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notes on being the chainsaw you wish to see in the world: Closing remarks for the AERA 2010 annual meeting

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on May 6, 2010

I just got back from my first trip to the annual meeting of AERA, the American Educational Research Association. AERA is apparently the biggest educational research conference in America. I had a fantastic time (highlight: I got to have dinner with Jim Gee!) and my presentation went well (highlight: I argued with the panel’s discussant over why thinking about gender inequity isn’t enough if you’re not also thinking about class inequity!), and I don’t think I made too much of a fool out of myself.

I really enjoyed my first trip to this conference, though when I got home I learned from others that there are significant challenges to be made about the structure, format, and ethos of AERA. I am coming around to that way of thinking and will post my thoughts on this soon.
For now, though, I want to share with you the paper I had to writereallyfast when I got back from the conference. It’s a final paper for a course on computational technologies, and because I was thinking about AERA, social justice, and why the conference’s biggest events mostly featured staid, mainstream thinkers, I decided to write the paper as closing remarks for the conference. I am sure that once the AERA organizers read my closing remarks, they will invite me to deliver next year’s closing remarks in person. I am also available to deliver opening remarks and keynote addresses.

Notes on being the chainsaw you wish to see in the world: On a critical computational literacy agenda for a time of great urgency
Closing Remarks for the AERA Annual Meeting
Jenna McWilliams, Indiana University
May 4, 2010

I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak this evening, at the close of this year’s annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association.

I want to talk to you tonight about the nature of urgency.

Because urgency characterizes the work we do, doesn’t it? The education of our children—our efforts to prepare them to join in on this beautiful and necessary project of naming and claiming the world—it is certainly a matter of the deepest urgency. Even more so because of the war being waged over the bodies and minds of our children.

It’s a war whose contours are deeply familiar to many of us—more so the longer we have been a part of this struggle over education. Certainly the issues we’re fighting over have limned the edges of our educational imagination for generations: How do we know what kids know? How can we prepare them for success in their academic, vocational, and life pursuits? What should schools look like, and how can we fill our schools up with qualified teachers who can do their jobs well? No matter what else, then, at least we’re continuing to ask at least some of the right questions.

Yet a deeper than normal sense of urgency has characterized this year’s annual meeting. It was a “hark ye yet again” sort of urgency: We stood, once again, on a knife’s edge, waiting for word of legislative decisions to be passed down from the policymakers—among whom there are very few educational researchers—to the researchers—among whom there are very few policymakers.

And what sorts of decisions were we waiting to hear on? The same sorts we’ve been wringing our hands over for a decade or more: Decisions over the standardization of education. Development of a proposed set of Common Core Standards whose content seemed painfully anemic to many of us. We’re waiting to learn whether teacher pay will be linked to student performance on standardized tests. Massive budget cuts leading to termination of teachers and programs—these certainly feel familiar to us, though the scope of these cuts and the potential consequences of these decisions seem to loom larger than ever before. The decision by the Texas Department of Education to pervert and politicize its K-12 curriculum by removing references to historical events and even terminology that might offend members of the political Right-—the specifics are new, but the story feels familiar.

A call to action was paired with the clanging of the alarm bells. Ernest Morrell told us that he had counseled his kids to prepare presentations that not only described their work and achievements but that also included a call to action. “I told them, ’Don’t let them leave this room without marching orders’,” he said. “We need to do better. AERA needs to do better.”

He’s right, of course. And I plan to heed Ernest’s advice and not let you leave this room without your marching orders. But first I want to explore the edges of this new urgency, explain why critical computational literacy is part and parcel of the urgency of this moment, and explain exactly what I mean by the term.

There are at least two reasons for the acuteness of the urgency that has characterized this year’s AERA conference. The first is that many of us had hoped for something more, something better, something more honorable from the Obama administration. After eight years living in a political wasteland, many of us felt a glee all out of proportion with reality upon hearing Barack Obama’s position on educational issues. We felt hope. Even a warm half cup of water can feel like a long, tall drink when you’ve just walked out of a desert.

It’s a long revolution, you know. And if Obama authorizes something that looks very much like No Child Left Behind, and if he mandates merit pay based on student performance on standardized tests, and if the recent changes made by the religious right to the Texas state history curriculum stand, and if school board nationwide continue to make terrible, terrible decisions about how to cut costs, and if we see the largest teacher layoff in our history and class sizes creep up to 40 students per room and if computers get taken over by test prep programs and remedial tutoring systems, well, we’ll do our best to live to fight another day. The other day, I listened to Jim Gee talking about his deep anger at the people who run our education system. But he also said something we should all take to heart: “I’ll fight them until I’m dead,” he said. Let’s embrace this position. If they want to claim the hearts and minds of our children, let’s make it so they do it over our cold, dead bodies.

Let’s not let ourselves begin to believe that the stakes are any lower than they actually are. This is the second reason for the urgency this year: There is the very real prospect that the decisions we make within our educational system will get taken up by education departments across the globe. Around 30 of us attended an early-morning session called “Perspectives From the Margins: Globalization, Decolonization, and Liberation.” The discussants, Michael Apple and Dave Stovall, spoke with great eloquence about the nature of this urgency. You’ll forgive me for secretly recording and then transcribing a piece of each of their talks here.

