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Media and Education in the Digital Age

Concepts, Assessments, Subversions

Edited By Matteo Stocchetti

This book is an invitation to informed and critical participation in the current debate on the role of digital technology in education and a comprehensive introduction to the most relevant issues in this debate. After an early wave of enthusiasm about the emancipative opportunities of the digital «revolution» in education, recent contributions invite caution, if not scepticism. This collection rejects extreme interpretations and establishes a conceptual framework for the critical questioning of this role in terms of concepts, assessments and subversions. This book offers conceptual tools, ideas and insights for further research. It also provides motivation and information to foster active participation in debates and politics and encourages teachers, parents and learners to take part in the making of the future of our societies.
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Teaching the ‘Unteachable’: Networked Media, Simulation and Community Research/Activism

Teaching the Unteachable: Networked Media, Simulation and Community Research/Activism

Judith Faifman and Brian Goldfarb


This chapter considers opportunities that digital media culture presents for educators to engage pedagogical approaches and take on subject matter that within the current educational context has become increasingly “unteachable”; edged out of the curriculum by mandates that have taken hold during the transnational rise of the standards-based education reform movement. What we mean by this is twofold: first, unteachable in the sense of modes of knowledge that educational institutions have deemed illegitimate or unworthy of attention because they can’t be measured; and second, discursive practices that fall afield of the authorized conception of schooling as a neutral space of learning rather than a site of intellectual debate and forum for discussion of public issues. These formulations of the “unteachable,” have played a formative role in limiting the potential for participation in knowledge creation and democratic processes on local, regional and global scales. Our intention is to urge educators to consider how networked and digital technology/culture might be employed to activate dimensions of subjectivity truncated by this form of education. While there numerous fronts to take on this responsibility, here we zero in on digital practices that forward two particular goals: first, allowing active participation in the politics of knowledge through a broad conception of inquiry in contexts extending beyond the school and embedded in networks of life-impacting scientific research, and second, embracing the affective dimensions of communication that are crucial to how knowledge is negotiated in the spaces that connect intimate/personal and public experience.


As educators working together from distant positions in the global north and south, and spanning distinct disciplinary arenas of the sciences, social sciences, arts and humanities, we are writing to synthesize our understandings of some specific educational impacts of the pervasive integration of computing and networked communication into spaces and practices of contemporary social life. What follows is a sketch of some of the ways that digital and networked media presents opportunities for, and in some instances, is, fostering challenges to standards-based approaches to learning. While we would caution that the same media forms can and are being developed in the service of normative modes of schooling that seeks to ensure that students learn prescribed knowledge and skills, our intention here is to highlight what we see as the potential of digital media for making learners and research more democratic in the sense that participants have greater input into ← 275 | 276 → the scope and goals of their inquiries. Our hope is that this discussion will direct educators to emphasize particular affordances of new media forms while resisting others. While there is a plurality of fronts to take on this responsibility, in this essay we are advocating the shaping of digital media practices with two particular goals: first, allowing active participation in the politics of knowledge through a broad conception of research as central to learning and knowledge creation in a global context, and second, embracing the affective dimensions of communication that are crucial to how knowledge is negotiated in the spaces that connect intimate/personal and public experience.

Research, as a capacity to make disciplined inquiries into those things we need to know, but do not know yet, is vital to the exercise of democratic citizenship. Intellectual inquiry, in this sense, is not something arcane or a practice reserved for an academic elite. It is something that threads through all dimensions of social participation and is crucial to the problem of teaching and learning at all levels. On these grounds, Arjun Appadurai has argued that research as a core aspect of self-determination should be framed as a “human right.” (Appadurai, 2006) Certainly, people have always engaged in quotidian as well as formal inquiry in order to make those decisions presented to them in their personal and social lives. Digitally networked culture, however, has brought considerable transformation to the space, scope and form of research activity. The common use of search engines coupled with expanded access to modes of “publishing” (including blogs, home pages, etc) and distributing (email, listservs, newsgroups, craigslist, tweets, and other social media) have made the forms of inquiry associated with decisions at all levels of impact more visible and self-conscious. Mobile devices have visibly integrated the performance of research into the field of consumption. Cell phone conversations place the inquiry that subtends business and political negotiation into public and pedestrian spaces of restaurants and mass transit. Considerations of the use of digital media in learning should articulate to this shifting place of inquiry within contemporary culture.

