2010 HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competition

The HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competition will soon be accepting applications. There’s good money to be secured for your projects and it’s open to South Africans. I was a judge for the competition last year and can confirm that they look for innovation from developing countries — so we should go for it!

2010 HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competition

We are pleased to announce that all information regarding the 2010 international HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competition—including detailed category explanations and guidelines, critical deadlines, application materials, etc.—is now available at www.dmlcompetition.net.

The theme of this year’s Competition is Reimagining Learning and there are two types of awards:  21st Century Learning Lab Designers and Game Changers.

Aligned with National Lab Day as part of the White House’s Educate to Innovate Initiative, the 21st Century Learning Lab Designer awards  will range from $30,000-$200,000. Awards will be made for learning environments and digital media-based experiences that allow young people to grapple with social challenges through activities based on the social nature, contexts, and ideas of science, technology, engineering and math.

The Game Changers category—undertaken in cooperation with Sony Computer Entertainment of America (SCEA) and Electronic Arts (EA),  Entertainment Software Assocation, and the Information Technology Industry Council—will award amounts ranging from $5,000-$50,000 for creative levels designed with either LittleBigPlanet™ or Spore™ Galactic Adventures that offer young people engaging game play experiences and that incorporate and leverage principles of science, technology, engineering and math for learning.

Each category will include several Best in Class awards selected by expert judges, as well as a People’s Choice Award selected by the general public.  The online application system will open on January 7 and will include three rounds of submissions, with public comment at each stage.

Please see www.dmlcompetition.net for all details.

Engaging low-income markets through participatory media

Last week I presented Engaging a participatory culture at the Accenture South Africa CRM Executive Summit in Johannesburg.

I asked: What does the emerging participatory culture – in which people produce, share and consume content – mean for a developing country like South Africa? To answer this question, I shared my technology experiences from the education, e-government and developmental sectors and offered suggestions for engaging low-income markets through participatory media.

The presentation builds on the one I gave at Web4Dev in February.

South Africa’s youth are mobile-savvy and participative

(Source: HDI Youth Marketeers)
(Source: HDI Youth Marketeers)

At mLearning Africa I blogged about the results of the fifth annual Sunday Times Generation Next Study. The study, conducted by HDI Youth Marketeers in conjunction with Monash University (South Africa), polled 5,272 South African youth about their brand preferences and consumer behaviour.

What is clear from the study is that youth like to be connected, entertained and to participate (consume and produce content). The mobile phone is at the heart of this behaviour — which has implications for teaching and learning in the 21st century.

Pop culture leads participatory culture

In Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins says: “Our workplaces have become more collaborative; our political process has become more decentered; we are living more and more in knowledge cultures based on collective intelligence. Our schools are not teaching  what it means to live and work within such knowledge communities; but popular culture may be doing so.”

I have suggested before that participatory culture is not only an American thing, but is alive and well in developing countries. The news below confirms that, as well as Jenkins’ proposition that pop culture often moves a society towards behaving as a participatory culture. This is not a bad thing, because when we ask our learners or citizens to be participatory then they’ve been prepped in some way already.

The Star reported that DStv, the main pay TV service in South Africa, will soon be rolling out a new youth station, called Vuzu, aimed at “technically savvy 18-to-24-year-olds with a predilection for engaging viewing, combined with audience interactivity centred round MXit, MMS, SMS and the internet.”

According to channel director, Yolisa Phahle: “We can’t predict the response (to Vuzu), but we are hoping (audiences) will voice their opinions and give us feedback.”

Broadband for education (bb4edu) in SA

Last month I gave a presentation at the National Broadband Forum in Johannesburg, South Africa (SA), on what broadband enablement would mean for education here. The forum aims to collectively produce a strategy for making broadband a priority in SA post the upcoming elections, similar to the recent bb4us campaign in America.

The presentation was blogged about on the South Africa Connect website, as well as covered by ITWeb.

See the forum day’s activities on Flickr and Twitter.

A visit to Project Media Literacies @ MIT

Last month I had the pleasure of heading up to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to meet Erin Reilly, Research Director at Project New Media Literacies (NML). This is one of six research projects within the Comparative Media Studies program at the university.