Michael Apple, responding to a powerful presentation on rural science education by researcher Jeong-Hee Kim and teacher-researcher Deb Abernathy, spoke of the far-reaching implications of the local decisions we make:

As we sit here, I have people visiting me from China. They are here to study No Child Left Behind, and they are here to study performance pay. All of the decisions we make that that principal and Deb and you are struggling against are not just struggles in the United States, they are truly global—so that the decisions we make impact not just the kids in the rural areas of the United State, but the rural areas of the people who are invisible, the same people who deconstruct our computers.

Dave Stovall, from the University of Illinois in Chicago, underscored the need to think of the global implications of the policy decisions that intersect within the realm of education:

Arizona is Texas is Greece is Palestine is where we are. This day and time is serious. When a person in Texas cannot say the world capitalism in a public school, we live in serious times. When a person in Arizona can be taken out of a classroom at five years old, to never return, we live in serious times. When we can rationalize in the state of Illinois and city of Chicago that having 5 grams of heroin on a person accounts for attempted murder, we’re living in different times. When we can talk about in Palestine that young folks have now been deemed the most violent threat to the Israeli state, we’re living in different times. And now, how do we engage and interrupt those narratives based again on the work we do?

These times are different and serious, and talking about critical computational literacy may make me look a little like Nero with his fiddle. But critical computational literacy, or indeed its paucity in our education system, is the dry kindling that keeps Rome burning.

I’ll explain why. Let’s talk for a minute about another Apple, the electronics company Apple Corp. The year 2010 marked the release of Apple’s iPad, a tablet computer designed as a multipurpose information and communication tool. Despite mixed reviews of its usability and features, records show an estimated 500,000 units sold between pre-orders and purchases in the first week after the iPad’s release.

This has been accompanied by a push for consideration of the iPad’s utility for education, especially higher education, with schools working to develop technical support for iPad use on campus and at least one university, Seton Hall, promising to provide all incoming freshmen with iPads along with Macbooks. One question—-how might the iPad transform education?-—has been the topic of conversation for months.

“The iPad,” crowed Neil Offen in the Herald-Sune (2010), “could be more than just another way to check your e-mail or play video games. It has the potential to change the way teachers teach and students learn.”

Certainly, these conversations reflect a positive shift in attitudes about what comprises literacy in the 21st Century. If you attended the fantastic symposium on Sunday called “Leveraging What We Know: A Literacy Agenda for the 21st Century,” you heard from the panelists a powerfully persuasive argument that “literacy” is no longer simple facility with print media. Indeed, facility with print media may still be necessary, but it’s no longer sufficient. As the emergence of the iPad, the Kindle, and similar literacy tools make evident, the notion of “text” has become more aligned with Jay Lemke’s (2006) description of “multimedia constellations”—loose groupings of hypermediated, multimodal texts that exist “not just in the imagination of literary theorists, but in simple everyday fact” (pg. 4). Add to this the ongoing contestation of the tools we use to access and navigate those constellations of social information, and the urgency of a need to shift how we approach literacy becomes increasingly obvious.

As anyone who works in the literacy classroom knows, this is by no means a simple task. This task is complicated even further by the dark side of this new rhetoric about literacy: There’s a technological determinism hiding in there, an attitude that suggests an educational edition of Brave New Worldism. Offen’s celebration of the iPad aligns with the approach of Jeremy Roschelle and his colleagues (2000), who a decade ago trumpeted the transformative potential of a range of new technologies. In explaining that “certain computer-based applications can enhance learning for students at various achievement levels,” they offer descriptions of
promising applications for improving how and what children learn. The ‘how’ and the ‘what’ are separated because not only can technology help children learn things better, it also can help them learn better things” (pg. 78, emphasis mine).

More recently, the media scholar Henry Jenkins (2006) described the increasingly multimodal nature of narratives and texts as “convergence culture.” As corporate and private interests, beliefs, and values increasingly interact through cheaper, more powerful and more ubiquitous new technologies, Jenkins argues, our culture is increasingly defined by the collision of media platforms, political ideologies, and personal affinities. Jenkins celebrates the emergence of this media convergence, arguing that “(i)n the world of media convergence, every important story gets told, every brand gets sold, and every consumer gets courted across multiple media platforms” (pg. 3).

Brave new world, indeed. But there is reason to wear a raincoat to this pool party, as a cursory examination of the developing “Apple culture” of electronics confirms. The iPad, celebrated as a revolution in personal computing, communication, and productivity—and marketed as an essential educational tool—is a tool with an agenda. The agenda is evident in Apple’s decision to block the educational visual programming software Scratch: Though Apple executives have claimed that applications like Scratch may cause the iPad to crash, others argue that the true motivation behind this decision is to block a tool that supports media production. The Scratch application allows users to build new applications for the iPad, which Bruckman (2010) suggests goes far beyond Apple’s unstated interest in designing its products primarily for media consumption.

There is no closest competitor to the iPad, so users who want to leverage the convenience, coolness, and computing power of this product must resign themselves to the tool Apple provides. Similarly, as Apple develops its growing monopoly in entertainment (iPods), communications (iPhone), and portable computing (Macbook), Apple increasingly has the power to decide what stories to tell, and why, and how.