Arguments for the centrality of research in education aren’t new. Inquiry learning with its strengths, risks and limitations in one form or another has been part of the educational landscapes at least since the middle of the nineteenth century (Hodson, 2009, 1996; DeBoer, 2006; Rudolph, 2005). Notably, these developments can be tied to the growing economic importance of institutions and technologies of research. During the latter half of the nineteenth century the emergence of the science laboratory as a key component of science education was justified by the expressed goal of developing students’ abilities to acquire knowledge independently freeing individuals from a dependence on the intellectual authority of others (DeBoer, 2006). Science and research more broadly were linked to the ← 276 | 277 → demands of democratic society1. In the early twentieth century, with enrollments in public secondary education expanding rapidly, John Dewey argued that education in a democratic society should aim to develop students’ capacities to formulate significant and meaningful questions as well as their abilities for cooperative group inquiry to increase understanding of how reliable knowledge is generated. Dewey’s Laboratory school pioneered at the same time theoretical perspectives and practices in the incorporation of inquiry to primary school, conceiving knowledge not as given but rather worked out in “communities of inquiry”.

A significant thrust for the promotion of inquiry learning came in the early 1960s from the approach developed by Joseph Schwab who sought to shift the emphasis of schooling cultures away from learning as a rhetoric of conclusions towards an understanding of the process of inquiry. In the late 20th century, challenges to this pedagogical agenda gained increasing force in the name of standards-based reform. The 1983 Reagan administration report, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative For Educational Reform, sounded alarms about the decline of US education and triggered or at least announced the onset of standards-based education reform in the United States and globally. Throughout the 1990s state and national standards-based reforms began being implemented on a broad scale, at the same time the growth of World Wide Web, expanded Internet access and increasing centrality of computers to the workplace signaled an imperative to embrace digital media in education. At the same time that the Clinton Education Administration concretized the standards-based ideology forwarded under Reagan and G H W Bush in its reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (later renamed as “No Child Left Behind” under G W Bush), simultaneously deemed it necessary that every child would have a computer and access to the internet in order for US education to prepare them for a changing global economy. (US Dept of Education, 1996) While it is true that funding for school technology was largely directed at Title 1 schools (those serving low income families), this ideological nexus is important to understanding frictions and openings for resistance to standards based reform in the ways we reconceive the place of networked computing in schooling. ← 277 | 278 →

Situating the right to research: student/community inquiry into mining and water ecology in argentina

The recognition of the right to research as part of the “family” of human rights gains significance only in relation to the need for knowledge within situated contexts. For example, in the context of the multiplicity of social movements resisting new extractive methods of mining that require extensive use of water in the extraction of metals, shale oil or gas that has had broad environmental impact and directly undermines food sovereignty of poor and indigenous population around the world. The first and biggest open-pit mining project in Argentina, Minera Alumbrera gold mine, initiated in 1997, was authorized by the Catamarca government (among Argentina’s poorest provinces) to extract 100 million liters per day of water from a natural reserve. In Argentina, a significant portion of the population lacks adequate access to safe drinking water. This is emblematic of a situation where an estimated that one in six people worldwide don’t have access to safe water and 2.5 billion people, including almost one billion children live without basic sanitation (UNESCO, 2012). In this context, initiatives of vertical socialization of the scientific and technological discourse emerged in Argentina that leveraged universities and scientific public agencies to authorize these new mining extraction methods.

Arguably this state of affairs is made possible by an approach to education built upon what had been termed a deficit model of knowledge, envisaging the relation between scientific expertise and the public as asymmetrical assuming public deficiency but scientific sufficiency and adopting a one way, top down communication process in which knowledge flows from the source of science with all the required information to the scientifically illiterate general public (Gross, 1994). The status of public understanding of science in the deficit model is epistemologically diminished casting the public in a passive role while marginalizing the ethical and political implications of knowledge. Confronting pro-mining discourses buttressed by expert knowledges, neighbors in local communities attempted to build and strengthen a critical scientific discourse elaborating evidence on the damage and impact of these new ongoing extractive practices in the territories under exploitation. This is increasingly necessary in the context of strongly allied efforts of global corporations and government agencies that have poured great expense into elaborate popular educational media and venues. For example, Technopolis, an interactive world fair-like museum that comprises many technology bolstering and pro-industry exhibitions, features a “Yes to Mining” exhibition.

The struggle of local communities to confront mining initiatives is an example of informal educational processes that motivated what can be described as a dispersed learning network that has enabled effective community participation at various governmental levels. Between 2003 and 2008, as a result of multisectorial ← 278 | 279 → mobilizations and social networking articulating critical knowledges, seven provinces in Argentina enacted laws forbidding different aspects of these new extractive practices (Svampa and Antonelli, 2009). Public understanding of science became a cornerstone of political participation, but only as the joint product of scientific and local knowledges. Digital communication as a multidirectional flow has in notable cases begun to serve as a mechanism for integrating lay and expert knowledges and needs through deliberation and participation (Epstein, 1996). This emergent zone of interaction among academic and community-based expertise is key factor in the particular forms of inquiry-based education we advocated here.

