Designing for Peer Learning and Mentoring in New Media Environments

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* Paper: Media Literacy in the Facebook Age. Designing Online and Face to Face Learning Environments. By ANDRÉS MONROY-HERNÁNDEZ, MICHAEL DEZUANNI, & KAI KUIKKANIEMI. Chapgter Five of New Intersections of Internet Research.

= We discuss three different social environments where young people engage in developing new media literacy skills through the lens of four phenomena: peer learning, mentoring, unexpected uses of digital tools, and the development of reputation.


"This chapter explores how young people develop media literacies in learning environments that have different levels of formality and informality. Media literacy is an educational approach that aims to enhance young people’s knowledge about media and media production skills to enable them to productively participate in a range of social and cultural contexts. The theorization of media literacy in this chapter moves beyond some established approaches that aim to develop young people’s critical reading skills. Instead, the chapter recognizes that young people are often media content producers and that media literacy is developed socially and culturally in an ongoing fashion. Formal schooling is just one setting in which media literacy can be developed and it should be seen as much more than the attainment of an educational goal or competency. Indeed, young people participate in many communities in which they use and develop media literacies. This chapter discusses three environments that allow young people to produce media using new media technologies, in particular video games and digital animation. In recent years, the benefits of using new media forms for educational purposes have been well established. One environment discussed in this chapter, the Video Games Immersion Unit, was constructed in a school setting and includes a blend of online and faceto- face experiences, while the other two environments, the Scratch online community and the Habbo online world are entirely nonschool online experiences. These examples (which are introduced in more detail in section “The Learning Environment”) are discussed to identify the opportunities they provide for students to develop media literacy skills and knowledge. We have identified four common characteristics that are important for the development of media literacies across the three distinct environments: peer learning (“Peer Learning in the Three Environments” section), mentoring (“Mentoring in the Three Environments” section), using technological tools in unexpected ways (“Unexpected or Novel Uses of the Tools in the Three Environments” section), and establishing reputation (“Establishing Reputation in the Three Environments” section). Each of these is discussed separately and then the connections between them are identified. The media literacy field is undergoing significant changes due to the evolving nature of the relationship between young people and media. In the past, media literacy education focused on providing young people with the skills to decode or analyse media texts (Leavis & Thompson, 1933; Masterman, 1980, 1985; Thompson, 1973). This was based on the assumption that young people required critical analytical skills to meaningfully participate in media cultures and to avoid being unduly influenced or exploited by powerful media. More recent theorizations of media literacy, for example, by Jenkins (2006), Ito (2010), Ito et al. (2008), Livingstone, Van Couvering, and Thumim (2008), and Buckingham and Domaille (2009) emphasize the development of young people’s critically reflective social participation in media cultures and recognize that young people are not deficient in their relationships with media, but are active and proficient participants. This has gained impetus with the availability of new media technologies that allow young people to easily produce their own content and socialize in online spaces.

Jenkins theorises this as “participatory culture”:

- Participatory culture shifts the focus of literacy from one of individual expression to community involvement. The new literacies almost all involve social skills developed through collaboration and networking. These skills build on the foundation of traditional literacy, research skills, technical skills, and critical analysis skills taught in the classroom. ( Jenkins, 2006, p. 4)

The social media literacy skills required for productive social and cultural participation in media cultures have been theorised through complementary but different perspectives. For example, Buckingham (2007) argues that young people require a conceptual framework for reflecting on their production and use of media that includes asking questions about the languages used to communicate with media, the representations of people, places, and ideas constructed through media, the audiences for whom media are made, and the institutional contexts within which they are produced. Ito (2010) asks what skills and knowledge are necessary for young people to move from “hanging out” and “messing around” with media (e.g., through participation in social network sites) to “geeking out” with media (being more productive with creative technologies). Jenkins (2006) outlines 11 skills that are required for the development of new literacies for successful participation in media cultures: play, performance, simulation, appropriation, multitasking, distributed cognition, collective intelligence, judgement, transmedia navigation, networking, and negotiation. In this chapter, we take a different approach and identify the design features, or affordances, necessary in environments to provide opportunities for young people to develop media literacies at a range of knowledge and skill levels. We argue that unless these features are present, it is unlikely that young people will develop the skills and knowledge identified by Buckingham, Ito, and Jenkins.

We discuss three different social environments where young people engage in developing new media literacy skills through the lens of four phenomena: peer learning, mentoring, unexpected uses of digital tools, and the development of reputation.