Now let’s go back to the other Apple, Michael Apple, who argues quite convincingly about the colonization of the space of the media by the political right wing (2006). We have, he argues, politicians deciding what we pay attention to, and we have corporations deciding how we pay attention to it. This makes the need for critical computational literacy even more important than ever before. Perhaps it’s more important than anything else, though I’ll leave that to the historians to decide.

What is this thing I’m calling “critical computational literacy”? Since I’m almost the only person using this term, I want to start by defining it. It has its roots in computational literacy, which in itself bears defining. Andy diSessa (2001) cautions us against confusing computational literacy with “computer literacy,” which he describes as being able to do things like turning on your computer and operating many of its programs. His definition of computational literacy, he explains, makes computer literacy look “microscopic” in comparison (p. 5). For him, computational literacy is a “material intelligence” that is “achieved cooperatively with external materials” (p. 6).

This is a good start in defining computational literacy but probably still not enough. And please do remember that I will not let you leave this room without marching orders; and if I want you to know what to do, I have to finish up the definition. Let’s add to diSessa’s definition a bit of the abstraction angle given to us by Jeanette Wing (2008), who shifts the focus slightly to what she labels “computational thinking.” She describes this as

a kind of analytical thinking. It shares with mathematical thinking in the general ways in which we might approach solving a problem. It shares with engineering thinking in the general ways in which we might approach designing and evaluating a large, complex system that operates within the constraints of the real world. It shares with scientific thinking in the general ways in which we might approach understanding computability, intelligence, the mind and human behaviour. (pg. 3716)

For Wing, the essential component of computational thinking is working with abstraction, and she argues that an education in computational thinking integrates the “mental tool” (capacity for working with multiple layers of abstraction) with the “metal tool” (the technologies that support engagement with complex, abstract systems).

So. We have diSessa’s “material intelligence” paired with Wing’s “computational thinking”—a fair enough definition for my purposes. But what does it look like? That is, how do we know computational literacy when we see it?

The answer is: it depends. Though we have some nice examples that can help make visible what this version of computational literacy might look like. Kylie Peppler and Yasmin Kafai (2007), who by the way have a new book out on their work with the Computer Clubhouse project (you can buy a copy up at the book fair), offer instructive examples of children working with Scratch. Jorge and Kaylee, their two case studies, are learners who make creative use of a range of tools to build projects that extend, as far as their energy and time will allow, the boundaries of what is possible to make through a simple visual programming language. Bruce Sherin, Andy diSessa, and David Hammer (1993) give an example of their work with Dynaturtle to advance a theory of “design as a learning activity”; in their example, learners work with the Boxer programming language to concretize abstract thought.

Certainly, these are excellent examples of computational literacy in action. But I would like to humbly suggest that we broaden our understanding of this term far beyond the edges of programming. Computational literacy might also be a form of textual or visual literacy, as learners develop facility with basic html code and web design. It might be the ability to tinker—to actually, physically tinker, with the hardware of their electronics equipment. This is something that’s typically frowned upon, you know. Open up your Macbook or your iPhone and your warranty is automatically null and void. This is not an accident; this is part of the black box approach of electronics design that I described earlier.

Which leads me to the “critical” component of computational literacy. This is no time for mindless tinkering; we are faced with a war whose terms have been defined for us by members of the political Right, and whose battles take place through tools and technologies whose uses have been defined for us by corporate interests. Resistance is essential. In the past, those who resisted the agendas of software designers and developers were considered geeks and freaks; they were labeled “hackers” and relegated to the cultural fringes (Kelty 2008). Since then, we have seen an explosion in access to and affordability of new technologies, and the migration to digitally mediated communication is near-absolute. The penetration of these technologies among young people is most striking: (include statistics). Suddenly, the principles that make up the “hacker ethos” (Levy, 1984) take on new significance for all. Suddenly, principles that drove a small subset of our culture seem more like universal principles that might guide cultural takeup of new technologies:

  • Access to computers—and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works—should be unlimited and total.
  • All information should be free.
  • Mistrust authority—promote decentralization.
  • Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not criteria such as degrees, age, race, sex, or position.
  • You can create art and beauty on a computer.
  • Computers can change your life for the better. (Levy 1984)

If these principles seem overtly ideological, overtly libertarian, that’s because they are. And I’m aware that in embracing these principles I run the risk of alienating a fairly significant swath of my audience. But there’s no time for gentleness. This is no time to hedge. I believe, as Michael Apple and Dave Stovall and Rich Ayers and others have argued persuasively and enthusiastically, that we are fighting to retrieve the rhetoric of education from the very brink. It’s impossible to fight a political agenda with an apolitical approach. We must fight now for our very future.

