Sunday, March 18, 2012

Participatory Literacy and Implications for Education

In searching for three types of text related to participatory literacy and collective action, I have found a combined theme related to the role of our education system in developing students who will be effective users of new media.

In the video interview, Mimi Ito on Participation Literacy, Part One of Three, new media expert Howard Rheingold interviews Mizuko (Mimi) Ito about the social media habits of teens and young adults. Ito is the co-author of one of the largest studies of online youth media habits and in the video, she shares insight into what parents and educators should know about youth online habits and what they should be teaching young people.

Ito effectively separates the learning that occurs for young people in social and recreational settings from the learning that occurs in schools. For teens and young adults, who are exploring both their self-identity in terms of social relations and specialized interests, the Internet has significant value in their lives. As Ito says, “Often digital media plays into both of those things, both their social lives when their peer culture becomes very central to their social lives and the development of their interests and specializations” (Rheingold & Ito, 2010).  She says the baseline literacies around things like information seeking, posting, linking, forwarding and modifying simple websites have increased dramatically over the past 10 years, but also suggests that the skills are not evenly distributed amongst kids. Because the learning is happening outside of a formal setting, most kids do not necessarily pick up more critical literacies or advanced technical and media production skills. She clearly identifies three stages of participation moving from casual use of technology to ‘messing around’ (which includes tweaking or modifying content as well as starting to create things) to ‘geeking out’ (which includes coding programs, modifying games or creating videos for youtube).  Different kids are gaining different new media literacies because the engagement is occurring outside of the formal school setting.

One of the challenges for parents and educators according to Ito is to build more links between the social informal learning that occurs outside of school and the learning that they are getting inside of school. She suggests astutely that schools should focus on a certain set of baseline literacies and then move into more critical literacies that allow them to reflect on the more social and everyday practices they are engaged in.

But what are those literacies? What should schools focus on in ensuring that students are well prepared to be active meaningful participants in the online communities they engage in around social groupings and special interests? These required skills for Web 2.0 engagement might accurately be described as participatory literacies and a text by Axel Bruns can begin to identify the roles that are being demanded by social web participants.

Axel Bruns is a noted scholar in the field of social media and has published a seminal book entitled Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life and Beyond: from Production to Produsage that examines how online communities collaborate using social media tools for content development. The article, Produsage: A Working Definition, is featured on the website which was developed by Bruns to support the book and explore the key concept of produsage further.

The term produsage, coined by Bruns, is a hybrid of the words production and usage. According to him the industrial model of producers and consumers of content does not apply in the collaborative communities enabled by “networked, participatory environment(s)” (Bruns, 2007, para 1). The outcomes of the produsage process are no longer products, as defined by the industrial model, but rather are artefacts of collaboration, which “are inherently incomplete, always evolving, modular, networked, and never finished” (para 3).

This compelling argument helps us not only understand the people who are involved in participatory online communities but also the nature of the content that exists there when other users discover it. The tools for communication are not broadcast in nature with senders and receivers, but are peer-to-peer (one-to-one, one-to-many, or many-to-many) and thus participants are allowed and required to fluctuate between the roles of senders/producers and receivers/users. Ito also discusses this fluctuating role for new media users when she talks about reciprocity. She says, “one of the things that’s different from the school environment is that there is an ethic of reciprocity where you are both creator of media - of knowledge - as well as somebody who is commenting and assessing other people’s work” (Rheingold & Ito, 2010). A collective group of produsers would likely qualify as what Rheingold calls a smart mob. In mobs, there are no clear set of leaders or followers as the content being advanced is likely to direct the actions of the group – in a traditional mob it may be the volume or persuasiveness of the content that carries the day, whereas in a smart mob the focus is more appropriately on the quality of the content and leaders will pass on control as they shift from a producer back to a user.

Bruns also points out that the result of collaboration might not just be the creation of artefacts but would also include the construct of rules, processes and spaces for the collaboration itself. This is what he calls the information commons. “The object of the communal effort is almost always as much the development of social structures to support and sustain the shared project as it is the development of that project itself” (Bruns, 2007, para 4).

So, if the world of the social web is asking participant to be produsers and to participate in building the information commons, what sorts of participatory literacies should be emphasized? Bruns would likely include literacies that enable both the production elements required as well as the user elements. On the production side, elements of creativity, reasoning and collaboration would be critical, whereas on the usage side literacies related to attention, critical thinking and analysis would be favourable. These literacies with some overlap mesh nicely with ones outlined elsewhere by Howard Rheingold: attention, participation, credibility, collaboration and network awareness (Rheingold, 2010).

The use and teaching of participatory literacies in the classroom is the subject of Marlene Asselin and Maryam Moayeri’s paper, The Participatory Classroom: Web 2.0 in the Classroom (2011). In it, they describe how the new web has emphasized a new set of critical literacies. They demonstrate that tools being used in schools today “are still being used in a 1.0 or consumerist manner” (p. 2). They argue for supporting participatory literacies in the classroom, outline what literacies are important and suggest how they should be implemented in the classroom.

The work of Asselin and Moayeri complement Bruns and reinforce Rheingold. While not referring directly to the work of Bruns, they discuss the need for literacies that support both “consumer activities” and “content production activities” (p. 2) thus acknowledging the role of an engaged participant in the social web is both of producer and consumer/user. They write, “expanding literacies for learning include criticality, metacognition, reflection, and skills for creating and publishing content” (p. 2). The new literacies are expanded on in the paper, through being grouped into the following themes: locating and organizing information, critical literacy of the internet, and building knowledge (sharing and presenting). All of this, Asselin and Maoyeri suggest, is moving us towards a literacy of empowerment. “The crucial role of schools in the world of the evolving web is not only to use it to engage students and support their learning, but to guide students in ethical and socially responsible use of the increasingly complex and global worlds of the web” (p. 6).

Asselin and Maoyeri, like Ito, do a good job of demonstrating that traditional literacies are not serving students well into the 21st century and that significant shifts in curriculum are needed to ensure that students have the skills they need to appropriately use web 2.0 technologies. They add some good suggestions to the list of important participatory literacies, even if their list might not be completely comprehensive. They have picked up well on the importance of locating and sorting information, which Rhiengold seems to have missed, but they left out things he suggested like attention and network awareness. Of course, their addition of literacies related to metacognition and reflection demonstrate thoughtfulness about  skills seemingly far removed from the actual tools, but which are incredibly important for thinking critically, analyzing sources of information and establishing one’s own credibility.

Taken together, these three works seem to suggest that the role of education and schooling in today’s digital age is not just to provide students with a set of facts or key pieces of knowledge, but rather to present students with the skills they will need to become full and active participants in the social web. Teaching appropriate participatory literacies will ensure that students become critical and effective users of new media as well as thoughtful and creative producers of informed content. Ito lays out a case for change in the current education system, Bruns outlines the fundamental role transformation that is required and Asselin and Maoyeri outline how educators can effectively implement participatory literacy in classrooms.


Asselin, M. & Moayeri, M. (2011). The Participatory Classroom: Web 2.0 in the Classroom. Practical Strategies – Literacy Learning: the Middle Years: 19(2).

Bruns, A. (2007). Produsage: A Working Definition [Online]. Available: [2012, Mar 17].

Rheingold, H. & Ito, M. (2010). Video Interview: Mimi Ito on Participation Literacy, Part One of Three [Video file]. Retrieved from:

Rheingold, H. (2010). Adora Svitak: A 12 Year Old on Digital Literacy [Video

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