PALO ALTO, Calif.--Among the generation of kids growing up wired, many teens are hyper-motivated to learn a special skill like how to create a podcast, direct a YouTube video, publish an anime site, or hack an iPhone.
Now if only teachers could inspire such ingenuity.
That was one of the basic questions that had academics scratching their heads here Wednesday at Stanford University, where a group of researchers from the University of Southern California and University of California at Berkeley presented their first findings from one of the largest ethnographic studies on kids in digital environments. (An enthnographic study draws on fieldwork to provide a descriptive picture of a group. The full research will be published later this year as part of a MacArthur Foundation grant.)
Sure, kids have long been attracted to extracurricular activities like dance or sports. But researchers say digital media is bringing up a new generation who are creators of media rather than just passive consumers of it. Within these digital environments among peers, kids who create and evaluate media are deriving a sense of competence, autonomy, self-determination and connectedness, researchers say.
"Kids associate one word with school--'boring,'" said Deborah Stipek, dean and professor of education at Stanford, who was part of a panel discussion with the group of researchers. But kids' levels of engagement with the Internet and games could give educators new ideas for upping school's status.
"The question becomes what is the role of school in this larger environment," Stipek said.
Are schools disconnected from real-world tech skills? Dale Dougherty, founding editor and publisher of Make and Craft magazines, said during the panel that his team asked an audience of programmers where they learned to write code. Only 15 percent said that they learned programming at school.
The Stanford event, which was sponsored by MacArthur and Common Sense Media, raised more questions than it answered. But one of the more interesting findings in the research showed that many kids are drawn to create media online because their work can be immediately recognized or judged among their peer group or a larger audience, according to Mimi Ito, a cultural anthropologist of technology use and a principal investigator on MacArthur's project. That, she said, can be immediately gratifying.
In contrast, it can take kids much longer to reap the rewards or build recognition from hard work in school.
"It's the context of publicity now (online) vs. delayed gratification of getting a job in 10 years," Ito said. "The assessment of what they do happens internal to their community (of peers). Kids get to be the evaluator as much as the producer in interest-driven groups. School is much more of a future trajectory."
"Schools are breeding these delayed-gratification animals," said Dilan Mahendran, a doctoral candidate in the School of Information at UC Berkeley, who worked on one study.
Part of this is happening because American families have shifted from a television culture in the living room to a bedroom culture, in which many kids have television or a computer in their room. Another reason is that teens go online to hang out with friends because they don't have a place to go offline, according to Danah Boyd, a doctoral candidate at the School of Information at UC Berkeley and one of the researchers.
The researchers' initial findings are part of a long-range effort by the MacArthur Foundation, which in 2006 promised to spend $50 million on research and programs surrounding kids, technology, and learning. The goal was to figure out whether young people are changing through the use of digital media and technology, and if so, how? What are the effects of this digital immersion on kids' communication styles, friendships, families, and so on.
Some of the results are already in. Studies like those from Pew already show that as many as 83 percent of all kids play video games, and 53 percent of kids create media online. The thought that a majority of kids online would have a home page a la MySpace would have been laughable just 10 years ago, Ito said.
As part of her fieldwork, Ito got to know an 18-year-old girl named Anesha, who has produced several animated music shorts for YouTube. Her work was first seen by only a handful of her peers, but now thousands of people have watched her videos on Youtube, much to Anesha's delight. Ito said that the teen wants to go into film directing or editing.
"We're not saying there's going to be a digital generation whose eyes will be square," said Ito, who has studied kids in a range of online environments. "We're experiencing what 'public participation' (among young people) means, but it doesn't mean everyone will get a fancy job."