity to entry to ensure wide participation and a diversity of membership and talents.

And remember…we were all n00bs once.


iSackboy Planet and any names used in this post are pseudonyms.

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, 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.


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:

Originally posted on the Connected Learning Research Network blog, 4.26.13:

Those interested in learning more about fashion can look no further than YouTube for countless online guides and other resources. For example, thousands of YouTube videos provide instructions for fashion styling and make-up as well as how-to’s to learn sewingsketching, and step-by-step guides to create various garments.

YouTube video that provides a step-by-step guide to design a high waisted skirt.

Some researchers, however, argue that new media users are subject to a phenomenon called attention scarcity due to information abundance1. Attention scarcity results in two related outcomes of importance to connected learning. On the one hand, online resources are incredibly numerous and offer seemingly unlimited potential for skill-building across a variety of subjects. On the other, the vast amount of information available may be a hindrance to identifying key materials most useful for tasks at hand. To address attention scarcity, participants at Fashion Camp, where I conduct my fieldwork, believe that online materials are most helpful to youth when they have other supports and mentors to guide them through online resources. Opportunities for skill-building need to be sharpened and guided by purpose and interests in order for it to be productive for learning.

For example, Jimmy2 is a 4th grader who has a passion for fashion and has attended many of the Fashion Camp courses on sketching, sewing, and design. While an avid technology user and video game player (his father noted that he picks up computers, iPads, and video games very quickly), he did not know how to integrate online media into his own design practices before receiving instruction at the camps:

“I didn’t really know that many websites before Fashion Camp, and Polyvore was one of them. I’ve just been looking up pictures of different fashion garments to get inspired to sketch new ones. I just sketch them to work on my drawing.”

Although Jimmy is a skilled technology user with great passion for fashion design, he did not know which websites to use to improve his skills. The Fashion Camp teachers recognized that students, like Jimmy, may not have been exposed to digital literacies around fashion, so they provided technical resources and integrated Polyvore, a fashion media platform. While the camps direct students to online resources, they also construct the websites in particular ways that render them useful for skill building. Fashion Camp teachers integrate Polyvore, an online social forum for fashion garments, into many of their design lessons. Anne, the camp owner and manager, teaches students how to use the website to refine their fashion skills:

“[With Polyvore] you create an inspiration board around an outfit, including mood and style. So for a styling class it gives them the ability to do that. I can’t take them to a store and say ‘style this look,’ but with Polyvore they can create an entire mood, the way, say maybe a magazine stylist would have to create a mood for a photo shoot.”

By itself, Polyvore stands as an interesting website that allows users to identify and purchase fashion garments. However, with Anne’s support and mentorship, the website is transformed into a tool for learning that students like Jimmy use both in the classroom and at home to refine their design skills. Anne believes that new media can be a great support for fashion design learning, but learning through these tools without mentors is difficult – “no matter how many YouTube videos you want to watch.”

Parents also provide their children with support so that they may best identify and take advantage of online resources for fashion design. Lily, a 4th grader, was trying to learn how to use a sewing machine at home after receiving lessons on sewing machines at the camp. However, their sewing machine at home was a different model than what Lily used at the camp. Her mother, Daria, explained that she and her daughter explored different media and search engines together to figure it out:

“We used the CD package, the manual online…and we put them on to learn the basics. And what we still couldn’t get we looked up on Google and YouTube. [On YouTube] people have instructions for the videos. I look through it and make sure it relates.”

Daria also believes that investigating online resources together with her daughter allows her to filter suitable content:

“She can’t go on the computer by herself. I have to because I have to make sure it’s kind of appropriate. You look something up and you never know what’s going to pop up.”

Parents, together with their children, can explore online resources together to identify useful and age-appropriate material for student learning. As with Lily and Daria, student and parent can focus their engagement with media on interests and expertise development while the child’s interest is driving the shared inquiry and evaluation of online resources. Fashion camp participants, including students, teachers, and parents, provide examples of how interest-driven learning can occur in an openly networked setting through strong intergenerational ties and mentorship. While youth may find useful online resources on their own given the opportunity, teachers and parents can be important guides for new media-supported learning.

(1) See Hargittai, E. 2000. “Open Portals and Closed Gates? Channeling Content on the World Wide Web.” Poetics 27(4):233-256 and DiMaggio, P., and Hargittai, E. 2004. “From unequal access to differentiated use: A literature review and agenda for research on digital inequality.” Pp. 355-400 in Social inequality, edited by K. Neckerman. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

(2) All group and individual names have been changed to protect the identity of respondents.