That’s the why. Now I’d like to tackle the how. If we want our kids to emerge from their schooling experience with the mindset of critical computational literacy, we need to first focus on supporting development of critical computational literacy in our teachers. They, too, are subject to all of the pressures I listed earlier, and add to the mix at least one more: They are subject to the kind of rhetoric that Larry Cuban (1986) reminds us has characterized talk of bringing new technologies into the classroom since at least the middle of the 20th century. As he researched the role of technologies like radio, film, and television in schools, he described the challenges of even parsing textual evidence of technologies’ role:

Television was hurled at teachers. The technology and its initial applications to the classroom were conceived, planned, and adopted by nonteachers, just as radio and film had captured the imaginations of an earlier generation of reformers interested in improving instructional productivity…. Reformers had an itch and they got teachers to scratch it for them. (p. 36)

This certainly hearkens, does it not, of the exhortation of Jeremy Roschelle and his colleagues? I repeat:

promising applications for improving how and what children learn. The ‘how’ and the ‘what’ are separated because not only can technology help children learn things better, it also can help them learn better things.

Teachers are also faced with administrators who say things like these quotes, taken from various online conversations about the possible role of the iPad in education.

I absolutely feel the iPad will revolutionize education. I am speaking as an educator here. All it needs are a few good apps to accomplish this feat.

Tablets will change education this year and in the future because they align neatly with the goals and purposes of education in a digital age.

And finally, the incredibly problematic:

As an educational administrator for the last eleven years, and principal of an elementary school for the past seven…after spending three clock hours on the iPad, it is clearly a game changer for education.

Three hours. Three hours, and this administrator is certain that this, more than any previous technology, will transform learning as we know it. Pity the teachers working at his school, and let’s hope that when the iPad gets hurled at them they know how to duck.

We must prepare teachers to resist. We must prepare them to make smart, sound decisions about how to use technologies in the classroom and stand tall in the face of outside pressures not only from political and corporate interests but from well-meaning administrators and policymakers as well. There is a growing body of evidence that familiarity with new tools is—just like print literacy—necessary but not sufficient for teachers in this respect.

There is evidence, however, that experience with new technologies when paired with work in pedagogical applications of those technologies can lead to better decision-making in the classroom. I recommend the following three-part battle plan:

First, we need to start building a background course in new media theory and computational thinking into our teacher education programs. My home institution, Indiana University, requires exactly one technology course, and you can see from the description that it does its best to train pre-service teachers in the use of PowerPoint in the classroom:

W 200 Using Computers in Education (1-3 cr.)Develops proficiency in computer applications and classroom software; teaches principles and specific ideas about appropriate, responsible, and ethical use to make teaching and learning more effective; promotes critical abilities, skills, and self-confidence for ongoing professional development.

Fortunately, we can easily swap this course out for one that focuses on critical computational literacy, since the course as designed has little practical use for new teachers.

Second, we need to construct pedagogy workshops that stretch from pre-service to early in-service teachers. These would be designed to support lesson development within a specific domain, so that all English teachers would work together, all Math teachers, all Science teachers, and so on. This could stretch into the early years of a teacher’s service and support the development of a robust working theory of learning and instruction.

Finally, we might consider instituting ongoing collaborative lesson study so that newer teachers can collaborate with veteran teachers across disciplines. I offer this suggestion based on my experience working in exactly this environment over the last year. In this project, teachers meet monthly to discuss their curricula and to share ideas and plan for future collaborative projects. They find it intensely powerful and incredibly useful as they work to integrate computational technologies into their classrooms.

I’m near the end of my talk and would like to finish with a final set of marching orders. If we want to see true transformation, we need first to tend our own gardens. Too often—far, far too far too often—we educational researchers treat teachers as incidental to our interventions. At the risk of seeming like an Apple fanboy, I return once again to the words of Michael Apple, who argued brilliantly this week that it’s time to rethink how we position teachers in our work. We say we want theory to filter down to the “level” of practice; the language of levels, Apple says, is both disingenuous and dangerous. Let’s tip that ladder sideways, he urges us, and he is absolutely correct. We live and work in the service of students first, and teachers second. We should not forget this. We should take care to speak accordingly.

These are your marching orders: To bring the message of critical computational literacy and collaboration during this time of great urgency back to your home institutions, to the sites where you work, to the place where you work shoulder to shoulder with other researchers, practitioners, and students. I urge you to stand and to speak, loudly, and with as much eloquence as you can muster, about the issues of greatest urgency to you. This is no time to speak softly. This is no time to avoid offense. In times of great urgency, it’s not enough to be the change we wish to see in the world; we need to be the chainsaws that we wish to see in the world. That is what I hope you will do when you leave this convention center. Thank you.

