Tag Archives: aera2013

Normalized practice will always marginalize (AERA 2013)

Last week at the American Educational Research Association annual meeting, I co-facilitated / presented at a workshop on Understanding Inequalities in Digital Media and Learning. The other presenters were Betsy DiSalvo, Justin Reich, Nettrice Gaskins, and Katie Davis.

You can read good summaries by Justin and Nettrice:

And here’s the concept map that we created based on the workshop activities:


Like Justin, I don’t normally use the term “digital divide” when I talk about the landscape of inequalities to DML. Actually, I don’t even normally differentiate DML from non-DML issues. To me, it’s all about different ecologies of practice and how educators need to prepare students to be adaptable and capable of achieving in different settings. I see the broader landscape of practice / policy as filled with a bunch of different competing groups that have contentious values. These groups all vie for dominance (sometimes intentionally, sometimes obliviously). IE. One could probably say I’ve got a Gramscian view…

But part of that is because of what I presented: stuff from my World of Warcraft studies. In Leet Noobs: The Life and Death of an Expert Player Group in WoW, I talked about how the group I studied developed expertise with the game and learned new sociomaterial practices to find success in a new team activity. To become an expert means doing the things that experts do (rather than just knowing the things that experts know), and that means access to expert practice is of utmost importance. But during my studies, WoW practices were changing at a rapid pace. What was considered legitimate changed. It was very dynamic and emergent.

Here’s the handout I prepared in case you want to read this all in bullet form: NormalizedPlay (pdf) and the slides:

The thing is, the group I studied initially started this new activity together because they were all friends and wanted to continue hanging out and having fun. They didn’t actually care much about how far into the activity they got; it was mostly an excuse to hang out. As the game community’s norms about what constituted expert play changed, and as the group I studied learned new ways of improving their play efficiency, new ways to coordinate, new tools to incorporate into their network of gaming, etc., some of the players began to focus more and more on progress and efficiency as the goal of playing. IE, they became expert players (or more precisely, their expertise changed with the game’s definition of expertise), but this was in tension with the glue that held the group together. The group fractured and died in a fiery meltdown. Former friends bickered over performance and used the expert tools to surveil each other’s efficiency.

What’s this mean?? Any profession or learning community will develop new ways of doing things better. Better = more efficient. This narrows legitimate practice. But that’s a good thing, right? We don’t want a medical doctor or engineer who “does things differently.” Yet, at the same time, the group I studied were friends! They liked hanging out with each other. Were they playing the game wrong? Part of the problem is that Blizzard, the makers of the game, seemed to embrace this new push into number crunching and efficient play. They started ranking groups by their progress and later on even introduced an achievement system to reward certain actions. My former group would have never gotten an achievement for “hanging out.”

And so I added a post-it to the workshop’s activity that read, “How do we design interventions that do not delegitimize existing cultures?” Make everyone read Freire, I guess… /shrug

I guess all this is to say that there’s a lot more at stake than the simple construct of the “digital divide.” Progress always leaves someone behind. Forming and reforming new ways of doing things will always marginalize someone. How as educators do we minimize this as much as possible, and when do we sit back and realize that the costs may not outweigh the benefits? How do we recognize when to intervene and in what ways?

Also, completely unrelated, in thinking about today’s realities of DML, I keep thinking about MOOCs and other newfangled initiatives to reach a wider audience. MOOCs are great and all but, as Justin presented during our session, they’re not really helping address inequality. They may be reaching some people who weren’t previously being reached, but the majority of MOOC students are those that already do well, have gone to college, etc. MOOCs help those who have a natural tendency to learn. Shouldn’t we focus instead on helping people develop that spark? Help them become self motivated, self directed… rather than assuming everyone is (by pushing for solutions that only serve them)?