July 17, 2014Uncategorized

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Carl Sandler started as the founder of DaddyHunt.com, a website geared towards older men and people who like older men. DaddyHunt.com was founded in 2005 and quickly grew into the largest online community for men over 40 and their admirers. Sandler found that what the community of DaddyHunt users wanted was validation that they were still ‘hot’ and desirable even as they grew older. The interview below is a conversation between Sandler and Diego Solares on behalf of Digital Culture & Education (DC&E) on the role of  Apps and HIV in the modern age.

DC&E: Tell us about the origins of the MISTER App

Sandler: DaddyHunt.com was the immediate predecessor to MISTER. During a time when mobile Apps were becoming more popular, I saw an opportunity to build a community around the same principles as DaddyHunt, but in a mobile format. The challenge was finding a way to become more than a utility for hooking up within the constraints of the mobile format. To create a sense of community on MISTER we start by asking users to opt into a “MISTER code” when they join the App. The MISTER code of conduct encourages members to protect their health and the health of their partners and to treat others with respect, among other things.  It’s very basic and simple and yet, remarkably uncommon for an App or website. In fact the only thing similar I am aware of is the Cockyboys Manifesto on http://cockyboys.com.

DC&E: Are users forced to accept the code of ethics in order to use the App?

Sandler: We have considered doing this but no, we don’t make it a requirement. We simply ask users to opt in when they join. Users also have an opportunity to opt-in to the code in the future. Users who choose to opt-in get a MISTER CODE badge on their profile and this helps foster a nicer and less judgmental environment for men to meet men.

DC&E: What else does MISTER do with respect to HIV?

Sandler: The MISTER Manifesto encourages members to live HIV Neutral. We ask users if they are open to dating someone of any (HIV) status. We did this because our research found that users are not very willing to self-report status on an App or website. We took a novel approach and instead ask users to state if they are open to dating and loving someone of any status. Users who select this option get a badge on their profiles that state they LIVE STIGMA FREE next to an icon from MR. FRIENDLY. MR. FRIENDLY is a non-profit that works tirelessly to reduce HIV stigma and we partnered with them to do this initiative. We think this is the right approach towards expanding the conversation around HIV within the context of an App. It’s extraordinary but there is still a tremendous amount of misinformation, fear and stigma within the gay online and mobile communities. Unfortunately, there is little support from the public health sector for Apps and websites that wish to work to influence behavior and educate users.

DC&E: What is MISTER’s reach?

Sandler: MISTER has had over a million downloads and continues to get thousands of downloads per day. We know that people meet in the real world after using the App but we don’t know how frequently it happens. MISTER collects data on usage and messages sent but most of our queries are done via third party tools like Flurry and Google Analytics. We have yet to work with a non-profit or HIV organisation to look at the data and ways to design and test interventions.

DC&E: How did you become interested in public health as a mobile App developer?

Sandler: I have always been interested in providing support to the gay community, including those who live and love with HIV every day. In 1994, I produced a safe sex gay porn film called Leg Licking that won first place at the International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in San Francisco. Leg Lickin’ sought to eroticise condom use in porn at a time when it was still a relatively new concept. It was sponsored by Falcon Studios and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. I also worked on the San Francisco AIDS Foundation hotline in 1993 while I was  at Stanford University. I personally feel an obligation to try and do my part to encourage gay men using MISTER to stay safe. I also write a column on sex and ethics for Huffington Post (www.huffingtonpost.com/carl-sandler) where I’ve tackled issues around Truvada/PrEP, HIV stigma and important health-related issues. You can also find me on the Morning Jolt on Sirius/XM Radio talking about sex, health, dating and relationships.

DC&E: What changes have you noticed in the HIV response among gay men and the proliferation of Apps and social media?

Sandler: Before online/App culture, health organisations went into bathhouses to reach gay and bisexual men at risk for transmission of HIV to perform local interventions. That was bold. Unfortunately, public health organisations haven’t taken as bold an approach with mobile Apps, despite their proliferation in the past 5 years as the principal gay meet-up environment for many millions of sexually active gay, bi and trans men. It’s very disappointing to be honest and quite short-sighted to see public health so slow to recognise the power of Apps and the potential opportunities to working with Apps—particularly those like MISTER—to design and test interventions.

The concept of ‘gay’ isn’t the same as it was before. Mobile Apps has increased reach. There are many men whose ‘gay’ lives are lived online through Apps and whose first experience with the gay community (including safer sex messages) is through an App. Many men live their entire gay lives online, through porn, websites and Apps. Public health needs to learn how to reach these populations where they live, just like the brave people who went to bathhouses back in the 70s and 80s to do outreach.

DC&E: What challenges have you experienced in working with the public sector?

Sandler: I am sorry to say that our experience with the public sector has been disappointing at best. The Public Health Sector has not figured out how to efficiently work with Apps and websites to test, create and measure successful HIV interventions. Or if they are doing it, it’s not something I am aware of.

Additionally, it seems public health providers are ill prepared to leverage social media to reach key populations at risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. When the Meningitis Outbreak hit New York City a few years ago, it took many months for the City’s Department of Public Health to coordinate any sort of Facebook based approach because all messaging required layers of approval.  Presently, public health departments at all levels seem ill-prepared for the rapid response and agile advertising and marketing environment that is crucial to designing successful campaigns. Even the payment of invoices in public health takes many, many months. Many website owners I know won’t accept those kind of payment terms. Public Health Sectors globally, need to evolve to be able to leverage both Apps and social media when responding to an epidemic to reach key populations.

Additionally, the public sector needs to develop an return-on-investment approach to public health marketing. Period. They also need to attract and hire people to manage their media who are savvy and understand how to influence target populations and partner with the Apps who already have scale and have developed vibrant, active online and mobile platforms.

DC&E: Have there been other instances of public health departments running ads through MISTER?

Sandler: A few, but to our knowledge, they don’t necessarily have good methods of testing whether the ads were effective or viewed widely.  It doesn’t appear that public health providers are doing much more than running banner ads with limited and un-engaging ads.

It is remarkably inefficient for each state or county in the United States to be managing their own health promotion program within their small catchment area without collaborating or coordinating at a national level. Everyone seems to be managing small piles of money and marketing departments are looking at how to spend this money locally.  However, this isn’t how the world works anymore. Geosocial Apps and online websites used by men, to meet men, have national and global reach. Ad buys need to be coordinated where campaigns are tested, optimised and then launched nationally so that effectiveness and the return on investment can be quantified. This is how savvy for-profit companies operate. The Public Health Sector can learn much from the private sector.

The real value in Facebook (or any mobile App) is  not simply to expose people to an ad, but to take a specific kind of action or to share a piece of content. We live in a time when people are willing to consume media and share powerful messages. Some key questions to ask when designing online interventions are: How can public health learn from mainstream viral sensations? Where are these powerful pieces of content? Who is managing these kinds of efforts on a national or global level?

DC&E: What can be done to promote collaboration between public sector health agencies and Apps like MISTER?

Sandler: I’ve heard many people in public health complain that Apps and websites are not willing to partner but I can tell you that MISTER has been open to collaborating with public health for years, and no one has approached us with a single innovative project for collaboration.  No one in the public sector has taken us up on our offers to collaborate.

In fact, the most significant contact we’ve had with the public sector has been vis-à-vis Positive Impact of Atlanta who sued us in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia over trademark issues.   If HIV organisations like Positive Impact have enough time and resources to spend their government and state funding fighting Trademark lawsuits then surely there must be resources available to collaborate with Apps to drive increased testing, reduce HIV stigma and educate the community about PrEP, PEP and other STIs.

Public health departments think they have reach because they may serve a few thousand people a year. Consider that the top 10 mobile Apps reach tens of millions of members DAILY. Imagine what kind of reach they could have if they spend time and energy developing successful partnerships?

DC&E: Are there any changes that you believe should happen within the community of App developers?

Sandler: There’s a lot that can be done with the design of the App itself.  But to make that happen we need input from the public sector. We recently added the option for users to say they are open to dating someone of any status. Why would the public health community leave it up to a web developer to make these kind of critical, important changes that effect millions of users in a complete vacuum?  The public sector needs to lead here. We just don’t have the expertise. What we know how to do is to build sustainable communities.

DC&E: What can be done to motivate mobile App developers to be involved in this work?

Sandler: The Public Health Sector needs to put real resources behind working with Apps; not just buying banner ads but really working in concert with Apps. I don’t think the Public Health Sector has effectively worked with the websites that preceded Apps but there is a new generation of App owners, like myself. Then there needs to be serious resources allocated to supporting and working with Apps because this is not our focus. This includes financial resources but also expertise and time because anything we do involves a large investment and risk.

DC&E: How can we foster more collaboration among App developers in HIV programming?

Sandler: Appoint an App Czar for the gay community. Someone whose job is to sit down with each of the Apps and websites and identify top priorities in terms of public health goals.  This person can act as the liaison to the Byzantine world of public health to see how changes can be implemented on each App, tested, refined and supported over time.

DC&E: Do you have any suggestions for improving Apps for HIV messaging?

Sandler: In general, Apps are designed to work in the same way in every country (with the exception of language). However, there is a need to communicate with members from different countries in different ways due to cultural differences and levels of education required. The health needs of a developing nation can be very different from those of a country like the U.S.  Apps need different levels of partnership for each country and perhaps, a unique set of tools for messaging. These are complex issues that need to be studied and evaluated.

DC&E: How much communication happens currently among App developers?

Sandler: I think that in general we don’t talk to one another since we are competitors. This is why it’s more important that The Public Health Sector drive individual conversations with App developers, rather than trying to work with the App developers as a group.

DC&E: What challenges remain for those seeking to make public health-focused Apps?

Sandler: The Public Health Sector doesn’t have the resources or the expertise to support and build active and growing communities online. They should instead focus on partnering with existing Apps and websites that already have the audience if at all possible.


Digital Culture & Education (DCE) thanks Diego Solares, Policy Advisor, HIV & Key Populations for the Futures Group for interviewing Carl Sandler and transcribing the interview.  We also thank Diego, Darrin J. Adams (Futures Group) and Dr. Christopher S. Walsh (The HIVe and Torrens University Australia) for collaborating to author the interview questions.

Biographical Statement

Carl Sandler is the CEO of Daddyhunt.com and the MISTER APP on iOS/Android. He writes about dating, HIV and health in his columns on Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/carl-sandler) and can also be found talking about relationships on The Morning Jolt on Sirius/XM Radio. He has a degree in Economics from Stanford University and lives in New York City.

Contact: carl@daddyhunt.com

Kimberley Green, Phillip Girault, Samuel Wambugu, Nana Fosua Clement, & Bashiru Adams

Published Online: July 17, 2014
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The prevalence of HIV among men who have sex with men (MSM) in Ghana is more than 15 times greater than the prevalence of HIV among adult males in the general population. The prevalence of HIV among MSM in Accra and Kumasi is 34.4% and 13.6%, respectively. In 2012, the USAID Ghana SHARPER project — which supports HIV prevention and care among MSM — reached less than half of the 30,000 estimated MSM at the project sites. In 2013, SHARPER tested the use of social media by MSM community liaison officers to identify unreached MSM networks. We reached 15,440 unique MSM through social media, and 12,804 MSM through traditional outreach activities involving peer educators. The combined total of 28,244 MSM represented 92% of the estimated number of MSM in the country. There was little overlap among the MSM reached by the two methods. The use of social media is a very important avenue for reaching MSM who are not reached by peer educators in Ghana. The method should be adopted as an integral outreach approach for HIV-prevention interventions in the future.

Keywords: MSM, HIV, social media, peer education, Ghana


Deeply rooted social stigma towards men who have sex with men (MSM) in Ghana affects their ability to access critical information and services for the care and prevention of HIV. In 2011, the Ghana Men’s Study revealed a high prevalence of HIV (17.5%) among MSM at five sites in Ghana, with the highest rates in Greater Accra (34.4%) and the Ashanti region (13.6%) (Aberle-Grasse et al., 2013). The majority of study participants (>70%) were between the ages of 18-24, living at home and reported having no or low income. That study found that the prevalence of HIV was higher among older MSM (>35 years) and those with higher levels of income. The same study found that less than half (44.8%) of the surveyed MSM population had accessed HIV-prevention services in the previous year, and that 37% in Greater Accra and 23% in Kumasi had been reached by a peer educator. They also estimated a population of 30,579 MSM in Ghana.

Before 2012, the USAID/Ghana SHARPER Project employed conventional HIV-prevention outreach activities through MSM peer educators who were associated with community-based organization (CBO) implementing partners in Ghana. The peer-education program was branded by MSM (as part of SHARP, the precursor to SHARPER) with a rainbow symbol and the tagline “It’s my turn” — to indicate that it was their right to be acknowledged, respected, and to have access to the same information and services as anyone else. Peer educators were selected by the CBOs for their leadership and communication skills, interest in HIV prevention and in supporting peers living with HIV, and their ability to complete short reports on completed work.

All peer educators were trained over a five-day period using a standard curriculum that focuses on communication skills, the role of the peer educator, HIV risk-reduction counseling, use of condoms and lubricant, management of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), HIV testing and counseling (HTC), illicit drug and alcohol use, mental health and self-esteem, gender-based violence, familiarity with key services, and learning to facilitate referrals. After training, peer educators are equipped with a toolkit to guide peer interactions between individuals and within groups. In light of the repressive environment, most interactions with peer educators are one-on-one. Outreach events are organized in a safe, discreet location, where from 20 to 50 MSM can take part in role-playing games and on-site HTC and STI services. These are known as “Love n’ Trust” events, which focus on the promotion of safer sex, routine HTC and STI screening, and partner HIV-status communication.

In addition, 11 MSM drop-in-centers (DICs) staffed by MSM leaders and part-time Ghana Health Service (GHS) nurses, offer HTC, STI screening and other health services.  The SHARPER project also trained GHS nurses that were located in health facilities near “hot-spots” in key population-friendly service delivery to facilitate greater MSM access to public health care services. MSM can also use “Text Me, Flash Me, Call Me HelpLine” to speak anonymously (and free of charge) with a trained GHS nurse about their health, psychosocial concerns or gender-based violence. After proving counseling, the nurses make referrals to peer educators, DICs or GHS services based on the client’s wishes, and provide follow-up counseling where needed.

Peer educators and DIC staff assigned unique identifier codes to all MSM they reached (for the protection of their clients). National standardized monitoring forms are used to record key information about the clients and the counseling and services that were provided. Peer educators are supervised by peer leaders and CBO field supervisors. Peer educators meet once a week to plan their schedule; and they participate in monthly meetings to review challenges and successes, and to learn new or reinforce previously acquired skills.

Despite attempts by the CBOs to recruit peer educators that represented different MSM sub-groups, the majority were less than 25 years old. In 2012, peer educators reached more than 12,000 MSM, most between the ages of 15 and 24 years old (FHI 360, 2012). This amounted to less than 50% of the estimated number of MSM in Ghana (Aberle-Grasse et al., 2013). Peer educators and CBO staff members indicated that they were aware of other MSM networks — particularly those that were older or discreet about their sexuality, and who were not interested in being directly contacted by a peer educator.

Through discussions with MSM affiliated with the CBOs, SHARPER learned that social media were increasingly popular among MSM, and might be a new way to reach older or more discreet MSM who were not currently interacting with peer educators. The majority (88%) of the Ghanaian population uses mobile phones; 76% own their own mobile phone (CDD, 2012). There has also been a rapid expansion of social-media use in Ghana, especially Facebook, which is the most frequently used platform. In the United States, Europe, Latin American and Asia, social media have been increasingly used for communicating HIV-prevention information, promoting the use of HIV testing and counseling with MSM, and for recruiting and to a lesser extent retaining MSM in research studies (Ko et al., 2013; Sullivan et al., 2013; Young et al., 2013; and Young and Jaganath, 2013). Therefore, the SHARPER project piloted social media outreach among MSM with the aim of reaching sub-networks of MSM that were not being reached by peer educators. This case study describes this pilot and examines the resulting level of coverage of traditional peer education and social media outreach.

Program Description

In early 2012, SHARPER canvassed its partner CBOs for recommendations of MSM leaders who might be at the center of MSM networks that included sub-group populations, such as older MSM, those who were more discreet about their sexuality, and others who might not be reached by peer educators. Three men who fit this profile were identified, one each in Accra, Kumasi and Tamale. These MSM were hired as community liaison officers (CLOs) to initiate social-media outreach activities in their respective communities. The CLOs recommended Facebook as the primary vehicle for reaching new networks of MSM, followed by Badoo, Whats App and Gay Romeo. The CLOs were supplied with a smart phone and a laptop computer and trained over the course of five days on HIV information and services – based on the same curriculum used to train peer educators. The CLOs were also trained how to count the MSM they reached and how to record monthly outputs.

The CLOs established new social media accounts and began to invite friends and contacts, while they conducted daily discussions on sex that interwove messages about HIV prevention, the use of condoms and lubricants, and routine HIV testing and STI screening. In addition, the CLOs operate a number of closed groups that discuss HIV, safer sex, sexuality, gender-based violence and psychosocial support needs. These groups are segmented by age and interests. The CLOs would also conduct private on-line and telephone conversations with MSM who requested more information or who were seeking referrals. In some cases, the CLOs physically accompanied their social-media contacts to the recommended services.

The CLOs also conducted outreach in bars, parties and other venues where their network congregated. In this way, they were able to increase their social-media contacts and to reach peers with information and referrals as needed. Peer educators rarely appeared at these venues, which typically attracted wealthier people.

The CLOs were recruited over different time periods; the one in Accra was hired first to test the original concept, learn from it, and then apply it to social-media outreach efforts in other locations. The CLO in Accra mentored and supported the CLOs in Kumasi and Tamale, explaining their roles and how to complete their monthly reports.

Project staff met with the CLOs every two weeks to review their progress, and once a month to discuss the CLOs’ monthly outreach reports. The CLOs tracked the number of unique MSM that were reached. For the SHARPER project, an MSM is defined as “reached” if he received all of the following: a risk assessment, information on HIV prevention and a referral to HTC (or another HIV service). Each MSM was assigned a unique identifier code to facilitate the counting of reached individuals. We assessed for client overlap between peer education and social media outreach and found that 18% of MSM in Accra and 27% in Kumasi were also contacted by a peer educator in the past twelve months. We adjusted the number of MSM reached through social media by these proportions.

Results from the pilot

In 2013, 15,440 unique MSM were reached through social media by three CLOs compared to 12,804 contacted by 110 peer educators. This amounted to 28,244 individual MSM reached which represented 92% of the estimated number of MSM in Ghana (FHI 360 2013). The majority of MSM reached through social media or by peer education were contacted two or more times during the reporting period.

Reporting data suggest that HTC service utilization may have increased as a result of social media outreach. In Accra, more than 99% of MSM reached through social media reported having accessed HTC in the past year. While only 64% of MSM reached by peer educators is the same period reported having been tested for HIV.

CLOs reported of high level of acceptability among MSM in their extended network of their on-line outreach. MSM found it to be a convenient and safe way of communicating about their sexual health needs and how to locate MSM-friendly services.

In addition, the CLOs report being sought by staff from MSM CBOs and others working with MSM in Ghana to advise them on their outreach strategies, and how to better utilize social media and tap into new networks of MSM needing access to HIV prevention and care information and services.


This pilot study underscores the value of social media in reaching new networks of MSM in Ghana, and using a more diverse approach to reach MSM with HIV-prevention interventions. Studies in the United States, Europe, and Asia that compared internet-based and face-to-face approaches to recruit MSM for HIV-prevention interventions, research, or surveillance concluded that internet-based approaches not only tended to reach new networks of MSM, they also reach higher risk sub-populations (Evans, Wiggins, Mercer, Bolding, & Elford, 2007; Fernández et al., 2004; Tsui & Lau, 2010; Guo et al., 2011; Khosropour et al 2014; Sanchez, Smith, Denson, Dinenno, & Lansky, 2012).

There were a few important challenges experienced during implementation of the pilot. The first was managing accurate enumeration of MSM reached through social media. During the first several months of the pilot, the CLOs and SHARPER team tested a number of different approaches to accurately measure unique contacts until a method was devised that was both sound and acceptable to the CLOs (as described in the program description). The second challenge involved the difficulty of verifying service utilization among MSM contacted by the CLOs. Peer educators use carbon copy referral slips that are collected by implementing partners at service delivery sites once a month. With social media outreach, it was not possible for CLOs to provide MSM with referral slips, or to verify from the service provider that the service was accessed given the long list of public and private providers utilized by MSM across the three pilot cities. We were only able to collect self-reports as part of this pilot.

A number of questions need to be answered about the use of social media to reach MSM in Ghana. Formative research among MSM has touched on social media but more is needed to explore for which MSM sub-populations social media is most appropriate, types of information preferred and in what format, and frequency of use of different social media platforms (Sabin et al., 2013a; Sabin et al., 2013b).

We need to learn more about the risk behaviors of MSM contacted through the social media intervention, and whether they are at greater risk of HIV than MSM who are typically reached through peer education. We also need to determine the relative effects of social-media outreach and peer-education efforts on changes in HIV-prevention behavior and knowledge, including the use of condoms and lubricants, and the use of HTC and STI screening. In the United States, social-media outreach among MSM was associated with reductions in reported sexual risk-taking and an increased uptake of HIV testing (Ko et al., 2013; Young et al., 2013; Young and Jaganath, 2013).

Also, there may be ways to enhance the depth and quality of the social-media outreach experience. For example, more structured on-line HIV prevention “events” such as brief stories or case studies, video shorts or games could focus on generating discussion that may be more engaging to social media contacts (Jaganath et al 2012). MSM social media contacts could also interact with scenario-based applications where as avatars they navigate real-life challenges to HIV prevention (Christensen et al., 2013).

Facebook offers an opportunity to post advertisements for HTC. In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) “Testing Makes us Stronger Campaign” is an excellent example of using social media to promote HTC uptake among MSM (CDC ND). We also need to identify ways to track referrals made through social media to HTC including the use of e-vouchers.


Social media is a very important avenue for reaching MSM not traditionally accessed by peer educators in Ghana and should be adopted as an integral outreach approach for HIV prevention interventions moving forward.


This work was made possible by the generous support of the American people through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.


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Kathryn E. Muessig, Nina B. Baltierra, Emily C. Pike, Sara LeGrand & Lisa B. HIghtow-Weidman

Published Online: July 17, 2014
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Young, Black men who have sex with men and transgender women who have sex with men (YBMSM/TW) are at disproportionate risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (HIV/STI). HealthMpowerment.org (HMP) is a mobile phone optimised online intervention that utilises behaviour change and gaming theories to reduce risky sexual behaviours and build community among HIV-positive and negative YBMSM/TW. The intervention is user-driven, provides social support, and utilises a point reward system. A four-week pilot trial was conducted with a diverse group of 15 YBMSM/TW. During exit interviews, participants described how HMP components led to behaviour changes such as asking partners’ sexual history, increased condom use, and HIV/STI testing. The user-driven structure, interactivity, and rewards appeared to facilitate sustained user engagement and the mobile platform provided relevant information in real-time. Participants described the reward elements of exceeding their previous scores and earning points toward prizes as highly motivating. HMP showed promise for being able to deliver a sufficient intervention dose and we found a trend toward higher dose received and more advanced stages of behaviour change. In this pilot trial, HMP was well accepted and demonstrates promise for translating virtual intervention engagement into actual behaviour change to reduce HIV risk behaviours.

Keywords: Men who have sex with men, MSM, transgender, HIV, eHealth, mHealth, mobile, intervention, sexual behavior


Within the United States (US), young, Black men who have sex with men (YBMSM) and transgender women (TW) who have sex with men face a disproportionate burden of HIV infection (Baral et al., 2013; Herbst et al., 2008; Johnson et al., 2013; Oster et al., 2013; Wejnert et al., 2013). Compared to older and non-Black MSM, YBMSM are less likely to know their HIV status and receive optimal HIV care_ENREF_18 (Millett et al., 2012; Oster et al., 2011; US Centers for Disease Control, 2010). Structural-level interventions are needed alongside  supported individual behaviour-change to reduce transmission and improve care for HIV and STI among YBMSM/TW. A few individual-level interventions for Black MSM have demonstrated reductions in unprotected anal intercourse (UAI) and increased HIV/STI testing (Maulsby et al., 2013). However, in-person delivery and sustained behaviour change demand significant resources, limiting intervention scalability and impact. 

High ownership of computers and mobile devices among YBMSM provides a cost-effective, familiar platform to deliver tailored internet- and mobile web-based (electronic health, or eHealth) interventions to improve HIV prevention and care (Community Marketing Inc., 2012). YBMSM’s widespread use of online social and sexual networking tools (Duggan & Smith, 2014) suggests that eHealth interventions that utilise social networking and other engaging strategies such as gamification have a greater chance of adoption and sustainability (Gay, Pollak, Adams, & Leonard, 2011; Gustafson et al., 1999). Virtual communities can act platforms through which to implement eHealth interventions by connecting like-peers who can share their experiences, exchange information, and provide mutual counselling, support, and encouragement (Meier, Lyons, Frydman, Forlenza, & Rimer, 2007; J. J. Prochaska, Pechmann, Kim, & Leonhardt, 2012).

Past internet-based interventions for MSM have shown preliminary success in increasing condom use (Carpenter, Stoner, Mikko, Dhanak, & Parsons, 2010; Chiasson, Shaw, Humberston, Hirshfield, & Hartel, 2009; Ko et al., 2013; Miranda, 2013; Rosser et al., 2010) and HIV testing (Ko et al., 2013; Rhodes et al., 2011; Blass et al., 2010; Chiasson et al., 2009). Numerous eHealth intervention components can support sustained engagement and behavior change including: tailoring and user-focus (Lustria, Cortese, Noar, & Glueckauf, 2009; Lustria et al, 2013), user engagement features such as gamification (Baranowski, Buday, Thompson, & Baranowski, 2008; Brox, Fernandez-Luque, & Tollefsen, 2011; Enah, Moneyham, Vance, & Childs, 2013; Primack, 2012), social networking and support (Gay et al., 2011; Gustafson et al., 1999), and access via mobile devices (Gay et al., 2011; Gabarron, Serrano, Wynn, & Armayones, 2012). Our goal was to incorporate all of these promising features in an HIV/STI eHealth intervention explicitly tailored for YBMSM/TW.


Figure 1. Screen shot of the HMP.org intervention home screen

HealthMpowerment.org intervention

HealthMpowerment.org (HMP) (Figure 1) is a multi-feature eHealth intervention to reduce risky sexual behaviours, promote health and wellness, and support community-building among YBMSM/TW (Hightow-Weidman et al., 2012; LeGrand, Muessig, Pike, Baltierra, & Hightow-Weidman, 2014; Muessig et al., 2013). We developed HMP through consecutive rounds of evaluation among 130 YBMSM/TW. The website is user-driven and employs responsive web design to optimise computer and smartphone access.

Through HMP’s user-driven design, participants choose when and how to engage with the intervention. Each user creates a profile and an avatar to allow personalisation with anonymity. Information on HMP covers a range of health and lifestyle topics (Table 1) to support users’ diverse backgrounds and varying need over time. For example, HMP includes resources and support forums for those: never tested for HIV (Figure 2), recently diagnosed HIV-positive, starting antiretroviral medications (ART), and already on ART for a number of years. Health and HIV/STI information is provided through multiple site features including: Quizzes, Know Your Risk (behavioural risk assessments), Ask Dr. W (Figure 3), The Scene (choose-your-own adventure decisional balance game) and the House of Mpowerment (library of brief educational articles and videos) (Table 1). Participants can explore areas of interest and then use the forums, Ask Dr. W, and external resource links to gather additional information and feedback from other users.

Table 1. Components of the healthMpowerment intervention website

Site section Intervention user activities Intended outcomes
House of Mpowerment Read articles (HIV/STI, health) - Gain new knowledge
Ask Dr. W (Figure 3) Post anonymous health questions for HMP doctor who responds - Gain new knowledge

- Dispel inaccurate knowledge

- Decrease sexual health stigma

- Decrease risk behaviours

Judge Your Skills Complete health knowledge quizzes - Gain new knowledge

- Dispel inaccurate knowledge

Know Your Risk Complete HIV/STI risk assessment profiles - Increase risk awareness (e.g. sexual behaviours, alcohol/drug use)

- Gain new knowledge

My Life, My Goals Set steps to achieve health goals and receive links to support resources (e.g. tobacco quit lines) - Increase healthy behaviours (e.g. quit smoking, increase exercise, increase condom use)
The Scene Make behaviour decisions to navigate a choose-your-own adventure game for real-life scenarios. - Increase risk awareness

- Explore potential health outcomes of decision pathways (e.g. forgoing condom use with a new partner leads to an STD)

Journal Complete entries in private journal sections (medical history, sexual partners, free text) - Increase risk awareness

- Increase self-monitoring and assessment

Get Tested Use GPS locator for HIV/STI testing and care resources - Increase awareness of testing, counselling & care resources

- Increase self-reported HIV/STI testing

HMP Store (Figure 2) Earn points by using HMP to “purchase” prizes (e.g. condom wallet, HMP tshirt), order free HIV/STD test kits - Sustained intervention use

- Provide free self-testing resources

- Increase HMP social network

Local Flavour Read and post reviews of local businesses and health services - Build community among YBMSM by increasing social options, shared interests and raising awareness of gay-friendly venues and providers.
Events Read and post events to the community calendar application - Build community among YBMSM by increasing social connections/ options, shared interests and raising awareness of LGBTQ events.
Getting Real View, create and share multi-media submissions (e.g. poetry, videos, photos)on relevant health and life issues - Build community

- Decrease HIV, race-ethnic minority and MSM-related stigma

- Establish positive social norms

Forum Post and comment to message boards for health and life topics and advice - Build community

- Establish positive social norms

- Gain new knowledge

To encourage continued use, participants earn points for completing actions on HMP (e.g. submitting an event to the activities calendar, 5 points; achieving perfect scores on all the health quizzes, 100 points).  Points “level-up” users’ status within the site (“new face”, “statement”, “star” and “legend”) and earn prizes from the HMP store (e.g. water bottle, messenger bag, hoodie sweatshirt, condom wallet, Figure 2).


Figure 2. Screen shot of the HMP.orgStore” and available prizes

Prior to HMP’s full randomised controlled trial, we conducted a four-week pilot trial. In this manuscript we demonstrate how HMP components led to changes during the pilot trial in participants’ health behaviour intentions and actions across the spectrum of the Stages of Change (J. O. Prochaska & DiClemente, 1992; J. O. Prochaska, Redding, Harlow, Rossi, & Velicer, 1994). We describe features of HMP that provided actionable health information for participants and facilitated sustained intervention engagement.


Figure 3. Screen shot of the HMP.org intervention “Ask Dr. W” health care provider forum



Study methods and quantitative survey outcomes are reported elsewhere (Hightow-Weidman et al., under review). In brief, study announcements were posted in diverse settings in the North Carolina Research Triangle area and online. Inclusion criteria were: born biologically male, age 18 to 30, self-identify as Black or African American, report ever having sex with another man, and reside in North Carolina.


At the baseline office visit, participants completed a computer-assisted, multi-domain survey (sexual behaviours, condom attitudes, HIV/STI test history, depression/anxiety, stigma experiences) and a hands-on, guided HMP.org tutorial during which they created a user log-on name and password. Participants were instructed to use the HMP site for at least one hour per week for four weeks. As there are currently no best practice guidelines for type or length of dose for internet-based interventions (Donkin et al., 2013; Lustria et al., 2009; Lustria et al., 2013) one hour per week was selected as a minimum desired dose to be comparable in length to a weekly in-person one-on-one or group counselling session. The user-driven design of HMP.org allows participants to selectively use site features most relevant and timely to them without regard for the length of time it takes to complete a particular activity. For example the length of time required to locate an HIV test clinic, complete a risk assessment, and contribute to a discussion forum might vary, but these activities could all be of equal importance in the behaviour change process of different (or the same) users. Text message reminders were sent to participants who did not log-on to the site at least once per week.

At the end of the four week trial, a second in-person follow-up visit included a repeat of the baseline survey with added website usability questions and a semi-structured qualitative interview exploring users’ evaluation of HMP.  During the exit interview study staff loaded HMP.org on a computer. Participants navigated through the site while commenting on each section including their use (or non-use) during the field trial, impressions, and assessments. All participants were asked to discuss how their use of the site changed over the four weeks and whether anything in their life changed as a result of using the site. Qualitative interviews lasted between 30 and 70 minutes and were recorded with participants’ consent. The analysis in this manuscript focuses on this qualitative interview data.

Theoretical framework

This analysis applies the Stages of Change behavioural theory as a conceptual framework and organisational tool to accommodate the diversity in HMP’s intervention components and to identify pathways and mechanisms through which HMP may affect participants’ behaviour change processes.  In the Stages of Change theory, also referred to as the transtheoretical model, an individual moves through five stages of behavioural change (precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance, Table 2) from being unaware and having no intention to change, to ultimately maintaining long-term change in a desired behaviour (J. O. Prochaska & DiClemente, 1992). At each stage there are hypothesised mechanisms, processes, and cues to action that encourage movement toward the subsequent stage (J. O. Prochaska et al., 1994). This theory has been applied extensively to study condom use behaviours (Ferrer et al., 2009; Grossman et al., 2008; Gullette & Turner, 2004; Noar, Crosby, Benac, Snow, & Troutman, 2011; Prat, Planes, Gras, & Sullman, 2012; Tung, Lu, & Cook, 2010) and, less so, HIV medication adherence behaviours (Genberg, Lee, Rogers, Willey, & Wilson, 2013; Willey et al., 2000). While the Stages of Change theory is often portrayed linearly, individuals may cycle through stages multiple times during the behaviour change process (Chang et al., 2006).


Interview recordings were professionally transcribed (© 2014 Verbal Ink) and entered into ATLAS.ti for analysis (qualitative data analysis software, Version 7, Berlin 2011). Three study team members reviewed all transcripts and developed a coding scheme. The code book was designed to capture all examples of health behaviours/actions and behavioural intentions that a participant related to their use of HMP during the four-week pilot trial, components of HMP mentioned, and the participant’s reflections on the outcomes of their actions. Codes were inclusive of all health areas discussed (e.g. diet, exercise, smoking, sexual health). Each coded behaviour/intention was assigned one or more stage(s) of change as summarised in Table 2 and informed by the context of the participant’s interview. For example, for the health behaviour change outcome of “establishing regular HIV testing”, an instance of talking about wanting to get a HIV test based on an article read on HMP was categorised as “Contemplation”, while an instance of describing an actual plan for getting an HIV test (e.g. clinic identified, appointment scheduled) was categorised as “Preparation”. Coders referenced participants’ quantitative survey data for additional information about behaviours reported during the interview.

Table 2. Stages of Change addressed by healthMpowerment components

Stage Definition HMP components Example user statements
Precontemplation Does not perform behaviour. No intention to change House of Mpowerment; Know Your Risk; Forum I didn’t really know what I was looking for until I happened to stumble upon it1
Contemplation Thinking about adopting the behaviour House of Mpowerment; Know Your Risk; Forums; Judge Your Skills; Ask Dr. W That’s what I would go on a website for, see what people are talking about…if I could benefit from anything. Made me want to post… questions2
Preparation Plans to perform the behaviour, may try out the behaviour but does not do it consistently House of Mpowerment; Ask Dr. W; Forum; My Life, My Goals; The Scene; Journal [The site] has gotten me to…go outside of my comfort zone. This gave me a stepping stone…I’m able to socialise a little bit more!3
Action Consistently performing the behaviour (<6 months) Ask Dr. W; Journal; My Life, My Goals; Get Tested; Forums; Point system My whole attitude about condom use changed…  [condoms are] one of the big things I’m working on now4
Maintenance Persisted in performing the behaviour consistently (> 6 months) Journal; Get Tested; Point system; Forum; Local Flavor; Events [The Forum] related to me…to see people reaching out for help…I’ve been through it too, and that’s where I will give advice.5

1 HMP13, HIV-positive, age 29; 2 HMP06, HIV-positive, age 23, TW; 3 HMP08, HIV-positive, age 27; 4 HMP04, HIV-negative, age 29; 5 HMP07, HIV-negative, age 23.

Two team members independently coded all interview transcripts within ATLAS.ti. Discrepancies were reviewed by a third team member and resolved by group consensus. Coded text and participants’ demographic information (e.g. age, education, HIV status) were used to generate matrices in Microsoft Excel to facilitate grouping and comparing behaviours, participants, HMP intervention usage, and stages of behavioural change.

Detailed analysis of the intervention site usage measurement and patterns is reported elsewhere (Baltierra et al., 2014). In brief, participant activity on the website was tracked through a secure administrative portal. Built-in site tracking included time stamps for each user’s activity on the site and automated log-out which occurred after 10 minutes of inactivity. Usage data was validated against aggregate statistics from Google Analytics reports and each participant was assigned a usage category based on total time spent on the site during the trial (low=less than one hour; medium=one to five hours; high=more than five hours). Participants’ usage categories were also checked against their total points earned on HMP. As expected, these measures were correlated: those who were high users had the highest total points, while low users had the lowest total points. The usage categories were applied in this qualitative analysis to explore patterns between intervention usage and stages of behavioural change.


Sociodemographic characteristics

Table 3 presents the sample’s sociodemographic characteristics. Participants ranged in age from 20 to 30 years old. Six participants were HIV-negative and nine were HIV-positive. Participants were asked their: biological sex at birth (required “male” for study inclusion), current gender identity, and current sexual identity (Table 3). While these categories include some overlap (e.g. a transgender person may also identify as gay or bisexual), participants were asked to select the category that “best” describes them and allowed unlimited space for write-in options if they preferred to state their gender or sexual identity in their own words. Six men described their sexual identity as gay, four as bisexual, one as transgender, and four wrote-in a description (queer, same sex loving, MSM, agnostic). Six out of 15 men earned under $11,000 annually and 12 had greater than high school education.

HMP usage

Our field trial had 100% four-week retention: all 15 participants completed baseline and follow-up surveys and qualitative interviews. Two of the 15 participants did not log on to the site during the four-week trial. Among the remaining 13 active HMP users, average total time spent on the site was five hours and three minutes (range: 0.5 – 13.3 hours). Among the two participants who did not use the site during the trial, the first reported difficulty logging in and the second explained that they were too busy. However, both participants completed the guided tours of the site at baseline and four-week exit interview (described above). Thus, all 15 participants were exposed to HMP enough to comment on its design, desirability, and usefulness.

Analysis of participants’ usage of HMP and stages of change revealed specific patterns (Table 4). First, participants who were categorised as “high” users were more likely to describe behaviours across all the stages of behavioural change. Second, across all stages, low users were most proportionally represented in the Contemplation stage, while medium users were most proportionally represented in the Preparation stage and high users were most proportionally represented in the Action stage. Third, the Action and Maintenance stages were the least commonly represented overall, while the Contemplation stage was the most commonly represented.

Table 3. Sociodemographic characteristics of 15 HMP.org field trial participants

Continuous Variables


Age in years


Categorical Variables



High school or GED

Professional, technical or trade school

Some college

College degree

More than a college degree











Currently employed


Income last year

Less than $10,999









What gender currently best describes you?1





Not reported











How do you best describe your sexual identity?1




Write-ins: queer, same gender loving, MSM, agnostic









HIV Status







1 Gender identity and sexual identity questions were asked separately with the categorical choices listed above and a write-in option. No participant wrote-in an option for the gender identity question, while four participants wrote-in an option for the sexual identity question.

Behaviour change

Based on participants’ feedback, the user-driven structure, interactive components, and point reward system of HMP allowed participants to explore information of greatest interest to them, compete against themselves, and engage with other users and study staff around a number of HIV-related topics such as coping with diagnosis, dealing with discrimination and stigma, managing medications, and navigating sexual relationships. This engagement with the intervention components took various forms including receiving and providing advice, debating user-generated topics (e.g. disclosing HIV status to a new partner), providing affirmation, and sharing experiences.

As described in the exit interviews, participants connected their online engagement with HMP features to real-world actions and behaviour changes completed during the four-week trial. Some of the actions we describe in this manuscript are primary intervention target outcomes (e.g. reducing unprotected anal intercourse) while other actions are secondary outcomes (e.g. increasing HIV/STI testing) or intermediate changes in behaviour (e.g. increasing awareness about triggers of risk behaviours) along the pathway to the primary behaviour change outcome.

Table 4. healthMpowerment intervention usage and Stages of Change



Usage category

Stage of change






1 Low

5 Low

9 Low

10 Low

2 Medium

3 Medium

6 Medium

13 Medium

14 Medium

15 Medium

4 High

7 High

8 High

11 High

12 High

Overall %(n) 80%(12/15) 93%(14/15) 73%(11/15) 53%(8/15) 67%(10/15)
Low 17% (2/12) 29% (4/14) 9% (1/11) 13% (1/8) 20% (2/10)
Medium 42% (5/12) 36% (5/14) 45% (5/11) 25% (2/8) 40% (4/10)
High 42% (5/12) 36% (5/14) 45% (5/11) 63% (5/8) 40% (4/10)

The intentions/actions/behaviours described by participants ranged across all phases of the Stages of Change (precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance) including, for example: changing attitudes about HIV testing, increasing awareness about triggers of risk behaviours (e.g. drugs, alcohol, depression, lack of social outlets), asking partner(s) about their sexual history/HIV status, reducing number of sexual encounters, getting HIV tested, and telling others to get HIV/STI tested. In addition to HIV-related health behaviours, other health-positive behaviour changes that participants attributed to their use of HMP included: going to the gym, losing/gaining weight, quitting/reducing smoking and alcohol use, saving money, and attending community-based social events.


In our analysis, sections of interview discussions that were characterised in the precontemplation phase of behaviour change commonly included participants’ references to the social support features of HMP. Among men whose HMP-affected behaviours could be classified in the precontemplation stage, the most commonly reported barriers to behaviour change included lack of awareness, fear, and lack of social support. As described by participants, HMP provided information, examples, and activities in an engaging manner, raising awareness and facilitating further consideration of specific health topics and risk behaviours. As one participant explained about health and sexuality information he read on HMP, “I didn’t really know what I was looking for until I happened to stumble upon it” (HMP13, HIV-positive, age 29).

Men reported feeling a sense of connection to others through HMP and the responses they received from Ask Dr. W and other participants. As one man explained, “It’s all about information, learning together, helping each other” (HMP07, HIV-negative, age 23). Some participants reported not feeling comfortable enough to participate in certain sections of HMP (e.g. photo and video posts of the Getting Real section) due to their shyness or fear of being recognised. The user-driven design of these sections facilitated engagement for these individuals at the precontemplation stage. As one YBMSM noted, when he watched others’ videos, “It was something I could relate to because it was a similar situation for me” (HMP14, HIV-positive, age 30). Although this participant did not contribute actively to the Getting Real section, he read and watched other peoples’ contributions.

Participants also described examples of how HMP provided experience-based information that helped to dispel fears and instil hope. In reading about other YBMSM/TW’s experiences, one man explained, “I connected a lot, and when I did feel connected, I would share my information with them” (HMP07, HIV-negative, age 23). This participant went on to describe how HMP could help users extend empathy toward each other. YBMSM/TW could also learn coping strategies from each other. In describing healthcare management, one participant described how HMP connected HIV-infected men at different stages post-diagnosis:

I can truly help you because I understand where you’re at in life…because I’ve been dealing with it [HIV] for 10-plus years and I have the same bills you have, I   have the same concept of being a grown-up that you do, so I can help you get through it easier than somebody who is not dealing with it [or] nowhere near your age group.  (HMP15, HIV-positive, age 25)

These social interactions on HMP provided motivation: “What really caused me to get on [HMP] was hearing how other people were dealing with things” (HMP01, HIV-positive, age 29). Participants especially liked the videos and postings in the Getting Real section of HMP. Similarly, another participant explained, “I would come on to the site if I needed to talk with someone, maybe I’m going through the same depression that someone else is” (HMP09, HIV-positive, age 30, TW). Another participant echoed this sentiment stating, “It was good to see that I’m not the only one going through certain things in life and that we’re all human…that just changed my perspective a little bit about my outlook on life…a little more hope” (HMP06, HIV-positive, age 23, TW).


In our analysis of HMP-affected behaviours that were categorised in the contemplation stage of behaviour change, participants’ discussions included how HMP provided additional information, social support, and goal-setting features. As described by a number of participants, these features mutually reinforced learning. For example, participants would take a quiz, then read articles and retake the quiz to increase their score. One user explained, “The whole point to be on [HMP] was to gain information and knowledge” (HMP01, HIV-positive, age 29); another user stated: “The educational part for me was most interesting…[I] started off with the Forum and then really started getting into the information and tests sections – wanted to learn, wanted to win” (HMP03, HIV-negative, age 30). This user highlighted the importance of the games, challenges, and built-in reward features of HMP which positively reinforced continued intervention engagement.

Importantly, users described how the interactive knowledge-based components of HMP provided new information: “I didn’t know too much before, especially [about] STD and sexual health” (HMP14, HIV-positive, age 30). Participants strongly endorsed the HMP feature of being able to talk to a doctor anonymously (Ask Dr. W) and described feeling comfortable asking personal questions. A number of users reported being drawn to this section of the website when they noticed that they had similar questions as others: “Somebody may have the same question but they may be scared to ask, while somebody else may be bold to ask” (HMP05, HIV-negative, age 23).

A number of participants described being inspired by other users to ask a question. As one man stated, “We can ask [Dr. W] anything…after reading how she responded to other people” (HMP10, HIV-negative, age 22). All participants reported high ratings for the HMP Forums: “That’s what I would go to on a website for, to see what people are talking about and see what they think….see if I could benefit from anything. It made me want to post some questions of my own” (HMP06, HIV-positive, age 23, TW).


Participants described examples of how information and virtual interactions on HMP helped them take steps toward healthy behaviours. A number of participants credited HMP with facilitating in-person health-related conversations with their friends and partners. For example, two participants noted that HMP prompted them to begin asking their partners about their sexual history, HIV status, and drug-use (HMP04, HIV-negative, age 29; HMP02, HIV-negative, age 20). For other men, interactions on the site moved them closer to health care services including HIV/STI testing, general health, and mental health: “When I asked the question [on the Forum]…people replied to me in the post, I ended up calling to a couple places…and set up [counselling] appointments in the realisation that I could possibly benefit” (HMP06, HIV-positive, age 23).

Some participants noted that they could share HMP’s resources with others. As one man stated, “If I knew someone who did have questions, it’d be an easy place to say ‘oh you should check this out.’” (HMP13, HIV-positive, age 29). Another man explained, “I learned a lot…and then, say if you had a friend that is going through a dilemma…you can say….hey I found this, maybe we can go [get tested] together” (HMP07, HIV-negative, age 23). Importantly, participants recognised HMP as a tool they could apply in their daily lives: “I think the really cool thing about the site that I want it to facilitate is these kind of real-world spaces” (HMP13, HIV-positive, age 29).

YBMSM/TW also described the role of HMP as: “Empowering yourself physically, ethically, psychologically” (HMP09, HIV-positive, age 30, TW). As one user described,

A: [The site] has gotten me to…go outside of my comfort zone…gave me a

stepping stone, and I  actually found that I’m able to socialise a little bit more, and I was surprised when that happened!

Q: How did that happen?

A: Opening up and seeing other people open up. (HMP08, HIV-positive, age 27)

This passage is typical of how HMP facilitated movement from the preparation to action stage for many participants through modelling behaviour and providing social support.

All participants responded positively to HMP prizes describing how this feature motivated them increase their site use. One man also described how the HMP logo on the prize items (see HMP Store screenshot, Figure 2) provided opportunities to tell others about HMP and initiate sexual health conversations with friends and partners (HMP15, HIV-positive, age 25).


Some participants reported changes in their behaviour during the pilot trial based on their interaction with the HMP intervention. This included reductions in sexual-risk behaviours, but also extended to other health areas including nutrition and fitness, substance use, and mental health.

One participant was motivated to reduce unprotected sex after reading the response to the question he posted on Ask Dr. W about his genital herpes infection:

One thing I didn’t know that genital herpes, you carry it after you get it…and you can have outbreaks…and [are] more susceptible to transmitting HIV…I have a boyfriend…he’s HIV negative and we’re in an open relationship. We have unprotected sex…so now we’re not having unprotected sex. (HMP12, HIV-positive, age 26)

Of note, this man previously talked with his partner about condoms but had not made the decision to use condoms until after his involvement with HMP.

The goal setting feature of HMP—My Life, My Goals—was also popular among participants for facilitating behavior change related to exercise and nutrition.  For example, one participant credited this feature and suggestions from the Forum with his return to the gym and losing 10 pounds (HMP03, HIV-negative, age 30). Another participant used resources from HMP to start a food journal and was able to begin losing weight toward his fitness goals (HMP13, HIV-positive, age 29).

One man described how the educational articles and the Ask Dr. W forum inspired him to try switching from traditional cigarettes to electronic cigarettes (HMP11, HIV-positive, age 26). Similarly, a number of participants described how information and quizzes on HMP helped them identify the roles that drugs and alcohol played for them in doing unsafe things and two men used resources on HMP to find local assistance programs for substance use (HMP04, HIV-negative, age 29; HMP05, HIV-negative, age 23).

A key feature of the Stages of Change model is “cues to action”. The House of Mpowerment articles, Know Your Risk screeners, and My Life, My Goals applications all provide suggested action steps toward changing a specific behaviour and recommended resources to execute each action. Some participants described how user reviews and suggestions in the Local Scene provided trusted, useful information that helped them make decisions about where to go for testing or finding a gay-friendly venue to socialise. Our analysis showed that HMP participants also became cues to action for each other through sharing experiences in the Forum and Getting Real, and to their peers outside of HMP. As one participant explained: “I ask my friends now, ‘do y’all use condoms?’” (HMP05, HIV-negative, age 23). We found that HMP also provided positive reinforcement which can operate as a cue to future action; one participant described a sense of pride at having his videos online: “I look so good!” (HMP03, HIV-negative, age 30). HMP’s text and email message reminders also served as cues to action. These messages encouraged logging on, highlighted site sections and new material, or wished users a fun and safe weekend.


Our analysis found that HMP supported users who were maintaining positive behaviour changes by providing continued social support, advanced information and resources, and strategies for reinforcing healthy behaviours. In the Forum, some participants were motivated to respond to other users’ comments: “I was shocked! Somebody actually feels that way? I can answer that question from experience. It wasn’t just me taking from the site, but I was also giving to the site as well” (HMP01, HIV-positive, age 29). Forum discussions helped empower users who had more experience dealing with an issue – such as sexuality or HIV – to support those who were less experienced. By sharing in this way, participants also reminded themselves of their own progress and reinforced their positive behaviours: “[The Forum] related to me…to see these people reaching out for help and being able to talk about it…it reminded me, I’ve been through it too, and that’s where I will give advice in the Forums: It all gets better” (HMP07, HIV-negative, age 23). Another participant echoed this sentiment as he explained, “Reading about what others posted about being newly diagnosed brought me back to that place, ok, I already got over that, I already dealt with that” (HMP15, HIV-positive, age 25). Participants who were already practicing positive sexual health behaviours described how information on HMP provided a new perspective and offered new resources to support continued positive behaviours. One man who regularly gets HIV tests explained that using HMP helped him change his attitude about testing from viewing it as a hassle to a regular part of care (HMP03, HIV-negative, age 30).

The majority of users stated that the HMP points and rewards system was highly engaging. As one participant explained, “it made time on the site more personal, made you feel like you were doing something” (HMP06, HIV-positive, age 23, TW). Another participant described the points system as: “A visual representation of your progress on the site” (HMP04, HIV-negative, age 29). The point system motivated participants to use the site via competition: “You’re gonna be on there nonstop because that’s what you’re focused on…I gotta do everything to get these points!” (HMP05, HIV-negative, age 23). Similarly, another man said, “It’s an incentive if they tell me I’m gonna get something for it [points], I’m gonna be on there every single day” (HMP14, HIV-positive, age 30).


HMP optimises the benefits of eHealth through its user-driven structure, provision of anonymity and confidentiality, and accessibility anytime, anywhere. HMP provides a framework and mechanisms for participants to encourage each other across the stages of health behaviour change and numerous features contribute to the intervention’s sustainability which is required to support the transition through—and long-term maintenance of—behaviour change. The HMP administrative team and user-driven web structure facilitate and reinforce participants’ movement across stages of behaviour change for their own specific target behaviours at their own pace and comfort level. Participants attributed their behaviour changes to various site features, further emphasising the critical role of user-driven design for facilitating the specific behaviour change that a participant is most ready to embrace.

HMP’s experience sharing and community building features (LeGrand et al., 2014) alongside the gamification features (e.g. reputation points, HMP Store rewards, quizzes) all act as motivators and cues to action (Baltierra et al., 2014; Pike et al., 2014). Furthermore, the self-efficacy fostered by HMP helped instill confidence—a key Stages of Change mechanism (J. O. Prochaska & DiClemente, 1992)—as users tried out new behaviours.

There must be perceived community or social network for positive peer pressure and social norms to operate. Many YBMSM report high levels of stigma and social isolation (Ayala, Bingham, Kim, Wheeler, & Millett, 2012; Bogart, Landrine, Galvan, Wagner & Klein, 2013), which limits opportunities to use social support networks to facilitate healthy behaviours. An interactive, engaging eHealth intervention such as HMP has great potential for addressing this need while also maintaining a comfortable level of privacy and anonymity for YBMSM/TW.

The components of the HMP intervention can be aligned with one or more stages of behavioural change. One strength of the intervention is the plasticity allowed within these sections such that the same activity can address different stages of change for different participants. For example, The Forum could be a first exposure for one man about new ways to communicate HIV status to one’s partners, while for another man it serves as reinforcement of a behaviour already in place. Similarly, the prize items users earn through their virtual interactions that feature the HMP logo (e.g. water bottles, messenger bag, sweatshirt hoodie) could serve as a visual cue to action for a participant who is initiating a new health behaviour, while for another participant in the maintenance phase, the logo serves as a reminder and an opportunity to initiate in-person sexual health conversations. Our analysis lays theoretical groundwork for future quantitative testing of these behaviour change processes through the HMP RCT and other similar projects under development such as the CDC-funded “Project Power” for Black bisexually active men (Maulsby et al., 2013) and Project HOPE for African American and Latino MSM (Jaganath, Gill, Cohen, & Young, 2012).


eHealth interventions for YBMSM/TW have the potential to reach marginalised, at-risk individuals in a novel, more engaging way. For YBMSM/TW in this pilot trial, HMP was a frequently used, highly acceptable means for HIV/STI as well as whole health intervention. HMP showed promise for being able to deliver a sufficient intervention dose and maintain exposure/engagement over time in order to achieve behaviour change, and in this qualitative assessment of 15 participants we found a pattern between the amount of intervention site use and stages of behaviour change. Our findings emphasise the importance of user generated feedback in the design and evaluation of tailored web and mobile phone based interventions. The Stages of Change theory integrated with theories of social support may offer a useful framework for assessing the mechanisms through which web and mobile phone based interventions can achieve and sustain real-world behaviour change. Furthermore, measuring outcomes along multiple stages of behavioural change may help to demonstrate that these interventions have positive impacts on critical earlier stages of behaviour change as well as main study outcomes.


This research was supported by NIH . The views expressed herein do not reflect the official stance of any funding agency. We have no conflicts of interests to declare.


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Matt Avery, Gang Meng & Stephen Mills

Published Online: July 17, 2014
Full Text: HTML, PDF


The internet is an increasingly popular among gay men and other men who have sex with men (MSM) in China for finding sexual partners. Gay men and other MSM who meet online are at high risk for HIV infection, but less likely to visit ‘traditional’ venues where they can receive interpersonal HIV prevention interventions. New virtual models are needed to provide HIV prevention messages and services to these gay men and other MSM. FHI 360 and Guangzhou Tongzhi (GZTZ) piloted separate, but complementary, approaches to using information and communications technology to promote uptake of HIV counselling and testing (HCT) among gay men and other MSM in three Chinese provinces (Yunnan, Guangxi and Guangzhou). These approaches included dedicated websites featuring online risk assessment and appointment making, crowd-sourced service promotion messages and dissemination via participants’ microblog accounts and social media profiles. Reach was measured using Web analytics and traditional monitoring and evaluation tools, and government partners provided data on HCT uptake. The FHI 360 and GZTZ interventions reached 7,000 and 2.3 million unique visitors, respectively, and contributed to increases in HCT uptake of 26% and 66% as well as to higher rates of HIV case finding. Internet-based interventions like those conducted by FHI 360 and GZTZ represent a promising channel for engaging otherwise difficult-to-reach gay men and other MSM in China.

Keywords: HIV, men that have sex with men, MSM, ICT, HIV Counselling and Testing, China


A 2008-2009 survey of 61 Chinese cities indicated a nationwide HIV prevalence of 5% among men who have sex with men (MSM),  though specific provinces reported notably higher prevalence, including Yunnan province at 10.9% (Wu, et al., 2013). Since that study was conducted, the China Ministry of Health in 2011 estimated prevalence among this population to be 6.3%, suggesting the epidemic continues to expand (China Ministry of Health, 2012). HIV testing and counselling (HTC) is a key entry point into the cascade of prevention, treatment, care and support for people living with HIV(Hull, Wu, & Montaner, 2012; Kilmarx & Mutasa-Apollo, 2013; Sullivan, et al., 2012); however, increasing HIV prevalence in the MSM population has not resulted in sufficiently increased rates of HIV testing among Chinese MSM. Despite HIV counselling and testing (HCT) services being provided free of charge by the Chinese government, as of 2011 half of Chinese MSM had not received an HIV test within the previous 12 months(China Ministry of Health, 2012). Specific barriers to increasing HTC uptake among Chinese MSM include perceptions that available services are low-quality and discriminatory(USAID/Health Policy Initiative, 2009; Yu, An, & Tong, 2009).Testing behaviour among MSM is also influenced by community norms –a 2010 behavioural  survey among MSM indicated that individuals were more likely to get tested themselves if they perceived testing as a norm among their peers (Population Services International (China), 2010).

Information and communications technology (ICT) platforms including websites, social media and microblogs, are one channel for promoting HTC services since the Internet has become an increasingly popular means of finding sexual partners for MSM in China as well as globally(Lim, Guadamuz, Wei, Chan, & Koe, 2012; Zhang, et al., 2007). Reaching these men with HIV prevention services may be particularly important as studies conducted in China and elsewhere have suggested that MSM who seek sexual partners online may be at higher risk for HIV infection due to a greater likelihood of engaging in unprotected anal sex(Berg, Tikkanen, & Ross, 2013; Grov, 2012; Parsons, Vial, Starks, & Golub, 2013; White, Mimiaga, Reisner, & Mayer, 2013; Zhang, et al., 2007), higher rates of sexually transmitted infections(Lau, Kim, Lau, & Tsui, 2003), or a greater likelihood of having multiple and concurrent sexual partners(Chew Ng, et al., 2013; Li, et al., 2012; Rosser, Miner, et al., 2009; Rosser, Oakes, et al., 2009; Young, Szekeres, & Coates, 2013; Zhang, et al., 2007). While the 61-city survey in China did not find a specific link between Internet use and HIV prevalence, that study did indicate that MSM who interact primarily online are likely to be younger and better-educated than other MSM – the authors suggested that the young age of Internet users could mask undetected, acute infections (Wu, et al., 2013). Further, many MSM who use the Internet to “cruise” for partners never visit or seek sexual partners in traditional gay venues(Saxton, Dickson, & Hughes, 2013). The Internet may thus provide a medium to gain access to a subpopulation of MSM who are at especially high risk, do not necessarily have strong social networks with the local gay community, and are thus not reached by traditional, venue-based peer outreach activities.


Several organisations working in China have piloted what is referred to as an “online-to-offline (O2O)” model where populations of MSM are targeted over web-based platforms where they interact, with the goal of initially engaging these men online in order to foster eventual in-person interaction, including uptake of HIV counselling and testing and sexual health services. In this paper, we present and compare two specific approaches to social media strategies, their evaluation designs and metrics on reach and effectiveness, and options for the future.

Social and Antisocial Media: Two ICT approaches

Yunnan and Guangxi provinces (pop. 46.31 million and 46.45 million, respectively), in southwest China, are among the highest HIV prevalence provinces in the country, with a number of community-based organisations conducting HIV prevention education, HTC referral and community-based testing in both provinces. The six-month “Xiu Boy” campaign was launched by the USAID-funded Spring Rain and Green City Rainbow MSM community-based organisationss in the provincial capitals of Kunming and Nanning, respectively, in order to increase MSM dialogue around and uptake of HTC services. The centrepiece of Xiu Boy was a microsite which hosted HTC information; an online, anonymous HIV risk calculator; and a “digital video” competition wherein participants shared videos of themselves talking about testing across their social media networks (SinaWeibo, RenRen.com, and 56.com among others) and encouraged their friends to vote for their favourite video. The campaign was additionally integrated into traditional outreach programming, with trained peer educators promoting the Xiu Boy microsite at MSM “hot spots” including bars, bathhouses and public parks and organizing special campaign events including a launch party and “Show Your Best Self” underwear show.

Guangzhou (pop. 12.78 million), the capital of Guangdong Province in southern China, is roughly twice the size of Kunming or Nanning, with a larger and more cosmopolitan MSM community. Guangzhou Tongzhi (GZTZ) has operated an LGBT-themed website since 1998, and has partnered with the Guangzhou CDC to offer community-based HTC since 2008. In contrast to the Xiu Boy campaign, which integrated in-person interaction and encouraged open experience sharing via social media, GZTZ built an ICT platform which consciously limits the human interaction necessary to promote HIV testing: online games encourage self-efficacy and responsibility, a self-risk evaluation targets awareness of personal-risk and decision-making, online ads publicise services and user-friendly tools facilitate appointment making and deliver testing reminders.

While these interventions took different approaches to harnessing web-based platforms for HCT promotion, they also shared several points in common. Both combined innovative web-based approaches with more traditional service promotion activities; both tied service promotion to service delivery through specific partner agencies, and both partnered with local government (municipal centre for disease control and prevention) to deliver these services.

Evaluation designs and metrics

The two social media projects utilised a variety of designs and metrics to measure their penetration into MSM networks and to estimate their impact on service utilisation. Both used Google Analytics to track data on website usage (site visits, site visitors, % new visits, page views and bounce rate).

Users were directed to the Xiu Boy online risk calculator either via the website home page or else via paid banner ads, displayed on a number of for-profit gay Chinese websites, which linked directly to the calculator. The calculator collected data on website users’ self-identified gender, partners’ gender, number of sexual partners within the last six months, and specific risk behaviours (sex with strangers; commercial sex; sex while under the influence of drugs or alcohol; injection drug use; unprotected oral, anal and vaginal sex) and health-seeking behaviours (STI screening and HIV testing). Frequencies were calculated for these measures using SPSS (Version 11.0), in order to build a risk profile of website users who completed the risk calculator.

Levels of risk as reported by the risk calculator were based on a simple calculation of the number of risk or health-seeking behaviours in which an individual reported engaging. Each individual behaviour (male-to-male sex, multiple sexual partners, sex with unknown partners, commercial sex, STI check-up, sex under the influence of drugs or alcohol, needle sharing, HIV testing, unprotected anal or vaginal sex) was assigned a point value (0-15 points) with particularly risky behaviours (commercial sex, needle-sharing, unprotected vaginal/anal sex) automatically assigned higher values. Final summative scores of 0-2 points were considered minimal risk, 3-4 were considered somewhat risky, 5-14 were considered of moderate risk, and scores of 15 or above were considered high risk. This methodology was adapted from similar risk calculators used in other HIV interventions; however, it was primarily intended to generate increased risk perception among campaign participants and not intended to accurately reflect statistical levels of HIV risk.

Use of the risk calculator was tracked via I.P. address. In order to avoid double-counting of respondents, the database was screened for multiple instance of the same I.P. address. In all cases of multiple entries from the same I.P. address, the entry with the earliest time stamp was retained and all others were removed from the data set. This was based on the assumption that a website user was most likely to respond to risk calculator questions accurately on their first completion of the survey, and then experiment on subsequent attempts with changing their responses to see how it affected the results of their risk calculation.

The digital video competition was evaluated according to the number of videos posted by website users and the number of “Likes” recorded by the website for each video, as tracked via unique I.P. address. Only the first instance of a unique I.P. address was recorded for the purpose of calculating total number of Likes.

The number of individual MSM reached by the Xiu Boy campaign with campaign messages via face-to-face interaction with a project-trained peer educator was tracked using standardised monitoring and evaluation data collection forms. In order to avoid double counting of project clients reached by multiple peer educators, or by the same peer educator multiple times, these data distinguish between “new” and “follow-up” contacts using the recall method so that the total number of persons “reached” is specific to the individual service rendered and does not mix new and repeat clients. GZTZ did not conduct traditional, face-to-face “outreach” activities.

For both interventions, the number of MSM who accessed HIV testing services at an affiliated testing site and received their test result, and the number of MSM tested positive through campaign-affiliated testing sites was recorded through standardised data collection forms. GZTZ was also able to collect data on the number of individuals confirmed positive through Western Blot confirmatory testing, and the number of positive individuals successfully referred to follow-up care, through their partnership with the Guangzhou Municipal CDC. However, antiretroviral treatment (ART) in China is managed through a separate (non-CDC) hospital system; thus, data on ART initiation and maintenance are not reported for clients referred for treatment through these interventions.


Using the above-described metrics, we present the most recently available data and indicators of both the Xui Boy and GZTZ websites and approaches in Table 1 (below).

Table 1. Usage statistics for Xiu Boy and GZTZ websites.

Intervention Site Visits Unique Site Visitors Page Views Bounce Rate
Xiu Boy
(April-Sept. 2011)
9,461 7,082 40,566 53.45%
GZTZ (Jan.-Dec. 2012) 6,679,707 2,298,808 48,899,134 33.67%

For the purposes of these interventions, “site visits” refers to the total number of visits to the specified website, and “page views” refers to the total number of times individual pages within the website were visited. “Unique site visitors” refers to the number of unique individuals who spent time on any page of the website, whether they did so once or multiple times, though this information is subject to data collection errors. The number of unique site visitors is tracked by Google Analytics using “cookies” – small pieces of information installed on a computer when it visits a website, allowing the website to recognise that computer on subsequent visits. If a returning website visitor deletes the cookies stored on their computer, or uses a different machine or Internet browser to visit the site, they may be misclassified as a new unique visitor; thus, Google Analytics tends to place more importance on total site visits.

“Bounce rate”, finally, represents the number of visits when users leave your site after just one page, regardless of how they got to your site or how long they stayed on that page. There are a number of potential explanations for a high bounce rate, including that visitors received the information they needed after visiting only one page, that they visited the site in error or were not interested in the website content, or that they experienced design or usability issues with the website.

XIU BOY campaign

The Xiu Boy campaign ran for six months (April through September 2011) and the social media digital video competition was conducted for the 2nd half of the campaign. During the campaign period there were a total of 9, 461 site visits, with 7,082 unique site visitors and 40,566 page views. The most popular pages by page views, outside of the main landing page, were Information for HIV-positive Individuals, Online Risk Calculator, and Information on Finding a Testing Centre. These figures do not include visitors to the separate web page that hosted the digital video competition.