Originally posted on the Connected Learning Research Network blog, 2.22.13:

Classroom and afterschool programs sometimes organize competitions or recitals as a way to connect parents and friends with student achievements, generating excitement and motivation for all involved. Fashion Camp provides an example of how openly networked practices with new media, or environments that design links between institutions, home, and interest communities, engage parents with student classroom practices. For example, the Fashion Camp Facebook page is host to a great deal of content shared by Anne1, the business owner and camp facilitator. Some updates are event-specific, advertising upcoming camp events (“Join us Saturday for the Sketching Workshop!”) or displaying recent news about the camp from other media outlets. The bulk of the content shared on the page, however, consists of colorful photographs and video taken during the camps themselves. A common form of the photographs is a split screen that includes three images: an instructor giving a lesson, students applying the lesson to their particular assignment, and the student showing their final product.

After speaking with Anne, as well as parents of camp attendees, I learned that the Facebook page provides a key link between parent, teacher, and classroom experiences. Camp updates through social media provide parents with a window into the minutiae of their child’s educational practices, and also serve to engage parents with the material that students learn in the classroom. The camp facilitates connected learning through openly networked practices with social media, rendering classroom activities more transparent and visible to intergenerational audiences. Platforms like Facebook allow student work to gain public and parent recognition.

Many parents send their children to Fashion Camp because they themselves know very little about fashion, design, and sewing, but want to support their child’s interests. Yet Anne expressed that conveying to parents exactly what they do in the classroom is a challenge given public perceptions that frame fashion as frivolous:

“There are a lot more [camps] popping up that are sewing-based…but it makes me cringe when I see these because it’s like, ‘Come and play dress-up, look in the mirror, look at how pretty I am, walk the runway, let’s put makeup on,’ and we do nothing of the sort here, you know? I want to take the skills behind fashion—sketching, sewing, designing, creating—and put them to work in projects that are applicable for a ten-year-old.”

For Anne, connecting classroom practices with other audiences allows her to demystify the structure and content of what they do. In order to connect parents with the learning activities in the classroom, Anne shares updates from the classroom with parents on their Facebook page:

“Parents are kind of like, ‘Okay, [students] do what?’ So along the way I’m taking pictures, you know, like, ‘Hey look…the sketch is right here on the cutting table. And here’s the little girl with her dress, and she’s putting studs on and you can literally see…whatever we’ve done. Then take another picture and it’s the girl at the sewing machine and then the girl wearing the dress. To me, it couldn’t be more clear what we’ve just done. And the comments, you’ll see they’ll be like, “Oh my gosh,” “Wow!”

For Anne, the camp’s social media presence accomplishes dual purposes: it engages parent audiences with upcoming camp events and publicity, and it also accomplishes the difficult task of connecting parents with the many dimensions or stages of classroom practices. In Anne’s words, it shows parents “we’re a learning space…if the parents come and drop their kids off, by the very end they’ve missed the stages. So this is a good way for us to communicate that.” Dispelling preconceived notions about the pursuit of certain interests and their academic relevance is a theme across our other cases, as well (StarcraftWWE). Through use of new media, Fashion Camp is able to render their activities openly networked to parents and make learning activities much more clear intergenerationally.

Exploring the camp Facebook page reveals the parent impact of connecting classroom practices through social media. The page’s wall includes image after image of different students working on various projects: receiving lessons, sketching, sewing, and showing off their final work.  In one example, a parent reacts to her child’s work being showcased through an image on the Facebook page. The image includes a split screen of students’ work on sketches, sewing, and modeling their completed garment. Georgia, the mother of the displayed student, leaves a comment on the picture:

“My daughter had the best time of her life and couldn’t stop talking about the camp event all day long. Thank you for giving her such a terrific environment to express her creativity and learn about fashion design!”

In another example, Joanne commented on an image of students studying fashion magazines and other media:

“My daughter came home today and expressed that this was her favorite class by far!”

And in yet another example, Linda left a comment on a picture of students sharing their designed garments on dress forms, or miniature models for creating designs:

“Look at all the smiles in this picture. Those girls had the best time this morning!”

Parent reactions demonstrate their excitement in viewing the intersection of their child’s own interests with academically relevant practices. In all cases, parents used social media to engage with different stages of the learning practices that students pursue during their Fashion Camp lessons. This reflects a tenet of Connected Learning through an emphasis on openly networked design: educational practices should be crafted with mind to the many dimensions of students’ lives, including not only the classroom activities but also the important connections youth have at home.

Social media provides new means for parents to become connected to student learning, and celebrate their child’s achievements in a friendly, public forum with other parents. As these examples show, new media enable unprecedented forms of parent involvement with student learning experience by making these practices visible intergenerationally. In particular, with activities like fashion design — including sketching, sewing, and garment construction — social media provide a new venue to share and receive feedback.

(1) All group and individual names have been changed to protect the identity of respondents.

