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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 blog, 8.7.12:

Q: how do you know someone is a n00b?

A: If they’re like “ZOMGZ PLAY MY LEVELZ PLZ! YOU WILL LOVE IT! OMG!” XD

Q: hahahaha. so all caps probably!

A: Or all lower case XD

Q: ah, like me 🙂

A: run on sentences 😛

A: XD

The above excerpt is from an interview with a community member at a popular online website for LittleBigPlanet 2 players, Sackboy Planet (1). In an earlier post, I shared my first experiences with the Playstation 3 game and reflected on the learning opportunities of its community-driven, companion online communities. In the above example, I asked questions of my respondent using all lower-case lettering; little did I know that this was considered by members of Sackboy Planet to be indicative behavior of “n00bs,” or beginners. On Sackboy Planet, community members actively identify and police behavior to uphold an etiquette of interaction idealized by the community. “n00bs,” along with other labels such as “troll” and “idol,” are classifications used strategically by members to develop a shared culture and purpose through peer interaction on Sackboy Planet.

When I first visited Sackboy Planet and registered with the community, I was automatically directed to the “Introductions” section of the website. I scrolled through hundreds of posts where other new members posted a brief introduction about themselves to the rest of the community. New users often share brief stories about why they joined the website or what their favorite things are about the game. Some new users, however, write introductory posts that direct people to their created levels or other user-created content (some examples of content are discussed here), but they are met with responses that offer correctives to their language: “Before asking people to subscribe to your Youtube account, please tell a little more about who you are.” Others respond in kind: “Let people get to know who you are first before asking us to look at your creations.” Community standards of talk are expressed and enforced through interaction online, requiring certain ways of communicating in order to maintain legitimacy. Before users demonstrate this base level of literacy they are overlooked. Interviews with group members revealed that there was more to this than simply a few rules about introductions. After asking one member what determines who gets heard most on the forums, they expressed that “if it appears to be a ‘n00b’ then their post will mostly likely be skimmed or skipped.”

What, exactly, is a n00b? Are there other status labels that exist in the community? How are they determined, and what impact do such labels have on interaction more broadly? These were questions I began to think about as I found that identity categories exist within the online community that are attached to particular kinds of talk and behavior. Through interviews and forum participation, I found that three main categories permeate the forums – n00bs, trolls, and idols – and community members strategically employ them through interaction to identify “good” and “bad” forum behavior, informing not only the status of other members but also the valuation of their shared content. As in the quote at the beginning of this post, n00bs use forms of grammar that do not meet the standards of English used by other members of the forum, such as use of all capitals or all lower case lettering. n00bs are also often described as immature, or children, or both. On Sackboy Planet, n00bs, along with trolls, represent the least reputable members of the community. One interviewed member described to me how he was labeled a troll and was harassed by community members after he called someone a n00b in a forum thread. In these online contexts, trolls are members who actively insult other members and are perceived to intentionally cause harm, creating threads or posts that irritate or defame others in the community.

While n00bs and trolls represent unsocialized and unwelcome types of members, respectively, idols are the embodiment of community ideals. When asked about one popular user on Sackboy Planet, a member expressed that “He was my idol. The levels he made were so awesome I wanted to know his secret. What was he able to do that I wasn’t?” Idols are celebrities who are often considered to be role models that motivate other members to improve their craft and succeed. Idols can take a number of forms, though on Sackboy Planet they are often skilled level designers, or are well known for other roles such as organizing popular social events or serving as curators of undiscovered content in the level databases. In interviews, idols describe many perks of their status: “Celebrity status helped me reach more people and I could find those people I work well with.” Idols gain exclusive access to other celebrity players to collaborate with on projects. Additionally, content created and shared by celebrity players is almost always readily viewed and evaluated, whereas n00bs and trolls have a more difficult time getting similar attention to their creations. Interestingly, while n00bs and trolls are labels tied primarily to certain ways of talking or acting in forums, idols’ status is also fueled by the perceived skill or service to the community.

