At the end of last semester, Ryan, Megan, and I sat around and talked about how it would be useful to write a nice semester recap, a chance to reflect on what we’ve been up to. I usually do this as a sort of “progress report” for my advisors, but Ryan said that he was thinking about blogging his, and I found what he wrote really interesting; even though I thought I knew everything he did this semester, it’s a lot different to read someone’s reflections than just hear what they have to say everyday about what has been going on. So, I thought I’d follow suit and write my own Fall 2006 recap.

When classes started again, it didn’t feel like I was at a beginning. I was in the middle of writing human subjects proposals for various Digital Youth projects and preparing for my first conference presentation at the DREAM Conference of Digital Media and Informal Learning. The conference was held at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense, the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen. It was attended mainly by Europeans, the majority of whom were from Scandanvia. It was a great experience for me, because I was so unfamiliar with most of their work. I also met many interesting doctoral students, some with work that surprisingly similar to mine, such as Oystein Gilje’s, and others that were quite different. I really enjoyed the presentation of this paper on game design and toy theater by Jacqueline Reid-Walsh.

My presentation on my “Copy and Paste Literacy” paper went well, in that I got some good feedback from people with a lot more experience than I do. Some people really liked the ideas presented, some people didn’t get it, and I think some people thought that I was kind of out of my element. I’m trying out Slideshare and thought I’d include my presentation (warning: without notes, I’m not sure how useful it is…):

(As an aside, the “Copy and Paste Show” on Rhizome decided to include my paper on the reading list. The rest of the show is a bit more interesting, though. Check it out…)

Usually people say that the best part of a conference are the conversations that happen in the halls and the connections you can make between your work and others. That was a great part of my time in Denmark, but I have to say that my favorite moments were hearing some of the keynote talks, especially the keynote roundtable where James Gee, Julian Sefton-Green, Sonia Livingstone, and Glynda Hull spoke very candidly about their views on topics. One of which took aim at the title of the conference.

Already, I had begun to pick up a lot of chatter of people questioning the continuing usefulness of the distinctions between “formal learning,” “informal learning,” and “non-formal learning.” Julian Sefton-Green (author of the 2004 Futuralab report on the topic of informal learning outside of school claimed on his blog before the conference that he would be arguing that the term “informal learning has become a way of describing the value of digital technologies but that the term has no real meaning—there is only learning” (http://www.julianseftongreen.net/?p=12).

This issue was the first on the table at the Keynote speakers’ roundtable. When asked to comment on the usefulness of the distinction, Hull argued that that we should just toss out the distinction. I think she said something to the effect that looking at contexts for learning doesn’t include or exclude either informal or formal. Sefton-Green followed up by saying that the term came out of a perceived historical necessity: people had been focusing so much on learning in classrooms that they had been completely ignoring learning everywhere else. But now, what difference does it really make? Now, there is only learning or not learning. Livingstone argued that we should be looking at what kinds of institutions organize learning. Finally, Gee weighed in by acknowledging that while the concept of “informal learning” may have had some value, we also can’t ignore some of the problems it has caused, primarily that for a while people had ignored all of the teaching that goes on between people in “informal learning.” He argued that “teaching is always going on.” The literature on informal learning, he claims, has largely ignored the parents’ “curriculum.” Livingstone later said that an important question may be to look for what is continuous across a range of contexts.

I had already been a bit concerned about the notion of “informal learning” going into the conference, but this conversation and others at the conference made me really concerned. It’s a term that seems to resonate in many circles, and was a part of the thinking behind the Digital Youth project. So, I don’t know if it’s worth trying to change people’s minds about it. But how should I use it, if at all, in my own work? In response to one of Gee’s point above, we probably have a valuable contribution to make in thinking about the teaching between peers, “technementors” (see Freshquest by Megan Finn et al.), parents, and siblings. Many of our projects are trying to address this issue and have been from the start.

