Digital Media and Learning Conference
The Digital Media and Learning Hub hosted the First Annual Digital Media and Learning conference in San Diego this weekend. The conference, themed to emphasize "diversifying participation," brought together over four hundred participants interested in the relationship between technology, teaching, and learning across a spectrum of educational environments. With over sixty panels and workshops, this event featured not only the dozens of researchers who have been working on this MacArthur-funded enterprise over the past five years, but also graduate students, technologists, educators at many different levels, activists, and performers. As I understand it, this event was meant to kick off the second phase of the broad Digital Media and Learning project, moving from the focused efforts stimulated by the foundation to a broader community/discipline engaging a broad range of interests.
As the scope of the conference was quite broad, it is a bit difficult to summarize holistically. I attended conference threads emphasizing the development of digital media as a discipline that is developing a number of sub-themes, the question of how well the current university model can incorporate the new models of communication and learning offered by digital media, and the critical study of race, gender, and sociality in emergent media contexts. This last emphasis in particular resonated with a number of discussions that took place at the Internet as Playground and Factory conference held at the New School in November 2009, although their was minimal overlap between the participants in these two conferences. As Henry Jenkins argued in his closing statements, the study of digital meaning and learning has developed to the point where the first set of urgencies (of access and recognition) are giving way to a new set of questions that critically engage the premises that have defined the burgeoning field so far. Although this certainly means a continued investigation of who has access, who produces technologies, and which entities (individual, corporate, and otherwise) have a stake in the diffusion of media in learning contexts, at some level this means interrogating the situation of the university in the broader neoliberal sphere of contemporary capitalism.
In this most productive sense, this means thinking critically about the role of education in the twenty-first century. The recent Frontline documentary Digital Nation serves as a useful foil here, as it raises questions about how students learn, in which contexts it makes sense to adjust learning environments and techniques to reflect the cultural condition in which students find themselves, and the relative merits of embracing or resisting the pedagogical value of emergent media. Whereas the tone of this documentary is quite skeptical of the value of emergent media, the best critiques coming out of the conference did not wallow in questions of "what are we doing to ourselves," but rather emphasized how we might strategically engage these changes to better generate and communication knowledge. At bookending panels on "The Promise and Problems of Digital Leaning in Higher Education" and "Digital Media and Learning as a Post-Academic Field" it became clear that even as "digital media and learning" is coalescing as a discipline, many of the discipline's insights suggest that current models of education are not well positioned to function in the era of digital media. In higher education in particular, the siloed systems of knowledge production and circulation no longer seem to make sense, as faculty, graduating students, library budgets, and an interested public are all ill-served by the current closed systems of academic publication. Aside from the question of publication, each of these panels touched on the tenuous position of graduate students and contingent faculty with regard to creative engagements with their own teaching and research, as these efforts rarely count for established forms of career advancement.
I think that the most productive intervention here is to trouble this already complex discussion by emphasizing the question of context. Rather than asking "What does DML mean to academia?" we should ask what DML means in the multiple contexts in which it operates. Do the distinctions between research universities, community colleges, and liberal arts colleges maintain in this new environment? Should they? How might these various institutions be reconfigured to account for both the imperatives of DML and the local specificity of individual education contexts? Hopefully some of these questions will be taken up in a session or two at the upcoming THATCamp being hosted at Occidental College.
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