Community-informed status categories, such as n00b, troll, and idol, are used by members to distinguish “good” and “bad” behavior in the forums and to cultivate a peer-supported community centered on their shared interest and purpose. These categories allow typical users to socialize new members (n00bs) into the norms of the website, police unwelcome behavior (trolls), and sacralize community ideals (idols). The cultural etiquette on the forums dictate whose “voice” is heard in the community, and also whose user-generated content is viewed, shared, and celebrated. In sum, these labels are employed to inhibit unwelcome types of interactions on the forum and reward good behavior. Although Sackboy Planet provides an example of how these categories are used to ward off hostility and maintain low barriers for entry to unskilled players, these standards are by no means universal to all online communities. In fact, the meaning and use of terms such as n00b and troll may vary and be applied to different types of behavior. Persistent stigmatization of n00bs or the elective isolation of skilled idols from new members that need mentorship may act as barriers to an integrated learning community. On the other hand, established idols may also participate as active and engaged role models, energizing the community around shared set of interests and creating an ideal environment to play and learn.

(1) All group and individual names have been changed.

Originally posted on the Connected Learning Research Network blog, 7.20.12.

When I first started playing LittleBigPlanet2, a Playstation 3 game created by the company Media Molecule, I was both excited and frustrated. I was excited because the graphics, characters, and story of the side-scrolling platform were stunning and engaging. I controlled a character named Sackboy, an adorable humanoid creature made of fabric, as he navigated puzzles and dispelled baddies on the way to saving his home planet, Craftworld, from an evil inter-dimensional vacuum cleaner. But I became frustrated as I discovered some of the more creative and challenging features of the game, including the level design editor. I tried to design the simplest elements of a level — such as creating fireworks — and failed miserably. My fireworks didn’t look like fireworks at all, and I felt as though I was a disappointment to my Sackboy and the Craftworld universe.

After spending more time in Craftworld, I discovered that many other players just like me were creating levels and sharing them with other players. Players were creating all sorts of levels, including similar side-scrolling games, remakes or remixes of old games like Tetris or The Legend of Zelda, and creating music videos or producing their own movies.  To my surprise, I found a level created by a user who had not only figured out how to do fireworks, but assembled an entire recreation of the Disney fireworks display. I was in awe. Reinvigorated by not only the potential of the game but also of my peers, I desperately Googled to find out whether other players had shared information or guides, so that I could learn more about how to use the editor. It was then that I discovered Sackboy Planet, and both my appreciation of the LittleBigPlanet2 and engagement with the level editor have never been the same (1).

The over 1,000 active members of Sackboy Planet (23,000 have registered since its launch several years ago) collectively produce and curate in-depth tutorials and informational YouTube videos for new learners.  Moreover, sections of the website are devoted for “feedback to feedback,” or users reciprocally providing assistance to others as they work through issues with their designs. The editor provides a low barrier to entry by making basic level creation as simple as dragging a paintbrush across a canvas. However, it also allows for incredibly complex creations using logic, math, spatial relations, sophisticated camera control, and musical composition, resulting in a very high ceiling for achievement. In this way, LittleBigPlanet2 provides an academically-oriented context for players.  Moving back and forth between the game and Sackboy Planet, players engage in production-centered level design and share their creations both in the game and in forums on the Internet, such as Sackboy Planet. They can earn publicly visible badges for creating popular levels.

My research interests in peer-supported contexts make LittleBigPlanet2 and Sackboy Planet ideal environments through which to study learning. For the past 9 months I’ve been conducting ethnographic fieldwork on LBP2 creator communities, centered on Sackboy Planet. After just a few short weeks of hanging out on Sackboy Planet, I became acquainted with a major community ritual: contests. The first time I visited the contest section of Sackboy Planet I was stunned by its level of activity. There are routinely hundreds and sometimes over a thousand responses to contest threads soon after they are posted. The most popular contests provide opportunities for community members to submit original level designs created through the game’s level editor. Contest judges select a theme that must be used in the submissions, such as recreating an old video game or developing a unique movie production. As the contest continues, submitted levels are played by not only the judges but also the entire community. Peers provide supports through comments that say “Great job!” or “Try to improve this part of the level”; contestants often revise their levels as they receive feedback from community members before they are evaluated by judges and the winner is announced.  Rewards for winning also vary, and have included badges and small gift cards. However, a primary motivation behind the contests is the opportunity to share creations with an engaged community which supports players’ hard work at improving their craft.

Sackboy Planet embodies an interest-powered learning community, and provides a number of exciting mechanisms, such as contests, for learning and improvement through a shared purpose.  Together, LittleBigPlanet2 and Sackboy Planet provide the tools, contexts, and supports needed to develop a shared culture and purpose through peer interaction.

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

The public debate about the state of gender following the J. Crew advertisement controversy back this spring continues, most recently with an NPR piece by Linton Weeks titled, “The End of Gender?”  The author draws on recent news items to argue that gender’s days are numbered, citing accounts of Kanye wearing women’s clothing, parents raising a genderless child (I’m skeptical, btw), and a high school declaring its prom gender neutral.  Weeks also includes commentary from scholars across a variety of disciplines, including a bit from Dean Spade where he argues that gender should be eliminated in government record-keeping to provide a macro-level strategy that counters some of the top-down catalysts for transphobia and sexism.

But Dean Spade’s legal strategy won’t necessarily compel a widespread deconstruction of gender. “Race-blind” policies enacted by the government in France, which prohibit the collection of data about race, have been argued to sweep existing discrimination under the rug and even exacerbate differences based on race.  And moreover, while it’s heartening to hear that schools and universities are adopting gender-sensitive policies and programs designed to help marginalized youth and open the hearts and minds of the mainstream, I worry that these news bulletins about the fall of gender are simply panic-induced messages to the public that make comfortable the polemic about the debate and in the end serve to reproduce the gender binary.  This is no more telling than in the concluding paragraph of Weeks’ piece, which quotes neuroscientist Lise Eliot expressing that “the goal is to keep girls physically active, curious and assertive, and boys sensitive, verbal and studious” – despite the article’s heading, such a conclusion actually reifies the very differences between boys and girls, men and women.

I was actually really excited to see a countering view to the article by Leonard Sax, who argues that gender is no more salient or more important than through work in single-sex schools.  He argues that although the examples in Weeks’ piece of gender bending might be hopeful, they are far from common, and simply ignoring gender won’t make it disappear.  He argues that gender differences are no more apparent than in the classroom, and that variables such as race, class, or geographic location don’t even matter when pitted against gender.  Weeks summarizes Sax, noting that “on many parameters relevant to education, such as attention span, a white boy from an affluent home in Bethesda or McLean has more in common with an African-American male from a low-income home in Southeast D.C. than he has in common with his own sister, a white girl.”

And then he lost me.  Data on the “gender crisis” in education has actually made explicitly clear that gender differences overall do exist in the U.S. (marginally), but that class plays a huge role in educational achievement.  Moreover, where gender differences exist they are most detrimental for black and Latino boys – not white boys.  And at the highest income level, black, Latino, white and Asian men are actually more represented in colleges and universities than women.

The discussion of single-sex schools is interesting as an intervening variable in the construction of gender, however.  During research I conducted on single-sex schools, we found that single-sex schools are not by any means static in their treatment of gender: some schools, like those we found common to parts of Latin America and in the U.S., make clear that the schools are designed to raise boys to be boys, and girls to be girls.  Others, however, embody a mix of lessons about gender bending with a more practical understanding that gender constructions are very real parts of children’s lives.  I believe that single-sex schools could lend themselves to be safe spaces for people within a category (in this case, male and female) to explore together the boundaries of the category and grow to be more flexible.  For most of us growing up in today’s world, gender is “high stakes” – as Dean Spade puts it – and to overcome the very real construction of gender in our everyday lives will take more than a couple high-profile news articles about nail polish or high school prom.