The team at Project NML have come up with a list of new media literacies (NMLs) and cultural competencies that young people need to learn, play, work and live in the 21st century. Since I first blogged about the NMLs in 2007, one more has been added:

Visualisation: the ability to interpret and create data representations for the purposes of expressing ideas, finding patterns, and identifying trends.

“It’s a dynamic, living list,” says Erin. She explained that many youth today have already learned some of these competencies in social settings, but that it’s important for them to formally develop the competencies in other, constructive settings, e.g. in the classroom. Project NML aims to help create that space — wherever it may be, in school or at after school venues — to give youth and educators the appropriate language to critically think about and practice these competencies. Their work is in direct response to the emerging participatory culture in the world.

Erin Reilly and me at Project New Media Literacies, MIT
Erin Reilly and me at Project New Media Literacies, MIT

One of the issues we spoke about was how to promote the importance of NMLs to educators and parents. While Erin and I get this importance, what about those who don’t, who think a “back to basics” (traditional, non-digital) approach is what is needed  in education (as is the case in South Africa)?

Erin explained that we have to present NMLs as a very effective way to develop the basics. We need to demonstrate how to effectively leverage popular culture — which is highly engaging for young people — in the classroom to develop the 3Rs of reading, writing and arithmetic.

She believes that the labels are not important, e.g. NMLs or 21st century skills. What is important are the actual competencies. We need to call these whatever necessary to get the point through. Further, we need to empower educators to create the spaces for their learners to develop and discuss the NMLs. We cannot be the experts who come into the classroom and take over from the teachers. They must be the experts in NMLs. Maggie Verster wrote an excellent blog post about how challenging it is to achieve this in South Africa.

Taking this approach — NMLs as the way to develop the basics — is an effective way to make NMLs part of the curriculum and not an add-on (which drastically reduces it’s uptake by already overworked teachers).

Another key point that Erin raised was how the team at Project NML is increasingly realising that it’s not useful to separate formal education and informal learning. While there are differences between these contexts, the educational dillemas in each are the same, and the learnings in each are easily transferred to the other context.

Finally, Erin demo’d the forthcoming Learning Library, an online play space for learners to practically develop new media literacies.

Hopefully we’ll continue to explore NMLs and work together to see how they play out in the developing world. As I’ve said before, participatory culture is alive and well in the developing world, it just looks different.

Beyond the computer lab: Rethinking ICT for education

Today I gave a presentation at the 3rd Annual Education Conference in Southern Africa called …

For the fortunate learners in South Africa who have access to a computer lab at school, they often only spend 30 minutes per week at these PCs. At the same time, up to 90% of youth have access to a cellphone. The argument of my presentation is that we — educators, researchers, policy makers and parents — need to engage with the full gamut of ICTs and digital media in the lives of young people when we think of their teaching and learning. It is the only plausible response.

Cellphones and (digital) gaming present opportunities — and risks — for learning. It is time to seriously consider the digital lives of young people — to exploit the concomitant opportunities and minimise the risks — so that the growing gap between their in-school and out-of-school experiences is narrowed.

Even in the computer lab, much more needs to be done to fully utilise the affordances of ICTs. Researchers from the University of Cape Town, Mastin Prinsloo and Marion Walton, present a bleak case study of how early literacy is taught at one primary school in Cape Town. They describe their observation of learners and teachers in the school’s computer lab in Situated responses to the digital literacies of electronic communication in marginal school settings (2008):

The teachers enthusiastically supported the use of this [pre-reading] software because it was consistent with their own ideas about how reading as a basic skill should be introduced: as a drill and practice activity.

Children encounter literacy in the context of the authority relations and pedagogical practices that characterize schooling in this setting.

The way they were expected to behave in school contrasts sharply with the potential of ICTs for children’s experimentation, self-instruction and individual choices and creativity

We really need to change this. If that is all we’re going to use powerful PCs for, then we might as well not bother.

Five amazing mobile projects

At the Web4Dev conference in New York I met with the founders, inventors and creators of some pretty amazing mobile-for-development projects. Below are my top five, with some thoughts on how they could be used for education.

Ushahidi: Crowdsourcing Crisis Information Ushahidi
Ushahidi — which means “testimony” in Swahili — is a free, open-source platform to crowdsource crisis information. It allows anyone to submit information through SMS, email or web form, with each submission pinned to a map. The aggregate effect is a compelling visualisation of an event as it unfolds, told by citizen journalists. It has been used to report on the botched elections in Kenya, the DRC and the war in Gaza.

I told Erik Hersman, the White African behind Ushahidi, that it should be used for an alternate reality game with teenagers in Cape Town.

GeoChat supports relief workers after a major humanitarian crisis, when reliable team-based communication is critical but notoriously difficult to achieve. This open-source group communications technology lets team members interact to maintain shared geospatial awareness of who is doing what where — over any device, on any platform, over any network. According to Robert Kirkpatrick, of InSTEDD, it works like this:

  • You register with GeoChat either online, by email, or by SMS.
  • Create a new GeoChat group and invite your team members.
  • Send messages to one another, or share them with the entire group.
  • If you’re mobile using your cell phone, prefix a text message with your location — say your current address, or a latitude and longitude from a GPS – and GeoChat will place your icon on the map for online users to see.

Even those not on the ground, e.g. the support team back at UN headquarters, can visualize the remote team on the surface of a map and interact with them. GeoChat is nearing public Beta release.

GeoChat beta test
GeoChat beta test

For educational purposes, this tool could be used by learners when mapping their community. Or for co-ordinating on-the-ground players, and distance players, during that alternate reality game!

Text to Change
In a pilot project in Uganda, Text to Change — an mhealth non-profit organisation — used an SMS-based quiz to raise awareness around HIV/AIDS. The quiz, which reached 15,000 subscribers, had two goals: i) to collect information, and ii) to promote voluntary counseling and testing (VCT). As an incentive to answer questions, free airtime was offered.

Text to Change The quiz allowed TTC to assess the rate of correct answers within certain socio-economic sectors; this information was passed to UNICEF to inform their interventions. The quiz also resulted in a 40% increase in the number of people who sought VCT. All in all, a very successful project!

Hajo van Beijma and I spoke about how TTC could be used in South Africa (SA) for education. Some ideas:

  • Literacy development: Send out short stories via SMS, e.g. each chapter of the story is five SMSs. Then ask readers: questions about the chapter (to test comprehension) via simple multiple choice or free-form responses, or ask readers to summarise the chapter and SMS it back, or ask readers to write their responses to the chapter, e.g. what do you think should happen next?
  • Learner needs assessment: send out quizzes about what subjects/concepts learners are struggling with, e.g. fractions in Mathematics. Provide this data to the Department of Education.

RapidSMS is an SMS-based open-source monitoring and data collection platform developed by UNICEF’s Innovations and Development team. An SMS submitting quantitative data consists of a keyword followed by parameters, e.g. “User5889 2” could be HIV-patient number 5889 reporting that she’s just taken her second dose of anti-retroviral medicine for the day. Qualitative data can also be submitted — ideal for when polling communities. The RapidSMS interface allows for editing and visualisation of the received data, as well as exporting it for spreadsheets.

As the UNICEF  team, Evan Wheeler, Christopher Fabian and Erica Kochi said in their report on Innovation for Africa, “rather than hiring consultants for monthly visits to hundreds of schools to survey teacher attendance, why not visit once and teach children to send UNICEF a SMS on days their teacher is not present?”

Literacy Bridge

Talking book by Literacy Bridge
Talking book by Literacy Bridge

Literacy Bridge is a non-profit organisation with the goal of making knowledge accessible to people living in poverty. The bet of Cliff Schmidt — it’s founder — is on audio, and so he created the talking book: a low cost, ruggedised audio player/recorder. The device has awesome features, such as simple device-to-device copying (no PC or network needed), audio hyperlinking (e.g. to a glossary of terms used in the audio piece), and slow play for reading practice.

In Africa, many people have low-access or no-access to ICT. The talking book is perfect for empowering this audience.

The conference made it clear that crowd-sourcing, user participation, SMS and geospatial visualisation (mapping) of information are all red hot right now.

Access to participation: what does it mean for learning?

Last week I gave a presentation at the Web4Dev conference in New York about Access to Participation. The point I wanted to make is that while access to information is essential for development (this was the theme of the session I was presenting in), what we should really be aiming for is enabling access to participation. In other words, we need to exploit the emerging participatory culture in society that wants to create and share information, and not only consume it.

At the Web4Dev conference in New York
At the Web4Dev conference in New York

There is a wealth of information at the “bottom of the [media] pyramid” — the audience that traditionally receives information, but doesn’t get to also share local information laterally or upwards, using media. While community newspapers and radio have enabled a degree of lateral and vertical movement of local information for some years, the increasing prevalence of social media that enables a culture of participation is changing the dynamics of information flow and the power of local voice.

My presentation is online at Slideshare and the video of me giving it is on YouTube (the video is in 3 parts — I start speaking at 1 min 40 sec of part 1). View it to learn more about participatory culture and how it looks in the developing world, under the themes of contribution, involvement, connectedness and conversation, all largely enabled by cellphones.

My work at the Shuttleworth Foundation is about understanding and leveraging the effects of technology and cultural changes for teaching and learning in the 21st century. Outcomes-based education (OBE) is predicated on a constructivist learning approach, where learners make meaning through exploration and creation (project-based learning is common). There is thus an obvious opportunity to link the activities of a participatory culture with a participatory learning curriculum.

Educators and parents are no longer the gatekeepers of information. It
is important for youth to develop the skills — such as the twelve
competencies set out by Project New Media Literacies at MIT — that are
necessary to play, work and live in an information-rich and connected
world. These are the skills necessary to fully participate in society in the 21st century.

Much of what is written about participatory culture in America is very much based on rich multimedia creations: blogs, videos, wikis and photo-audio-video sharing activities. In my presentation I showed that participation in the developing world looks different (but that the desire and benefits to participation are the same).

The dialogue that I would like to begin concerns participatory teaching and learning in South Africa. These are some of the questions that we need to consider:

  • What does participatory culture amongst youth, e.g. the MXit phenomenon, mean for teaching?
  • How can educators effectively leverage the activities happening in popular culture contexts to improve teaching? (Notice that I don’t ask Can educators … but rather How can educators …. This is because I firmly believe that it can happen; it simply requires time and effort to explore this space to find the answers. In fact, I believe that exploring this space is crucial to narrowing the disconnect between learners’ lives in and out of school; a disconnect that is making education increasingly seem irrelevant to youth.)
  • What changes are needed in teaching practices, and in the mindset of teachers, to make teaching more participatory? From changing the layout of the classroom to relinquishing the expert-novice perspective, changes are necessary.
  • How can social media, such as MXit, be used to give learners a voice? How can that voice, and the literacies developed in the exercising of that voice (visual, information, transmedia, etc.) be evaluated?
  • How can digital media learner creations and activities be tied to the curriculum? In what way does the curriculum need to be changed to recognise the new media literacies?
  • What information is in the hands of learners that, if allowed to surface in a participatory way, is useful to educators and other learners? How can this information be gathered, shared, aggregated or filtered? For example, performing a discourse analysis on aggregated MXit chats in the week leading up to exams may provide clues to the issues that learners are grappling with. We may realise that fractions are something that learners just don’t get, and as a result revise those before the maths exam.
  • Peer-to-peer learning holds much potential to compliment and support an already strained education system. How can participatory culture support peer-learning, using social media?

These are big questions, and by no means the only ones in this dialogue. The sooner we begin to engage with them the better. Through popular culture, participatory culture is happening whether School likes it or not. We urgently need to begin the dialogue around how to best deal with it in a way that supports the goals of Education.

Some blog coverage of my presentation, and the other two presentations in the afternoon’s session track, is at:


Everything bad is good for you?

Next up at the Handheld Learning 2008 conference: Steven Johnson, cultural critic and author of Everything Bad is Good for You.

He spoke about three types of increasing complexity in popular culture experiences: content, participation and interface.

Of interest to me was what he said about LOST. The TV series LOST is very complicated: lots of characters, inter-related narratives, cryptic clues, etc. He argues that it’s one of the most complex series of all time. The TV creators of today are able to take this non-interactive medium and conceive it as an interactive one, because they can rely on collaboration between participatory viewers who discuss the show on the web.

People also say that the attention span of the youth is reducing in today’s popular culture world. Not so, says Johnson, as he compares the time it takes to read a book, play a game, watch a TV show and follow a blogger. The book, which apparently young people don’t read anymore because they only respond to quick interactions, actually demands the least amount of time when compared with other popular activities of youth. Interesting.