Apple, M.W. (2006). Educating the “right” way: Markets, standards, God, and inequality. New York: Routledge.
Bruckman, A (2010, April 15). iPhone application censorship (blog post). The next bison: Social computing and culture. Retrieved at
Carnoy, M. (2008, August 1). McCain and Obama’s educational policies: Nine things you need to know. The Huffington Post. Retrieved at
Carter, D. (2010, April 5). Developers seek to link iPad with education. eSchool News. Retrieved from
Cuban, L. (1986). Teachers and machines. New York: Teachers College Press.
diSessa, A. A. (2000). Changing minds : Computers, learning, and literacy. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Kelty, C. (2008). Two bits: The cultural significance of free software. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Kolakowski, N. (2010). Apple iPad, iPhone Expected to Boost Quarterly Numbers. eWeek, April 18, 2010. Retrieved at
Korn, M. (2010). iPad Struggles at Some Colleges. Wall Street Journal, April 19, 2010. Retrieved at
Lemke, J. (2006). Toward Critical Multimedia Literacy: Technology, research, and politics. In M.C. McKenna et al. (Eds.), International handbook of literacy and technology: Volume II. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc. (3-14).
Levy, S 1984. Hackers: Heroes of the computer revolution. New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday.
McCrae, B. (2010, Jan. 27). Measuring the iPad’s potential for education. T|H|E Journal. Retrieved from
New York Times (2010, March 17). Editorial: Mr. Obama and No Child Left Behind. New York Times Editorial Page. Retrieved from
Offen, N. (2010, Jan. 28). The iPad and education. The Herald-Sun. Retrieved from—education?instance=main_article.
PBS (2010, Jan. 7). How will the iPad change education? PBS TeacherLine Blog. Retrieved from
Peppler, K. A., & Kafai, Y. B. (2007). From SuperGoo to Scratch: exploring creative digital media production in informal learning. Learning, Media and Technology, 32(2), 149-166.
Roschelle, J. M., Pea, R. D., Hoadley, C. M., Gordin, D. N., & Means, B. M. (2000). Changing how and what children learn in school with computer-based technologies. The future of children, 10(2), 76–101.
Sherin, B., DiSessa, A. A., & Hammer, D. M. (1993). Dynaturtle revisited: Learning physics through collaborative design of a computer model. Interactive Learning Environments, 3(2), 91-118.
Smith, E. (2010, April 16). The Texas Curriculum Massacre. Newsweek. Retrieved at
Wing, J. M. (2008). Computational thinking and thinking about computing. Philosophical Transactions A, 366(1881), 3717-3717.


**Update, 5/6/10, 1:09 p.m.: I have changed this post slightly to remove an unfair attack against a presenter at this year’s AERA Annual Meeting. He points out in the comments section below that my attack was unfair, and I agree and have adjusted the post accordingly.

Posted in academia, computational literacy, conferences, convergence culture, education, graduate school, Henry Jenkins, Jim Gee, Joshua Danish, President Obama, public schools, schools, teaching, Twitter | 7 Comments »

I’m a little bit ridiculous.

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on March 26, 2010

I am, if you didn’t already know, a little bit ridiculous about certain things. For example: When I was in my early 20s, a friend referred to me as a “kneejerk reactionary” and I immediately brought the friendship to a dead stop. That it didn’t even occur to me what a caricature of myself I was being only enhances the ridiculousness.

And in the video below you can see me being ridiculous about Twitter. This clip comes from a brainstorm session populated by members of SociaLens, a new organization I’m part of whose focus is on the role of social media, communication, and community in business enterprises. The SociaLens team is a terribly smart crew, and I’m incredibly lucky to be able to have the chance to work with these guys. The rest of the team, incidentally, is made up of Christian Briggs, Kevin Makice, Jay Steele, and Matt Snyder.

I’m including the clip here because a.) I really enjoy how ridiculously serious I am about why my colleague Matt is using Twitter wrong; b.) I’m really happy about the amount of agony Kevin put himself through in deciding whether to post the video on YouTube; c.) I think the conversation that emerged below Kevin’s post in response to his decision to put the video online is valuable and interesting. For example, Kevin writes:

As someone who is quite open online with myself and even my family, I found it interesting how much trepidation I felt over sharing this video. I edited down the clip I had to a smaller segment, mainly to shield the name of a participant organization mentioned later. The rest I chose to share without prior approval and only my own instincts to follow. It is possible that one of my colleagues might take issue with any aspect of this decision, from specific content to an absence of formality in posting it to YouTube. In some organizations, there is a policy-first approach to transparency, setting codes of conduct and other criteria for employees to follow. In other organizations, the understanding employees have about shared goals and risks will help inform individual decisions. Most importantly, failure is embraced as a chance to learn. I trust my peers, and I believe they trust me. Even if one of them requests for me to take down the clip, that trust will guard against relational catastrophe as we reflect together.

Kevin also writes about the importance of transparency and reflection within organizations, large and small. You could maybe take a look if you wanted.

Posted in awesome, business, convergence culture, humor, social media, Twitter | Leave a Comment »

how to eat pistachios and where to buy your jeans

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on October 6, 2009

Here’s how the infamous ex-soon-to-be-son-in-law of Sarah Palin, Levi Johnston, eats them:

And speaking of advertising campaigns that have no problem taking advantage of perfectly unsuspecting people, Levi Strauss & Company has unveiled a new campaign called “Go Forth.” Here’s a sample commercial that embodies the tone and spirit of this most recent sales offensive.

This campaign takes on a tone similar to the 2000 Volkswagen commercial that featured Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” and a group of young adults in a VW Cabrio who choose the purity of a beautiful nighttime drive over the stumbling chaos of a college party.

To be honest, the Nick Drake commercial seriously moved me, and I bet if I’d had the money I would’ve gone out and gotten me a Cabrio. Though if we’re going to be really honest about it, I was that kind of 20-something: I read a lot of Ginsberg. I bought extra copies of On the Road to hand out to my friends. I listened to Dylan, refused to own a TV, and made sure everyone knew it oh god I was such a lame-o.