74.47% of visits to the Xiu Boy website were new visits, and the average user visited roughly 4 pages per visit. The bounce rate (percentage of visitors who enter the site and “bounce” – leave the site – rather than continue viewing other pages within the same site) was 53.45%.

99% of site visitors were from China. Of those visitors, 57% were from the targeted campaign cities, and 70% came from the target provinces. Traffic from outside of the target cities is also significant as MSM from the countryside commonly travel to the provincial capital to access healthcare and other services.

During the campaign period, trained peer educators additionally reached 1,799 MSM through either one-on-one outreach, small group activities, or large-scale community events. While outreach activities were not all specifically related to the Xiu Boy campaign, peer educators were trained to provide campaign messages and promote the website through all outreach encounters. It was not possible to estimate what percentage of individuals reached with one-on-one outreach were also reached via the campaign website.

Online Risk Calculator.961 site visitors accessed the online risk calculator and 904 (94%) completed all items. Of those who completed the calculator, based on their answers to the survey items, 88.9% were at medium or high risk for HIV infection.

Table Two. Xiu Boy Campaign: Characteristics of website visitors who used the anonymous risk calculator (n=961)
n (%)
Gender (n=961)
Male 948 (98.6%)
Female 6 (0.6%)
Transgender 7 (0.7%)
Partners’ gender (n=912)
Male 703 (77.1%)
Female 48 (5.3%)
Both 161 (17.7%)
No. Sex Partners Last 6 Months (n=876)
0 108 (12.3%)
1 235 (26.8%)
2-4 376 (42.9%)
5-10 102 (11.6%)
>10 55 (6.3%)
Sex with a Partner You Do Not Know (n=862)
No 221 (25.6%)
Yes 641 (74.4%)
Engaged in Commercial Sex (n=848)
No 666 (78.5%)
Yes 182 (21.5%)
Sex under the Influence of Drugs or Alcohol (n=831)
No 712 (85.7%)
Yes 119 (14.3%)
Shared Injecting Equipment to Use Drugs (n=824)
No 818 (99.3%)
Yes 6 (0.7%)
Tested for STIs (n=841)
Yes (w/in last 6 months) 145 (17.2%)
Yes (not w/in last 6 months) 185 (22%)
Never Tested 511 (60.8%)
Tested for HIV (n=812)
Yes (w/in last 6 months) 133 (16.4%)
Yes (not w/in last 6 months) 179 (22%)
Never Tested 500 (61.6%)
Sexual behaviour
Oral Sex
Performed Oral Sex on Partners 650 (67.6%)
Consistently Used Condoms when Performing Oral Sex 32 (4.9%)
Received Oral Sex from Partners 657 (68.4%)
Consistently Used Condoms when Receiving Oral Sex 26 (4%)
Anal Sex
Penetrated Partner Anally 499 (51.9%)
Consistently Used Condoms when Penetrating Partner Anally 177 (35.5%)
Penetrated Anally by Partner 474 (49.3%)
Consistently Used Condoms when Being Penetrated Anally 168 (35.4%)
Vaginal Sex
Penetrated Partner Vaginally 115 (12%)
Consistently Used Condoms when Penetrating Partner Vaginally 30 (26.1%)
Risk Profile (n=904)
Minimal Risk 54 (6%)
Some Risk 47 (5.2%)
Medium Risk 317 (35.1%)
High Risk 486 (53.8%)

The majority of risk calculator users self-reported as males (98.6%, n=948) who only had sex with other men (77.1%, n=703). Among those website users who reported engaging in anal sex, 35.5% (n=177) reported consistent condom use as the penetrating partner and 35.4% (n=168) reported consistent condom use as the penetrated partner. A significant minority of users (17.7%, n=161) reported sex with male and female partners, and among those who reported penetrating their partner vaginally only 26.1% reported using condoms consistently.

The majority of users (54.5%, n=478) reported between 2-10 sexual partners within the last six months, and 74.4% (n=641) reported having sex with partners they did not know.

Despite high levels of reported sexual activity and relatively low levels of consistent condom use, 60.8% (n=511) of risk calculator users reported having never been screened for sexually transmitted infections, and 500 (61.6%) had never been tested for HIV (22% had been tested, but not within the last year).

Digital Video Competition

In total, 48 videos were uploaded for the digital video competition and 6,673 total votes were cast – voting was only permitted during the final month of the campaign to avoid privileging videos which were posted earlier. The winning video collected 1,745 votes while the first runner-up received 1,347 votes.

Due to a technical error, page views attributed to the digital video competition were not included in the total views or visitor counts for the Xiu Boy website, which might otherwise have contributed significantly to increasing those numbers as social media viewers could link directly from a video to the competition page. However, the video competition still drove increased traffic to other content on the main Xiu Boy site – during the competition the site recorded just over 6,000 visits (4,466 unique visitors) an increase of 128% over the three-month period preceding the competition.

HIV Counseling and Testing

During the Xiu Boy campaign period, HCT uptake by MSM for the three affiliated clinical sites increased by 26% (from 896 to 1135) and the number of positive cases identified increased by 22% (from 57 to 70) when compared to the previous six-month period. As can be seen in Chart 1 (below), most of the increase in HCT uptake is attributable to the Guangxi campaign site (Site 3), which accounted for 82% of all testing conducted during the campaign period, a 33% increase over the previous six-month period as compared to the 3% increase in testing uptake in Yunnan (sites 1 and 2, combined).

Table 3.HIV testing uptake during the Xiu Boy campaign.

FY11 Q1-Q2 FY11 Q3-Q4
Tested/Tested + Tested/Tested+
Site One 64/13 58/8
Site Two 136/6 148/9
Site Three 696/38 929/53
Total 896/57 1,135/70


An O2O procedure has been developed by GZTZ since 2008 to support MSM in accepting HIV tests and relevant services. Its main components include:

  • An online service module aimed at encouraging, reinforcing and validating safer sex behaviours and awareness of HIV testing by providing information on HIV prevalence and service promotion, offering a self-service risk evaluation tool, and conducting embedded vignette-based interventions;
  • A link between online and offline services (testing and results delivery), to mitigate clients’ unwillingness to receive an HIV test and to advocate for testing among sex partners of newly diagnosed HIV-positive clients by maintaining an online appointment and notification system, self-service results query, and anonymous partner notification;
  • An offline services module to boost clients’ confidence regarding service quality through provision of CBO-based pre- and post-test counseling, rapid testing, and supportive services for HIV-positive individuals.

During calendar year 2012, the GZTZ website received a total of 6,679,707 visits, made by 298,808 unique visitors, who made 48,899,134 page views. Not only did the site (which was more established than the Xiu Boy site) generate significantly more traffic, the bounce rate of 33.67% was noticeably lower, indicating that a higher percentage of those visiting the site actually intended to do so.

Over the course of 2012, GZTZ conducted 5,389 HIV screening tests for MSM, an increase of 130.5% since 2010. Of those MSM tested, 8.57% (n=462) were screened positive, which reflects a 33.76% increase in the 2010 case finding rate (5.1%, n=119). The Guangzhou CDC testing algorithm for members of high-risk populations is a single, rapid HIV screening test followed by Western Blot confirmatory testing which is processed off-site by the CDC. Of those individuals screened positive through the GZTZ service, 90% (n=416) agreed to receive an HIV confirmatory test, and 75% (n=312) were notified of a confirmed positive result. Of the 25% of clients screened positive who did not receive a confirmatory test result:

  • 5.5% (n=23) were found through ID tracking to have already been confirmed positive and thus not re-tested,
  • 2.4% (n=10) received a confirmatory test but were later determined to have been previously confirmed HIV-positive and, thus, not recounted as “new cases”
  • .48% (n=2) were found to be false positives,
  • 16.6% (n=69) did not receive their confirmatory test results within the reporting period, though they may have been informed of their test results at a later date.

CD4 testing is also provided by the CDC (and ART treatment centre) for all confirmed HIV-positive individuals, regardless of where they received their HIV test. Among those GZTZ clients who did receive their confirmatory test result, 12.5% were reported by the Chinese government not to have received a follow-up CD4 test.

Table 3. HIV testing and referral to care and treatment by GZTZ

2012 2011 2010
Received HIV screening (3 affiliated sites) 5,389 3,247 2,338
Screened positive 462 275 119
Agreed to receive conformatory tests 416 N/A N/A
Non-duplicate clients who received confirmatory test 383 179 73
Confirmed to be newly found HIV+ 312 166 59
HIV+ & received CD4 count tests 273 N/A N/A

Screen Shot 2014-07-17 at 00.27.54

Additionally, while there are a number of different community-based organisations that partner with the Guangzhou CDC to offer HIV counselling and testing for MSM (see Figure 1, below), in calendar year 2012 GZTZ was responsible for roughly 83% of all clients screened for HIV within Guangzhou City who identified themselves as MSM.

Screen Shot 2014-07-17 at 00.27.27

Figure 1. MSM screened for HIV in Guangzhou City, 2012


Findings and results from both social media approaches support the hypothesis that web-based platforms can be an effective channel for the promotion of HTC services for MSM in China. Internet-based approaches in China have typically recreated traditional, venue-based outreach practices – the development and distribution of promotional materials, peer education etc. – and recreated these approaches while treating websites and chat rooms as a kind of “virtual venue.” While this approach has its advantages in that it is possible to apply existing tools and manpower with limited need for adaptation or training, the Internet can be a more efficient tool when interventions make use of the unique advantages of this medium. Both approaches described in this paper took different approaches which limit the need for a trained cadre of semi-professional peer staff. GZTZ sought to automate intervention services in order to minimise or completely remove the need for direct human involvement – for instance, a telephone hotline was originally established to help online staff interact with clients; however, calls to the hotline decreased dramatically once dedicated software was put into place allowing users to make appointments and receive transportation directions and service reminders.

In contrast, the Xiu Boy campaign sought to supplement the provision of information about HIV transmission and prevention delivered by trained and employed peer educators with positive normative statements about the desirability of knowing one’s HIV status, which were disseminated by regular service clients and propagated virally through their online social networks. The Xiu Boy microsite additionally allowed potential (but hesitant) clients to view photographs and digitally-recorded introductions of clinic staff, facilities and procedures as well as client testimonials about participating HCT service centres without the need to actually visit a clinic, thus reducing what are sometimes termed the “entry costs” for counselling and testing – fear, discomfort, embarrassment – without the need for direct human intervention. Critically, information collected through the Xiu Boy risk assessment tool indicates that testing information delivered via the website reached a population of men who have never (or not recently) received an HIV test despite engaging in unprotected anal sex either as the penetrating or penetrative partner.

These interventions also demonstrate that evaluation is essential to the success of any public health intervention, and freely available tools like Google Analytics can greatly simplify the process of collecting and analysing monitoring data for web-based intervention activities. However, the greatest obstacle to effective monitoring and evaluation isn’t collecting extensive user engagement data such as the number of “Likes” or the website bounce rates; the key obstacle is a failure to determine what return on investment the online strategy is intended to generate in the first place. It may be tempting to envision web-based metrics as an end unto themselves, but this approach fails to acknowledge the reach and impact of broader communications activities (Gordon, 2013). Rather than thinking in terms of internet metrics versus traditional public health indicators, monitoring and evaluation systems should focus holistically on the overall goal (in this case, HCT uptake) and then identify the best indicators to determine whether intervention strategies are working.

A key barrier to integrating Internet metrics more holistically into monitoring and evaluation  frameworks, however, is the difficulty in tracking unique contacts across virtual and physical engagements, and the primacy in many monitoring and evaluation frameworks (for instance, the UNGASS and PEPFAR indicators) for real-life contact. More research is needed to determine how “virtual” contacts and measures of engagement can best be integrated into these frameworks so as to highlight the increasing relevance and importance of digital interactions.

Coordination between community-based organisations and the municipal government was critical to the success of the GZTZ and Xiu Boy interventions. Across the Asia-Pacific region it is estimated that as many as half of all members of key affected populations are unaware of their HIV status (UNAIDS, 2012),and while community-based HTC is recommended by the WHO (WHO, 2012) and has been demonstrated to be highly acceptable to testing clients (Suthar, et al., 2013), there are numerous policy barriers to adopting this strategy across the region, including in China. The interventions reviewed here contributed to increased service uptake without significant loss to follow-up, false positivity or reported adverse events (breaches of confidentiality, etc.) and thus further demonstrate the potential key role CBOs can play as partners to the China CDC in increasing the number of MSM who know their status and access care and treatment in line with the national strategy.

Two key links in the cascade of HIV prevention to care and treatment which did exhibit worrying loss to follow-up were in the gaps between clients screening positive for HIV infection, receiving a confirmed positive result, and receiving a CD4 test for assessing ART readiness. The current Chinese testing algorithm calls for expensive and technically demanding Western Blot confirmatory testing which typically delays provision of results by one to two weeks, but in some cases more than a month, delaying access to pre-ART staging and treatment initiation and potentially contributing to loss to follow-up. Delays in administering CD4 tests may be an additional barrier to treatment initiation. It is necessary to advocate for the adoption of newer confirmation strategies which would reduce or eliminate wait times for test results (Styer, Sullivan, & Parker, 2011)such as scaling up the use of point-of-care CD4 tests in selected community-based testing centre settings (Jani, et al., 2011; Mtapuri-Zinyowera, et al., 2010), which would help to move clients more efficiently through the HIV care continuum.

Finally, the interventions reviewed here also demonstrate that many people underestimate the human resources and skills needed to develop and sustain a technology- driven intervention. It is worth noting that, of the two intervention sites participating in the Xiu Boy campaign, the Guangxi site far outperformed the Yunnan site terms of testing uptake. This disparity is unlikely the result of differences in service delivery model (both sites offered community-based rapid testing, while only Yunnan additionally offered clinic-based testing) or HIV risk (reported HIV prevalence is in fact significantly higher in Yunnan than Guangxi). However, the implementing team in Guangxi was younger and more social media savvy, as evidenced by team members having their own, pre-existing social media accounts and having significantly more success attracting social media followers and soliciting submissions for the digital video competition. Guangxi additionally accounted for 45.12% of all visits to the Xiu Boy website during the campaign period, as compared to 23.8% from Yunnan.

As the experience of these two programs shows, launching and supporting an Internet-based intervention requires a Web- and social media-savvy communications team who are comfortable working within the platforms the intervention will target, project managers who understand the possibilities and limitations of these technologies, community experts who are in tune with community needs and preferences, administrators who can maintain strong control over the workflow, and a well-trained team of service providers. The unique skill sets needed to design, manage and monitor Web-based and social media activities may not always be available within one organisations but will require several who bring distinct expertise to a well-planned consortium.


There are a number of limitations which should be taken into account when interpreting the above results: most notably that, as neither intervention used a rigorous evaluation design, the influence of confounding variables cannot be discounted when considering the demonstrated increase in HIV testing rates. Potential confounders may include other HIV prevention and test promotion activities (peer education, media coverage etc.) taking place concurrent with the GZTZ and Xiu Boy activities, or the influence of major seasonal events in the Chinese calendar, such as Spring Festival.

Data reported on the risk and health-seeking behaviours of visitors to the Xiu Boy website must also take into account that, since these data come from a convenience sample, they are not representative either of the wider population of MSM or of all MSM who visited the website. It is also possible that website visitors who declined to complete the risk assessment tool systematically differed from those who completed the assessment in key variables. It should also be noted that this data represents self-reported behavioural data; MSM who completed the assessment may have been motivated by reason of social desirability bias to report safer levels of behaviour than they actually practice. However, participant self-report is a widely used methodology in behavioural research, and studies have suggested that instruments such as Internet-based surveys which do not feature face-to-face interaction may reduce the influence of social desirability bias(Kreuter, Presser, & Tourangeau, 2008). Further, self-reported levels of sexual risk behaviour were broadly similar to behaviours reported in Zhang (2011) and Zu (2013) with the exception that a much higher proportion of Xiu Boy visitors reported having engaged in commercial sex (21.5% versus 5.8% and 5.7%, respectively).


Despite content restrictions and the limited reach of some key global services (i.e. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter) inside of China, information and communication technology platforms, including microsites, online games, digital videos and social media represent an important channel for reaching Chinese MSM and can contribute to increased HTC service uptake and case finding. Indeed, ICT strategies which generate service demand and facilitate service delivery are likely to grow in importance as target audiences increasingly shift to online interactions and funding for resource intensive, venue-based strategies becomes limited. Successful online intervention models hold the promise not only of increased coverage, but also of relatively simple scale-up. It is, however, important not to underestimate the level of resources and technical skill required to implement and sustain these interventions and the importance of partnership and collaboration with governments and service providers if promotion is to translate into service uptake. Finally, it is critical that these interventions be planned with robust monitoring and evaluation measures in place, and that existing monitoring and evaluation systems evolve in order to capture the added value of online intervention activities along with more traditional models such as venue-based peer outreach, in order to further develop an evidence base in support of ICT intervention models.


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Biographical Statements

Matt Avery is a Regional Technical Advisor on Strategic Behavioural Communications with the FHI 360 Asia-Pacific Regional Office in Bangkok, Thailand. He has been working in HIV prevention with MSM and other key affected populations for more than 10 years.

Contact: MAvery@fhi360.org

Gang (Roger) Meng is a head of a Lingnan Huoban a CBO working with MSM and the LGBT community in China. By implementing Internet-based strategies, Lingnan Huoban provided 21,038 HIV tests to MSM during 2008-2013 in Guangdong Province. The CBO was awarded an “Advanced Group” by the Ministry of Health of China in 2013, which is the only grassroots organisations among all of the 156 award-winners.

Stephen Mills, PhD, MPH is Technical Director, Health, Population, and Nutrition, with the FHI 360 Asia-Pacific Regional Office in Bangkok, Thailand. He has been working in HIV programming, capacity building and surveillance for over 20 years.

Matt Avery, Gang Meng & Stephen Mills
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Benjamin Hanckel, Laurindo Garcia, Glenn-Milo Santos & Eric Julian Manalastas

Published Online: July 17, 2014
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HIV-positive gay men and other men who have sex with men (MSM) experience sexual stigma, HIV-related stigma and isolation that can function as barriers to accessing information related to HIV. Little is known about how these men utilize and use technology to overcome these barriers. This study sought to explore technology use and identify key technological concerns of this population through a survey among 119 HIV-positive MSM. This survey was part of a formative assessment undertaken at the initial stage of the development an information and communications technology (ICT) resource and peer-support web-app for HIV-positive MSM in Southeast Asia. In this assessment, we found that HIV-positive MSM lack access to HIV-related support and resources. In particular, we observed that younger MSM (<30) and those diagnosed with HIV within the last year were less likely to report having friends living with HIV compared to older MSM and those without a recent HIV-diagnosis, respectively. These men expressed a need for ICT services that afford opportunities for social connection and resource sharing as well as information related to legal and health care resources. These findings illustrate the capability deprivations experienced by HIV-positive men. Using Amartya Sen’s capability approach we argue that developing an ICT resource can begin to address the deprivations and information deficiencies of HIV-positive MSM by enhancing peer support and increasing access to HIV-related information and resources.

Keywords: HIV, Stigma, ICT, Technology, Asia, Capability Approach, HIV-Positive MSM


Gay men and other men who have sex with men (MSM) globally face institutions, policies, and discourses that continue to position their same-sex attraction and intimate relationships as negative (Hammack, Thompson, & Pilecki, 2009; Herek, 2007). This homonegativity works to marginalise MSM and in many contexts lays the grounds for legislation that criminalises their sexual activities (Csete & Dube, 2010) and expression. At least 76 countries worldwide, and at least 5  countries within Southeast (SE) Asia, continue to criminalise same-sex sexual behaviour among consenting adults, with punishments ranging from fines, to imprisonment, or even death sentences (Itaborahy and Zhu, 2013).

This marginalisation is particularly concerning for HIV-positive gay men and other MSM who face stigma associated with their sexual activity and expression, their gender identity and expression, as well as their HIV status. For HIV-positive MSM the perceived stigma can result in a feeling of guilt or shame and if their status becomes known they could experience discrimination and verbal abuse (United Nations, 2011), including from other MSM (Smit et al., 2012). This paper takes the starting point that information and communication technology can support and empower such populations. At present no transnational ICT resource for HIV-positive MSM exists within SE Asia to address this regional HIV epidemic. B-Change Foundation, a non-profit civil society organisation based in the Philippines identified this gap and is developing an ICT resource called PLUS to connect HIV-positive MSM to resources and support to enhance their lives. The development of this resource began with a formative assessment that included a survey to further understand the needs of HIV-positive MSM in SE Asia. The paper reports on the findings from this assessment.


The Affordances of Network Technologies

Through providing people with opportunities to come together, the Internet has ‘…afforded greater involvement in communities of shared interests’ (Wellman, 2001, p. 247). These communities are not constrained by propinquity and can be conceptualized as ‘cyberplaces’ (Wellman, 2001) or ‘networked publics’ that provide distinct affordances for people to gather and connect with similar others (Boyd, 2011).

These spaces afford particular opportunities for those who have been marginalized by ‘mainstream society’. Research has shown that same-sex attracted and gender-diverse young people (Hanckel & Morris, 2014; Paradis, in press), BDSM  community participants (Rambukkana, 2007) and crossdressers (Ferreday & Lock, 2007; Hegland & Nelson, 2002) engage in online spaces for social connection, resources, and identity formation. These spaces afford people living with marginalised identities the opportunity to find similar others in anonymous spaces that are not restricted by temporal and geographic boundaries.

Similarly, research with HIV-positive individuals has found that online spaces provide them with opportunities to be exposed to information and resources about HIV, as well as to connect with other HIV-positive people (Bar-Lev, 2008; Courtenay-Quirk et al., 2010; Drushel, 2013). In doing so these spaces act as supportive environments, which Chenard (2007) argues are crucial for people living with HIV because they function as supportive spaces that protect individuals from stigma and allow them to feel and act ‘normal’. These spaces afford opportunities for brokering new forms of social capital between participants (Drushel, 2013). Social capital occurs here in the form of specific ties that are created between these HIV-positive MSM. In this sense, social capital refers to the resources and benefits that are derived from a network of connections with peers (Bourdieu, 1986; Beaudoin & Thorson, 2004). These connections can lead to support and positive outcomes for people living with varied health concerns (Beaudoin & Tao; 2007; Chung, 2014). Specifically, for HIV-positive MSM, online spaces have been shown to not only reduce feelings of isolation, but they also provide opportunities for individuals to give and receive support and derive positive meanings about living with HIV (Mo & Coulson, 2010; Mo & Coulson, 2013).

There is also evidence to suggest that these online spaces lead to positive coping benefits and increased self-care self-efficacy for HIV positive people who use them (Mo & Coulson, 2010, 2012). Engagement in these spaces can increase participants’ adherence to ART (Samal et al., 2011) as well as provide individuals with the tools and efficacy to address their lived experiences of marginalisation and engage in varied forms of activism (Reeves, 2001). These forms of online engagement have the potential to lead to an increased quality of life for HIV-positive MSM; however more research is required to understand how well these findings hold true for MSM in low to middle income countries (Scanlon & Vreeman, 2013).

This sharing of information and resources between participants can be conceptualised as ‘subcultural knowledge.’ Recent research (Hanckel & Morris, 2014; Munt, Bassett, & O’Riordan, 2002) has shown how online spaces can play a peer-based mentoring function whereby more self-aware or experienced participants provide advice and support and pass on forms of ‘subcultural knowledge’ to others in the community. In this way these online spaces operate as a ‘… forum for the transfer of (sub)cultural capital’ (Munt et al., 2002, p. 130). In a similar way, HIV-related online spaces afford individuals living with HIV the opportunity to acquire new forms of knowledge about HIV and come together to debate and discuss moral dilemmas of living with HIV/AIDS (Bar-Lev, 2008; Mo & Coulson, 2013; Rier, 2007). However these online spaces may be more likely to transmit dominant discourses about life with HIV to the exclusion of alternative discourses and narratives (Bar-Lev, 2008; Sandaunet, 2008). In Rier’s (2007) work on discussions of HIV disclosure online, he shows how the participants “…police online discourse to mark and attack positions they deem immoral and dangerous” (p. 1053). This hierarchy of subcultural capital (Jensen, 2006) presents limitations and constraints to the possibilities of users on these sites. As Rier (2007) suggests, discourses online are likely to reinforce offline behaviours, and likely to impact people’s values as well. This point presents an interesting challenge for online programs that aim to assist HIV-positive MSM in navigating their lives living with HIV.

Furthermore challenges in access to, and use of, these websites and web-based applications –- also known as ‘web-apps’ — persist. One major challenge facing ICT projects continues to be the access individuals have to engage with online-based projects (Kalichman et al., 2002). In addition, several other challenges exist for HIV-positive people. One of these is the prevalence of HIV-related Internet sites that provide false and misleading information. Benotsch, Kalichman, & Weinhardt (2004) in their study, that explored how HIV-positive individuals obtain health information online, found that those from lower socio-economic backgrounds and with minimal formal education are more likely to trust misleading information and be less able to critically evaluate it.

Another challenge HIV-positive people face is finding ICT resources that provide them with the particular information they need. As Horvath et al (2010) suggest, many HIV websites might be overwhelming for newly diagnosed people, which is a particular concern as these individuals are also likely to be one of the primary users of online support groups (Mo & Coulson, 2010). Furthermore different groups have different needs, such as women (Walsh, Horvath, Fisher, & Courtenay-Quirk, 2012), trans* people (Herbst et al., 2008), and, for the purposes of the current paper, gay men and other MSM. As Horvath et al (2010) suggest, the information provided on websites needs to reflect differing demographics and situational diagnoses, which may help HIV-positive people manage their disease more effectively. These challenges have design implications that impact on the functionality of ICT resources (Courtenay-Quirk et al., 2010).

Enhancing the Capabilities of HIV-positive Gay Men and Other MSM in SE-Asia

As recent authors (Courtenay-Quirk et al., 2010; Horvath, Wilkerson, McFarlane, & Courtenay-Quirk, 2012; Scanlon & Vreeman, 2013) have advocated, including HIV-people in the design and development of community development interventions is crucial. This work is based around the guiding principle ‘Greater involvement of people living with HIV/AIDS’ (GIPA) which aims to ensure that HIV-positive people are recognised for their expertise of living with HIV and are consulted at every stage of the process of developing the ICT resource (International HIV/AIDS Alliance & Global Network of People Living with HIV, 2011).

To develop an ICT resource that will enhance the quality of life for HIV-positive gay men and other MSM, B-Change Foundation sought to initially assess the needs of this population. Understanding the needs of individuals, and how it will enhance their quality of life is crucial to doing development (Sen, 1999). We draw on the Capability Approach which is focused on expanding individuals’ substantive freedoms, that is, their capabilities, and removing the “various types of unfreedoms that leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency” (Sen, 1999, p. xii). If individuals have enhanced capabilities they are able to exercise a greater amount of choice than those with diminished capabilities. For example, the capabilities of a person who has had access to sexual health literacy programs will be far greater than a person who has had no access to such information.

ICTs, we argue, present an opportunity to enhance an individual’s capabilities while circumventing or at least buffering existing multiple stigmas and legislative barriers. Thus ICTs can be used to enhance the opportunities that individuals have available to them, which can result in individuals leading lives they have reason to value. The formative assessment undertaken at the beginning of the development of PLUS sought to understand the daily experiences of these MSM and what they need from an ICT resource to improve their capabilities and thereby improve their quality of life.


An online survey was undertaken at the initial stages of the development of PLUS, from December 2012 to March 2013. The survey sought to understand the experiences of HIV-positive MSM in SE Asia, and the needs they felt could be addressed through an ICT resource. It also sought to understand how they use ICTs within their everyday lives. An online survey was determined to be the best data collection method to ensure diversity and allow access to participants across SE Asia. As has been found previously, web-based self-report questionnaires provide accessibility to a wide and broad audience (Gosling, Vazire, Srivastava, & John, 2004; Ayala et al., 2013). Using an online survey gave us access to a diverse number of participants across Asia at a low cost, which was important as the ICT resource is transnational in scope. The survey could be accessed on a computer, or through a mobile or tablet device. The use of online surveys also has the benefit of allowing volunteers to participate anonymously, ensuring their privacy.

A targeted sampling procedure was devised to reach HIV-positive MSM in SE Asia who have had a diversity of experiences living with HIV, including both those who have had contact with support and services, and those who have not. Participants were recruited through social media channels, including Facebook and Twitter. They were also recruited via email networks and contact with staff who work with HIV-positive MSM in the region who were asked to forward on the anonymous survey to their clients. As part of the recruitment strategy a poster (see Figure 1) was developed which included a blurb about the questionnaire, as well as a call to action that encouraged potential participants to either click on a hyperlink, or scan a quick response (QR) code to access the survey. The recruitment material was produced in all the languages of the survey – English, Bahasa Melayu, Bahasa Indonesian and Chinese (both simplified and traditional scripts).

Community-based organisations that support MSM living with HIV in PLUS Phase I coverage sites  (Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Manila and Singapore) assisted with translating the 25 closed questions in the survey. Draft translations were subsequently peer reviewed by independent third-parties from within the community prior to publication online.

Participants were eligible to participate in this program formative assessment if they self-reported as an HIV-positive male who has sex with other men. Informed consent was collected and participation in the survey was voluntary and anonymous.  Participants were given the option of getting more information about the launch of PLUS by providing an email address. Email addresses were stored securely and were not linked to their survey data.


Figure 1. Survey recruitment poster


The instrument collected data on demographic, social and clinical characteristics. Questions about sexual attraction and behaviour offered participants the option to provide more than one response to these questions. Information was collected about needs from an ICT-based resource by asking participants to rank 11 functions (i.e., potential uses) of an ICT peer-support service. These functions were under the following broad themes: opportunities for social and sexual relationships; access to HIV-related information and resources; information about legal and health services; and opportunities to engage in advocacy (the individual functions are listed in Table 2). Data were also sought on participants’ current use of ICTs, including information about hardware and software that they use to access the Internet, and how they engage with new ICT resources.

Sample and Analysis

During the research period, 344 people started the survey. Once the data were cleaned and ‘non-completes’ removed, there were 302 cases in total. Of these 302 there were 119 MSM who identified as being HIV-positive. This paper focuses on the experiences and needs of these HIV-positive MSM. The survey data were coded and analysed using SPSS. Summary statistics were calculated for data among HIV-positive MSM and stratified by different covariates of interest. Between-group differences among HIV-positive MSM were assessed using Wilcoxon rank-sum test for means and Fisher’s exact test for proportions; statistical significance was evaluated using a p-value cut-off of 0.05.



Of the participants 117 were male and 1 identified as a female to male (FTM) transgender person . Participants ranged in age from 21 years to 68 years in age (M = 35). The majority of participants identified as Asian (n=89; 75%); few identified as Caucasian (n = 21; 18%), ‘mixed’ (n = 4; 3%), African (n =3; 3%) or Latino (n=1; 1%). Twenty-nine (24%) participants came from Malaysia, 17 (14%) came from the Philippines, 13 (11%) came from Singapore and 11 (9%) came from Taiwan. Ten (8%) came from the United States, 8 (7%) came from Indonesia and 6 (5%) were from Canada. Five or less participants (in descending order) came from Thailand, UK, HK, China, Australia, Russian Federation, Netherlands, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Japan, India and Andorra.  Almost all participants reported being attracted to other men (99%).Many narratives have attended the rise of the read write web and social media.  Finance capitalism, the credit crunch and crash demonstrated (again) the volatility of the market and the consequences on the public sphere of private (and corporate) behaviour.  Creative industries strategies and policies attempted to inject entrepreneurialism and urban regeneration into post-manufacturing cities and nations.  The economic focus on fashion and music, sport and tourism, creates a culture where one group’s work enables another group’s leisure.  Through mobile telephony, work is displaced into leisure time.  Indeed, the confluence of consumerism and non-working time means that leisure is now traded for the more ambivalently constituted label of ‘lifestyle.’

Table 1. Profile of survey respondents




















‘Mixed Race’













Country of residence+






















+Includes >6 participants

Note: Numbers may not add to 119 and percentages may not add up to 100 for questions with missing data due to participant non-response.

Participants Experiences with HIV

On average, it has been 6.5 years since the participants were diagnosed with HIV. A significantly greater proportion of young MSM (<30), were diagnosed with HIV within the last year compared to those aged over 30 years of age (53% vs. 17%). Participants last HIV test took place within the last 3 years (M = 2.18) and their most recent consultation with a health care specialist was on average 5.36 months ago.

Eighty-seven (81%) participants indicated that they had started antiretroviral treatment (ART), while 21 (19%) participants indicated they were not on ART. Of those who had started ART, the average time since treatment initiation reported was four to five years ago (M = 4.61). Of those who were diagnosed with HIV within the last year, a significantly greater proportion had not yet started ART compared to those diagnosed over a year ago (39% vs. 12%; p = .003). A significantly greater proportion of these participants were MSM under 30 who had not started ART compared to those above 30 (33% vs. 12%; p = .02).

Following their diagnosis, many respondents reported that they experienced negative changes in the areas of sex (52%), relationships (47%) and their expectations for the future (44%). These experiences highlight domains where ICT resources can be targeted to better address the quality of life of newly diagnosed MSM. Some participants indicated a negative change in employment (31%), education (25%), friends (22%), family (17%) and religion (10%). A number of participants reported a positive change with regard to friendships (31%) and family (32%) relationships.

Accessing HIV-related Information and Support

Information related to HIV was obtained from a variety of sources. Participants indicated that they accessed HIV information from the Internet (71%), doctors (62%), support groups (48%), and friends (30%). In addition, 93% of participants reported other sources for HIV information including health professionals other than doctors, such as counsellors and nurses. They also indicated obtaining information from print media, through books, brochures and magazines, and through HIV-campaign related resources.

As previous studies (Chenard, 2007) have indicated, being able to draw on the support of friends and others living with HIV is important for social connections, belonging and resource sharing. However for the MSM in this assessment, a significantly greater proportion of those diagnosed with HIV within the past year reported not having any friends who were HIV-positive compared to those diagnosed over a year ago (16% vs. 3%; p = .023). This is also particularly true for MSM under 30, of whom a significantly greater proportion reported not having any HIV-positive friends, compared to older MSM (14% vs. 3%; p = .04).

HIV-Positive MSMs Technology Use

Respondent’s use of technologies to access the Internet for private use were varied. They were more likely to use laptops (61%) and smartphones (49%), rather than desktop computers (33%) for accessing the Internet. The respondents were most likely to use computers with Windows-based operating systems (OS) (65%) followed by a Mac-based OS (31%), Google OS (13%) or Linux OS (1%). Respondents who use smartphones were most likely to use either an iPhone or Android-based phone (45% vs. 31%). Fewer participants use a Blackberry (RIM) (13%), Nokia (7%) or Windows mobile phone (2%). Four percent were unsure of the smartphone OS they use and 2% indicated ‘other.’

More than half of the participants (58%) indicated that they are likely to wait to hear about new technologies prior to incorporating them into their everyday lives. Of these respondents 23% waited for advice from those close to them prior to adopting new ICTs. In contrast 38% of the sample indicated that they actively sought out new ICTs while 4% of the respondents indicated a frustration with using technology.

Preferred functions of a Peer-Support ICT Resource

For HIV-positive MSM the most important aspect of an HIV peer support website or app are opportunities to connect with similar others to share their experiences of living with HIV. Among the participants, 43% ranked this item as number 1 and 79% highly-ranked (ranked it in the top 5) this feature.

Table 2. Preferred functions of an ICT resource for HIV-positive gay men and other MSM by rank

% who highly ranked the functionality (top 5) % that ranked this functionality as number 1
Sharing experiences with other HIV-positive MSM 79% 43%
Opportunity to find health services in local areas 78% 9%
Ask questions about medication 75% 8%
Learn about how others deal with emotional issues 69% 7%
Opportunity to find Legal/Human Rights services in local areas 66% 10%
Meet others for friendships 34% 6%
Ask questions about sex 29% 4%
Opportunity to feedback about Health services in local areas 22% 2%
Documenting examples of discrimination 18% 5%
Meet others for relationships 18% 5%
Meet others for sex 13% 3%

Note: The percentages are rounded to whole numbers

The participants indicated that they wanted to connect with other HIV-positive MSM to share information about medication (75% highly ranked this function) and share strategies to deal with the emotional issues of living with HIV (69% highly ranked this feature). Furthermore, being able to share strategies related to emotional issues was important for a significantly greater proportion of MSM who were diagnosed with HIV within the past year, compared to those diagnosed over a year ago (84% vs. 62%, respectively).

Though the opportunity to share their experiences of living with HIV is important, of less interest to participants was having an online space to meet others for sexual encounters or for relationships (only 13% and 18% highly-ranked these features, respectively).

The HIV-positive MSM in this assessment also indicated that having access to information about local resources was important. They indicated that being connected to local health resources (78%) and legal and human rights services (66%) are important functions of an ICT resource. Few participants though saw a need for using the space as a feedback mechanism where they could rate these local health and legal services (22% highly-ranked this function). Noteworthy also is that few participants considered being able to report cases of discrimination and stigma as important; only 18% of respondents highly ranked this function.


Taken together this formative assessment indicates that HIV-positive MSM in SE Asia seek opportunities to connect with similar peers for emotional support and belonging, and to discuss their experiences of living with HIV. Those who had been diagnosed within the last year were more likely to want to be able to share strategies related to the emotional issues of living with HIV. This finding corresponds to previous research (Horvath et al., 2012; Walsh et al., 2012) that found that socialisation and emotional support are important for people living with HIV, particularly for those individuals in their first year of diagnosis as they transition into a life living with HIV. This assessment also indicates that HIV-positive MSM under 30 and those diagnosed within the first year were least likely to know others who are living with HIV. This has implications for the types of support and (sub)cultural knowledge they have access to. Moreover, our data suggest that HIV-positive MSM under 30 and MSM recently diagnosed with HIV may be more isolated, and thus might benefit more greatly from ICTs that can mitigate their isolation.

HIV-positive MSM utilise both the Internet and offline resources to enhance their knowledge of HIV. There is an indication that what is missing from these resources are opportunities to connect with similar others whom they can share coping strategies and knowledge to increase their own HIV-related expertise. These men specifically seek information related to medication and the opportunity to share strategies for handling emotional issues related to living with HIV. In doing so they seek opportunities to enhance their own expertise of HIV, and subsequently improve their quality of life. This sharing of resources and information with similar others is sharing of subcultural knowledge; that is, these MSM seek opportunities to further enhance their knowledge and access to information about living with HIV from their peers, i.e., gay men and other MSM living with HIV.

This peer-to-peer engagement lies at the heart of enhancing social capital. The access to networks of HIV-positive MSM that online spaces afford, and the resulting subcultural knowledge is important for these men. Interestingly these HIV-positive gay men and other MSM reported less interest in an ICT-resource that connects them to opportunities for romantic relationships or sexual encounters. One possible explanation for this is that providing a space to share their emotional experiences and share resources is a more pressing priority. In addition, online spaces, such as Grindr, Jack’d, PlanetRomeo and Manhunt exist elsewhere that may fulfill the sexual and intimacy needs of these men. Our findings are similar to Courtenay-Quirk et al’s (2010) study with persons recently diagnosed with HIV in the US, where participants rated meeting others for dates or sex partners as less important than being able to socially connect with others for support.

HIV-positive gay men and other MSM are also interested in knowing more about local health care, as well as legal and human rights services. This information is crucial as many SE Asian MSM reside in areas of stigmatisation and legislation marginalisation (Csete & Dube, 2010). The discrimination encountered can result in delayed access to services (Kinsler et al., 2007). Knowing about accessible services that meet their needs are important for these MSM. Furthermore, the prospect of having a directory of safe(r) services allows for HIV-positive MSM to handle concerns about disclosure and potentially stigmatising reactions from homonegative professionals.

While identifying these services is important for these MSM, less important is being able to assess and report on their experiences of using these services. We believe that the importance of being able to assess and report on these services may change over time once these men have actually used these services and had varying experiences with them. A greater understanding of minimum standards of HIV care and support is also likely to trigger a greater interest in assessing and providing feedback on these services.

New ICTs provide opportunities for forms of advocacy and mobilization, and opportunities to document cases of discrimination. Interestingly, however, few of the men in our survey reported an interest in ICT resources that allow them to report cases of discrimination and stigma. It may be that participants believed that HIV-related discrimination was not a reportable offence or a human rights violation. Question wording may have also shaped responses. The item asked participants if they thought it was important to be able to ‘document examples of discrimination and stigma.’ Participants may have reservations about whether documenting this information actually works or if it puts them at risk for further stigma and discrimination. How these MSM might be empowered through ICT resources to document and report lived experiences of stigma, a critical practice in HIV and LGBT advocacy, remains an area for future investigation.

Taken together these needs represent capabilities that participants do not have access to, or do not believe current services adequately fulfill. A peer-support website or app has the potential to fulfill these capability deprivations. By being able to provide HIV-related information and connection to similar others, an ICT resource can address the information deficiencies that these men experience because of the multiple stigma they face as gay men and MSM living with HIV. In doing so, ICTs can help improve their quality of life by breaking down barriers due to stigma and connecting them with resources and information important to their needs.


Like all formative studies, the current assessment has several limitations. One is that the conclusions drawn here are from a small non-representative sample of predominantly HIV-positive MSM from SE Asia. Secondly, though we presented data on technology use, these behaviours are likely to change over time as new hardware and software emerge. In addition, our data are based solely on self-reports, rather than direct observations of technology use. Finally, even though we sought to get a diverse sample of participants and translated the survey into several languages, the survey could not reach HIV-positive gay men with literacy constraints, who do not readily use or access ICTs, and those with technological limitations during the time of data collection.


There is a need in SE Asia to connect HIV-positive MSM to safe, supportive settings where they can accrue the (sub)cultural capital and knowledge they need to be able to enhance their capabilities and thereby improve their quality of life. This is particularly the case for MSM under 30 and those who have been recently diagnosed with HIV who may not have the connections with others living with HIV.

HIV-positive MSM are actively engaged in using new technologies. The particularly large number of mobile phone users is unsurprising given the increasing uptake of mobile phones in Asia (International Telecommunications Union, 2013). This development provides increasing opportunities for the deployment of ICT resources that engage HIV-positive MSM in SE Asia. Through a greater understanding about how HIV-positive MSM adopt and use new technologies, as well as the needs that ICTs might be able to fulfill, we can ensure that the limited resources available are used effectively for developing and designing effective ICT resources for their needs.

This assessment has been an important initial stage in engaging HIV-positive MSM in the design of PLUS, an ICT resource being developed by B-Change Foundation. These findings and the ongoing testing of the service with HIV-positive MSM will inform the creation of a resource that is responsive to the needs and capability deficits experienced by these MSM in SE Asia, which has the potential to be scaled up across other geographic regions.

Our formative assessment indicates that HIV-positive MSM are looking for information, emotional support, and resources from similar others to learn more about living with HIV. These needs, or capability deficits, can be addressed and enhanced through strategically designed ICT resources that can circumvent marginalising stigmas. In doing so ICT resources afford the opportunity for enhancing the participants’ lives and overall quality of life.

Funding Source

A grant to kickstart PLUS was provided to B-Change Foundation from Satu Dunia Indonesia with financial support from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria as part of the ISEAN-Hivos Program. B-Change Foundation receives direct support from the B-Change social enterprise group for the launch and maintenance of PLUS and will continue to seek other partners to help consolidate and expand the range of functions that the web-app offers.


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Biographical Statements

Benjamin Hanckel is a PhD candidate at the University of Technology, Sydney and also the Monitoring and Evaluation consultant for B-Change Foundation. His work explores the role of technology in development programs, with a particular focus on the Asia-Pacific region.

Laurindo Garcia is a civil society, diversity and inclusion advocate based between the Philippines and Singapore, who is often called to give a perspective of people living with  or affected by HIV in the Asia-Pacific region. He is coordinator for two regional community networks promoting health for sexual and gender minorities. In 2011 he founded a regional social enterprise group called B-Change that promotes social change through technology.

Glenn-Milo Santos, PhD, MPH is a Research Scientist for the Center for Public Health Research in the San Francisco Department of Public Health and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Community Health Systems at the University of California, San Francisco.

Eric Julian Manalastas is an assistant professor at the Department of Psychology, University of the Philippines since 2007 where he teaches undergraduate courses in social psychology, human sexuality, and LGBT psychology. He is founding coordinator of the LGBT Psychology Special Interest Group of the Psychological Association of the Philippines.

Tara Brabazon

Published Online: July 5, 2014
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Social media sites – like Flickr, Facebook, YouTube, FourSquare and Twitter – summon a tapestry of friendship, humour and community between digitally literate citizens around the world.  But the role and value of these platforms and portals for education, teaching and learning is neither self-evident nor obvious.  Therefore, this article returns to a key early text in the sociology of education:  Paul Willis’s Learning to Labour.   Willis addressed the injustices within and beyond school.  He probed how teaching practices and the ‘resistive’ behaviours of young men ensured that they were prevented from – and indeed prevent themselves – from gaining social mobility.  Everyday practices such as smoking, drinking, truancy and swearing undermined their capacity to improve economic and social status.  It is appropriate to return to Willis’s argument and explore new strategies for avoidance, resistance and denial in the digital cultures of education.  I track the movement from learning to labour to learning to leisure.

Keywords: Social media, Facebook, Paul Willis, leisure, literacy, resistance

Education has always inspired fear among those who want to keep the existing distributions of power and wealth as they are.

-Howard Zinn (2005, p. 87)

Many narratives have attended the rise of the read write web and social media.  Finance capitalism, the credit crunch and crash demonstrated (again) the volatility of the market and the consequences on the public sphere of private (and corporate) behaviour.  Creative industries strategies and policies attempted to inject entrepreneurialism and urban regeneration into post-manufacturing cities and nations.  The economic focus on fashion and music, sport and tourism, creates a culture where one group’s work enables another group’s leisure.  Through mobile telephony, work is displaced into leisure time.  Indeed, the confluence of consumerism and non-working time means that leisure is now traded for the more ambivalently constituted label of ‘lifestyle.’

This article explores what happens when social media conflate with educational media. Social media sites – like Flickr, Facebook, YouTube, FourSquare and Twitter – summon a tapestry of friendship, humour and community between digitally literate citizens around the world.  But the role and value of these platforms and portals for education, teaching and learning is neither self-evident nor obvious.  This article attempts to create a moment of consciousness in platform selection.  Simply because content can be digitally migrated between platforms does not mean that it should be.  I wished to log the importance of Gunther Kress’s research in many of the argument made, particularly his conceptualisation of multimodality.  Kress (2010, p. xiii) outlined the use of multimodality as, it “can tell us what modes are used:  it cannot tell us about this different style; it has no means to tell us what the difference might mean.”  The aim of this article is to start to configure how these different modes and styles can be used in a way that enables learning and information literacy.  Therefore, in this article I return to a key early text in the sociology of education:  Paul Willis’s Learning to Labour.   Willis addressed the injustices within and beyond school.  He probed how teaching practices and the ‘resistive’ behaviours of young men ensured that they were prevented from – and indeed prevent themselves – from gaining social mobility.  Everyday practices such as smoking, drinking, truancy and swearing undermined their capacity to improve economic and social status.  It is appropriate to return to Willis’s argument and explore new strategies for avoidance, resistance and denial.  I track the movement from learning to labour to learning to leisure.

Facebook matters to this article, as it matters to schools and universities.  By 2011, it was reported that one in every eight minutes spent online is on Facebook.  Students could be listening to an online lecture or reading a refereed article through Google Scholar.  Instead, they are choosing to visit Facebook, which is replacing both Google and Yahoo in total time spent online (Kagan, 2011). Being on Facebook has become the default behaviour for millions of citizens around world and a default sign in option for myriad websites.  Facebook is not the problem, but assuming that anything is intrinsically educational on the site is a concern.  It is possible to use it in ways that are beneficial for education.  However social media are not intrinsically or inevitably educational media.  The consequences of that premise are my focus.

How working class kids still get working class jobs

The difficult thing to explain about how middle class kids get middle class jobs is why others let them.  The difficult thing to explain about how working class kids get working class jobs is why they let themselves.

-Paul Willis (1997, p. 1)

Willis’s argument is seductive.  Deploying ethnographic research methods, he entered the culture of young men at school and demonstrated how their ‘resistance’ to teachers and education was effective in the short term, but blocked their chances for learning and social mobility.  Specifically, Willis asked how leisure behaviours like smoking, truanting and swearing undermined learning possibilities.  To digitally migrate his argument, students are now texting, updating and commenting on social networking sites.  Instead of swearing and back-chatting the teacher, they are silent and chatting back to their friends on mobile phones in classrooms.  Digital leisure, like analogue leisure, obstructs structured learning.  In his original study, Willis (1997, p. 2) explored how ‘resistance’ to school ensures that young working class men are ‘prepared’ (through a lack of other options) to enter manual work.

In a post-industrial society, the Willis 2.0 question is how education is used to prepare students for underemployment and a capping of expectations.  In other words, how do social media create spaces for resistance for students that – by wasting time commenting and updating on issues that do not assist their learning – block their chance and opportunity to learn?  To give readers one example from my classroom, I rarely have problems with mobile phones in lectures and seminars.  I often make a joke about the first ring or beep in the lecture or seminar, mentioning the owner’s necessity to take the call to complete a drug deal.  The laughter and touch of embarrassment is enough to stop the phones during formal teaching hours.  However there is one student where I failed to curb this inopportune connectivity during formal learning.  I just managed – by some serious nagging and pushing – to help Lily pass my module in the first semester of her first year.  She failed her two other courses.  This threat of expulsion may seem to provide sufficient motivation to concentrate in the second semester.  Unfortunately not.  By the end of the second semester, Lily was even texting in my class.  Her first assignment showed she had no real idea about the question or the course and had conducted no reading.  She failed.  While the distraction of the mobile phone was not the cause of her failure, it was clear she had lost the ability to differentiate between education and leisure, important and trivial, concentration and distraction.  In this case, social networking during university teaching and learning sessions blocked Lily from completing her degree.  Marc Prensky, when considering such failures, justified them as a product of intelligence and wisdom, rather than a lack of motivation and concentration.

More and more young people are now deeply and permanently technologically enhanced, connected to their peers and the world in ways no generation has ever been before.  Streams of information come at them 24/7 … Do such kids need school?  More and more of them (almost a third nationally and half in the cities) think not, and drop out (Prensky 2010, p. 1).

Lily did not drop out.  She was formally excluded for failure.  Her connectivity and lack of concentration, study and reading denied her a degree.  This is not ‘technologically enhanced,’ but intellectually deluded.

While social media and connectivity can provide distraction, there are more serious applications of the read write web in undermining the credibility granted to both education and teachers.  Just as Willis’s lads abused teachers behind their backs, Facebook enables this practice to continue, and with a much wider audience, with groups titled ‘Worst Teacher Ever.’5 Often, these groups are given the Facebook category of ‘Just for Fun.’  The blogosphere is also used to collectivise and vent rage about the “Worst Professor” (for example: “Worst professor” 2010).  A more organised, ordered and searchable version of this opinionated and misguided ranking system is “Rate my professors.”6 In this case, anonymous students rank and judge their teachers.  The criteria by which they judge academics raise questions, even from other students.  Steiner (2010) probed the value of “Rate my professor.”

In theory, it does serve a purpose; it helps uninformed students find the best professors and avoid the worst … What does it say about the student population if we pick and choose professors by relying on anonymous reviews that often favor ‘easy’ courses? And how reliable can these reviews actually be? … Furthermore, the reviews are limited to a few dozen words and categories including ‘easiness,’ whether attendance is required, and, for Rate My Professors, ‘attractiveness,’ all of which doesn’t afford the opportunity for a very complete evaluation.

The systemic consequences of such a rating strategy were revealed by a Kaplan survey (Schaffer & Wong, 2010).  The data revealed that such review systems penalise the harder and more challenging markers, with student reviews being the basis for course selection.  Kaplan even argues that such socially networked course selection has created grade inflation, with large groups of students using Rate My Professor and choosing a course on the basis of easy marking.  The confluence of ‘popularity’ of a staff member and ‘easy’ marking is damaging to accountability and rigour in higher education.  When mediated and circulated through Facebook, popularity and easiness are then confused with quality learning.

Paul Willis’s research asks deep questions about ‘agency’ and ‘choice’ in formal educational environments.  But Willis’s work is also a reminder that education is difficult.  To succeed requires reading, focus, care and respect.  It is based on foundational recognition that teachers know more than students.  Obviously clichés of student-centred learning and digital natives attempt to mask this truth.  I am not suggesting that students do not arrive in a classroom with valuable experiences and expertise.  However I am arguing that teachers know more than students.  That is why they are teachers.  If they do not, then they should be removed from the classroom.  Students being ‘Born Digital’ is not the point (Palfrey & Gasser, 2008).  In making this statement, there is an attendant realisation that time is the most precious resource in not only learning, but life.  The imperative is to use the time well as the moment of enrolment in a formal learning environment is short.  Yet social media can transform crowd sourced information about quality teaching into crowd bullying of staff (and other students).

Willis provides the arguments to explain this ridiculing of staff.  He demonstrated that such ‘resistance’ is trivial, flippant and carnivalesque.

This opposition is expressed mainly as a style.  It is lived out in countless small ways which are special to the school institution, instantly recognized by the teachers, and an almost ritualistic part of the daily fabric of life for the kids (1997, p.12).

Willis showed that the “caged resentment” of the lads always stopped “just short of outright confrontation” (1997, pp. 12-13)  The online environment provides an even safer and often anonymous environment to express rage, hatred and blame.  Outright confrontation is blocked by the screen.  Such sites raise key question about learning:  who is responsible for success and failure?  If a student does not attend a class or complete the reading and therefore fails the assessment, then should the measures of achievement be lowered and changed, or is personal accountability to be activated?  Willis was clear:  truancy was “a very imprecise – even meaningless – measure of rejection of school” (1997, p. 27).  In the online university ratings, such as Rate My Professor, the desire to find an easy course where attendance is not mandatory and a high grade can still be attained, is rewarded with a high score.

By students not participating in lectures, tutorials and seminars, they may receive an adequate grade.  But their learning – let alone the metalearning about intellectual discipline and rigour – is not achieved.  Willis discovered that particular behaviours constructed a “space won from school” (1997, p. 29). Similarly, a space is ‘won’ from university through social media resistance.  But working class children continue to gain working class jobs.  Middle class web-enabled students continue to suffer degree inflation, underemployment and disappointment in attaining their aspirations.  Formal learning is woven by a truth:  the harder the student works, the more they learn.  If they mobilise academic shortcuts, they harm themselves.

There is a human face to educational success and failure.  The widening participation agenda in further and higher education is both socially just and economically important.  However the legacy of undereducated earlier generations still has an effect.  As Fran Abrams (2010, p. 45) realised, “time after time, studies had shown the pupils whose parents had the most education did best at school.” Injustice is perpetuated through the continuance of educational inequality.  There has been insufficient intervention in literacy, reading, writing, aspiration and motivation to overcome earlier injustice.  The maxim that propelled my research in The University of Google was that students who are the first generation in their family to enrol in higher education require more attention from teachers, not less (Brabazon 2008a).  They require more assistance, scaffolded assessment and an overt discussion of the expectations of university.  Geoff Pugh, Gwen Coates and Nick Adnett (2005, p. 33) argued that “students from under-represented groups may require more extensive support or more radical changes in teaching and learning strategies if they are to approach completion rate norms … a priority should be to find ways of ensuring more students succeed in completing their course and qualification rather than intensifying the marketing effort to expand recruitment.”7 Yet the widening participation agenda has been concurrent with the proliferation of online learning and – even more seriously – the managerialisation of our institutions.  This means that the group that requires the most assistance has enrolled at the point that the least direct (face-to-face) teaching is actually available.  Certainly Skype, academia.edu, Facebook, Twitter and FourSquare are useful when embedded into curriculum, but they are supplementary processes rather than learning outcomes in themselves.  The new managerial tier in universities has used online learning as an excuse to reduce the number of academics, reduce teaching time, reduce support structures and reduce the corporeal, real time relationships formed between staff and students.  There are fine uses of the social web in information literacy, media literacy and creating extra forms of support for students.  But the medium is not the message.  Social media are not intrinsically or inevitably learning media.  Form is not content.

The more complex question to consider is the role of social media in either addressing or reinforcing this demarcation of aspiration and achievement.  Applying Willis’s influential study to an education system framed by the read write web requires that teachers ask if social media are assisting students in their learning or merely offering distractions or transitory and ineffectual ‘resistance.’  The internet and web provides access to an extraordinary array of information that, when matched with information literacy, is searchable and provides profound benefits and opportunities.  Social media increase the connectivity, community and communication potential of the web.  When integrated with care into a teaching and learning portfolio, it enables an immediacy of feedback, individualised attention and mobility of information and support (see: Shim et al. 2007).  To provide one example, Skype assists students in ‘meeting’ the authors, researchers and academics they are reading, providing a context around their learning beyond a single institution or classroom (Terry, 2009).

Willis asked how middle class kids continue to attain middle class jobs.  One provocative answer is that ‘we’ let them, through a neglect of all the strategies and imperatives that are possible to activate through education to address social and economic inequality and oppression.  To update his argument, some of these strategies to intervene in class-based discrimination and inequality involve monitoring and managing social media (Giampapa, 2010). Without intervention through curriculum and literacy programmes, assumptions about ‘young people’ (and ‘old people’) will ensure that those currently in power remain in power.  With thought and care, media configured for leisure can be deployed in learning.  But it will be used in a different way.

Willis’s arguments agitate with great resilience in our present.  As Stanley Aronowitz (2004, p. ix) argued, Willis’s lads were “exercising ‘agency’ by choosing to ‘fail.’”  The consequences of that failure are now much more serious, with “the factory jobs that were still available in the early 1970s … now gone” (2004, p. x).  Software and hardware have increased the productivity and efficiency of work, but reduced the size of the labour force.  Education is implicated in such changes, offering the pretense of status and mobility.

The new working-class jobs – coded as forms of ‘professional’ labor – bring with them neither good wages and benefits, nor do they reproduce working-class culture.  As the first generation to have earned a post-secondary credential, many working-class kids have been inducted into the value systems and expectations of the salaried middle class, but without acquiring the accoutrements (2004, p. xi).

For the ‘failing’ students recorded in Willis’s research, unskilled work was still available.  Academic success was not the only path to economic stability.  Such jobs and options have now reduced.  The phrase ‘labour saving device’ describes labour reducing devices.

Returning to Learning to Labour twenty five years after its publication, Willis (2004, pp. 182-183) like Aronowitz confirmed the changes that had taken place.

The new high-tech jobs and the higher level training and educational programs designed to fill them are irrelevant to most of the displaced and to be displaced manual industrial workers … We are seeing in the current ‘postindustrial revolution’ a shake out of especially male industrial labor on a scale similar to that of the shake out of agricultural labor in the first industrial revolution.

Many jobs now require not only the completion of high school, but a university degree.  This ‘reality’ designates not only degree inflation, but labour surplus.  With plenty of workers prepared to move to accept a job, work split and reduced shifts, take mobile telephone calls in their leisure time, answer emails and be prepared to be called into work at short notice, higher levels of education become one more strategy to manage – or manipulate – labour surplus.  Technology has not caused such a change.  But the industrial revolution ensured that a smaller workforce could become more efficient and productive through the aid of machines.  The proliferation of the internet has enabled information, ideas and money to travel through national borders, increasing efficiency and reducing the need for local workforces.  Off-shore outsourcing enables a range of tasks to be completed by the worker drawing the lowest wages anywhere in the world.

The ideological confusion between technological change, efficiency and progress has punctuated the history of many nations in the last two hundred years.  The idea that technological change may reduce efficiency and productivity seems not only counterintuitive, but anti-historical.  Yet this hypothesis is worth consideration.  Does there reach a point where over-automating spelling checking and information searching creates a deskilled student as much as Henry Ford’s assembly line created the deskilled worker? (Lee, 2010).8 If software and hardware are proxies for developing skills in thinking, reading, writing, searching and learning, then does this loss of literacies really matter?

If students do not learn to spell because a spelling checker is housed in a word processor, do not learn grammatical rules because errors are corrected in a word processor and do not have to remember facts because they can look them up at speed via Google, then is this progress?  Is there value in holding these analogue skills in reading, writing and remembering?  Such questions are made more serious because of the ageism that accompanies technological change.  Indeed, it is a form of reverse ageism, suggesting that a particular group of young people have intrinsic skills and abilities, thereby not requiring the benefits and commitment of formal education.  The extreme end of Paul Willis’s argument – demonstrating how young people disenfranchise themselves from education – has relocated into the debates encircling the phrase ‘digital natives.’

Digital natives and analogue underemployment

There is a reason why Paul Willis is the analytical spine of this article.  It is important to log that students in the analogue age complained, challenged teachers and enacted behaviour that was rarely in their best academic interests.  But the imperative of Paul Willis’s research was that such ‘resistance’ and ‘rebellion’ was pointless.  Working class children continued to attain working class jobs, like their parents.  Yet age and generation were not the key variables in his study.  Class was much more significant.  Therefore, it is inaccurate to over-emphasise a particular age or generation as ‘inventing’ resistance to teachers and institutions of learning.  When aligning age and technology into a simple package, the reification of research variables creates generalisations and inaccuracies.

The journalistic narrative moves through a familiar pattern.  A generation started to use social networking sites.  After three years of accessing Facebook, the human brain transformed into a comatosed, bored, listless and illiterate mash of meat.  Supposedly – as this zombie movie progresses – students are now incapable of grasping complex ideas because they are dragged through life by white earphones.  Mark Bauerlein (2009) discovered “the dumbest generation,” formulated through a lack of analogue reading and literacy skills.   Yet his argument is more subtle than such a book title suggests.  He acknowledges the great potential of the online environment for learning.

Never have opportunities for education, learning, political action, and cultural activity been greater.  All the ingredients for making an informed and intelligent citizen are in place (2009, p. 10).

Yet from this potential, Bauerlein locates problems in, with and through social media that particularly inhibits young people.

It isn’t enough to say that these young people are uninterested in world realities.  They are actively cut off from them.  Or a better way to put it is to say that they are encased in more immediate realities that shut out conditions beyond – friends, work, clothes, cars, pop music, sitcoms, Facebook (2009, p. 13).

This is a more subtle argument, about socialisation rather than brain transformation.  Conversely, there is an alternative discourse where, instead of these brain changers being the worst students in the history of education, they are actually the best.  Don Trescott and Marc Prensky lead the way in such an interpretation.  Seemingly forgotten is that new media become old media (or the less ageist description, mature media) very quickly.  Skills with software and hardware are easy to attain.  Understanding how to use these skills in context and evaluate their results is a more complex process.  However once more, as if tracing ageism from people and onto technology, new is better.  Old is a problem.

Such talk about youth and media is not new.  Assumptions are always made about youth, particularly when the people making the assumptions are not young (Cohen 1972).  From the 1960s, the market economy required the invention of new target markets to enlarge and differentiate consumption. The ‘generation gap’ was invented to express a loss of faith in traditional authority structures.  Clothes, rock music and long hair were connoted as not only different or radical (Jones 1990), but the building blocks of revolution (Hall & Jefferson 1976).  Since the 1960s, this sweeping statement of difference on the basis of age has had many consequences.  Firstly, and perhaps most significantly, the focus on age has meant that other social variables – particularly race, class (Savage 2000), gender (McRobbie & Nava 1984; McRobbie 1991), and religion – have been under-discussed. Secondly, alongside this simplification of identity is an absence of history.  A single cultural formation – music, fashion, hair, the web – is rendered much larger and more significant than it actually is.  Thirdly, the writers extolling youthful difference invariably read young people as a force of change, defiance, crisis and threat (Pearson 1983).  This revolution through youth continues until the moment they enter adulthood (Rimmer 1985). Then the next group of 13-19 year olds – Generation X (Redhead 1990; 1997), Generation Y, the Nintendo Generation and the Google Generation – is scanned for their threat, promise, challenge and transformation.

Ideologies of youth prevent and often block actual research into behaviour, history and context, enacting profound damage to schools, universities and libraries9 and flattening conceptualisations of literacy.  This simplification through generation has existed since the 1960s with the mods and their amphetamines and scooters, the skinheads with their boots, violence and racism and the punks with safety pins, slashed clothes and mohawks (Savage 1991). Now that music and fashion are no longer battlegrounds between generations (Hebdige 1979), the talk of radical change and threat has moved to technology.

Instead of mods, skins, rockers, punks and goths, the new group of threat and opportunity has been labelled as Digital Natives.  This phrase was first used in 2001 by Marc Prensky.  A management consultant, he used the term to demonstrate that, “today’s students think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors” (Prensky 2001).  Once more the young ones are restless and the older generation does not understand them.  But true to the pattern, Prensky has:

  1. diagnosed a moment of revolutionary change,
  2. invented a social crisis and failure in education resulting from it and
  3. transformed himself into the consultant to fix it.

Actually, generation is too blunt a sociological instrument to understand social, economic and political change.  It always has been.  It is far too vague a description to understand an age group and how ‘they’ deploy ‘technology.’  But in his affirmation of modernity, it is not surprising that Prensky deploys reified, positivist science:  “it is very likely that our students’ brains have physically changed – and are different from ours – as a result of how they grew up” (Prensky 2001).  Besides simplifying how ‘a generation’ engages with information, he has also hypothesised a physiological transformation of the human brain.  It is significant to note that he has confused anatomy and socialization to make this case.

His argument becomes more damning when describing those ‘older people’ who doubt the scale of this change (and his hypothesis and rationale) as Digital Immigrants.  Appropriately in a post-multicultural era, being an immigrant is a problem because they keep a “foot in the past” (Prensky 2001). This group is a technological inhibitor because they use the internet after other media when searching for information and supposedly print out emails.  No ethnography or participant observation data is cited to verify these claims.

Forgotten by Prensky is that the platforms, data and information being processed at multi-tasking speed by the ‘natives’ were actually invented by ‘immigrants’ like Bill Gates, Serge Brin and Chad Hurley.  A reality overlooked by Prensky is that ‘immigrants’ know more than ‘natives.’  In less xenophobic times, such a statement would be self evident, even at the level of analogy or metaphor.  Immigrants have lived in different ways, in at least two places and must manage the trauma of movement, translation and change.  Immigrants are flexible because they have to be.  Digital immigrants hold experience of drafting on a screen and drafting on paper, noting both are valuable and often locate different types of errors.  They know how to engage with information quickly or slowly, understanding when superficial reading and data mining will suffice and when a line by line, page by page, chapter by chapter deep involvement with an intricate text is required.  But statements about continuity, stability and considered reflection do not sell books, win grants or fuel consultancies.  Prensky therefore must preach crisis and endless change:

If Digital Immigrant educators really want to reach Digital Natives – i.e. all their students – they will have to change.  It’s high time for them to stop their grousing and, as the Nike motto of the Digital Native generation says, ‘Just do it!’ (Prensky 2001).

