George Lucas Educational Foundation

The Ultimate School Reform

MacArthur education grants will shift focus to digital learning.
By Richard Rapaport
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Connie Yowell

Courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

This article is part two in the series "The New Literacy: Scenes from the Digital Divide 2.0."

If we ignore this shift in educational focus, we could see the beginning of a new divide, this one between today's teachers and the students of the future.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, best known for its Genius Awards, has in recent years has taken a hard look at the educational implications of the new social media, and the organization seems to view it as a healthy response to the digital divide. In May 2008, Connie Yowell, the foundation's director of education, said as much when she spoke at the First Joan Ganz Cooney Center Symposium.

To an audience that included California congressman George Miller, chair of the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor, Yowell described a dramatic shift in emphasis in the educational-grant philosophy of the MacArthur Foundation. The focus of grants, she indicated, would shift from such areas as school reform and instructional improvement toward the new socially mediated world of digital learning.

In her speech, Yowell admitted that when colleagues suggested she look into the realm of digital learning, she did so kicking and screaming. Her transformation, when it came, was as dramatic as it was complete. After meeting with SimCity creator Will Wright, she told the audience, "I distinctly remember leaving the meeting and calling my boss to say, 'I just met John Dewey.'" Yowell now contends that "game developers and the folks who are working on some of these new technologies are the pedagogical theorists of the 21st century."

A recent MacArthur Foundation study shows that each day, 80 percent of American teenagers use a computer. Half of them are creating digital-media content, and a third of them are sharing that content on the Internet. The research found that rather than replacing television or books, digital media will increasingly be the cross-platform driver. The study gives, as an example, eight-year-old Sam, who plays Pokémon games with his friends, then writes stories, draws comics, and searches the Web for Pokémon-related content.

The study also presents a road map of the social and learning-related online communities a hypothetical 14-year-old American teenage girl might visit. These include YouTube, MySpace, Galaxy Zoo, Wikipedia, and others. The study's startling conclusion is that the classroom is no longer the primary learning site for the digitally empowered. Rather than a digital divide, Yowell suggested in her speech that educators should worry more about a social-media-participation divide.

Yowell challenged the audience to, as she says, "see the incredibly different kind of learning opportunity and fundamentally different kind of reading practice that our young kids are engaged in, which they're looking at with wikis and blogs and other things on the Internet." Yowell warned that if we ignore this shift in educational focus, we could see the beginning of a new divide, this one between today's teachers and the students of the future.

She concluded, "I want to say this over and over again. We're in a time of networked learning, when kids are communicating and collaborating with each other in ways that fundamentally shift the role of the teacher and the adult." Those who think of the Web as a place for inane game play and time wasting, she said, "will miss one of the most important opportunities for advancing our kids learning in more than a century."

Richard Rapaport is a political and architectural writer who contributes regularly to Edutopia.

This article is the second of five parts. Go to part three to continue, or part one to begin.

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