I was, I’ll admit, curious enough to go to the campaign website, which features a Blair Witch-style video featuring the lost treasure of Grayson Ozias IV. Ozias, according to the site, was a close friend to Nathan Strauss, a nephew of Levi Strauss, and he disappeared in the late 1800’s to explore the Great America. Along the way, he buried $100,000, presumably his entire inheritance. Levi’s has Officially Discovered the cash and will give it away to whoever locates it.

The Levi’s commercial–in fact, the entire campaign–is beautifully executed and would be pitch perfect if it weren’t for the tiny detail that the whole thing is engineered to sell run-of-the-mill clothes manufactured by a company whose labor practices are controversial at best.

God, it’s all a lie. Over at ARGNet, Michael Anderson explains that one key member of the campaign is Jan Libby, formerly of lonelygirl15. If you know your YouTube history, you know that the lonelygirl15 webisodes were carefully (some might say brilliantly; others might say a bit too preciously and heavy handedly) engineered so that viewers couldn’t tell whether Bree, the protagonist, was completely real, kind of real with a scripted story, completely made up or some combination of the above. (If you don’t know which category she ultimately fell into, then I leave it to you to go forth and see the Great Wikipedia Page.)

I can handle the idea that a group of smart(ass), young, new media types would try to make money off of an enormous cultural dupe. I can even accept that Volkswagen and Gap would see nothing wrong with climbing the economic ladder by stomping on the heads of our most awesome dead celebrities.

But Levi’s is trying to out-Whitman Whitman. It’s trying to out-Christopher McCandless Christopher McCandless. It’s trying to out-Dorothea Lange Dorothea Lange. This is a case of a company that wants so badly to be viewed as a Real American Original that it will go so far as to manufacture a Real American Backstory even though nobody’s buying it.

Seriously: Go to the site. There’s a Last Will and Testament of Grayson Ozias IV. There’s the hint at a cast-off pedigree (he is, after all, the fourth and presumably last of the Grayson Oziases, and he turned his back on all that mantle could have meant). The video presents beautiful young men and women frollicking to the backdrop of a grainy sound recording, apparently of Ozias himself explaining his decision to set forth into the great Unexplored America. “Therefore,” he states with unequivocal soundness of mind, “I commit the fortune I have made in my travels back to the earth from whence it came” (cut to beautiful young people in Levis uncovering and then reburying an old-timey trunk).

This is clearly a corporate attempt at harnessing the spreadability factor of social media. And I wonder how well it’s working. For my part, the only message I’m interested in spreading is a message about how lame it is to create a fake genuine American hero to sell fake genuine American apparel.

Posted in advertising, America, celebrity, convergence culture, creativity, lame, literature, spreadability | 2 Comments »

seeding and feeding your educational community

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on July 7, 2009

My sensei Dan Hickey’s recent post on seeding, feeding, and weeding educators’ networks got me thinking, for lots of reasons–not least of which being that I will most likely be one of the research assistants he explains will “work with lead educators to identify interesting and engaging online activities for their students.”

This got me a-planning. I started thinking about how I would seed, feed, and weed a social network if (when) given the chance to do so. As David Armano, the author of “Debunking Social Media Myths, the article that suggests the seeding, feeding, and weeding metaphor, points out, building a social media network is more difficult than people think—this is not a “if we build it, they will come” sort of thing. Designing, promoting, and growing a community takes a lot of work. People will, given the right motives, participate in the community for love and for free, but you have to start out on the right foot. This means offering them the right motivations for giving up time they would otherwise be spending on something else.

A caveat
First, know that I am a True Believer. I have deep faith in the transformative potential of participatory media, not because I see it as a panacea to all of our problems but because participatory media supports disruption of the status quo. A public that primarily consumes media primarily gets the world the media producers decide they want to offer. A public that produces and circulates media expressions gets to help decide what world it wants.

Social media, because of its disruptive and transformative potential, is both essential and nigh on impossible to get into the classroom. This is precisely why it needs to happen, and the sooner it happens, the better.

But integrating participatory media and the participatory practices they support into the field of education is not a simple matter. Too often people push for introduction of new technologies or practices (blogging, wikis, chatrooms and forums) without considering the dispositions required to use them in participatory ways. A blog can easily be used as an online paper submission tool; leveraging its neatest affordances–access to a broad, engaged public, joining a web of interconnected arguments and ideas, offering entrance into a community of bloggers–takes more effort and different, often more time-consuming, approaches.

Additionally, while social networks for educators hold a great deal of promise for supporting the spread of educational practices, designing, building, and supporting a vibrant community of educators requires thinking beyond the chosen technology itself.

Five Tips for Seeding and Feeding your Community

With these points in mind, I offer my first shot at strategies for seeding and beginning to feed a participatory educational community. (Weeding, the best part of the endeavor, comes later, once my tactics have proven to work.)

1. Think beyond the classroom setting.
In the recently published National Writing Project book, Teaching the New Writing, the editors point out that for teachers to integrate new media technologies into their classrooms, they “need to be given time to investigate and use technology themselves, personally and professionally, so that they can themselves assess the ways that these tools can enhance a given curricular unit.”