Marc Prensky started much of this brain-changing discourse, constructing a generational crisis where none existed.  Significantly too – and for those committed to widening participation and lifelong learning – an obvious corrective must be made. “All our students” are not unified by age or any other social variable.  Students are a diverse group, socially, economically and culturally.  While Prensky saw this generational revolution as an opportunity to develop his consultancy business, other commentators summoned fully fledged moral panics.

The Daily Mail, a Conservative British newspaper, pounces on particular topics to promulgate fear: young people, technological change or declining literacy.  When these three panics combine, the resultant article is a horror movie that makes Michael Jackson’s video for ‘Thriller’ look like an advertisement for L’Oreal anti-ageing products.  The front page of the Daily Mail on February 24, 2009 warned that “Social Websites ‘harm a child’s brain’” (Derbershire 2009).  That quotation came from “neuroscientist Susan Greenfield” (Derbershire 2009).  While she is acknowledged as “an eminent scientist” in this matter, she has not displayed her expertise in research methods.  The basis for her arguments (buried on page six of the paper) lacked triangulation of data.  The paper reported that Baroness Greenfield “told the House of Lords that a teacher of 30 years had told her she had noticed a sharp decline in the ability of her pupils to understand others.  ‘It is hard to see how living this way on a daily basis will not result in brains, or rather minds, different from those of previous generations’” (Derbershire 2009).  The combination of ‘Chinese-whisper’ referencing (informing parliamentarians what a teacher had told her) and a misinterpretation of the words from her informant resulted in an odd lurch between personal opinion, scientific observation and the inferences made from the views of others.  Apparently the teacher reported a decline in ‘understanding’ others.  In other words, there has been a shift in communication skills.  How oral and aural literacies align or disconnect from digital literacies is an intricate and complicated topic.  Multiliteracy theorists have taken such a disengagement or convergence as a primary research focus.  None of this material is cited by the Baroness or the Daily Mail.

Such an absence is no surprise.  Historically, the Daily Mail has shown a propensity to endorse science above the humanities and neuroscience over media studies.  Therefore, to verify the statements cited from the Baroness, I returned to the Lords Hansard entry for the day, assuming she had been mis-quoted.  I found that Greenfield’s arguments became even more disturbing than those reported in the newspaper.

We do not know whether the current increase in autism is due more to increased awareness and diagnosis of autism, or whether it can—if there is a true increase—be in any way linked to an increased prevalence among people of spending time in screen relationships. Surely it is a point worth considering (HL Hansard 2009).

She also compares social networking and screen cultures to “the thrill of compulsive gambling or compulsive eating” and “being linked to similar chemical systems in the brain that may also play a part in drug addiction” (HL Hansard 2009).

This biologically determinist discourse is a mode of neo-Lombrosian thinking.  Instead of measuring the size of the cranium and offering hypotheses about intelligence, these neo-Lombrosians jump straight to the brain itself without experimentation or scientific observation to make their case.  At least Lombroso used a tape measure to provide some ‘evidence’ for his arguments.  These current brain changers offer their opinions as ‘worth considering’ with multiple caveats.  Yet the cost and consequences of their undertheorised clash of social and technological variables is unfortunate for educational policy.  When the biological bases for actions are promoted, whether this mode of argument is used to locate crimogenetic tendencies, laziness, stupidity, brilliance, intelligence or anti-social behaviour, positivism predominates.  The brain becomes the cause of behaviour.  Such an argument blocks any responsibility (or necessity) for a teacher or librarian to intervene in learning strategies.  It would not make the front page of the Daily Mail to argue that students are not any better or worse than they have ever been.

There is now a counter flow of evidence critiquing the Neo-Lombrosians.  Research probing online participation is showing data in direct opposition to the brain changers.  The Generations Online in 2009 Report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project found a declining variance between different groups’ web use.  Sydney Jones and Susannah Fox (2009) found that “larger percentages of older generations are online now than in the past, and they are doing more activities online.”  Their hypothesis from the gathered data is that “we can probably expect to see these bars [measuring age-based differences] become more level as time goes on” (Jones & Fox 2009).  While the young have dominated digital environments, this online profile is shifting.  The integration of mobile and digital platforms in daily life is building literacy in online platforms far beyond a ‘Google Generation’ or ‘Digital Natives.’

Similar results were logged in January 2008, in Jiscs ‘Information Behaviour of the researcher of the future’ (2008), better known as the Google Generation Report.  It had a short-term run in the daily press that focused on the phrase Google Generation, rather than the findings of the Report.  Behind the headlines and clichés, the outcomes of the Report were startling.  There was a profound realisation that computer literacy was masking other educational problems.  The conversational phrasing deployed in the Google Search engine did not facilitate the movement to other search engines and directories such as Google Scholar or the Directory of Open Access Journals.  Significantly, they confirmed that information literacy concerns were rarely generational but were pervasive throughout all age cohorts.

  • “There are very very few controlled studies that account for age and information seeking behaviour systematically:  as a result there is much mis-information and much speculation about how young people supposedly behave in cyberspace” (Jisc 2008, p. 14)
  • Not only is the “Google Generation” reading less, but academics more generally are reading less.  The ‘Google Generation’ is not dumbing down, ‘society’ is dumbing down.
  • The Report noted a wide tendency to skim read, particular the abstract, and to not progress further into the paper.  This tendency was not only found in ‘young people’ – but all researchers.
  • “Digital literacies and information literacies do not go hand in hand” (Jisc 2008, p. 20).

Assumptions about young people and technology have blocked considered discussion of literacy.  Instead, a low skill base facilitated through conversational phrasing in Google has decentred debate and research into information seeking skills.  The lack of research about online behaviours, particularly over the last decade, has had an impact.  Policy and funding decisions about education have been made on the basis of mis-information.

This Report confirmed that assumptions about the online environment and students will damage the researcher of the future.  Tabloid-fuelled biological determinism and ageism about computer use has injured educational policy decision making.  Certainly, social conditions impact on behaviour and learning styles.  How students occupy their leisure time influences their demeanour in the classroom and workplace.  Student aspirations, environments and literacies should be monitored and studied.  But if concentration is lacking, then it is not a sign of autism but reveals the need to develop tasks for building interpretative skills.  A lack of reading is not caused by an addiction to pleasure, satiation, gambling and drug taking.  Instead, teachers must mobilise a range of assessment options – workbooks, journals, reflective papers or creative-led exegeses – to encourage and enable the deployment of motivated research in student assignments.  We as teachers can be staunch in our interventionist strategies.  For my first year students, I state that they should not even think about submitting a paper with less than ten sources.  My pass mark starts at that point.  They grumblebum.  They complain that I am a bha-ich.  But they read:  first to receive the grades and then because they – grudgingly – start to enjoy the challenges of scholarship, writing and thinking.  Whenever the focus is on brains and not literacies, we miss opportunities for teaching, thinking and scholarship.

Talk of brain changers stops debate.  If the argument that students’ brains have changed continues, then there is nothing that can be done and no possibility for intervention or transformation.  Distraction and disconnection is not the characteristic of one generation or age group.  Bauerlein did however offer a provocative hypothesis about screen culture and the development of multiliteracies.

Visual culture improves the abstract spatialization and problem solving, but it doesn’t complement other intelligence-building activities … The relationship between screens and books isn’t benign (2009, p. 96).

Even more significantly, and aligned with Willis’s Learning to Labour, Bauerlein was concerned about the loss of time when deploying social media rather than educational media.

Every hour on MySpace, then, means an hour not practicing a musical instrument or learning a foreign language or watching C-SPAN.  Every cell-phone call interrupts a chapter of Harry Potter or a look at the local paper.  These are mind-maturing activities, and they don’t have to involve Great Books and Big Ideas.  They have only to cultivate habits of analysis and reflection, and implant knowledge of the world beyond (2009, p. xi).

These ‘choices’ of behaviour are not generational or age-specific.  But these are decisions that matter.  When an email interrupts writing, when a text message disturbs reading a complex argument, then the development of deeper and more complex ideas and interpretations is more difficult.  Therefore, the relationship between information, media, learning and literacy must be considered with care and reflection.  A balance is required between education and technology, rather than enabling the new to configure the important.  For education, teaching and learning to function, there must be much more attention on making conscious and reflexive choices about time and behaviour that are beneficial to intellectual development, rather than encouraging sloppy thinking that a particular generation are ‘digital natives’ and therefore – seemingly ‘naturally’ – understand how to use web-enabled platforms in intellectually rigorous ways.

Leisured learning?

An increasingly complex relationship – and discussion – needs to be held about the relationship between access to digital media and the literacies required to use them with rigour and efficiency.  The assumption that one particular age group holds specific gifts and abilities simply because of their birth date are not only inaccurate but inhibitory for skill development programmes (see: Mossberger et al. 2003, pp. 1-2).  Instead, more intricate studies, theories and models are required that probe the relationship between basic literacy (the encoding and decoding of text or reading and writing) with higher order information literacy.  Also, by focusing on ‘young people,’ the technology discussed is present in the home and carried on a mobile phone, rather than the workplace, school or university.

Leisure slops awkwardly into both labour and education.  There are better and more complex ways to understand online injustice and inequality.  For example, Mossberger et al. (2003) located four ‘digital divides’:  access, skills, economic opportunity and democratic participation.  Instead of activating these complex discussions, the managerialism of education is built on an incorrect premise:  that teaching and learning is economically efficient.  Online education rarely slots into a balanced budget.  Similarly underdiscussed is ‘gaming behaviour’ from normally civilised students who flame their colleagues with racist, sexist or homophobic abuse (Turan et al. 2011). It is much easier to celebrate mobile(phone) learning (Thorton & Houser 2005), or Wikipedia’s ‘history’ page for critical thinking (Rosenzweig 2005), than to actually consider – beyond a tabloidised shriek – why widening participation agendas have failed (Thomas 2001), and why there is a high drop out from first year students (Chemers et al. 2001).

The justification for this techno-educational bundle is convincing.  It is both convenient and cheap to undervalue the role of teachers and formal education in citizenship, the workplace and democracy, to suggest that very basic software and hardware are the foundation for the ‘new economy.’  Similarly, it is cheaper to affirm the value of student-centred learning and deny the expertise of teachers.  But the knowledge held by teachers and students is not equivalent.  Teachers know more.  They write and read expansively.  They write and interpret curriculum.  They set assignments.  They moderate and examine.  They study, think and translate complex ideas into the stepping stones of lesson plans.  Students can enact none of these tasks.  Two distinct forces have decentred awareness of these distinctions between teachers and students.  Progressivist and liberal politics have celebrated the value of the students’ voice in a form of mock-1960s libertarianism, building on the work of Ivan Illich (1971). Concurrently, neo-liberal forces have added the inflective of the market to the educational mix.  As Mark Pegrum confirms,

Western education has become increasingly subject to the economics of the market and the creed of neoliberalism, where the state’s overwhelming object is to supply the standardized workforce – that is, human capital with transferable skills – necessary to compete in the ever more globalized knowledge-based economy (2007, p. 16).

The user-generated content ‘movement’ – gathering together Flickr, wikimedia, blogs, podcasting, Facebook and YouTube – when aligned with student-centred learning and the market orientation that transformed students into consumers has provided a channel and venue for the emotive excesses of grievance, hostility and insolence against teachers and education.

More attention must be place on “situated literacies.”  Mary Hamilton describes this concept as a “time-bounded interaction between people and texts” (2000, p. 28). The blurring of leisure and learning has transformed the respect that is necessary to commence a scholarly journey.  A survey by the Association of Teachers and Lectures and the Teachers’ Support Network reported that one in six teachers had been cyber-bullied (Meikle, 2007, p. 5).  Harassment of instructors has emerged and digital mauling by groups of students is common (Pepitone 2006). What is stunning when reading the harassment and ridicule of teachers on Facebook is how few teachers have replied to the abuse.  Perhaps it is a mark of their self-respect that they do not scan and upload the corrected papers of these students who attack them for their peer group to view and therefore disclose the real rationale for their abuse.

The small space that remains for the left and progressivist forces is an unpopular, underfunded and marginalised commitment to ‘the public,’ through the preservation of public health, public education, public libraries and an affirmation of independent decision making, disconnected from corporations, public relations and marketing consultants.  It is from this context that the ‘digital natives’ discourse propelled a deep commitment to change for its own sake.  Once more – as if commemorating May 1968, the young ones are restless and the older generation does not understand.

Teach the technology

David Buckingham (2007, p. viii) affirmed that, “we need to be teaching about technologies, not just with or through them.” He is right:  form, media or platform do not speak.  They are not the message.  But content is mediated, framed and shaped by the platform selection to channel data.  To take Buckingham’s argument seriously, technology should not be used as a neutral platform for leisure, shopping or learning.  Instead, the technology must be taught and the communication system explored.  The power of multimodality is that students and teachers must demonstrate an awareness of how digitised platforms are best used.

Without intervention, without being forced to improve and engage with complex materials, most of us will stay in environments where we are content and safe, with our friends and families.  Like Paul Willis’s lads, we will mock those we do not understand, rather take the risk to learn from them.  Social media makes such a problem worse as we are surrounded by ‘friends’ who comment, chat, reinforce, ‘like,’ and support.  Learning comes from moving outside of our comfortable context.  Only by learning to learn – rather than learning to leisure or learning to labour – can information and media literacy becoming the foundation for scholarship.


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Biographical Statement

Tara Brabazon is the Professor of Education and Head of the School of Teacher Education at Charles Sturt University (Bathurst and Dubbo campuses in Australia and the Ontario, Canada campus in Burlington). She is also a Fellow of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce (RSA) and head of the Popular Culture Collective.

Tama Leaver & Mike Kent

Published Online: April 30, 2014
Full Text: HTML, PDF (316 KB)

Keywords: Facebook, Online Education, Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs).


The revolutionary zeal with which Massively Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, were embraced in 2012 ostensibly situated online education as completely new,  unprecedented, and entirely disruptive for the status quo of higher education (Pappano, 2012). Yet only a year later revelations of incredibly low completion rates (Pretz, 2014) and poor learning outcomes (Perez-Harnandez 2014) led to questions about whether the appeal and lifespan of MOOCs as a concept was already terminal (Strauss, 2013; Yang, 2013). While the rise and fall of MOOCs have both been radically overdetermined – they are an emerging if largely unpolished form of mass education, but certainly one that is here to stay in some form for the conceivable future – it is equally if not more important to recognise that teaching and learning utilising and via networked digital communication tools has a history as long as the World Wide Web itself (Kent & Leaver, 2014). Moreover, as the largest online social network in the world, Facebook has been part of the education landscape since its inception in a Harvard dormitory a decade ago. This special issue of Digital Culture & Education takes the tenth anniversary of Facebook as an opportunity to critically reflect on role of that platform in higher education, whilst simultaneously engaging with some of the larger questions about the place of education online, questions which pre-date the emergence of MOOCs by a significant number of years.

Situating Facebook and Informal Student Learning

At the time of writing, Facebook has over 1.28 billion monthly users, with over 800 million of those users logging onto Facebook each day, and over a billion people regularly accessing the social network using mobile devices (Facebook, 2014). Facebook fulfils and indeed normalises the widely cited basic features of an online social network in that it allows users to “(1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system” (boyd & Ellison, 2007). While there are a plethora of social networking sites, Facebook’s size and longevity single the platform out and make it a particularly appealing tool for educators given the extremely high use and penetration rates, especially amongst students. While Facebook may have lost some of its youthful appeal, talk of Facebook’s decline is really just about a slowing down in growth, not even an actual reduction in the number of users (Marks, 2013). Moreover, the huge increase in the use of mobile devices to access Facebook, and the company’s insistence on the use of real names and ostensibly a singular identity (Zoonen, 2013), has situated Facebook as a space where any distinction between online and offline activities is increasingly meaningless. As Matthew Allen has argued in a previous issue of Digital Culture & Education, “Facebook is no longer one of several competing but similar online services: it is unique” (Allen, 2012, p. 214).

As Facebook emerged from a tertiary context, and given its huge popularity with students, it is no surprise that the impact of Facebook on student learning has been investigated. Ellison, Steinfield and Lampe’s (2007) early study, for example, found that using the platform could significantly increase a student’s social capital, reinforcing existing face to face relationships, but also forming new ones. Research by Selwyn (2007, 2009) analysing public posts by students on Facebook found that the platform was particularly useful in reinforcing and expanding informal learning, from the sharing of resources and materials, to bonding socially around education activities, to mutual support in stressful situations such as exam preparation. Work by Madge, Meek, Wellens and Hooley (2009) found that the platform was important both as a tool for increasing social interaction between students during their studies but also, significantly, for students to find and form networks with fellow students before they had physically arrived to begin their studies, thus forming networks in advance, and developing informal learning ties before formal education commenced.

The idea that Facebook use and social media in general would drain time students should actually be using to study persisted for some time, but work by Pasek, More and Hargittai (2009) largely dispelled with myth. Highlighting a more nuanced picture of Facebook use, Junco (2012) discovered that it was not Facebook use per se but specific types of uses which might influence the success or otherwise of students. Time spent on social games facilitated by Facebook as a platform correlated with less academic success, while time spent commenting and interacting with fellow students was shown to have a positive impact on a student’s studies. These various studies serve as a reminder that Facebook is not a singular tool, but a wide-ranging set of tools and practices tied together in an online platform. Different uses of this platform will inevitably lead to different outcomes, including different outcomes in terms of informal and formal education.

Formalising Facebook Use

Increasingly, Facebook is being integrated into educational design, including as part of formal assessment. Facebook groups are especially popular as supplements to existing interaction spaces in many units and courses, not least of all because the affordances of groups mean that students and educators do not have to technically become ‘friends’ on Facebook in order to interact with one another (Kent, 2014). In Facebook groups, students may be asked to share resources, annotate material online, critique or review related material, or simply comment on material raised during a unit. Indeed, students may be required to create their own Facebook groups or pages as part of engaging with a particular topic, or presenting material to an audience beyond that of their peers, tutor or marker. Moreover, for students who only interact online, Facebook can provide an extremely important space to interact with fellow students and with teachers, often compensating in some respects for the lack of informal and face to face discussion opportunities enjoyed by their campus-based counterparts (Leaver, 2014).

Shifting from Facebook as an optional informal learning space to a mandated part of assessment brings new concerns about higher education institutions forcing students to join corporately-owned tools which commercialise user data. As Croeser (2014) argues, such a mandate should be met with an attempt to increase students’ awareness of the data collection practices of Facebook whilst informing them of various software tools and best practices which can limit or obfuscate the platform’s profiling activities. It is important, too, to consider the impact of Facebook use on educators. Some may conscientiously object to joining the platform, while others may be wary of engaging with students in a space which they interact socially (Raynes-Goldie & Lloyd, 2014). This is complicated by Facebook’s insistence on a single account associated with a user’s real name, although this policy may be circumvented, albeit violating the site’s Terms of Use and thus risking the deletion of a Facebook account. There are dangers in terms of the wholesale integration and focus on Facebook in tertiary settings. Even if Facebook’s userbase is not actually declining, the notion of Facebook fatigue is popularising, with extended breaks from the platform being increasingly normalised. How this is reconciled with Facebook as an official university communication channel will be a significant question in coming years (Gallo & Adler, 2014). It is the ongoing question about the best configuration and, indeed, appropriateness at all of Facebook in formal higher education which the articles herein address.

In this issue

This special issue on Facebook in education opens with Eleanor Sandry’s ‘“Face to Face” Learning from Others in Facebook Groups’ in which Sandry utilises a theoretical framework from the work of Emmanuel Levinas to broaden the notion of a face to face encounter. For Levinas, a face has a broader meaning which is not necessarily about physicality or proximity at all, but rather about a much wider range of communicative acts. Inherent here, Sandry argues, is the idea that communication is always imperfect, always about engaging with the other, and recognising, then, that communication either physical or online, has an ethical dimension. Applying this frame to students and educators communicating within a Facebook group, Sandry argues that the less formal space and equal online footing, amongst other factors, has the potential to create a communication space where teachers and students both take responsibility for the way they communicate. Communication becomes a more level exchange, unlike, for example, the spaces created by Blackboard and other Learning Management Systems (LMSes) which attempt to replicate the authority and thus distance of educators from learners.

In Lucinda Rush and D.E. Wittkower’s ‘Exploiting fluencies: Educational expropriation of social networking site consumer training’, after rebuking Marc Prensky’s (2001) highly problematic but popular notion of the digital native, the authors identify a number of ways in which Facebook’s affordances effectively train users in certain skills necessary for successfully navigating and using the social network. Rush and Wittkower utilise a preliminary phenomenology to reveal six training categories that could potentially be meaningfully redeployed, or expropriated, toward more explicit critical thinking and pedagogical ends. They offer a case study in which students use Facebook to create and share a class-wide annotated bibliography, which in its design harnesses a number of the skills produced from Facebook use, and facilitates a situation in which students’ critical thinking is increased not just in the classroom, but well beyond those boundaries. Rush and Wittkower conclude by offering a number of different scenarios where skills learnt from Facebook could be expropriated for teaching and learning purposes, repurposing abilities needed to navigate a commercially-driven platform for critical thinking and reasoning.

In ‘Learning or Liking: Educational architecture and the efficacy of attention’ Leanne McRae offers a timely and critical look at the way higher education institutions en masse have embraced social networking services and other online tools in an attempt to compete for the eyeballs of students in an attention economy. While digital tools and connectivity have the potential to facilitate new learning spaces and modes of engagement, McRae argues that the erosion of boundaries between formal and informal learning may undermine the specificities and critical perspectives needed to facilitate and foster deep critical thinking. McRae argues that when students are positioned as consumers rather than learners, they tend to respond accordingly and demand an educational experience based on immediacy and the direct provision of resources and attention, when often a slower and more systematic approach to learning may be required to change the way thinking happens, not just the absorption of, or simply access to, information.

In the final article, ‘Separating Work and Play: Privacy, Anonymity and the Politics of Interactive Pedagogy in Deploying Facebook in Learning and Teaching’, Rob Cover also responds to the way Facebook use in educational settings may collapse particular boundaries. Cover details the use of Facebook in a first-year unit in which students voiced concerns about the way their educational activities on the social network were visible to their other friends and family on the platform. Students’ desire for their online work to be private was frequently framed in opposition to publicness, and yet Cover argues that this context collapse highlights the very instability of the public/private distinction. Following Henry Giroux, he argues further that Facebook as part of mass culture can and should be deployed precisely as a destabilising space, where not just the notion of private, but also the notions of author, audience and text are all potentially blurred. Cover argues that when framed appropriately, Facebook as a learning tool and space has the potential to make visible the way a range of concepts are destabilised, and that the co-creative identities and interactions fashioned via Facebook can lead to an extremely important mode of self-reflexive critical thinking.


The editors of this special issue wish to thank the all the authors who have contributed, the editors of Digital Culture & Education, Christopher Walsh and Thomas Apperley, for their encouragement and patience in the development of this issue, and the anonymous peer reviewers whose efforts ensured the scholarly rigour of this issue.


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Biographical Statement

Tama Leaver is a senior lecturer in the Department of Internet Studies at Curtin University, and a researcher working in Curtin’s Centre for Culture and Technology. His research interests include social media, online identity, digital death and media distribution. He has published in a number of journals including Popular Communication, Media International Australia, Comparative Literature Studies and the Fibreculture journal. He is the author of Artificial Culture: Identity, Technology and Bodies (Routledge, 2012), co-editor (with Mike Kent) of An Education in Facebook? Higher Education and the World’s Largest Social Network (Routledge, 2014). In 2012 he won an Australian Award for University Teaching for Teaching Excellence in the Humanities and the Arts. He is currently researching the way birth, early life and death are changing in the era of networked digital communications.

Contact: t.leaver@curtin.edu.au

Twitter: @tamaleaver

Online: www.tamaleaver.net

Mike Kent is a lecturer in the Department of Internet Studies at Curtin University. Dr Kent’s main research interests, focus on the two main areas of tertiary and online education, as well as people with disabilities and their access to communications technology. He is co-author, with Katie Ellis, of Disability and New Media, (Routledge 2011), and co-editor, with Tama Leaver, of An Education in Facebook? Higher Education and the World’s Largest Social Network (Routledge, 2014). His work has also been published in a number of academic journals including The Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, M/C Media Culture, Fast Capitalism, Nebula and A/Q Australian Quarterly.

Contact: m.kent@curtin.edu.au

Twitter: @cultware

Online: www.cultware.com

Roger Saul

Published Online: May 1, 2014
Full Text: HTML, PDF (1.1 MB)


This article examines the public YouTube profile of AnonyGirl1, the pseudonym used by a teenaged girl who takes to YouTube to narrate various aspects of her life. Using AnonyGirl1’s case as an object of analysis, the article considers the new narrative flexibilities that are shaping young people’s online explorations of self. On YouTube, where narrative linearity and fixity often come undone, AnonyGirl1 creates herself as a chimera of disappearing and reappearing video fragments that comprise an unstable, constantly changing entirety. In making and unmaking herself in fragments, AnonyGirl1 calls into question the presumed coherences of predominant youth narratives, negotiates her views about being young, and articulates processes of interior self-making through a mode of social expression that gives new form to its fluidities. Although the surfeit of narrative choices that AnonyGirl1 has at her disposal on YouTube come with a series of pleasures, the possibilities for self-construction that these choices provoke also come with debilitating pressures and confusions that she scrambles to negotiate. Amidst these pleasures and confusions, AnonyGirl1’s narrative offers a venue through which educators can think through the emerging complexities of young people’s online self-making practices.


youth, adolescence, YouTube, online identity, post modern identity, narrative, new media


On August 17, 2008, a black, female, 18 year-old Londoner who, under the pseudonym AnonyGirl1, had up to then made countless YouTube videos documenting her life since the age of 16 (videos that she coded sequentially so that visitors to her YouTube channel page could easily encounter her at various stages of her life), made an emotional address via YouTube that shocked many of her regular viewers. Her first few sentences captured the thrust of her message: “Hi, as some of you may know I’ve kind of announced that I’m leaving the AnonyGirl1 channel… I want to go. I want to go. I want to go…. I feel like the channel is based on someone I’m not anymore.” To this she added that she had already taken the step of deleting from YouTube all of her past videos, and that she would refrain from making any new ones for the indefinite future. In essence, she was announcing her erasure as AnonyGirl1.

This erasure proved temporary. Although having cited a slew of reasons for her disenchantment with YouTube – among them, the personal toll taken by the negative posts she was receiving about her videos, the suggestions that YouTube was no longer fun and that her older videos no longer reflected “the real me,” as well as her consequent desire to eventually make a ‘new’ start with videos that better reflected the self she wished to project – she nonetheless invited viewers to weigh in on which of her past videos they liked most, suggesting that she might take their feedback into account in reposting a few among them that best reflected her desired self. She eventually reposted twenty such videos. When taken together, this new collection of videos – comprising some older and some more recent ones – created an instantly altered persona, swiftly reshaping her public, online narrative.[i]

Drawing upon these twenty videos as objects of study, this paper suggests that entrenched notions of adolescent development are coming under assault – productively so – courtesy of many young people’s public, online identity work. This work enables public stories of self to be created and recreated according to endlessly altering formulations and reformulations. In the online world – which is less constrained by the ordering mechanisms of space and materiality, and where the splicing together of simulations and events can lead to a loss of chronological order and context-dependent sequences (Eriksen, 2007; Karsten, 2007) – the ways in which we make ourselves is altered. These are not necessarily grand alterations – in the case of young people like AnonyGirl1, these alterations function as a series of narrative disruptions that arguably signal a new iteration in the social construction of adolescence, one in need of continued inquiry given the proliferation of online subject-making practices carried out by young people. For educators in particular, conducting said inquiries serves an important function: it contributes to knowledge making about the changing needs and practices of education’s most important subject – the subject who learns.

That online life offers individuals fluid modes of identity expression is by now hardly a novel suggestion, but what online video collections like those of AnonyGirl1 newly offer us is a series of commentaries about the classificatory impositions with which we have taken to constructing many modern social categories, adolescence among them. Online expressions of self offer us a partial glimpse beyond these impositions by elucidating the hybridities that perhaps precede the neat categorising imperatives that are a condition of these constructions. To this extent, the work of defining and delineating how young people like AnonyGirl1 elaborate upon such impositions in their videos – by sharing what they can look like, why it might be important to think about them, and what their enactments might mean for how we make sense of adolescence as a socially constructed category in our contemporary moment– is the work of this paper. What follows, then, is an exploration of adolescent subject making practices as seen through the case of one young person’s – Anonygirl1’s – public YouTube narrative, wherein she inspires a series of compelling entanglements through which to think through the new narrative complexities enacted by young people’s online communicative practices.

Adolescence and the Current Media Moment

I am particularly interested in making sense of AnonyGirl1 according to the conditions of our current media moment, which Rattansi (1994) has long since suggested consists of, “The almost instantaneous, often ‘live’ transmission of images,” which, “now have the effect… of…. producing even greater incoherencies in the public narratives and images of time and space through which individuals and ‘local’ communities can create secure identities” (p. 33). His quote augurs how the dizzsying speeds with which many of us now customarily transmit information between one another, and the myriad platforms we now have for doing so, can provoke new kinds of personal and social relations, not to mention new explanatory strategies for making sense of them.

Counted among these relations are those we make with ourselves. Which is to say that among the consequences of our participation in current methods of mediated communication – the pervasiveness and intensities of which increasingly work to render the material and the virtual inextricable within our everyday realities – are possibilities for experiencing new ways of being in the world. On the Internet, Bratich (2006) suggests, human subjects are more nomadic and flexible, whereby the “individual is characterised in micro-capacities to divide and distribute itself in continuous variation” (p. 71). These conditions put the notion that we are wholly coherent selves with stable interiorities, rather than technological “variables to be modified in their relationship to each other” (Bratich, 2006, p. 71; Foucault, 2003/1982), under strain.

Rattansi (1994) offers an interesting delineative that helps deepen the claims of the latter. In a particular take on what has often been called the ‘postmodern turn’ – i.e. the “decentering and de-essentialising [of] both subjects and the social” (p. 15) evoked here – Rattansi eschews this ‘turn’ and reconstitutes it as a ‘frame,’ a simple play on words that arguably portends a particular set of implications for understanding what this postmodern media moment is and means. For here a “postmodern frame” implies not a move away from, as does a ‘postmodern turn’, but rather a move toward; toward a more acute mode of looking at an already existing set of processes. In other words, Rattansi (1994) suggests to us that our various formulations for making sense of what now seem like pervasive processes of ‘decentering and de-essentialising subjects and the social’ should not so much be concerned with the supposition that these processes somehow signal a move in the direction of anti-foundationalism (p. 17), but rather with how these processes can allow us to scrutinise the modernising acts from which they evolve, and, for that matter, precede.

Rattansi (1994) defines modernity as an over-arching analytical category of classifications around which much of the world and its current meanings are staged (p. 16), and postmodernity as critical reflection on the character, foundations and limits of this staging (p. 17). The postmodern frame, he says: “… is a mode of being both inside and outside modernity, of stepping back, or out, and looking in, while still having one foot and one eye, so to speak, inside modernity…. [It is] a frame within a frame, and modernity might be regarded as being both object and subject within this frame (p. 19).

What looking through the metaphorical lens of a postmodern frame therefore suggests is the prospect of seeing what the categorising imperatives of modernity sometimes work to obscure. What it perhaps allows us to see is that human subjects are not singular or timeless – instead they are technologies, imaginary in form, and contextually situated; by this logic, they are also sites of hybridisation, of fusion, and of incommensurability (p. 28).

Haraway (1991) has famously called contemporary human subjects cyborgs, a term meant to connote how it is that we embody the particular technologies (fusions, hybridities) of our current moment. Like the postmodern frame just described, the cyborg serves as a useful metaphor in presaging the conditions from which YouTube profiles like those of AnonyGirl1 emerge, for it too can be evoked as a means of critically intervening against the conditions of modernity (Bernardi, 2002, p. 155). Haraway (1991) defines a cyborg as a “kind of disassembled and reassembled postmodern collective and personal self” (p. 163). Congruous with how “communications technologies and biotechnologies [have become] the crucial tools re-crafting our bodies” (p. 164), a cyborg therefore refers to a “hybrid of machine and organism” (p. 149), to a “creature of social reality and fiction” (p. 150). As I read Haraway, a cyborg – i.e. us, in current form – is a fiction because it is something we create. It is an assembled projection of our social and bodily selves onto various inorganic canvases – the multiple texts of our exterior lives – that we construct and are constructed by. But it is real precisely because it is us. It is, writes Haraway (1991a), “our processes, an act of our embodiment” (p. 180). In view of these entanglements, what our cyborg selves are therefore not is immutable, nor are they innocent; they are not, Haraway suggests, “born in a garden” (p. 180), a thinly veiled biblical reference that functions as an important suggestion about the place of hybridity in our constitutions of self. Purity, immaculateness, unity and fixity are abandoned according to such constitutions, abandoned in favour of conceiving of human subjects as “hybrids, mosaics, chimeras…. ” (p. 177).

All of this has consequences for how we understand adolescence as a category of modernity. Whereas what we now understand as adolescence did not exist as a universally defined social category in pre-modern societies, France (2007) writes that uneven boundaries between different age groups always have; they were generally separated along lines of dependence (child), semi-dependence (young adult) and independence (adult). Early conceptions of “youth” eventually evolved out of these categories, but these separations were not perceived or administered according to ways we might conceive today. Notions of modern day psycho-social development based on age specificities were not universally recognised. Definitions of youth were locally defined and varied according to roles and responsibilities within the local purview of family, work, community and related markers (D’Eramo, p. 2003).

Most trace conceptions of adolescence, a modern iteration of youth premised on universal assumptions about its presumed characteristics as a temporal “life stage” (Goosens, 2006), to the work of American psychologist G. Stanley Hall, who in 1904 wrote the two-volume book, Adolescence. In it, Hall put forward a universalised temporal definition of adolescence, connected to puberty, and characterised by the “storm and stress” of a series of emotional upheavals. His work helped make popular the notion that adolescence is a naturally occurring developmental stage of predictable cognitive and behavioural attributes across time and place, that adolescents (and thus societies) have to be protected from their acute susceptibilities to corrupting influences (emerging sexuality, unstable behavioural urges, social ills), that these susceptibilities only ease with their proper departure into a more emotionally stable phase, adulthood, and that proper care for the young is intimately tied to broader popular concerns about the ‘healthy’ development of society and its corresponding markers (the state of the nation, the evolutionary ‘progress’ of its people, the sovereign realisation of national imperial ambitions, racial purity, the advance of civilisation, and so on (Lesko, 1996, 2001)).

In their more contemporary iterations, social constructions of adolescence have been embodied in the form of the ‘teenager,’ a term some suggest probably appears for the first time in the early 1940s (Danesi, 1994; Graham, 2004) Born largely out of marketing and advertising strategies that sought to capitalise on the spending power and leisure time of increasingly large numbers of post-war youth (Graham, 2004, p. 26; France, 2007, p. 16), markets of and for ‘teenagers’ were created, mostly in the ‘West,’ and the ‘teen years’ were increasingly narrated in the popular imaginary as constituting a distinct phase of life where young people could be more or less “assumed to act, think, and behave in specific ways” (Danesi, 1994, p. 140). These narrations vacillated between intense anxieties about what was assumed to be the explosion of a ‘youth culture,’ which comprised young people who were defining themselves through their new leisure time and were presumed to be in need of protection from its offerings, and celebrations of youthfulness based on now familiar images of idealism. ‘Culture industries’ such as film, music, fashion and television increasingly sought to both create and cater to teenage needs through representations of and for them, so that the growth of these industries and the teenagers that made active meanings of their productions helped to form each other (Danesi, 1994, p. 15-22).

By now challenges to social constructions of being young are commonplace, and much scholarly work has been devoted to the project of ‘denaturalising’ youth, adolescence and/or the teenager (Lesko, 1996). In this regard, the social construction of modern adolescence as a distinct life stage, or the processes by which the temporal boundaries of adolescence have come to be defined and reified over time, has been convincingly linked to a range of other phenomena in many Western societies, most prominent among them: urbanisation and industrialisation, which has traditionally resulted in shrinking families; the creation of middle and leisure classes, and with these factors the temporal extension of the category adolescence (Young-Bruehl, 1996, p. 329); public reactions to industrial child-labour practices, the effects of which often help to “legislate youth into existence” (France, 2007, p. 11; Danesi, 2003, p. 5); the rise of the modern statehood, an occurrence usually accompanied by the centralised administration of populations, and therefore by imperatives to create adolescence as a category according to the concomitant “biological determinisms of politics” (D’Eramo, 2003; Pillow, 2004); and the growth of compulsory education, which has traditionally given young people access to resources not solely determined by work, and which in its implementation has usually resulted in prolonged notions of childhood and adolescence (Young-Bruehl, 1996, p. 331). All of these works suggest that adolescence is not a stable category but a fluid one, subject to altered and altering definitions depending on history and context (Mallan & Pearce, 2003).

Introducing Anonygirl1

As an educator interested in how new youth cultural practices are challenging long standing discourses and definitions of being young (Saul, 2010; Saul, 2012), I became interested in AnonyGirl1’s work precisely because of how it seems to challenge entrenched popular cultural definitions of adolescence. An introduction to AnonyGirl1’s YouTube profile would be useful here.

AnonyGirl1 identifies herself a vlogger (i.e. a video blogger), and the aesthetic character of her videos is usually similar: she sits and speaks directly to the camera that faces her – the camera from which we view her – in a series of long takes with few edits, changes in perspective or stylistic variances. She always presents the same self in her videos (as opposed to the identity experimentations other YouTube vlogger’s at times use the site to perform, see Wesch, 2008; Saul, 2012), and in them she charts the events and emotions that shape her life, shares her various opinions as they arise, and aims to entertain and interact with others. Embedded in these practices is what appears to be a series of underlying values – she utilises YouTube, at times to the point of seeming pretence, to project a continually happy self, to court fame, to show off the skills that she perceives can prompt her fame (usually singing), and to more broadly communicate with a range of anonymous others as a means of carrying out these aspirations.

Many of her videos take on a sense of excitement about the cross-cultural accidents, communicative discrepancies, and differences in point of view that can arise on a social platform of YouTube’s scope and reach (see ‘AnonyGirl1 Appendix’ 7 July, 2007; 11 February, 2008; 12 May, 2008; 31 July, 2008). And yet underlying these evocations of excitement, it seems, is a more deep-seated desire on the part of AnonyGirl1 – namely, that her videos be seen as the source of these excitements and the entertainments that they might provide. In other words, if AnonyGirl1 sees communicating on YouTube as a novel source of pleasure and entertainment (i.e. “a place where we can talk about whatever we want, whenever we want,” (31 July, 2008)), then her videos show that she wants to be seen as the source of that pleasure, wants to locate herself at its centre. Accordingly, this desire often translates into an projection of self that sees her take on a persona of exaggerated cheerfulness; it is as if she thinks that doing so might further work to cement her videos as a source of pleasure, to the extent that she works hard to manage others’ perceptions of her videos as such (20 April, 2007; 12 May, 2007; 6 June, 2007; 10 June, 2007).

That said, what seems to underlie AnonyGirl1’s desire to be seen as happy, as well as her desire for her videos to be seen as a source of pleasure, is a desire to be seen at all. In this regard, her self-display – which comes across as being as much motivated by seeing herself reflected on YouTube as by being seen by others – is a recurring thread in her videos (12 June, 2007; 28 August, 2007; 18 February, 2008).

Correspondingly, one of the things AnonyGirl1 wants from YouTube, indeed one of the reasons she makes videos, is a desire for some sort of renown. She wants to be famous, and she sees YouTube, with its broad scope and reach, as a platform for achieving fame (28 August, 2007; 1 November, 2007; 27 January, 2008; 26 June, 2007), and for more broadly achieving some ascendency toward greater popularity and prestige.

Eventually – and there is to my knowledge no indication that she ever reaches any sort of fame beyond the peripheries of her online profile – AnonyGirl1 seems to come to grips with the fact that her YouTube videos will not make her famous, and she moves toward negotiating the consequences of this realisation (5 November, 2007). This initiates what perhaps becomes a series of deeper engagements by her of her views not only of her changing self, but also of the heretofore unexpressed by her (and perhaps unseen by her) ways in which various discourses of adolescence – and specifically various socially and culturally sanctioned narratives of adolescence – have operated to inform her expressions of self on YouTube (as well as her conceptions of herself) in ways she had not realised. To this end, in her video “Why is it so hard to accept that maybe were [sic] just normal?” (5 November, 2007) she states:

You know there’s this weird statistic that says 90 percent of teenagers think they’re going to grow up and be famous. Well, it’s actually pretty much true. And I will admit, I’m pretty much in that 90 percent. Well not now, a lot less now, now I’ve kind of grown up and realised I’m not gonna be the next Madonna… But – when I was like 15, I swear to God, literally in my head, no doubt about it, I thought I was going to be famous.”

To her own observation she then responds:

Why do they actually think they’re gonna be famous…I thought about it and I thought…No the real question is… the real question we should be asking is why is it so hard to accept that maybe we’re just meant to be normal…. Nothing wrong with it so I don’t understand why it’s really hard to accept.… I really don’t know what it is. And if anyone can help me accept my normality, then please go ahead.

AnonyGirl1 negotiates social narratives of adolescence

With the preceding quotes, AnonyGirl1 signals what comes to form an important thread in her videos. Namely, as a function of exploring her emerging questions about herself (“can anyone help me accept my normality?”), she starts to interrogate her role within the broader social narratives of adolescence that she imagines herself to be wrapped-up in. What becomes a project of working to destabilise parts of her own YouTube narrative therefore becomes inextricably linked with a project of working to destabilise the social narratives that have helped to inform it. A negotiation of Giddens’ (1982) “duality of structure” comes to mind here: as AnonyGirl1 begins to poke at the presumed coherences of commonplace social constructions of adolescence – imbued as they are with well-instantiated tropes of lost innocence, instability, storm and stress, hormonal imbalance, and identity crisis (Graham, 2004; Lesko, 2001) – she draws on YouTube to negotiate what becomes an emerging sense of the fluid parameters that inform these constructions. More so, she negotiates how she might re-imagine these parameters – and thus herself – anew. Her negotiations – in that they exemplify how one young person might draw on YouTube as a resource to critically comment upon social constructions of adolescence – seem significant if only for this reason. Yet, as we will see, they are made all the more significant because they initiate for AnonyGirl1 a series of unforeseen complications that push the narrative depths through which she constructs herself still further.

The video “Give us a chance” (17 October, 2007) offers an instance of how AnonyGirl1 goes about commenting upon cultural stereotypes about young people of concern to her. In the video’s opening shot, she looks at the camera that faces her, and from a seated position on her bed she smiles says, “Hi guys…  I’m 17. Do you know what that means?” With this she moves closer to the camera and says: “Well, that probably means I’m going to pull out my hood” (she now pulls a hood over her head), “take out my shank” (she now reaches below the frame and pulls out a large meat cleaver), “and in about a half hour, I’m gonna mug you.” With this she removes her hood and puts down her “shank” before launching into an editorial style commentary on the role of the media in perpetrating cultural stereotypes casting young people as disproportionately violent (Stern, 2005; Tanner, 2001). In specifically focusing on the particulars of her local U.K context, she contextualises her claim by offering that, “According to every single U.K. paper, magasine, and everything that the government seems to say about us U.K. London teens, we’re all just part of this yob culture. And I’m pretty much here to say no, we’re really not.” As she continues to speak, she alternates between the roles of teen spokesperson (“…I’m just speaking out for every teen that isn’t part of this gangster lifestyle that the media proposes that we’re all in”) and advocate (“we’re not all so easily led like sheep… we have minds of our own”). In closing, she returns to her earlier criticisms of mainstream media by prompting her viewers to, “Just realise that what is being to you force fed to you, by the media, is not who we are.”

In another video, this one called “What is an Adult?” (12 May, 2008), AnonyGirl1 launches into a more substantive personal commentary on the inanity of what she believes to be the precarious social boundaries that define adolescence and adulthood (D’Eramo, 2003; Lesko, 2001). The video comes on the precipice of what she tells us is her upcoming eighteenth birthday. In professing to be struggling with the arbitrary abruptness of the sudden change in social position soon to be bestowed upon her by legal adulthood (“I’m going to be no different on Monday than I am right now”), she pulls out a dictionary under the guise of lending her struggles some clarity, and reads from it: “Adult: a person who is fully grown or developed or of age. Adult: having attained full sise and strength. Adult: one who is legally of age. And adult… a mature person.” These definitions seem partly recited to dramatise her confusion (“Um…  I don’t really know what to think of this,” she says), and they also provide fodder for her to work through the fallacies she associates with what she has just read.

For example, in response to the assertion that an adult is “a person who is fully grown or developed with age,” she criticises the presumed coherences of rigid adolescent developmental narratives of completion and arrival (“I’m not growing?” she asks rhetorically, before detailing what she indicates is the misanthropic nature of this kind of thinking (“people live until they’re like 80… to say that at 18 I’m fully grown – mentally and physically – I have to disagree”)). Likewise, in response to the notion of “Having attained full sise and strength,” she now employs parody as a strategy of retort – in this case she repeats the word “strength” to herself as she taps her left bicep (her bicep is small), and we are made to understand that its feebleness evokes the opposite of physical strength (“So, no adult [to] that,” she concludes). She challenges the dictionary definition of an adult as a “mature person” by pointing out what she sees as its irreconcilable inconsistencies (“I’m pretty sure I know lots of people over 18 who are really immature. And I know loads of people under 18 who are way too mature”). And finally, she says, “there’s this last one, one who is legally of age,” to which she closes, “You can’t judge adulthood on maturity. You can’t judge adulthood on sise, shape, attitude, umm, psychological well-being…. I just have issues with the whole coming of age thing.”

As evidenced in the videos above, AnonyGirl1, in part comes to utilise YouTube as a vehicle through which to define herself in relation to broader social imaginaries of adolescence, and through which to find a voice and an audience in doing so. For example, at the time I retrieved “Give us a Chance” (17 October, 2007), a video which was “featured” on YouTube and thus rescued from relative obscurity, it had amassed over a million video views, easily a much larger number than any of her other listed videos.[ii] AnonyGirl1 “finds a voice” on YouTube in that her participation there – what with the opportunity it provides her to be seen and heard by others clearly interested in what she has to say – seems to both embolden her to explore the kinds of issues that she does, as well as validate her reasons for caring about them (validation comes in the interest and responses she receives from others). The fact that her videos appear to her to have resonance with others further seems to embolden her to personalise the issues she speaks about – which in the videos just mentioned translate into her coming to grips with how broader social imaginaries of adolescence operate through her. For instance, her far-reaching question “why is it so hard to accept that maybe we’re just normal,” translates to “if anyone can help me accept my normality, than please go ahead” (emphasis added). As Gee (1996) suggests when he writes that, “The individual instantiates, gives body to, a Discourse every time he or she acts or speaks, and thus carries it, and ultimately changes it, through time” (p. 145), she seems to articulate these imaginaries as a means of negotiating and challenging them.

Of course, AnonyGirl1’s articulations along these grounds are also fraught with contradictions, and do not come as neatly packaged or coherent critiques of predominant discourses of adolescence. For example in frequently holding to what “teens” are not, she often ends up making a case for what they are. When, for example, she assumes the role of spokesperson and states, “We’re not all criminals,” or “we… deserve the respect to be treated like normal people” (emphases added), she is engaging in a similar sort of grand classification that she criticises mainstream media of perpetrating. In articulating how and what teens are not, in other words, she is implicitly making a case for what they are, absent the recognition of how such a stance might be equally confining (Yon, 2000, p. 102). By the same token, in her sweeping attack on “media,” an apparently monolithic entity in her formulation, she ignores that she too exists in a mediated space as she makes her comments, and so appears incognisant about how the space she operates within might likewise help to shape the expressions she creates. Still the more pressing point I wish to highlight here is that her attempts at taking a critical stance in questioning social constructions of adolescence seem, on the whole, enabled and empowered by her participation on YouTube. In view of the communicative possibilities YouTube offers her she is therefore able, through her videos, to speak to and for young people in a way that fulfills its suggested promise of being, in her words, “a place where we can talk about whatever we want, whenever we want” (31 July, 2008).

And yet, in drawing on YouTube to express her views about the world and her place in it, and in inviting others to share their views about what she says, AnonyGirl1 soon finds herself in the position of shielding the narrative she has constructed from a series of incursions she does not seem to have anticipated. In somewhat of an irony, then, when she achieves a modicum of fame within the parameters of YouTube’s community (which, again, from early on seemed an implicit desire), the consequences of achieving it become unsettling for her. More so, they lead her to seek a different kind of experience from YouTube – again, one that further pushes, in ways unforeseen, the narrative parameters through which she works to make herself.

The most prescient example of what seems to unsettle her, an example that foreshadows the discussion that follows, comes in the videothe morning after the night before” (19 October, 2007). This video takes its name in reference the prior video “Give us a chance” (which recall, involves AnonyGirl1 wearing a hood, holding a knife and criticising negative portrayals of adolescence). After having reached unprecedented (for her) levels of popularity as a result of “Give us a chance,” AnonyGirl1 offers that things have “been nuts on my channel.” “The morning after the night before” therefore comes as a response to her newfound fame. And she devotes much of it to recounting a few from among the multitude of comments her video prompts. Below is a sampling of the comments she receives, which she recites aloud:

  • “Why does stuff like this get in the top views. I think my brain just pooped.”
  • “Marry me please.”
  • “Shut up.”
  • “Sort it out love – you stupid wannabe gangster.”
  • “Well said girl, you have courage to make this video.”
  • “What’s the name of your disease girl?”
  • “I want you to piss all over me.”
  • “Shut up and get a boyfriend.”
  • “Take the knife, take your hand, and slice your wrist, and please, stop making crappy videos.”
  • “I watched you on mute and it was just as good.”
  • “You’re retarded.”
  • “You’re hot.”
  • “People hate you because you’re black, not because you’re a teenager.”

Though AnonyGirl1’s reactions to these responses are not always easy to read – she makes sarcastic quips in reply to most of the different comments she cites, and often seems delighted in doing so – she also appears damaged by them. The effect makes for what seems like a curious mix of expressions. On the one hand, she basks in the attention she is suddenly receiving, and happily boasts about the sise of her newfound platform. And yet this belies what seems like a different set of emotions lurking beneath the surface, which she signals in what is often veiled commentary. This culminates when, toward the end of her video, she says, “It was really fun insulting you guys back. So as much as you’re thinking you’re getting to me, it’s not really working. Like a teeny, tiny bit, but you know, I can hide behind the safety of my computer too.” And, as if to reinforce that she is unaffected by some of the difficult comments she has received, she closes with, “I’m enjoying this experience, and I’m not leaving YouTube for no one,” an admission that only seems to highlight the opposite.

Her comments in a subsequent video confirm that other people’s negative comments are indeed what brings her to the place of removing and then re-adding different combinations of her videos in ways previously described and, it might now be added, in ways that she seems to hope will present projections of herself less likely to provoke antagonism from others (17 August, 2008). In this regard, her attempts at exercising control over her YouTube persona bring her to the place of narrative strategising alluded to earlier, the implications of which I now take up.

A narrative in disarray

When AnonyGirl1 chides her antagonists by calling attention to the ethics of their anonymity (“I can hide behind the safety of my computer too,” she says), she identifies a predominant communicative feature on YouTube, one that she eventually draws upon as an important resource. This communicative feature – evoked through notions of “hiding” and “safety” in AnonyGirl1’s quote, a quote which calls to mind how online commentators are often shielded from the consequences of their comments – finds form in what might be called a disembodied subjectivity, in the sense that the comments (both textual and video) of people who participate on YouTube (not to mention elsewhere online) are to varying degrees detached from the bodies who make them; and yet however tenuous are these links between body and speech, each works upon the other in ways that are consequential and affecting for the ‘subjects’ caught up in their circulations. AnonyGirl1, for one, is demonstrably affected by the incitements that these kinds of circulations produce – their vulgarities upset her. Yet she too finds a reprieve in effecting her own ‘disembodiments’ on YouTube. Doing so allows her to construct and to reconstruct, and thereby to negotiate her existence there. In the final section of this article, I explore how AnonyGirl1 negotiates YouTube’s flexible narrative structures and, in particular, what she teaches us about young people’s subject-making possibilities and practices on YouTube in the process of doing so.

When AnonyGirl1 reaches into her YouTube past and changes it – which happens when she takes the bold step of temporarily removing all of the videos that had for a long time comprised her YouTube profile, then later reposts twenty among them, before finally removing the latter and posting still new videos – this has the effect of profoundly changing the intact narrative she leaves behind; it alters who she is as she appears on YouTube. The iteration of AnonyGirl1 that I have thus far explored – the one which focuses on the roughly twenty videos she eventually reposts after deleting all of her past ones – is therefore but one of many possible iterations of her profile that I might have encountered had I retrieved it at different times. That said, what seems most interesting in investigating AnonyGirl1’s story entails not so much the act of mining the precise ways her story changes with each successive rearrangement of her YouTube profile – simply aiming to decipher these changes strikes me as a less penetrating practice than thinking about what it means that she can change her story. In this case, what seems most interesting in investigating Anonygirl1’s story entails asking what it means for her, and for others like her, that there exists a popular cultural space where this kind of public reordering of oneself is possible.

In one sense, AnonyGirl1 begins to answer this query by illustrating how she is able to complicate familiar narrative precepts in making herself on YouTube. In particular, the story of herself that she leaves on YouTube abandons presumptions of fixity in terms of its configurations. To the extent that narrative order is achieved through succession – in that bits and pieces of information must be linked as a condition of its intelligibility (Murray, 2003) – AnonyGirl1’s work redefines succession by remaking it into a flexible concept. What links two or more of her successive videos, this is to say what links the information that we must inscribe into the empty spaces between her videos in order for her story to hold together, is rendered unstable by her. When one of her videos gets removed, let alone re-added later on, viewers must forge new links between what remains, new links that come with new consequences for how we might understand her.

This mode of making oneself puts a strain on “modern” narrative imperatives of adolescence, where demands placed on narrative experience often prise notions like unity, succession, completion, and arrival (Lesko, 2001). On the contrary, the story-making apparatuses available to online participants on YouTube and elsewhere allow them to somewhat disengage from these imperatives. When AnonyGirl1 adds and removes videos of herself, she demonstrates how time gets reorganised as an exceedingly flexible apparatus in her story of self; she destabilises configurations of events in time by showing that what once existed as sequential can be manoeuvred in various ways. In this sense, we might even say that time is de-spatialised within this context, which is to say that the information and events that we inscribe onto time in order to render its permutations intelligible to us – in this case, displayed in the form of making a series of videos about one’s life and giving them a sequence with the expectation that this sequence will tell viewers something important about the video maker – can on YouTube be endlessly recast in support of making oneself in temporary ways that one sees fit. The possibility of adding, re-adding, recombining and eliminating events in time, as AnonyGirl1 does, therefore causes time to lose its determinist assumptions. Time becomes unbound as something fluid under these conditions, and making oneself according to these fluidities opens up different possibilities for reshaping one’s imaginaries of self.

In the case of AnonyGirl1 in particular, the act of constructing herself in a space that makes available the possibility of changing the markings of her past – a circumstance which in turn allows her to continually recreate her present – creates a situation that seems especially interesting in terms of one of its implications (and in its subsequent complications). For what she does under these conditions is to bring to the exterior what might more commonly be thought of as a deeply interior process. Specifically, in reshaping her projections of herself by adding and removing the videos she makes, her public work of actively reconstructing her past through the varying gases of her present not only mirrors something salient about the internal machinations of these processes, but it gives these machinations meaning and expression within a social context. This seems especially significant when considering how it is that narratives find form within social worlds – namely, they are constructed through language, and organised in relation to social and cultural frames of reference, so that they can be grasped and negotiated by self and other alike (Murray, 2003, pp. 99-100; Hall, 1997). And yet in spite of this, attempts at giving narratives form through everyday speech are typically less flexible than in most acts of thinking or imagining. In this context, the significance of what AnonyGirl1 demonstrates is that on YouTube there seems a sort of opening within which the act of speech can resist some of the fixity that is usually endemic to it. When telling a story on YouTube, embedded in its telling is the opportunity to reconstruct what has been said about it after it has been told.

In previous sections I have covered how AnonyGirl1 plays with such permutations on YouTube, how they become an important resource for her in affording her the chance to express her changing conceptions of herself, and how she harnesses these resources in ways that both embrace inconsistencies and contest fixity in terms of the narrative of self she constructs. What needs to be added here is that for all that these conditions offer AnonyGirl1 by way of narrative resources, the possibilities they offer her also come with perilous consequences. In a context where endless refigurations of self are possible, what often ensues is a sense of confusion that at times seems to overwhelm her. Her confusion in turn raises a set of peripheral questions that, even if unarticulated by her, seem to hover over her various expressions of self: How do I make myself in this space of expansive possibilities? According to what parameters can I, or should I, define who I am here? On what terms might I aim to redefine who I am here? And how, if at all, might I stake out a personal space within this shared cultural context of meaning-making?

For AnonyGirl1, what eventually emerges in this context is not a continuation of her work of making herself through her expressions of self on YouTube, but instead a now familiar moment where she completely unmakes herself as a presence there. In trying to make sense of this moment, consider again the quotation, now in extended form, from the video that I began this article by speaking about:

Hi, as some of you may know I’ve kind of announced that I’m leaving the AnonyGirl1 channel. And, I’ve kind of just randomly done it. I was just like God, I want to go I want to go, I want to go. I know you’re probably thinking, ‘where did this come from.’… I’ve been thinking about it for a while.… I feel like the channel is based on someone I’m not anymore. I’m not the same person that you guys all, I don’t know, enjoy to watch.  And I get comments everyday saying, ‘your old videos are better. You used to be so much more fun and you used to be so much cooler. Blah blah blah.’ And that kind of takes a really big toll on you when the person you’re being in your videos is yourself. And for someone to come along and say ‘oh, you used to be so much cooler, you used to be a lot better back in the day….’…  For someone to completely be digging at who you are… it got to me. I shouldn’t have let it… I don’t know…. I’m just kind of, I’m overwhelmed. (17 August, 2008)

In this same video, she also expresses a desire to restart her YouTube experience anew (“I need to start fresh” and to “start again” she alternately repeats). Likewise, she fantasises aloud about the possibility of having “a new channel” with “no subscribers,” citing as a reason that, “I just – it’s time to take a break again, sorry, but this time a real break and come back as the real me….” And towards the end of the video she offers:  “Umm, I need your opinion on what to do with these old videos. I want to just get rid of them. Maybe, I don’t know, unless there are ones that you want back…”

Of course we now know that AnonyGirl1 removes her videos from YouTube after this moment, before returning twenty of them a short while later, but what she signals in negotiating this departure is interesting. In the midst of announcing her own removal from YouTube, when she comes to the point of mentioning whether to repost several of the videos she has removed (“Umm, I need your opinion”), it seems clear that she is unable to leave behind the seductions that YouTube offers her in terms of affording her the chance to mend what she deems to be forever reparative in such a space (namely, her projections of herself, as well as the responses that she receives as a consequence of airing these projections). We see this most perceptibly in the fact that in spite of being “overwhelmed” and needing to “start fresh,” she still courts input from anonymous others in pursuit of these reparations.

Giddens’ (1991) notion of a reflexive self, a conception of selfhood that posits that our current historical moment is characterised by endless decision making apparatuses that prompt us toward negotiating constant questions about who we are and who we might be, seems prescient in this context. What AnonyGirl1 seems to have to constantly negotiate on YouTube is a surfeit of possibilities about how she might construct herself. And the preceding quotation makes clear that she amends to these possibilities a sort of self-imposed discipline, one that is clearly informed by the impressions of others, and that both produces and constrains her behaviour. Her expressions of self on YouTube are therefore not simply amorphous incantations of a disembodied self that she constructs there.

This in turn raises the question of what it is that really precipitates the emotions she expresses in the preceding extended quotation, what it is that specifically becomes “overwhelming” to her with regard to her presence on YouTube. Is she overwhelmed by the difficult commentary she at times receives from others about her videos, or is her angst also a consequence of the dissying narrative choices that YouTube provokes for her? The answer at least partly seems to be that while AnonyGirl1 aims to manage her narrative and is seduced into thinking that she can, YouTube’s expansive possibilities for doing so leaves her struggling to grasp for meaning amidst its surfeit of choices.

In this sense, what this finally alerts us to is perhaps a fitting irony considering all of the ambiguities that AnonyGirl1’s case presents – in context of the endless narrative choices AnonyGirl1 has at her disposal on YouTube, and in context of the pleasures and disappointments she evidently experiences in engaging in these choices, what she paradoxically seems to chase amidst these conditions is some sense of fixity. Put differently, for all the narrative fluidities that her story exemplifies, there is a sense in which she yearns for stability and permanence as a reprieve from these fluidities. We see this in the preceding quotation when she idealises an earlier time on YouTube (she dreams of “a new channel” with “no subscribers”), which her comments seem to signal represent for her a less complicated set of conditions, and thus a position from which she might begin to fix into view a new conception of self (and specifically a new “real” self). By the same token, we see evidence of the same in her repeated desire to exercise control over the fleeting self that she does project (“it’s time to take a break and come back as the real me”). The irony in question comes therefore in her endeavouring to use YouTube, this space from which she so pointedly explores narrative fluidities, as a means of retreating to fixity.

In the end, what AnonyGirl1’s story perhaps most incisively points us toward is the necessity of thinking about how it is that these opposing notions (fluidity and fixity) might exist together in her conception of herself as expressed on YouTube. In this sense, even if at times constructing herself by clinging to notions of fixity (“it’s time to come back as the real me”), the broader scope of her contribution more often reveals her delight in negotiating the new possibilities of making and unmaking herself that her online participation affords her (“I’m so excited to start fresh”). And this perhaps contains the essence of a more expansive lesson that AnonyGirl1 shares in her exposition. Namely, that making oneself on YouTube and on online spaces like it is premised on a promise that is at once full of choices and possibilities for actualising fluid and flexible narrative expressions of self, but that thorny issues can lurk in the shadows of these possibilities. AnonyGirl1 explores issues and concerns in relation to both of these premises on YouTube. In the process of doing so, she confronts the presumed coherences of youth narratives, defies narrative notions of temporal linearity, and offers us new ways of imagining the construction of one’s self. In this regard what AnonyGirl1’s leaves us with in her telling of her story of herself, is a different kind of articulation of adolescence than we might have had she expressed herself elsewhere, and thus otherwise. This articulation gives expression to how narrative forms premised on temporal linearity, which modern narratives of adolescence often exemplify (i.e. ages and stages), might co-exist with and perhaps even suppress what is really a more complicated process of subject making – one that resists the fictions of linearity in favour of the recursive processes of articulation and re-articulation that are increasingly reflective of many young people’s experiences of self and meaning-making.


This chapter emerges from the author’s doctoral dissertation, called Youth in the Time of YouTube. The author wishes to thank Dan Yon, Jen Gilbert , Warren Crichlow and Danielle Brown for their comments and suggestions.


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Appendix: List of AnonyGirl1 YouTube References[iii]

Biographical Statement

Roger Saul is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education at Brock University. His research focuses on cultural studies and education, and spans areas such as youth cultures, digital cultures, cultural identities, and the sociocultural foundations of education. He teaches courses on technology in the curriculum, ethics, comparative and international education, reflective practice, and the intersections of culture, identity and pedagogy. His recent writing has appeared in the International Journal of Learning and Media, The Journal of Popular Culture, Educational Studies, and Canadian and International Education. He is co-editor of the book Education in North America (Educational Around the World) (Bloomsbury Press, 2014).

[i] Her reposting of these twenty videos also proved temporary, as she in time removed these videos as well, only to replace them with (and then remove) still other videos.

[ii] I retrieved the video on September 9, 2008. At that time, videos deemed “featured” were ones that YouTube site operators chose to showcase through prominent display on their website, display that often went a long way toward determining what videos among YouTube’s millions would actually be seen by broad audiences.

[iii] To note, in concert with AnonyGirl1’s practice of adding and deleting videos of herself on YouTube, the effects of which much of this paper explores, the videos listed in the Appendix are no longer posted on YouTube at the time of my writing this.

Eleanor Sandry

Published Online: April 30, 2014
Full Text: HTML, PDF (1.1 MB)


This paper extends Emmanuel Levinas’ articulation of “the face to face” encounter (1969, p. 79-81) to suggest that students and teachers can be brought into an ethical proximity created by the media they share and discuss online in Facebook. In Levinas’ terms, a ‘face’ is not simply a physical face. Instead, the Levinasian face encapsulates all the ways that one person is able to reveal aspects of their personality to another. Interactions in Facebook remain “bounded by the impossibility of ever knowing the Other,” as does all communication according to Levinas (Zembylas and Vrasidas, 2005, p. 72). However, while a profile picture may or may not disclose much information about a person, the content posted and shared online (in the form of text, images, videos, likes, etc) reveals aspects of an individual’s personality in a way that encourages responses from others. Facebook can therefore bring people unable to meet in the same physical and temporal location into a proximity created by their online disclosure. In addition, the asymmetry between students and teachers, emphasised in spaces such as lecture theatres, is destabilised in Facebook to provide students and teachers the opportunity to learn from one another’s shared ideas, experiences and understandings.


Asymmetry, Ethics, Face, Facebook, Learning, Levinas, Online


Arguments about the possibilities of online learning and the effectiveness of platforms used for its provision can be related to the debates around the “deficit” or “surplus” appraisals of online communication in comparison with face-to-face communication, as well as considerations of the relative merits of online and face-to-face communities as supporting “thin” or “thick” engagement between members (Johnson, 2010; Introna & Brigham, 2007). Underlying both sides of these debates is a polarised view, which absolutely separates the possibilities of online from offline communication. The boundary line between the two has most often been drawn in relation to the presence or absence of human facial and bodily expressions, and more recently (now that emoticons, avatars, images and video are more widely used) the presence or absence of the opportunity to interact with someone in the flesh by encountering them in the same physical space (Johnson, 2010). Some scholars privilege the richness of face-to-face interaction over online communication, noting the latter’s deficit of non-verbal and emotional cues, whereas others argue that the flexibility of online communication, where first impressions can be separated from one’s physical appearance, offer people a surplus of ways to alter the impression they make to fit a particular context as they wish (Johnson, 2010). Following on from this is the argument over whether the lack of physical closeness online can lead only to weak, or thin, community contact being made, or whether the flexibility of online communication promotes complex, or thick, community relations (Introna & Brigham, 2007).

As opposed to reworking these debates, this paper considers what happens when one ceases to privilege the presence or absence of a physical human face to support meaningful communication. Instead, it introduces a broader understanding of what can be meant by the term ‘face,’ by extending the phenomenological and ethical philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas. Levinas’ conception of the face was drawn out of his examination of human encounters in the same physical space. However, his description of the self-other encounter as “the face to face,” stresses that the face of the other is not simply a set of physical features that can be seen, but rather the means by which the other reveals themselves to the self (1969, p. 79-81). This conception of face as a means of revealing otherness suggests that is it possible to extend Levinas’ description of the ethical self-other encounter into online spaces. Therefore, although it is certainly not something that Levinas’ himself would have done, this paper employs the idea of the Levinasian face in support of new ways to frame the potential of interactions in Facebook as part of higher education learning programs.