These models of learning rely on an implicit model of public understanding of scientific knowledge embedded in the way digital technologies for learning are designed, developed and used. This demands critical attention to two key dimensions of digitalization of knowledge producing practices: First, the migration of mediating practices to multimodal networked environments involving new forms of sharing and making public as well as new dialogical practices (importantly, this involves the increasingly permeable boundaries among once distinct social and educational spheres and institutions); second, the design, implementation and use of new computationally enhanced, ways of manipulating, visualizing and analyzing information.

The kinds of performances and understandings possible shift when students’ modes of inquiry are supported by multimodal networks and combined with use of models as both descriptive and generative tools. This can be better described through consideration of concrete examples of classrooms embracing the affordances of digital media for learning, specifically insofar as they are used to increase the agency of students and teachers in determination of a curriculum linked to their situated needs/interests. In the context of a Media Lab in a community school in the city of Buenos Aires, primary and secondary students and their teachers designed and developed research projects in different curricular areas aimed at developing interactive documentaries as a way to report their findings to part of the school community. What is distinctive about the curriculum design was that teacher encouraged students to formulate research questions in the classrooms that demanded active engagement with very diverse actors and archives in the community in order to find answers. Empirical evidence here, integrated the students’ pursuit of scientific understanding with direct experiences of social and environmental impacts.

In one of these research projects, a group of secondary school students followed the steps of a lawsuit claiming health damage as well as environmental collective damage that reached the National Supreme Court. The suit at issue was initiated in 2004 by a group of residents of the Matanza-Riachuelo river basin, the most ← 279 | 280 → contaminated river basin in Argentina. At issue in the case was the identification and elimination/reduction of the multiple contributing processes that most contributed to this critical environmental situation; establishing responsibility; and determining effective interventions. Digital technologies allowed students to go beyond reading about the case as a past event through news stories and other historical accounts such as Silvestri’s book El color del río (2003), and Raponi and Boselli’ documentary Riachuelo (2006). They addressed the case as a living arena of contestation, recording and editing interviews with some of the residents that filled the legal claim, doctors in the local hospital, and lawyers involved in the case. Further, they were able to also to use computational models for sense making, and to maintain an online partnership with scientific researchers working in bioremediation, attempting to use plants among other organisms to contribute to the solution of environmental contamination problems.

The computational models designed by the students were informed by their observation of research at a bioremediation research lab as well as hands on experiments at school in bioremediation with plants based on advice of the lab researchers. These parallel activities enabled a dynamic online dialogue developed between students, their teachers and the researchers sharing their reflections on the topic as well as asking new questions. Throughout this process, the students’ attitudes toward knowledge, their teachers and school assignments changed significantly. Notably, several secondary school students identified by their teachers as chronically disruptive to the learning environment, challenging of school rules, and with low academic achievement expressed surprised at their inclusion without exception in the small group visits to the research bioremediation laboratories. Teachers and researchers alike, who had been concerned about the inclusion of these students, enthusiastically commented a number of times that during the visits these students were particularly active in the lab practices and dialogue, formulating questions and pointing towards problematic issues. All the students involved in the project demonstrated an increasing facility in articulating their own arguments and presenting their unique perspectives in the analysis of environmental and scientific issues as well as listening and analyzing the approaches proposed by their peers, teachers and researchers. This evidently developed in the context of the ongoing practice of expressing their interests, outlining inquiry projects, posing goals, questions and knowledge problems where it was made clear that they were part of a meaningful inquiry with potential social impact. The creation of knowledge was presented to them as a work in progress in which they could participate.

The relations among school professionals and parents also changed significantly. Parents whose contact with school had been mainly to deal with problematic situations of their children found themselves supporting their children’s research ← 280 | 281 → efforts, and attending presentations of the interactive documentaries reporting on the projects. A significant factor, in this regard, was that parents were familiar with the issues the students were researching and could observe the impacts of the pollution on members of nearby communities. As students have access to authoring positions that enable them to contribute to clarify and discuss issues of public relevance, the interest and recognition showed by parents goes far beyond the attitudes of formal monitoring of school achievement. Parents were given new possibilities for valuing students as productive citizens, not mainly as subjects to be regimented and disciplined.

Dimensions of digitally facilitated knowledge creation across global and local sites

This conception and execution of this curriculum rests on transformations of the last three decades that have seen the integration of computing and networking into academic research cultures has heralded diverse and intensive transformations in multiple fields. Every stage in the life cycle of a research project from how questions are constructed and posed, and how hypothesis are generated, through how data is obtained, contextualized, stored, organized and analyzed to how results are communicated have come to be mediated by information technologies in at least three ways. First, by the broader access they enable to both raw data and research products. Second, by new research approaches based on computer modeling, simulation and automated data analyses. Third, by the expansive communication and broad collaboration they make possible (Bartscherer and Coover, 2011; Foster, 2011; Dutton and Jeffreys, 2010; Olson, Zimmerman and Bos, 2008; Borgman, 2007).

