One interesting session at the 2009 Annual Meeting of the National Writing Project was Reading the Research: Living and Learning with New Media, which discussed the MacArthur report summarizing its findings from the Digital Youth Project.

Report Findings:

  • Youth use online media to extend friendships and interests.
  • Youth engage in peer-based, self-directed learning online.

Implications from the Report:

  • Adults should facilitate young people's engagement with digital media.
  • Given the diversity of digital media, it is problematic to develop a standardized set of benchmarks against which to measure young people's technical and new media literacy.
  • In interest-driven participation, adults have an important role to play.
  • To stay relevant in the 21st century, education institutions need to keep pace with the rapid changes introduced by digital media.

Looking at these findings and implications, I wondered, "Is there anything new here?" and initially concluded, "Not really." But continuing to read it, I thought that with respect to learning, it's difficult to posit something new. (As noted below, I continue to work with the same theories of learning I've used for the past 15 years.) Even so, it's an important report in that it shows that present theories of learning apply online as well as offline, thus supporting the validity of generalizing these theories across various contexts.

For its theoretical framework, the report drew upon the work of Henry Jenkins, Jean Lave, and Etienne Wenger, and emphasized the "social and cultural participation" nature of learning. In particular, learning occurs through interest- and "friendship-driven genres of participation."

Despite this emphasis, in many ways the report supported a psychological approach to learning with new media. In looking at interest-driven genres of participation, the report stated,

It is not about the given social relations that structure youth's school lives but about both focusing and expanding on an individual's social circle based on interests. (p. 10)

Despite the report's emphasizing "an individual's social circle", what is seen is an individual's interests driving his/her actions and the expanding of the social circle a by-product not a focus. In fact, the report itself also states,

Messing around with digital media is driven by personal interest, but it is supported by a broader social and technical ecology ...

Naturally, social support is key to pursuing one's own interests. Even Deci and Ryan's self-determination theory, a psychological theory of motivation (see Self-determination and motivation), notes its importance. However, this theory posits that the key factor in motivation is autonomy, which the report also noted as essential in learning "fluent and expert use of new media" (p. 36).

Another key factor in interest-driven genres of participation was "feedback," a term emphasized in Csikzentmihalyi's theory of flow (see Engagement and Flow), another theory of individual motivation.

Feedback is also a key factor in John Anderson's ACT-R theory of cognition, which posits the key factor in learning as "time on task," and the report also noted the need for "ample time" to learning to use new media.

So, in many ways, this report underscored how learning to use new media can be understood through cognitive theories of learning.

In its conclusion, the report asks some good questions:

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? (p. 39)