Facebook and online communication

Online platforms have extended the idea of computer-mediated communication (CMC) beyond the confines of text. They have radically increased the ease of communicating with other people, both individually and as a group, using a combination of text, audio, still images and videos across spatial and temporal divisions. The sharing of these different media forms adds to the richness of online communication in ways that support many possibilities for disseminating information, indicating emotional reactions and revealing aspects of personality, personal history and experiential knowledge. Although this is true of a number of online communication platforms, in terms of current popularity and number of users, “Facebook has no effective imitators” other than a few specific services such as “Weibo in China and VK in Russia” designed to cater for particular differences in language, politics and culture (Allen, 2012, p. 214). The use of Facebook to keep in contact with ‘friends’ (who may fall into a number of categories such as acquaintances or work colleagues) is now a feature of many people’s everyday lives. Facebook is primarily thought of as a space for maintaining social connections with others, but different people take this to mean different things, whether sharing aspects of their everyday life experience, publicising the causes in which they feel most heavily invested, or sharing interesting or amusing things they have seen on the Internet.

Most educators and students are insistent that their personal Facebook networks should be carefully separated, since neither group really wants the other to see everything that is posted to their Facebook timelines. In addition, it has been suggested that some educators might be uncomfortable with the Facebook environment, because it reduces the hierarchical separation between teacher and learner that is familiar from the lecture theater environment (Allen, 2012). Nonetheless, the popularity of Facebook and the regularity with which it is checked by its users suggests that this Social Network Site (SNS) might be a good way of making and maintaining contact between students and teachers, to share information through a platform that is becoming increasingly familiar, and is considerably more flexible than institutional email systems or commonly used institutional Learning Management Systems (LMSs), such as Blackboard or Moodle.

Facebook friend networks and Facebook groups in education

Facebook’s popularity with both students and teachers in higher education is not primarily driven by the use of this SNS as an educational environment; instead, it is more commonly understood as a way of maintaining a personal network of family, friends and acquaintances. Whether the people in this network are family members, or met through school, college or university, through work, or socially, the majority of them are also known offline. Indeed, boyd and Ellison note, “[w]hat makes social network sites unique is not that they allow individuals to meet strangers, but rather that they enable users to articulate and make visible their social networks” (2007). This general observation carries through to the specifics of “education-related interaction,” where Facebook is again used “primarily for maintaining strong links between people already in relatively tight-knit, emotionally close offline relationships, rather than creating new points of contact” (Selwyn, 2009, p. 170). The interactions between Facebook friends, including those in an educational context, are therefore often subject to face-to-face rules that have already been defined in various specific offline contexts. However, the granularity of interaction possible in Facebook will be dependent on whether people in one’s Facebook network have been placed in specific lists (eg ‘Close Friends,’ ‘Acquaintance,’ etc) appropriate to the context from which they are known and the closeness of the relationship, or whether they remain categorised under the general heading ‘Friends.’

Although boyd and Ellison’s contention that the most important aspect of SNSs is to make one’s offline social networks visible is well supported, networks such as Facebook do nonetheless enable online interactions between people who may remain strangers offline. This is particularly the case when people become members of Facebook groups, which can be understood as networks that define specific communities of users. Importantly, these group networks are able to cut across users’ friendship networks, as opposed to existing only within them. Group networks therefore enable interactions between strangers, brought together only by their membership of the group. In addition, posts (including comments and likes) within a closed group are shared only with other members of that group, and are not shared across member’s friend networks through the newsfeed. Interactions between people in closed groups are likely, therefore, to be subject to different social rules from those between Facebook friends. Within a closed group people may choose to reveal, through their posts to the group wall, different aspects of their personality from those which they choose to share more generally with their Facebook friend network.

Neil Selwyn notes that in public wall posts “online exchanges” were “merely a continuation of how students talk to each other in other contexts” (2009, p. 172). Therefore, students tended to portray the role of either “the passive, disengaged student” or alternatively “the angry, critical student,” and students taking the opportunity “to present a self-image of being more intellectually engaged or enthused by one’s subject were noticeable by their absence” (2009, p. 172). John Suler suggests that “[t]he self does not exist separate from the environment in which that self is expressed,” and therefore “[d]ifferent modalities of online communication (e.g., e-mail, chat, video) and different environments (e.g., social, vocational, fantasy) may facilitate diverse expressions of self” (2004, p. 325). Importantly, none of these expressions “is necessarily more true than another” (Suler, 2004, p. 325). It is therefore quite possible that within a closed Facebook group, centered on a particular academic unit or subject area, students might be more willing to appear openly interested in their studies, while maintaining more of a disengaged or critical perspective in posts designed for their Facebook friends.

A Facebook group provides a visible network of people involved with a course or unit that have decided to join the group. It therefore acts as a collection point for students, with the potential for supporting a community of learners in a particular subject area. This community can be easily visualised, because Facebook keeps a record of the group’s members and identifies them by their names and profile pictures for all other members of the group to see. In some cases, students may use a pseudonym, and/or profile picture that hides their offline identity, but in general Facebook promotes the idea of appearing as oneself. Depending on the privacy settings each individual has applied to their Facebook profile, other information from these profiles that is made publicly available will also be available to group members by clicking through from the person’s name and profile image. Although some people who meet through a group may decide to ‘friend’ one another on Facebook, it is also possible that many will not, and they will therefore effectively remain strangers to one another, brought together only by their enrolment in a particular unit or course of education. This raises the question of how well these loosely connected groups operate as communities, and also how best to understand the learning that might take place within them.

Education and the value of critical and ethical communities

In “Reconsidering community and the stranger” (2007), Lucas Introna and Martin Brigham note that the formation of strong communities is most often assumed to depend upon physical closeness and/or the acceptance or development of “a particular shared value,” such that a “community can only exist through the inculcation and assimilation of others into the dominant concerns of the group” (p. 167). Central to this conception of community is the idea that human communication acts as a bridge between individuals, whether by enabling the accurate transmission or exchange of information, supporting persuasive influence over others, creating shared understandings of the world or promoting group agreement via critical rational debate. However, some communications scholars, such as John Durham Peters (1999) and Amit Pinchevski (2005), argue that accepting this idea results in a level of ‘violence’ to the other. As Pinchevski explains, “[t]raditional communication theories are largely about the reduction of difference or the transcendence of difference, and consequently, the elimination of difference” (2005, p. 65).

Although without such a clear focus on ‘violence’ to the other, similar concerns are presented in Introna and Brigham’s paper, as demonstrated by their use of the words “inculcation and assimilation,” and later “incorporation and coercion,” to describe the basis for most popular views of community (2007, p. 167). As an alternative, they suggest the value of seeing “community as critical and ethical involvement,” an idea that seems particularly relevant in an educational context where critical engagement and ethics are valued in both teaching and research (2007, p. 167). Introna and Brigham explore this possibility by drawing on Levinas’ philosophy of the ethical encounter between self and other, a philosophy that also forms the basis for Pinchevski’s exploration of ethical communication.

In contrast with theory that regards communication as a bridge, and communities as developing around shared values, a phenomenological perspective describes interactions between people more openly as opportunities to encounter others and their differences (Craig, 1999). Levinas, for example, describes the self as meeting the other in what he terms “the face to face,” an encounter which brings them into ‘proximity,’ but also retains a clear sense of the irreducible ‘distance’ between them (1969, p. 79-81). For Levinas, the terms proximity and distance do not describe how close interlocutors are to each other in physical space. Instead, the idea of proximity identifies any situation allowing the other to reveal a ‘face’ to the self, while the retention of distance is a reminder that the self can never completely comprehend the other. The Levinasian face to face, is therefore an encounter during which it is possible for the self to meet, and potentially to communicate with, the other, while continuing to acknowledge their absolute alterity. As Roger Silverstone notes, “Levinas’ notion of proximity preserves the separation of myself and the other” to ensure the presence of “both respect and responsibility for the other” (2003, p. 475). It is therefore possible for online interactions to enable proximity, by supporting communication in spite of physical separation. Indeed, since online technology enables asynchronous communication, it can also be regarded as a way to overcome temporal separation, such as that introduced by living in different time zones.

The importance of balancing proximity and distance, such that one can communicate while always respecting the other’s difference, is encapsulated in Silverstone’s term “proper distance,” where “proper” is used to mean “distinctive, correct, and ethically or socially appropriate” (2003, p. 470). The conception of ethical communication and the maintenance of a proper distance between self and other is central to Introna and Brigham’s “notion of community that is based on the ethical proximity of the stranger, the otherness of the other” as opposed to a reliance on “shared values, or shared concerns” (2007, p. 166). It is also relevant to Sharon Todd’s exploration of “how ethics and education might be rethought together as a relation across difference” (2003, p. 2). As she explains, “[t]he idea that we only need to get to know someone in order to be able to act responsibly (and responsively) toward that person” is easy to accept without question, and this viewpoint is often seen in the emphasis educators place upon “getting to know students through their experiences, cultural backgrounds, etc.” (2003, p. 8). However, assuming that one must learn about the other in this way in order to respond to them suggests that “otherness can be understood and that learning about others is pedagogically and ethically desirable” (Todd, 2003, p. 8). If, instead of seeing the other as defined by social and cultural differences, the other is regarded from the philosophical perspective as fundamentally other in an ontological sense, this undermines the assumption “that knowing leads to better ethical reflection, and that de-‘Othering’ is a worthy moral aspiration” (Todd, 2003, p. 9). As “the idea that learning about others is an appropriate ethical response to difference” is set aside, “the question that begins to emerge is how we learn from the other” (Todd, 2003, p. 9, my emphasis). In terms of Facebook and education, it is therefore valuable to explore how the other can reveal a Levinasian face online, to support the critical and ethical involvement within a Facebook group acting as a community within which teachers and students can learn from one another.

Revealing Levinasian ‘faces’ online

Central to Levinas’ conception of the ethical encounter is the other’s ability to reveal their face, an action that, as I have already discussed, can seem difficult to achieve in online environments. Indeed, as Laurie Johnson notes, the perceived lack of faces online is used as the basis for arguing that face-to-face and CMC are “inherently different” from each other, leading to “[t]he possibility of an ethical encounter in CMC” being totally denied (2010). Levinas himself concentrated on discussing encounters between selves and others in the same physical space, and was reported to be uneasy even while conversing on the telephone, constantly worried that he had been cut off (Derrida, 2013, p. 321). This suggests that he would be unlikely to have considered online communication as able to draw self and other into the proximity of his conception of a face to face encounter with any great success.

However, the use of computer interfaces has, for a number of years, made still images of faces readily available and, more recently, the sharing of videos and also live videoconferencing has become a familiar part of some workplaces and homes. Questions may be raised over whether the online presentation of faces on screens can provoke as strong a response for a viewer as may be felt in a face-to-face meeting. For example, Introna shares his personal experience of finding it easier to ignore someone when their face was mediated by an intercom screen, as opposed to being encountered directly at the open front door (2001). Johnson also acknowledges that online images cannot “simply reproduce a face-to-face relation in the immediacy of what we would consider a full presence” (2007, p. 53). It is therefore important to note that, although Levinas’ philosophy is embedded in his consideration of the physical encounter between self and other, the term ‘face’ in his writing does not simply refer to a physical human face. Indeed, he contends that rather than turning “towards the Other as toward an object” by concentrating on physical facial features, “[t]he best way of encountering the other is not even to notice the colour of his eyes” (Levinas, 1985, p. 85-86). Levinas also clarifies that “the whole body—a hand or curve of the shoulder—can express as the face” (1969, p. 262). During physical meetings, and to some extent a videoconference, the other’s expression might for example include head, hand and overall body movement. Furthermore, as Johnson highlights, at times Levinas seems to suggest that “the face could potentially be anything that conveys an expression” (2007, p. 52). The Levinasian face can therefore be understood as something more transcendent than physical, which encapsulates all the various ways that the other can reveal aspects of their personality to the self.

Taking this broad conception of face into consideration supports a deeper exploration of the possibilities of revelation online in social network environments. The pertinent question is not whether online others reveal physical faces through images or videos with the same immediacy and presence as they do offline, but rather whether online communication allows them to reveal a Levinasian face. Is it possible for the other to express and reveal their specific differences online, such that they can command the attention of their Facebook friends or those with whom they connect through Facebook groups? Richard Cohen argues that “the ethical dimension of human proximity transpires across the communications made possible by computers, just as human proximity takes place across phone calls, letters, artifacts. The ‘face’ can be a letter. The ‘face’ can be an email message” (2000, p. 34). Introna and Brigham also contend that ethical proximity can be reached both through the television screen, and via online messages and emails (2007, p. 175). It therefore seems reasonable to suggest that a Levinasian face can be revealed on platforms such as Facebook, possibly even more strongly than via emails and messages, through the act of posting, commenting on and ‘liking’ a variety of media for others to see.

Levinasian faces in Facebook

While a profile picture may, or may not, disclose much information about someone, posting and sharing content (in the form of text, images, music, videos, comments, likes, etc) online, and responding through further posts, comments and likes, has the potential to reveal many aspects of an individual’s personality. As Matthew Allen notes, “[f]undamentally, Facebook is a system for communicating to others the interests, passions, pleasures and business of the individual, ‘showing off’ the self” (2012, p. 216). Facebook “gives users a way of offering themselves to others, to gain attention,” and this broad understanding of personal disclosure through sharing content suggests the potential of revealing a Levinasian face online, since it is through personal disclosure that the other calls for an ethical response from the self (2012, p. 217). Although Allen goes further to suggest that people can be “understood” through what they share on Facebook, adopting a Levinasian perspective leads me to insist that what is revealed through Facebook can only support a partial understanding (2012, p. 217). In addition, while the system facilitates an “easy reciprocity in the giving of attention,” most notably through the ability to ‘Like’ a post or comment, there is nonetheless always a choice over whether to reciprocate on Facebook (2012, p. 217). Ideas of partial connection and comprehension, alongside the potential for communication that is not reciprocated, may offer a more pragmatic understanding of what occurs in Facebook groups made up in most cases of loosely connected people that may remain more clearly categorised as ‘strangers’ to one another as opposed to ever reaching the status of Facebook ‘friends’.

Facebook works well as an online environment to support meaningful encounters between people because of the relative ease of sharing and viewing rich media through its interface in comparison with, for example, Blackboard discussion boards. Most users are now very familiar with the technological aspects of Facebook, such that the underlying technology has become less and less noticeable. This is true not only of Facebook’s web interface, but also the smartphone and tablet apps for the platform. The majority of users find all of these interfaces so familiar and easy to use that sharing resources is a simple task, from the perspective of the person posting and also of the reader/viewer. As Clay Shirky notes, “[c]ommunication tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technically boring” (2008, p. 105). Facebook groups can therefore be favorably compared with the less sophisticated discussion board and bulletin board interfaces that are commonly found in institutional LMS environments such as Blackboard. In Facebook, the sharing of words, images, videos and other information takes place in an environment where people are more able to concentrate on the content itself, and the potential meanings it conveys, as opposed to the technical difficulties of sharing or viewing content. It is easy to reply with a ‘Like,’ a comment, or even a relevant rich media response of one’s own, and such sharing is made flexible, ‘anyplace, anytime,’ through the use of mobile devices. By allowing people to focus on the content shared through the links between people, as opposed to the network as a technology, Facebook is therefore more likely to support the revelation of a Levinasian face than the more technically challenging LMS interfaces.

From this perspective, “[t]he principal feature of Facebook, therefore, is not within the system so to speak, nor even determined by its use: the principal feature is each user and how they come to be known” through the content that they post (Allen, 2012, p. 216). Facebook can be understood to draw together the idea of the network technology and the human subjects interacting through that network so closely that the human “entanglement with media on a sociocultural and biological level” suggests that “media cannot be fully externalized from subjects” (Kember & Zylinksa, 2012, p. 1). This reinforces the idea that it is the on-going interactions that are recorded, through what is shared, liked and the comments made, that are more important than the underlying structure of connections between users (whether they are ‘friends,’ or members of the same group). Indeed, the underlying membership structure of a Facebook group can be quickly forgotten, along with the people that withdraw from the group completely or lurk and only read and view content; instead, the group becomes more clearly identified with those who are the most active, who post, like and comment on a regular basis. These active group members are identifiable not only from their Facebook profile images, but also by the tone of their comments, and the details of the multimedia content that they share. These are the people whose interactions with the group most clearly demonstrate the revelation of a Levinasian face—a face that is not physical, but rather a revelation of being—online.

Taking responsibility for learning and sharing personal perspectives

From early analysis of closed Facebook groups used in 2013 for two separate iterations of a Web Media unit at Curtin University, it can be seen that a number of students not only comment on material posted by the lecturer, but also ask questions and share their own source materials and examples through the Facebook groups. Although this shared content is light-hearted at times, it is also sometimes serious, for example legal or policy-related material, and is always relevant to the concerns of the unit as a whole. In a more structured situation, Murat Kayri and Öslem Çakir describe how the introduction of a Facebook group enabled learning to be “shaped by the students,” such that they even developed their own “lesson materials” (2010, p. 56). A closed Facebook group is therefore of practical use, because it offers a “coherent space for collective interaction” related to a specific context that can remain separate from “the individuated behaviour” more generally presented through a profile, timeline and information shared on the newsfeed with friends (Allen, 2012, p. 215). In spite of this separation, it is important to stress that students may feel more comfortable sharing their personal ideas and opinions in a Facebook group than in, for example, Blackboard, because Facebook is perceived as a less formal space than a traditional LMS. Indeed, by sharing their own experiences in relation to various platforms and media in the unit’s Facebook group, Curtin Web Media students were better able to grasp the implications of differences in access to media between city dwellers and those living in small country towns.

Sharing, in the context of a closed Facebook group, allows individual students to explore aspects of themselves and others in relation to the group’s subject matter. They are able to post what they are most interested in, and see how this compares with the thoughts of others. Since the people brought together in a Facebook group are not necessarily Facebook friends there is an increased likelihood that the unfamiliar experience and history of others in the group may highlight very different perspectives about the course or unit content. As people share views, opinions and examples that particularly appeal to them, their interactions with the group are also likely to help them situate their existing knowledge and experience in relation to what they are learning. As Sarah Kember and Joanna Zylinska suggest, people and the media that they share, comment upon and like in Facebook are co-constituted (2012, p.164). This perspective highlights not only that people reveal themselves through what they post on Facebook, but also that their self-understanding may change as a result of reading the posts of others. Through the more personal nature of posts in the Facebook group, as opposed to an LMS, students are drawn into proximity. They have an increased opportunity to encounter the other’s ideas and experiences in ways that resonate with Levinas’ conception of “the face to face” (1969, p. 79-81). Although an LMS discussion board may have the capability to foster this level of response, if presented and managed by teachers as somewhere that welcomes personal as well as more formal reading and research-related posts, the lack of ease and immediacy of posting is likely to reduce the dynamic nature of the revelation-response interaction. In addition, the LMS is often perceived as a space in which a teacher-student hierarchy is clearly maintained, and sometimes even reinforced when the system overtly marks teachers’ posts as from controllers, coordinators or lecturers.

Asymmetry and sharing in Facebook

There is often a clear asymmetry between students and teachers; one that is emphasised in spaces such as lecture theatres, and, as I have just mentioned, also in LMSs. As Suler notes, “[a]uthority figures express their status and power in their dress, body language, and in the trappings of their environmental settings” (2004, p. 324). This is true of the lecturer who may choose to dress more smartly when presenting, and is often required to take centre stage because of the physical arrangement of the lecture theatre as a space. However, this display of authority can be lessened in tutorial rooms, where a careful choice of seating layout, use of less formal language, and taking time to ensure inclusivity can be used to break down the asymmetry somewhat. It has been argued that online environments can reduce the perception of authority and thus the feeling of asymmetry, making an interaction feel “more like a peer relationship” (Suler, 2004, p. 324). Although the identity of the lecturer or tutor is often known in Facebook, it is not so overtly stated as in an LMS. In addition, the teacher’s authority can be further reduced by embracing less formal language, the choice of what is shared and how, and the use of likes and comments to encourage greater student participation.

As I have discussed, in Facebook all parties are able to share their thoughts, experiences and examples relating to a subject in a flexible and, to many people, familiar environment. In this online space, the asymmetry between communicators has the potential to be more fluid, changing as different perspectives and ideas are shared within student groups, and between teachers and students. There is a complex asymmetrical relation to be played out online, but it is worth remembering that this is also present (in a different form) in the offline tutorial space. Teachers take responsibility for acting as mediators, facilitators, occasional arbitrators and also providers of information about the ‘official’ content (terminology used, theory explored) and/or the organisation of the unit (ie when assignments are due, what style of referencing to use etc). However, they are also responsible for encouraging students to feel comfortable in making contributions. There is great potential in using both tutorial rooms and Facebook groups as places where teachers can take a less formal and more personal approach, revealing aspects of their personalities by sharing their thoughts and experiences of the subject at hand, as opposed to reiterating the unit material. By encouraging this level of interaction the emphasis moves towards developing a critical and ethical involvement with other people, and creating a community within which teachers and students are able to learn from one another.


An ethical stance to online communication would seem to be particularly important in educational contexts. For this reason, I have tried to draw together ideas about ethical communication, ethical and critical communities and education as learning from the other in this paper. This has been done by exploring the possibility of taking Levinas’ conception of the face to face encounter into an online setting. However, as Johnson notes, any argument that a face can be revealed in online communication is not in itself sufficient to guarantee an ethical encounter in systems such as Facebook (2010). In spite of this, the theory discussed in this paper does support the potential for ethical, critical and educational encounters to occur online, with the particular example explored being the possibilities of a Facebook group. Of course, the success of any Facebook group, as is the case for a face-to-face lecture, seminar or tutorial, will depend on the participants and the particular group dynamic that develops.

Although I have concentrated on discussing a number of potential benefits of using Facebook in education, it is important to note that the institution, teachers and students have no real control over how this system might work in the future. While the Facebook group is seen to have great potential to support contained communication about a unit in its present form, in its next iteration posts, even from closed groups, might be shared on people’s overarching timelines (and thus with all of their friends). The decision to broaden access to posted information has been a feature in the past as Facebook has developed, and this trend may well continue. After all, the platform is not designed as a space for education, it is a business that collects and markets peoples’ information in exchange for providing them with a means to communicate and share online. Even in its present form, not all students perceive even closed Facebook groups as safe environments. Some still worry that “their academic performance … could be discovered by their social friends” or that “their personal information and social lives might be accessed by the tutor” (Wang et al, p. 436). In addition, while Facebook is currently the most widely used and familiar SNS, it is possible that this will change. Allying education with a particular piece of commercial software, at least in part on the basis of its popularity, means that if it is superseded there will be considerable pressure to move to whatever new platform comes along. This may or may not introduce new possibilities and/or problems for teachers and students.

Many people now have Facebook accounts and use this SNS on a regular basis, but in spite of its popularity it should not be assumed that all students use the system. In my experience, even as recently as 2013, there are always a few students that have never used Facebook and some of these people will not want to sign up. Occasionally there will also be students who used Facebook in the past, have left the SNS and are strongly opposed to rejoining. Indeed, even some regular Facebook users may not want to use what they regard as a site for social interactions as an educational space. The implication of this is that material shared and discussed in Facebook should be additional to the core course content, or that it should be shared with all students on the institution’s LMS or elsewhere, to include those students not on Facebook. This introduces a further issue for some students, who then feel under pressure to check in Facebook, the LMS and any other site being used to support information sharing and discussion, resulting in the complaint that there are too many demands on their attention.

In spite of these provisos, thinking about online education and communities in Facebook groups from a Levinasian perspective emphasises the importance of both teachers and students taking responsibility for each other and for learning. At its heart, the face to face is about paying respectful attention to others, and it therefore supports the idea of learning from the other, as opposed to either learning about the other or simply instructing the other. Levinas stresses the need to embrace ethical communication as non-reciprocal, (i.e. one makes the decision to communicate without the expectation of a response, an idea that is particularly suited to considerations of online communication where responses can be elusive). In addition, his description of the face to face encounter acknowledges the existence of an asymmetry between interlocutors, and can be extended to allow this asymmetry to be fluid and changing depending on the specific context. A conception of communication and relation drawn from Levinas provides a way of explaining what is happening when online interactions work so that a partial connection is made between people, or an unexpected post highlights a new piece of valuable information or previously unconsidered perspective. Of key importance, supporting this connection and learning, is the idea that teachers and learners not only share information, but also share aspects of their own personal perspectives on the material. They are thus able to reveal Levinasian faces, with SNSs such as Facebook tending to emphasise the personal by encouraging less formal posts more strongly than is commonly seen in interactions through LMSs such as Blackboard. In addition, embracing the idea that the asymmetry in the relation between teachers and learners can oscillate depending on the direction an online discussion takes, offers the potential for anyone in the group to learn from anyone else, whether students from other students, students from teachers or teachers from students.


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Lucinda Rush & D.E. Wittcower

Published Online: April 30, 2014
Full Text: HTML, PDF (757 KB)


The idea of the digital native was based on abstraction; when we look in detail at the digital activities of high-school and college students, we see deskilling and consumer training rather than information literacy or technical fluency. Yet that training is still training, and may be adaptable in such a way that it can become a literacy—in, for example, the way militaries have mobilised skill-sets produced through gaming. We too can and should mine the narrow and profit-driven consumer training that emerging adults have undergone for kinds of inquiry and critical engagement for which they may have inadvertently been given tools and training. In this article, we will analyse the structures of Facebook to see what sorts of consumer training it produces, and suggest avenues for the educational expropriation of that training. First, we take an inventory of categories of consumer training, analysing each and identifying exploitable elements within each. Following this, we suggest activities and assessment structures exapting these literacies and habits to educational ends. Many of these structures involve direct employment of Facebook in coursework, but others identify assignments, projects, and approaches which draw upon SNS consumer training but do not themselves employ Facebook.


Facebook, instructional design, phenomenology, consumer training, pedagogy

The myth of digital nativity

The term digital native was first coined by Marc Prensky in a 2001 edition of On the Horizon. He defined digital natives as people who have spent their lives engaged in technologies such as computers, video games, the internet, and mobile phones. Their exact birth year varies among scholars, but in general these are kids who were born after 1980. In 2001, Prensky pointed out research that indicates that as a result of this lifelong immersion in technology, the brain structure and thinking patterns of digital natives is quite different from the digital immigrants (those born prior to the technology explosion). In 2009 edition of Innovate, Prensky readdressed his 2001 publication, suggesting that as we progress further into the 21st century, the line between digital natives and digital immigrants becomes more blurred, and that we should focus our attention on what he labels as digital wisdom. “Digital wisdom is a twofold concept, referring both to wisdom arising from the use of digital technology to access cognitive power beyond our innate capacity and to wisdom in the prudent use of technology to enhance our capabilities” (Prensky, 2009, p. 1).

Since the Prensky (2001) article, there have been a great many discussions and debates surrounding the idea of the digital native. Digital natives cannot be determined by their birth year alone. Children born in developing countries, where even electricity is scarce cannot be considered digital natives. But even in wealthy countries, where children have access to technologies, there is a divide between those who use them effectively and those who do not (Palfrey & Gasser, 2008). Hargittai (2010) pointed out that while 81.2% students whose parents are considered highly educated own personal laptops, only 55.1% of students whose parents have less than a high school education own a laptop, and that parental education also plays a role in the skill level of the student. Hargittai and Hinnant’s (2008) study tells us that college students who have daily access to the internet vary in knowledge based on their socioeconomic status, parental education, race, and gender.  University students come to us from all types of backgrounds, some are digitally literate, but many are not.

Even among those of the ‘digitally native generation’ who are digital natives, though, the idea that digital nativity would itself automatically imply digital literacy/fluency, information literacy/fluency, or digital wisdom, is based on too simplistic an understanding of the cognitive and behavioural environment to which “digital natives” are native. “The digital” is not a single thing, and the digital landscape is not uniform. Skills developed in one sort of digital environment or practice may not be more broadly applicable. Even the phrase “digital native” is, in this way, a kind of fallacious equivocation, implying transitivity of skills and understanding across radically disparate kinds of activity. The digital native’s familiarity with seeking out information on Google in no way implies her familiarity with search engine algorithms, metadata, or the assessment of online sources; the digital native’s relative comfort in maintaining personal relationships online does not translate into fluency in maintaining privacy on social networking sites (SNS).

Now, to be sure, there are some general truisms about life online that cut across a great swath of the everyday practices of digital natives, and these truisms can help us reform our pedagogy. We need to teach students the way that they can learn, not in the traditional ways that we and prior generations learned in the past. Generation Y emerging adults, or Millennials as they are often called, prefer fast, parallel learning. They are multi-taskers, and it is rare to find one who prefers working in silence. “Unlike most digital immigrants, digital natives live much of their lives online, without distinguishing between the online and offline” (Palfrey & Gasser, 2008, p. 4). They prefer to participate actively in their learning process. “Kids who have grown up digital expect to talk back, to have a conversation” (Tapscott, 2009, p. 126). Tapscott (2009) points out that in the United States today, we generally follow the Industrial Age mode of pedagogy, and this is not effective for Millennials who are used to fast paced environments and must be prepared to become lifelong learners. Universities have tried to keep up with new and changing technologies by doing things like giving all students a laptop, installing Smart Boards in every classroom, providing wireless internet access at every location, and making equipment like iPads, cameras, and e-readers available for students and faculty to borrow, although practices of effective use have sometimes lagged behind the availability of these resources.

Access to the internet has drastically changed the way that we find and use information. Digital natives are “grazers,” who do not sit and read the newspaper from cover to cover each day, but read bits of information from various sources throughout the day and night (Palfrey & Gasser, 2008). They interact with the information much more than digital immigrants, by participating in online discussions, blogs, posting on Facebook and Twitter. In 2008, Barack Obama employed Chris Hughes to organise his online presence. “Obama had by far the largest Internet presence of the candidates” (Tapscott, 2009, p. 252). The campaign changed the way that Millennials, who were described by Mark Bauerlein (2008) as “the dumbest generation,” participate in politics. It is quite possible that they are actually learning and engaging with information more than digital immigrants, when the information is presented to them in a way that is innate to them (Palfrey & Gasser, 2008).

This is all quite valuable. In addition to drawing on these most generic informational habits inculcated by life online, though, we can also take a more focused look at the specific environments to which “digital natives” are native, in order to see what specific literacies and fluencies have been developed and fine-tuned prior to their arrival in our classrooms. By doing so, we may be able to identify new cognitive ‘strong points’ to draw upon in our coursework.

Consumer training and Millennials

One barrier to proper appreciation of the meaning of digital nativity has been the focus on the importance of developing informational habits within a digital environment to the exclusion of recognition of the importance of developing informational habits within a market environment. In our online informational lives we represent constant sources of profit through advertising microtransactions, and online environments are often strongly determined by market forces. The fluencies developed among digital natives, then, are likely to be those that best support the profitability of the private interests at work in the digital environments to which they are native. We might call this “consumer training,” since it’s a purposeful development of habits of use which maximise the value of the user qua consumer to the corporation that owns the informational environment in question. We expect, then, that digital natives will be fluent in sharing and building relationships, but not as fluent in navigating privacy settings; that they will be very capable of finding appealing information for a given Google search, but not that they should be well aware of or comfortable considering how Google determines which results to display, distinguishing between ‘sponsored results’ (ads) and other results, or thinking through other informational distortions like Google bombing, spamdexing, and filter bubbles.

Consumer training is further supported by processes of deskilling that introduce dependency on profit-based informational environments. Just as the presence of spell-checking in our word-processors has presumably led to underdevelopment of spelling skills in digital natives (and perhaps a slow atrophy among digital immigrants as well), so too does trust in Google presumably lead to underdevelopment of informational assessment skills. We see, for example, that when users are asked to answer questions using a Google search, they are much more likely to use the first couple of hits rather than later results—and that users continue to favor those first hits even when they are presented with a ‘doctored’ set of results, in which the top ten search results are given in inverted order (Bing et al., 2007). It is hard to say, of course, how much we are losing our ability to critically and independently assess sources for the relevance and value of their information—but it is easy to say that, in practice, we are at a minimum simply choosing not to do so, and placing trust in Google’s algorithm to do so on our behalf.

Worse yet, users who have been in this way deskilled view themselves as highly capable. According to Barefoot (2006), very few students entering college are able to distinguish between fact and fiction information that is available online, despite having grown up surrounded by technology. While students are used to using Google and other web search tools, Brey-Casiano (2006) points out that much of the information that is found is misleading or wrong.  The Educational Testing Service (ETS) created and conducted a test, the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Literacy Assessment Core Level, to analyse college and high school students’ information literacy skills (Foster, 2006).  The test measures the ability to “retrieve, analyze, and communicate information available online” (Foster, 2006, p. 36). Of the 3,000 college students and 800 high school students that took the test presented in Foster’s (2006) study, 13 percent were considered to be information literate. ETS found that when searching a database, half of students were able to weed out invalid results, and that in regards to web sites, students were not successful at identifying web sites that contained biased information. ETS concluded that “many students were unprepared for college work” (Foster, 2007, p. 40). Many students feel that they adequately understand how to find and analyse information on the internet, while librarians feel that they are lacking in these skills (Antell & Huang, 2008).

While the specific literacies or fluencies developed in our market-driven digital informational environments may be characterised more so by consumer training and deskilling than by substantial understanding and information independence, these are still habits, behaviours, and skills that we may be able to draw upon as educators. Corporations have made digital natives native to their consumerist environments by appropriating users’ personal and informational desires, turning them to support profits along with user needs and intentions. We can expropriate that appropriation—we can seize upon the skills developed in users for the sake of profit and turn them instead towards education. To see how this might be accomplished, let’s consider a case study that will illustrate and motivate the project of this kind of educational expropriation.

A motivating case study: military expropriation of consumer training

Militaries have been engaged in expropriation of consumer training obtained in video games for many years now. While it is military use of content-based consumer training that is probably best known, the lesser-known use of hardware- and interface-based consumer training is both less problematic and more useful to us, as educators, in thinking about ways in which we might similarly adopt a programme of expropriation of student consumer training.

By way of contrast and background, it is worth providing a snapshot of military expropriation of content-based consumer training. What may come immediately to mind is the FPS (first-person shooter), which from its inception has had a strong military theme as a genre—for example, Wolfenstein 3D, in which the player guns down Nazi soldiers in an attempted prison escape and faces a “final boss” of a cyborg Adolf Hitler. More recent examples include the Doom series, the Medal of Honor series, the Quake series, the Halo series, and the Call of Duty series, among a great many others.

While these may be the most prominent example of consumer-training through entertainment that might be adaptable to military action, militaries have appropriately recognised that the consumer-training provided through these games provides a very poor basis for expropriation, training consumers in the ecstatic glee of universal and heedless violence. While some games do require some amount of diplomacy, discrimination between combatants and non-coms, stealth, and scrupulous care to escape injury, for the most part FPSs emphasise shooting everything that moves, and utilise game-mechanics of multiple lives, restarts from save points, virtual bodies that can survive unimaginable violence, and magically health-restorative items. For these reasons and others, militaries have sought to create their own games, whose content and mechanics might better serve as the basis for expropriatable consumer-training. In the U.S. context, most prominent of these are the America’s Army series, developed by the United States Army and released in Xbox, arcade, and mobile versions—but even these games have been subject to widespread criticism from outside and from inside of the military (Anderson and Kurti, 2009; Schulzke, 2013).

Militaries continue to explore content-based forms of consumer training that may be expropriatable—for example, a recent solicitation of proposals to develop games that will “portray the political, military, economic, social, informational and infrastructural conditions” (Beidel, 2011, p. 36), or DARPA’s (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) GFTs (Games for Training), in which “more often than not, [the solution is] don’t shoot, talk instead” (Chatham, 2007, p. 37). There is reason to believe that constraining user choices in such a way to require and incentivise desirable behaviour, even if completely successful—a seemingly impossible ideal—would still result in consumer training difficult to appropriately utilise. Frank (2012) points out that a basic problem is what he has called “gamer mode,” in which the gamer focuses on discovering the game mechanics at work in order to “game the game.”

Consumer training in hardware and interfaces seems much easier to unproblematically expropriate. Surely the familiarity we have with radar displays from film and gaming gives us a kind of literacy, making a green blip on a screen informative and transparent to those who have not undergone submarine training of any sort. Here, of course, it is the entertainment industries which have copied the military interface, but militaries are increasingly choosing to design their interfaces after the fashion of those developed by the entertainment industries, in order to take advantage of the literacies and ontologies in which consumers have already been trained. By focusing on literacies and haptic/kinetic skill sets—much more content-neutral forms of training, compared to those previously discussed—useful training can be expropriated and placed within new contexts in which they can be beneficially employed.

Defense contractor Raytheon, for example, used “the same technology that drives Halo and Splinter Cell” to develop its Universal Control System for UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles)—Mark Bigham of Raytheon is quoted as saying “Gaming companies have spent millions to develop user-friendly graphic interfaces, so why not put them to work on UAVs? . . . The video-game industry always will outspend the military on improving human-computer interaction” (Hambling, 2008). Unbranded or knock-off Xbox controllers (Hambling, 2008) have been observed in use by UK and US soldiers, to control UAVs and SUGVs (Small Unmanned Ground Vehicles) (Strauss, 2007; Brooks, 2012).

These skills and literacies do clearly translate. While, undertstandably, there is little information provided directly by the militaries employing this kind of expropriation of consumer training in interfaces, Mary Cummings, a former Navy fighter pilot and MIT professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics reports that “We have shown in two different studies that, with only three minutes of training, people can fly a UAV in a surveillance task and not crash” (Brooks, 2012).

We present these examples as a motivating case study. If the interfaces and ontologies of game system controllers and screen-displays can be effectively expropriated for military use, what forms of consumer training can we, as educators, look to similarly expropriate? In answering this question, we turn to consumer training on SNS, for several reasons. First, even if digital nativity is a myth, it is clear that there is a process of consumer training at work in our online lives. It is reasonable to ask not only how this training is a form of deskilling, but also how it is a form of literacy. Second, in asking what specific online spaces the so-called digital native is native to, the most prominent places, as numerous studies have shown (e.g. Weigley, 2013), are Facebook and Google properties (including YouTube). It seems to be common sense to turn first to these places. Third, while looking at the educational implications of consumer training on Google is clearly valuable, others have already begun this work (e.g. Colón-Aguirre and Fleming-May, 2012; Georgas, 2013; Leibiger, 2011; Sorensen & Dahl, 2008; Vaidhyanathan, 2011). Hence, it is appropriate and useful to turn to SNS, and Facebook most especially, for this study.

Elements of SNS consumer training

Facebook is the most commonly used social networking site, with over 900 million active users worldwide. 751 million Facebook users are using Facebook mobile products monthly (Facebook, 2013). According to a 2010 report published by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, 72% of American young adults, ages 18-29 are using social networking sites, and that number is rising (Lenhart et al., 2010). They are also more likely to use a laptop or mobile device than a desktop computer: 93% of this age group now has a mobile phone, and 55% go online via their phones (Lenhart, et al., 2010).

College students are familiar and comfortable with using Facebook in their every-day lives. While our purpose here is to identify ways that literacies developed on SNS can be used in pedagogy—uses which need not actually involve using SNS as a platform—one prominent way in which these literacies can be used is by using the SNS platform itself. Towner and Muñoz (2010) conducted a survey to examine the potential for using Facebook as a teaching tool. Sixty percent of students surveyed indicated that they access Facebook more often than their web courseware and 36% stated that Facebook was easier to use than their web courseware (Towner & Muñoz, 2010). While a little over half of the students indicated that Facebook should not be used for instructional purposes, 79% agreed that using Facebook in a class would allow students to learn from each other. This brings us back to the idea that Millennials are social learners, and that perhaps we can utilise Facebook in a way that will allow students to collaborate and learn from each other in an environment that is second nature to them. Towner and Muñoz (2010) also discovered that students are already using Facebook informally to help classmates and share information about classes.

To identify the elements of consumer training which may be expropriatable in SNS use, we must start with a phenomenology of SNS use. In order to identify the small-scale frameworks of thought and use which may be easily portable—as motivated by the success of military interface training expropriation relative to more content-based training expropriation—this will take the form of a microphenomenology or postphenomenological analysis in Ihde’s sense (as in e.g. 1976; 1990); more a “unit operations” approach rather than a system operations perspective, in Bogost’s (2006) sense.

A full phenomenology is far beyond the scope of this paper, but it seems to us that a preliminary phenomenology, sufficient for our purposes here, should begin from a set of categories of user training as follows, organised approximately from the more concrete to more abstract:

  1. Social informatics
  2. Interactions
  3. Audience construction
  4. Identities
  5. Incentives
  6. Ambient awareness

It can be expected that these terse headings are uninformative on their own; the phenomenological analysis of each in turn will, however, make clear what elements of experience are identified under each. We also must take care to note that the phenomenological analysis here, both in breaking down the user experience into these categories rather than others, and in the analysis of each category, is not aimed towards phenomenological completeness or even a well-rounded view of the user experience, but is aimed instead more narrowly towards those elements of user phenomenology which seem to us to be potentially educationally expropriatable.

Social informatics

Information on SNS is organised through an indiscriminate intermixing of posts from persons and corporate entities inhabiting a variety of social positions relative to the user. Posts by family, friends, and social media brand identities appear in an undifferentiated[1] feed, organised neither by content nor point of origin, resulting in a sometimes disorienting panoply of emotional, social, and informational relevancies (and irrelevancies).

The user experience of the feed, then, is of a different nature than, for example, scrolling through posts on a blog, online news site, or online magazine. In these cases, the user experiences ordering and selection of topics as intentional and reflective of some sort of more-or-less unified individual or corporate evaluative and valuational process. The question to the user in pursuing further details from this informatic structure is one of consumption: about what do I wish to know more? The informatic structure of the SNS feed is social—crowdsourced curation, so to speak, rather than reflective of editorial voice or some other unified set of criteria—and so the user sorts the information presented in terms not only of interest in content, but also in terms of social relevance. A post from a node with which we have little connection may be investigated based on content; conversely, a post whose content is of no otherwise significant interest may be pursued based on social connection with the node. Most of us do not care to watch videos of everyone’s children, and it is certainly not the case that we choose to watch those of e.g. our nieces because they are universally interesting or objectively impactful.

This results in a form of social informatics, in which information appears to the user in an undifferentiated amalgam of a variety of sources, and is filtered by the user for consumption based upon both content and internodal connection.


Internodal interactions facilitated by SNS are both scalable and multiplex (Kapferer, 1969)—that is to say, users move smoothly between different kinds of interactions with differing levels of publicity and differing levels of content-richness. Interactions afforded by SNS may be directed towards nodes (sending gifts, messaging), towards posts (likes, comments), and towards networks (shares, posts, checking in)—and these affordances are frequently supplemented by interactions taking place outside of SNS, as for example in follow-up email contact or later face-to-face conversation. These interactions, then, take place along different spectrums: from least to most content-rich approximately as follows

Screen Shot 2014-04-29 at 21.00.17

and from least to most intimate approximately as follows.

Screen Shot 2014-04-29 at 21.00.17

These spectrums are neither parallel nor orthogonal to one another, but multiply intersecting and intertwined.

With scalability of interaction, there is formed a constant openness to expanding or contracting exposure and intimacy between nodes. Mutual exchange of likes can build a connection between weak ties (Granovetter, 1974) that scalable communicative affordances allow to seamlessly expand and deepen through more substantive interaction. Demands of self-performance along with others can also be de-escalated through this smooth scalability—the comment left unreplied-to, for example, quickly scrolls off our screens both literally and figuratively—as distinct from in-person communication, in which a comment demands an immediate and in-kind reply, the failure to do so resulting in an awkward silence which is itself information-rich and has an unavoidably significant although perhaps ambiguous relevance to current and ongoing interaction.

Multiplexity, similarly, allows users to manage interpersonal connections by engaging in communications with differential levels of social obligation. A post serves as a generalised invitation to all individuals within the user’s network to appoint themselves as among the intended recipients, providing a low bar to entry in conversation and no obligation to reply. An at-mention in a post provides both intimacy and obligation, perhaps even forcing users into interactions which they might otherwise avoid, in order not to appear rude in a semi-public sphere—a social circumstance having more the character of face-to-face communication in terms of obligation than even the private message or email.

Communicative affordances which appear in scalable and multiplex spectrums create a dynamic in which the degree and kind of relationship between nodes is constantly in play; in which expansion and contraction are constant options, and the degree to which one produces or accepts obligation to interact, and at what level of intimacy, are subject to constant negotiation.

Audience construction

Scalability and multiplexity train users in specific modes of negotiating and constructing internodal connections, but several of these communicative modes construct audiences rather than specific connections—most notably posting, sharing, and commenting. While posting and sharing are clearly public within the user’s specified network, it is nonetheless clear that many posts—perhaps all posts—are relevant to one or another aspect of the user’s identity, and thus have a “proper” audience of those members of the network whose connection with the user is mediated by that identity. The status update which speaks of the user’s love for his spouse on the occasion of their anniversary may be public to his network, and yet may appear overly intimate to many weak ties within that network—indeed, not only may this appear as oversharing to e.g. the former student, but should that former student choose to reply, this may appear to the poster himself as intrusive or inappropriate.

Audience, then, is constructed in two ways, and at two points: through code and through norms, and at the points of transmission and of receipt. At the point of transmission, we may choose to make something available to the public, to friends only, or to some specified collection of nodes—and yet such specification is rarely fully and purposefully arranged for a given communication, and the communicants held in mind in the communicator’s communicative act are surely nearly always fewer and more specific than those to whom the communication is made available. Sometimes, of course, this constitutes a kind of oversharing, but often it functions as an invitation to expand connections. When posting something political, for example, the user may have in mind her fellow activists, and yet her failure to exclude others from access to the communication can usually be more properly read as an invitation to her wider community to think about and become concerned with the issue.

This is transparent enough at the point of receipt. Users regularly exercise civil inattention (Goffman, 1971b) regarding communications which they feel norms dictate they are not the proper audience of, despite that the poster did not exclude them from receipt through code. The choice to respond is a construction of self as part of the proper audience, and the like or comment represents an assertion of a sort of internodal connection for which it would be within the range of social norms to be party to the conversation opened by the post or share. This construction may be unwelcome or inappropriate, as in cases like the coworker who chooses to respond to an in-group communication (“It was great to see my sisters X, Y, Z at the protest Saturday!”) by taking issue with the group’s politics, or the parent who forceably reminds his child of the slippage between intended and actual recipients by commenting on party pictures.

Through audience construction in code and in norms, as senders and as receivers, SNS users are trained in literacies of “environments that are both privately public and publicly private” (Papacharissi, 2010, p. 142), including the civil inattention demanded by in-group communications available to outsiders, and the construction of self as a proper member of the audience to a given communication through the like, comment, or share.


We have already addressed much of relevance to identity construction and performance in the preceding. Multiplex scalable interactions and the indiscriminate intermixing of our communications in the feeds of intended and unintended audiences within our SNS networks provide intense training in identity management. Presentation of self (Goffman, 1971a) must be engaged in on SNS with simultaneous relation to our multiple constitutive communities (Sandel, 1982). Users pursue various strategies of identity performance, ranging from a confrontational assertion of one aspect of self even among persons who may be uncomfortable with or uninterested in that self-aspect, to a meticulously curated lowest-common denominator self, carefully constructed to fit simultaneously into all constitutive communities. Rarely, though, do users choose these extremes—and yet more rarely do users choose them or any particular in-between on a permanent or even consistent basis. More often users modulate constantly between strategies, and display aspects of self in different ways at different moments to different constituencies, forming what has been helpfully described as akin to a burlesque fan-dance (Jurgenson & Rey, 2013), in which the play of revealing and concealing produces intimacy even in a semi-public communicative context. The constant shift between back- and front-stage self-performances (Goffman, 1971a) allows for different forms of inclusion and intimacy in relationships to take place in a private way, despite their public setting. Indirect communication and practices of social steganography (boyd & Marwick, 2011)—in which a message is “hidden in plain view” by making references only properly interpretable by members of an in-group— supplement these strategies and allow for nuanced socially multimodal self-performances which may be simultaneously front- and back-stage to different audiences.

Through simultaneous self-performance among multiple constitutive communities, SNS users are trained in a kind of double consciousness, in which interactions must take place within the perspective of multiple, often contradictory aspects of self—the user is e.g. gay and Southern and manly and Christian . . . This training in self-understanding is concurrent with training in managing information flows, creating public private moments and private public moments, and the fan dance of intimacy.


Most incentive structures mobilised in SNS rest simply and directly upon basic human desires that are supported by SNS rather than being created or substantially transformed by SNS. An incomplete but indicative list might include building relationships, maintaining personal connections, maintaining and strengthening professional contacts, fun, play, hanging out, and passing time. While the phenomenology of such incentives and activities would be interesting, and while the ways in which such incentives and activities are altered by SNS would be valuable to explore, both are beyond our scope here, for in these cases SNS are largely determined by these incentive structures rather than themselves determining them.

There is, however, at least one significant form of incentive structure that is brought about through SNS consumer training which is a significant addition to or alteration of incentives within non- or pre-SNS sociality. Along with the cultural ascension of Facebook has also come the cultural prominence of the kinds of casual games well suited to the Facebook platform. These games, often called “social games” despite often having much less a social component than many other kinds of games, have been adopted by demographics not otherwise engaged in gaming, and often in remarkably addiction-like ways. Distinctive features of many such “social games”—perhaps best, but certainly at least most famously exemplified by Zynga’s Farmville—are a quick cycle from action to reward, a requirement to return to the game regularly, and periods of imposed inactivity in which the opportunity to play is withheld. Taken together, the user often experiences a strong imperative to take advantage of every opportunity to play given, in order to maximise future opportunities for play. Gaming then becomes a means to its own possibility, and the question of whether the play is enjoyable falls by the wayside.

A similar short-circuited reward structure also appears within SNS themselves. The reformulation of social interaction into microtransactions produces an addiction-like effect:

Every ping could be social, sexual, or professional opportunity, and we get a mini-reward, a squirt of dopamine, for answering the bell. “These rewards serve as jolts of energy that recharge the compulsion engine, much like the frisson a gambler receives as a new card hits the table,” MIT media scholar Judith Donath recently told Scientific American. “Cumulatively, the effect is potent and hard to resist.” (Dokoupil, 2012).

Users experience constant small rewards by checking in and checking back frequently and, conversely, experience anxiety about opportunity costs when unable to do so—this anxiety increasingly being described as “FOMO” (“fear of missing out”) (Zimmer & Carson, 2012).

These social microtransactions provide incentive structures not only through opportunities and opportunity costs, but also through logics of validation and accumulation. By transforming a moment of social exchange into a virtual object—a shared picture, status update, news article, or so on—a pseudo-commodification takes place. We see the social object enter into networked sociality, resulting in varied degrees of responses, and are gratified by large numbers of likes and shares, seemingly for its own sake. Brands and users post questions, asking members of their network to “like” the post if they agree with answer #1, and to “share” if they agree with answer #2, an activity which seems to place the churn of activity and the frisson of “reach” above any quality of content. Activity provides its own variety of social validation in a “circuit of drive” (Dean, 2010), and users caught up in the cycle of feedback are pulled towards trying to make their expressions, ideas, and images “go viral.”

Through these incentive structures, distinctive of SNS consumer training, users are brought into sometimes near-constant quick cycles of activity and response through microtransactions requiring frequent low-level engagement for frequent low-level social rewards.

Ambient awareness

The final aspect of the phenomenology of SNS use that we will here address has been described as “ambient virtual co-presence” (Horst et al., 2007; Ito & Okabe, 2005b). Through frequent SNS posts or SMS messages, often of little inherent or individual interest or value, users are able to maintain a feeling of proximity and connection. Users find value in knowing what others in their network are up to, even though what they are up to may not be of any particular interest. This is partially connected to FOMO, but extends further—through ambient virtual co-presence we gain a feeling of social connection which extends beyond the mere alleviation of anxiety about possible social disconnection. This virtual co-presence is significant enough an aspect of SNS use that some prominent behaviours, e.g. sharing photographs of one’s lunch, can hardly be made sense of unless it is understood that these forms of “sharing” are intended as relational actions, not informational exchanges (Wittkower, 2012).

In ambient virtual co-presence, users obtain a feel for the texture of life of those in their networks, and a background awareness of recent events in the lives of their connections. Through these means, the user is virtually co-present along with others. This is paralleled by a different form of ambient awareness, in which others are virtually co-present along with the user. This form of ambient awareness, which we may call “potential being-with,” is nothing but ambient virtual co-presence viewed from the other end: the user, before sharing an anecdote about their day or a photograph of a misused apostrophe, is of course aware of the ambient virtual co-presence that their connections will experience, and so, when experiencing the to-be-shared experience, experiences it as in prospective retroactive virtual community with others.

Taking virtual co-presence and potential being-with together—and considering that we ideate virtual co-presence and potential being-with regarding communities, networks, groups, and pages, as well as individual users—a complex picture of ambient awareness emerges. SNS users, when fully trained in the habits of ambient awareness, carry their networks around with them in constant potential retroactive virtual co-presence—users experience everything around them as in principle sharable, thus, not only “alone together” (Turkle, 2011), but (potentially virtually) together, even when “alone.”

Avenues of educational expropriation

With this incomplete phenomenology of consumer training on SNS in place, we are able to consider some ways in which these skills, literacies, and habits may be expropriated by educators. These considerations are intended to be suggestive and exploratory rather than exhaustive and conclusive—these few examples are meant to illustrate and exemplify how consumer training may be expropriated, not to identify universal or preferred methods of doing so. We expect that the reader is likely to gain more by considering how her own objectives and environment could be well served by alternate forms of expropriation than by considering wholesale adoption of the assignments and exercises here described.

We will begin with an in-depth example, describing an innovative process we have already implemented that takes advantage of many of the identified forms of consumer training. Following this, we will consider a variety of other kinds of possible avenues of expropriation. It should be emphasised that we wish to consider here ways in which consumer training on SNS can be mobilised, which does not necessarily require actually using SNS in course activities—although, of course, the use of SNS may often aid in the transfer of relevant skills and habits.

In a course currently offered by one author of this paper, in which the other author is an embedded librarian, we have implemented a modified version of an annotated bibliography assignment. Students are to join a Facebook group, into which they post links to material relevant to our course, accompanied by a 100-word annotation, in which they present the linked material and discuss its relevance to course readings or classroom discussion. Students receive course credit for each annotation, but also receive additional credit if one of their classmates uses their post as a source in their paper. It is explained to students that the intention of this additional credit is to encourage them to find material that’s as relevant as possible, and to write annotations which make the source as approachable and adaptable to coursework as possible. In this way, a collaborative and collective resource is created, proving students having difficulty thinking of paper topics with a rich set of peer-recommended areas of interest, and allowing ‘clusters’ of research topics to emerge, as students share topics of interest to them and influence their peers to begin to pay attention to and think about related issues.

This process uses consumer-trained social informatics to curate crowdsourced research materials. Students are able to have scalable and multiplex interactions: they may set their privacy settings, picture, and even name so that they are more or less easily recognisable in offline settings. We have seen students with previous offline relationships like and comment on one anothers’ posts online, students choose to conceal their identity online entirely and remain silent in class, and students who did not previously know one another follow up in-person on online interactions—and conversely, follow up on in-person conversations by online posting of annotated bibliography sources. Though current research trends show that students prefer not to mix their academic and social lives (Educause, 2013), our experience is that when given the opportunity to use Facebook in place of Blackboard or a similar course management system (CMS), students responded positively. Surveys indicated that our students found that the use of the Facebook group for both the annotated bibliography assignment, and for communicating with the professor and embedded librarian was either “very useful” or “useful” in comparison to using Blackboard, and 92.3% of students did not have concerns in regards to privacy, given that interaction took place only through group membership and that students were encouraged to lock down privacy settings. The general consensus among students was that they are already logged into Facebook for much of the day, so it was convenient for them to post and check the class Facebook group in lieu of logging into our university CMS.

In addition to drawing upon training in social informatics, interactions, and audience and identity construction, this also provides the distinct microtransation incentive structure of liking and sharing, in three ways. First, in a literal sense: even though the student may not have any pre-existing or continuing relationship with their classmates, it is safe to assume that when one of them likes, comments on, or shares a post, this positive peer reinforcement is validating in the same sort of way as it would be within recreational Facebook use among an intentional community of friends. Second, the small scale of the assignment provides for a quick cycling and pervasive action-reward cycle between student and instructor, allowing for a great many points of contact at a low opportunity cost for the instructor.[2] Third, the desire for reach, influence, and virality can also serve as a motivation to students, as they see some posts get a robust response (several peer likes, maybe being brought up in class on the following day) while others fall relatively flat.

Finally, we expect that, among some more active students at least, ambient awareness can be mobilised. This, more so than any other aspect of the assignment and process, could be especially educationally valuable; even transformative. If, over the course of the semester, students become accustomed to bringing their classroom network along with them as potentially retroactively co-present in current experience, they will begin to encounter ever more aspects of everyday life along with the question ‘how would this fit into class X?’ We find it difficult to imagine a more desirable educational outcome, for this means that students will have, over a period of months, developed a habit of using course materials as a mode of interpreting their experience in pervasive ways and in quotidian, non-academic settings. Such is the ideal of education in critical thinking and enlightened reasoning.

Other possible avenues to consider might be:

  • Scalable involvement in collaborative projects. Rather than assigning students to groups, assign projects to virtual or physical spaces, allowing students to self-organise into groups and act between and across projects. Depending on the exact design approach, this could draw on training in social informatics, interactions, and audience construction.
  • Students could create course-specific profiles variously attached to different interest groups, topics, or projects within a course, allowing for multiplex interactions and fluid involvement in groups of common concern among peers. This organisational structure could use training in social informatics, interactions, identities, and ambient awareness to structure, motivate, and coordinate collaborative work.
  • Peer assessment or peer “badging.” Students might be given a certain number of points in the course, or badges (e.g. Best In-class Questions, Team Player, Best Online Comments) worth points, that they give to peers to recognise and reward valuable peer contributions to student learning. This sort of reputation economy would draw on training in SNS incentive structures, interactions, and social informatics.
  • In-class use of online polling (e.g. Poll Everywhere) to introduce quick cycling of feedback, drawing on training in incentive structures, and multiplexibly scalable into full class discussion, small group discussion, or backchannel chat on a course Facebook page or using a course hashtag on Twitter.
  • Use of social gaming trained incentive structures to allow students to move flexibly upwards through a hierarchy of tasks rather than working through a set list of assignments in order. For example, some assignments may “unlock” at a certain student point count, requiring students to ‘level up’ through foundational work (a short paper on methods, for example, or assembling outlines and lit reviews) towards higher-level and synthetic work, determining their own path and progress.
  • Use of QR codes to develop games for campus-wide learning objectives, such as a freshman orientation program. This could create an ambient awareness, where the interactive game would allow them to feel connected to the university and the other students participating in the game across the campus, and could perhaps have benefits for academic success and retention rates.
  • Many university organisations or classes require study or observation hours. The creation of a “Foursquare” type of game—possibly but not necessarily actually using Foursquare—would allow students to check in via their mobile devices, and allow students to become the mayor of a specific location, such as the library, a lab or a study room, and to earn academically-relevant badges This would draw on the identities and incentive structure elements of consumer training, and as students check in to various locations they would take ownership of being a part of that learning communit


Figure 1. Visualisation of the interconnections between possible forms of expropriation

Concluding comments

We hope to have presented a method, a set of resources, and a sampling of applications that can be modified to meet the needs of a variety of classroom situations. We do not expect that each will be useful to every reader, but we hope that the reader will find one or the other of use—if not the method of educational expropriation of consumer training, then perhaps the insights in digital nativity illustrated by the phenomenology of SNS consumer training; and if not the SNS phenomenology, then perhaps the concrete assignment and activity structures. The number of college students that use SNS sites such as Facebook is steadily on the rise, as is the number of students that have easy access to mobile phones and tablets (Educause, 2013). The opportunity for educators to make use of the consumer training that these readily available technologies provide cannot be ignored and can make for a much more meaningful and relevant educational experience for students of today.


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[1] Undifferentiated from the user perspective, at least. Facebook, for example, does differentially display posts based on prior interactions, paid promotion, and other criteria, but the algorithm used is neither public nor transparent to the user, and users may be unaware that there is a differentiation to the ordering and mere appearance of posts from different nodes within their network.

[2] Facebook posts were graded once or twice per week. Students were told that when their post had been “liked” by the instructor, this indicated that the grade had been entered into and would be visible in the online course management system’s gradebook.

Leanne McRae

Published Online: April 30, 2014
Full Text: HTML, PDF (819 KB)


The language surrounding the rise of online education, the use of learning management systems and social networking sites in university education is based on under-researched ideas about grasping and sustaining the ‘attention’ of digital natives. The assumptions supporting the promotion of digital learning interfaces as effective, efficient and essential to teaching and learning in the modern university confirm that education takes place around and between otherwise busy lives and must capture the ever-shifting attention of accelerated cohorts flitting through their socially networked and time-poor interactions. This paper examines the language used to promote digital learning interfaces and questions the consequences to teaching and learning when digitised artefacts are used to direct and govern curricula decisions. The argument in this paper suggests that allowing students to self-direct their education through functional and fashionable interfaces, means that a more detailed understanding of how ‘ambient computing’ environments shape and frame attention is deprioritised. Furthermore, this paper suggests that the fundamental experiences of learning – struggle with ideas, disciplining the mind, exploring concepts with individuals more expert than the student – is impoverished as we offload students onto social networks and out of classrooms.


Learning Management System, Social Network Site, ambient computing, digitised interface, digital native, Blackboard, Facebook

Current structures of online learning at major universities are framed by the use of the LMS – Learning Management System. Common delivery platforms include, Blackboard, Moodle and WebCT. These systems are large behemoths that organise courses and are often maligned by students and researchers alike as being authoritative, difficult to use, impenetrable and more likely to disengage students from a fruitful learning experience. In contrast, social networking sites like Facebook, are hailed as interactive, connected, free, easily accessed and accessible, and enabled to create dynamic and nuanced communities of learners. These social networking sites and Facebook in particular, are described by students as highly desirable for their mobile, multitasked and multifarious lives where education is scheduled between personal and professional responsibilities.

The place of Facebook in offering an interactive and accessible space for student learning is under researched, but often hailed as revolutionary, transformative, and potent. Blackboard, (and other LMSs) in contrast, is critiqued by users as hampered by layers of logins, convoluted streams of discussion and impenetrable structures of navigation. The binary situating these two styles of online educational interaction as contrasting and capricious, provides terrain upon which debates about learning can be investigated, unpacked, and re-encoded to rethink the role of computers, consciousness and critique in contemporary education.

The purpose of this article is to move beyond the hyperbole of hyperreal learning environments whether they are located on Blackboard or Facebook and to ponder the shifts to educational outcomes and expectations that have led to the increase in the use of social networking sites as learning platforms. While supportive, student-centred learning is important to an effective educational context, the consequences to education are stark when social networks in online contexts are singled out as inherently connective, valuable and significant to students’ motivation and learning outcomes. The purpose of this paper is to not reify the value of one style of learning management system or social network – Blackboard or Facebook – over another, but to suggest the ways in which teaching, learning, expertise and experience are corroded in the current consciousness of cached learning that services an accelerated, convenient, and consumer-based education. In four sections this paper will unpack the trajectories of online learning language to consider the role of different platforms in balancing motivation, attention, and academic outcomes.

In the first section, the methods and modes by which students interact with online learning interfaces and artefacts will be examined. The focus will specifically spotlight Facebook education groups and how these sites moderate and mediate acceleration and attention. In the second section, the language of celebration and revolutionary transformation of education deployed about the socially networked online environment, particularly for motivating students and improving their connectedness to learning outcomes will be questioned. In the third section, the argument unpacks the protocols embedded in economies of attention and ambient computing to rethink the role of educational architecture to teaching and learning. These new tropes for thinking about and through educational interaction reveal a series of unruly consequences for both teachers and students that need deeper consideration. The fourth section tracks the importance in understanding the architectures of digitisation to create a critical dialogue between learning platforms to better mobilise how education, scholarship and academic work have corroded in the desire to connect, entertain, accelerate and motivate students within these spaces. The long-term consequences to educational outcomes will be spotlighted. Each section will build to a cohesive vision of contemporary online learning ideals and consider how these fit with productive pedagogies. At each stage the language and literacies of the online, the mobile, and socially networked will be unpacked, investigated, and troubled.

University students at all levels of learning, are often highly networked and seek to deploy a number of digital devices and portals in their education. For example, “empirical studies such as that by Roblyer, McDaniel, Webb, Herman, and Witty (2010) point to a large uptake of Facebook by undergraduate students (up to 95%)” (Jenkins, Lyons, Bridgstock and Carr, 2012, p. 2). These same students also often use mobile apps and tablet based interactions within their courses in a contingent and flexible learning environment. They customise the delivery of their education by utilising a variety of functions such as “targeted stream posts, targeted updates, support for applications, engagement metrics, promotional widgets and vanity URLs” (Radel, 2011, p. 5) that provide a highly nuanced personal learning environment for student engagement. The popular perceptions of students and many teachers are that these digitised networks, devices and apps assist in their processing of and performance with ideas. As a result, the digital, synchronous and asynchronous portable portal is amplified as the key driver of special educative conditions that enable the right style of flexible pedagogy to harness multiple and malleable interactions for accelerated and accentuated learning. Mobile devices such as smart phones and iPads, for example, are co-opted as part of this digitally transformative environment that can value-add to students’ learning experience.

the mobility component means that students are free to move within, beyond and between multiple environments and between topics and disciplinary contents and contexts. Second, the use of the portable devices means that learning is not confined to formal educational contexts; learning is extended within informal opportunities such as home and work. Third, mobile learning is not a one-way exchange from lecturer to students, but constructing understanding within participating communities (Kinash, Brand and Matthew, 2012, p. 1).

Mobile devices, apps and interfaces are argued to enable the movement of ideas into and through flexible modes of delivery. Information can pour through the portal and download into assignments, essays, tests and exams. Productive communities of learners can form around and through courses, transforming how students interact with information and instruction, making collective intelligence the currency of higher education.

There is potential within the digital oeuvre to provide exciting and transformative experiences to students. Properly harnessed, an effective virtual learning environment that includes not just the LMS but a range of reflexively integrated devices, platforms and portals, might segue seductively into a plethora of useful everyday learning opportunities. However, the increased blurring of learning and leisure mediated by mobile, wireless and tablet based interactions with teaching, learning, information and knowledge is reframing how education is contextualised. The evolution of “pervasive learning” (Thomas, 2006, p. 41) where electronic devices connect individuals to a variety of self-managed interfaces means that pedagogy is often an afterthought to sleek design and functional interfaces. Instead, learning is mediated by the device. Pervasive learning moves beyond student-centred learning. It is more than allowing the learner to determine and drive the shape and tone of education in collaboration with the instructor. Instead, Thomas (2006) argues students “can construct relevant and meaningful learning experiences, that they author themselves, in locations and at times that they find meaningful and relevant” (p. 45). Students manage their own inputs and outputs with little direction from instructors who now supply materials rather than the mechanisms to manage, interpret and engage with ideas. Within this emerging model of digital learning, students become expert managers of their own education, but little is written about how they might become experts of a discipline or episteme.