The Video Games Immersion Unit was designed collaboratively by media and technology educators as a specific educational experience in a school environment. The Scratch online community was designed as an educational space in which students can share their creative production work. Habbo was designed as a space for socializing, but has educational implication. Our analysis of these three environments is a grounded approach in which we aim to identify specific examples of students’ use of the environments for creative and social interaction. All three environments involve young people in play and work with video games and digital animation, which are significant media forms in young people’s lives. Each of the spaces has been designed to encourage young people to interact socially and to be creative. In the case of the Video Games Immersion Unit and the Scratch online community, education was the underlying design objective. Habbo Hotel was designed for socialization and entertainment. On a continuum, the Video Games Immersion Unit is the most formal learning environment, while Habbo Hotel was the least formal.

Each of the three environments creates a form of community that enables forms of peer learning. Peer learning includes collaboration, teamwork, and shared problem solving. Mentoring was also evident in each of the environments. When young people mentor one another, they provide each other with alternative ways of solving problems and understanding processes from different perspectives.

Mentoring is therefore a form of peer teaching and is a common feature of distributed networks, where less emphasis is placed on a few individuals holding knowledge and distributing it to many (as is the case in traditional school classrooms).

For example, Ito et al. (2008) identify how children sometimes mentor their parents in new media environments. The establishment of “reputation” is important within all three environments and involves young people developing expertise for which they are recognized. Developing reputation is an aspect of the ongoing development of identities which are crucial to learning in new media environments. For example, Gee (2003) argues that young people learn in video games environments through taking on “projected identities.” Each of the environments also allows for the unexpected use of digital tools. This is a crucial affordance that allows for experimentation, play, and creativity, which are central to the development of media literacy in new media environments. According to Jenkins (2006, p. 4), “the ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content” is a key skill for participation in new media cultures. Each of these affordances is discussed in greater detail in the analysis sections that follow."


"In this comparative analysis, we have focused on identifying commonalities among three real-world environments where young people engage in the use and creation of digital media. The commonalities are presented as a framework for designing similar social spaces aimed at promoting new media literacy skills.

Based on the previous observations, we propose the following four considerations for designing online spaces:

First, we argue that allowing peer learning to emerge is of utmost importance and, based on our observations, we identified that direct channels for communication are key in supporting it. For example, both Habbo and the Immersion Unit had clear mechanisms for people to talk to each other, and even though the Scratch community is primarily about sharing interactive objects, participants can post comments on each others’ work. These channels of communication also help create a culture in which peer learning is supported.

Second, we see mentoring as an emergent property of a system that allows for peer learning and reputation building mechanisms and as such, we encourage facilitators and designers to avoid “getting in the way” of these emergent community leaders. Facilitators and system designers can often act as matchmakers between mentors and participants looking for someone to teach them the different aspects of the tools or environment. Mentors also often bring a balance to the informal and formal spectrum by distributing control and helping establish a balance between the formal and the informal.

Third, we advance the idea that the socio-technical openness in the three environments helped support the use of the technologies in unexpected ways. These unexpected uses of the tools and environments are presented here as a positive sign that people feel free to appropriate these to participate in personally meaningful ways, explore their own identities, and engage in play and experimentation. While we strongly believe openness is a key factor in the success of the environments, we also advocate in favor of having certain structures that frame the interactions in specific ways and avoid compromising the core utility of the system.

We think of this as “sandbox” openness. For example, the Scratch online community focuses primarily on the sharing of animations and video games in an open way without prescribed templates, but at the same time it deemphasizes and makes it hard to have other types of participations, such as using the system as a chat room (without completely preventing it). Our main design suggestion here is to be open and receptive to unexpected uses of the technologies, but to still provide the right socio-technical infrastructure to frame and guide the interactions.

Fourth and finally, reputation-building mechanisms are identified as another important design element to foster collaboration and a productive media literacy learning environment. In both informal and formal ways, reputation emerges out of peer-to-peer interactions when participants have a way of forming an identity with history attached to it. However, there are ways in which a system and/or a facilitator could manage reputation in a destructive way, either by monopolizing it (as in some traditional classrooms where only the teacher can be the expert, or in online interactions where only the administrators of the system are in charge of broadcasting information), or by over-empowering a few and letting these individuals take over the communication channels. For example, during the week in which the Immersion Unit had an expert teach about a specific topic without allowing for peer learning, the class was less effective than when the free flow of information and peer-to-peer communication was permitted. These reputation mechanisms often allow people to emerge as leaders which, given the right circumstances, can significantly empower a community to participate and make it their own.

Inspired by the work of Jenkins, Ito, Livingstone, and others who have made arguably the best arguments to stress the importance of new media literacy skills, our initial analysis of three distinct environments has led us to propose a framework for thinking about the design of social and technical systems to support the development of these literacy skills. This framework lies on the idea that openness will lead to new and unexpected uses of technological affordances, and that this openness should also extend to the communication channels where peer learning can be fostered. Finally, we argue that adding the right mechanisms for building reputation will lead to the emergence of mentors. We hope that designers, facilitators, and educators find this framework productive when designing their own new media literacy learning communities."