Within the curriculum that followed the dispute over water management practices, students’ use of digital networks to access diverse data and the findings of others facilitated forms of mobility (virtual and actual) and social/professional interaction that are key to active participation within the political economy of globalization. In this pedagogical approach students are encouraged to see inquiry, not simply as searching for verifiable sources of information, but as an iterative process of queries, investigations, analysis and interpretation in relation to impacts on vulnerable populations and those with other vested interests. Their online research is dynamically connected with facilitated opportunities for email and live interactions that are not only unplanned, but often unforeseen. The potential impacts of the students’ research can be realistically considered as an integral component of the real world problematic. By helping students to understand how their research ← 281 | 282 → as embedded in the arena it seeks to understand, teachers also make them aware of ways that their work can feed back into the debate as another mediating party. This pedagogical approach builds on activist scientific practices such as those health-care advocacy groups addressing including AIDS and Breast Cancer, and articulates frameworks for understanding the situated nature of scientific knowledge best articulated in feminist science studies (Harding, 2008; Haraway, 1988).

The framing of inquiry as a situated practice within the Matanza Basin water management curriculum resonates in its pedagogical considerations of the use of new computationally based analysis tools such as modeling and simulations. The development of these tools in a rapidly expanding range of fields is not only connected with a continuous increase in the speed and capacity of calculation but is also closely associated with the capacity to process images, to handle sophisticated man-machine interfaces, and perhaps most importantly, expanded conceptions of the uses of visualizations (Küppers, Lenhard and Shinn, 2006). These emergent uses call attention to the nature of simulation as an observational instrument but one in which the concept “observation” assumes an entirely novel meaning. While classical observational instruments such as telescopes and microscopes render phenomena visible by affecting the scale of entities through optical processes of resolution, simulation renders visible the effects of parameters and forces such as time and dynamic interactions translating absolutely nonvisual events into a visual media often shifting the emphasis from opportunity to compare simulated images with real world objects or processes to the possibility to project the potential for initiating or impacting processes or events in ways that haven’t yet been observed.

Ihde, a philosopher of science and technology, argues that technologies have played a deeper and stronger role in philosophy than is usually thought, playing major roles as metaphors, driving whole philosophical programs. Sometimes these metaphors produce what he calls an “epistemology engine”, used to model the process of knowledge production. For example, the camera obscura played an explicit role in early modern philosophy as a metaphor of how knowledge is structured through representation. In contrast with this epistemology centered in representations or what Ihde calls isomorphic images, that is, images that can be compared with the object imaged, computational imaging techniques are not depictions of a perceptible object. Imaging in the context of simulation and modeling is more analogous to a critical, interpretive practice that depicts composite features, than to isomorphic representations resulting from analogous transcription via optical lens systems or other more direct indexical methods. Nonetheless, the literature about the uses of models and simulations remains rife with representationalist language that is an artifact of this earlier observational approach. In this context, several issues arise with regards to the integration of models and ← 282 | 283 → simulations in schooling cultures that demand new nuanced approaches that articulate their limitations and affordances, given that what simulations depict are very complex composites constructed of multiple measurement instruments with their embedded assumptions, standards and conventions as well as their isomorphic vestiges (Ihde, 2006; 2004).

Students in the water basin curriculum learned important lessons about the nature of evidence created by models and simulations through comparisons with other forms of digitally enhanced observation that they engaged in. Video, with it’s increased affordances for high-resolution observation and control over time (stop action filming and shifting frame rates in post production) allowed students to observe phenomena that were too fine-grained to be captured in their models. The broader and more insight that a situated critical approach to scientific learning can present is that knowledge is a force in the world rather than an objective reflection of it. With regard to laboratory models, we can teach how they may be used in different rhetorical ways, leading us to different understandings of how they relate to phenomena “in the wild.” What we want to avoid is conceptual/interpretive practices that rule out as insignificant or anomalous, that which doesn’t conform to abstract models (what are often termed outliers). Disability Studies, offers important theoretical insights into the virtual, stressing the differently embodied experiences of ideals vs norms: the former we know and conceive as unattainable goals, objectives or forms, the latter as that which seems achievable, but which lived experience doesn’t match (Davis, 1995).

A critical pedagogy of simulation can draw on recent discussions that redirect emphasis from representation to mediative, productive and performative perspectives highlighting how models function as actors. Knuuttila frames this shift in thinking about scientific imaging by likening it to Peirce’s focus in his later work on mediation and production of interpretants replacing his earlier focus on representation. (Knuuttila, 2006, 2010a, 2010b). The semi-independent functioning of models with respect to theory and data can be made palpable by considering how their design and the meanings they produce are directly tied to decision making processes that span contexts as diverse as economics, technological design, and architecture (Morrison and Morgan, 1999). Through this lens, simulation appears as a specific theoretical practice in which modelers construct idealized systems that selectively draw on a narrow set of properties that can be attributed to the targeted phenomena (Godfrey-Smith, 2006). Following this perspective the Matanza Basin water management project aims to teach students to employ models as multifunctional epistemic tools (Knuuttila, 2010b) whose value derives largely from our interaction with them by constructing and manipulating them as well as using them for various tasks. ← 283 | 284 →

What are the implications of the development of modeling and simulations in a rapidly expanding range of fields for educational practices? In traditional schooling cultures, where a heavy emphasis on coverage of content standards and high stakes summative assessments is prevalent, teachers often use models and simulations for demonstration purposes. Using models in this (re)presentational rather than a construction mode obfuscates students’ understanding of the scope and limitations of models (Schwarz et al., 2009; Gilbert and Boulter, 1997). The distinction between lay and expert knowledge claims is articulated in the difference between this approach and that of academic researchers who create a model to help their own thinking and share their ideas with peers to discuss and debate whether they are convincing in the professional community. Schwarz et al. argue that involving learners in modeling practices can help them build not only subject matter expertise but also epistemological understanding of models as a valuable facet of expertise in the practices of generation and evaluation of knowledge. They suggest that it is crucial to involve learners in the construction of models, rather than primarily working with models provided by teachers or scientific authorities as they regard the pedagogical benefits of working with models rests critically on having students develop models to articulate their own understanding. Students’ critical understanding of simulation rests on their experience of it as embedded in a politics of knowledge production and sharing. That is, we are advocating approaches that keep the problem of un-conceived or non-pursued alternatives within the field of vision (Stanford, 2006). This requires continually articulating the communities and forces that contribute to the designs we develop for simulation.

Schooling that embraces such an approach, necessarily requires fluid interaction with individuals, groups and institutions at a distance. In this regard digital networks are foundational to re-imagining and re-engineering the space and time of inquiry that is central to developing pedagogy for global participation. This is certainly apparent in the ways that students in the water management curriculum were guided to develop their modeling approaches in iterative ways that included accessing an expert team of scientists as well as engaging members of communities potentially affected by environmental impacts, legal scholars, governmental representatives, and economic entities linked to the toxic pollution of the Basin area. This highlights the third way in which the stages in the life cycle of research have come to be mediated by information technologies: the expansive reach of communication and broad collaboration they make possible literally stretch and compress the spatiality and temporality of knowledge producing practices.

In fields from habitat ecology to sociology digital media have enabled forms of disembodied fieldwork through handcrafted wireless sensor arrays and other networked surveillance techniques. With regard to these transformations in the ← 284 | 285 → technological landscape of research, Dutton (2010) poses significant questions concerning the reconfiguration of access to observation as one of the resources central to research: “Will researchers be more distant from their objects of study or closer to them? Will they have more direct or more mediated experiences in observing their subjects of study? Will researchers collect more data or be more dependent on data collected by others?” This provocative set of questions is of particular relevance for reflecting on the roles of digital technologies in education as open inquiry projects where students share agency and responsibility in formulating research questions and designing research approaches and strategies are replaced by open explorations of online simulations and modelizations or automated data collection practices.

To tackle the increasing amount of data and the consequent need for new data analysis methods in the context of these new forms of instrumentation one of the emergent issues involved is the development of an integrated framework for data management and digital libraries for data. In this regard Borgman, Wallis and Enyedi (2007) draw attention to the risks involved in standardization of processes and products as digital libraries of data can facilitate collaboration but can also be problematic by forcing abrupt standardization. Classifications and standards are themselves powerful technologies, highly political and ethically charged that become relatively invisible as they are embedded in working infrastructures. The social and political struggles and compromises that go into the constitution of standards emphasize the need to examine the ways in which standards reconfigure and shape knowledge producing practices. As Bowker and Star (2000) put it “Black boxes are necessary, and not necessarily evil. The moral questions arise when the categories of the powerful become the taken for granted; when policy decisions are layered into inaccessible technological structures.” Lessons about standards, institutions and infrastructure are critical to a science curriculum that aims to carry out community informed research.

Teachers’ mediating roles take on new significance in the context of students’ interactions with digital tools that stimulate more in depth analysis, discussion and reflection on the implicit assumptions, underlying concepts and relationships. As students gain opportunities to express their own ideas, asking their own questions focusing on “how we know” rather than “what we know” teachers have greater need for skills for fostering and mediating shared discussion and debate rather that assessing comprehension of predetermined content and attainment of normative skill sets. Questions remain open with regards to the risks of marginalizing open-ended inquiry in the classroom in a context where certain lines of investigation are facilitated by software resources and online virtual learning environments.