The resistance that many instructors might feel towards the deployment of multiple portals including social networking sites within their pedagogic parameters is often dismissed as old fashioned and outdated. This anxiety can be easily assuaged according to Alana Nakahara by “show[ing] them how to use it” (Nakahara, 2012, p. 2). These dismissals are paired with a prevailing attitude that “Facebook offers the opportunity to re-engage students with their university education and learning – promoting a ‘critical thinking in learners’ about their higher education” (Selwyn, 2007, p. 6). However, the specificities of the Facebook environment as having “many of the desired qualities of an effective education technology in its reflective element to use, mechanisms for peer feedback and goodness-of-fit with the social context of university learning” (Selwyn, 2007, p. 4) is rarely connected to the larger sense of place and context that students are deploying in their learning activities and interactions. It is another on a continuum of portal sites where students access information. As a result, many of the online, digital engagements taking place within these accelerated socially networked environments are inadequately connected to specific learning outcomes except via a desire for flexibility and ‘personalised’ education. How education is contextualised, deployed and activated within a ‘network’ of information, knowledges, artefacts and portals is often ignored. The connections and confluences that can lead to reflexive mobilisation of a critical education is glossed over in the shiny interactions of nodes, user interfaces and speedy hardware.

The flexible delivery of unit content through multiple devices is motivated and supported by claims that universities are now populated by digital natives who “are accustomed to searching for and retrieving information on the Internet and thus have a need for a more interactive learning environment” (Barczyk and Duncan, 2013, p. 3). If not embedded in this digital oeuvre, the fear is that they will become disengaged and unmotivated if not posting, liking, chatting, poking and friending their way through their learning experiences. These students are framed as ‘social learners’ meaning that they learn more in an interactive environment where the education is student-centred and directed. Such experiences are mobilised by digital contexts that amplify a “social life … organized around human motilities rather than fixed locations or bounded communities” (Wang and Stefanone, 2013, p. 437). The integration of social network sites as optimised learning environments coheres with pedagogical shifts away from ‘bounded’ Fordist models of teaching and learning revolving around the lecture format and linear delivery of information. These styles of education are encoded as out-of-date and counterproductive to the ethics of student engagement, motivation, and flexibility that have come to frame contemporary education and the digitally native enrolees. Face-to-face tutorials and lecture theatres are constructed as anti-social and linear while disembedded and disembodied online web2.0 exchanges are defined as nuanced, lively and exciting. Francine Toliver argues that the meanings attached to digital natives come with assumptions that must be challenged within modern education.

Digital Natives are said to prefer receiving information quickly; be adept at processing information rapidly; prefer multi-tasking and non-linear access to information; have a low tolerance for lectures; prefer active rather than passive learning; rely heavily on communications technologies to access information and to carry out social and professional interactions (Toliver, 2011, p. 62).

Within this modality, the digital native requires a dynamic learning space that harnesses their web2.0 literacies and provides inherent motivational modalities imparting an evocative and conversational space where critical and effective learning can take place. As a result, much of the language surrounding the integration of mobile, digital and socially networked interfaces in replacement to, or in support of face-to-face instruction hails the transformative potential of the portal and the mysterious ‘power’ of the interface to engage, inspire and motivate university students.

The ‘power’ of computer-mediated communications and the ‘personal learning experiences’ they facilitate, are encoded to transform learning and education via the digitised framework into effortless, engaged and highly adaptive student outcomes. The ‘powerful’ tools that create these conditions include Learning Management Systems (LMS) like Blackboard or Moodle, but predominantly emphasize the use of Facebook, social media, and mobile devices to cultivate conversations either as supplement to the LMS or in place of face-to-face interactions. The virtual learning environment that is generated via this interconnection of digitised tools and interfaces enables the centrality of bits and bytes to define the functional framework for flexible delivery of education. At the centre of the dialogue is the potential for the digitised environment – its tools, apps, connections, and asynchronicity – to create active, engaged and motivated learners. This “potentially powerful idea” (Nakahara, 2012, p. 2) is mobilised to produce appropriately motivated and self-disciplined students who do not need to be taught, but rather facilitated in their own journey through information. Online, socially networked learning and its gadgets, widgets and apps are encoded with the ability to connect, engage and communicate concepts to students in ways that older, linear and authoritative models of education have struggled to achieve. Nakahara (2012) justifies her claim by affirming that this power in pedagogy exists “simply because students spend a lot of time on these online activities” (p. 2). According to this rationale, presence manifests an attention-based acuity making learning a liquid process that can be absorbed, promoted, poked and plugged-in.

The dynamic potential of online and digitally networked interfaces appears to be rationalised through the integration of popular aesthetics that harness both informal and formal audio, visual, and kinaesthetic learning tropes. It has been argued that students learn best when information is communicated down the streams of sense-based synergies and that “when learning environments are designed to cater to multiple sensory channels, information processing can become more effective” (Sankey, Birch and Gardinder, 2011, p. 20). This is a characteristic particularly attached to digital natives who are used to multisensory, hyperreal and hyperlinked web2.0 interactions within their everyday lives. However, claims about ‘digital natives’ and the online generation are often overstated. New research has demonstrated that the cliché of the digital native is damaging to the realities of how young people actually deploy digital media literacies. The Prince’s Trust Report (2013) surveying young people not in employment or education found that 10% of these young people “felt out of depth when using a computer” (p. 2) and among young people in general 12% “do not think their computer skills are good enough to use in the job they want” (p. 2). This data demonstrates that there is a considerable gap between the assumptions held about digital natives and realities of their digitised media literacy. Nevertheless, the hyper-connected contexts and languages of online and digital media interfaces for learning, are defined to offer multimedia and audio-visual engagements that accelerate learning by cultivating an attractive, popular, interactive and informal educational environment. The mobilisation of popular interfaces, it is argued, creates spaces which construct flexibility and functionality, moving students beyond structures and into conversations and communities.

Informal learning communities can evolve to respond to short-term needs and temporary interests, whereas the institutions supporting public education have remained little changed despite decades of school reform. Informal learning communities are ad hoc and localized; formal educational communities are bureaucratic and increasingly national in scope. We can move in and out of informal learning communities if they fail to meet our needs; we enjoy no such mobility in our relations to formal education (Jenkins, Clinton, Purushotma, Robison and Weigel, 2011, p. 9).

The intersections of these mobile, digitised and connected learning modes offers the potential to “improve attention rates” (Sankey, Birch and Gardiner, 2011, p. 19) which will lead to better overall performance. Mita Moody (2010) claims that in teaching via Twitter for example, “the goal is to pique and hold students’ interest while preparing them for a rapidly changing media climate” (p. 1). Within this argument, the multiliterate, scroll, swipe, hyperlinked, audio-visual network of nodes within an online and mobile learning framework is composed as a unique set of presences that can catch the students’ attention and connect them to learning. The assumption being promoted is that attention to unit content is enough to assess and process the significance, consequences, and interconnections of ideas. The role of institutional pressure to streamline learning while cutting costs and reducing staffing commitments, thereby offloading students into displaced, off-campus and online oeuvres is often masked by this rhetoric.

There are corrosive consequences when a culture of attention is centralised in educational decision-making along with assumptions about student media and digital literacies. Rather than situating content or curricula as key to effective learning outcomes, ‘attention’ becomes the directive to the delivery of course material and deprioritises the structural inequalities that might block some students from effective learning outcomes. Ensuring that the platforms, interfaces and frameworks of learning are conducive to new attitudes of students-as-consumers redefines the purpose of education and assumes that downloading and digitsation is normalised. Making ‘access’ the key trope for effective learning, and cultivating these definitions through mobile, tablet-based VLEs (Virtual Learning Environments) and Facebook-framed interactions, means education is shaped by attracting students, assuming their levels of literacy and connection, rather than defined by reflexive assessment of power structures inside and outside the university, how that might impact on learning, and what the struggle for learning can create, build or re-write. Getting students updating, downloading, posting and poking are increasingly the emphases of a culture of attention mobilised by higher learning institutions. In this context, leisure and learning blur as a positive outcome of ‘student-centred learning’ where tablets and mobile interfaces offer a funky flexibility connected to everyday practices and literacies. But these techniques can also conflate Googling with research, liking with reading, downloading with interpreting as students lack the abilities to focus on information, comprehension, and the literacies requiring disciplined attention. Instead, ‘capturing’ attention rather than instilling focus-based literacies becomes the priority of many online learning contexts.

The ‘economy of attention’ describes the emergence of the ephemeral update, status reading, liking culture that has come to populate social media sites where mass audiences shift and alter their interaction with sites, pages and products based on the flows of their attention. The struggle to harness the potential consumer-base of friends and followers has been instrumental for marketers seeking to direct the untapped audience flowing over Facebook timelines, MySpace pages, and Twitter feeds towards products, services, and into advertising dollars. These “markets for novelty” (Potts, Cunningham, Hartley and Ormerod, 2008, p. 3) describe the fleeting and fluid movement of human and social capital through these networks. In these spaces, value is defined by “‘word of mouth’, taste, cultures, and ‘popularity’ … dominated by information feedback over social networks” (Potts, Cunningham, Hartley and Ormerod, 2008, p. 4) whereby “people’s preferences have commodity status over a social network because novelty, by definition, carries uncertainty and other people’s choices therefore carry information” (Potts, Cunningham, Hartley and Ormerod, 2008, p. 5). The preference protocols that map the waxing and waning of attention across social networks segues neatly into attention-as-learning via the fetishisation of digitisation in education. The culture of attention is mobilised via the rhetoric defining the integration of mobile, student-centred, socially networked learning as crucial to motivation. In emphasizing the ‘power’ of social media via the language of attention, popularity, and presence, the wider concerns of criticism and knowledge literacy are masked behind the ‘swipe and like’ practices of students logging in rather than learning. The centrality of ‘attention’ in the new economy and the ability to control, harness, shape and direct the attention of ‘prosumers’ on web2.0 interactive platforms has leaked into the language of education. The student-as-consumer has come to define how we teach, the information we instruct, and education as product. The cultivation of the virtual learning environment as a service delivering a downloadable education to a fee-paying cohort frames ‘access’, attention, and digitised interaction as prerequisite to learning rather than defining the processes of understanding as contingent, focussed, difficult, disciplined, and sometimes dangerous.

All of this flexibility and functionality is framed as significant for effective learning where “at the core of the properties of asynchronous online learning is the ability to provide collaborative learning experiences that are convenience for the individual” (Toliver, 2011, p. 63). Online, asynchronous, quasi-synchronous, virtual and mobile interfaces for learning are defined as cutting-edge and providing effective, convenient and transformative spaces for active learning regulated by multiple, piece-meal and convenient engagements with education according to external commitments and time management priorities. But these online networks are rarely connected to a wider understanding of information interfaces and how these facilitate the growth of knowledge. Instead, these directed spaces can ensure that students are exposed to ideas cultivated to their interests, needs and defined outcomes, but not to challenging, uncomfortable and disquieting notions that might reinscribe their experiences of self. The methods by which learning might be deployed beyond the link-up, group invite, or mobile app interface, is often left to the discovery of students themselves as ‘motivated’ learners. These attitudes place emphasis on the student to take responsibility for their educational outcomes, but it also deprioritises the role of the instructor, teacher, tutor and lecturer in embodying, mobilising and modelling expertise. They also mask the process of learning and teaching as nuanced, complex, refined, and subtle, requiring understanding of the intersections between ideas, creativity, discipline, and literacy applications. Instead, it is affirmed that with the right app anyone can Google their way through the curriculum, update the status of their learning, and download difficult debates with awkward ideas.

As a result, education is increasingly tailored towards self-centred learning that situates the individual at the core of information management strategies that suit their needs. While student-centred learning enables dialogue between pupil and teacher to craft reflexive curricula and classroom strategies, self-centred learning means education bends toward the ego and has the potential to corrode critical consciousness and the abilities to extend and stretch the self into unknown and uncomfortable psychological spaces crucial for well-rounded citizenry to emerge. James Paul Gee (2013) in “The problem of the school of one: Can technology make education too customized for the student?” argues for the imperative to challenge students rather than placate them with easy tasks and self-directed learning;

People who never confront challenge and frustration, who never acquire new styles of learning, and who never face failure squarely may in the end become impoverished humans. They may become forever stuck with who they are now, never growing and transforming, because they never face new experiences that have not been customized to their current needs and desires … new technologies and the Internet allow us to enter our own customized echo chambers and identity niches where we can comfort ourselves with what we are and do not have to confront ourselves with what we can be and, indeed, must become as fellow citizens in a diverse and complex global world. This is particularly dangerous for students (para. 7).

Students require skills and strategies to move them through difficult relationships, infrastructures and problems. Toliver (2011) is careful to caution that “Learning for educational purposes is more than simply accessing information and participating in chat rooms” (p. 63). Students require more than a cut-and-paste curriculum. Yet, the rhetoric surrounding the mythical powers of the portal to motivate, sustain and transform education cultivates a consciousness of consumer-driven education and learning where delivery of service trumps the potential awkwardness of struggling over a difficult idea in a context that requires discipline, doggedness and sometimes disengagement from social networks (online and offline) to provide the appropriate space for contemplation, percolation and persistence with an uncomfortable idea. Instead, the social and personal aspects of learning are highlighted, suggesting that learning can be consumed, communicated, and created via an online, virtual or digital portal that motivates and memorises experience and transforms it into expertise. These attitudes are in evidence with a close examination of Facebook education groups. Evidence shows that students use Facebook primarily to manage logistical information about the course, to confirm due dates, complain about assignments, critique staff and to reflect upon their experiences at university and its intersections with their everyday and professional lives. These interactions are rarely educational and are mostly informal in nature. They are directed at managing the student’s engagements with their courses, assignment expectations and deadlines. They ask each other when items are due and what is expected. Demand for materials, marks, deadlines, and confusion with critique, on these pages demonstrate the frustration of students, and also centralise the desire for effective delivery of service by teachers, tutors and the university hierarchy.


Figure 1: Student comment on Facebook


Figure 2: Student thread on Facebook


Figure 3: Student comment on Facebook

Frustrations with university systems and protocols spill over into Facebook conversations, and the online dis-inhibition effect as outlined by Suler (2004), contributes to unflattering and critical assessment of courses, unit content and staff members. These interactions are part of a resistive trope whereby social media is used by students to manage their emotions and assert control, activate rebellion, and mobilise a resigned ironic assessment of their own abilities to manage information, negotiate multiple digital platforms, and process academic language. Selwyn (2007) identifies “a wilful anti-intellectualism … [in] many of these exchanges with students brazenly highlighting their inabilities and, by implication, the inadequacies of the university department” (p. 14). These posts are designed to cultivate community of shared disenfranchisement with the university and the protocols of academia. They also deploy a wider disengagement from the role and function of education within the social framework where expertise is dismissed as inappropriate, elitist and impractical. The use of Facebook in this context, creates a sense of ownership over university study and cultivates connections based on communal struggle with course content and expectations. It is also used to vent and direct anger towards staff, the university and intellectual culture.


Figure 4: Student complaint on Facebook

The anger, resistance and rebellion towards the university is stimulated by a service-delivery consciousness whereby information must be packaged, easily accessed, downloaded and understood. When the delivery of material does not fit within these expectations, universities and their interfaces are demonised as elite and inaccessible. It is easier to critique the structures and staff of university education than to drill down into difficult ideas and be challenged by critique. As a result, the bulk of Facebook interactions are not educational. They are resistive, community building, supportive and helpful to students struggling to make sense of their role within the university. Facebook offers a short-term and fragmented engagement of personal, public and professional identities struggling to cohere through the codification of ‘student’ and rarely makes space for the development of ‘scholar’.

Students increasingly define their choices within a context of satisfaction, delivery of service and networked memory defined by others in their feedback loop of friends and followers. Students often overwhelmingly prefer Facebook to LMS environments. Cohorts “already using Facebook were more likely to see updates about the unit from within Facebook rather than by separately checking email or explicitly visiting the unit’s Blackboard site” (Jenkins, Lyons, Bridgstock and Carr, 2012, p. 3). The management of more complex interfaces and difficult information flows operates in contrast to the ease with which students seek to access online material and by default, the effortless way some seek to move through course content. Students consistently demonstrate a rejection of LMS structures and often complain about the impenetrable and layered manner in which information is locked behind secure servers and private entry points. This extends to complaints about the difficulty of using online databases, activating keywords and search parameters and a range of time-based skills required to not only access, but process information required for assignments. The formal interactions on the LMS site are also often called into question as being unproductive to instinctive, intuitive and complex engagements required in learning.

While Blackboard is highly secure and used by many universities, students do not feel that it is user-friendly. To check announcements and respond to email messages requires that students go through many steps and logins to access the required pages (Barczyk and Duncan, 2012, p. 4).

Students often complain about the stream of discussion threads where interactions are opaque and time is wasted clicking on links that go nowhere or to single word answers like “OK” or “Thanks” in response to a direction or question. In an age where Google provides easy, free and streamlined access to instant information, the struggles and processes of understanding hierarchies of information, management of sources, and the careful deployment of knowledge is encapsulated in the binary between students’ perceptions of Facebook and Blackboard. The intuitive Facebook framework is contrasted with Learning Management Systems defined as “institutionally-owned and driven, and as serving the needs of the institutions rather than the learner” (Kompen, 2008, p. 2). Blackboard, Moodle and similar large LMSs are defined as inflexible spaces where “Learners have limited control over the extent to which the tools of a VLE [Virtual Learning Environment] can be customised” (Kompen, 2008, p. 2). The Facebook environment is encoded as better suited to the highly adaptive and customised approaches to online management adopted by online and digitised students. This trend is reflected by anecdotal evidence of a distinct resistance to LMSs.


Figure 5: Student thread on Facebook

However, LMSs provide an important architecture in the management of information in a digital format – both by containing the students within an official authoritative knowledge structures where they can be addressed as a whole by the course coordinator or tutor, and also as where the official discourses of the university are perpetuated in terms of the rigor of investigation, debate about ideas, and the critical examination of context.

When students migrate to Facebook or other social networking sites, they are able to engage in more flexible and fluid interactions, but the management of the cohort on such sites becomes increasingly difficult, placing enormous strain on staff. The encoding of knowledge parameters and performances becomes more difficult to model to the students. Shea, Li, Swan and Pickett (2005) have found – predictably – that “a strong and active presence on the part of the instructor – one in which she or he actively guides the discourse – is related to students’ sense of both connectedness and learning” (p. 71). The more present a tutor or lecturer in an online learning environment, the more likely students are to engage with course content and operate effectively in a functional learning context. But while some see advantages in teachers being able to “respond with considerable agility to issues” (Jenkins, Lyons, Bridgstock and Carr, 2012, p. 4) in the quick-fire update stream of Facebook, it is incredibly “time consuming for instructors” (Barczyk and Duncan, 2013, p. 3) to manage the multiple interactions, spaces and movements of students across these formats and is “somewhat dependent on the instructor’s skills, personal characteristics and willingness to commit the time needed” (Barczyk and Duncan, 2012, p. 3) to administer these spaces of interaction. Furthermore, the interactions between staff and students on Facebook are most often geared at managing course (mis)information rather than modelling and mobilising scholarship. It is on the moveable interfaces of Facebook and social networks that “potentially privileged information” (Selwyn, 2007, p. 12) offered to one student in precise circumstances is distributed as if it intended for everyone, leading to confusions and crisis management.

Neil Selwyn (2007) refers to this process as a “‘cascading’ of information” (p. 11) where the networked, timelined structure of Facebook enables the flow of information along parallel and dispersed lines. The result for educational groups is “a form of academic Chinese whispers, where assignment questions, rubrics and expectations were reconstituted in ways which were inaccurate and sometimes simply incorrect” (Selwyn, 2007, p. 12) This misinformation is time consuming for course managers who have to spend significant chunks of time in the minutiae of course details rather than actual teaching. For staff members, the distress of students when incorrect information is circulated means managing their emotional state, connecting to multiple social network sites where students are interacting with each other to coordinate course management, and responding to hierarchical requests for clarification.


Figure 6: Email correspondence between tutor and course coordinator

The convoluted nature of social network interaction creates conditions where information mutates and contributes to a complex and contingent interface between the course content, administration, the students and the staff. Via the social network, information is restated, misconstrued, and incorrectly communicated leading to not only distress for students, but perpetuation of potentially damaging ideas related to assessment outcomes. Staff have to not only reassure students of the correct information, but also reassure the course managers that students had not been mistakenly misdirected. The huge amounts of time devoted to these inconsistencies and indiscretions distracts from the potential to craft an evocative learning space where the expertise of the tutor or course facilitator is actually deployed and not curtailed into an information manager role.

The binary between the rationalised LMS space and the emotional Facebook framework creates a dissection between education and identity. The LMS, as an official university space, is an architecture where the protocols of criticism outweigh the potentials of unruly and unregulated exploration of reactions and tumultuous tensions between identity, information, knowledge and the university. Students’ use of Facebook operates in these spaces of emotional insecurity and enables them a place in which to articulate these unstable moments. The in-between spaces of insecurity and struggle over information as it forms into knowledge is eroded in official university spaces and finds little complexity on Facebook beyond liking and emoting. The official formats for learning have instead been subsumed under the delivery of ready-made knowledge infrastructures to the student-as-consumer. Universities are no longer places where struggle, debate and complexity is explored, along with frustrations, insecurities and instabilities. Instead education has polarised with the university standardised structures of information, delivered via portals for pedagogy that remove the self from the struggle for knowledge. No longer are “students … the subjects of learning … responsible for their own ideas, while learning how to take risks, [and] negotiate differences” (Giroux, 2003, p. 92). Instead emphasis is on accessibility, portability, and readability of online texts. Experts are defined as those able to most effectively download rather than deploy information.

Generating methods to interconnect the many different ways we intersect with information – not just via portals, but also through emotions, identity, criticism and the self – requires a rethink of the relationships between technology and learning. Advocates of the asynchronous enthusiastically affirm the “positive … impacts on student engagement, motivation, personal interaction, and affective aspects of the learning environment” (Toliver, 2011, p. 66). These cheerleaders shift teaching and learning into a form of “infotainment” (Toliver, 2011, p. 63) where grasping and maintaining the students’ attention reifies self-centred learning amongst the “fingers … flying across the keyboards … clicking noises …[and] eyes fixed to the screen in front of them” (Maxwell, 2007, p. 1) and is the primary objective to imparting crucial curriculum information. Instead a far more rigorous and engaged connection to digitisation and education must be crafted. One that might moderate the connections between the self and the scholar. These connections should acknowledge the desires of students, but not be driven by them. Learning must be conducted with tools and methods that extend rather than meet student expectations. This is fundamental to creating a critically conscious generation of innovative thinkers and decision-makers.

The objectives of understanding, critical thinking and scholarship must frame the integration of online and digital learning contexts in more effective and functional ways. Malcolm McCullough has evocatively woven together the impacts of educational architectures and infrastructure on attention and interest, learning, and scholarship to offer critique of the use of computing within everyday life, and the impacts of inadequate design on learning and attention. He argues that it becomes important to understand online and digitised technologies within a “general paradigm shift from cyberspace to pervasive computing” (McCullough, 2007, p. 383). Online environments are no longer accessed by a separate entry point. Instead, ubiquitous computing creates conditions where “wireless and seamless identification and connectivity” (Hua, 2012, p. 40) surround a constant and ongoing interaction with screens within everyday life. McCullough argues that the architectures by which we interact with mobile, integrated and heavily invested digital items must be understood within and through modes of ‘ambient information technology’. The plethora of digital interfaces or ‘interactions’, as McCullough understands them, are mobilised with a principle of ‘periphery’ described as “a strategy for managing information overload” (McCullough, 2007, p. 383) whereby the volume of information in-take can be mediated and moderated by redirecting our attention at times of stress. Rheingold refers to critical information literacy (or crap detection) and infotention as strategies for learning to “handle new flows of knowledge, media and attention in a healthy, flexible, grounded manner” (Rheingold, 2012, p. 5). These skills are designed to assist the management of information overload without resorting to compulsive, distracting and obsessive movement between screens, sites, and social media. But without such skills, more immediate tactics are put to use – mainly distraction and disengagement – facilitated by our tendency to cycle through economies of attention within online social networks, shifting and reshifting our focus in a “circular dimension … [with] repetition of the same web browsing habit” (Petersen, 2007, p. 84). Technological devices, digital literacies and portal paradigms encircle the periphery of who we are and create spaces of multiple and multiplying information interfaces. In order to manage this information overload, we shift attention between nodes.

Trying to keep too much in the locus of attention tends to be stressful. We find it more natural to use our considerable powers of sensing the surroundings, and then to experience more capacity and resolution where our attention is focused. Thus, as Brown and Weiser observed, bringing something back from the periphery to the center of attention is a fundamentally engaging and calming process (McCullough, 2007, p. 386).

We now shift between interactions rather than interfaces, and regulating these interactions is crucial to understanding how we process information via technology in education. This strategy is akin to having the Facebook window open but reduced onto the taskbar while other reading or research is being done. The drive to open the window periodically to check in with the timeline satisfies a desire for moderating and mediating the stressful activities of learning which require focus and discipline. These activities suspend any sustained sense of processing and cohesive capacity to generate complex connections between ideas and concepts. This has consequences for how we teach both face-to-face and online and via digital artefacts. It is easier to read updates than it is to read high theory, which is why students often prefer the pithy interactions on Facebook than they do the rigorous responding that is sanctioned (but not more likely) to occur on Blackboard or Moodle. How teachers account for these distractions, think through digital interactions, mobilise interfaces and impart the radical textualities of knowledge is crucial to an effective integration of digital sites and literacies in evocative pedagogies.

McCullough (2007) argues that these digital distractions codify place-based and space-based identities, moving users between space and place to redefine the self. He maps the distinction as contrast between the unfamiliar and the familiar where “space is the anxiety of global indifference; place is the comfort of local malleability … space is an ordering of understanding; place is an ordering of experience.” (p. 5) The architecture of ‘pervasive computing’ is part of a “situated information practice” (McCullough, 2007, p. 394) where household and other activity is managed around and via screen interactions which produce a plethora of micro-places where we find the familiar, the comfortable and the secure. The internet is now used “in relation to all the different everyday duties” (Petersen, 2007, p. 84) where “the spontaneity and the use in between the different duties makes the internet a constant component of almost everything” (p. 84). Its intersection with education situates complex concepts next to the context of the mundane and the familiar – so when students experience the unfamiliar and the challenging in education, it creates tension between space and place. The desire to move into and out of the periphery becomes overwhelming. McCullough argues that the architecture of this ubiquity is currently inadequately designed to cope with the place-based connections and confluences between interfaces, and they must be redefined/redesigned to create truly playful and effective ambient computing environments. He argues that ‘interaction design’ should be emphasized over ‘interface design’ because it offers potential for a dynamic flow between structures and applications and reflexive understanding for how information is processed.

Interaction designers study how people learn, operate, and assimilate technology, especially information technology. They also study how technological mediation influences what people are doing. Increasingly, they do so in terms of work practices, social organizations, and physical configurations – in a word, context (McCullough, 2007, p. 385).

Understanding how students interact with digital technologies and activate a sense of place through which to process information into knowledge is crucial to motivating a transformative mobile and digital education that can interact with and support face-to-face learning rather than replace it. To affirm the significance or ‘power’ of the online and digitised environment for learning without reflexive examination of how this is situated in the context of everyday activities and architectures ignores the nuances between contexts, technologies, ubiquity and presence that is required for effective digitally mediated learning to take place. Belonging to the educational community formed via Facebook is not enough. McCullough (2007) argues that “with the rise of pervasive computing, more applications must enhance, and not undermine our perceptions of grounding place” (p. 388). Currently, many online and digital educational interfaces as they shift and morph between multiple objects and networks, disconnect students from scholarship and connect them to mediation. They do not allow learning to occur within the context of place and instead make the management of multiple selves, micro-places and spaces of digitisation more important.

Methods for moving between and within different learning environments needs to be mastered and mobilised via reflexive pedagogic potentials. Students need to know which digitised interaction to engage in to achieve specific results in their research and knowledge development. These knowledges are not always present within the cohort. Some studies have demonstrated that students may be immersed in these digitally dense environments but may not have the required skills set to translate these literacies into other contexts. Toliver (2011) warns;

While today’s college students are immersed and fluent in social media, consumer electronics and video games, they are not nearly as proficient when it comes to using digital tools in the classroom setting (p. 60).

These skills need to be taught. Critical understanding of the ways in which technology can be activated and integrated into a learning environment needs to be mobilised by both teachers and students. Searching online and using library databases, operating keywords and using Boolean logic are just some of the skills the cultivation of a personal learning experience, or joining a Facebook group, watching a YouTube video, or liking an update will not impart. Being able to integrate technological literacies into learning literacies remains consistently under-theorised and activated within contemporary, hyped language describing online learning environments.

The balance between linear and asynchronous forms of teaching and learning need better integration and understanding. The importance of student-centred learning is significant in recognising diverse learners and making course content accessible. But confusing information for knowledge is becoming increasingly commonplace as the role of knowledge – as confrontational, uncomfortable and critical – has been flattened within social sense-making. The prevalence of easy access to information via the blinking cursor in a Google search box has cultivated a culture of instant information. The place of struggle and discomfort in the processing, understanding and translating of that information into knowledge is masked by the attention to online interfaces, asynchronous learning, student-directed instruction and digital rather than media literacies. Rather than lifting the expectations of students and asking them to be uncomfortable in the struggle over meaning, teachers, parents, and universities settle for seductive encouragement and incremental instruction in the name of building confidence and comfort in learners. Mobilising elite educational attitudes that are designed to block access to higher learning through obscuring knowledge and impenetrable language is not productive. But there does need to be a critique of the place and role of tailoring education to the niche of personality, comfort, and the ordinary. To lower expectations is just as damaging as making them unachievable. The focus on student-centred learning and paradigms such as personal learning environments, and the mythical powers of digital portals, emphasize mediocrity. These ideas are not located within a rationalised and reflexively theorised understanding of how to build knowledge, communicate expertise and encourage struggle over meaning.

The movement between ideas, contexts and consciousness is an important and special experience for a transformative education, but a technology – an iPad, tablet, laptop, or the internet – cannot achieve this transformation without considered and careful understanding of the deployment, activation, and translation of knowledge and the architectures of information communicated through ambient computing protocols. Swiping the screen will not replace the sensations of struggle, synthesis and seductions of big ideas and difficult knowledges. The ability to connect and understand the importance of these iPad and smart phone styles of mobility and the interactions between interfaces (small screen to big screen, digital to analogue) is key to mobilising a reflexive and engaged learning experience. Otherwise, students are fragmented and distracted – lost in a sea of ambient computing with little to guide their management of the technological terminus. These models of learning that are luxuriously labelled and digitally designed, mask the wider consequences to learning when education is delivered in virtual networks of technologically tethered experiences. Not only do assumptions about digital literacy pervade these spaces, but the careful and reflexive movement of learners from information through to knowledge and onto expertise by teachers is neglected. For self-directed, motivated learners, these approaches can be effective. Online interactions can provide an effective environment for exploring information. For other types of students, who may lack the discipline to coordinate their learning approaches and are flitting through the peripheries of their computing context, such flexibility can be crippling and overwhelming. As a result, they lack the ability to take an information-rich environment and translate it into functional and effective models of knowledge and expertise that can be applied to context-specific and placed-based circumstances. Without an anchored and contextualised way in which to understand how movement connects, disconnects, translates and transforms knowledges, experiences and ideologies, having an iPad, or moving through a portal, or commenting on Facebook offer limited educational experiences that frame learning through click-and-link cultures and update literacies. Online learning should be experiential, exciting and expert. It should bring with it the best of offline modes and supplement these with audio-visual and interactive engagements. With reflexive understanding of how digitised devices and portals are integrated into the everyday and the mundane, space can be created for the special and unique moments of education to transform students into critical thinkers, responsible citizens and innovative individuals.


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Rob Cover

Published Online: April 30, 2014
Full Text: HTML, PDF (387 KB)


This paper addresses some questions which have arisen around the separation between study and social life in the author’s use of Facebook as a first-year teaching and learning tool.   A frequent comment made by students who participated in the use of Facebook as a course learning tool is that contributions they made to study forums which appear on their own page’s wall can be “embarrassing” or “awkward” when read by friends who are not also students in the same course.  The comment raises questions as to how the semi-public site of Facebook operating in teaching and learning modes has implications for privacy and anonymity.  Students’ questions about such comments expressed a desire for their work to remain “private” (unseen by those other than the examiner or moderator), although were choosing a career in media production, publication, journalism or other writing. What is it about Facebook in particular that evokes questions of privacy?  As a teaching and learning tool, Facebook provides an environment in which anonymity and the separation of different elements of one’s learning, study and social or personal lives are made more complex.  What does the breakdown of context and distinction do for processes of learning?  Theorising the relationship between privacy and the use of Facebook and other social networking sites as teaching and learning tools, this article presents a summary of its use in media and communications teaching, the mechanisms by which privacy questions are invoked in this context, the ways in which its use opens new and unexpected ways of thinking about pedagogy in relation to the everyday, and the factors that invoke questions as to how online social networking identity is managed by students using Facebook as a prescribed learning tool.


Social networking, privacy, pedagogy, interactivity, identity


Social Networking sites have been investigated and discussed by researchers, journalists and public commentators, although a gap can be located in the fact that much of the time the breadth of uses, tools, functions or gratifications of social networking is levelled down to appear as a singular, unified activity or sole ‘purpose’ of the sites. This includes seeing social networking as a site for the sharing of personal experiences among friends, whether known or strangers (Ellison et al., 2007, p. 1143); as a site for the articulation of one’s identity-based interests through the construction of taste statements which act as identifications with objects and with others (Liu, 2008, p. 253); as a site for relationship maintenance (Hoadley et al., 2010, p. 52) and connecting unfamiliar people with one another (Hoadley et al., 2010, p. 53); as a networked space for the expression or representation of pre-existing and salient aspects of users’ identities for others to view, interpret and engage with (boyd, 2008); as a space for youth to engage with other younger persons outside of the physical world’s constraints and parental surveillance (boyd, 2008, p. 18); as a site for the expression and/or self-regulation of narcissistic personalities (Buffardi & Campbell, 2008); being friended and linking to friends whether close friends, acquaintances or strangers as “one of the (if not the) main activities of Facebook”  (Tong et al., 2008, p. 531).  These are all ostensible reasons for the use of social networking—conscious, self-aware purposes articulated by different users in varied contexts.

However, understanding the awkward place at which Facebook and other social networking sites sit both in and as education, particularly as the tertiary level, is something which requires further exploration, particularly in terms of (a) whether a social site that, arguably, is a location of social activity that is ‘private’ from educational pursuits is appropriately drawn into education; (b) the interface between use of social networking as a tool for pedagogy and as a cultural formation that is pedagogical in itself; and (c) the way in which questions of privacy and questions of pedagogy coalesce as a means of opening up the question as to contemporary selfhood, subjectivity and identity as expressed in and through the performativity of social networking.

This paper addresses a number of critical questions that emerged in the author’s use of Facebook as a first-year teaching and learning tool in a Media and Communications course in 2010, particularly focusing on student concerns over the way in which a course Facebook page blurred the distinction between study and social life.  Although the 2010 interface of Facebook pre-dates the more recent addition of further privacy controls that allow a greater separation of spheres of audience, the experience is instructive in providing ideas on how students view their assessed and non-assessed work in terms of contexts of audiencehood. A frequent comment made by students participating in the use of Facebook as a course learning tool was that contributions they made to study forums which appear on their own page’s wall can be “embarrassing” or “awkward” when read by friends who are not also students in the same course.  The comments raise questions as to how the semi-public site of Facebook operating in teaching and learning modes has implications for privacy and anonymity, and thereby subsequently also for pedagogy and identity.  Significant here is that students questions about such comments expressed a desire for their work to remain “private” (unseen by those other than the examiner or moderator), although many were choosing a career in media production, publication, journalism or other writing.

What is it about Facebook in particular that evokes questions of privacy?  How does Facebook operate as an environment in which anonymity and the separation of different elements of one’s learning, study and social or personal lives are made more complex or in which the barriers and distinctions break down altogether? Theorising the relationship between privacy, pedagogy and identity as a means of understanding the use of Facebook and other social networking sites as teaching and learning tools, this paper discusses its use in media and communications teaching, the mechanisms by which privacy questions are invoked in this context, the ways in which its use opens new and unexpected ways of thinking about pedagogy in relation to interactive communicative engagement and co-creativity, and the factors that invoke questions as to how online social networking identity is managed by students using Facebook as a prescribed learning tool.

Facebook in First-Year Teaching—2010

I began evaluating the use of Facebook as a supplementary teaching tool in a core/compulsory first-year introductory course in the Bachelor of Media at The University of Adelaide in 2010.  The one-semester course, Introduction to Media: Digital Revolutions, required students to engage with a range of contemporary issues for media industries, textuality, creative production and everyday audiencehood that emerge in the context of shifts between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 digital media environments.  While the Blackboard digital learning management platform was used for the dissemination of course material (lecture notes, course readings, assignment details, guidelines for assessment and tutorial exercises), and face-to-face activities included standard two hours of weekly lectures and a compulsory one-hour tutorial conducted in a computer suite, the course-specific Digital Revolutions 2010 Facebook page served as a supplement to learning that made deliberate use of its Web 2.0 interactive and hyperlinked environment.  This was the Facebook ‘group’ platform and interface of 2010, which was prior to the current timeline format and before the availability of fan pages for which participants request access with a ‘like’ click; it was also prior to the more complex privacy settings that were developed during 2011 and 2012 on Facebook personal pages.

The use of Facebook in this course had the following benefits: Firstly, the Facebook Wall served as a means for ‘push information’ whereby students were required to see updates, reminders, requests and notices regularly across the course, being that these would appear on students’ own Facebook news feeds.  This is in contrast to “pull information” whereby a target group are required to be active in seeking information (for example, by logging in to student email or a learning management platform for announcements, notices and materials).  Given the increased ‘busy-ness’ of student lives and the multiple (often casual) work undertaken alongside study, it was clearly becoming more difficult to rely on student self-motivation to maintain communicative engagement and to keep up-to-date with course announcements and requirements.  “Push information” however, presented itself as an effective solution.  As one 2010 student survey respondent put it, the use of Facebook interactivity supported learning by “… forcing student engagement with the topic of digital interactivity and so forth.”

Secondly, the Facebook Discussion Board was used as a site for short assignments (collaborative wiki -style responses to topical/controversial questions related to the course, for example, on internet censorship policy; three x 350-400 word pieces across the semester).  These encouraged students to write assessed work for a more public environment and to engage in an ongoing discussion in a manner that produces a collaborative overall response (although assessed individually).  In general, this was positively reviewed by students; for example:  “I thought the wiki assessments on Facebook were really good because it was easy submission and gave you a chance to reflect on the course at different stages”.

Thirdly, the Facebook Wall page was actively used by teaching staff and students as a space to post ideas, questions, links to sites which may be of interest to others. While students were invited to make use of this facility, there was no compulsion or assessment.  During the course, the wall received more than 160 unsolicited posts relating to topics under discussion (from more than one-third of the cohort of 190 students).  One of the intended benefits of this use was that the posts would appear on students’ own Facebook news feeds, integrating study and conceptual analysis into everyday life.  The capacity to hyperlink between wall posts, other sites and other parts of the Facebook page was arguably of benefit in demonstrating knowledge synthesis and maintaining engagement.   Students’ responses included the comment: “I enjoy the fact that this is up to date learning, using contemporary things like facebook and . . . open discussions”.  Finally, the course Facebook group photo album was utilised, where both staff and students were encouraged to post images of technologies relevant to the course, including older technologies.  The photo albums were also used as a site for students to demonstrate an assessed digital creative piece, further enhancing the peer-to-peer engagement and building confidence in the production of assessed work for a broad audience.  Survey comments included: “Facebook kept all the students ‘in touch’ due to discussion boards etc.”

While the use of Facebook was viewed positively by students in general, there were a number (approximately ten percent) of students who expressed dissatisfaction with the requirement to engage with Facebook in learning.  Three students expressed concerns about the requirement to sign up to Facebook itself, as they had actively resisted having a Facebook account.  In those cases and for the purpose of accessing the educational environment, the three students were permitted to use false/abbreviated names in order that their Facebook page not be “tracked to” by friends, family and acquaintances.  However, the concern that emerged from the broader student cohort related to the fact that they were unable to keep their posts to the group (cohort-viewable assessments, responses, updates) invisible to their Facebook friends; likewise any friend looking at their profile would be able to see the announcements, updates, advice and posts coming from teaching staff to all group members.  While many were good-humoured about this fact, several noted their concerns in the end-of-semester survey with comments which included: “Facebook meant I could not keep my study private,”  “I was uncomfortable blurring course and friendship,” “the Facebook group meant uni intruded into my private life,” and  “some of my non-uni friends made fun of my assignments, which need to be kept private.”

With other priorities for that course in the following year, prior to a shift of institutions and subsequently not teaching a first-year cohort, the Facebook experiment in first-year Media and Communications teaching has not yet been repeated.  From a pedagogical perspective, however, it opened a number of questions that are, indeed, paralleled by other concerns that have emerged in the proliferation of Web 2.0 communicative environments that are built upon co-creative engagement, user-generated content, and the inter-mingling of technologies with everyday forms of sociality and the production of performative subjectivity (Cover, 2012).  These include the complexification of privacy in the contemporary networked environment, the (partial) shifting of pedagogy from the formal and the institutional to the everyday and the social, and the utilisation of communicative tools for a multiplicity of purposes included sociality, relationality and identity performativity.  A number of writers have investigated the role of social networking in the context of its impact on formal and institutional learning environments, its role in student peer-group sociality and socialisation (Madge et al., 2009) and peer-group post-hoc engagement with learning experiences or student self-promotion of oneself as academically incompetent (Selwyn, 2009).  However, the intersection of questions of privacy, pedagogy and co-creative interactivity are yet to be deployed as a means of critiquing the role of Facebook and social networking as a formalised tool for university-level learning.

Facebook and the Private/Public Distinction

Students’ desire to keep their educational contributions ‘private’ from their public persona and their public friends (even on a profile set to non-public) points to the way in which a simplified public/private dichotomy emerges as one of the few means available for understanding a social networking application that, in theoretical terms, transcends it.  Facebook and other social networking sites have regularly been subject to concerns around privacy, its complexification in digital, networked environments and these include the occasional moral panics around privacy for young people that emerge often in the popular press and in educational policy (Hodkinson & Lincoln 2008).  Students who invoked notions of privacy and ‘the private’ argued that their educational contribution to the course and the requirement not only to have a Facebook page but to join and participate in the course site was something they wanted to be kept ‘private’ from their friends.  In this context, the study and scholarly activities here were positioned as private while their friendship network was, in some cases, positioned as ‘public’.  This can perhaps be understood as a reversal of what might ordinarily be expected in which traditional face-to-face education is that which is conducted in public settings (the lecture theatre, the seminar room) at a public university with public monies funding part of the student’s education.  The re-application of a distinctive public/private binary emerges as one of the normative available discourses by which to make sense of the experience of using Facebook in an educational setting as being in addition to social networking’s more common use in the everyday socialities of students.  An awareness of the complex multiplicity of audiences, then, requires a frame by which students can interpret the demand for ‘information management’—managing who sees what elements of one’s life, whether that be studious life or the labour of social networking.  What some of these comments can be read as doing is demonstrating the persistence of the public/private dichotomy but, simultaneously, pointing to its instability as a framework for understanding information flow.

Indeed, public/private has always been an awkward dichotomy which, on analysis, regularly fails in any pursuit of mutual exclusivity.  According to Susan Gal (2002), the public/private distinction is not only correlative, thus never providing stable “spheres of activity, or even types of interaction” (p. 80), but can perhaps better be understood as a “fractal distinction”, by which she means the public/private is a pattern which occurs repeatedly within each of the two terms, and multiply within those divisions also (p. 81).  As Gal puts it:

Whatever the local, historically specific content of the dichotomy, the distinction between public and private can be reproduced repeatedly by projecting it onto narrower contexts or broader ones.  Or, it can be projected onto different social ‘objects’—activities, identities, institutions, spaces and interactions—that can be further categorized into private and public parts.  Then, through recursity (and recalibration), each of these parts can be recategorized again, by the same public/private distinction.  It is crucial that such calibrations are always relative positions and not properties liminated on the persons, objects, or spaces concerned” (p. 81).

At a more practical and empirical level, Marwick and boyd’s (2011) analysis of Twitter uses revealed some of the difficulties of the conceptual possibilities of complex audiences on the one hand and, on the other, the desire of users to maintain multiple yet separate spheres or contexts of audiences.  For Marwick and boyd, the contemporary networked audience operates between the narrowcast form of readership and the broadcast audience (p. 129) in ways which make difficult an individuals’ intentions to “present themselves appropriately” by imagining one or more specific ‘types’ of audience (p. 115):

The large audiences for sites like Facebook or MySpace may create a lowest-common denominator effect, as individuals only post things they believe their broadest group of acquaintances will find non-offensive.  Similarly, Twitter users negotiate multiple, overlapping audiences by strategically concealing information, targeting tweets to different audiences and attempting to portray both an authentic self and an interesting personality (p. 122).

For students using their own Facebook accounts as part of an educational experience in which their friends and acquaintances see contributions made to an audience of examiners and/or classmates, a breach of privacy is code for the (un-desired) breakdown of different spheres or contexts of audience.  Such (required) educational material might not meet a student’s lowest-common denominator of non-offensive, personality-representative and identity performative posts.

These significant analyses of the blurred distinction between public and private and the desire for audience spheres of context suggest that rather than attempting to use the public/private distinction in order to come to an understanding of the ethics of involving a student’s Facebook in their education, or rather than accepting the distinction as blurred and thus requiring case-by-case analysis that depends on individual students’ privacy settings, composition of friendships and attitudes towards the social role of their own education, we are subject to two new, productive possibilities.

The first is that an increased ethical complexity can be applied to the attempts to locate the ‘educational’ contributions in terms of the public/private distinction.  Rather than looking at the ways in which an educational component such as a written piece submitted on a Facebook page liked by the student becomes a piece of public writing, or looking to how education and friendship form two separate spheres of ‘public’ which one arguably wishes to keep ‘private’ from each other, the productive possibility here is grounded in the continuing disagreement over the location of the educational contribution as either public or private. The disagreements can be viewed as disagreements around the location or positioning of the information as public or private within multiple, geometrically complex, fractal distinctions.  This opens questions over the ethics of requiring students to participate in ways which break down the distinctions between different contexts of audience in their roles as different groups or types of spectators of a student’s performance of identity.

The second productive element here is that it opens up the questions of the ethical, particularly in terms of what it means for an educational institution to make a student’s educational submissions public in non-educational spheres and whether or not this counts as an ‘invasion’ of one’s privacy.  For Candace Gauthier (2002), the ethics of privacy can be understood productively not through a Kantian approach (in that to invade the privacy of an individual is to treat that person as a non-subject) or our contemporary dominant liberal perspective (in that invading the privacy of a subject needs to be weighed up for social benefits and harms in order to determine whether or not it can be ethical).  Rather, Gauthier identifies what she calls the Power Transfer model, in which privacy can be understood as a form of ‘control’ over who has access to information about an individual, whereby privacy affords a personal power against dominant institutions (on the other side of the coin, the release of private information of dominant political officials can thereby be justified by virtue of its role in transferring power to the public from a figure who has institutional capital to keep actions private (pp. 26-27, 32).  Although on the one hand there is some productive value in encouraging students to think about and understand different spheres of privacy through the power transfer model and thereby to experience it, what is notable here is the opening of the question of ethics—it is considered perfectly ethical to require a student to present his or her work to a class, to participate in a group assignment, to be subject to peer-marking processes and to upload work to a learning management site in which an entire cohort can see his or her contribution.  It is important to ask, however, if it remains ethical to transfer the ‘privacy’ of educational contributions to a sphere or context inhabited by one’s non-educational social world.  The action of requiring students to allow their work to be seen by non-students, family members, school-friends and acquaintances, en masse, cannot be determined within an ethics that treats the private/public binary as a simple dichotomy but has to be opened up to a persistent process of questioning that may not necessarily result in a final position on the ethical value of Facebook in education.

These two points of productive thinking about the role of Facebook in education in the context of privacy can be discerned in student comments about the 2010 experiment.  Students were markedly aware of the multiplicity of audiences: friends from university in other courses and degrees, family members, non-university friends from school, acquaintances from other fields of work and everyday life.  Indeed, while the figure of audience is often presented as singular, substantial recent theorisation of communicative environments presents the need to consider the public sphere broadly as a set of interlocking and multiple network spaces (Couldry & Dreher, 2007, p. 80).  We might extend that to include any audience sphere or site as being always, endemically multiple and networked.  There is, however, some anxiety around the complexity with which such networking of different sites, spheres and audiences emerges and its implications for communicative processes in education.   While students were very much prepared to write and upload assessments, creative work and commentary for the ‘public audience’ of the student cohort, tutors and lecturers, having these items seen by non-students was, in a small number of cases, understood as an act of making public that which they considered private.  However, in the context of thinking beyond a public/private distinction, what these comments and concerns demonstrate is the complexity of understanding audiencehood in a digital, networked age in which that which is written for an intended audience is much less guaranteed to be limited to that audience than in a pre-digital communicative environment.  While there has never been a time that one’s message is guaranteed to signify in a way that can ever be thought of as ‘intended’ (Bennett, 1983; Derrida, 1987; Hall, 1993), in a social networking environment the ease of access of one’s (permitted) friends to different portions of the site indicates the intensive labour of managing information for multiple audiences in which one portion of the audience may not necessarily have access to the framework in which to understand or make intelligible a textual fragment that is uploaded, thereby making one’s subjectivity—as writer, as social networker—less-coherent than otherwise (Cover, 2012).  It points to the labour that, today, is required for managing information, including the provision or ‘explanation’ of interpretative frames as a sort of meta-data—that is, providing the context of the uploaded message for those who may not be aware of the course content.  Requiring students to manage this additional labour can be ethically problematic in that it is, indeed, work.  At the same time it has a pedagogical element in providing and highlighting an experience that is arguably the contemporary everyday and (for communications and media graduates) professional reality of communication after the ‘digital revolution’.

Giroux, Pedagogy and Everyday Technologies

If there are, indeed, ethical questions on the role of Facebook in education, those can be critiqued through a framework that takes into account the relationship between the multiplicity of audiences for a student using social networking in education, pedagogy and interactivity.  For Henry Giroux (1999), a cultural approach to pedagogy begins with the foundational point that culture is constitutive rather than reflexive in that it shapes the larger forces of pedagogy and identity (p. 2).  Thus, social networking becomes not only a tool of learning but a site of pedagogy itself as part of the “whole range of new cultural forms within media culture that have become the primary educational forces in advanced industrial societies” (p. 4).  In that context, making use of interactive social networking has value in encouraging “young people and adults to engage popular, media, and mass culture seriously as objects of social analysis and to learn how to read them critically through specific strategies of understanding, engagement and transformation” (pp. 4-5). Like audiences, literacy for Giroux is multiple and plural rather than fixed in singularity, and thereby requires that students become not only literate but literate in the forms through which such multiplicities of engagement are produced.  Within this framework of pedagogy, then, social networking has multiple roles—it acts as (1) a tool of pedagogy in a learning environment; (2) the site of pedagogy in which students engage not only with other students and other subjects but with the multiplicity of audiences, interpretative frames and manifold utterances that present a range of discursive approaches to understanding the everyday and the professional forms of communicative engagement; (3) as a form of pedagogy itself that is located within a number of different co-creative interactivities, including those that put into question Enlightenment models of authorship, audiencehood, textuality and dissemination.

Understanding the use of social networking as a tool that crosses between the field of everyday sociality and the field of study through the interface between issues of privacy and issues of pedagogy requires bearing in mind the role of co-creative interactivity as the formation by which contemporary communication is undertaken (Cover, 2004; Cover, 2006).  That is, to ask how Facebook’s use in education is pedagogical and justifies the blurring of different communicative spheres and concomitant audiences in a context in which pedagogy is so ostensibly co-creative.  This opens questions as to the role of the student as an author of his or her own text, comment, utterance.  The very idea of the author as the central authority of a work is, as Foucault (1977) pointed out, one which is regulated within culture, and one which is more recently put in question (p. 123).  The operations of the name and role of the author as a rule for the quality and power of a work is an historical one, and one which continues both to change as well as be defended—questions over, for example, intellectual property illustrate the two poles of authorship in which, on the one hand, a work can be disputed as having needed the protections that accord its ‘ownership’ to a student as author, and on the other as defending a set of rights asserted by an author not to have that work altered, distributed or read outside of his or her control (which extends, more properly, from the discursive framework in which a set of constructed ‘rights’ of industrial ‘owners’ of texts operates and the copyright regimes in which authors of all kinds, regularly sign over both legal and practical rights to control who can and will read a text, statement or utterance).

This point, of course, highlights the constructedness of the very concept of authorship, one which dominates even the field of student writing, typically within concerns of plagiarism, by conveniently ‘forgetting’ the intertextual nature of all textuality, but one which is also increasingly in question by the very networking logic through which textuality is produced, distributed, accessed and consumed, and the ways in which meanings are activated around those texts through different available interpretative frames.  Foucault (1977) adeptly demonstrated the ways in which the author is not only historical, but the conception of it as one which is threatened in various time and in various forms:

The ‘author-function’ is tied to the legal and institutional systems that circumscribe, determine, and articulate the realm of discourses; it does not operate in a uniform manner in all discourses, at all times, and in any given culture; it is not defined by the spontaneous attribution of a text to its creator, but through a series of precise and complex procedures; it does not refer, purely and simply, to an actual individual insofar as it simultaneously gives rise to a variety of egos and to a series of subjective positions that individuals of any class may come to occupy (pp. 130-131).

The argument here, then, would be that the use of social networking in learning environments presents useful interactive frameworks for engaging and sharing, but frameworks which are still ‘suspicious’ by the very way in which they destabilise the solidity of the author function as a contemporary frame of reference for understanding the responsive production of work by students, and the model by which that work is written by a student positioned as author who traditionally and routinely directs that text towards an academic examiner.

To put this another way, the pleasure of engagement with a text is distributed under the signifier of interactivity as a co-creative formation is that which puts into question the functionality of authorship and opens the possibility for a variety of mediums no longer predicated on the name of the author: “We can easily imagine a culture where discourses would circulate without any need for an author.  Discourses, whatever their status, form, or value, and regardless of our manner of handling them, would unfold in a pervasive anonymity” (Foucault, 1977, p. 138).  The internet in general could be considered the setting in which the author’s name disappears as a plethora of anonymous sites, commentaries, knowledges and textualities emerge amidst an environment predicated on its interactivity and exchangeability.  In the occasional push towards a recorporatisation of the internet as it functions as a public sphere, the role of the author and the emphasis on author verification are restored in the tide towards the conceptual recentralisation of the medium (Ess, 1994; Dahlberg, 2001; Papacharissi, 2002) and the reinstatement of identity-identifiers to those who use, create and co-create for digital communication and social networking sites (Cover, 2012).  The continuation of the mythos of the author into the digital age is one which is now to be located in what Manuel Castells (1997, p. 303) refers to as a pluralisation of sources of authority.  These include the audience exercising consumer choice, in the weakest form of interactive feedback, and in the strongest a full interactive engagement with the text beyond the requirements installed by an author or form-creator.  This is, nevertheless, a system which witnesses a continuing backlash as other persons, sources, and institutions attempt to centralise the authorial voice as the only source of speaking-writing-saying power.

What occurs once interactivity is deemed to make available an aspect of participation within text-creation or the ability to alter, transform or re-distribute a text has been considered on the one hand the empowerment of audience (McMillan, 2002, pp. 279, 285), and on the other the dissolution of the traditional concept of audiencehood (Webster, 1998, p. 190).  Student engagement with each other through the deployment of the personal social networking site as a teaching tool for broad distribution and availability of authored utterances and text points, in several ways, towards the possibility of overcoming the two sides of this argument.  It thereby opens pedagogical possibilities of moving beyond lecturer-examiner as sole expert, voice and arbiter of learning (Giroux, 2004a, p. 798)—that is, examiner as sole audience for a work that is intertextually created and, in the case of social networking distribution, that is now available to be written for a multiplicity of audience positions.  We might here view the interactive audience—where such interactivity involves participation in the transformation or co-creation of the text—as a new category to describe both an ancient form and its re-emergence alongside digital media technologies.  In his Communication as Culture (1988), James Carey identifies two views of communication practices from a culturalist perspective taking into account the role of the audience—the transmission view and the ritual view.  The transmission view is the standard, pedestrian account of communication as it occurs in line with a simplified sender-message-receiver understanding of all communicative processes whereby authorship, communication and audiencehood are understood through key definitional terms of ‘imparting,’ ‘sending,’ ‘transmitting’ and ‘giving information to others.’  Messages are transmitted and distributed across space for the control of distance and of people (p. 14).  In a learning environment, this is the standard formation for understanding the responsive production of student work—authored by a student as if without intertextuality, sent via a hardcopy submission or a private upload for imparting to the examiner.

Carey’s ritual view, on the other hand, likens communication to acts of ‘sharing,’ ‘association,’ ‘fellowship,’ ‘possession of a common faith.’  He suggests it is more ancient than the concept of transmission, and is not directed towards the extension of messages in space, but towards the maintenance of society across time (p. 18).  In this context, a ritual production of communal small-group grouping is also part of the traditional tertiary pedagogical learning environment in which members of a cohort are encouraged and facilitated to identify as members, whether in the face-to-face site of the lecture theatre (positioned as an audience) or the seminar (positioned as contributors) or submitters of assessment (positioned in full knowledge as being among a group who are undertaking simultaneous exercises); likewise in online environments in which students are encouraged towards the communal as participants, say, in a forum available through an  online learning management system or an online tutorial.  Much as media publications assume a consensus among readers and audiences and thereby invest audience members with an impression of consensus (Philo, 1993. p. 255), student membership of a cohort actively encourages identification both as and with the cohort as a community. Discussing the praxis of community, Etienne Wenger (1998) notes that two readers of the same text share a “mutual link to a common readership [that] creates a kind of community to which they see themselves as belonging” (p. 182).  This sort of community, for Wenger, does not necessarily involve mutual relations between the readers, but an imagined conception of a viewing or reading membership (p. 181).  Likewise, students may not necessarily engage communicatively with each other but in the context of being positioned as students commonly undertaking a course are encouraged to see themselves, and therefore their experience of the learning environment, through community.  The use of social networking which, likewise, has a networked community formation, encourages such participatory thinking.

Although neither the transmission nor the ritual perspectives on the role of the communicative user or student (as sender-receiver; as communication fellowship) entirely precludes interactivity, it remains that the transmission model is lodged in a sense of the primacy of one-way communication, and the ritual understanding one which sees communication as participatory, but ultimately for the organisation and management of the group (rather than the text or the creative output).  I argue, however, that the co-creative audience produced through ostensible, active or passive interactivity constitutes a third position (Cover, 2004; Cover, 2006), one which is not regularly invoked in either transmissional or participatory notions of pedagogy but which is made apparent in the use of Facebook in education in spite of the ethical concerns and/or productivity of the multiplicity of audiences for student work and utterances.  It is this third position or view that works to blur the distinction between author, text and audience by suggesting that such a distinction is a false one which, by cultural signification or by technological availability, has attempted to shore up the idea of the author or student as one of controller and authority over their own production and utterances and has simultaneously attempted to assert the unity, coherence and completion of the text.  Although something of a buzz word of the late 1990s, the concept of co-creative interactivity invokes notions of both empowerment and threat, of new oppositions to media and communications industries and of new means by which authors, audiences and co-creators can access, control and manipulate a text (Downes & McMillan, 2000). It thus allows not only a multiplicity of voices but new ways in which an author-audience member can utilise and articulate voice.  Important here is where, how and in what context that voice—the voice of the student—is made and is made intelligible.  By having voice (doing assignments, uploading work, uttering comments on texts and learning materials) that voice is ‘heard’ by non-student peers and operates as a form of cultural pedagogy through an interactivity that could not occur without Facebook, thereby positioning the student more fully with a sense of student identity.

Conclusion: Facebook as a Site of Endemic Multiplicity and Identity

Pedagogy, for Giroux (2004b, p. 66), is always best understood as contextual, and yet context is never to be understood as a form of containment (Giroux, 2003, p. 10).  Rather, what digital interactivity in the form of multiple co-creativities as foundational to the principles of social networking  offers is the capacity for a learning experience that, on the one hand, places the context of institutional education into juxtaposition with the everyday experience of sociality (and vice versa) and, on the other, puts permanently into question the modern figures of communication—authorship, textuality, dissemination, audiencehood—that call upon subjects to position themselves performatively with identities that are located at specific points on a simple communication process chain.  By looking to the co-creative interactivity that underlies social networking and that operates to undo notions of unitary spheres of reception and dichotomous public/private distinctions, the use of Facebook as a course-based learning tool not only brings the everyday into study in useful pedagogical ways but calls upon students to critique their identity as students.

In advancing our understanding of the relationship between social networking (and other pedagogical activities both in formal educational settings and in everyday cultural relationalities) and the performance of identity within contemporary cultural norms, structures and frameworks, it is important to bear in mind that social networking uses, activities, changes, updates and management of textual distribution are not only conscious representations and choices made for access, but simultaneously activities or performances which construct identity and selfhood.  The key task of a pedagogy that tacitly invokes questions of identity is to shift identity from that of ‘student’ to ‘scholar’ whereby, in Giroux’s cultural pedagogies framework, a scholarly identity is one which sees the boundary between institutionalised education, vocational and professional outcomes and everyday sociality as permanently blurred.


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Thomas Apperley & Christopher S. Walsh

Published Online: January 23, 2014
Full Text: HTML, PDF (199 KB)

Editorial: A commitment to remaining open access

When Digital Culture & Education was conceived in 2006, as an output of the Australian Research Council Linkage project ‘Literacy in the digital world of the 21st century: Learning from computer games’, open access publishing was not receiving the attention it does today. Our motivation for publishing DCE as an open access journal was simple.  We wanted to make all articles available to education practitioners—especially classroom teachers—who might not have access to an academic library, and to scholars from institutions who are unable to fund that access. Open access was, for us, a way of disrupting the hegemony of academic publishing (Walsh and Kamler, 2013) to intentionally reach a wider audience, particularly anyone who might find the work published in Digital Culture & Education useful. Since 2006, the discussions and debates around scholarly open access publishing have become considerably more politicised.

Various models of open access are postulated, particularly the ‘gold’ and ‘green’ models. Gold includes many types of journals, including Digital Culture & Education. However, the notion of charging a fee to support ‘gold’ publication has become widely adopted by the scholarly publishing industry; in essence it means that existing publishing systems will continue, with scholars who can afford the fee (or their institutions) being charged to make a book, article or chapter open access (although some publishers will waive fees in certain cases).  For example, Computers and Education charges USD$1800[1] to make an article open access and for Taylor & Francis Open Select and Routledge Open Select, the fee is USD$2,950 (£1,788 / €2,150).[2] The ‘green’ model allows scholars to distribute their work through institutional depositories, in the form of a final draft or proof of the published article. Both of these models suggest open access can be easily accommodated into the academic publishing industry. Indeed, they solve some of the problems around access to research which we were initially concerned with when we founded Digital Culture & Education. But, as we see it, the problems has moved from one of access to research, to one actually shaping who has access to a readership for their research. Neither ‘gold’ open access, when it relies on scholars’ own money, nor ‘green’ open access that is based on membership of scholarly institutions are without problems.

Digital Culture & Education provides access to ‘gold’ open access, without charging any fees. All work is both published and distributed through Digital Culture & Education, avoiding both issues of cost and access to institutions.  We do plan some changes to our current system in order to accommodate scholars who are required to utilise ‘green’ models. From 2014 we will switch to a creative commons licensing, which we hope will greatly simplify the process of uploading articles and reviews to institutional depositories.

The initial funding for DCE’s website came from the Australian Research Council. But it must also be acknowledged that all of the ongoing labour and cost associated with producing an actual issue two or three times a year is voluntarily. The authors, cover artists, peer reviewers, the editorial board, special issue editors, and particularly our copy editor Jesse Ko, have all contributed to the journal without payment. Not only could we not publish any issue without them, we cannot afford to pay them. It is this dedicated and charitable labour that allows Digital Culture & Education to be open access, and we are extremely grateful to all who have contributed over our first five years.

This issue has cover art from Sydney-based artist Jacquelene Drinkall, and contains four articles, an interview and a book review. Joey J. Lee’s article ‘Game mechanics to promote new understandings of identity and ethnic minority stereotypes’ examines racial stereotypes in digital games and considers how ‘identity supportive games’ can be created, that promote new understandings of identity. In ‘mLearning solutions for international development – rethinking the thinking’, John Traxler examines how mLearning in international development is shifting from being driven by practitioners, activists and researchers to becoming a tool deployed by agencies, corporations and policymakers, and the methodological and pedagogical impact of this transformation. Ben Abraham’s article ‘Fedora shaming as discursive activism’ is a case study of a unique Tumblr community that focused on critiquing a phenomena among users of OK Cupid – the marked association between users wearing fedora hats in their profile pictures and having particularly sexist subtexts in their profile. Judy Kalman’s article ‘Beyond common explanations: Incorporating digital technology and culture into classrooms in México’ examines the strategies that teachers use to incorporate technology into their classroom practice and curriculum, while dealing with the particular constraints of their institution and the limits of their own expertise.

The issue also includes an interview with Dr. Margaret Kily by Lucy Van. This interview outlines changes taking place in Australian higher education, particularly Kiley’s research on the current introduction of coursework to PhD study in Australia. The issue ends with a review essay of Jussi Parikka’s book What is Media Archaeology? by Benjamin Nicoll.


Walsh, C.S. and Kamler, B. (2013). Teacher research on literacy: Turning around to students and technology. In (Eds). K. Hall, T. Cremin, B. Comber and L. Moll. International Handbook of research in Children’s Literacy, Learning and Culture. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, p. 499-513. DOI: 10.1002/9781118323342.ch36.

[1] See Computers & Education’s guide for authors: http://www.elsevier.com/journals/computers-and-education/0360-1315/guide-for-authors

[2] See Taylor & Francis Online’s Information for funders & institutions: http://www.tandfonline.com/page/openaccess/funders

Joey J. Lee

Published Online: December 5, 2013
Full Text: HTML, PDF (1.1 MB)


The following paper discusses the design, creation, and evaluation of a new class of digital games, Identity Supportive Games, as a tool to promote new understandings of self-identity and ethnic minority stereotypes.  In particular, aspects of the Asian-American experience, including the effects of Asian stereotypes like the “Model Minority” myth, were targeted.  In this design-based research study, qualitative and quantitative data sources explored the impact of game mechanics within Identity Supportive Games on both Asian-American and Non-Asian participants.  Items investigated include: perceptions of Asian-American stereotypes, the ability to promote reflections and thoughts on self-identities and goals, the learning of facts regarding the Asian-American experience, and new understandings of Asian-American culture.

Keywords: Social issue games, identity, ethnic minorities, stereotypes

In a digital age where 97% of all American teenagers play computer, web, portable, or console games (Lenhart et al., 2008), there is a need to better understand the potential of using video games as a tool to support positive youth identity development in the face of racial and societal stereotypes that can be damaging and limiting in social and psychological ways (e.g., Sue & Sue, 2006; Mok, 1998; Cheryan & Bodenhausen, 2000). To date, very few game-based interventions for addressing cultural identity formation and the mitigation of stereotype threat (Steele, 1997) exist. Instead, stereotypical images and roles are pervasive in the most popular commercial video games, including African-Americans depicted frequently as gang members and athletes (Consalvo, 2010) and women portrayed as damsels in distress or hypersexualised objects (Lee et al., 2006). Digital games often embody values that reinforce stereotypes and stereotypical behaviour (e.g., ethnic minorities that engage in violent and delinquent behaviour in games like Rockstar Games’ popular yet controversial Grand Theft Auto titles) (Flanagan, et al. 2007). In this study, game mechanics were created and tested in two digital mini-games to explore the possibility of mitigating stereotyping of the Asian-American community, providing implications for extending the process to other populations as well.

Focusing on Asian-American culture, the fastest growing racial/ethnic group in America (Humes et al., 2011), is strategic for several reasons. Despite commonly being labelled as a “Model Minority” group that regularly achieves academic success, Asian-American youth often face serious issues and challenges in society that largely go unnoticed and unaddressed. These include: (1) the effects of widespread stereotypes, some of which are overtly negative (e.g., “Asian men are emasculated, passive individuals unfit for leadership positions”) (Mok, 1998; Kim & Yeh, 2002) and other stereotypes that may seem positive initially, but are in fact damaging or limiting (e.g., “Asians are exceptionally smart nerds who are great at math and science”) (Lee and Zhou, 2004); (2) a “toxic shame” culture that masks real problems that need to be addressed, including the stigma of mental illnesses (Yoon & Jepson, 2008); (3) “invisible” Asian groups masked by the Model Minority image who tend to struggle at the bottom of the academic curve yet are denied the assistance they need to improve (Walker-Moffet, 1995); (4) parental, cultural, and societal pressures to succeed and meet sometimes unrealistically high expectations of the “Model Minority” image (Wang & Lin, 2005; Lee, 1996; Cheryan & Bodenhausen, 2000), sometimes leading to depression, mental illnesses, and relatively high rates of suicide (Cohen, 2007); and (5) the “caught between two worlds” cultural clash between traditional Eastern and Western values that leads to role confusion and identity crisis (Erikson, 1968). There is a need for a broader awareness of issues and problems facing Asian-Americans today, as well as novel strategies for ethnic minority identity development and self-empowerment.

Digital games can be designed to have intrinsic properties that may be promising for addressing this need. Games can be experiential; they can deliver powerful first-hand learning experiences in ways that are unavailable in real life (Barab et al., 2006). Games can offer direct feedback; they can get players to see immediate consequences to their actions (Chen, 2007). Games are typically a safe place to experiment and fail (Gee, 2007); they permit players to safely try out behaviours and strategies without fear of judgment. Games can naturally afford new perspectives and opportunities for empathy (Bers, 2001; Gee, 2005); they allow players to take on new perspectives and to see the world from this new lens. Finally, games offer the potential for powerful identity play, self-representations and self-exploration (e.g., Kafai, Fields & Cook, 2010; Turkle, 1995); the experiences that occur within these environments can yield powerful insights and reflections about oneself.

This article presents a design-based research study exploring how digital game mechanics can be designed to promote new understandings of identity and ethnic minority stereotypes. The overarching research question is: can game mechanics be used to promote new understandings of identity and ethnic minority stereotypes? The paper begins with a discussion of the issues that Asian-Americans face, including the unanticipated consequences of various stereotypes perpetuated by media and society. Next, it presents the opportunity of using digital games and why game mechanics can be utilised to address the need described above. This is followed by the design process, creation, and evaluation of Identity Supportive Games, a new class of Serious Games that targets the central issues related to the Asian-American experience captured by a survey and focus group session. Specifically, the study focuses on the ability of the game mechanics to shift perceptions and clarify misconceptions regarding Asian culture and stereotypes, the effectiveness of the games as an educational tool to improve knowledge of facts related to Asian culture, and the ability of the games to promote reflections and new understandings of self-identity.

Background and Need

Asian stereotypes are frequently perpetuated in media and pop culture, portraying images of Asians in movies and television shows such as Model Minority, nerd, overachiever, studious, mystic warrior, socially awkward, perpetual foreigner, bad leader, hypersexualised female, and effeminate male (e.g., Lee, 1996; Mok, 1998; Lee & Zhou, 2004; Kim & Yeh, 2002).  Yee (1992) has argued that portrayals of Asian-Americans are dualistic in that they tend to alternate from extremely positive (e.g. wise sages, exemplary citizens) to extremely negative (e.g. sadistic executioners, sly villains).  Yee has hypothesised that American attitudes toward Asians carry strong evaluations of Asians as alien competitors of two forms: exemplary and pernicious. He believes that these stereotypes have the power not only to influence attitudes and behaviours toward Asian-Americans, but also to influence the attitudes and behaviour of Asians themselves.

Stereotypes may also lead to subtle or direct forms of racism or discrimination against Asian-Americans that limit workplace opportunities and career advancement.  Negative perceptions of Asians’ capability and likelihood of success in managerial and leadership positions have led to a glass-ceiling effect dubbed the Bamboo Ceiling (Hyun, 2005): Asian-American men with equivalent or superior education and experience levels receive less income and access to resources (Fisher et al., 2000; Lee, 1996) and are excluded from upper managerial jobs on the basis of subjective factors such as ‘lack of leadership potential’ or ‘inferior communication ability’ (Cheng & Thatchenkery, 1997; Wong and Nagasawa, 1991).  A study by the Anti-Defamation League found that compared to other ethnicities, Americans do not want to work for Asian-American CEOs and would feel uncomfortable voting for an Asian-American presidential candidate (ADL, 2001).  Furthermore, the notion that Asian-Americans are hard workers who rarely complain has often led to the exploitation of Asian-American employees (Choi & Chen, 1996).

Stereotypes assigned to Asian-Americans can also create resentment or conflicts among peers.  Fisher et al. (2000) found higher levels of distress from peer discrimination in Chinese and Korean students than in African Americans, Hispanics, and Whites.  In extreme cases, stereotypes and beliefs related to race and ethnicity can lead to violence and racially motivated hate-crimes, such as the case of Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American murdered by two White men who lost their jobs.  According to a recent FBI Hate Crime Statistics report, more than 65% of hate crimes were related to race and ethnicity (FBI, 2007).  Stereotypes can lead people to assume characteristics about an individual, even if entirely unfair or untrue.  A better understanding of areas of common ground and cultural differences may help to reduce the presence of negative or inaccurate stereotypes, which may in turn reduce violence or hate crimes.

A review of the social psychological literature has also shown that stereotypes can affect both short-term academic performance and long-term identity.  Steele (1997) describes stereotype threat, a phenomenon in which academic performance is depressed when negative stereotypes about a group are evoked.  This phenomenon, replicated in over 100 studies in the last decade, has a direct and immediate effect on a testing situation that evokes it, as well as a cumulative erosive effect over time that influences both intellectual performance and a longer-term sense of identity (Steele, 1997).  Stereotypes can also lead to increased self-imposed pressure and emotional distress (e.g., Kim & Yeh, 2002).

What about the effects of seemingly beneficial or ‘good’ stereotypes?  Prejudice (in the form of preferential treatment or high expectations) can also work in favour of an Asian-American in certain contexts, but interestingly, even these seemingly positive attributions often cause detrimental effects that are not readily apparent.  For example, the belief that Asian-American students are intelligent and hardworking may cause a teacher to grade more positively.  In the long run, however, harmful side effects often develop.  A student may strive to maintain his or her hardworking image by being obedient and conforming, pigeonholing himself or herself, or else a student who rebels against these stereotype-driven expectations faces the wrath of his teachers for violating their notions or expectations of a ‘good’ Asian (Sue & Sue, 2006).  Furthermore, Asian-Americans who do not perform well academically are often denied the assistance they need to improve (NCAAPIRE, 2008).  While certain Asian-American groups of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese descent have been relatively successful, the Model Minority stereotype masks the fact that many Asians (particularly those from Southeast Asian countries like Laotian, Hmong, Cambodia) actually fall into the highest poverty rate and lowest academic success rate levels (NCAAPIRE, 2008).  Stereotypes can often render these students invisible.

Evidently, damaging consequences are not limited to overtly negative stereotypes, but to seemingly complimentary or positive ones as well.  Research findings suggest that stereotypes can increase anxiety, stress and expectations to succeed, while negatively affecting academic performance (Lee, 1996; Cheryan & Bodenhausen, 2000).  Furthermore, in terms of shaping self-concept, Asian-Americans are constantly reminded that they are anything but ‘normal.’  (Wong et al. 1998; Kim, 1997; Oyserman, 2006; Kawai, 2005; Mok, 1998).  Asian-Americans may start to believe these perceptions and internalise stereotypes held about their group as a result of a Reflected Self phenomenon in which they come to see themselves as they believe others see them (Tice & Wallace, 2003).  Finally, Asian-Americans must confront a cultural clash caused by being situated in two completely different worlds in direct conflict: an Asian heritage and its value system colliding with a Western value system.

Consequences of Identity Crisis: Caught Between Two Worlds

Erikson (1968) coined the term identity crisis to describe the most important conflict human beings encounter as they go through eight developmental stages in life.  According to Erikson, an identity crisis is a time of intensive analysis and exploration of different ways of looking at oneself, struggling between feelings of identity versus role confusion.  Marcia (1968; 1993) extended Erikson’s work, describing identity achievement as the most secure identity status, i.e., commitment to a secure identity.

Asian-Americans face an additional challenge as they go through the developmental process of formulating identity achievement, as the challenge of negotiating between two clashing worldviews further exacerbates identity crisis (Sue & Sue, 2006).  As Lee and Zhou (2004) put it, “native-born Asian-Americans find themselves caught between two vastly different worlds and at ease with neither” (p. 14).  American and Asian cultures generally have contradictory values and standards over several fundamental issues including risk aversion, individualism/collectivism, power distance, and other civil liberties (Hofstede, 1980).  In heavily Confucian-influenced Asian nations, for example, parents typically exert strong, heavy-handed control over children, guiding important choices in their lives, including constraints on possible career choices (Leong & Serafica, 1995).  Emphasis is placed on obedience to authority and elders, obtaining a good education, and giving the family a ‘good’ name, which tends to result in greater passivity and less autonomy in individuals (Sue & Sue, 2006).  Simultaneously, Western values assail Asian-Americans on multiple fronts including mass media, peer circles, and schools.  Emphasis on individual personal freedoms, assertiveness, spontaneity, and risk-taking can be in direct conflict with Asian values of deference and reserve (Hofstede, 1980).

The consequences of identity crisis and being caught in between two vastly different worlds are multifaceted.  Some Asian-Americans struggle to find their role in society.  They must wrestle with their sense of self-worth and identity, and how much to listen to (or reject) various influences pulling in multiple directions: cultural and parental pressures, peers, stereotypes and societal expectations of what niches are appropriate or desirable for Asians, etc. (Wang & Lin, 2005; Leong & Serafica, 1995).  Concurrently, Asian-Americans must deal with pressures to succeed and high expectations to live up to the smart, hard-working “model minority” image (Cheryan & Bodnehausen, 2000; Lee, 1994).  These pressures and other reasons can often lead to a host of self-image and mental problems, including lower self-esteem and a distorted sense of self-worth (Cohen, 2007; Sue & Sue, 2004).

There is a need to allow Asian-Americans to understand, overcome, and take ownership over stereotypes that can adversely shape their self-concepts and social identities.  Along with a need for novel strategies for ethnic minority identity development and self-empowerment, there is also a need for a broader understanding and awareness of issues and problems facing Asian-Americans today.

A possible tool to address issues of identity and stereotypes

A possible approach is to allow exploration of both identity and sociocultural issues is the use of digital games.  In recent years, digital games have gained acceptance as a means to educate, promote new ways of thinking, and change perceptions and opinions (e.g., Bogost, 2007).  The following section discusses how digital games can be designed with mechanics and dynamics that can make them an effective strategy for addressing issues of stereotypes.

Using digital games to promote new cultural understandings

Games are useful in the ways in which they can allow people to reflect on their own identities, fantasies, and hopes in the world (Gee, 2005).  The experiential nature of digital games combined with the emotional investment of identity play offer an opportunity to increase one’s empathy toward a group.  For example, people who are not Asian-American can experience the effects of specific Asian-American stereotypes in a simulated way.  These kinds of games can raise awareness about important issues or persuade individuals to take a particular stance on various issues (Bogost, 2007).

Similarly, role-play elements found in many games are useful for allowing players to take on new perspectives.  Players see the world through unique new lenses as they embody a game’s playable characters—for instance, soldiers in the U.S. Army in a game like America’s Army, doctors who must properly diagnose patients in a virtual Heart Murnur Sim, or possibly (in this context) ethnic minorities who must confront and negotiate cultural stereotypes. Taking on new perspectives while playing realistic game characters is a natural opportunity for people to explore new values and ways of thinking, and to open up new epistemic frames or future learning trajectories (Shaffer, 2005).

The immediate feedback and content that can be delivered in a simulated and experiential way can lead to important forms of cultural learning: myths can be debunked, misunderstandings clarified, and naïve views can be replaced with more sophisticated understandings of Asian culture.  Players may develop a heightened sense of cultural sensitivity as a result of these experiences.

Toward a working game design

It is important to explore how game designs can be used as tools for better understandings of cultural issues, and to go a step beyond that: to determine how technology can support identity development.  The following section discusses the design process of creating two games that promote self-reflection, positive identity support, and new cultural understandings.

A new form of social issue game design, Identity Supportive Games (hereafter called ISGs), was created to target self-reflection, identity development, and new cultural understandings.  This design is based upon studies of identity-based learning (e.g., Lee & Hoadley, 2007) and social psychological literature on possible selves (e.g., Markus & Nurius, 1986), stereotypes (e.g., Cheryan & Bodenhausen, 2000; Sue et al., 2007), and digital game-based identity play (Turkle, 1995; Gee, 2005)

An ISG is a digital experience that incorporates game mechanics and dynamics that are specifically designed to:

  • Allow young people to reflect upon their self-concept and possible selves (Markus & Nurius, 1986)
  • Provide support for identity formation and development towards identity-achievement (Phinney, 1993; Marcia, 1966, 1980) by clarifying and improving perceptions of one’s self-concept and goals
  • Allow young people to try on new identities and refine their existing identity via fluid, malleable identity play (Bers, 2001; Turkle, 1995)
  • Allow young people to challenge assumptions and confront negative forces that cause unwanted behaviour (e.g., raising awareness of, and encouraging a person to take ownership over limiting, damaging stereotypes)

In this way, ISGs serve as social simulations designed to target real-world themes and important social issues including ethnic minority discrimination and the consequences of allowing ethnic minority stereotypes to go unchecked.  They provide a relatively safe environment for individuals to explore aspects of their self-concepts and to learn new truths about a specific culture.  Understanding one’s identity, including one’s unique strengths and goals, is important for a person to ultimately develop a positive self-concept about who he or she is.

Game Design, Data Collection and Methodology

The first cycle of a mixed-methods Design-Based Research (DBR) approach (Barab & Squire, 2004; DBRC, 2003) was used in order to capture a rich picture of the design and evaluation process of Identity Supportive Games. This study was broken into two phases: (1) a requirements-gathering phase to help with the brainstorming and initial design of the games, and (2) a play-test and data-gathering phase. For the first phase, a survey, focus group session, and iterative paper prototyping technique was used to determine the requirements and features of the game design. For the second phase, three main data collection strategies were used: (1) a pre- and post-survey given before and after gameplay; (2) real-time feedback in the form of ‘thinkalouds’ and server-side game logs during gameplay, and (3) focused semi-structured interviews.

The purpose of the study was to better understand how mechanics in digital games could play a role in supporting identities and promoting reflection and learning about an ethnic minority culture.  The study includes descriptive work of what participants believe about ethnic stereotypes, how they view themselves in relation to ethnic stereotypes, and how they define their own self–identities.  As a design-based study, it contributes an important first step of investigating how game mechanics can help participants learn (about cultures and about selves) and also offer a window into how technology may help participants move closer towards identity achievement (Phinney, 1993; Phinney, 1990; Marcia, 1966), a complex multistep process.

Phase One: Identifying Content Requirements, Feedback and Brainstorming

As a DBR study, a primary goal was to embody theories into game mechanics and to build new theory.  To identify the content to include in the games, the most pressing issues related to the Asian-American experience were identified.  Informed by a literature review on Asian stereotypes and their consequences, a survey and focus group session was completed to capture existing assumptions, conceptions, and stereotypes related to Asian issues and culture as well as what Asian participants perceived to be the most important aspects of their ethnic and social identity.

The initial survey was administered in an online format to thirty-two Non-Asian undergraduate students who were enrolled in a junior level technology course.  All survey participants were given a gift certificate for ice cream and were entered in a prize drawing to win a gift certificate at an online retailer.

The survey contained five open response questions that allowed the researcher to explore participants’ existing assumptions, conceptions, and stereotypes related to Asian issues and culture.  The first question tested survey respondents’ awareness of diversity in terms of Asian countries in the world: “In your estimation, how many Asian countries are there in the world?”  The correct answer of 47 was rarely obtained; for the thirty-two survey respondents, the mean number of Asian countries was determined to be 23.07 (SD=12.86).  When asked, “What words come to mind when you think of people of Asian descent?” Non-Asian survey respondents listed their conceptions about Asian culture, describing several words that were consistent with existing literature on Asian stereotypes (e.g. Mok, 1998; Kim & Yeh, 2002).   Participants were also asked: “What are common beliefs that people have of the Asian ethnicity?”  “What aspects of Asian and Asian-American culture are positive?” And “What aspects of Asian and Asian-American culture are negative?”

Various themes emerged from the open response items, including Asians as a group that is considered smart, a Model Minority, having abnormal physical characteristics, good at math, science, or technology, foreign, and so on. See Table 1. below for a breakdown of various themes from the survey respondents.

Themes Participants supporting this theme Examples
smart P2, P7, P8, P9, P15, P17, P19, P20, P21, P25, P31 “intelligent,” “very smart,”
lack of awareness of unique Asian countries beyond China, Japan, and Korea P2, P4, P17, P18, P20, P23, P24, P30 “I think of China and Japan,” “China, Japan, and Korea”
Model Minority P3, P6, P7, P12, P15, P21, P23, P32 “overachievers,” “hardworking,” “industrious,” “diligence,” “They study more than most people.”
abnormal physical features P3, P7, P8, P12, P16, P22, P26, P27, P31 “squinty eyes,” “very skinny, short,” “slanted eyes,” “undersized penises”
good at math, science, or technology P1, P3, P4, P10, P11, P12, P13, P29 “good at math,” “science,” “tech support,” “good at math and computers,” “math wizards”
strange/”other”/foreign P2, P7, P16, P22, P26, P27, P29, P31 “accent,” “strange,” “immigrants,” “not as willing to assimilate into American culture,” “They eat very weird food”
Parental pressure/respect of authority/elders P3, P4, P9, P16, P26, P32 “strict parents, ” “respect of elders”
martial arts P4, P5, P9, P27, P30 “martial arts,” “samurai”

Table 1. Non-Asian survey responses on their conceptions of Asian people.

The survey data was used to inform a focus group session centred on Asian-American themes and issues, exploring how stereotypes are embedded in life experiences and how they are negotiated in formulating one’s ethnic identity and self-concept.  As part of an Asian-themed social event sponsored by an undergraduate student organisation at a large public university, a group of 11 undergraduate students (8 male, 3 female) participated in a one-hour focus group session. Of these students, 7 self-identified as Asian-American (having mostly grown up in the Eastern cities and suburbs of the United States), 2 as African-American, and 2 Caucasian (one Hispanic male from Guatemala and one non-Hispanic female from Pennsylvania).

Focus group participants were shown a short video of various Asian-American depictions in the media (e.g., actor John Cho’s depiction of Harold from the recent film Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and the character of Hideki played by actor Bobby Lee in MadTV’s Average Asian sketch). Afterwards they were prompted to discuss their personal experiences growing up as their race/ethnicity and also their perceptions of any issues facing those of Asian ethnicity.

The most important issues that emerged from the focus group session were: (1) the challenge and negative implications of attempting to meet high expectations or demands of parents, peers, and society; (2) the tension that exists when a person’s self-concept does not align with societal or individual stereotypes that explicitly or implicitly label the person, including seemingly positive labels such as ‘smart’ or ‘good at math’; (3) limited possible selves as a result of stereotypes; and (4) a tendency for Non-Asians view Asians as a form of ‘perpetual foreigner’ that is unable to assimilate; the view that an Asian is an “alien” or “other,” i.e. not mainstream or normal.

From the survey and focus group results, game mechanics were created and embedded into two game prototypes created to incorporate the most important issues identified by the participants: Flying Asian Stereotypes! and A-Culture-Rate.  The games were developed following an iterative paper prototyping design process (Fullerton, 2008).  The following section will discuss details of the two game designs.

Embedding game mechanics into game prototypes

Flying Asian Stereotypes! Game

The Flying Asian Stereotypes! Game was designed as an open-ended ‘sandbox’ platform game intended to promote identity reflection and consideration of the implications of being labelled by stereotypes.  Based upon Markus and Nurius’ (1986) notion of possible selves, the participant, playing as an Asian-American character in the game, must frequently make decisions throughout the game to determine what kind of identities he or she perceives to be realistic, desirable, or undesirable for himself or herself.   These choices, which represent various strategies for identity refinement, affect the avatar’s appearance and abilities within the game.

Basic Rules and Gameplay. The basic gameplay is relatively simple.  Specific stereotypes related to Asian-American identity are reified within the game as projectiles that are thrown towards the character.  The player can choose to dodge or touch the stereotype projectiles, symbolising the avoidance or internalisation of stereotypes.  As stereotypes collide with the character, the player can see the effects of these stereotypes; the character’s appearance changes accordingly and gameplay is affected (e.g., in-game behaviour and how the player is spoken to).  For example, if the player is hit with ‘Parental Pressure’, then the character’s movement becomes slower as a result of less freedom and control, and he or she is constantly told to study harder or that their academic performance is not good enough.  If the player chooses to become a ‘Nerd’, then the character is viewed as nerdy (e.g. avatar takes on thick glasses) and is constantly told remarks (e.g., presented with common microaggressions or microinvalidations (Sue, et al., 2007)) about Asian intelligence.  Other stereotypes and forces within the game, based upon the literature review and from survey and focus group results, include ‘Model Minority,’ ‘bad leaders,’ ‘lacks social skills,’ ‘knows kung fu,’ ‘perpetual foreigner,’ ‘low self-esteem,’ ‘evil gangster,’ ‘bad romantic partner,’ etc. (e.g., Lee, 1996; Mok, 1998; Lee & Zhou, 2004).

As a ‘sandbox’ environment, the game world is open-ended in the sense that there are many ways to play.   There is no predefined win or lose condition; the player can choose to create any identity as he or she wishes.  No one solution is clearly better than the other, so the game is designed intentionally to allow players to reflect upon their self-concept, to explore different kinds of identities, and to decide how stereotypes may or may not play a role in their lives.


Figure 1. Intro screen to Flying Asian Stereotypes! Game.

This first game design had three specific objectives: (1) allow for identity reflection and exploration; (2) educate players of all backgrounds about Asian and Asian-American issues by addressing common misconceptions and presenting facts; and (3) to give a simulated experience of what it is like to be labelled Asian stereotypes and assumptions that may not necessarily be true for the player.

Design of Flying Asian Stereotypes! Experience. Below are sample images from the game.  Figure 2. depicts a simple set of instructions for how to play.  Once the player begins the game, he or she is given a set of choices in the form of several blue ‘Identity Choice’ stars (Figure 3.) that generally represent opposing traits (e.g. social skills vs. shyness) that correspond to stereotypes of Asian and American culture.  Throughout the game, the player is presented with messages associated with the Asian stereotype with which the player has been labelled.  In the screenshot below (Figure 4.), a stereotype (e.g. ‘Nerd’) approaches and the player must decide whether or not to allow each stereotype to label them.    Depending on the stereotypes that have been activated, the player may see spoken messages such as “Do you know Kung Fu?” “You’re Asian? You must be good at math!” “How come you’re so smart?” “You’re a bad romantic partner,” or several other messages associated with each stereotype.


Figure 2.  Instructions for how to play.


Figure 3. Player chooses between Identity Choice stars to construct identities.

Because there is no right or wrong way to play, players are free to explore the environment and to reflect upon their own identity goals as they create various hypothetical identities. Players can also earn ‘happiness points’ by collecting smiley faces, although being hit with low self-esteem or parental pressure can lower one’s happiness score. Five lesser known facts about Asian culture, specifically chosen to debunk common stereotypes regarding Asian culture, were distributed throughout the environment (represented by the green letter ‘F’). The five facts address the following: (1) the innate diversity of Asian countries, comprising 47 countries each with its own unique traditions, customs, history, and values; (2) the perpetual foreigner (unassimilable alien) phenomenon; (3) the unanticipated consequences of the model minority image, increasing pressure and masking the problems and needs of underperforming Asian students (including some members of Southeast Asian groups); (4) the “bamboo ceiling” phenomenon; and (5) relatively high rates of suicide and depression for Asian-American women (see Figure 5. below for an example of an in-game fact).


Figure 4. Player may avoid or touch the ‘Nerd’ stereotype that is moving towards avatar.


Figure 5. Facts about Asian culture.

The game is meant to be educational for both Asian and Non-Asian players.  For Asians, it is meant to promote reflection of one’s identity and the role stereotypes have played in their lives, with the goal of helping them come to terms with the stereotypes.  For Non-Asians, the game offers a new experience of seeing what it may be like to be labelled various Asian stereotypes that may or may not be true for an individual.


Figure 6. A-Culture-Rate title screen.

Design Propositions and Game Mechanics for Flying Asian Stereotypes! Game. Based on previous pilot studies, four specific design propositions were tested in order to generate “theories-in-action” (Sandoval & Bell, 2004) about the Flying Asian Stereotypes! Game:

The following game mechanics, based upon theory, were embedded in the Flying Asian Stereotypes! Game:

  1. Letting people construct and enact identities relevant to ethnic stereotypes in an ISG can impact one’s self-concept positively.
  2. Making stereotypes explicit is good for letting people take ownership of these stereotypes.
  3. Awareness of possible selves via avatar play is good for identity support.
  4. Challenging one’s assumptions is good for learning.

The following game mechanics, based upon theory, were embedded in the Flying Asian Stereotypes! Game:

  1. Create new identities (based upon Possible Selves theory (Markus & Nurius, 1986) that are realistic, desirable, or undesirable selves, through Identity Choice stars and stereotype projectiles.
  2. Address Sue et al. (2007)’s notion of racial microaggressions (in the form of microinsults and microinvalidations) that are launched at the player.
  3. Gameplay (e.g. ability to move around in the environment quickly) affected by various aspects of Asian-American experience found in the literature, such as parental pressure, high rates of suicide, low self-esteem, etc. (Wang & Lin, 2005; Lee, 1996; Cheryan & Bodenhausen, 2000).

The following section will describe the design of the second game and present the results of how participants played each game.

The A-Culture-Rate Game

The second game, A-Culture-Rate (Figure 6) was based on the themes (from the focus group session and survey responses) of societal “otherisation” and Asians as perpetual foreigners, unable to assimilate or be perceived as mainstream or normal. The goal of the design was to deliver an experience that conveyed the consequences of otherisation, and getting a person to realise that it is not easy or beneficial to determine how acculturated a person is based upon physical appearance. As with the first game, participants felt that this game should be kept light-hearted and fun in order to make the issues of race and stereotyping more approachable while still being effective.

Basic Rules and Gameplay. The game design used a guessing mechanic that asked participants to guess acculturation scores and biographical information for ten people of Asian descent. Each in-game person was assigned acculturation scores based upon the Suinn-Lew Asian Self-Identity Acculturation (SL-ASIA) Scale (Suinn, 2010; Suinn, 1987). The game was intended to let players recognise their biases and stereotypes related to acculturation by letting them guess a person’s acculturation level and their personality traits, and then revealing what the person is truly like (i.e., their true acculturation score and a biography written by the person himself or herself).

Design of A-Culture-Rate Experience. Sample images from the game are shown below. Figure 7 shows the basic gameplay of the game. The player is presented with ten people, one at a time, and he or she determines the acculturation level of the person (based upon the SL-ASIA scale) by clicking on a number from 1 to 5. The player also enters in a yellow box a short description of their assumptions about the person based upon their physical appearance.


Figure 7. A-Culture-Rate gameplay.

Immediately after rating each person, the player is given feedback on the person’s true SL-ASIA acculturation score.  If the player guesses the value correctly, he or she is given 100 points.  If the player guesses incorrectly, the player loses a certain amount of points that corresponds to how close they were.  For example, if a player guesses “5” but the person was actually a “2,” then the player loses 300 points for being off by 3.

At the end of the game, the player is shown each person’s true biography compared to the text that they wrote for each person (e.g., Figure 8.).  Thus, the player is able to clearly see how their assumptions compare with reality.


Figure 8. Feedback allows players to compare their assumptions of people with their actual autobiographies.

Design Propositions for A-Culture-Rate. Specific design propositions were tested in order to generate “theories-in-action” (Sandoval & Bell, 2004) about the A-Culture-Rate Game:

  1. Allowing people to fail and make mistakes can be good for learning.
  2. Immediate feedback allows players to get general a sense that realise their assumptions of another culture may be wrong.
  3. Making assumptions explicit and then challenging them is good for learning about Asian-American culture.

The game design attempted to determine the best way for people to realise how their own assumptions may not be accurate.  Various game mechanics, integrating theory, were embedded in the A-Culture-Rate Game:

  1. Guess acculturation level based upon Suinn-Lew Asian Self-Identity Acculturation (SL-ASIA) Scale (Suinn, 2010; Suinn, 1987).
  2. Articulate assumptions about people and combating stereotypes by debunking these assumptions.
  3. Reflect upon one’s ability to guess acculturation level, before and after the game
  4. Viewpoints (a game score) to provide feedback about a player’s ability to accurately rate acculturation level.

Phase Two: Play-test and Data-Gathering

Upon designing and developing the two games, twenty-eight undergraduate students (21 male, 7 female) were recruited from a large public university for user play-testing and data collection. Participants were recruited using a purposive sampling strategy to obtain participants in three categories based on Asian acculturation level: (1) ten high acculturation second generation Asian-Americans, (2) four low acculturation first generation Asian immigrants, and (3) fourteen Non-Asians with minimal Asian experience.  The SL-ASIA instrument (Suinn, 2010; Suinn, 1987) was used to determine the level of Asian acculturation for each participant.  Phase Two consisted of multiple data sources: pre- and post- tests, real-time feedback in the form of think-alouds and server-side game logs during gameplay, and focused semi-structured interviews (see Figure 9. below). This section will discuss the data collected during Phase Two.


Figure 9. Study procedure.

Pre- and post-test items

An online pre- and post-test was designed to capture shifts in three areas: (1) knowledge of Asian culture, (2) perceptions and attitudes towards Asian issues and stereotypes, and (3) perceptions of self-identity in relation to stereotypes.  The knowledge questions were fact and content-based, exploring the accuracy of participants’ knowledge of Asian-American issues and culture. Perceptions/attitudes questions explored dimensions including perceived empathy and self-reported attitudes regarding specific stereotypes.  Self-concept questions investigated perceptions of their identities, self-esteem and pride in one’s ethnicity, and the role of stereotypes (e.g. how much they perceive specific stereotypes as applicable to their lives).

Pre- and post-tests had 95 items.  In terms of format, pre- and post-test questions were broken down into the following manner: thirteen open-response items, twenty-eight 7-point stereotype differential items (i.e., a technique introduced by Gardner et al., (1972)) that explored participants’ level of belief of a stereotype’s truthfulness pertaining to Asian-American men (e.g., rating Asian-American men on the a 7-point scale “not smart—smart”); twenty-eight stereotype differential items that explored one’s self-concept in relation to stereotypes; and twenty-six 7-point Likert scale type items.

In terms of content, questions broke down into five questions that tested factual knowledge about Asian culture (e.g., “How many Asian countries are there in the world?” to test understanding of Asian diversity); 43 questions (28 stereotype differential and 15 Likert scale items) that explored perceptions of Asian culture (e.g., “Asian-Americans are good at computational fields like math, science, or computers”); 33 questions (28 stereotype differential and 5 Likert scale-items) that explored perceptions of self-identity; and 14 miscellaneous questions that addressed perceived impact and aspects of the design.  The variables encountered in the analysis are listed in Table 2. below.

Independent Variables/Covariates Description
Acculturation Level 1=Non-Asian; 2=High Acculturation; 3=Low Acculturation
preQ1 Mean scores of the items on pre-test involving knowledge of Asian culture
preQ2 Mean scores of the items on pre-test involving

perceptions/attitudes towards Asian culture

preQ3 Mean scores of the items on pre-test involving

perceptions/attitudes self-identity

Dependent Variables Description
postQ1 Mean scores of the items on post-test involving knowledge of Asian culture
postQ2 Mean scores of the items on pre-test involving perceptions/attitudes towards Asian people/culture
postQ3 Mean scores of the items on pre-test involving self-identity
diff1 Difference from pretest to posttest in terms of knowledge of Asian culture (postQ1-preQ1)
diff2 Difference from pretest to posttest in terms of perceptions of Asian culture in relation to stereotypes (postQ2-preQ2)
diff3 Difference from pretest to posttest in terms of self-identity (postQ3-preQ3)

Table 2. Variable descriptions.

Participants were given pre-tests in paper format.  Completion of the pre-test took approximately 25-30 minutes per person. Within one to two weeks of completing the pre-test, individual participants were invited to play the two games. Participants were instructed to think aloud their thoughts, feelings, reactions, and reasoning process as they played. Using a server-side PHP script and ActionScript 3.0 code, server-side game logs also captured game play behaviour. On average, participants spent about forty minutes playing both games.

Participants were instructed to play Flying Asian Stereotypes! three rounds, each time constructing a different kind of identity.  Each identity construction corresponded to each of the three aspects of possible selves theory; i.e., “ideas corresponding to hopes, fears, standards, goals, and threats” of what a person might become, would like to become, and are afraid of becoming (Markus & Nurius, 1986, p. 954).  The first time, the student played the game as though the avatar was a realistic portrayal of himself or herself; i.e., while constructing an identity within the game, choices were made within the game based upon how he or she saw himself or herself in real life.  The second time, he or she constructed an identity of a person he or she is afraid of becoming (a feared self).  Finally, during the third time, the participant constructed an identity that they would like to become (an ideal self), even if not necessarily who they are in reality.  Following this game, participants played A-Culture-Rate once.

After playing the games, participants were given a post-test (in the form of an online survey) that very closely matched the original items on the pre-test. This post-test took approximately 25-30 minutes per person.  Finally, participants were given semi-structured interviews that explored the content within the games (e.g., “Was anything surprising as you played this game?” or “Did you learn anything from this game?”).  Participants were also asked general questions about the role of stereotypes in their lives, thoughts on self-concept and Asian culture, design feedback, and how to improve usability and user experience.

Results and Findings

This study focused on three primary research questions: (1) Do ISGs affect Asian students’ perceptions of self-identities in relationship to stereotypes? (2) Do ISGs promote new perceptions and understandings of Asian culture? Finally, (3) Are ISGs effective in educating players about facts regarding Asian culture and stereotypes? This section will present these findings from the study.

First, pre- and post-tests were analysed for general trends within and between groups.  38 of the Likert-scale items were reverse-coded in order to prepare them for analysis.  After completing analysing the quantitative data, qualitative data was analysed using a maximum variation sampling approach (Patton, 1990).  Open coding and a thematic analysis of interview data was performed.  The following section will discuss in greater detail the findings from this study.

1. ISGs provided new understandings of self.

To investigate the research question: do ISGs affect Asian students’ perceptions of self-identities in relationship to stereotypes? The 33 items on the pre- and post-tests were analysed to see whether the mechanics found within the games shifted perceptions of self-identities in relation to stereotypes.  To consider differences between the three groups, a fixed effects Analysis of Covariance (ANCOVA) model was applied with mean scores of the items on pre-test involving self-identity as a covariate to reduce the variance.

Descriptive Statistics

Dependent Variable: diff3 – Difference from pretest to posttest in terms of self-identity
Group Mean Std. Deviation N
1 -.071 .1316 14
2 .009 .3479 10
3 .250 .1364 4
Total .003 .2503 28
Tests of Between-Subjects Effects

Dependent Variable: diff3 – Difference from pretest to posttest in terms of self-identity

Source Type III Sum of Squares Df Mean Square F Sig. Partial Eta Squared
Corrected Model .897a 5 .179 4.966 .003 .530
Intercept .099 1 .099 2.732 .113 .110
Group .335 2 .167 4.631 .021 .296
preQ3 .077 1 .077 2.123 .159 .088
Group *preQ3 .318 2 .159 4.403 .025 .286
Error .795 22 .036
Total 1.692 28
Corrected Total 1.692 27
a. R Squared = .530 (Adjusted R Squared = .423)

Table 3.  Results of ANCOVA model.

The pre-test scores indicated that high acculturation second generation Asian-Americans (Group 2) had the highest score (M2 = 4.55), followed by Non-Asians (Group 1) (M1=4.44), and then low acculturation first generation Asians (Group 1) with the lowest (M3 = 3.94), which suggests high acculturation Asian-Americans initially had the highest relative awareness of how stereotypes played a role in their self-identities before playing the games.  Upon playing the games, the Estimated Marginal Means EMM table and plot indicated that Group 3 (low acculturation Asians) had the highest change in self-identity (M3 = 0.18), followed by Group 2, or high acculturation Asian-Americans, (M2 = 0.10), and then Group 1, or Non-Asians (M1 = -0.076). Thus, the ANCOVA model, controlling for individual scores on the pre-test, revealed that first generation Asians had the highest change in self-identity, followed by the second generation Asian-Americans (significant interaction effects between acculturation level and pre-test items involving self-identity, F(2,22) = 4.40, p < 0.05, ηp2 = 0.29).  As expected, Non-Asians had virtually no change in their self-identity.

Dependent Variable:diff3
95% Confidence Interval
Group Mean Std. Error Lower Bound Upper Bound
1 -.076a .051 -.183 .030
2 .103a .065 -.031 .238
3 .180a .195 -.224 .584
a. Covariates appearing in the model are evaluated at the following values: preQ3 = 4.410.

Table 4. Estimated marginal means.

Themes that emerged from semi-structured interviews also supported the finding that players were able to learn new understandings of themselves.  In several instances, players were able to reflect upon self-identities, verbalise goals and possible/future selves; for instance, Qing (names have been changed to pseudonyms), a first generation Asian male, discussed realisations and self-reflections from playing the games:Table 4. Estimated marginal means.

I learned about myself, especially when I played the second game, [creating] who you don’t want to be, and I kind of liked to explore myself.  I don’t want to be pressured by my parents, I don’t want to have low self-esteem, and I don’t want to be shy.  I want to be social. So I think I learned those things from the game.  (Qing, emphasis added)

Asian-American players were able to identify with the stereotypes and issues raised in the game.  For example, Evan, a second generation Asian-American male, described a greater sense of self-empowerment and ownership over stereotypes after playing the games:

Low self-esteem I hate that, really, a lot.  I think I suffer from that too… I do suffer from low self-esteem…Yeah, family pressures are pretty high…I guess it’s more important for me to be independent if I were to take care of my family… [the game experience] gives me more motivation to disprove Asian stereotypes. I’ve always had that motivation, but it makes me want to change things more now.  [Have] more initiative and try to not be defined by my school so much. (Evan, emphasis added)

2. ISGs promoted new perceptions and understandings of Asian culture.

To answer the second research question, do ISGs promote new perceptions and understandings of Asian culture? A paired-samples t-test was conducted on the 43 items on pre- and post-tests to compare perceptions of Asian culture before playing the games vs. after the games. There was a significant increase in the scores from pre-test (Mpre=3.74, SD=0.38) to post-test (Mpost=4.08, SD=0.43) conditions, t(27)=4.39, p < 0.0001. An increase in score indicates a shift away from believing stereotypes are universally true or accurate for Asians. These results suggest that the games help participants understand Asian stereotypes in a more nuanced, less essentialist way, and that they are not universally true (e.g., there may be individual differences).

To test for differences in perceptions of Asian culture between groups, a fixed effects Analysis of Covariance (ANCOVA) model was applied with the mean scores of pre-test items involving perceptions of Asian culture as a covariate to reduce the variance.  The ANCOVA model, which examined perceptions of Asian culture in relation to stereotypes, controlling for individual scores on the pre-test, revealed significant interaction effects between Group (level of Asian acculturation) and preQ2 (pre-test items that explored perceptions and understandings of Asian culture), F(2, 22) = 3.91, p < 0.05, ηp2 = 0.26. Group (level of Asian acculturation) was also found to be significant, F(2,22) = 4.21, p < 0.05, ηp2 = 0.28. To see which group scored higher, the Estimated Marginal Means (EMM) were inspected, which were adjusted to take into account the effect of the covariate (pre-test scores).

The EMM table and plot indicated that lower acculturation first generation Asians (Group 3) had the highest change from pre to post (M3 = 0.69), followed by Non-Asians (Group 1) (M1 = 0.37), and then higher acculturation second generation Asian-Americans (Group 2) (M2 = 0.23). Thus, low acculturation Asians shifted their perception of the accuracy of Asian stereotypes the most, followed by a smaller shift by Non-Asians, and a still smaller shift by higher acculturation second generation Asian-Americans. Originally, in the pre-test, Group 3 held the highest mean value for perceptions of Asian culture in line with stereotypes (M3 = 3.88), followed by Group 1 (M1 = 3.83), and then Group 2 (M2 = 3.55). Because Group 3 had the highest change and Group 1 had the lowest change, this may suggest that prior to gameplay, awareness of existing stereotypes were lowest for low acculturation Asians while high acculturation Asian-Americans were the most aware of the presence of these stereotypes.

Qualitative data from semi-structured interviews also supports the finding that participants gained new perspectives on Asian culture upon playing the games.

Yeah, I learned stuff about the suicide rate. I think I heard things about that before, I never thought about it though. And then the family pressures, I know a little bit about that just from talking to kids that are Asian. And I never really thought about, how it’s a common stereotype that people think Asians are smart, but it talked about the Laos and Cambodians were some of the most disadvantaged Asians, and I never really thought about them as Asian, but they are. It just shows how you don’t really know much unless you do your research. (Roger, Non-Asian male)

The suicide rate was very interesting, something I’d never think of. The other one, the one about Asians being more successful, but how some are actually in poverty, was really interesting…I think given the facts that were presented, yes, I think my stereotypes, what I think of what someone is a typical Asian changed a little bit. (Jake, Non-Asian male)

3. ISGs effectively educated players about facts regarding Asian culture and stereotypes

To answer the third research question, were ISGs effective in educating players about facts regarding Asian culture and stereotypes? A paired-samples t-test was conducted to compare knowledge of Asian culture before playing the two mini-games versus after playing the mini-games. There was a significant improvement in the scores for pre-test (Mpre=3.44, SD=0.82) and post-test (Mpost=5.01, SD=0.81) conditions; t(28)=6.95, p < 0.00001. These results suggest that the mini-games have a positive effect on learning facts regarding Asian culture.  Acculturation level of the participant made no difference in terms of learning.

Evidence from semi-structured interviews also suggests that participants learned facts and surprising items related to Asian culture and stereotypes.  For instance, Sam, a Non-Asian undergraduate male remarked:

I definitely learned from the facts.  The suicide one was a big one for me. I mean, you don’t hear about suicide that much in the news, generally.  Especially regarding the female Asian community.   Especially between 15-24, I would have thought it would not be that big of a deal.  (Sam, Non-Asian male)

Participants gain a better understanding about the inherent diversity in Asian countries.  For instance, in response to the idea that there are several Asian groups, each with their own unique values, cultures, and traditions, Roger stated:

I really thought it was interesting, I think I put [on the pre-test] like 10 countries were Asian, but there were more like 40 something, so I would say I think I just would think of China, in Asia, I didn’t think of all those other countries where it’s not like that. I would say I definitely learned that. (Roger)

User Experience, Redesign and Next Iteration of DBR

Importantly, participants expressed that aspects of identity that could often be serious, such as personal goals, fears and desires were made into a fun, less-intrusive format.  None of the participants indicated that the games were uncomfortable, negative, boring, or uninteresting.  In fact, nearly all participants described the experience as “fun” or “cool,” e.g.:

I think those two games are really good…The games are fun. (Qing)

The A-Culture-Rate Game, I could seriously see people playing this just for fun.  I…like how at the end, you can learn about them. (Amber)

I think this game is pretty cool.  I think it’s well done.  I think it…was a pretty cool learning experience. (Evan)

This finding demonstrates that more serious issues of race, identity and self-concept—including ideal and feared selves—can be explored in a game format in nonthreatening ways that are perceived to be fun and effective for learning.

Discussion and Significance

The purpose of the study was to explore whether game mechanics could be designed within interactive, simulated experiences to help participants understand and support their self-identities, focusing on Asian-American culture as a starting point. The ability to promote reflection of individuals’ self-concepts and goals while overcoming stereotypes can ultimately lead participants closer toward identity achievement and broadening possible selves, important outcomes for a generation of learners who are confronted with difficult pressures, expectations, and limiting social forces during adolescence.

Experiences in digital games can also be a powerful way for a person to learn and better understand the nuances, values, and challenges of another culture – a valuable outcome in today’s increasingly multicultural, interconnected world.  As a relatively safe environment to experiment and receive feedback, it allows individuals to articulate their assumptions and realize misconceptions and biases they may not be aware of.  While playing ISGs, Non-Asian players demonstrated greater empathy and more sophisticated, nuanced understandings of the Asian-American experience and culture, including the implications and unintended repercussions of stereotypes that may seem positive (e.g., the consequences of the Asian “Model Minority” stereotype).  Asian players were able to articulate new understandings about their self-identity, including how stereotypes have played a role in the past and present in terms of goals and choices.  These reflections and understandings are particularly important for helping youth overcome barriers and limiting forces that may pigeonhole their career trajectories, ultimately broadening their possible selves for the future.

This work is important to the field of the game-based learning for several reasons.  First, this study provides preliminary work on how games can be useful as a methodological tool for self-identity research and data collection.  This study demonstrates how game mechanics can be designed to make them well-suited to capture aspects of identity in a less-intrusive way, including identity and role play, and turning goals, fears, and desires into in-game actions into a series of meaningful choices.  Second, it serves as an important example of how games can be used for purposes beyond mere entertainment or content delivery, and instead having greater connections with social phenomena in the real world.  Some researchers have explored or called for a larger discourse on how digital games teach or reinforce aspects of race, gender and/or sexuality (e.g., Kafai, Cook & Fields, 2010; Leonard, 2006; Leonard, 2003; Nakamura, 2001).  This work, instead of reinforcing stereotypes in the ways found in many popular commercial games like Grand Theft Auto (e.g., DeVane & Squire, 2008), attempts to allow players to understand, take ownership over, and combat stereotypes.

More importantly, the study provides a case study for how games can serve as an intervention for learning scientists, and various forms of psychologists: clinical, counselling, social, and developmental.  This work can be easily adapted to explore the consequences of stereotypes and faced by members of other ethnic minority groups, women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, etc.  All people, not just members of minority groups, often are impacted by stereotypes or some form of discrimination; therefore, this work has implications for groups far beyond Asian-Americans.

Several limitations regarding this work need to be discussed, many of which have to do with the nature of design-based research.  As common with other design-based research projects, it is difficult to fully determine what combination of features of the intervention actually contributes to its success.  A vast amount of different forms of data was collected and the presence of multiple variables including contextual factors makes the identification of specific kinds of causality harder to pinpoint.  Triangulation of research data using both quantitative and qualitative methods (e.g., ‘thinkalouds’ and interviews) was one strategy taken to attempt to account for this.  Another limitation to the study is regarding the issue of generalizability.   As a DBR study, generalisation is also difficult to make across contexts, although those who are creating game-based interventions for similar or other historically underrepresented groups can benefit from the lessons learned from this study.  The results of this study prepares the way for future work; future studies, for example, could explore how this kind of games-based approach compares with traditional media (for example, text-based or video-based approaches) in their ability to shift perceptions of one’s identity, empathy, learning and understandings of a culture.

In the design, development, and evaluation of the impact of Identity Supportive Games, the researcher has attempted to demonstrate that digital games can be created to deliver simulated experiences that can get a person to understand one’s self-concept and aspects of a culture that may be different than one’s own.  As educational researchers and practitioners are tasked with preparing youth for a global economy, improved cultural understandings and support for identity development are two of the most important challenges that learning scientists need to address if students are to rise above barriers such as stereotypes and self-imposed constraints on possible selves; only then will students reach their highest potential.


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Biographical statement

Joey J. Lee, Ph.D. is a Research Professor of Technology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University.  Lee is the Director of the Real-World Impact Games Lab.  He designs, develops and studies innovative game-based approaches to education.  His projects address real-world problems like sustainability, cross-cultural issues, and motivation and engagement for learning.  For more information, visit www.gameprof.com.

Contact: jl3471@tc.columbia.edu


Artist statement for Jacquelene Drinkall, Fukushima Firefox, 2013, digital stills of avatar performance in Blue Mars Lite virtual world

‘Fukushima Firefox’ is a largely solo performance in the 3D social media virtual world Blue Mars Lite, in which Jacquelene Drinkall appears as a humanoid skeleton in a cat/fox fire suit. Blue Mars Lite utilises Google Streetview, which has documented and archived the 2011 Tsunami as ‘Memories for the Future’. With avatar performance artist collaborators Jeremy Owen Turner, Daniel Mounsey, Jo Ellsmere and Joseph DeLappe, Jacquelene went on mission impossible to inspect the undocumented Daiichi nuclear reactor, and met nuclear chemist Allan Barton. During time alone in BML, occasionally bumping into Allan, Jacquelene’s witch avatar morphed into Fukushima Firefox, inspired by awareness of thriving radioactive feral animals in Chernobyl’s dead zone.

Jacquelene Drinkall (Sydney) is a practicing artist and theorist working with telepathy in painting, drawing, photomedia, video, sculpture, installation, performance, virtual world performance, audio, kinetics, interactive design, digital media and art history and theory. She studied at Canberra School of Art, Australian National University (CSA ANU), with a scholarship to study overseas with Marina Abramoviç and Krzysztof Wodicszko at École nationale supérieure des Beaux-art, Paris. Other awards received include ANU’s University Medal in Visual Art, Marten Bequest Travelling Art Scholarship (national award), two AGNSW awards, and a residency awarded by Cite International des Arts, Paris. Her Masters by Research (CSA ANU) and PhD from College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales (COFA UNSW) explored telepathy in art – her PhD dissertation is titled Telepathy in Contemporary, Conceptual and Performance Art. More recent awards include COFA Student Association Prize, two NAVA grants, two Artspace Residencies and Firstdraft Depot Residency. This year her work shows at Cementa_13 Art Festival; Bundanon’s Niteworks Festival, ATVP Gallery, twice at Alaska Projects, Olive Cotton Prize, and Blake Prize. Jacquelene has had sixteen solo exhibitions in Canberra, Paris, Bathurst, Sydney, Newcastle, Hobart, Melbourne, and over 45 group exhibitions in Australia, New Zealand, France, Russia, United Kingdom, United States of America, Canada and Netherlands. She has created live performances curated by Abramoviç, and at CSA Gallery and Artspace. Her collaborative virtual world performances with Jeremy Owen Turner (Vancouver) have been shown in 8th Shanghai Biennale and Odyssey Contemporary Art and Performance Festival, simultaneously with Museum Sorgdrager, the Netherlands, and Black Bag Media Collective Studio, Canada. Her artwork has been shown on ABC TV, featured in articles in Runway and The Art Life, and discussed in the Sydney Morning Herald. Her recent publications include: ‘Human and Non-Human Telepathic Collaborations Since Fluxus to Now’; ‘Jacquelene Drinkall: Telepathy’; ‘The Art and Flux of Telepathy 2.0 in Second Life’; and ‘Traumaculture and Telepathetic Cyber-Fiction’. Jacquelene is Honorary Research Lecturer at COFA UNSW.

Contact: jacquelene.drinkall@gmail.com

Benjamin Nicoll

Published Online: November 15, 2013
Full Text: HTML, PDF (534 KB)

Parikka, J. (2012). What is media archaeology? Cambridge: Polity. ISBN 0745650260, 200 pages, $23 US.

As the title of Jussi Parikka’s book suggests, the primary concern of What is Media Archaeology? (2012) is with explaining the theoretical and practical applications of media archaeology as it has been employed by media researchers, film historians, cultural critics and artists who operate under the banner of this enigmatic discipline. Media archaeology, an emerging sub-field of media research, tends to be understood by scholars as a way to prise media history from the prevailing capitalist and progressivist logic of technological progress. Recent academic work on the subject has also associated media archaeology with an examination of the material technological aspects of different media (Ernst 2013). While these are often recognised as common issues in the scholarly literature, theorists of media archaeology have not reached a consensus on how to define the discipline. This can be viewed as a consequence of struggles between the various positions or methodologies available for undertaking a media archaeological approach (see: Huhtamo & Parikka 2011). What an archaeological approach to media is, what it entails, is a question that has triggered academic debates about media archaeology and how it should be used as a research method (see: Ernst 2013; Huhtamo 2013).

Debates among media archaeologists about how to define the discipline have been fuelled by interactions among fields such as cinema and cultural studies, archive theory, new materialism, ‘German media theory’ and art history, each of which has adopted a particular understanding of media archaeology as a critical method. While this kind of disciplinary interaction has prevented the establishment of a coherent methodology for approaching media in archaeological terms, it can also be considered a positive feature of media archaeology in the sense that it emphasises the significance of experimental and cross-disciplinary research practices. This notion is perhaps most strongly put forward by Siegfried Zielinski in his work Deep Time of the Media (2006). Challenging the perception of technological progress as “continual march” (2006, p. 3), Zielinski qualifies media archaeology above all else as an exercise in critical resistance. Viewed in Zielinski’s way, media archaeology is resistant not only towards mono-medial narratives but also towards the field’s assimilation within a singular disciplinary framework.

Many theorists (Huhtamo 2013; Kluitenberg 2007; and to an extent Ernst 2013) share with Zielinski the view that media archaeology’s central premise is to posit alternative genealogies for the development of technology over time. In so doing, media archaeology aims to sever the narrative threads woven by evolutionist approaches to media history. This, it could be argued, is where the significance of media archaeology resides: in its assertion that to be understood properly media must be viewed from less progressivist and more ‘non-linear’ perspectives. But this approach is also illustrative of another kind of ‘resistance’ media archaeology seems to have inherited: a resistance against the homogenised structure of academic methodologies. Through its insistence on non-linearity and non-conformity, media archaeology has gained a reputation as an anarchic practice with unclear concerns, contexts and applications, which is somewhat in keeping with its iconoclastic approach to historical description. Until now, there has been no singular, clear approach to adopting media archaeology as a theoretical paradigm.

It is in this context that Jussi Parikka’s What is Media Archaeology? emerges as a methodological treatise of sorts, seeking not only to demarcate and ground the discipline, but also to synthesise its disparate voices into a more cohesive theory of digital media culture. The stated aim of Parikka’s book is to provide a pathway through the various theoretical and applied methods of media archaeological research. To this end, Parikka offers a thoroughly well researched and presented introduction to the discipline’s interconnected strands of research. As in his earlier work on the subject, in What is Media Archaeology? Parikka seems somewhat troubled by the possibility of media archaeology’s disenfranchisement at the hands of its early proponents, especially Zielinski, who established anarchic and rebellious patterns for the study of media objects past and present (Huhtamo & Parikka 2011, p. 8). Parikka’s search for a stable media archaeological approach outside the flux of the discipline’s enigmatic formations takes the form of a “cartographic” journey into the “various—at times contradictory and competing—strands of media archaeological investigations” (2012, p. 5). Perhaps the book’s most commendable element is its desire to sort through the “entanglement” of media archaeology’s “past and present” (p. 5), which it achieves by organising key media archaeological themes into a typology of research agendas, each with distinct aims and methods. It is because of this that What is Media Archaeology? will no doubt have a significant impact on future research, as it contributes something that the discipline has been lacking for some time: a refined set of methodological guidelines.

Each of the book’s six main chapters is devoted to a particular topic or idea relating to the media archaeological approach. The chapters focus on: concepts of sense and affect as they relate to film theory and new film history; mediated imaginaries and alternative media histories; new materialism and ‘German media theory’; noise and accidents; theories of the archive; and finally, artistic praxis. Because there is no overarching argument linking one chapter to the next, the book is particularly useful for readers wanting to gain selective insight on specific areas of media archaeological thought. When taken as a whole, What is Media Archaeology? provides a comprehensive introduction to the diverse threads of media archaeological practice. It also does an impressive job of illustrating how these threads link up and connect with fields as diverse as art history, cinema and cultural theory, code studies and psychoanalysis. For readers wanting to conduct more intensive research in any of the subjects covered in What is Media Archaeology?, each chapter contains some thoughtful recommendations for further reading.

As I have suggested, one of the strengths of What is Media Archaeology? is its distillation of media archaeological thought into a concentrated typology of methods. This is perhaps best evidenced in the first half of the book. Parikka begins his mapping of media archaeology in the second chapter, where he highlights the discipline’s “affinities” with new film history and film theory by drawing on such concepts as “attraction”, “tactility” and “affect” as they appear in traditional areas of visual culture analysis (2012, p. 39). He discusses the extensive historical and theoretical presence of media archaeological thought in the historiography of film theory, as well as in media theory from Marshall McLuhan’s time to our own. In Chapter 3, Parikka examines the notion of ‘imagined’ media—that is, “media non-existent, fabulated, or at one point deemed impractical” (p. 43), and describes it as a possible antidote to contemporary media culture’s relentless focus on technological innovation. Predicated on the work of Eric Kluitenberg (2007), who suggests using mediated “imaginaries” as a conceptual tool to tap into the “wider unconscious”, Parikka sets out to develop the idea of imaginary media by questioning its implicit associations with Lacanian thought (2012, p. 46). In the fourth chapter, Parikka discusses media archaeology’s emerging focus on ‘hard’ technological excavation through an analysis that relies on theories and concepts from German media theorist Friedrich Kittler. This chapter interprets some of the key points emerging from ‘new materialism’ and ‘German media theory’ as a response to the more cultural-theoretical perspectives originating from media archaeology’s humanist roots (as seen in the earlier chapters of the book, on sense and affect for example). This line of reflection leads What is Media Archaeology? to partly define its field in terms of an opposition between cultural and material approaches.

Present in Parikka’s discussion of ‘hard media’ in Chapter 4, but also evident in the second chapter on film theory and new film history, is the idea that media archaeology is gradually shifting its emphasis from the immaterial textual aspects of media culture to a more ‘media specific’ reading of the mathematical structures underlying actual hardware and software. This transition resonates more broadly with media studies’ burgeoning interest in technically rigorous ways of understanding the operationality of material technologies, seen in works such as Matthew Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (2008) and Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost’s ‘Platform Studies’ book series (see: Montfort and Bogost 2009). Parikka is not the only media archaeologist who has noted a distinction between cultural and material concerns; other authors (Chun 2006; Ernst 2006, 2013; Huhtamo 2013; Parikka 2011) have written portentously of the essential division between ‘new materialism’ and the discursive school of thought. In What is Media Archaeology? Parikka merely reinforces these divisions by further demarcating the borders among approaches. The latter chapters are similarly divided, with a focus on noise, archive dynamics and practical applications of media archaeology as an art method. This structure seems to suggest that media archaeology should be considered a layered methodology with an uncomplicated hierarchy of distinctive applications. This gives rise to a possible tension between Parikka’s aim in the book to provide a ‘proper’ disciplinary hierarchy, and media archaeology’s inherent resistance to assimilation within such a scheme.

Parikka’s conceptualisation of media archaeology as a more hierarchical and less organic scheme is at once the book’s most admirable and problematic theme. As I have shown, the chapter structure of What is Media Archaeology? is based on the assumption that there is an essential separation between the discipline’s multiple spheres. For instance, the so-called ‘German media theory’ and ‘new materialism’ are represented as counterparts to the more poetic, cultural frameworks already established by media archaeologists such as Zielinski and Huhtamo. With no overall consensus about how one should think media archaeologically, the allocation of authors into separate and ‘opposing’ schools of thought (e.g. ‘German’ new materialists, cultural historians), can be seen as an attempt to ‘brand’ the field and make it a more serviceable methodology for academic researchers. Although Parikka does acknowledge the inherent problems associated with placing theorists under the rubric of ‘German media theory’ (2012, p. 66), his analysis seems no less intent on relying on such normalising frameworks.

As noted earlier, part of the reason for this emphasis on structure and hierarchy can be viewed as a response to media archaeology’s more ‘anarchic’ traditions, seen in books like Zielinski’s Deep Time of the Media (2006) and even Eric Kluitenberg’s The Book of Imaginary Media (2007). This kind of anarchism has been described as corrosive to the criteriological doctrines of contemporary media studies (Huhtamo & Parikka 2011, pp. 10-12). Perhaps as a response to this criticism, What is Media Archaeology? takes up the task of condensing the field into a more institutionally palatable theoretical framework. This vision of media archaeology as a simple, hegemonic hierarchy is in tension with the discipline’s formative agenda, which was to privilege disciplinary freedom, non-linearity and experimental research practices. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that Parikka dedicates only a few pages to addressing these traditions of media archaeology as they originate in theories such as Zielinski’s (an)archaeology/variantology of the media (Parikka, 2012, pp. 11-12).

Parikka also seems to exhibit a slight preference for the new materialist direction of media archaeology over the more traditional areas of cultural analysis covered in the earlier sections of the book. For example, “the future media archaeologist” may be surprised to read that they should consider beginning their excavations “not by going to an archive filled with documents and books”, but by “open[ing] up a PC from the 1980s, inspect[ing] its circuit board, and start[ing] forensics work on the hard drive” (p. 88). It seems to be taken for granted that material conceptions of media archaeology are threatening to abstract media from their social contexts in the direction of a ‘post-humanist’ trajectory. And of course, there is no denying that this trajectory has much to offer. The various forms of post-humanist thought raise legitimate questions about our understanding of contemporary media culture that cannot be answered using classical forms of humanist inquiry. Yet, as Erkki Huhtamo shows in a recent book on the archaeology of the moving panorama (2013), the cultural and social dimensions that shape our understanding of media and media-in-practice are just as relevant now as they have been in the past.

Despite these issues, What is Media Archaeology? provides a topical and pertinent introduction to the various discussions and debates occurring inside the field of media archaeology today. Parikka’s capacity to critically engage with theorists from across the humanities, as well as his perceptive ability to synthesise their work into a sophisticated and multilayered methodology, brings a solid framework to the discipline of media archaeology. What this book does well, therefore, is provide insight on how to grasp the specificity of media in archaeological terms, through clarification of the principle themes in media archaeological research. In this sense, What is Media Archaeology? should be considered a kind of textbook approach to the archaeological method in media and cultural studies, whose purpose is to guide readers towards methodological schemes suitable for application to their own research initiatives.

Students seeking to use this book as an introduction to media archaeology should be wary of boxing themselves inside or outside any one of the approaches it covers. Media archaeology has a history of resisting disciplinary description and it is important to continue to recognise this tradition as crucial to the discipline’s continued development. With its emphasis on presenting media archaeology in the form of a structured typology of research agendas, What is Media Archaeology? can be viewed as a retreat from this tradition. Yet this retreat is an equally welcome contribution to a field whose basic principles have proved inadequate for the building of a solid theoretical framework. In this context, Parikka’s book is an important step for media archaeology because it sharpens the field into an accessible set of methodologies suitable for any student undertaking a media archaeological approach. This is in stark contrast to the discipline’s origins as a rebellious practice accessible only to those with the tenure necessary to make worthwhile use of its enigmatic premises.


Chun, W.H.K. (2006). Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Ernst, W. (2006). Does the Archive Become Metaphorical in Multi-Media Space? In T. Keenan and W. H. K. Chun. (eds.). New Media, Old Media: A History and Theory Reader (pp. 105-123). New York: Routledge.

Ernst, W. (2013). Digital Memory and the Archive. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Huhtamo, E. (2013). Illusions in Motion. Media Archaeology of the Moving Panorama and Related Spectacles. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Huhtamo, E. and Parikka, J. (2011). Introduction. An Archaeology of Media Archaeology. In E. Huhtamo and J. Parikka (eds.). Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications and Implications (pp. 1-21).  Berkley: University of California Press.

Kirschenbaum, M. (2008). Mechanisms. New Media and the Forensic Imagination. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Kluitenberg, E. (2007). The Book of Imaginary Media. Excavating the Dream of the Ultimate Communications Medium. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers.

Montfort, N. and Bogost, I. (2009). Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Parikka, J. (2011). Operative Media Archaeology: Wolfgang Ernst’s Materialist Media Diagrammatics. Theory, Culture & Society 28:5, 52-74.

Parikka, J. (2012). What is Media Archaeology? Cambridge: Polity Press.

Zielinski, S. (2006). Deep Time of the Media. Towards and Archaeology of Seeing and Hearing by Technical Means [trans. G. Custance]. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Biographical Statement

Benjamin Nicoll is a PhD student in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne, Australia. His thesis combines theoretical positions grounded in media archaeology with methods from platform studies for an analysis of the Neo Geo Advanced Entertainment System.

Contact email: b.nicoll2@student.unimelb.edu.au

Judy Kalman

Published Online: November 15, 2013
Full Text: HTML, PDF (2.3MB)


More and more teachers in Mexico are expected to use digital technologies in their classrooms. However, little guidance is provided for them to transition from pencil and paper practices to the screen. This paper argues that that teachers’ use of digital technology (or lack thereof) is a social construction where multiple processes—the realities of their workplace, their understanding of digital technologies and the Internet, and their longstanding beliefs about teaching and learning—coincide to shape their classroom practices. The author builds her analysis of three teachers learning to use technology in their classrooms in México City on socio cultural theory, most notably notions concerning social interaction and practice. She illustrates teachers’ heterogeneous responses to this new professional demand. She concludes that specific classroom uses of technology are the result of teachers’ particular articulation of the multiple relationships and obstacles encountered in their workplace.

Keywords: Digital literacy, technology, practice, teaching, Mexico, secondary school, socio cultural theory.

Increasingly, educational policy makers endorse the use of digital technology in schools, arguing that computers and the Internet are now part of contemporary life, and that giving all students access to technology is a matter of equity and fairness. In the 2012 New Media Consortium Horizons report, the authors note that: “Increasingly, technology skills are critical to success in almost every arena, and those who are more facile with technology will advance while those without access or skills will not” (Johnson et al. 2012, p. 8).

This ubiquitous view of technology (Kuznetsov & Dahman 2008) is expressed in official documents, curricula, and teaching standards for using technology. In 2009, the Secretaria de Educatión Públicia (SEP, the Federal education authorities in México) stated that:

In a globalised world, the use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) has become a requirement in the workplace and is necessary for contact with other societies. Schools cannot stand on the side lines of these demands; they must take on increasingly complex and diversified tasks. Teachers need to shape their work accordingly and meet the needs of the times and the demands of modern society, which means developing new competencies ( Martínez , 2009, p. 7).1

It is assumed teachers will somehow naturally make the transition into using these tools and in fact, new curricular guidelines derived from international policy puts teachers under a great deal of pressure to do so.2 However, research has shown otherwise: for more than a decade, studies have presented evidence that both quantifies and qualifies how much equipment is now in schools and how little it is used (Bigum & Lankshear 1997; Cuban 2000; Guerrero 2011; Jara 2008; McFarlane 2003).

Standard reasons for why teachers fail to use technology posit that teachers do not receive sufficient training to learn needed computer skills, schools may not provide the appropriate software for specific subject matters or that some teachers find learning to use the computer too overwhelming (Kalman and Guerrero, 2013). This paper seeks to go beyond these common explanations for understanding why teachers use (or do not use) technology in their classrooms (Acosta 2012; Leu et al. 1998; Martínez, 2009) and construct a more nuanced view of the challenges they face.

The central argument is that is that teachers’ use of digital technology (or lack thereof) is a social construction where multiple processes—the realities of their workplace, their understanding of digital technologies and the Internet, and their long standing beliefs about teaching and learning—coincide to shape their classroom practices. A first premise underlying this article is that teachers articulate the diversity of relationships and processes that come into play in their specific work contexts in their attempts to incorporate technology into their classrooms. A second one is that as a result of their specific articulations, teachers’ trajectories are highly diverse, even when they face similar situations. Because this paper analyses teachers in Mexico, some specificities relating to that context are presented to the reader.

This article has five sections: First, a discussion of some of the tenets of social cultural theory and the notion of social practice. The second section describes the work the Laboratorio de Educación, Tecnología y Sociedad (LETS)3 does with teachers in México City, its premises, and goals. The third section presents empirical evidence through sketches of three teachers working in their classrooms as a way to problematise—in productive ways—what it means to use technology in an educational setting. The fourth section presents a discussion of the teachers’ work and the final one outlines some closing remarks.

Using technology in the classroom from a social practice perspective

In this paper I explore the process of three teachers learning to use technology in their classrooms in México City. The analysis builds on socio cultural theory, most notably notions concerning social interaction and practice (Lave & Wenger 1991).  According to Lave (2011) socio cultural theory is a theory of social practice and as such, different types of relationships between the participants, institutional arrangements, and the distribution of power are central to understanding what happens in the classroom and why (Barton & Hamilton 1998; Street 1995).

In the 1980s, Scribner and Cole (1981) posited that all social practice implies the use of a technology, skill, and social knowledge relevant to that practice. Barton and Hamilton (1998) note that practices are not observable because they include aspects related to people’s beliefs, ideas, and histories as well as visible actions. However, people’s participation in practice becomes visible in specific events where they bring operative knowledge, social knowledge, and an ethos (Lankshear & Knobel, 2011) about their participation. Their ethos includes their beliefs, their values, and priorities. For this article, such an approach allows the researcher to focus on the diverse ways in which teachers use digital technologies and to pay attention to how they relate to the diverse factors that impact their incorporation of technology into their classrooms.

At LETS, a research group in the Departamento de Investigaciones Educativas (DIE) at the Centro de Investigación y Estudios Avanzados in México City (CINVESTAV), we consider information, communication, and design technologies (ICD-T hereafter) a powerful social tool, useful for establishing and maintaining social relationships (Dyson 1996), conveying multimodal meanings (Kress 2003), and representing knowledge. Current technology integrates multiple tools and expressive options that range from basic editorial design such as fonts, distribution of text on a page, and the integration of image and writing, to complex and sophisticated dynamic representations, hypertexts, multimodal compositions, and animations. Furthermore, through the internet, digital culture is created and maintained through online interactions in real time, asynchronic communication, and the development of virtual communities where participation and learning are based on the possibility to consult and be consulted, contribute to a common cause, receive and give copious feedback, develop situated expertise, and establish accreditation from virtual communities (Gee 2003, 2006). In this context, the ethos of collaboration, distributed knowledge (the idea that everyone has something to offer), and participation in collective enterprises are an integral part of digital culture (Jenkins 2006; Lankshear & Knobel 2011). Vital questions arise in our work at LETS regarding how teachers integrate the pedagogical, the operational, institutional aspects ICD-T, and the ethos of digital culture in their teaching. We are concerned with understanding what they do and why they do it (Geertz 1983), and what experiences, knowledge, and know-how might contribute to creating an educational context that goes beyond doing what Lankshear and Knobel (2011, p. 214) refer to as “business as usual” teaching.

De Certeau (1988 p. xi) notes that historically social analysis created the category of the individual, “the basis of which groups are supposed to be formed.” He goes on to note that social analysis has shown, conversely, that individuals are the locus in which multiple relationships, often contradictory and incoherent, interact. Teachers’ exploration and use of technology can be seen as an “errant trajectory” (De Certeau 1988, p. vviii) where they turn to their own means and resources to articulate heterogeneous elements such as official discourse, institutional arrangements, their professional background, deeply rooted teaching traditions, suggestions that arise from their participation in the LETS’ meetings, and their beliefs about teaching and learning, among others.

The analysis of three participating teachers’ efforts to understand and use technology centres on their diverse ways of integrating a plurality of social determinations. Muchaly (2012) proposes that in any teaching event multiple tributary factors flow together to create a specific instance of teachers’ work; she points out that the different ways of teaching are an ensemble of processes, histories, knowledge, and know-how.  In a similar sense, Gee (in Lankshear & Knobel 2011, p. 44) argues that we are “situated selves”:

which can be understood as meaningful coordinations of human and non-human elements. Besides people themselves, the human elements of coordinations include such things as people’s ways of thinking, acting, feeling, moving, dressing, speaking, gesturing, believing, and valuing, and non-human elements include such things as tools, objects, institutions, networks, places, vehicles, machines, physical spaces, buildings, and so on.

Here the goal is to understand the situatedness of these teachers and their efforts to use the computer and Internet in the classroom. Furthermore, I seek to comprehend how their grasp of information, communication and design technologies (ICD-T)4 and digital culture are mediated by their fluency in operating the equipment, their interpretation of official discourse and curricular requirements, their beliefs about their students, their pedagogical stance, and their willingness to take certain risks and try new approaches in their teaching. Sutherland et al. (2009, p. 20) note that for teachers to “fully exploit the potential of new technologies in transforming learning, there is much for them to learn. Incorporating ICT frequently challenges well-established ways of teaching and learning. This sometimes involves painful rethinking”.

Working with teachers

In LETS we organise work groups with teachers where they collaborate with researchers, graduate and under graduate students, and colleagues. The participating teachers are volunteers and, in most cases, they have heard about our groups from other teachers or through a written invitation we send to their school.

We begin each school year with a one-week intensive workshop we call “Installation Week” where we explore different aspects of digital literacies, culture, and practice. Over the school year this is followed up with five to six work sessions held at the DIE-CINVESTAV campus on a weekday (teachers are given permission to attend by their authorities), along with some visits to classrooms.

At LETS teachers explore what we call “universal tools”, i.e. software that one might find on any computer in a cyber cafe (albeit in different versions), online freeware, and communication options. These options imply no expense for the teachers and are tools that their students will also be able to use. We use these tools for different purposes such as selecting and analysing information, communicating with others, and developing learning activities that include the design of cultural objects such as posters, videos, or animated maps. For this reason, in this paper we use ICD-T (rather than the more common ICT—information and communication technology) as a short hand for technology use.

We often offer teachers technical guides designed by LETS regarding a particular tool, or show them how to find resources online. We also provide search options and opportunities for consulting with colleagues and getting to know a given resource. Teachers are invited to discuss their curriculum and plan learning activities for students that involve both online and offline uses of the computer and other resources. They then take these proposals into the classroom, try them, and report their experiences to the group. We collectively analyse what they found successful, any shortcomings, and ideas related to their teaching.

During the 2012 Installation Week, a group of eighteen language arts, history, and geography teachers, as well as six computer lab resource teachers from public middle schools participated. We developed a sequence around the subject of modern day slavery, a topic that that could be of interest to all participating teachers, and proposed they produce an infographic by the end of the week. In each session we used resources such as Google Maps, Google Docs, and Book Markers, among others as a way of modelling them as possible classroom tools. Our sessions included looking for information and different types of resources (videos, maps, testimonials, reports, policies, images, graphs), designing intermediate products to be used in their infographic, organising revision groups, and putting the final project together.

In each session we created contexts for different types of interactions and activities with the intention to help them achieve more than they could if working alone (Gee 2006; Vygotsky 1978). In some cases we organised full group discussions, small group efforts, or one-on-one dialogues using synchronic communication tools. We collectively looked for information, discussed different ways of registering and representing it, and possible options for sharing it. Teachers were given the opportunity to work hands on with the new tools, interact with colleagues, giving and receiving feedback on their work, and collaborating together on common projects. The purpose was to introduce not only technological resources, but to also insert them into pedagogical contexts and model forms of participation and interaction. We sought to show innovative forms of organisation, analyse classroom relationships, and offer viable alternatives to “business as usual” teaching. In the context of schools in Mexico where the tendency is to insert technology into existing school routines, our workshop has two equally important purposes and priorities: to facilitate the use of digital tools in the classroom while simultaneously creating meaningful learning activities for teachers and their students.

Teaching with technology in Méxican public secondary schools

The teacher portraits presented are part of an on-going study regarding the complexities of using ICD-T in the classroom in Méxican public secondary (years 7-9) schools. As the project is in process, the results presented here are preliminary, we are still holding meetings with the teachers and are visiting their classrooms (through May 2013) as well as processing data (transcribing videos, organising teacher and students products, conducting interviews, charting participation in social media, collecting emails, and creating teacher portfolios).

All of the teachers profiled in this article are graduates of the Escuela Nacional de Maestros (National Teachers’ School in México City) and continued further training for a secondary certificate. Until 1984 teachers in México went from the ninth grade directly into normal school (either the Escuela Nacional de Maestros or one of the schools located in the states). Depending on their age, teachers have a bachelor’s degree in teaching or a normalista degree (a four-year degree in another field).

The teachers discussed here all work in public schools and share similar work conditions and difficulties. Class sizes tend to be large, ranging between 35 and 45 students per group. For the most part, teachers change classrooms from period to period, rather than students circulating. An immediate consequence of such organisation is that any books or materials teachers bring to class have to be packed up and carried with each move. Also, most schools have a computer lab (referred to by the teachers as Red Escolar) where computers are housed. Most labs share a similar use of space; computers are on tables in a horseshoe arrangement with students facing the walls. When there is an overflow of equipment or the room is small, a row of tables may be set up in the middle of the room as well. In some cases, computers are recent laptops with state of the art operating systems, but in many cases the equipment is obsolete. Most of the time there is a combination of new and old technology. Internet connection is generally unreliable and quickly becomes saturated when students are all working at the same time.


Figure 1: Typical distribution of computer lab in public middle school in Mexico City.

The secondary curriculum includes teaching standards for using technology in the classroom based on the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) and UNESCO guidelines (SEP 2011, p. 65-66). Teachers are expected to develop learning projects for students using technology. It is emphasised that in these projects teachers should:

  • Use tools that promote the comprehension of knowledge and concepts, explore questions and topics of interest
  • Plan and carry out research activities with their students using technology
  • Use communication tools such as email, blogs, online forums
  • Promote collaboration
  • Develop research projects that offer solutions to authentic problems based on real life
  • Use tools such as word processors, data shows, data processors
  • Use social media and participate in learning networks

To teach a class using technology, teachers have to take students to the computer lab, which implies scheduling lab time in advance. While the official policy in México is to promote ICD-T use at this school level, teachers often face several obstacles using the computer room. Meetings scheduled in the lab, administrative tasks assigned to the Technology Resource teacher by the principal, special classes on trending topics such as drug addiction, bullying or obesity, equipment inventories, the lab being used for testing or as storage space are all reasons teachers have given for not being able to use the facilities at their schools. Furthermore, teachers have to mobilise approximately 40 youngsters, moving them from the classroom to the computer lab. This can reduce 50 minute class periods by as much as 15 minutes (Guerrero, 2011). Also, in larger schools, the lab can be in great demand and teachers may have to wait six weeks for their turn.

During our visits in the schools’ computer labs we noticed that the Internet connection was extremely slow and that students were using a rather out dated navigator. During one such visit, I asked the technology resource teacher about this and she explained that:

these machines were donated by the México City Government (GDF, for its initials in Spanish Gobierno del Distrito Federal) and they are set up so that you cannot download any new programs on them. So if we want to use a different navigator, we have to download it every day. Every time you turn the computer off, any new files are erased, even if you save them.

The distribution of equipment by GDF was a wide spread program during the 2006-2012 administration and all computers share this same characteristic, meaning that although the schools have machines, they were all seriously crippled before being installed. The obstacle encountered when downloading programs was most likely installed to keep users from visiting and downloading undesirable materials and software, in the logic of ‘parental guidance’ (or in this case, school guidance). While it may respond to ideas about keeping students on task by restricting their access to web pages and software, it also defeats the purpose of exploring, locating, and selecting information for academic learning.

The brief sketches of three teachers presented here are based on teachers’ narratives and the reporting of their activities in the classroom, the examination of student work, and classroom observations. The sketches are not meant to be an exhaustive recount, but a sampler of situations that teachers have reported and their specific processes for integrating the “sometimes incoherent and often contradictory” elements discussed earlier (De Certeau, 1988, p. xi). The first teacher is Adriana who teaches seventh grade geography. In the national curriculum, the program of study is organised around ‘competencies’, defined as the integration of knowledge, abilities, attitudes, and values. The other two teachers, Hilda and Lucia, teach Spanish (language arts).5 The language arts program in Mexico for grades 7-9 is divided into three domains: literature, study skills, and social participation. The curriculum explicitly advocates a “social practice approach” but upon closer scrutiny it becomes clear that the contents for study are organised around text genres, isolated language skills, and grammar. It is also important to point out that all of the teachers had a working knowledge of using the computer and navigating the Internet.6

The school year is divided into five grading periods of approximately two months each, and teachers are expected to cover all topics listed in their study programs. Recently, at the suggestion of the World Bank (Peon, 2009), students are measured on ‘word per minute’ reading performance in each grading period and this score is included in their report card.  Spanish teachers are responsible for administering these individualised examinations that reduce their classroom time for other activities.

Adriana: “Les permitió pensar un poco” (It allowed them to think a little).

For the last twelve years Adriana has taught geography in a junior high school located in a working-class neighbourhood on the east side of México City. Before coming to LETS, she participated in two in-service courses for using technology in the classroom, one a general course on how to use technology in the classroom and the second on how to use electronic whiteboards. She is familiar with a number of digital tools and an avid smartphone user, sending messages, bringing up Google Maps and email. She also uses the phone’s camera, particularly for taking pictures of geographical elements that can be useful at school. At work she goes to the computer lab with her students as often as once a week, mostly asking students to search for information.

In her teaching she is particularly interested in developing students’ “research capacity”. She believes that for students, technology is a means of communication and is a resource they have at arms’ reach. For using it at work, she is concerned about how to make ICT easy to use and understand because “many software programs are very technical”.

At the beginning of the school year Adriana was not able to use the school computer lab as all equipment was being inventoried. In November her students did a report on different conceptualisations of the origin of the solar system. First she asked students to look up several medieval and renaissance scientists and locate their theories. The idea was for students to organise the theories chronologically and then compare conceptualisations to see if they could identify how theories shifted and changed over time. But this assignment morphed into a report on the biography of each scientist, losing the analytical quality of the original assignment and opened the door for students to simply reproduce the information found in a PowerPoint presentation.

In January she began working with students on the topic of national patrimony [natural resources and cultural sites]. The students had visited several museums and Adriana wanted them develop a tourist pamphlet that combined their experience of going to the museums with information about the exhibits as a sort of invitation to others to visit them. As in the case of the scientists, when the students came to the computer lab, Adriana changed the assignment and told them to write a pamphlet on their National Patrimony. She gave specific instructions, indicating that they should answer the questions:

  • “What is the definition of national patrimony?”
  • “Types of patrimony?”
  • “What is tangible patrimony?”
  • “What is intangible patrimony?”

Other than defining the text genre (pamphlet) and the questions, she did not give any other instructions. As students began to work in small groups, they proceeded in different manners. Some searched ‘pamphlet’ in Google to get an idea about what their final product should look like. Others proceeded to look for definitions and copy and paste them onto a blank screen. One team opened a project in Microsoft Publisher and began to copy and paste information into it. A few students divided a page in their notebook into three columns and copied by hand from the screen.


Figure 2: Students copying from screen into notebooks.


Figure 3: Student’s work, notebook page folded in three; text says: ‘What is patimony? Patrimony is the set of assets inherited by a person’ (Qué es el patrimonio? Patrimonio es el conjunto de vienes eredado por una persona) [Transcription reproduces student’s spelling. Question is written in red, answer in black]

Adriana circled around the room and supervised her students. When she realised that many of them were using Wikipedia, she shouted out to the group, “And don’t use Wikipedia”. As she approached one student, he asked “Why not Wikipedia” and, after waiting several seconds, she answered “the information is not reliable, everybody tampers with it” (“La información no es confinable; todo el mundo le mete mano”).

She continued touring the computer lab. She watched another student for several minutes before going up to his screen, pointing to his work she declared “Esto a mi no me sirve” (literally: “this is useless” or “this is no good to me”). It was not completely clear why she had said that, perhaps it was because all of his text was copied from an unnamed source. Upon reviewing the work her students turned in, she was disappointed to discover that most of it was reproduced directly from the electronic sources (either copy and pasted directly into their pamphlet or copied by hand into their notebooks) even though she often accepted this kind of work in the past. In a chat session with me some days later, she reported that in the classroom, she had given her students a print out of blank PowerPoint screen, and asked them to rethink their work and this time write their own texts. I asked her how she went about supporting their composition process and she replied that one student read out loud to the group from the textbook, and then “poco a poco” (“little by little”) they wrote their own texts. When I asked on how they might have transformed what they read in their textbooks into their own writing she reported that “these screens allowed them to think a little”, underlining the belief that the materials (and not necessarily the activity or her interactions with them) determined the work students produced and suggesting perhaps a belief that the students previously were not thinking.

Hilda: “Dar el tema” (Teaching topics)

Hilda is a young teacher with five years teaching experience. Before beginning her collaboration at LETS, she was already familiar with the computer and Internet, and had taken a computer course at the Centro de Capacitación para el Trabajo Industrial (CECATI). She had a working knowledge of word processing software, spread sheets, and presentation software. She also had Facebook and Microsoft Messenger accounts and noted that she used the computer to download photos from her camera; she uses other devices such as a mobile phone and automatic teller machines. She reported that she uses Facebook for family affairs and sometimes, when she needs help doing something new on the computer, she consults with others or she asks students for help. In her teaching she uses technology to “research the topics”, write lesson plans and periodic “plan de trabajo” (work plan) that she turns into her principal; however, she stated that she rarely takes students to the computer lab. She believes her students are generally not attracted to school and that they are rarely interested in assignments.

Previous to our September 2012 meeting we asked teachers, via email, about the activities they had organised during the first month of school with their students. Hilda noted that she practically did not use technology during the month as it was the end of the grading period and she was caught up in the paper work.

The two activities Hilda reported in the October meeting were a double entry table and a mental map produced by students on the computer, using the Internet for locating information and images. For this period, the topics of study presented in the curriculum includes “myths and legends” as part of the literature strand, and as part of the study habits domain, “presentation of information”. Her reading of the curriculum is quite literal and she believes, as do many do of the teachers with whom we have worked, that her job is to teach each topic, one by one. A standard organisation of a thematic unit at this level is to introduce the topic, present definitions and characteristics, give a reading assignment and ask students to write a summary, an outline or make an oral presentation.

In this case, as in others we have documented (for example, monograph and language diversity), Hilda developed procedures for covering curricular content and combined the content from two different curricular domains. Students created a chart and a conceptual map (a topic required in study domain) about myths and legends (a topic required in literature domain), although it is not clear if they actually read or discussed any works as part of contrasting and comparing. When we asked her for her evaluation of this assignment, she expressed concern that what she asked students to do would somehow distort the curricular mandate. “I am concerned that my [LETS] topic does not coincide [with the curricular topic], [what the students did] is not about looking for information, it refers to the representation of information”. Hilda seems to have fragmented searching for information from recording it, and does not seem to connect recording, representing, and analysing information. This could be due, at least in part, to her understanding of the Spanish curriculum that also explicitly separates these activities.

In the computer lab students completed two assignments: for the first they created the table described above by searching for the characteristics of myths and legends and contrasted them. Second, she asked her students to make a conceptual map of the notions of myths and legends. Hilda believed that these activities could not be organised properly as there were not enough computers in her school for each student to have their own and she believed that students should work individually in the lab.

Below is an example of one student’s work, the information it contains was copied and pasted or closely paraphrased from Yahoo. A translation reflecting student syntax and phrasing in Spanish is included below the original texts.





Pueden ser ficticias o verdaderas

Can be fictious or true

El tiempo y el espacio es muy indefinido en los mitos en las leyendas es definido

Time and space is very undefined in myths and defined in legends

Ambos son de tradición oral

Both are from oral tradition

En el mito es demasiada exagerada la historia y en la leyenda no

In myths the story is exaggerated and in legends not

Lo que relatan era aceptado por la comunidad

What they narrate was accepted by the community

En las leyendas son personajes normales y en el mito son dioses monstruos o gigantes

In legends the characters are normal and in myths they are monsters or gods

Pasó hace bastante tiempo

It happened a long time ago

En el mito trata de explicar la existencia del hombre, las conductas, los fenómenos naturales, las instituciones y en la leyenda no

The myth tries to explain the existence of man, behaviors, natural phenomena, institutions and legends no

Figure 4: Student’s comparison of myths and legends

Most students’ tables are quite similar to the one above. To create the mental map of these same concepts, this particular student read a myth online, copied, pasted, and illustrated it. There is no apparent relationship between the two parts of the assignment, the only common denominator seems to be that they were done on the computer and are part of the curricular construction of the topic. The summarising of the characteristics of myths and legends is independent from the myth they read and the presentation of the myth synthesizes its content but doesn’t illustrate any of its stated characteristics.

In this activity, Hilda ventured for the first time into the computer lab and designed two activities for students. She also faced an organisational problem (students work individually or in pairs or small groups), an issue she contemplated at other times during the school year. Her assignment and her students’ work are characteristic of deep set school practices in Méxican middle schools. Teachers tend to ask closed questions and students find answers online and reproduce them. These types of assignments were common before the advent of computers in schools where students copied by hand or cut out informative texts and illustrations bought at local papelerías (small stationery stores).

While the assignment was common fare, Hilda’s reaction was not. She generally believed that her students were apathetic and reported being very surprised by their engagement and interest in using computers in class. She did not believe that they would be interested, and was pleased when they were.

Another activity that she reported in November was asking students to produce a video instead of a written report for one of their projects. The ‘monograph’ is a topic in the curriculum and is part of study strand. She covered the topic by presenting to her class information regarding “what is a monograph’’, “types of monographs”, and “the characteristics of a monograph”; students then read their text book’s explanation as well, and they were asked to take notes on the same topic. She gave this assignment after a session at LETS where teachers also created a video. Following the suggestions in the curriculum, the students were asked to choose a recent topic from their geography or biology class as the subject of their video. Their work is similar to the legend and myth example, for the most part they created their video by copying information and images and placing them in Movie Maker. But even with these limitations, Hilda is moving in a new direction by considering academic products other than essays, summaries and reports.

During the spring of 2013, LETS held a series of virtual meetings with teachers, and Hilda participated actively in these. One of the most recent changes in her teaching is that she has begun to redefine how she gives assignments to students. This is best illustrated by her attempts to encourage students to propose their own questions for research, after introducing the topic in class. The most difficult situation that she has encountered is that the students’ questions are much broader than the ones she usually asks, and she has had to develop new approaches for classroom discussions and for organising and orienting their work in the computer lab.

In March and April, Hilda tried a different way of organising a thematic unit on indigenous languages of México, a topic in the seventh grade study program. She began by sending an email to her students inviting them to collaborate in a map locating the main language groups in México.


Figure 5: Language groups of Mexico created by Hilda and her students

She then organised her students in pairs—an innovation for her—and assigned them each a language to research, asking them to produce a short video documenting the location, culture, customs, and daily life of the different linguistic communities. She asked her students to write short texts, images, include a map, and their sources of information. Those students who completed the assignment for the most part met her expectations, although not all students turned in a final product. When explaining this assignment, Hilda stressed the idea that they should not copy and paste texts. She found signs of students’ attempts to use information they found in different ways: for example, two girls summarised and articulated information from more than one source, something new in Hilda’s classroom; another student further developed the indigenous language map described above and included the number of speakers of each language group, and a third student wrote phrases such as “According to the 2005 Méxican census there are 49,000 speakers” (De acuerdo al censo mexicano de 2005 cuenta con 49,000 hablantes”) as a way of referring to information he found without copying it. Readers who understand Spanish will note the non-conventional use of “de acuerdo al” instead of “de acuerdo con”, a phrasing that suggests that this is the student’s wording. Each of these student responses reflects Hilda’s effort to redesign assignments and redefine expectations for her students.

Lucia:“¿Cuál es el propósito?” (What is the purpose?)

Lucia is a young teacher with just three years classroom experience. She is an eighth grade language arts teacher at a medium size middle school in the south eastern end of México City. She is technologically savvy, and reported using the computer and Internet before coming to LETS for “for research, for communicating with others, for sending and receiving work”. Before joining us, she had used Microsoft Word and PowerPoint in her teaching, and looked for and selected videos for students to watch. She believes that for students to learn, they need to understand the purpose of their assignments, what she expects them to learn, and what the final product will be. She believes that this approach will help students “appropriate the tools that are necessary for effectively adapting to a society in constant change. (Brindarles las herramientas necesarias para adaptarse  eficazmente a una sociedad en constante cambio).

As part of her activities in LETS, she tried to establish a relationship with another teacher in the group by sending her emails and sharing work with her. She was disappointed that her colleague never answered her. Although Lucía hoped to continue her conversations beyond the group meetings, teacher collaboration, in México, is uncommon and not a widespread practice. In October she presented her use of Google Maps for doing book reports on Latin American authors. Students were first asked to choose five authors and a story from each one. After reading the stories and researching the authors’ lives, students located each one on a map, inserting photos and commentary regarding the stories they read.

When students were about half way through the project, Lucia had to suspend it because the principal had organised a special course on drug addiction that was held in the computer lab and she no longer had access. Since then she has organised activities around writing and recording an audio book, writing a biography using hypertext and, most recently, animated cartoons based on current events. In December 2012, Lucia opened a Facebook page to use with her students and invited their parents to visit it whenever they wanted. She uses this page to post information about assignments and publish students’ work; her students also use it to post comments and ask questions.


Figure 6: Lucía’s Facebook page where she sends her students materials, answers questions, receives comments and publishes their work

At the beginning of 2013, Lucia and her class worked on the curricular topic ‘Biography’. The program of study suggests that students write a biography and list characteristics of this genre. Lucia organised the students into groups and asked them to choose somebody they knew and interview them as the initial activity for this unit. Collectively they decided to ask their interview subjects about their childhood and school years, their jobs and daily activities and the most significant moments in their lives. Once they collected this information she the students wrote the person’s biography: Lucia taught them how to create a hypertext, using PowerPoint as the basis of their text and illustrations. Each group developed one hypertext biography to present to their classmates. This work could not be posted on Facebook because it did not keep the links, so she opted for class presentations of their finished projects. Before starting them, Lucia asked her class, “Based on your experience, what is a biography? What are its characteristics?”  The students articulated definitions on the spot and commented on what they considered to be its most important aspects. They then proceeded to present and comment on their work.


Figure 7: Main page of students’ biography of a local fireman, each topic (description, personal information, education, main events) are hyperlinked to other pages with photographs and texts written by students.

Teachers’ travel and errant trajectories

The descriptions of Hilda, Adriana, and Lucia incorporating technology into their classrooms illustrates how diverse and complex the endeavour is. Their portraits depict teachers’ processes for dealing with a variety of factors that directly affect and influence the decisions they make when trying to learn to do something they already know how to do: teach (Lave 2011). The purpose of this section is to foreground the teachers’ diverse and errant paths, and explore how they dealt with and resolved the variety of factors and unexpected situations that impacted how they worked with their students. While any one teacher’s experience cannot be generalised to others, the common denominator for this and other similar situations of educational change is the heterogeneity of teachers’ responses to demands, and the very different ways teachers turn to their own means and resources—their experience, beliefs, professional background, technological know-how, interactions with others—to make sense and act in specific teaching events (de Certeau 1988; Lave 2011).

In examining these teachers’ participation and processes we have found that:

  • Teachers have different starting points for participating in innovation projects such as this one: they have established classroom routines, years of experience, disciplinary knowledge, relationships with school authorities and co-workers, and technological practices (Jackson 1990; Guerrero 2011; Guerrero and Kalman, 2010;  Warschauer 2002).
  • Despite the official discourse that encourages and demands the use of technology at school, teachers’ work is often waylaid by institutional conditions and the decisions of others (Kalman and Rendón, fourthcoming; MacFarlane 2003).
  • By being a part of the LETS project, using digital technology, and discussing the affordances and limitations of digital culture, teachers often find themselves confronting different and often conflicting beliefs and pedagogical approaches, an experience that may be new to them.
  • There are deeply sedimented teaching traditions that often opaque other options for organising learning.

These sketches also illustrate how teachers make different decisions in order to meet the institutional and social demands of using ICD-T with students. Some teachers glide with relative ease through the operational aspects of technology, and they also deal with complexities and inconveniences as they arise; others struggle to understand how they might reorganise classroom work to take into account the ethos of digital culture, only to find that it opens so many new questions and challenges that they have to continuously rethink their decisions and increase their options; still others simply cling to “business as usual” teaching and use the keyboard and the screen to reiterate their established modus operandi. While all of the teachers discussed in this paper face using technology and incorporating similar elements into their work, their “phrasing” (De Certeau, 1988, p. xviii) seems quite different to us.

The errant trajectories described here include negotiating through policies, inadequate infrastructure, teaching traditions, assignment design issues, finding solutions for unexpected snafus, beliefs, professional background, and integrating some of the ideas and proposals from LETS. Given that this project is in process, there is a certain risk when coming to premature conceptualisations. For the sake of discussion, however, these teachers’ work, learning and participation can be understood through three metaphors, all of them related to travel or the idea of getting from one place to another. As shown in the figure below, trails are not linear or direct but twisting and turning and made up of advancing ones’s path and retracing it.


Figure 8: Errant trajectories: Teaching with technology

Some teachers seem to have a direct itinerary. As they pass through diverse social contexts, appropriate different social practices, and interact in multiple institutional spaces (Gee et al. 1996), they collect souvenirs from different places (technological know-how, new teaching approaches, innovative activities,) and articulate them in a variety of ways with their students. This is not to say that they do not encounter unexpected contingencies or unforeseen obstacles, but they mobilise their resources or find new ones to solve problems and continue with their work (Kress 2003; De Certeau 1988). Just as the traveller might find the unexpected puddle or a detour in the road, these teachers encounter closed computer labs, uncooperative students, computers that do not save work, or days when there is no Internet at school. They make modifications to their activity; they reorganise and redistribute time, or introduce a new option to students (Guerrero 2011; Rendón 2012). Lucia is a seasoned traveller in this sense, despite the reduced number of years she has been teaching.

She is at ease with technology and her work in the classroom suggests that she often rethinks how to teach what she wants to teach, and get around the confines of the curriculum and institutional obstacles she faces.  She uses her technological know-how and understanding of digital culture to organise ambitious products, uses Facebook to communicate with her students and publish their work, and designs assignments where students use multiple forms of representations and develop their own ideas (Matthewman 2004).  Her path seems to transform and surpass the expectations expressed in the official policies into activities rooted in her understanding of digital culture as a context for learning.

Other teachers seem to travel a wandering path, a network of interlinked side roads. Hilda is familiar with technology, uses it in her daily life, but has not used it much in her teaching until now. Incorporating the computer for designing cultural objects (New London Group 1996) and searching the Internet has made her question long held beliefs about her role as the teacher. When she saw her students´ work, she began to realise that most of it was limited to copying and pasting from other electronic sources, and this led her to think more about teaching and learning, about how she gave assignments, and about what she expected students to do (Sutherland et al. 2009). She back tracked over known territory and reconsidered her established way of giving assignments, particularly in the way questions were asked in her classroom. This in turn, brought on new situations and challenges for her.

She also revisited some of the assignments she gave, tried new ways of organising content and student work, and rethought some of her expectations of her students. One observable change in Hilda’s practice is her recognition of different modes of representation as valid for academic work, as seen in her attempts to design activities that are not restricted to writing a paper, creating a table or a conceptual map. Her trail is full of tracks back and forth between issues related to adapting the curriculum, design decisions, her beliefs about her students and taking into account the ideas presented in LETS.

Finally, the third metaphor is the traveller on a scheduled tour. The destination is set, the meals are pre-planned, and the means of transportation worked out. All this traveller has to do is get on the bus on time. There is no time to stroll, no need to deal with the unexpected. Here the teacher uses digital technology for “business as usual” and avoids wandering away from the planned activity even when she experiences bumps in the road or involuntary detours. Adriana seems to be this kind of teacher. Unlike the others, she does not back-up and take a different road to see where it might take her.  She is quite familiar with the computer and uses the Internet for her own purposes, but this knowledge is not shared with her students. What goes on in her class is very much aligned with a traditional view of the classroom, what Rogoff et al. (2003, p. 184) defines as “hierarchical structure, organised with fixed roles in which someone manages others’ participation, acting as a boss”. She does not question her role or her position (and much less her students’) and adheres to the tenets of authoritarian teaching where she tells her students what to do, has the final say, and disqualifies their work without hesitation. Here, Adriana asks the questions, she decides what is useful and what is not, and she is not open to suggestions. She gives assignments that can be resolved by copying a definition, by giving yes/no answers, or by locating diagrams or maps and simply reproducing them. She seems to grasp the formal aspects of using technology (the students, after all, are on the computer) but is not open (yet) to some of the principles of learning in a digital medium. She believes that she is innovating simply by using the computer but despite the affordances the computer and digital culture offer, she makes few changes in her teaching, preserving what she has always done. Adriana does not seem to have any conflicts or doubts; she uses the computers installed in her school for doing the types of activities and evaluating her students as she has always done. Her work is heavily influenced by the teaching traditions present in her context and her professional training regarding how students should learn and how teachers should teach. Despite her technological know how, suggestive ideas about how to rethink classroom teaching coming from participating in digital environments or the LETS sessions do not seem to make a mark on what she does or what she thinks.

Beyond traditional explanations

The premise of this paper is that within our study, the teachers’ efforts’ to incorporate technology into their work are the result of integrating, complex, heterogeneous and often contradictory elements. The argument here is that common explanations such as lack of training opportunities or unavailable materials do not fully explain why some teachers do what they do. Each of these may be a contributing factor but they alone do not allow us to have a deeper understanding of the difficulties teachers face, nor do not they clarify teachers’ decisions and subsequent actions. We have presented portraits of teachers with different stances toward technology and teaching, and we have shown that specific software is not necessary for innovation. All of our teachers have had the same opportunity for professional development through participating in LETS, and yet their responses, as exemplified by the three portraits presented, are quite different.

The analysis in this paper illustrates the intensely contradictory context in which teachers in Mexico find themselves. On one hand they are encouraged—even pressured by official discourse, international and national educational policy and public opinion, to use technology at school, to incorporate the Internet into their teaching and resources, and “expand access to learning, improve quality and ensure inclusion.” (UNESCO 2013).  On the other hand they have to figure out ways to circumvent conditions such as computers that have restricted use, lack of access to the computer lab, time limitations, and a complex, extensive program of study. As shown here, using the computer and the Internet can be an uphill climb for teachers from beginning to end.

They also face integrating their beliefs about learning, about their students and their role as teachers, with what digital culture has to offer.  Despite the physical presence of computers, the research at LETS (Guerrero, 2011; Rendon, 2012; Hernández, forthcoming, Kalman and Guerrero, 2013; Guerrero and Kalman, 2010, Guerrero and Kalman, 2011; Kalman and Hernández, 2013; Kalman y Rendón, fourthcoming; Solis, 2009), and the research of others (Cuban 2000; Lankshear & Knobel 2011; Law 2004; Leu 2002; Rojano 2003; Sutherland et al. 2004) has shown that this is not enough to transform teaching or improve learning in any substantial way. The foundations and basic tenets of traditional schooling seem to stay intact with or without computers or the Internet, unless they are directly addressed, examined and questioned. As Lankshear and Knobel (2011) point out, in the rise and dissemination of new literacies and digital technology, schools are behind the times.

The incorporation of technology in schools greatly depends on how teachers include it in their teaching, and their appropriation of its possibilities beyond operation. It implies a construction not only of technology’s multiple uses and tools, but also an understanding of the values, priorities—the ethos—of digital culture, including the aspects of learning. Teachers’ errant trajectories are the result of their particular articulation of the multiple and heterogeneous elements encountered and the obstacles they meet when working toward incorporating technology into their classrooms. This reminds us of how a successful transformation of teaching practice can, and often does, generate new problems to be resolved and reminded us of how professional development itself is rarely a smooth path. Policy and professional development, to be effective, will have to take teachers’ errant trajectories into account. It will have to provide multiple occasions for modelling new practices, teachers’ learning, and opportunities to try different approaches to teaching while allowing them to reflect with others.


1 All translations in the text are mine, rather than literal transcriptions they are written to “sound” as native like as possible.

2 The role of international agencies in the shaping of national policies in Mexico is beyond the scope of this paper, and requires a discussion of its own. However, it should be noted that international agencies such as UNESCO, World Bank and OECD and regional ones such as OEI and CEPAL share similar policies regarding the incorporation of technology into education. They promote the idea of a globalised world connected through the Internet and knowledge as the new and most coveted commodity for economic development, political stability, and democratisation. They see the incorporation of technology into schools as an important step towards reaching marginalised groups in remote areas, improving educational outcomes, and educating the workforce, eventually leading to market competitiveness and prosperity. The distribution of equipment is promoted as a ‘must do’ to insure closing the so called digital divide. These elements are present in Mexican policies and political speeches (see, for example President Calderon´s remarks in 2010 (http://spanish.china.org.cn/international/txt/2010-05/01/content_19949553.htm). For a look at international policies, consult OECD, (2010); Sunkel (2006); Jara, (2007) Unesco (2012); for a more critical discussion Warschauer, (2002) and Collins and Blot (2002).

3 The research reported in this paper is supported by the Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología in Mexico through the research grant 157675 for the ongoing project “Los profesores y las TIC: la apropiación de conocimiento en la práctica”. My sincerest gratitude to Wendy Piza and Victor Rendón of LETS for their assistance with the data presented in this paper and their discussion of earlier formulations.  The work done in LETS is intensely collective, when referring to collaborative ideas, I use the first person plural we, when discussing my ideas and decisions in writing this paper, I use the singular I. Also, thanks to Enna Carvajal for her constructive critique of earlier versions.

4 In research literature and other publications, digital technology and connectivity are often summarised as Information and Communication Technology and referred to as ICT. However, this leaves out a very important part of digital culture, namely the multiple tools, platforms, virtual spaces and resources that people use to make their own designs in a variety of representative modes. Furthermore, the “C” is often forgotten, leaving out the powerful tools for exchange that connectivity offers. For this reason, we are suggesting here to broaden the term to Information, Communication and Design Technology (ICD-T) as a way of putting the technology user back in the picture. See Buckingham, 2007.

5 All names are pseudonyms.

6 Although an important number of teachers who collaborate with LETS may begin without a working knowledge of computer use or wide spread practices (email for example), for the purpose of this paper, I chose teachers’ whose working knowledge is comparable.


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Biographical statement

Judy Kalman is a professor at the Departamento de Investigaciones Educativas (DIE) of the Centro de Investigación y Estudios Avanzados del IPN (CINVESTAV) in Mexico City. Her work centers on the social construction of literacy, everyday literacy use, and reading and writing in school settings; more recently she has extended her research agenda to include digital literacies.  She has authored articles in Spanish, English and Portuguese in academic research journals as well as practitioner-oriented publications. She has also collaborated with the Secretaría de Educación Pública in Mexico on programs designed for creating learning opportunities for adult learners, evaluating new curricular proposals, and writing materials for the language arts programs for students in rural secondary schools.  In 2002 she was the recipient for the International Literacy Research given by the UNESCO Institute of Education for her literacy work with unschooled and under schooled women. She is a member of the Mexican Academy of Science since 2004. Her current work is centered on literacy and ICT technologies in and out of school. In 2008 she co-founded the Laboratorio de Educación, Tecnología y Sociedad where she is currently its director at the CINVESTAV South campus.

Contact: judymx@gmail.com

Ben Abraham

Published Online: November 15, 2013
Full Text: HTML, PDF (464 KB)


This article examines the Tumblr site Fedoras of OK Cupid which emerged in 2012 amidst a growing trend in feminists and other activists online that used shaming as an activist strategy. Fedoras of OK Cupid displays images and excerpts from men who wear fedora hats in their OK Cupid dating profile pictures, often highlighting worrying or even downright dangerous attitudes towards women revealed by their profiles. To understand this practice this articles draws on work identifying feminist discursive activism in online communities, to examine the Tumblr site in the context of reintegrative shaming in order to evaluate the practice of deploying shame for activist ends. While shame is often seen as having stigmatising effects, the author of the Fedoras of OK Cupid Tumblr illustrates how the process of reintegrative shaming may work in the context of online activism by offering earnest commentary on negative attitudes while also offering the possibility of social reintegration.

Keywords: Discursive Activism, Feminism, Internet Activism, Internet Communities, Reintegrative Shame, Shaming, Social Media, Tumblr

In the following paper I present new research into a genre of feminist activism conducted on the social media site Tumblr, involving the curious choice to shame wearers of a certain type of hat. This choice might seem bizarre at first, but Fedoras of OK Cupid (FOOKC)1 belongs to an emerging form of feminist discursive activism that seeks to attach affective shame to the tropes and cultural objects associated with sexist and misogynistic attitudes and behaviours. Foundational research into online feminist activist communities has been done by Francis Shaw, who contextualises her research into “feminist discursive activism” within a larger challenge to theories of online publics and the problematic utopian ideals of participation. Much of the activism Shaw discusses is found across social media networks, a trend which FOOKC continues, however the site adds an extra dimension to the tactics it employs by involving the use of shame.

But there is a question hanging over such utilisation of shame, articulated best by Jill Locke who argues that a history of shaming women has been the norm, and that this history entreats feminists to strive to minimise shame rather than propagate it (or, by implication utilise it for any kind of purposive ends). An important contribution, and perhaps justification, for this question of shame is made by Elspeth Probyn, who argues for an adaption of the work of pioneering criminologist John Brathwaite’s conception of shame, as potentially either ‘stigmatizing’ or ‘reintegrative’, performing a kind of socialising function. The latter use of shaming, which Braithwaite found to be an incredibly useful alternative to more traditional forms of punishment (provided certain conditions are met) which I argue offers an important possible tactic for feminists, and it is possible to see this at work in FOOKC. Reintegrative shame works through a community (in this case, a community of feminist activists) to challenge deleterious norms—goals similar to that of discursive activism’s in challenging dominant discourses and norms, and exposing them to those more oriented towards feminist approaches.

Fedoras of OK Cupid

In October of 2012 in a piece of cultural criticism for the popular website Boing Boing, journalist and critic Leigh Alexander (2012) attempted to explain ‘Why the Fedora Grosses Out Geekdom.’ Inspired by a popular new Tumblr that had gone viral called Fedoras of OK Cupid (http://fedorasofokcupid.tumblr.com), Alexander explained that the fedora hat is at the crest of a series of cultural waves with some worrisome characteristics. Through no fault of its own, the fedora hat has become a symbol closely associated with a particular kind of young, socially awkward “geek” male, frequently aligned with some of the more openly misogynistic regions of the of the internet.

The conceit is extremely simple: the author (who goes by the pseudonym “misandristcutie”) trawls the popular dating site OK Cupid for pictures of men in fedora hats and posts them to the site, often including excerpts from their dating profile highlighting some undesirable, frequently sexist, and occasionally downright worrying aspect of their stated views and attitudes. These frequently include responses to OK Cupid’s hundreds of profiling questions, as well as sometimes elaborate comments that the profile owners have left to elucidate their responses to questions like “Do you feel there are any circumstances under which a person is obligated to have sex with you?” or their responses to whether “no means no” (The common answer: “A No is just a Yes that needs a little convincing!”). These images displayed on the Tumblr are often accompanied by some form of commentary or reaction, frequently expressions of fear, dismay, etc, expressed by misandristcutie herself at some aspect or another of the profile.

The site’s success in garnering viral attention tapped into a widely shared reaction to wearers of the hat, and through the sheer persuasiveness of its plentiful examples of fedora wearers who exhibit ‘red flag’ attitudes, suggests to readers of FOOKC the existence of (for lack of a better term) something akin to a fedora culture. The site points towards a troubling correlation between wearers of the hat and holders of regressive, sexist or dangerous attitudes towards women. Towards the beginning of the site’s somewhat controversial existence, however, it was common enough for the posts to limit themselves to criticisms of the appearance of the fedora, as the fully developed critique of the fedora-cultural complex took time to emerge. While the tone of the site has remained constant (it has always maintained that fedoras ‘look bad’), it took time and the appearance of similar site Nice Guys of OK Cupid2 to clarify and deepen the criticism to more than just one based on appearance. The now-defunct site, which existed from late 2012 to January 2013 oriented itself explicitly towards an activist and educational role, highlighting the disparity between the self-professed “nice guy” statements of young men on dating sites with their regressive and often sexist attitudes, all while downplaying and attempting to mitigate the ‘individual’ nature of the problem by obscuring identifying information and so on. Nice Guys of OK Cupid also used the same ‘image and caption’ technique, as did other lesser-known fedora-focussed tumblrs’ that appeared around the same time including Fedoras: Forever Alone, and Should You Wear That Fedora (the unspoken answer being, no you should not).

How the fedora came to be associated with a very distinct ‘type’ of young male with such negative or regressive attitudes towards women is likely to be related to an increased awareness and popularity of Pick Up Artists (PUAs) and their strategies, following Neil Strauss’ The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pick-up Artists (2005) and its numerous cultural spin-offs, including a VH1 television series The Pickup Artist (2007-2008). The quintessential image of the PUA is the swaggering, middle-class white, often geeky male, between 18 and 30, who imitates the dress code and flair of a pimp (in PUA terminology called ‘peacocking’) and ‘negs’ (a form of calculated, back-handed compliment) his way into the bed of the many women who would otherwise be uninterested, or ‘out-of-his-league’. ‘Negging’ and the PUA ethos in general represents a resurgent strain of misogyny that views women as fair game for psychological and emotional manipulation, since they are seen as the gatekeepers to sex, which the PUA attitude views itself as entitled to. Consideration for the women targeted by these tactics is never entered into beyond a functional will they or won’t they sleep with me calculation. Highly ranked in Google searches for ‘pickup artist style guide’ is a 2009 post on a Pick Up Artist forum in which the author gives the following “peacock tip”:

If you wear a hat, make it memorable, easy to spot, and something to work with your style. This is usually easier than it sounds. Try the fedora…it portrays you’re [sic] a stylish man that knows what he’s doing, and it’s a great lock-in prop (Smith, 2008).

FOOKC picks up on this connection, and as Leigh Alexander notes, draws humour from the emerging consensus that FOOKC taps into: ‘that the fedora-wearers think they look much more suave than they do.’ (Alexander, 2012). It’s a form of cultural push-back that, as we shall see in a moment, may have a deliberate activist impulse underneath its fedora-shaming surface. Alexander also crucially locates the meaning of this type of site within a larger phenomenon, describing the cultural storm into which the Fedora has entered as one in which:

…a peculiar subculture of love-entitled male nerds whose social inexperience and awkwardness manifests in a world rocked by a gender revolution—a tectonic shift in the makeup of formerly cloistered, rule-bound clubs (Alexander, 2012).

To get a sense of the consensus into which FOOKC is tapping and the explicitness of her criticisms of the fedora, it’s necessary to look at a number of the “questions” that other Tumblr users and anonymous readers have sent into the site. This is the primary method of feedback and communication with readers, and the following comments illustrate an awareness of negative connotations associated with fedora culture (all comment are as written, with their particular spellings and capitalisations retained).

For example, fellow Tumblr user “wretchedoftheearth” left the following comment for FOOKC: ‘I have yet to have someone who likes fedoras, frequents reddit, and is a brony3 message me and not be horrible.’ (FOOKC, 2012b) FOOKC’s owner misandristcutie posted this question to the tumblr adding only a simple ‘yes thank you’ by way of agreement (FOOKC, 2012b). Another comment FOOKC responded to asks, “omg what is it with these guys calling themselves ‘gentlemen’ or ‘classy’ because they own a fedora?? I can smell the benevolent sexism from here” to which misandristcutie offered the following telling insight: “trade secret: i find a good amount of fedoras from searching keywords and ‘gentleman’ is a goldmine” (FOOKC, 2012c). A similar comment expressed bemusement at the fedora type: “It’s funny how many people think they’re chivalrous, yet wear hats from the 1900’s. I’d like to see one woman want to live out those years.” (FOOKC, 2012j)

Here we see catch a glimpse of the impulse behind FOOKC, thought one only made explicit by a reader, in a process of communal clarification of purpose that was repeated when, a few months into FOOKC’s existence, Nice Guys of OK Cupid gained an even greater level of attention in the media. The activist impulse lies in forging a connection between fedoras and the sexist attitudes held during historical periods, and by claiming it is not incidental but central to the fedora culture and why women are turned off by it. This is a challenge to the construction of the fedora as ‘cool’ or ‘suave’, and an attempt to shame those who wear them.

This is the primary method in which FOOKC conducts its shaming – by holding fedora culture up to the light of a fairly critical and engaged community. Specifically by highlighting the appearance (the fedora) and the statements of men on OK Cupid and judging them, often in collaboration with a community of likeminded readers and commenters. In the following sections I will position this shaming as a novel form of what Frances Shaw calls feminist discursive activism, before discuss the question of the appropriateness of shame’s utility.

Shaming as feminist discursive activism

The question of how to ‘do’ activism online post-slacktivism critiques is an open and ongoing one. Frances Shaw’s research into the Australian feminist activist blogosphere provides important insight into the areas fruitful and productive activism is taking place online, and she pairs her observations with a number of pertinent critiques of the dominant social research paradigms of the past several years. In two papers, The Politics of Blogs: Theories of Discursive Activism Online (Shaw, 2012a) and Hottest 100 Women; Cross-platform Discursive Activism in Feminist Blogging Networks (Shaw, 2012c), she makes persuasive claims regarding online practices that demonstrate a need to revise theories of deliberative democracy, as well as arguing for a turn towards conceptions of social movements (especially feminist activist blog networks) as counterpublics. According to Shaw (2012a: 42), a more agonistic understanding of online discussion that can incorporate and account for inequalities is needed and these critiques form the basis of her argument for a discursive activism, which she describes as:

…speech or texts that seek to challenge opposing discourses by exposing power relations within these discourses, denaturalising what appears natural (Fine, 1992: 221) and demonstrating the flawed assumptions and situatedness of mainstream social discourse.

From her research into the strategies employed by the Australian feminist blogosphere, Shaw suggests that public sphere theory suffers from a lack of awareness of ‘the inevitability of power relations and inequality in social life’ (Shaw, 2012a: 43). This lack is only exacerbated online, as according to Shaw, ‘internet researchers must exclude from analysis debate that takes place in non-universal, or non-heterogeneous publics’ (2012a: 43) or else fail to meet the criteria for deliberative democracy. Shaw’s crucial objection is that, whilst desirable, the normative openness of deliberative democracy fails to reflect conditions as we find them actually existing online, and indeed the unequal power relations reflected in who is listened to online is a major concern, and discursive target, for feminist activists.

Somewhat more practically explanatory than her published papers are the results of her PhD research, which detail the techniques of discursive activism themselves. Presented most accessibly as a talk delivered on 27th of August 2013 at the University of Sydney’s Online Media Group meeting, Shaw detailed a number of activities and strategies that the feminist blogsphere had developed to combat certain types of commonly encountered arguments. Many of these techniques have been widely taken up outside the Australian feminist blogosphere, and there is a strong sense of cross-pollination across international lines (Shaw, 2012b). Shaw lists five strategies which she found the Australian feminist blogosphere to be employing: “Play Bingo”, “Disemvowelling”, “Splaining”, “Concern Troll”, and “Fauxpology”. Each strategy involves some form of subversion, or the creation of new terminology that reveals the ideological or normative content of mainstream discourses. The first two, ‘Play Bingo’ and ‘Disemvowelling’ are extra-discursive strategies that target discourses, while the latter three are specific words or phrase coined in order to give a name to repeated tropes or tactics frequently employed by those arguing for sexist or bigoted positions. For the sake of brevity, I will only describe the first tactic “playing bingo”, however, each performs a unique discursive activity that highlights or challenges some otherwise hidden feature of sexism in mainstream discourses. Importantly, though Shaw does not discuss it explicitly, these tactics frequently also invoke tacit or explicit shaming strategies, and are often most effective when they involve the participation of a whole community, having less effect when employed individually. ‘Playing Bingo’ illustrates this point.

To “Play Bingo” means to metaphorically tick off squares on a bingo card image (often in a comment thread, or on social media) that was created beforehand featuring common or stock phrases, rhetorical devices or techniques typically employed in the defence of sexist, misogynistic or bigoted positions. Shaw gives examples of phrases included on such cards: ‘Patriarchy hurts men too’, ‘We gave you the vote now shut up’, ‘You’re being silly and overemotional’, ‘You’ve just got a victim mentality’, and ‘Is it that time of the month’ (Shaw, 2012b). The purpose of this activity, is twofold: embodied in the prior creation of the card is a ‘pre-empting’ of the clichéd, repeated sentiments of the sexist interlocutor, and which goes some way to demonstrating its unoriginality. It sends the message that your argument for a sexist or bigoted position is neither novel nor as clever as you think it is. In this way the feminist discursive activist makes a powerful rhetorical case for the opponent’s lack of originality, and the wearying banality of these arguments – so repetitive are they that they have ossified into a bingo card, ready to be mocked and discounted.

The importance of this type of discursive activism as communal is not to be overlooked. As in many of Shaw’s examples of discursive activism, for the proprietor of FOOKC her work building a community, presumably largely composed of feminists, is an important element of the activism she engages in. Again, comments in the form of ‘ask’ questions reveal this aspect: “You are a treasure and and [sic] your blog is a delight. These men are nightmarish and shameful and I can’t even with any of it” (FOOKC, 2012i) was one such comment, FOOKC replying, “you are just a peach!! i hope you have a lovely evening or whatever time it is where you are” (2012i). Similar sentiments crop up, with an “i luv u” (FOOKC, 2012g) comment (“luv u 2” comes the reply), and “no questions, just adulation: pages like this are pretty much the saving grace of Tumblr.” (FOOKC, 2012h) Misandristcutie herself here replies with a beatific, “bless u have a great day” (FOOKC, 2012h). Recognition, expressions of love, and expressions of solidarity form a large part of the positive comments FOOKC receives, and contributes without doubt to the sense of fun, solidarity and inclusiveness, contrasting strongly with the language she uses to describe the profiles of the men in fedoras, frequently described as ‘scary’ or ‘creepy’.

The importance of the communal dimension might not entirely be evident. Partially, it serves to enable some of the social dimensions of Shaw’s discursive activism – Playing Bingo for instance doesn’t carry the same persuasive force if done on one’s own, and the solidarity extended amongst activist communities seems to be an important component. But further, it constitutes an important pre-requisite for what John Braithwaite describes as reintegrative shame, which will be discussed in a moment.

There is also evidence that the Tumblr site’s efforts are having some real impact, with a number of so-called ‘testimonials’ of the effects of fedora shaming. One anonymous question asker left the following comment:

Oh hey I made the site. I’d like to confirm with you that I removed my fedora from my household months ago. Just never got around to up-dating the old page. <3 you guys for spreading the truth, ashamed I ever wore one in the first place. (FOOKC, 2012k)

FOOKC’s response was characteristically enthusiastic: “!!! testimonials r so inspiring” (FOOKC, 2012k). It is a gesture of enthusiasm for having achieved some level of influence, as well as an extension of acceptance and beneficence. The tumblr author is ‘inspired’ and her language is a clear departure from her usually dry commentary on the site. Like the previous commenter’s testimonial, another former-Fedora wearer featured on the site wrote in simply, “I’m one of the recently-posted fedoras. Happy to say I’ve seen the light.” (FOOKC, 2012f) FOOKC replied with a jubilant “hallelujah”. It is plain that misandristcutie derives more fun engaging with her fans and like-minded readers than from shaming Fedora culture. But to reach such an effective place from which to exercise a form of cultural criticism of the trappings and tropes of PUA culture, ‘nice guy’ culture, and the sexism of OK Cupid users, the site relies on the persuasive force of shaming.

Shame’s Reintegrative or Stigmatizing Potential

But there is a moral question hanging over this use of ‘shaming’ worth examining in some detail, namely whether it is appropriate to use shaming as an activist strategy. Shaming tactics appear to be reaching a critical mainstream awareness, with a July 2013 Wired editorial arguing somewhat hyperbolically that, “Shaming, it seems, has become a core competency of the Internet, and it’s one that can destroy both lives and livelihoods” (Hudson 2013). Discussing the unfortunate result of the incident at Pycon 2013 in which Adria Richards Twitter shamed two men making inappropriate jokes at the conference. In classic Wired fashion the editorial foregoes consideration of the power disparities involved based on historical, gender, or racial factors instead focussing solely on the more technical power resulting from one party possessing a large network of followers on twitter, in this case, Richards herself. Her actions at Pycon join other instances of shaming that Hudson’s editorial mentions, identifying what appears to be a growing movement among women and minorities cultivating more agonistic activist strategies online, everywhere from Twitter to Tumblr, as we shall see in a moment, and even surprisingly in the online gaming service Xbox Live with its player culture that is notoriously hostile to women and minorities (Gray 2013).

Most critical in her appraisal of the use of shaming is Jill Locke (2007), who brings a deliberative democracy perspective to the issue of the deployment of shame, asking valuable questions about its appropriateness. She begins by noting that shaming tactics, particularly those involved with protest and activist movements, have a

…long and proud tradition within feminist, gay and lesbian, civil rights, and labor politics. From muckrakers to lefty bloggers to progressive marchers, shaming occupies a well-established place in the activist’s toolkit (Locke 2007, p. 146).

Condensing a wealth of somewhat divergent scholarship on the issue of shame, and particularly shame as experienced by women, Locke cautions against shame’s unilateral utility, for “complicating this…is the extent to which shame has been deployed against [feminist activist] concerns” (Locke 2007, p. 147). For Locke, all forms of shame appear implicated by this history of hegemonic-deployment, and she cites a number of occasions in which shame was used to undermine progressive goals, such as by supporters of the (US) Defense Against Marriage Act, during certain state level bans on same-sex-marriage and notes that it’s often deployed by anti-welfare and anti-gay activists. (Locke 2007, p 147)

Here it is worth elaborating the theory of shame proposed by the criminologist John Braithwaite, as explained by Elspeth Probyn (2005, p. 88):

The core idea in Braithwaite’s articulation of shaming is that shame can be either reintegrative or stigmatizing. It all depends on the context in which shaming takes place. Braithwaite took the idea originally from a New Zealand legal initiative that had been based on Maori traditions. It is argued that within close communities, shaming the offender works better than other more formal sanctions, because individuals care about what their family and friends think about them.

Braithwaite’s conception of both the positive potential of reintegrative shaming and the dangers of stigmatizing shame comes from a pragmatic position on human behavior and criminality that is rare in a climate of extremes. His approach has a clarity and surprising lucidity to it, as according to Braithwaite (1989, p. 71), “people comply with the law most of the time not through fear of punishment, or even fear of shaming, but because criminal behaviour is simply abhorrent to them.” Braithwaite also maintains there is a powerful connection between shame and socialisation or moral conduct, citing the moral-symbolic content of shame as a powerful socialising force in an individual’s development (1989, p. 72). This is a critical point about the effect of shaming:

Shaming is more pregnant with symbolic content than punishment. Punishment is a denial of confidence in the morality of the offender by reducing norm compliance to a crude cost-benefit calculation; shaming can be a reaffirmation of the morality of the offender by expressing personal disappointment that the offender should do something so out of character, and, if the shaming is reintegrative, by expressing personal satisfaction in seeing the character of the offender restored (Braithwaite 1989, pp. 72-3).

Braithwaite maintains that, when possible, shaming is actually a better mechanism for maintaining a moral order than punishment. So powerful is the effect of shaming on maintaining this order that Braithwaite (1989, p. 74) observes it in action in Japanese ceremonies that perform reintegrative shame: “the moral order derives a very special kind of credibility when even he who has breached it openly comes out and affirms the evil of the breach.” This echoes the above comment from a former ‘fedora wearer’ who was ‘happy’ to have sworn off wearing the cultural indicator of sexism, only too happy to have ‘seen the light’.

The reintegration occurs via apology, and what Goffman (1971, p. 113) calls disassociation, in which one splits from and repudiates the former offending self. However Braithwaite (1989, p. 76) acknowledges that “…shaming can be both reintegrative and disintegrative, and… …much turns on this distinction.” Indeed, Braithwaite emphasises the importance of the offer of forgiveness and the possibility of reintegration in avoiding stigmatising shame, dependent on a context of respect. Probyn (2005, pp. 88-9), quoting Braithwaite (2000, pp. 281), summarises the conditions for reintegrative shame, noting that:

The capacity for interdependency is crucial to a good outcome of shaming, as is a context of respect. In this way, “reintegrative shaming communicates disapproval within a continuum of respect for the offender: the offender is treated as a good person who has done a bad deed.”

Misandristcutie’s criticisms of the fedora wearers, it should be noted, rarely extend to necessary judgments of character—usually instead receiving relational descriptions and emotive reactions, such as finding their appearance ‘scary’ etc. This perhaps holds open the door to reintegration, in which the ‘offending’ Fedora wearer repudiates the trappings of a dangerous culture. I want to suggest that it may be this very important and contingent extension of forgiveness which is what Locke is recognising and reacting to, with the alternative being a stigmatising shame precisely the kind of shaming that feminist activists would be most likely subject to. Especially since the moral regimes of these anti-gay, anti-welfare and anti-feminist cultures cannot countenance, cannot reintegrate, the existence or presence of women without ‘repudiating’ their feminist beliefs. Adding to the case for the utility of a feminist reintegrative shame, Probyn (2005, pp. 87-8) notes that:

…it makes a certain sense that the subordinated may have more nuanced skills at shaming than the privileged. The common sense of this proposition is evidence in shaming slogans used by queers and feminists: from the queer epithet ‘breeders,’ directed at straights (and indeed the appellation ‘straight’), to the more complex equations familiar to feminism, such as ‘porn is the theory, rape the practise’ and ‘a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.’

It is worth taking on Locke’s appropriate concern for the shamed, as the generosity of her attitude of care represents an important component of the context of respect so important to establishing Braithwaite’s ‘reintegrative shame,’ rather than the often toxic and exclusionary ‘stigmatizing shame’.


It’s worth emphasising that, in light of the above, the impetus behind the shaming FOOKC does not seem to be one of retaliation, adding credence to the theory that the shaming may be reintegrative. When asked whether anyone ever writes in with angry comments or asks for their image to be removed from the site, FOOKC replied, “never had a request to be taken down but i’d certainly honor their wishes if they asked!! ofc it would be sad cuz i treasure my nerds” (FOOKC, 2012a). While this response could be interpreted as condescension, in the context of her other comments it reads to me as earnest, if cloaked in the particular typo-strewn mode of writing prevalent on Tumblr which tends to mimic slang, orality and play (Danet, 2001: 6), as well as earlier forms of ‘text speak’. Eschewing capitalisation, this mode of writing seems to prefer personalisation and immediacy over carefully crafted and cultivated expressions (fitting with theories around microblogging in general as orienting towards ‘real time’). (Grace, et al., 2010; Bruns, 2012; Sakaki et al., 2010) In the context of the blog and the rest of FOOKC’s comments, I read misandristcutie’s comments about ‘treasuring’ her nerds as sincere, as an expression of care, and an extension of the possibility of reintegration.

Similarly, when informed (again, via anonymous question) that someone had been visiting the profiles of the people FOOKC had featured, expressing that they seemed ‘like solidly decent people’, and asked whether FOOKC thought the blog was bullying, FOOKC replied (again, in the particular Tumblr speak) “i don’t mean 2 hurt anyone i just want 2 laugh at bad hats” (FOOKC, 2012d). This comment, posted in the period towards the beginning of FOOKC’s existence and perhaps before the full critique of fedora culture was worked out (led in part by the more explicitly activist educational work of Nice Guys of OK Cupid as mentioned above) perhaps explains the retreat into insistence on “laughing at bad hats.” I understand her comment as possibly being an expression of not quite understanding her own project in FOOKC, resulting in a poor apologia for the shaming of their wearers, but one that retreats from personal commentary (and stigmatising shame) nonetheless. It can be read as an attempt to objectify the shaming, so that the object itself becomes the target of shame, and not the people themselves, but the difficulty and contingency of expressing this argument is great, requiring a more complex articulation than simply wanting to laugh at bad hats.

The relative failure of this explanation also serves as a reminder of the human cost of shaming, with the experience of those shamed likely to be at least unpleasant—notwithstanding the above commenter who ultimately agreed with the critique and was “Happy to say I’ve seen the light” (FOOKC, 2012f). Indeed for those reintegrated into the community, there appears to be significant benefits as we shall see below. Misandristcutie’s withdrawal into “just wanting to laugh at bad hats,” as well as her other comments regarding “treasuring [her] nerds” seem to reflect the same kind of concern Jill Locke (2007) extended to the victims of shame above, even those ordinarily considered the enemies of or hostile to feminism. It is difficult to see how one could criticise fedora culture to the same extent without holding up individuals as examples. Even Nice Guys of OK Cupid, with its brand of activist criticisms of the ‘nice guy’ trope closely aligned with fedora culture, attracted only the mildest of criticism (likely due to its more successful orientation towards shaming behaviour) from, for example, Laurie Penny, who added that,

…there has to be an answer to these guys that isn’t just pointing and laughing. Calling out rapists and online predators is a more than legitimate strategy for dealing with abuse. But how are we supposed to handle common-or-garden sexist dickwaddery when it puts photos on the internet and asks to be loved… (Penny, 2012)

Even Penny (2012), however, could not resist ending on a conciliatory note, wondering whether she herself ‘should stop being such a Nice Girl’ in light of the dubious obligation impressed upon women to ‘be understanding’ with these often problematic men. What I am suggesting here is that, whether deserved or not, reintegrative shaming as described by Braithwaite might be a partial ‘answer’ to what Penny is seeking, with the potential for hugely important and transformative reintegration for the shamed men, as the following comment demonstrates. Shortly after the comment mentioned earlier that questioned whether FOOKC was bullying the young men featured on the site, another anonymous commenter, presumably male, wrote in the following, responding to the allegation:

the blog isn’t bullying its a fucking mass intervention. i used to dress like an awful shitty nerd with mutton chops and a soul patch in college, then one time at a party i got taken to task by a sassy designer dude that was big into fashion. it stung a little at the time, but i took his advice and now i look like and actually am a guy that manages to get laid on occasion, so I owe you and the rest of the world’s fashion police a debt of gratitude, much respect (FOOKC, 2012e).

This comment makes something like a claim for the long-term benefit or transformative value for the shamed, and his expression is coming from one that, presumably, is now reintegrated into the broader feminist community. As the success of FOOKC, as well as the size and vocal nature of communities around the site makes clear, there is a significant population of young women who these OK Cupid users could be dating if only they weren’t scaring them away with fedoras and dangerous attitudes. Through projects like FOOKC and even Nice Guys of OK Cupid, these generous activist communities have also demonstrated that they are invested in the project of men not being sexist, and in dropping both the ‘benevolent sexism’ as one commenter described it earlier and the cultural markers associated with fedora culture. The form that this activism takes is discursive—by challenging the ‘geek mainstream’ constructions of fedoras as cool, fashionable headwear, and encouraging men to ditch these cultural trappings through shaming, with the extended offer of a reintegration into more feminist friendly communities.


In this paper I have looked at the Tumblr site Fedoras of OK Cupid and its engagement in shaming tactics, consolidating a growing consensus that fedoras are not cool, based largely on the frequently deleterious, dangerous or regressive attitudes of their wearers. I have articulated this practise within existing social movement research into discursive activism, cultivating both a community to exercise this activism, which largely takes the form of shaming. This novel addition to identified discursive activist tactics carries with it a question of whether shame is a legitimate activist tactic, or whether it is irredeemably tainted by its problematic history of deployment against women as a method of oppression and control. I have argued that criminologist John Braithwaite’s conception of reintegrative shame provides a useful theoretical frame for understanding ‘good’ forms of shame that extend the possibility of reintegration and socialisation. Misandristcutie’s  ‘treasuring’ of her nerds and similar statements position the targets of her criticism and shaming as possible candidates for reintegration into the broader feminist community, in line with Braithwaite’s explanation. I claim that members of the community paint a picture of the benefits of reintegration, and of taking these feminist’s concerns seriously, adding credence to the notion of legitimate shaming deployed by feminist discursive activists.


1 http://fedorasofokcupid.tumblr.com

2 http://niceguysofokcupid.tumblr.com

3 The term ‘brony’ is the name adopted by the subculture of male fans of the My Little Pony television show—a portmanteau of ‘bro’ and ‘pony’.


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Braithwaite, J. (1989). Crime, shame, and reintegration. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Braithwaite, J. (2000). Shame and Criminal Justice. Canadian Journal of Criminology 42:3, 281-298.

Bruns, A. (2012). ‘Gatekeeping, Gatewatching, Real-Time Feedback: New Challenges for Journalism.’ Guest lecture presented at the University of Helsinki.

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Fedoras of OK Cupid, (2012g). Retrieved November 3, 2013, from http://fedorasofokc.tumblr.com/post/32762847590/i-luv-u

Fedoras of OK Cupid, (2012h). Retrieved November 3, 2013, from http://fedorasofokc.tumblr.com/post/32763805834/no-questions-just-adulation-pages-like-this-are

Fedoras of OK Cupid, (2012i). Retrieved November 3, 2013, from http://fedorasofokc.tumblr.com/post/32775729096/you-are-a-treasure-and-and-your-blog-is-a-delight

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Grace, J., Zhao, D., and boyd, d. (2010). Microblogging: what and how can we learn from it?. In CHI ‘10 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 4517-4520). ACM: New York.

Gray, K. (2013). Collective Organizing, Individual Resistance, or Asshole Griefers? An Ethnographic Analysis of Women of Color In Xbox Live. Ada Journal of Gender, New Media and Technology 2. Retrieved November 3, 2013, from http://adanewmedia.org/2013/06/issue2-gray/

Hudson, L. (2013, July 24). Why You Should Think Twice Before Shaming Anyone on Social Media, Wired. Retrieved November 3, 2013, from http://www.wired.com/underwire/2013/07/ap_argshaming/

Locke, J. (2007). Shame and the Future of Feminism. Hypatia 22:4, 146-162.

Penny, Laurie. (2012, December 23). A note on the Nice Guys of OK Cupid. The New Statesman. Retrieved November 3, 2013, from www.newstatesman.com/laurie-penny/2012/12/note-nice-guys-ok-cupid

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Sakaki, T., Okazaki, M. and Matsuo, Y. (2010)  Earthquake shakes Twitter users: real-time event detection by social sensors. Proceedings of the 19th international conference on the World wide web. Retrieved November 3, 2013, from http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1772777

Shaw, F. (2012a). The Politics of Blogs. Media International Australia 142,  41-49.

Shaw, F. (2012b). Australian feminist blogs and online discursive activism. Talk at the Online Media Group, Sydney University. Retrieved November 3, 2013, from http://fillmeupwith.info/2012/08/30/australian-feminist-blogs-and-online-discursive-activism/

Shaw, F. (2012c). Hottest 100 Women. Australian Feminist Studies 27:74, 373-387.

Smith, D. (2009, October 9). The Unfinished PUA’s Guide to Fashion, Style, & Peacocking. MPUAForum.com. Retrieved November 3, 2013, from http://www.pick-up-artist-forum.com/the-unfinished-pua-s-guide-to-fashion-style-peacocki-vt53393.html

Biographical Statement

Ben Abraham is a PhD candidate at the University of Western Sydney researching internet communities and the political and philosophical issues around the responsibility of non-human actors.  His writing has been published online at Gamasutra, Kotaku Australia, and in print with KillScreen Magazine and the ‘Halo and Philosophy’ anthology.

Website: http://iam.benabraham.net

Email: benjamin.j.abraham@gmail.com

John Traxler

Published Online: November 15, 2013
Full Text: HTML, PDF (333 KB)


There are now many accounts of mLearning projects and pilots, and perhaps solutions, for International Development. This paper does not add to these but questions the ways in which researchers and policymakers talk, think and reason about them. The issues being addressed here are not research issues but are the relationships, in the field of learning for international development, of these accounts to the wider contexts in which this research takes place. Rather than assuming that evidence, sampling, evaluation and hypotheses, for example, are of internal, academic or methodological interest, this paper tries to explore their wider context, itself not methodologically straightforward. These are however important issues because learning with mobiles in international development has started to move from practitioners, activists and researchers to agencies, corporations and policymakers. This is a transformation methodologically, ethically, culturally and pedagogically as new drivers, constraints and goals come into play.

Keywords: Digital literacy, technology, practice, teaching, Mexico, secondary school, socio cultural theory.

Part one: The time is right

Agency Interest

It is important to explore the place of mobiles to support and deliver learning in international development now because there has been increasing interest amongst the wider world of agencies, corporates and ministries, alongside a discernible shift in activity away from Western Europe. This introduces new pressures and drivers into a research community that had previously evolved in a relatively stable and conventional research ecosystem.

Prior to this, it might be plausible to characterise much of the mobile learning research community as relatively small, an appendage of the e-learning research community, working within the same paradigm and attempting to deliver on the same objectives. This community had established that it could enhance, enrich and challenge existing ideas about education but only on a small scale and within resource rich environments (Kinshuk, Huang & Spector, 2013; Berge & Muilenburg, 2013; Parsons, 2011). A smaller community, mostly outside Western Europe, used mobiles to extend access to education in the face of the challenges of infrastructure, resources, distance and environment – something of simplification (Traxler 2013) but nevertheless a useful caricature of the status quo ante.

To trace a time line of the change that took place, in about October 2010, the Development Fund of the GSMA, now subsumed into the GSMA Mobiles for Development programme, the trade association for the MNOs (mobile network operators) globally, published mLearning: A Platform for Educational Opportunities at the Base of the Pyramid (GSMA 2010) intended to brief the MNOs about possible business opportunities. In February 2011, the massive World Mobile Congress in Barcelona sponsored its first awards – now in their third year – for learning and attracted an impressive field from organisations working in international development. In August 2011, USAID, United States Agency for International Development, convened the first m4Ed4Dev symposium in Washington D.C. as a prelude to launching the mEducation Alliance in early 2012. In November 2011, one of the WISE debates focused on mobiles, education and the hard-to-reach.  WISE is the World Innovation Summit for Education, an annual educational convention funded by the Qatar Foundation. In December 2011, UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, in Paris convened its First Mobile Learning Week, consisting of both closed sessions and open sessions. These sessions focussed, regionally and globally, on policy issues and teacher development, the latter often seen as a crucial place to break into the educational cycle and promote education for all (EFA). In March of 2012 there was a further International Symposium in Washington organised by UNESCO, hosted by CoSN, the Consortium for School Networking, and drawing together major practitioners and stakeholders.

At about this time, a UNESCO initiative funded by Nokia, commissioned regional reviews that would capture the global state of mobile learning. This was not specifically in relation to international development and indeed had to take whatever evidence it could find. The objective was however to support UNESCO priorities which continue to include Africa and the empowerment of women and girls. The reviews had pretensions to being rigorous, systematic and comprehensive but were largely produced by consultants from secondary sources and informal contacts.

The next mEducation Alliance Symposium, in September 2012, entitled Partnering For Scale And Impact, illustrated the growing emphasis and direction of both corporate and agency priorities. The second UNESCO event, another Symposium, included in its Mobile Learning Week, in Paris in February of 2013, continued to align with wider objectives within the development community, shared with USAID, and focused on three particular EFA goals as they relate to mobile learning, namely:

  • Improving levels of adult and youth literacy: how mobile technologies can support literacy development and increase reading opportunities
  • Improving the quality of education: how mobile technologies can support teachers and their professional development
  • Achieving gender parity and equality in education: how mobile technologies can support equal access to and achievement in basic education of good quality for all, in particular for women and girls.

How each of these goals was seen as related to their respective mobile objective reveals something of the bias behind agency thinking.

Significantly, the Symposium sought contributions on Mobiles for Literacy, Mobiles for Quality of Education and Mobiles for Gender Equality. The UNESCO initiative, supported by Nokia, now had several components, namely, Policy Research and Advocacy, Teacher Support and Development and Mobile Learning Technology Concept Development and has started to convene panels and publish on all these three components. Workshops on Developing Literacy through Mobile Phones – Empowering Women and Girls were another UNESCO activity.

There have also significant reports to the World Bank, eTransform Africa Final Report (World Bank 2011a), and to the World Economic Forum, Accelerating the Adoption of mLearning: A Call for Collective and Collaborative Action (WEF 2012) along with second one from GSMA (2012), their Transforming learning through mEducation produced by McKinsey & Company, in Mumbai, and the eLearning Africa 2013 Report (Isaacs 2013), show mobiles surfacing as the obvious delivery mechanism across the continent. The emergent UNESCO Policy Guidelines understandably reflect the world in which UNESCO operates. They perhaps unsurprisingly were aligned to UNESCO’s member-state audiences of ministry policy-makers and presented mobile learning as a conception that could work best within the confines of national formal initial education systems with much uncritical talk of system strengthening. Subsequent publications addressed literacy for women and girls (UNESCO 2013), youth workforce development (USAID 2013a) and reading (USAID 2013b).

Increasingly learning with mobiles will be influenced by these organisations and agencies, by their conceptions and their priorities. UNESCO for example say, “Mobile learning, or “m-learning”, offers modern ways to support learning process through mobile devices, such as handheld and tablet computers, MP3 players, smartphones and mobile phones.” whilst the USAID position is, “the identification and applications of mobile technologies that can be effectively leveraged to address pressing educational issues including: literacy, appropriate educational content development and dissemination, system strengthening (such as education data for decision making), accessibility for learners with disabilities, professional development for educators, and workforce development.”, from the mEducation Alliance mission statement (http://www.meducationalliance.org/page/mission). These definitions are at odds with the current ideas of the mobile learning research communities that have moved away from techno-centric definitions towards conceptions of mobile learning that focus on the mobility of the learner, on the capacity of learners to cross contexts, and on conceptions of learning aligned to mobile societies (Traxler 2008a).

There is however a further tension within the agencies’ positions. In their policy and publications, they maintain the un-resolved tension between the conception of mobiles as the instruments of reform and improvement, as technologies for ministries, educators, schools and colleges to enhance the management, content and delivery of their (existing) curriculum, and the conception of mobiles as the instruments of dramatic social, economic and political change, of some educational Arab Springs that sweeps away those same ministries, institutions and officials of education rather than reforming and improving them. To put it another way, there is a notion in many parts of the world that the (formal) education system is broken, that this is part of a crisis, which I refer to later, and no longer aligned to or adequate for the various different societies that we live in. The ubiquity of mobiles and how they change our relationships to learning, knowing and understanding; to community, relationships and identity; to ethics, norms and expectations; to employment, economies and economics; to creativity and expression is only part of that (Traxler 2010a). This contrasts with a notion that learning with mobiles is essentially just the latest opportunity for institutional or corporate e-learning and can thus be co-opted into existing educational systems. These arguments are characteristic of a technology that inhabits the bottom-of-the-pyramid and the development context in ways that would never be true of other ICTs such as TVs and PCs.

American and Corporate Interest

Meanwhile, the past two or three years have seen much greater interest and activity around learning with mobiles in North America, especially in the USA, and this is gradually shifting the intellectual and commercial centre of gravity away from its roots in Western Europe, particularly the UK, and in South Africa.  It is also changing the nature of what is understood to be the most effective pedagogies for mobiles. Historically, the Western European interest (Kukulska-Hulme et al 2011) has been on informal and contextual learning underpinned by a substantial engagement with theory, for example Actor Network Theory (Bell 2010), Conversational Theory (Laurillard, 2002, 2007), Activity Theory (Uden 2007, Wali et al 2008) or socio-technical systems ideas generally, inherited often from the earlier theorising of e-learning. Sadly, these have never engaged very convincingly with theories of international development, for example, the Capability Approach (Kleine 2009). These foundations of mobile learning have been encapsulated in the mLearn, IADIS and WMUTE conference series, the International Association for Mobile Learning and the International Journal of Mobile and Blended Learning. mLearn started in 2002, the others shortly after. Now, corporate training, the connected classroom, edutainment and drill-and-test packages are an increasing part of the picture; they too represent changes in the conception of mobile learning. These changes had been predicted and accelerated by successive recent Horizon Reports (http://www.nmc.org/horizon-project/horizon-reports) and are illustrated by looking at the contributions to the annual mLearnCon conference, started in 2010, and by the growth of SIGML: Mobile Learning Special Interest Group, started about the same time within ISTE (the International Society for Technology in Education, the premier US membership association for educators and education leaders working in e-learning). As well as their educational significance, they point to growing confidence in viable business models for at least some aspects of learning with mobiles. One particular spin, echoing earlier discussion in the UK and in Africa but not reflected in the research literature, is the notion of bring-your-own-device as a strategy combining choice with sustainability, though not without problems in terms of infrastructure, equity and quality (UNESCO 2011; CoSN 2011, Traxler 2010b). Incidentally, this approach also represents the only viable general strategy for most of the global South. My session at eLearning Africa in Dakar in 2009 (http://www.elearning-africa.com/conference_past.php) was entitled, ‘African Learners – Institutions and Organisations Should Leave Them to Their Own Devices?’

Another consequence of the growing US involvement in learning with mobiles and the rise of the so-called apps economy (Genachowski, 2010) is that learning with mobiles to longer needs research or researchers to work with practitioners and policy makers. “Education? – there’s an app for it”, people now say, everyone understands it. Culture and pedagogy no longer seem to be components of learning with mobiles as commerce and common-sense take their place. In the wider practitioner and policy communities of the developed world, everyone owns and understands a powerful mobile and its affordances, for learning and anything else, are clearly just common-sense, no longer requiring specialist research input. Everyone, including those outside formal education organisations, has a theory of education and a theory of learning with mobiles, perhaps several, perhaps not ones that are proven or particularly complex or rational, perhaps only something like content is king and so the role for the research community is increasingly marginal. This is an important issue because as we use mobiles to take learning to communities and cultures unlike any of our own, we will encounter their local theories of learning, theories embedded in their traditions and their culture. These express their ideas about what to learn, where, when, why and how to learn, who learn from; the nature of their educational heritage and identity. The more diverse our global ecology of learning and its theories the richer the opportunities we offer to other cultures and communities and the more responsively we can engage.

There is however a considerable concern that whilst these new players are attracted to supporting learning with mobiles, that their priorities and values differ from those of the older players and that understandably scale, sustainability and impact now feature much more obviously. In this new ecology of learning with mobiles, these factors mean that some forms of mobile learning will now thrive whilst others will perish. This account may hint at which ones these are likely to be.

Two rather different developments have been firstly MobiMOOC, a MOOC, a ‘massive online open course’ devoted to mobile learning, run for the second time in September 2012 and attracting in excess of 600 participants each iteration (de Waard et al 2012) using a robust and flexible mixture of open source and free technologies, and the drafting of mobile learning curriculum framework intended to facilitate the adoption within teacher training institutions (Botha et al 2012), now informing the development of a handful of masters courses.

The impact of impact

That scale, sustainability and impact feature strongly in the new agenda means that agencies and corporations are hoping to learn something about from the previous ten years of activity and experimentation that will inform their activities for the next ten years. This perhaps overstates the changed environment; the past is not yet over and the future began some while ago and the present is a phase of blurred transition. Nevertheless, the agencies and corporations are looking for something to build on.

Many of the ways in which we think about examples from the history of mobile learning, and many other kinds of small-scale educational and social interventions, are, however, deeply problematic and risk leading to false conclusions. There is, for example, a simplistic filter that says some interventions took place in developing countries and are relevant, others took place in developed countries and are not, sometimes excused or explained by a trickle-down model of diffusion. This risks overlooking the experiences and evidence using mobiles to address other aspects of educational disadvantage, disenfranchisement and exclusion in the developed world over ten or more years and privileges a specific perspective, a characteristically modernist form of analysis that I return to later.

There are a variety of issues related to the developed world, for example, disadvantage, disenfranchisement and exclusion; technology and education; mobile learning; they are all subject to specific discourses and disciplines, to specific arguments and analyses that seem different from those used in the developing worlds. Can these be broadened and connected?  Can we look at learning with mobiles through the same intellectual lenses and with the same methods, theories and values irrespective of location or context, not letting conceptions about developed vs developing prejudice how we think and act, or the dichotomy of mature and emergent economies or East and West. We return later briefly to this as symptomatic of a modernist world-view. There are however also more systemic technical problems.

Funding and Reporting

In reviewing the recent UNESCO outputs and other global secondary sources, several things are apparent. The reported activities of the mobile learning community do not often include examples from the commercial and corporate world, from corporate social responsibility projects or agency-funded programmes, certainly seldom in the peer-reviewed research literature; they do not often include examples from the work of consultants, for whom publication was not a priority, an expectation, a duty or a right. The reported accounts do not include anything Russian, Arabic or Chinese, nor much in French or Spanish or Portuguese; they do not include literature from Central Asia or Latin America. North American contributions were infrequent until recently. Any conference proceedings, research journals or press coverage would probably confirm the impression that accounts of failures are massively out-numbered by accounts of successes. (The prevalence of papers analysing critical success factors (for example, Cochrane 2010) and the absence of any that analyse critical failure factors bear this out.)  Furthermore, accounts of learning with mobiles are easy to find but only if they defined themselves as mobile learning. In looking at this multiply skewed body of evidence, examples and experiences, managers and policymakers can necessarily only arrive at skewed understandings.

Readers should look at how these various reported examples came to be funded in the first place. They could only happen if, and for as long as, they were funded. This funding support generally came from departments, donors and agencies with a development or capacity building or humanitarian agenda. Rightly or wrongly, these departments, donors and agencies provided funding opportunities for mobile learning researchers to demonstrate that their work could make a development impact, broadly defined or narrowly defined. In any review of the capacity of mobile devices to address social or educational disadvantage, we cannot ignore the extent to which the visions, values, performance indicators and preferences of the funding departments, donors and agencies have skewed the outcomes and impact of the work so far and the lessons we learn. There is therefore the likelihood that funding perpetuates funding, that the process is self-referential and circular, that what we are likely to see is what has been cynically characterised as a version of policy-based evidence formulation. However, evidence-based policy formulation is, in the words of Ian Gibson’s MP Chair of the Committee Science And Technology Committee remark (Hansard, 2004) in the UK Parliament increasingly derided as policy-based evidence formulation, and some in the social research community (Sanderson, 2004) have asked, “Has evidence-based policy any evidence base?”

Evidence and Evaluation

A major component in the cycle of policy and research is evidence and this comes from evaluation activities, sometimes called M&E, monitoring and evaluation. Evaluation of education, and certainly of mobile learning, should however be recognised as notoriously difficult to evaluate. It is possible to measure changes in attributes or behaviour but this does not mean these are educationally meaningful or remotely life-changing. In the case of learning with mobiles, learning as part of moving around the real world, it is difficult to observe, difficult to measure and difficult to explain meaningful educational change (in terms of the myriad causes and effects in people’s real world lives), much more so than any sedentary e-learning or class-room learning. In general, evaluation has proven to be imperfect (Traxler & Kukulska-Hulme 2006). In practical terms, working with leading edge mobile technology has meant that technical problems push evaluation off the end of the schedule or off the end of the budget. Mobile technology and its appropriation by users grow so rapidly and so unpredictably that a structured, thorough and comprehensive evaluation might provide a rigorous account of an environment that now no longer exists. There are difficulties deploying adequate and appropriate expertise within the confines of individual short-term technically innovative projects or within the confines of theory-driven research projects. The resources and time scales are inadequate. There are difficulties framing individual research projects with sufficient coherence in terms of ethos, methods and planning to make this possible. These are situated however, at the centre of wider contextual concerns. As I have said, the ways that projects are funded, organised and reported are all problematic but actually our biggest challenges are not rigour and trustworthiness within individual projects but the inference, abstraction and reasoning above, outside and across projects, that happens in order that policy makers can obtain some big picture.

Generalising and Transferring

Generalising and transferring are complex. We, in parts of the mobile learning community, try, for example, to engage with policy makers with briefings and case studies that build on individual research project evidence and conclusions. When in earlier work, we looked back at these, several things are apparent (Traxler & Wishart 2011, Traxler & Belshaw, 2011). Firstly, that they often round up predictable experts from within the community, people known to be good (English) speakers or writers describing successful projects in an accessible fashion with good graphics. Secondly, failure often goes unreported, unpublished, and unacknowledged (except at the small, but fortunately growing, number of events round the world, some called FAILfaires that celebrate failure as a mark of innovation and confidence), and the impression is that careers and reputations are not built on failures however interesting or thought provoking (World Bank 2011b). Katrin Verclas of MobileActive says, “We have to report to donors and donors do not like to look bad, and so we don’t like to look bad as nonprofits. And so we have a tendency to highlight our successes and never talk about our failures.” (Voice of America, 2010). Thirdly, many projects are destined to be successful and are reported accordingly. Funders, agencies, ministries, officials, researchers and others will have all invested much prestige and resource giving projects the necessary momentum and visibility, and failure becomes unthinkable and inconceivable. The staff at high-profile successes can become unwittingly very well rehearsed and media-savvy in their accounts and explanations of success, and pre-occupied with fund-raising, losing sight of the practicalities and day-to-day issues. Furthermore, mobile learning is plagued by unflattering comparisons with apparent successes in cognate fields, for example the hole-in-the-wall, eBay, mPESA or the Grameen Bank. Can we expect safe inferences and understanding to grow out of these examples?

Analysis within projects can be skewed too by the history and assumptions brought to them. If you are a technologist or a teacher, everything, the problems and the solutions, looks like technology or teaching. This mind-set not only constrains the downstream as we analyse data and present evidence, but also the upstream as we isolate and eliminate confounding variables and site our interventions across the remaining problem-space to generate the appearance of generality and transferability.

These issues interact with the life cycle of projects from funding onwards. Funders, that is donors, agencies and ministries, make choices about the spread of projects, projects then may themselves make choices about siting of their interventions; later both projects and funders will make choices about how they sample and report their respective activities.  They are all caught in a pay-off between depth and breadth. On the one hand, they can focus on one aspect, one dimension and seek data and outcomes that are as rigorous and trustworthy as possible but may lack wider relevance. On the other hand, they could try sites and samples spread across a range of dimensions or variables, spreading themselves thin in terms of the trustworthiness of their data and outcomes but hoping for wider relevance and greater generality.

These are some of the reasons why it is now timely to question the ways in which those of us working with mobiles for learning think about earlier examples of learning with mobiles in development

To summarise, so far, we could ask:

  • What do examples of small-scale successes tell us about large-scale programmes?
  • How relevant, trustworthy and credible are the inferences and outcomes of earlier examples?
  • How do earlier subsidised examples with provided devices inform future sustainable programmes with users’ devices?
  • How does funding and policy skew the choosing, siting, sampling, evaluation and reporting of examples?
  • What is the impact of project evidence and outputs from earlier examples on corporate and government policy, priorities and resources?

The underlying challenges

As I have said, there are major flaws in how we report and reason about the experiences, the outcomes, the relationships and the environment around our work learning with mobiles in international development. This happens at a number of levels for a number of reasons. It can be explained within what might be called a common-sense view of the world and remedied by technical and tactical fixes, by greater transparency, by greater resources and by greater rigour. Some of these flaws are explained as the workings of multi-causality or excused as unexpected consequences or what might be called unexpected causes – by which I mean, for example, the bias and distortion introduced into fieldwork and monitoring by senior officials reluctant to leave the capital, by junior officials maximising their per diems and by consultants maximising their air-miles?

A more comprehensive account would put these into a broader intellectual framework, the transition from modernism to something else. Modernism is the rational and objective worldview, embedded in the people, history and culture of Western Europe. It subsequently fragmented within academic philosophical circles and has then been problematised by various authors characterised as postmodern. It is however still the prevalent ideology in countries and institutions around the world that have been influenced by European ideas. Post-modernism’s positions are complex and confused but one of them, for example, characterises our societies as moving into liquid modernity (Bauman, 2000) – apocryphally paraphrased as permanent beta – and not just the developed and Western societies of the global North.

Modernism might be characterised as the faith that history and humanity are going somewhere, somewhere good; that language and other symbols can describe reality (and that reality as an objective, shared, consistent and unambiguous source of all our experiences actually exists); that cause and effect are simple and stable and also that right and wrong are equally simple and stable; and that reason, science, technology and education are agents of benign change and improvement.

These are modernism’s foundational grand narratives (Lyotard 1999). Other derivative ones might include Darwinian evolution, Marxist accounts of history, Freudian psychoanalysis, the scientific method as a mechanism for establishing truth and the ideal of the nation-state and its bureaucracies. I argue that International development is one of modernism’s lesser grand (sic) narratives. It is a tacit and simplified article of faith, one that justifies European interventions and attitudes in other cultures, especially Africa, from the seventeenth century onwards, and in an attenuated globalised form, this faith accounts for all those universities in the global South aspiring to recognition by the global North and privileging Western styles of knowledge and learning as the only credible forms. Post-modernism can only rigorously be defined as whatever comes after modernity. Mobility, specifically the mobility and connectedness afforded by mobile technology, changes or challenges so many aspects of different cultures, particularly the solidity of our knowledge, identities, cultures and institutions, as to take us beyond the certainties of modernism (Traxler 2008b). We should retrace our steps and ask if the issues we have outlined earlier are the various consequences of misplaced modernist expectations, the expectations that history can teach us something, that examples are examples of something.

As I implied earlier, it is probably a modernist fallacy to think that evidence is a credible and rational basis for policy formulation; it is an act of faith since clearly there can be no evidence for evidence. Thinking there was would be circular.

There is a related issue. The world is now increasingly characterised by challenges, disturbances and discontinuities that threaten the dominant and crudely modernist, notions of stability, progress and growth. These are major challenges to research communities, including the development studies research community and the mobile learning research community, challenges to these communities to stay relevant, responsive, rigorous and useful.

In various public forums outside and across the research communities, there is the notion there is an emergent global crisis, a notion developed at a recent Alpine Rendezvous workshop, TEL: the Crisis and the Response and a debate at ALT-C. These are also documented and discussed in:

http://ignatiawebs.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/preparing-for-debate-alt-c-online.html; and


This is manifest as economic and resource crises, including long-term radical increases in economic inequality within nations; youth unemployment across Europe; sovereign debt defaults and banking failures; as environmental and demographic crises, in particular, as eroded refugee rights and military occupations; nation-state population growth and its implications for agriculture, infrastructure and transport; as crises of accountability, expressed in the failure of traditional representative democracy systems especially in the context of global markets; the growth of computerised share-dealing; the emergence of new private sector actors in public services; the growth of mass participatory movements, the rise of unelected extremist minorities challenging the legitimacy of the nation-state and its institutions; as crises of socio-technical disruptions and instability, amplified by a reliance on non-human intelligence and large-scale systems of systems in finance, logistics and healthcare, the development of a data-rich culture;  the increasing concentration and centralisation of internet discourse in the walled gardens of social networks; the proliferation of complex digital divides; of  the dehumanisation crisis, expressed in the replacement of human flourishing with consumption; the replacement of the idea of the person with the idea of the system, the replacement of human contact with mediated exchange; the commodification of the person, education and the arts. The notion of crisis is manifest specifically in the current context in learning with technology, in for example the dependency of educational institutions on computers for research, teaching, study and knowledge transfer; the use of computers to industrialise education; the globalisation and corporatisation of learning threatening marginal communities; learning driven by skills and employability in an increasingly turbulent future and the extent to which the mobile learning research communities question, support, stimulate, challenge and provoke their host education sectors.

Learning with mobiles in international development is at the intersection of technology and learning and it, as we said earlier in describing modernism, encapsulates many of the ideals, problems and potential of both. It is possible however that they could ameliorate some of their consequences or amplify and exaggerate others. There is however a possibility that in exploring the examples of the past and seeking some sort of narrow academic rigour, relevance and transferability, that we are merely rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic or fiddling while Rome burns, that these are no longer relevant or adequate for the following reasons.

Learning with mobiles is based in communities nurtured within the institutions and organisations of formal education in the recent decades of relative stability and prosperity in the developed nations of Asia-Pacific, North America and Western Europe; learning with mobiles in development contexts has inherited of much of these sensibilities and aspirations. There are no longer safe or reliable.


This paper has attempted to reconceptualise the role of mobile learning in international development, firstly by exploring its changed role in moving from a small-scale educational largely European activity operating within a conventional research environment to a more global, corporate and American activity reinterpreting or misreading its earlier achievements and methods, and secondly by placing this transition alongside other global transitions that leave behind the settled understandings of the world. This is a problematic undertaking intended merely to encourage greater scrutiny and perhaps scepticism of our work with mLearning in international development.


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Biographical statement

John Traxler is Professor of Mobile Learning, the world’s first and a full UK professor since September 2009 and Director of the Learning Lab at the University of Wolverhampton. He is a Founding Director and current Vice-President of the International Association for Mobile Learning, Executive Committee Member of the USAID mEducation Alliance, Associate Editor of the International Journal of Mobile and Blended Learning and of Interactive Learning Environments. He is on the Research Board of the Association of Learning Technology, the Editorial Board of Research in Learning Technology and IT in International Development.

John has co-written a guide to mobile learning in developing countries for the Commonwealth of Learning and is co-editor of the definitive book, Mobile Learning: A Handbook for Educators and Trainers, with Professor Agnes Kukulska-Hulme. They are now working a second book, Mobile Learning: the Next Generation, due to be published in 2014. He is co-authoring a book, Key Issues in Mobile Learning: Research and Practice, with Professors Norbert Pachler and John Cook, and Mobilizing Mathematics: Case Studies of Mobile Learning being used in Mathematics Education with Dr Helen Crompton.

Contact: john.traxler@wlv.ac.uk, @johntraxler

Lucy Van

Published Online: November 15, 2013
Full Text: HTML, PDF (347 MB)

Graduate Student Advocate Dr Lucy Van speaks with Higher Education Policy Researcher Dr Margaret Kiley about the recent introduction of coursework in Australian doctoral education.

The provision of a coursework component in PhD programs is customary in the United States, Canada and Europe. Graduate students in Australia will have noticed that over the past eighteen months more universities are introducing formal coursework into the Australian PhD; until recently there has traditionally been little, if any coursework in the doctoral experience. Dr Margaret Kiley, Higher Education policy researcher at the Australian National University, leads a project investigating what’s happening with coursework in Australian PhDs. Working in conjunction with the Australian Deans and Directors of Graduate Research (DDOGS), the project examines the factors that are leading to the implementation of formal coursework in the Australian PhD, and addresses some of the support and structural issues surrounding these developments. The project also aims to provide principles for doctoral programs for the consideration of Australian Deans developing coursework in the PhD.

Lucy Van (LV): Your project responds to the recent introduction of coursework in Australian PhDs. As you’re dealing with a relatively new phenomenon, it must have been challenging to define the parameters of the research—as far as I have seen your project is the first to be looking at this issue. Is there any consensus on what ‘coursework’ actually is?

Margaret Kiley (MK): The project looks at the universities and faculties that for various reasons were suddenly trying to introduce coursework into the PhD. But when you actually spoke to those involved with the introduction of coursework and asked what that was, there was an amazing variety of understandings of what ‘coursework’ might be. For example, you’ve got people who think coursework is about research methods, those who would call coursework ‘research processes’—all the things to do with how to do research. For others coursework is actually disciplinary knowledge: advanced disciplinary knowledge. And those two of course are quite different. But they have the same term, ‘coursework.’ And then you have some really interesting interpretations even of the word ‘coursework,’ where staff at a university might say, ‘well we don’t want that. We don’t want our students having to go to a weekly lecture and have to sit an exam.’ So there’s one concept of coursework as weekly lectures and exams. Now we have this very interesting discussion about what actually does this word even include or relate to. Everyone has this view of it and don’t really realise that there are three or four other views of the same word.

(LV): Some new PhD students might have come across differing hurdle requirements, where in some cases they might need 50% to pass, and in other cases they might need 75%. Those different hurdles seem to signify different attitudes to what the purpose of that coursework is—is it meant to be something to bridge a gap or actually something that enhances or adds value to the degree?

(MK): On the one side of the continuum you’ve got this notion—you’ve used the word bridging, I use the word ‘foundation’ or ‘compensatory.’ ‘You’re taking students who for various reasons don’t have a really strong background in something, either in the discipline or in the research processes so all that you want is for everyone to have a really solid base to start with and you want to make sure that everyone’s at the same starting point, so you do something in the first semester’, something along those lines. That’s certainly one way and there are interesting examples around of universities doing that. Then a second way is to think, ‘well look, we want to value add, and offer third year entrepreneurship, or leadership, or those kinds of things.’

I don’t think one is better than the other or more correct or anything—there are just different perceptions and different reasons. So I’ve been thinking about this with basically what I call a straight out curriculum model—which says you normally start with your learning outcomes—what is it that you actually want from doctoral candidates maybe after they graduate? What content is it that facilitates these processes? Or do we want to think about employability skills, or ethics, or preparing future academics? And of course for different students it’s different things. I think if you’re a young physicist you probably want different things from if you’re a forty-five year old person in the School of Education who’s already worked twenty-five years! So it starts to raise all those issues about individual students and needs.

We could actually have any number of models. We could have a model that says in the first twelve months we want every candidate to enrol in and undertake research processes work, which would be about how to do the literature review, research methods, how to write, how to present, and that in fact the successful completion of all of that would be embodied in doing the confirmation seminar, for example.

Another example might be where you have one or two university courses or at least faculty courses, and a number of individual courses—so people can gain knowledge in an area they lack expertise, even if it is not directly related to their specific research topic. There might be someone that comes into a PhD program with a really strong background in communication because they’ve worked for twenty years as a teacher—they might not need to do a communications course but they might need to do something different, which they could elect to do. That’s a different model.

And the other idea that’s getting quite a bit of traction is a learning plan. So it’s not so much formal coursework and courses, but more that you formalise or structure the learning of each student throughout candidature so you would start on that obviously from day one. There is one example here at the ANU that’s been implemented, and we’re looking at another example at one of the Perth universities.

Generally, the model of the learning plan goes like this. In the first month someone would sit down with the candidate, either the supervisor, or someone from the graduate school, and get the candidate to think back to their learning background, where are their strengths, where are their weaknesses? The candidate would be informed about the doctoral qualities that the University think are really important, that you have to have some understanding of communication, ethics and so on.

(LV): Are these the kinds of outcomes that these particular universities have felt that the traditional supervisor-candidate model wasn’t able to achieve?

(MK): I had a number of recent graduates say words along the lines of, ‘I wish someone had made me…I wish my supervisor had made me do so and so.’ Well, you know, if your supervisor had gone to make you, you probably would have refused anyway. Or you would have been really grumpy about it. Like, ‘what a waste of time.’ So you’ve got this interesting situation where you’ve got doctoral students who wish they’d been made to do something. There are probably some things that really are good for candidates to experience—and so that’s just one consideration. But the other consideration is—I think sometimes supervisors and candidates don’t know the range of opportunities available for students. You get so caught up in your day to day life both as a candidate and as a supervisor—so sometimes it’s hard to go back and go to the big picture—you’re always thinking of timelines and finishing. So it wasn’t so much as deficit but a way of perhaps opening up a broader set of horizons and saying that there’s more to a PhD then just getting that thesis on a bookshelf. It’s about this other knowledge and skills. Planning out the sorts of experiences that would be really useful for the candidate—for those who want to go into an academic career, maybe it’s teaching. And so the plan would give you an opportunity to look at the individual trajectory of candidates and to design something accordingly.

(LV): What about the design of the project itself? How does having these competing notions of coursework affect your research?

(MK): I thought it would be really easy to do when I was setting this up, that everyone would be having four courses, and this and that—and it’s just not showing up. So there are six universities involved in the project, in conjunction with the Council of Deans and Directors of Graduate Research. We’ve just started a student survey, in a couple of those universities, to see how those students go, what experiences they had, what they’ve learned, what they wish they had learned. These are current students. We would love to do it with exiting students, although it’s quite early at this stage. I’m working with people who are really keen to do this. Some of them are doing extra things outside the project, so we’ll garner all sorts of information.

(LV): When you say you’re working with people that are ‘really keen’ do you mean that these particular institutions are very ‘pro’ coursework?

(MK): Not necessarily, no. We chose a range of perspectives. The project deliberately includes different kinds of universities—so larger GO8s and then smaller regionals. And then look at universities that have a very different approach to this. Across the sector there are all sorts of models. There are a couple of institutions now that have what they call four year PhDs. And when you enrol you are told it’s a four year PhD, and the first year is coursework, and it includes both research processes and disciplinary knowledge. Then you do your three year research project. So that’s one model. Then you’ve got the Macquarie Model, where they have their M-Res and then their three year PhD, a really interesting model. So it’s fascinating to see how different universities are positioning themselves, partly because of their student cohort. So the sort of students that the University of Melbourne gets and the way that the University of Melbourne runs would be quite different from the way, for example, the University of Ballarat does. And not for any reason that one’s better or one’s worse, just different. And so even in the Melbourne area if you think of the University of Melbourne, RMIT and Victoria University, all within a square mile of one another, all have very different cultures. There’s a great deal of interest—there’s some fantastic stuff happening in Australian universities at the moment. And what’s so interesting about it, I think, is its variation. I’m not finding ‘one model’—I’m finding lots of different models.

(LV): What about inside an institution? In addition to what you’re saying about this variation between institutions, within an institution you can see faculties doing very different things from other faculties—have you looked at that?

(MK): That is an interesting one. I’ve done some work with a couple of universities on that and it is—that’s absolutely true. It’s a really interesting issue. Margot Pearson, back in the 90s, did a great report on the diversity of higher degree by research students in Australia and back then she was talking about the percentage of part-timers on campus, the older students and so on. And this is becoming more obvious, you know. We have 40% of our students in Australia part time. We have, over in Education, the average age at forty-five for a student starting a PhD in Education. And so you’ve got these different disciplines picking up on that and saying ‘our students don’t need this, that and the other, they don’t need career workshops because they’ve already got a career—what they need is ‘a, b and c’ not ‘x, y and z.’ And then others from some discipline areas are taking candidates who don’t necessarily have that discipline background. An area like Environment’s a really good example of this. You can do Environmental Studies and you can have a background in Science, or in Social Science, in many things. And so, often those people, they do need something quite different—in terms of discipline based coursework—from someone who’s come through a straight Chemistry PhD or a straight History PhD. So that’s an example of where the discipline differences are really showing up.

(LV): At a governance level, are these differences something that concerns universities? Would universities not want to standardise an overall doctoral student experience?

(MK): I think it really is tricky. The larger the university—so I’m thinking of the University of Melbourne and ANU and the University of Sydney and places like that, where there is so much variation and probably enough numbers, there’s strength in an area to do their own thing. In a smaller university where there are disciplines with only 15 or 20 PhD students and seven or eight supervisors, it’d be very hard for to go it alone. Whereas if you’ve got, you know, 370 supervisors, or something, then you can probably set up a program that’s self-sustaining. So I think size has something to do with it. I haven’t got any data on that—that’s just me thinking that. But it makes sense doesn’t it? I mean, there’d be parts of Melbourne University, some faculties there that would be larger than some smaller universities. And you must have somewhere in the order of three to four thousand PhDs at the University of Melbourne. You’re going to have pockets of strengths that perhaps don’t exist in some of the smaller universities. So one of the attractions of having something somewhat more university or centrally-based is that you can work with greater numbers. At the ANU we have seven colleges, and they’re quite independent of one another really, because we don’t have a graduate school, so each college is doing its own thing with regards to coursework. And the college that I’m in is one example where we actually did introduce four formal award coursework courses, where the courses have numbers, and you enrol, and you get a result and all that sort of thing. And they are related to research processes. But that’s just one college. And at the moment most of that structure is relying on individual staff to do that teaching, without any additional workload or whatever. It’s just, you know, people do it. But if you’re a much tinier university you wouldn’t have that workload capacity. So workload’s an issue too.

(LV): I wonder if, relatedly, both university staff and candidates are concerned about timely completions.

(MK): Yes, the other issue which comes up all the time in discussion is, ‘will this either add to the time of candidature or, if we’re going to do this, we have to shorten the actual thesis?’ So perhaps people are thinking about a dissertation of less breadth and with less actual numbers of words. I think what we’re finding is that if the coursework is research processes work, then it probably would even help shorten the time to completion. Whereas if you’re going to do disciplinary knowledge, there can be a feeling that it adds to candidature. However there are some places like the University of Melbourne, ANU and the University of Sydney where the graduates in some areas are going to be competing on an international stage with big companies—say with Economics, KPMG, and so on. These graduates need that broad knowledge to be competitive on an international stage, the argument is ‘you need to be able to talk the talk.’ You can’t just go out and say, ‘I’m an expert in one tiny area’ and so they’re saying because of the way our graduates go out and get jobs they need broad background. Even when it’s discipline specific there’s still the big picture there.

(LV): Is there a sense then that this wasn’t taking place in the traditional model, on an informal level?  Is this kind of coursework filling a gap for something that wasn’t there or is it formalising something that’s always been there?

(MK): Well, in some areas like Economics it’s been there for twenty or more years, it’s nothing new. So others have perhaps started to think, wow—it probably is the way the world is going, that more and more of our students will be getting those sorts of jobs. Perhaps 15-20 years ago it wasn’t quite the case, you might be more likely to stay in Australia unless you were really, really outstanding, so…

(LV): I was just thinking about the function of informal reading groups, discussions at the university bar, those kinds of collegial things. Are certain forms of coursework seeking to formalise what people were doing anyway by their own motivation? Is this about recognising the value of these activities and making sure that everyone is offered that opportunity?

(MK): I think that’s a really good point that you’ve made there, I think that it’s about recognising the value and it’s also recognising that not all candidates necessarily see these things as important. For example, I might see it as important that candidates meet informally to chat over their experiences, but I can understand why some candidates might feel this is wasting time as it is not directly related to their research project. And, if you’re a part-time student, how do you build in those collegial chit chats over coffee and a drink if you work full time and you fly in for an hour after work to talk to your supervisor and then by seven o’clock you have to go home and cook dinner? I agree, I think a lot of students, a lot of capable students have done this anyway. But this is recognising the importance of those things. You know, you can’t force a student to have coffee, but you could have something like a writing retreat, where a School might say well, there’s this writing retreat where we’ll go away for a week, and if you’ve got kids and so on, we’re going to have to find a way of someone looking after the kids for a week because that’s part of our requirement here, that everyone goes on a writing retreat. It may be that Schools are able to help candidates with some funding for child care or some internal arrangements. And it’s not about writing—well, it is—but it’s also about getting to know your colleagues and your discipline and other important skills in other ways. My guess is that by the time the project’s ended—which will be next year—there’s going to be a phrase that I’ll have, which I think will be something like ‘a structured approach to doctoral education.’ This will say that in some cases it’s a really good idea to have formal coursework that’s research methods, and in some disciplines it’s important to have coursework that’s on disciplinary knowledge, because of the discipline that it is. And for others it’ll be important that they have these sorts of learning plans. And perhaps, I would like to think, everyone would have a learning plan, and the learning plan would include formal coursework and then informal, or less formal things. And the one thing we think about is—not just in the first year of our candidature—I’m very keen, for us to keep thinking about what happens in the middle of candidature, which is usually a time when students really feel miserable. I mean the first year everyone’s usually pretty good, pretty high, fairly enthusiastic. The second year is, ‘I hate this, it’s stupid, boring, I want to pull out.’ We know that. So to me it would be a good time to have some other structured coursework. I know that sounds really awful, ‘forcing’ students to have to do it—but again, you know if candidates are going to be miserable and flat, and rather than letting them get like that, you might intervene with some courses and support. And then towards the end, maybe preparing them for futures, whether it is how to write research grants, how to apply for jobs—all of this could be incorporated into coursework.

(LV): Is there anywhere in your study where you address any concerns about the introduction of coursework, some concerns members of staff or students might have expressed—are there any trends in that area, where there’s a sense of resistance?

(MK): No, the negative trends are about as varied as the positive trends. There is concern about the time an overall feeling that ‘we don’t have enough time.’ But then, some said, we don’t mind adding time because it’s really important for our students to have these experiences. So it varies. For example for the discipline specific information respondents say students really, really need this in order to be competitive in the workplace is valued, so there’s a call that that’s the way it’s got to be.  For example, where departments talk about the disciplinary knowledge as part of the PhD they really value it as they believe it helps candidate to be more competitive in the workplace, whereas, in other disciplines they value other experiences, maybe something like teaching When we get the survey data back from the candidates that’s when we’ll know about their concerns. We have done some focus group work with candidates and recent post-docs, and I think their main concern was—they were keen to make sure that early on they had a really clear idea of all the possibilities. They felt that there were things that sounded terrific that they’d never known about. That was the really interesting idea. And I guess what happens is that at induction you tell students everything and they kind of forget about it in the whirl of their day to day life.  And then six months later you have someone ask ‘haven’t you done such and such?’—and they think ‘oh gosh, I forgot, did you tell me about that?’ The other concern is certainly workload for staff. That if we suddenly introduce coursework—who’s going to teach it? Who is qualified to teach it?

And then there’s the other side of the coin. If the students have this really sound basis of research design then that actually could make your life even easier as a supervisor. So there often seems to be a trade-off, depending on how you view the world. And which discipline you come from. So where supervisors have been very used to having their own students and doing their own thing one-on-one, the more humanities-based model, I think for some of them—some—the idea of having courses and so on really is very attractive, because it lessens the load for them. Others feel that it’s taking away from their one-on-one students. So there are no trends, there are differences. I couldn’t say the major concern is this or that. Whereas years and years ago we introduced something at the University of Adelaide in the first semester. And everyone kept saying, ‘oh this will add so much time’ and it didn’t, it literally sped it up. Because they had all this good stuff at the beginning.

I think the idea is thinking, ‘what is it we want from our PhD graduates?’ Do we want them to have this sort of a broader knowledge, a broad set of skills, not just for their jobs but for their life? And therefore are there additional things that seem appropriate to learn and therefore be taught in a PhD? They don’t have to be taught in formal lectures—as I said, they could be writing retreats, all sorts of things. What is it we want our graduates to be able to do? George Walker who headed up the Carnegie Initiative on the doctorate in the USA, he posed the following questions: what do we want our graduates to know, what habits of mind do we want them to have—you know, will they be very ethical? Will they see that their work is about contributing to society? And what skills will they have? What you want from physicists is different from what you want from artists, or musicians.

(LV): Your project talks about Australia, Australian institutions, and this relatively recent phenomenon of coursework, despite certain areas such as Economics having it for quite a while. So is Australia being forward thinking in a way in this introduction, even though it’s a very varied introduction, or is it following an international trend?

(MK): I think it’s more following the trend. When I first started looking at this I had reactions saying, ‘oh yeah, you want to introduce the US model.’ In the US they’ve always had coursework but their coursework on the whole has been discipline knowledge. The US model is really different. We’re not saying we’re having the US model at all. Interestingly enough, when I talk to groups of staff that have done their PhD in the US—there are quite a few here at the ANU—they’re thinking of that model, and we have to say, no, no, no, we’re not saying this is a US model, we’re talking about an Australian model. And I think I was very strong on that deliberately, not to imply we’re taking someone else’s model and imposing it but looking at what might work for Australia given our circumstances and our students, and our universities and so on. But there have been examples all around—probably many countries other than New Zealand, New Zealand’s very similar to us—where there have been either formal coursework or formal courses that haven’t existed in Australia up until now.

(LV): Who are the stakeholders in this project? Is the purpose of the project to facilitate the implementation of formal courses? Or is it an objective enquiry?

(MK): It’s ended up being two things but it was designed originally to look at what was happening, using the six universities as a basis for more intensive work, with all the actual different things with graduate studies, and come up with various models, a series of questions on the ways that universities might structure them—not saying they have to follow them—but that these are the sorts of questions you need to address. For example, is it about the discipline, or is it about the research process? If so, why? Those kinds of questions. What has happened as a result—because of the other kind of work that I do in an advisory role—I’m actually doing some work with two groups about how they want to go about implementing some programmes. I’m doing some implementation training, working in a couple of places—linked with, but separate from the project. But it’s a fantastic opportunity for me because I’m getting these really on the ground things with students and academic and admin staff, the three together, so we get to all work together and talk about what they want. And we’ve had post-docs involved too.

(LV): So you’ve had four groups then—current students, academic staff, admin staff and post-docs?

(MK): Yes but all together—one place we’ve had the students separately for a focus group but in the other places we’ve had groups, let’s just say, a group from one discipline—a couple of supervisors, maybe the convener, a couple of PhD students and one post-doc. And they all sit and talk about—what do they think about the outcomes, what do they think would work best, so on and so forth. So it’s very joint in that way. So students have been involved right from the beginning. And also I think as I said, post-docs are really important, especially recent post-docs, because they’re the ones who can look back on what happened and say, ‘ohh, yeah but I really wish I’d had that.’ ‘I wish they’d made me do it.’ And so I’ve included some of them as well, and that’s been terrific.

Graduate students who would like to find out more about ‘Coursework in Australian doctoral education: what’s happening, why, and future direction?’ can contact the project manager Karen Bell: Karen.Bell@anu.edu.au

Biographical Statement

Lucy Van works as an advocate at the Graduate Student Association at the University of Melbourne, where she undertakes individual casework and also conducts research into policy issues affecting graduate students. She is also an editor for Mascara Literary Review and is on the editorial board for Peril: Asian Australian Arts and Culture Magazine. She completed her PhD at the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne.

Contact: l.van@gsa.unimelb.edu.au

Call for papers:

Networking to build the HIVe: Innovative uses of communication technology for HIV programming with gay men, other men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender populations

This special themed issue of the open-access international peer-reviewed journal Digital Culture & Education (DCE), will showcase the diverse ways gay men, other men who have sex with men (MSM), and transgender (TG) communities use the internet and communication technology (ICT) for HIV prevention, treatment, care and advocacy. These articles will be published in DCE to provide an open online resource for frontline and community-based workers to access social science prevention practices and community-based biomedical research that are normally inaccessible in academic journals that require a subscription.

The goal of this call for papers is to share community-based organisations’ effective practices in using ICT – i.e. mobile or electronic health applications, social media, chat rooms, mobile phones and other uses – in HIV-related services.

The aim is to provide a robust forum where community-based organisations can share their HIV prevention and care work globally and learn from one another. An additional aim is to launch the DCE special issue at the AIDS 2014 conference in Melbourne, Australia next July.

This call is open to two groups of community-based partners. One group is USAID and amfAR community-based grantees who have used or are currently using ICT in HIV prevention, treatment, care, stigma and discrimination reduction, advocacy and/or other sectors. The second group is from the Technological Consultation, “Innovative uses of communication technology for HIV programming with men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender populations” held in Washington D.C. in May 2013. Hosted by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the event was co-sponsored by USAID/PEPFAR, amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Both groups of community-based partners have an equal opportunity to participate in this call.

No prior academic writing experience is required. Targeted writing mentorship and editorial assistance and help (in English, French, and Spanish) will be provided by a team of committed academic researchers to support each community-based group to produce a high-quality publishable manuscript. The manuscript will showcase their interventions and build an evidence for future investment in community-led responses.

If your organisation is implementing, collaborating with or supporting gay men, other MSM and/or TG community-based groups to use ICT in HIV programs and services and are interested in participating, please send an email to editor@digitalcultureandeducation.com by August 15, 2013.


Cameron Wolf, Sr. HIV/AIDS Advisor for Key Populations, USAID;

Kent Klindera, Director, GMT Initiative, amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research; &

Christopher S. Walsh, Editor Digital Culture & Education & Co-Founder The HIVe

Darrin Adams, Senior Technical Advisor, HIV, Futures Group

Craig Bellamy

Published Online: June 1, 2013
Full Text: HTML, PDF (211 KB)

Matthew K. Gold (ed.). (2012). Debates in the digital humanities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 9780816677955.516 pages. USD 34.95.

Matthew K Gold has brought together a number of leading figures in Debates in the Digital Humanities in a broad-ranging collection of articles that attempt to outline the contested, eclectic, and progressing landscape of computing in the humanities.  At first glance the premise of the book may seem odd to those new to the field; the very idea that there are high-level academic debates about the construction and application of computing technology within humanities research. However, apart from the distinctive culture of building and coding digital tools, these often heated debates largely constitute the field of the digital humanities and reveal its growing maturity. Gold’s book is a commendable attempt to delineate the discursive nature of computational tools within the humanities, rather than reconstitute a formulaic, passive and instrumental understanding of computing.

In Gold’s introduction and framing of the book, largely focusing upon North American issues, he does perhaps overstate the so-called rise of the digital humanities. The field is perhaps not advancing any more quickly than any other field in the humanities and often the ‘determinist’ and overly optimistic lens in which computing is viewed clouds other realities.  A sophisticated, contextual and applied understanding of computing is far from the norm in humanities education and the field is not so much ‘rising’ but merely broadening to encompass all sorts of computing in education, and unfortunately, much of this is not really research nor humanities focused.  Patrik Svensson discusses this in his article ‘Beyond the Big Tent’ where he reflects upon the boundary-making in the community and the highly contested and different modes of engagement with computing in the humanities.

Gold has divided the book into six sections which serve to introduce some of the more established understandings of the landscape of the field. The sections are; defining, theorising, critiquing, practising, teaching, and envisioning a future for the digital humanities.

Contributions in defining the digital humanities section discuss the values of the field, its boundaries, its institutionalisation, and the tensions between ‘making and interpreting digital’ objects. The ‘defining the digital humanities’ debates is perhaps as old as the field itself, and as it is one if the boundary-making debates of the community, it is not going to be settled quickly. Still, the contributors in this section do take the worn-out ‘defining’ debate forward somewhat.

The contributors in the theorising the digital humanities section concentrate on the debates surrounding theory and practice; again an important discussion within a field that has software development at its core. Joanna Drucker warns of some of the dangers of software tool use in humanities research if humanistic contexts are not well understood. As many software tools used in the humanities are developed for scientific enquiry, there are dangers that the knowledge they represent may be understood empirically and through ‘fixed frames of reference’ and ‘standard metrics’. She concludes by arguing that it is not that the digital humanities needs ‘theory’, but it cannot be humanistic without the theoretical, conceptual, and relativist readings of technology provided by humanities.

The section on teaching the digital humanities demarcates one of the newer and somewhat neglected debates in the field. Indeed Luke Waltzer stresses in his article ‘Digital Humanities and the Ugly Stepchildren’ of American Higher Education’ that this is because the field has aligned itself to the traditional ‘output’ structures of the academy that value research over teaching . He goes on to state that because the field has an overdependence on projects and grants and short-term contracted work , there is little time for ‘hard to measure areas like curriculum and pedagogy’.  Indeed, the debates in section reflect some of the larger tensions within the humanities as a whole and the role of teaching of learning within it. And these tensions are not eased by the new complexities of computing.

The teaching section, as with the others in this extensive book, contain numerous shorter blog-post, but dare I say I am not convinced of the value of including then in an edited collection, even one about the digital humanities. Perhaps a better approach would have been to include them in the online version where fresh and novel applications could have been attempted.  However, the actual review of the book was completed online through an open peer-to-peer review process, so perhaps some of this momentum will carry into the online version and create precedents for other books of this kind.

The book is a valuable contribution to the digital humanities in terms of outlining the debates in the field, even if the debates outlined are almost exclusively theoretical with very little reference to the important technical milestones in the field.  To many researchers in the humanities, technology is often viewed empirically as ‘a thing’, an object that exists in a functionally, utilitarian context free of the other debates that constitute humanities research.  However, once computing technology impacts upon the outputs and significance of humanities research—and the way that it is done—there is a need to understand computing not just as ‘ a thing’, but also as a part of the way we construct and advance knowledge.  As an introduction to some of the debates that surround computing in the humanities, especially for someone that may be new to these debates, this collection is an excellent example of how critical, interpretive humanities scholars are advancing computing within their own discursive structures.

Biographical Statement

Criag Bellamy is a Research Fellow in Computing and Information Systems, at the University of Melbourne, Australia. He is the Secretary of the Australasian Association for Digital Humanities.

Email: craig.bellamy@unimelb.edu.au

Levent Uzun, Ugar R. Cetinavci, Sedat Korkmaz & Umut Salihoglu

Published Online: June 1, 2013
Full Text: HTML, PDF (397 KB)


The present study reports on the findings related to the effect of playing a vocabulary learning and practicing game in elementary English classes at university level, and the attitudes and beliefs of the subjects about playing games with the purpose of learning the foreign language. The subjects were 70 first year university students from two different departments at the faculty of education. A vocabulary quiz that was prepared in accordance with the curriculum and the course book was applied as pre and post test. The results revealed that the experimental group subjects have doubled the vocabulary improvement rate of the control group subjects. The findings demonstrated that there was a slight difference between the performance of the female and male students in favour of the female subjects. The findings revealed positive thoughts and beliefs related to the game they played during their course, and using games in language classes. We have concluded that there is a need for more language games that might concentrate on the different aspects of learning a foreign language, and that the educational philosophies, methodologies, and techniques as well as the language curriculums should be rearranged and modified to meet the needs and interests of the new age learners.

Keywords: language learning, material development, motivation, vocabulary game, VocaWord.

Technology and education are not distant phenomenon, and gaming in education should be also installed as an additional concept for the sake of enjoyable foreign language education. Knowing a foreign language, and even more than one if possible, is regarded as a very important qualification, since languages are powerful tools to help people communicate, do business, establish connections, follow recent developments and so on. Yet learning a foreign language is not an easy task for many people, particularly when little time, money, and energy can be allocated for this specific purpose. Moreover, the task becomes evens harder when teachers do not possess the same vision, habits, interests, and strategies as their students. Prensky (2001:2) emphasised that the single biggest problem facing education today is that ‘digital immigrant’ instructors, who speak an out-dated language, are struggling to teach a population – ‘digital natives’ – that speak a much different language. Yet, interest in using technology artefacts as supportive tools for language learning is growing both from the perspective of the teachers and the students (Liu et al., 2003). The growth of the technology market, the uptake of the Internet and new aids to language education has combined to create an innovative and promising field, namely computer assisted language learning (CALL). CALL is a relatively new field, and illuminates generational divides between teachers and students.

Although foreign/second language (FL/SL) learning and teaching have been quite popular topics within language education environments for a very long time, little attention has been devoted to ‘gaming’ or to the use of games in language education. The common trend has been in favour of doing research and writing books on teaching methodology, skills, vocabulary, student and teacher beliefs and perceptions, testing, and so on. However, the emergence of new technological equipment, environments, and software has created a new generation of learners, namely ‘digital natives’ (Prensky, 2001), also called the ‘net gen’ (Tapscott, 1998) that is fond of the Internet and digital media. New technology has diversified not only educational sources and materials but also learning habits and strategies.

The new generation of learners have grown to question the necessity of schools, the efficacy of standard books and materials, the sufficiency of teaching methods and approaches, and the content that is taught. People have noticed that they can learn on their own. Moreover, they have realised how much and how well they can learn outside of common environments, in other words, out of schools. The discussion of ‘formal’ versus ‘informal’ and ‘individual’ versus ‘social’ learning have been hot topics within the educational environments (Wong and Looi, 2010). The ‘anyone, any time, anywhere learning’ as well as ‘lifelong learning’ concepts have been emphasised and underlined recently, almost at any platform related to education (Gu et al., 2011; Sharples, 2000; Patten et al., 2006). Many researchers point to the serious incompatibility that exists between the learners and teachers of our time (Thorpe & Edmunds, 2011; Melville, 2009; Oblinger and Oblinger, 2005). Prensky (2003) has indicated that today’s teachers, trainers, and educators are not as effective as they need to be, and that digital environments and educational games might help motivate students.

Our personal observation is that many institutions and persons today have noticed the rich and flexible solutions that technology serves, and have taken advantage of these to enhance learning. There are many university programs today that are run online (distance education). There are also plenty of online websites and materials for FL learning. Curriculum developers need to take the conditions of the era as well as the other words, learning should not be a strict duty but a kind of hobby undertaken willingly. A strict adherence to traditional environments and curriculums seems to be doomed, but is unfortunately the case in many schools in many countries at present. Although teachers are aware of multiple intelligences, classes seem to be thought of as identical individuals, and student preferences are not taken into account. One of the most common excuses for this tendency is that it is hard to unite the interests and preferences of each individual in the classroom at the same time, which indeed might be refined by the use of technology and educational games.

Games offer to unify these different interests and needs. In other words, because every person likes playing games, taking advantage of this and letting people learn while enjoying themselves would be a good idea. Web 2.0 tools and mobile devices seem to provide promising potentials for FL learning and for education overall. In what follows we provide an overview of each corner of the ‘technology-learning-gaming’ triangle, with specific focus on FL learning and education. Throughout this paper ‘digital game’ (DG) will be used to talk about the games that can be played on any technological platform such as computers, mobile phones etc regardless of the game type or software itself. On the other hand, ‘non-digital game’ should be understood as any board-, card-, or other type of game that can be played in physical environments but not on virtual, digital, or online environments.

Review of the literature

The most recent literature on education, digital/game-based learning (D/GBL) and mobile learning (ML) has concentrated mostly on the advantages and/or disadvantages of games in education (Franciosi, 2011; Becker, 2007; Nakata, 2008; Neville, 2009; Prensky, 2003; Rankin et al., 2006; Squire et al., 2005; Huizenga et al., 2009; Nash and Williamson Shaffer, 2011; Liao et al., 2011; Funk et al., 1999; Johnson, Vilhjalmsson, and Marsella, 2005); the game designing and application principles (Kiili, 2005; Gros, 2007; Ravenscroft and McAlister, 2006; Gu et al., 2011; Kickmeier-Rust and Albert, 2010; Squire, 2006; Rosas et al., 2003; Moreno-Ger et al., 2008; Lindström et al., 2011; Orkin and Roy, 2007); and the effect of mobile/technology, artificial intelligence and information and communication technologies on learning (Kukulska-Hulme, 2009; Neville et al., 2009; Saljö, 2010; Collins and Halversont, 2010; Bennett and Matont, 2010; Thorpe and Edmundst, 2011; Wong and Looi, 2010; Chu and Tsai, 2009; Hoff et al., 2009; Steels, 2001; Facer and Sandford, 2010; Godwin-Jones, 2005; Richards, 2005); while some other studies investigated the features of good games or the individual and gender differences in gaming and online interaction (Hong et al., 2009; Papastergiou, 2009; Inglis et al., 2011; Van den Beemt et al., 2011). Almost all studies emphasise the unique and experiential learning opportunities that the use of technology and games provide to people. Prensky (2001) emphasised that CGs may create a new learning culture which better suits learners’ habits and interests.

Games and technology as tools for motivation

The first thing that is most often stated about games is ‘motivation’.  There is a two-way motivational relation between games and players. Games are highly motivating means (Franciosi, 2011; Ersöz, 2000; Batson and Feinberg, 2006; Yee, 2006). Games in general and more recently DGs seem to motivate people by creating a challenging, interesting, and demanding atmosphere where people get the chance to interact, to fulfil their needs. Since playing games stands as a basic and natural action of human beings that is carried out intrinsically and willingly, it should be possible to determine that the motivation it creates must be also reinforced by the motivation of individuals towards playing games. That is why games cannot be underestimated as they are excellent tools for education, although they have been neglected by educators (Squire, 2006). Motivation is of great importance for successful learning, but an individual learner’s motivation might change over time due to external factors (Ellis, 2001:36). Yet, the situation seems to be a little bit different when it comes to games, because the motivation is internal and bilateral there, and most probably that’s why it lasts longer than other types of motivation.

Franciosi (2011) explained that technology and games seem to create an intrinsic motivation (a concept that is examined by the principles of ‘Flow Theory’), so people involve themselves in them not because they have to, but because they want to.  Kickmeier-Rust and Albert (2010) reminded that a significant number of young people spend many hours a week playing computer games, and suggested that taking advantage of the motivational potential of games for educational purposes might open new horizons. Again, Prensky (2003) declared that the amount of time a youth spends by playing computer games in today’s world is estimated at 10,000 hours by the time they are 21. However, others have argued that although VGs might provide motivation for learning, GBL might not necessarily result in positive learning outcomes (Rankin et al., 2006). So, it seems that there is need for more research on how, when, and to what degree games contribute not only to the motivation of learners but also to their knowledge and education. To sum up, there is a lot of evidence and support in the literature that games are motivational tools, and that they should be taken more seriously by educators; although there is also some doubt whether the motivation that the games provide would necessarily lead to beneficial learning results.

Games and technology for learner-centred education

Games are ