#DML2013 Debrief: Reflections on Digital Media and Learning Conference (part 2)

DML Conference

This post is the second and last in a small series about the DML 2013 conference –  what I learned and what questions remain.

As I mentioned in my last post, the DML Conference proved that it was not your ordinary education conference – it was casual, not only in atmosphere but in spirit; it lacked the corporate smothering or pretense of academic confabs that I’ve been to in the past. Its genuineness and warmth allowed organic conversations and discourse to flow freely. During the three days of plenaries, panelists and PowerPoints, I noticed common themes throughout – relating to agency, power, engagement and worldview. Underscoring these themes are the elements of storytelling and the invitation (to connect).

Agency – it looks simple, but when you peel the layers of the onion it reveals itself as a complicated concept. Technology enables this oversimplification in the media, especially. When you click “like” on Facebook, is that revealing your agency? Is it wholly your choice? Does that “like” represent you, or only part of you? Or what about the “like” itself – does it  endorse, accept and vote for that object, organization or movement?  In traditionalist terms, agency means to “stand up and be counted”. Using your voice, your body – a physical presence. Now, the 21st century vision of agency is warped and transmogrified by the technological coatings around it. Agency, and all its layers, matters greatly, and was a major theme of the conference. In Panel I “Envisioning 21st Century Civic Engagement“, I saw the embodiment of agency first-hand. Youth groups from the Bay Area and LA’s Watts Youth Collective shared how they tackle agency in tough communities: circumventing the digital divide by blogging from a broken cell phone; using Twitter to engage in counter-storytelling; confronting hegemony through analyzing (and consequently ruining) Disney movies. Citing Gramsci, Freire and Dewey, these kids were challenging norms and systems that subvert agency in ways that society fails to recognize. This panel crystallized the ideas of empowerment theory and critical consciousness in the 21st century. It’s no simple formula, and the individual does matter. Their stories matter.

Power is represented through many forms; in education, it’s authority: society, parents, teachers, tests, police; however, in social justice movements it’s also tied to individual power structures. In Panel II, “Engineering Change“, youth from the Bay Area were transforming their own experiences through voice, storytelling and connecting. Examples like Youth SpeakYouth Radio and the Hidden Genius Project, young men and women actively challenge their own power issues at home through participation. Be it performing spoken word, presenting a business plan, or developing a mobile app, these skills represent changing structures of power in young people’s lives. They are able to transform from one area to the next using 21st century technology and media production, and create their own content worlds in the process. They are able to connect and define democracy as they see it – by inviting others. Yet power structures remain – they are not equalized despite the movements that  attempt to subvert them.

Worldview was implied in a lot of the stories and examples of youth engagement and activism. Whether in developing skills to confront society’s biggest issues or making mistakes along the way, frames are created and destroyed in the process of becoming engaged and active, both on and offline. In Panel IV “What can a concerned kid trust“, Chicago area organizations like the News Literacy Project, Columbia Links, Free Spirit Media and Radio Arte shared how youth were developing their journalistic and media skills through storytelling and activism campaigns. They learned how to use broadcast media to not only perfect their craft but also to share their stories. The panel also touched on media literacy skills and how these organizations helped guide youth in becoming more media literate.

I was disappointed that this particular topic of media literacy was centered around the “protectionist” approach, which argues for guiding youth and protecting them from misinformation or separating “fact from fiction” through a variety of toolkits and strategies. I’m not disagreeing with this approach entirely, since such guidance is needed and is important, however I wish that they had applied a more critical media lens to this framework, focusing on the systemic structures that shape how and why we receive the information we do online (especially news and media campaigns), rather than the treatment of it postfact. I was excited that the title of Panel IV was “KONY 2012, FEMA camps: What can a concerned kid trust?“, however the Kony phenomenon was only mentioned while the panel was describing its theme: “news literacy”. No further attempt (during this or other panels) was made to understand how media literacy should also include a critical lens – by focusing on hegemony, power, control, or postcolonialism, in the KONY example.

What I am trying to get at here…

We cannot separate media literacy from engagement. In order to understand how movements can change and shape worldviews, subvert authority or garner 100 million views on YouTube, we need to deconstruct who is behind these campaigns, why they are present, and what their goals are. It’s more than just being able to tell if a website is a hoax, or if a video is inaccurate, or finding truth in fiction (because really, what is truth?). It’s also about confronting privilege.

I noticed that this theme was lost even in the “global movement” panels – Getting Global with It, From Click to Clictivism. and Citizen Action in the Global South. The panelists extrapolated on the ideas of cosmopolitanism, global citizenship and social media activism with a lot of great examples, but without acknowledging the issue of privilege in global social movements (ie. Kony). While they recognized the multiplicities of many movements: the half-truths of what constitutes a “true” movement from a global perspective, or the assumption that all movements are good, they didn’t address the way that privilege and power connect what gets heard and what doesn’t. If the Watts Youth Collective can use Gramsci to counter the dominant narrative that oppresses their communities, why can’t we also examine how KONY 2012, for example, exploited the spectacle of war-torn Africa for donations? What about Charity Water or others that use celebrity to drive their cause? What image does “humanitarianism” project to people of color, if they aren’t the “objects” of it? How can we confront these issues more clearly in digital media and education conferences? I wished that the White Savior Complex had been addressed further in this conference. We got a twinge of it during the last plenary, when the Harry Potter Alliance spoke of dropping food aid on Haiti, but then it quickly died off.

I’d like to see more of these conversations happen.

Let’s put two and two together when talking about media literacy and engagement. Engagement can facilitate literacy, and literacy is more than understanding “truth” from “fiction”. Let’s move beyond the empowerment/protectionist binary and bring in critical theory to the mix. Let’s take the privilege and CRT discourse out of the current paradigm and into the world of social media. Let’s empower youth to become global citizens without assuming the gaze of postcolonial privilege, where “changing the world” starts and ends with a click of a button. That’s just not how you learn about the plight of others.

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