Are we underestimating the ability of today’s students to juggle narratives, curriculum and experiences? | Julie King | 5 Min Read

The most frequent concerns I hear about students’ technology use at school focus on their lack of, well, focus. Technology administrators choose from any number of online platforms with which they can manage students’ online activity; a process that often becomes a digital game of whack-a-mole between IT staff and students. This approach seems sensible to any educator competing with slither.io or iMessage for their class’s attention, but opportunities abound for educators who are willing to see and connect with their students’ digital lives.

Connected Communities

Connected Communities (those in which students engage online) have become digital lunch tables, playgrounds, cul de sacs, courts, and yards, and the ways in which students engage in these spaces allow them to create rich forms of digital identities. Though these spaces — and the literacies associated with them — are often considered distractions from the curriculum, they can offer valuable insights and avenues of engagement for learning.

Connected Communities can draw members through personal connections or serve as affinity spaces; formed around characters, interests, or ideas. Adults may assume that students’ use of digital media is purely passive but that is not always the case. Communities on YouTube are often formed around content creators — characters whose messages and images can be carefully curated. Content creates a narrative that is informed by the contributions of community members, crafting a narrative dance of sorts as character and audience co-create their communities.

Forums like those found on Reddit are places students can explore to discover answers to their questions or engage in conversation about topics of interest. Up- and down-voting of posts by readers gives members a sense of agency in crafting the narrative of the subreddit, with up-voted posts reflecting the ideas, sentiments, or narratives that resonate most within the group. Games and gaming platforms can serve as Connected Communities in multiple ways: in-game chats create a narrative of game-play; students connect in the game’s lobby to share their thoughts, and players create affinity spaces connected to the game on other platforms such as discord. 

Narratives in Digital Spaces

A recent Wall Street Journal article (paywall) shed light on one aspect of narrative creation, literally seen in the pandemic success of digital literacy platform Epic. As students read books, Epic’s algorithms determine the ideas, characters, and plot lines that will attract more engagement. Getting students to read for pleasure is always a win but I wonder how this is seen among educators. Young readers informing the narratives they will be offered simply by reading digital books stands in stark contrast to the curated collections of literature found in their school libraries.

Students are often aware of the presence of algorithms and corporate influence in their digital spaces and are willing to wield their agency against an offered narrative; effectively being empowered to change narratives themselves. In my recent research1 middle school students shared the story of popular video game character Sonic the Hedgehog’s depiction in a movie, and how users’ online critiques prompted a redesign3. Students readily see and seize opportunities for empowerment as co-creators in digital spaces in ways that are rarely present in the classroom. 

In addition to co-creating narratives within digital communities, students craft their own narratives woven of images, texts, and movies, narration, captions, and comments. Their curated feeds become their personal narratives, complete with thoughtful understandings of audience, tone, and timing, elevating the importance of events in their lives by the permanence of their posts. 

Changing Lanes: Multi-Modal Navigation

A few years ago, an eighth-grade student stopped by my office to chat, opening the conversation with “You know how you just get online and browse for something interesting?” “No,” I replied, “No, I don’t.” We laughed and continued talking about his discovery online but that exchange has stayed with me. For our students, media use isn’t necessarily on or off, one channel at a time, or separate from their offline lives. The lanes of communication, connection, and learning weave offline and on, from text to video to post to the game and back again and often with no specific objective in mind.

In 2019, Common Sense Media reported that about “half (47%) of all teens say they ‘often’ listen to music while doing their homework, about one in four (24%) say they ‘often’ text, and about one in five say they ‘often’ use social media (19%) or have the TV on (19%) while they’re doing homework… The proportion of teens that multitask with media during homework has remained virtually unchanged since 2015.” The pandemic of 2020 only increased expectations for learning mediated by screens, and students learning remotely often did so while perusing new artists’ stations on Spotify, texting with friends, or catching up on their personal news feeds. Assuming that students can only learn while solely focused on the curriculum placed before them overlooks opportunities for students to make connections across digital outlets of information or to bring their own research and discoveries to the learning process. 

Weaving Offline and Online Lives for Learning

The ideological wall that exists between students’ technology use for leisure and for learning creates an artificial division, pitting activities and experiences in opposition that could, in fact, powerfully inform each other. How can educators explore ways to connect curriculum and the learning process with their students’ digital lives and experiences? What if we considered entering the world of a story in the way students enter digital communities — by asking questions about the way characters engage with each other, the context, and the currency of communication in the story’s literary space? What if learning about geography mapped contributions in a Reddit forum from users around the world and considered whose voices might not be heard and why? What if we valued students’ knowledge about joining digital communities, understanding the norms, and making positive contributions and connected that knowledge with the culture of the classroom?

Emily Style, co-founder of the National SEED Project, articulates the importance of learners’ identities: “…no student acquires knowledge in the abstract; learning is always personal. Furthermore, learning never takes place in a vacuum; it is always contextual.” As educators, might we reconsider students’ digital lives as an asset to learning, designing curriculum beginning with understanding our learners by bringing a digital lens to seeing their identities, communities, and lives?

Notes and Reading:

1. King, Julie O, “Adolescent Literacy Practices and Reflections of Identity in Digital Communities” (2020). Dissertation available from ProQuest. AAI27831840. https://repository.upenn.edu/dissertations/AAI27831840

Julie King

Julie King is the Director of Educational Technology at The Buckley School in New York City. She earned an Ed.D. in Educational Leadership through the University of Pennsylvania’s Mid-Career program, co-founded a Students-as-Makers Conference, and has served in literacy and technology leadership roles in independent schools for the past 15 years. Julie’s areas of focus include designing learning experiences that weave technology, literacy, and citizenship and encouraging students to be digital creators and storytellers.

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