A number of studies have drawn attention to significant changes in the organization of science, particularly the increase of collaborative work in academic ← 285 | 286 → research such as the increase in the number of multi-authored papers mostly in the physical and biological sciences but also in the social sciences and to a lesser extent in the humanities (Thagard, 1997). The transformation is markedly geopolitical: the increase in remote and transnational collaboration in the hard sciences has been exponential in recent years (Walsh and Maloney, 2002; Walsh and Bayma, 1996). Attempting to explain this change in the organization of inquiry, scholars make reference to a combination of key factors that play a role in prompting researchers to collaborate both within and outside their disciplines and institutions, including the increasing urgency, complexity, scale and scope of scientific problems, the need for access to new and expensive research instruments and technologies, and pressure from funding agencies as well as the dramatic affordances of networked technologies for collaboration at a distance (Olson, Zimmerman and Bos, 2008; Thagard, 1997; Walsh and Bayma, 1996). This trend toward the geographic distribution of knowledge production, like other dimensions of globalization, is heterogeneous and involves both new forms of inclusion as well as consolidation of control. Here it is worth emphasizing the role educators can play in engaging students in considering what forms of localized knowledge and expertise are included and excluded in the functioning of large-scale science, and how one can intervene in these asymmetries of the knowledge economy.

From scientific models to communication and cultural dimensions of the transformation of knowledge creation

Addressing expansive shifts in scientific practice at the level of primary and secondary schooling can seem daunting, however, parallel transformations in social and cultural realms that students are already implicated in, if not always critically reflecting on offer emergent opportunities for educators to actively engage students in responding to knowledge production across fields and disciplines. The terrain of young people’s everyday lives as they engage with new media reconfigure the contexts for communication, friendship, play and self-expression and involve them in a plurality of modes of knowledge production and sharing. Social media, rather than simply enacting monolithic forms of youth identity, initiate collaborative practices that emerge in both mainstream uses of new media as well as in the context of more exceptional practices that represent emerging experimental modes of technological and media literacy.

Facebook is emblematic of a range of friendship-driven practices that for most youth integrate their online and offline encounters with peers in the age segregated contexts of schools and other local activity groups like cultural, religious and ← 286 | 287 → sports groups as their primary source of affiliation, friendship and romantic partners that involve them in a plurality of knowledge producing/sharing activities. Rather than simply mirroring or reinforcing existing real world social relationships and settings, today’s hybrid online offline publics differ from traditional teen unmediated publics as they are characterized by their persistence, searchability, replicability and invisible audiences where personal networks and social connections are displayed to broader publics that have traditionally been available locally to teens (Ito et al., 2010a; Boyd, 2007). Significantly, students’ participation in these publics involves homespun forms of inquiry that for better and worse mirror developments discussed above in relation to the transformative impact of digital communication, collaboration and surveillance on scientific inquiry.

We’d like to put some distance between our analysis and recent arguments that cast the current generation of students as “digital natives,” in the sense that they already know/understand the technologies they live and breathe (Prensky, 2001), a characterization that has been critiqued widely in terms of its empirical accuracy as well as theoretical usefulness (Helsper and Eynon. 2010; Livingstone, 2011; Thomas 2011). Rather, young people on the whole are engaged across a spectrum of levels in heterogeneous activities of knowledge production. Online sites provide opportunities for youth to connect at a distance with interest-based groups that might not be represented in their local communities and constitute more intentional and chosen affiliations. This is an important mechanism for them to understand possibilities for countering the mechanisms that maintain distinctions among professional/expert and lay knowledge practices. YouTube and networked gaming sites, among other specialized communities, serve as virtual collaborative laboratories where young people engage with other creators or players to share expertise or mentor others, developing leadership and organizing experience. Amateur media production communities have become increasingly important sites of social, cultural, and technical innovation in today’s networked media environment. The benefits from the activities of amateur cultural and knowledge production nowadays are difficult to ignore. Scholars like Mimi Ito, Yochai Benkler, Henry Jenkins, Lawrence Lessig, among others, have urged us to take in account a growing ecology of amateur cultural and knowledge production as forces to be reckoned. Ito draws attention to an emergent shift reordering the balance of power in research and theorizing between the arenas of professional and amateur cultural and knowledge production. In this regard she notes that successful amateur innovations get taken up and widely disseminated and appropriated by professionals just as the amateurs originally appropriated the professional’s works (Ito 2010b, Varnelis, 2008).