The emerging new media landscape offers more than just teaching tools–it offers a new way of thinking about communication, expression, and circulation of ideas. We would do well to remember this as we devise strategies for getting teachers involved in educational communities online. After all, asking a teacher who’s never engaged with social media to use it in the classroom is like asking a teacher who’s never used the quadratic equation to teach Algebra.

Anyone who knows me knows what a fan of blogging I am. I proselytize, prod, and shame people into blogging–though, again, not because I think blogging is the best new practice or even necessarily the most enjoyable one. Blogging is just one type of practice among a constellation of tools and practices being adopted by cutting edge educators, scholars, and Big Thinkers across all disciplines. Blogging was, for me, a way in to these practices and tools, and I do think blogging is one of the most accessible new practice for teacherly / writerly types. The immediacy and publicness of a blogpost is a nice preparation for increased engagement with what Clay Shirky calls the “publish, then filter” model of participatory media. This is a chaotic, disconcerting, and confusing model in comparison to the traditional “filter, then publish” model, but getting in synch with this key element of participatory culture is absolutely essential for engaging with features like hyperlinking, directing traffic, and identifying and writing for a public. In a larger sense, connecting with the publish, then filter approach prepares participants to join the larger social networking community.

2. Cover all your bases–and stop thinking locally
One of the neatest things about an increasingly networked global community is that we’re no longer limited to the experts or expertises of the people who are within our physical reach. Increasingly, we can tap into the knowledge and interests of like-minded folks as we work to seed a new community.

Backing up a step: It helps, in the beginning for sure but even more so as a tiny community grows into a small, then medium-sized, group, to consider all of the knowledge, experience, and expertises you would like to see represented in your educational community. This may include expertise with a variety of social media platforms, experience in subject areas or in fields outside of teaching, and various amounts of experience within the field of education.

3. In covering your bases, make sure there’s something for everyone to do.
Especially in the beginning, people participate when they feel like they a.) have something they think is worth saying, b.) feel that their contributions matter to others, and c.) can easily see how and where to contribute. I have been a member of forums where everybody has basically the same background and areas of expertise; these forums usually start out vibrant, then descend into one or two heavily populated discussion groups (usually complaining or commiserating about one issue that gets up in everyone’s craw) before petering out.

Now imagine you have two teachers who have decided to introduce a Wikipedia-editing exercise into their classrooms by focusing on the Wikipedia entry for Moby-Dick. Imagine you have a couple of Wikipedians in your network who have extensive experience working with the formatting code required for editing; and you have a scholar who has published a book on Moby-Dick. This community has the potential for a rich dialogue that supports increasing the expertise of everybody involved. Everybody feels valued, everybody feels enriched, and everybody feels interested in contributing and learning.

4. Use the tool yourself, and interact with absolutely everybody.
Caterina Fake, the founder of Flickr, says that she decided to greet the first ten thousand Flickr users personally. Assuming ten thousand users is several thousand more than you want in your community, you might have the time to imitate Fake’s example. It also helps to join in on forums and other discussions, especially if one emerges from the users themselves. Students are not the only people who respond well to feeling like someone’s listening.

Use the tool. Use the tool. Use the tool. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is. You should use it for at least one purpose other than seeding and feeding your community. You should be familiar enough with it to be able to answer most questions and do some troubleshooting when necessary. You should be able to integrate new features when they become available and relevant, and you should offer a means for other users to do the same.

5. Pick a tool that supports the needs of your intended community, and then use the technology’s features as they were designed to be used.

Though I put this point last, it’s the most important of all. You can’t–you cannot–build a community with the wrong tools. Too often, community designers hone in on a tool they have some familiarity with or, even worse, a tool that they’ve heard a lot about. If you want your community to refine an already-established set of definitions, approaches, or pedagogical tenets, then what you’re looking for is a wiki. If you want the community to discuss key issues that come up in the classroom, you want a forum or chat function. If you want them to share and comment on lesson plans, you need a blog or similar text editing function.

Once you’ve decided on the functions you want, you need to stick with using them as god intended. Do not use a wiki to post information that doesn’t need community input. Don’t use a forum as a calendar. And don’t use a blog for forum discussions.

It’s not easy to start and build a community, offline or online. It takes time and energy and a high resistance to disappointment and exhaustion. But as anybody who’s ever tried and failed (or succeeded) to start up a community knows, we wouldn’t bother if we didn’t think it was worth the effort.

Posted in Clay Shirky, convergence culture, Dan Hickey, education, new media, participatory culture, public schools, schools, social media | 2 Comments »

confession: I don’t understand Creative Commons

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on July 1, 2009

I mean, I get the basic idea: that instead of thinking about individual ownership rights to content, we can and need to start thinking about how to participate in collaborative communities. Creative Commons is a set of copyright categories intended to say to other people: I abide by copyright law and want you to know that I’m making my work freely available for repurposing, remixing, and sharing.