Originally posted on the Connected Learning Research Network blog, 1.11.13:

There was a lot to take in on my first day at Fashion Camp. Although the formal lessons weren’t scheduled for another few minutes, I had apparently arrived late for the first lesson: the teacher was talking with five youth about the latest trends. One young woman, about 13 years of age, said that she was into “ombre.” The teacher expressed that ombre is “very in right now,” and that they happened to have ombre polka dot fabric at the camp. She told the girls that they might consider incorporating ombre into their drawing lessons for today after they had learned how to draw croquis (or mannequins, as I later discovered). I leaned over to the teacher and asked her what ombre print is. I noticed the girls started to giggle. She left the table, grabbed a large bolt of fabric on the other end of the room, and brought it over to show me. “Ombre print fades,” she said. “See how the polka dots are saturated on one end of the fabric but then fade to a lighter shade of pink on the other end?”

In the lessons that followed, I began developing my fashion vocabulary and learned how it describes not only academic-relevant techniques (requiring skills in math, design, and an understanding of cultural history) but also a broader relationship to the fashion industry and production. The fashion camps provide important settings for researchers interested in new media and learning across diverse educational contexts. During my ethnographic participation in these camps for the past four months, I have learned that the camp leaders do not see their work as strictly new media technology-driven. In fact, they believe that some skills needed in fashion design (including sketching, creating and using cutting templates, and competency with sewing machines) are often best learned through a mixture of mentorship during in-class activities as well as augmented learning through new media. In this way, the camps provide interest-driven, girl-centered learning contexts that are supported by new media in ways specific to the learning objectives at hand. By augmenting learning with new media, teachers are able to expand the range of their lessons and provide learning opportunities tuned to the skill level of the student. Like the hundreds of students from Southern California who attend the camps to pursue their interest in fashion, I, too, was starting from the ground up by learning fashion sketching in a room with people at different levels of expertise.

A couple of hours into our drawing lesson, the teacher explained that sketching is not just about drawing something pretty but it is also a blueprint for you and for others, as well:

“Say, for example, you need to send the design to a company that produces garments. One way to do this is by creating dotted lines called stitching lines. They tell the company where to sew the fabric.”

Figure 1: My attempt at sketching a t-shirt that includes stitching lines (- – -), or marks that indicate where to sew the fabric.

Students learn how to sketch in ways that are inherently tied to collective understandings of design and production. In the above example, stitching lines are composed of small darts, or dashes, that indicate where to sew. We also learned how to draw symbols for types of fabric, such as wool or leopard prints, using combinations of markings and labeling. Additionally, most sketches must be constructed with mind to their three-dimensional final product. For example, we learned how to draw ruffles on skirts to indicate how they would look and fit when produced and inverted.

Figure 2: An example of how sketching must be done with mind to three-dimensional final products. Stitching lines on the corner of a folded fabric (drawing on right) results in fitted pleats when sewed and inverted (drawing on left).

As shown in Figure 2, stitching lines on a folded piece of fabric will result in pleats once the fabric has been sewn and flipped inside-out. While students are sketching on a two-dimensional pad of paper, their designs are inherently social: they are learning to convey to others how garments are constructed in three dimensions and how others are involved in different steps of the production process.

Teachers at the camp also use new media as a way to augment their lessons, providing new challenges and opportunities to learn for students at different skill levels. One way the camp engaged in augmented learning practice was through their lesson on designing themed collections. As a designer for a fashion company, the teacher expressed that her drawing process is a lot like her process in the industry:

“I need to run my designs by my boss, and to convince your boss that your drawing is worth producing it helps to create a story around it so it’s easier to understand your outfits. This story can take the form of a theme.”

The teacher instructed students on how to build garments around themes at their own pace while using fashion magazines and websites like Polyvore. Polyvore is a new media-centered web community that allows users (both fashion companies and everyday people) to share images of fashion designs they enjoy. One way the teacher suggested students could use Polyvore was to find a picture of a piece of jewelry they like and then draw a whole collection around that specific garment or piece of jewelry. Another way, she suggested, was to find outfits on Polyvore and then redraw them, over and over, using different colors and patterns. In this way, new media is used to augment the learning process. Students at different skill levels are able to learn a complex set of skills and fashion vocabularies using resources, both online and offline, to enhance their learning.

In my subsequent posts on this case, I plan to discuss how fashion camps operate as an interest-drivenpeer-supported, and production-centered learning community focused on academically oriented skills such as math, design, and history. Additionally, through interviews with not only teachers but also the youth and their parents, I hope to examine how connected learning principles may occur across different levels of the learning ecology: these camps operate as one of many locations where youth learn about fashion. However, the fashion camps are a key nexus in the learning process to build specific skills, design garments, work with peers, and provide mentorship.

And they usually leave with a cool new skirt, too.