Beyond their value for situating learning activities within communities of knowledge production, networked media presents significant affordances in the ← 287 | 288 → realm of affect and intimacy that, intentionally or not, recast classrooms as sites of engagement with personal knowledge and newly embodied aspects of difference (with respect to culture, gender, health/ability, class, etc). This is a crucial dimension of global citizenship and agency in a digital age that schools are beginning to respond to, mostly in a reactive rather than proactive manner. In this regard, we are observing new resistances to and negotiations of the cultural space of schooling that challenges the limits of standards-based schooling to establish fixed and predetermined requirements in terms of skills or knowledge. In the digital age, the classroom is newly porous in ways that are difficult to ignore. While educational theorists and governmental ministries celebrate and mandate students’ use of networked media to access knowledge beyond the classroom walls, the processes of learning and the avenues of content delivery are increasingly entangled with those of personal interaction tethering research activities to issues and activities that schools have long battled to keep outside the curriculum. So, while the use of networked communication has been incorporated in curricula in ways explicitly embraced by proponents of standards-based reform (especially as a tool for preparing students to participate in a global economy), these same media embody a veritable Pandora’s box that presents fundamental challenges to established goals of this movement to reign in and codify knowledge.

This contradiction has fueled an important agenda in school administrative policy and launched an industry whose main goal is to protect children from “dangerous content” and schools from liability for student exposure. Considerable amount of thought, technical innovation, and managerial effort has been sunk into the development and implementation of modes of computer use that restrict access to proscribed content and prevent students from sharing personal information or compromising their own or their peers privacy. These include technical solutions (ie, software for block particular URLs or search terms) as well as continually morphing policies for appropriate use of computers and smartphones. Yet by all accounts, this has hardly impeded what can be described as the virtual disintegration of the armored enclosure of learning institutions that were designed and proliferated globally throughout the twentieth century. This increased porosity of classroom walls that digital networks embody has far reaching implications in terms of struggles over the politics of knowledge and students self-determination of the direction and scope of inquiry.

In our discussion of natural sciences curricula mentioned above, we were concerned with active processes of using digital communication to foster understanding of the social political dimensions of research and experimentation. Here, we’d like to turn to some of the implications that arise with unintentional and unanticipated consequences of using the Internet and wireless networks to support inquiry ← 288 | 289 → in the social sciences, humanities and the arts. Because curricular concepts in these areas are already clearly linked to social contexts and the interpretive contingencies, the mandate to manage schools as neutral political sites has required administrators and teachers to draw careful lines around what are thought to be safe and appropriate issues and ideas for grade school classrooms.

Students’ increased technology use has brought wide reaching transformation in their thinking about what constitutes public and intimate knowledge, and has spawned a spectrum of discourse modalities that lie between these poles. The volatile or unpredictable nature of incorporating networked research in schooling is conditioned by the rise in digital technology use in virtually all aspects of life beyond school walls. Today, personal boundaries are a site of continual contestation, modulation and maintenance. These lifestyle impacts have been rapid and have required teachers to think on their feet. Some of the fallout has been well documented and publicly reported such as high-profile cases of online bullying, ‘sexting’, stalking, etc. But the vulnerabilities that students are facing are more pervasive and nuanced. Outside the crosshairs of popular media there are a plethora of less hostile exchanges of intimate knowledge that inevitably dovetail with practices that harness the potentials of networked communication for classroom inquiry. Discussions with some of the expanding numbers of teachers who have begun to use new media practices (including students blogging, digital storytelling, student-produced media with recording devices in phones, and a plethora of new social networking platforms—many designed specifically for schools as safer sharing environments) yield rich accounts of the complex, unanticipated and often-unintended adjustments that they have had to confront. These can be openings for addressing key challenges to developing ethical dimensions of global citizenship, however, strategies for considering them as integral to classroom inquiry, rather than distractions, need to be developed and fostered.

Negotiating the intermingling of public and private knowledges: students collecting US veterans’ life stories

The anecdotal experiences of teachers who have begun to embrace this challenge can allow us to critically consider possibilities for negotiating public intimacies, and develop strategies for dealing with vulnerabilities that accompany classroom inquiry. Marta, a Southern California teacher whose classroom we’ve worked with over the past 8 years, has participated with her students in Stories of Service, a US national project to develop an archive of audio-visual documents of the personal experience of US war veterans. Stories of Service was launched in California’s ← 289 | 290 → Silicon Valley in 1998 by the nonprofit Digital Clubhouse Network, created by NASA. It was one of the founding partners of the Veterans Oral History Project of the Library of Congress. While Stories of Service has involved K-12 schools throughout the country, individual teachers create their own curricula to address the general goals of creating a national archive of oral history of veterans. Marta’s implementation of the stories of service project was integrated with the school’s history curriculum, and it is a way of opening up critical discussion of a range of social issues and ethical concerns from conflicting views on war, global relations, and health care/disability (critical topics for veterans). But, as Marta points out, the modalities of contact with these subjects that are facilitated by digital media heightens the role of affect in the learning experiences, as students more directly come into contact with critical issues mediated through the voices and lived experiences of senior citizens who are family members and/or strangers. Taking up forms of interpersonal inquiry anchored in community and family, teachers are almost inevitably faced with unanticipated feelings and social dynamics that can reverberate through the classroom or initiate sensitive discussions at home.

In one instance, the Stories of Service Project excavated buried stories of a student’s deceased grandfather that had never been revealed to her by her parents. The student had never known her grandfather who died before she was born. But eliciting accounts of his life from other family members divulged sensitive issues and reignited difficult feelings that her mother had never resolved. This impacted the scope and goals of the project in a variety of ways. When the student approached Marta about what was emerging from her interviews, she had many concerns. She was ambivalent about how much more she wanted to know—she felt that this was a really important opportunity to develop new connections and trust with her family, but was also overwhelmed. She was also faced with decisions about how much of the project she wanted to share with her peers and classmates. Part of what Marta has had to address in this instance and in other components of the Stories of Service Project is the students’ development of skills and understandings of how to regulate different levels of privacy and publicness of knowledge. She had learned to coach them in making decisions about what to share and with whom. This means creating a classroom in which the rules and expectations for presenting work can be adjusted dynamically and involve collaborative determinations among the teacher and individual of groups of students.

The connection between inquiry and citizenship skills, then, is not simply about the situation of knowledge in relation to contexts of public and political deliberation, but also about how learning processes can more self-consciously acknowledge the emotional factors that shape ethical decisions. In this regard the recognition of the nuanced ways that knowledge production is situated within a ← 290 | 291 → learning community becomes key. It becomes more difficult to deny the radically distinct relationships that different members of a class have to curricular material. And this change comes about, not just in forms of inquiry such as oral history or digital story telling that put students in direct contact with live research subject, but also in processes of online research precisely because the internet has become a repository of such vast amounts of intimate information that resonates with students personal and family lives. Accessing the Internet’s as a resource for developing the competencies in independent inquiry necessarily diminishes teachers’ control over or ability to anticipate the forms of knowledge that students take up.

The collapsing of intimate/private experience and public discourse that has come with the rise of digital communication presents a formidable challenge to notions of schools as politically-neutral zones that proscribes discussion of the most intimate and politically charged issues students are exposed to. If the principle, “the personal is political”, that was established by second wave feminists; the sea-change ushered in by networked and wireless media urges us to pay attention to this in new ways. As educators we do well to recognize moments when intimate knowledge spills out into our classrooms as an opportunity to deal more openly with the radical differences of life experience among our students.


In our itineraries exploring the roles of digital technologies in academic research and in young people’s cultures and their implications for schooling cultures we drew attention to the opportunities, risks and challenges involved in the way these new tools are designed, developed and used. In our contemporary diverse societies, interpellated by advanced marginalization and degradation trends the risks involved in the use of digital technologies from vertical socialization perspectives demand a reconfiguration of our attentional economies in educational landscapes increasing the focus on “how we know” as new epistemic and communication tools and practices are integrated at any level to educational institutional scenarios around the world. In this context, increasing participation in processes of knowledge generation and legitimation as well as dialogic multimodal practices in interaction with a wide range of community actors seems to offer some tracks to confront the challenge of acknowledging the status and limits of available knowledge, identifying the benefits but also the risks of damage and negative externalities implied in knowledge based decision making.

We were inspired to pen this chapter in order to share thoughts on how digital media culture might allow teachers to engage what has within the current ← 291 | 292 → educational regime been “unteachable”; proscribed or edged out of the curriculum by mandates that have taken hold during the transnational rise of what has been termed the standards-based education reform movement. What we mean by this is twofold: first, unteachable in the sense of modes of knowledge that educational institutions have deemed illegitimate or unworthy of attention because they can’t be measured; and second, unteachable in the sense of discursive practices that fall afield of the authorized conception of schooling as a neutral space of learning rather than a site of intellectual debate and forum for discussion of public issues. Both of these formulations of the “unteachable,” have played a formative role in limiting the potential for participation in knowledge creation and democratic processes on local, regional and global scales. And both have been codified and reinforced through the movement for standards of learning that, paradoxically, with respect to our discussion, have dominated educational policy in tandem with the spread of digital communication practices. Some of the unteachables can be described as those forms of inquiry that are determined by localized and unanticipated activity/contexts. Others can be characterized as those discordant aspects of cultural and social life that educational officials have determined too politically charged to take up in classrooms. Our aim has been to push educators to consider how networked and digital technology/culture might be employed to activate dimensions of subjectivity truncated by this form of education.


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  1.    In 1894 the National Education Association in the U.S. produced the Report of the Committee of Ten on Secondary School Studies that articulated the need for inquiry teaching that enabled students’ to develop their own ways of seeking knowledge. The report strongly urged teaching aimed at exercising students’ independent intellectual powers crucial to living in a scientific age.