What I don’t get is…well, okay, I guess I don’t understand copyright law very well at all. I’m among the countless hordes who shamelessly rip songs, videos, and images and repurpose them without regard to copyright or fair use issues. (Interestingly, though, and in what I can only assume is a holdover to the antiquated notion of genius residing in a single individual, who is solely responsible for the content that erupts from his or her brilliant brain, I do my very best to respect authorship and ownership rights over print texts.) I mean, is it legal for me to copy an image from a google search and embed it in a blogpost? Is it ethical (never mind legal) for me to pwn a YouTube video and toss it into a Keynote presentation? It’s not true, right, that illegally downloading a movie is like stealing a handbag? Right?

I’m unbelievably lame. So lame that there are heatwaves of lameness issuing from all around my person.

Still, this is perhaps a call to action for the kind folks at Creative Commons. I’m pretty much on board with the CC mission, and I’ve even engaged to an extent with Creative Commons licensing in my (now former) position at Project New Media Literacies. Yet here I am, eager but clueless when it comes to copyright.

May I suggest a guerrilla marketing campaign that’s riveting enough to keep viewers’ eyes drawn to the product and clear enough to offer a laundry list of the product’s most appealing features?

Posted in convergence culture, creativity, intellectual property, law | Leave a Comment »

Breaking: Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton "cannot subscribe to the views of those online critics who insist that I ‘just don’t get it’ "

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on May 31, 2009

Subhead: Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton just doesn’t get it.

Michael Lynton wants guardrails for the internet in the name of preserving creativity. At least, that’s what he says he wants. If you read his recent piece in the Huffington Post, you quickly understand that what he really wants is to preserve his company’s ability to profit from the creativity of others.

Lynton went viral after making the following assertion: “I’m a guy who sees nothing good having come from the Internet. Period.” And in the HuffPost piece, he explains that he welcomes the “Sturm und Drang” that resulted from that statement, because it allows him to make the following point:

the major content businesses of the world and the most talented creators of that content — music, newspapers, movies and books — have all been seriously harmed by the Internet.

He’s right, of course. But any attempt to roll back the appropriation, remix, and–sometimes–piracy practices enabled by new media will fail, and one big reason for this is that people like Lynton can’t see that the internet simply cannot be regulated the way we’ve traditionally approached culturally transformative inventions.

Lynton compares the Internet to the national highway system developed under the Eisenhower administration. He explains the comparison thus:

Contrast the expansion of the Internet with what happened a half century ago. In the 1950’s, the Eisenhower Administration undertook one of the most massive infrastructure projects in our nation’s history — the creation of the Interstate Highway System. It completely transformed how we did business, traveled, and conducted our daily lives. But unlike the Internet, the highways were built and operated with a set of rational guidelines. Guard rails went along dangerous sections of the road. Speed and weight limits saved lives and maintenance costs. And officers of the law made sure that these rules were obeyed. As a result, as interstates flourished, so did the economy. According to one study, over the course of its first four decades of existence, the Interstate Highway System was responsible for fully one-quarter of America’s productivity growth.

We can replicate that kind of success with the Internet more easily if we do more to encourage the productivity of the creative engines of our society — the artists, actors, writers, directors, singers and other holders of intellectual property rights — yes, including the movie studios, which help produce and distribute entertainment to billions of people worldwide.

It makes sense for someone like Lynton to compare the internet to a literal highway–he, and many of his ilk, continue to think of the internet as an “information superhighway” that can be maintained and paid for via a simple system of tolls, speed limits, and regulations on what kinds of vehicles will be allowed to operate, and when, and by whom. This is precisely why the information superhighway metaphor has fallen into disuse by the majority of internet users: It simply does not apply to a system that is far more complex, and far less regulated and regulatable, than the metaphor suggests.

Mind-bogglingly, Lynton believes that “without standards of commerce and more action against piracy, the intellectual property of humankind will be subject to infinite exploitation on the Internet.” He wonders:

How many people will be as motivated to write a book or a song, or make a movie if they know it is going to be immediately stolen from them and offered to the world with no compensation whatsoever? And how many people whose work is connected with those creative industries — the carpenters, drivers, food service workers, and thousands of others — will lose their jobs as piracy robs their business of resources?

Seriously? The head of one of the most new media-reliant entertainment companies in the world is so oblivious to the creativity that is enabled by social media that he really, honestly believes that the social practices that are emerging around these technologies are going to destroy humanity’s creative impulse?

On the other hand, this is perhaps an apt approach for the head of a company that makes its bones on defining creativity as “stuff that can make money for whoever owns the rights to it (e.g., Sony Entertainment).”

Lynton would have us believe that he’s in this fight for the good of mankind, that he and others like him are humanitarians along the lines of this cartoon I pirated from the internet:

Alternately, we might view his motives as more closely aligned with this cartoon I pirated from the internet:

Lynton wants us to know that he is not a Luddite, not “an analogue guy living in a digital world.” I am fully convinced of that. I also believe that his impulse to set up internet guardrails is not quite as humanitarian as even he himself might think. He seems to be confusing the notions of “creative impulse” with “the drive to make money off of creativity.” As anybody who’s been paying attention for the last couple of decades knows, in the internet era, these aren’t the same thing. They aren’t even in the same category. If that makes it harder for behemoths like Sony to survive by standing on the shoulders of the creative types it exploits, then so be it.

Posted in convergence culture, creativity, crime, culture, intellectual property, lame, law, new media, obnoxious, participatory culture, social media, social revolution | 1 Comment »