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Innovation & Design

The MacArthur Foundation's Digital Drive

The nonprofit institution has launched a five-year initiative to study online culture and media literacy, and its impact on modern youth

The world is in the middle of a seismic societal shift. Young people actively produce much more content—digital and otherwise—than previous generations, who were more passive in their consumption of commercially-generated media. One in 100 adults online create a blog or personal Web page or share artwork, photos, stories, or videos. Yet more than half of online teens regularly create such content, according to recent research from the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

For this reason, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation recently launched a $50 million, five-year initiative to investigate how and why young people—who have been bathed in bits and bytes since birth—use the Web, computer games, cell phones, and other gadgets to learn, play, and communicate.

"It's clear that for many, the richest environment for learning is no longer inside the classroom but…online and after school," said MacArthur Foundation President Jonathan Fanton at the launch of the Digital Media & Learning Initiative at the end of October (the press conference was, appropriately, also streamed in real time in the Second Life virtual world). "That's our opening hypothesis. We believe there's a new interdisciplinary cross-sector in the making, and MacArthur wants to build and support this field of digital media and learning."

Knowledge Hub

To nourish this nascent field, the MacArthur Foundation will give $10 million in grants to individuals and organizations to work on projects that stimulate research in digital media or explore new approaches to educational innovation.

The remaining $40 million will be put towards fulfilling the broader aim of connecting researchers, educators, youth, and practitioners in different disciplines (and across sectors). A digital knowledge hub is already in the works, so that teachers from around the world can compare, contrast, and share research, tools, and findings through open-source software and online forums.

Founded in 1978, The MacArthur Foundation is a private, independent, grant-making institution. It's probably best known for its "genius grants," five year unrestricted fellowships with $500,000 stipends awarded to those who "show exceptional merit and promise of continued creative work." With assets of $5 billion, the organization makes grants of some $200 million annually.

The foundation typically dips its toe in uncharted waters gently, testing projects by giving short-term grants to develop preliminary research and prototypes. Based on the results of this seed innovation, they then allocate longer, more substantial grants. In 2005, they made several short-term (eight month to a year) grants that laid the groundwork for this new initiative, and some of those projects are among the first recipients of the Digital Media & Learning grants. Most of them will be three years in length. Here are some of them:

The participation gap. In 2005, Henry Jenkins, the director of the Comparative Media Studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, received $500,000 for research that was published to coincide with the launch of the new initiative. His paper, Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century, examines what Jenkins calls the "participation gap."

While educators used to worry about the "digital divide"—whether all students had equal access to computers and technology—they should now consider the "participation gap", or whether students who can only use computers in the school library have enough time to develop the same media literacy and skills as peers who spend hours designing, communicating, editing, networking, and learning on their home computers.

Based on the results of his research, Jenkins' Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT will receive a further $1,800,000 to develop a media-literacy curriculum in conjunction with the Center for Urban School Improvement in Chicago. Curriculum products will include a library of day-in-the-life videos of people who have excelled in digital media and a Remixing Melville project, in collaboration with the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Students will use video, sound, and other multimedia tools and techniques to re-imagine Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick in the context of their own lives—an innovative way to introduce classic literature.

Kid-driven lessons.Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Southern California spent time with thousands of children in a large-scale ethnographic project. Both schools were given awards to expand upon their research: over $2 million to the School of Information Management & Systems at UC Berkeley and $1,346,000 to the Annenberg Center for Communication at USC.

Led by Mizuko Ito, a cultural anthropologist of technology use, along with information professor Peter Lyman, researchers observe children's interactions with digital media to get a sense of how they're really using the technology. The findings of this program will be shared with all the other MacArthur recipients to inform their research and to spawn innovative educational curricula and projects.

Global Kids, a non-profit youth organization, received $170,000 in 2005 to organize an essay competition and develop several online discussion forums where kids explained how they use digital media. They also developed an island within the teen spin-off of the immersive world Second Life. Created by Linden Lab, the same company that created the adult version, the Teen Second Life is inhabited by approximately 45,000 young people between the ages of 13 and 17.

Teens build educational areas and experiences to teach one another about world issues such as child sex-trafficking or the genocide in Darfur. Global Kids has received just over a million dollars to continue with this work.

Games and learning.The Academic Advanced Distributed Learning Co-Laboratory at The University of Wisconsin-Madison received $3 million to develop a media-literacy curriculum involving computer games. Using a software application, students can design games, learn aesthetic and systems design, and figure out how to problem solve with their peers. Several other grants were made to research the power of games as educational tools. Commercial outfits such as Gamelab, a game-development company based in New York, are also collaborating.

Evaluating the results. Digital-media education is such a new and rapidly changing field that one grant ($450,000) went to Blueprint Research & Design, a strategy consultancy, to develop the metrics to evaluate the Foundation's success in developing this new field. Given the many disciplines and sectors they hope to involve, finding a common language is one of the first aims. And to keep tabs on the unfolding projects, MacArthur has created a site to host ongoing discussion.

"Ultimately, we want to understand the benefits of digital media, and accelerate research and development in this area. But we also want to be cautious, and look at potential harms," says Connie Yowell, director of education at the MacArthur Foundation. "At this stage, we need to keep asking questions to know where to go next. For instance: Are kids daydreaming in the same way? Are they physically active in the same way? How are their identities shaped by this digital media?" This forward-thinking initiative hopes to find some answers.

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