The week after returning from Denmark seemed like the real beginning to my semester as I scrambled to catch up on classes and start new stages of my research. The smartest decision I made was to add Paul Duguid’s and Geoff Nunberg’s class on the “Quality of Information” to my schedule, despite having to play major catch up. There are very few people that I have met who can deliver 2-3 hour lectures that are incredibly interesting and entertaining, yet each of them did an amazing job. I ended up writing a paper on the search for quality information about the video game Bully, which launched last October but was on some people’s radar for much of the year and half between the actual release date and the original game announcement way back in May of 2005. The original focus of the paper was on how members of a Bully fan site negotiated and made sense of the variety of rumors and misinformation, but I slowly turned to pouring through the version history of the Wikipedia article on Bully and noting how the article evolved with respect to a few pieces of information, including the release date, the rating, and the game’s presmise. I didn’t reach any grand conclusions, but I did get the sense that on Wikipedia the model is that information is assumed to be quality until someone makes an edit. Lack of discussion, verification, or change over time implies quality. However, on the fansite, lack of verification, comment, or discussion usually seemed to indicate a lack of quality. The notion of “quality” comes only from interaction, discussion, and active verification. I can’t generalize to other Wikipedia articles, but my research left me a bit more confused and ambivalent about the site (despite the fact that I still use it). I think that someone needs to do a detailed study on the site by looking at how people actually read and use Wikipedia articles in their everyday practices, not by studying what is in the articles themselves.

Another class I took last semester was my second on the topic of literacy. Taught by Laura Sterponi, this is one of the core classes taught in the School of Education for their doctoral program in Language, Literacy, and Culture and consists of a heavy dose of theory and writing on a range of literacy related topics. The class had many small writing assignments and no major project to complete the semester, but I wrote a paper for my third class on Computer-Mediated Communication, that tried to show the relevance of the study of literacy to thinking about CMC. The basic point of the paper was to argue that scholars who have been researching literacy have been studying “mediated communication” in the form of writing (and more recently other media). In my CMC class Coye Cheshire and Andrew Fiore repeatedly made the point that it’s important when thinking about CMC to think about the “mediated communication” part of the acronym and to not get too distracted by the “computer” part. Therefore, the relationship between literacy and CMC seemed clear to me, but required a lot of thinking and writing.

All of this has helped me think about my ongoing work on literacy practices on MySpace, though I don’t have any grand statements to make here. I spent roughly ten hours a week last semester doing participant observation at a youth and technology center where I had a chance to watch how some teenagers use MySpace in their “natural” environment for using it. My thought is that one way, by no means not the only way, to understand online social networking is not by just studying online interactions, but by talking to people and observing them and their tools as the use them. This isn’t that novel a proposition, but it is challenging to make it all work. The jury’s still out for me on where this research is taking me.

One place where I hope it’s taking me is the development of a good dissertation topic. I feel myself playing the role of a stereotypical PhD student in this regard…where everything is fairly interesting, but nothing seems captivating enough to want to spend years on, only to one day suddenly realize that there is life after dissertation, so I might as well just pick something…anything. My plan is to find that something soon. This semester will be difficult, but fun, I think.

However, I am refreshed after a great winter break. I’m glad I took some time off over break to learn to ski (it’s taken me way too long to get off the little bunny hills. Now I have to get off the slightly bigger bunny hills.). I also had a first trip to Hearst Castle and a first time attending an Indian Wedding. Each of those firsts have its own stories for my friends and family.

Well, maybe something for this site as well. The most fascinating part of my Hearst Castle trip was learning more about the working relationship between Hearst and architect Julia Morgan. While I recognized her name from various Berkeley sites, I didn’t know much about her. The tour guide talked mostly about Hearst, while the exhibits and other materials talked a great deal about Morgan as well. However, what I saw is how much Hearst Castle is a product of the their collaboration. The creativity and “genius” was not so much in the vision of Hearst or the execution of Morgan, but in the interplay of their ideas and work over the course of many years. And of course, it is likely that there are others in this story who are critical but who remain nameless. If I were to do a historical paper on collaboration and creativity, I might start with the building of this castle.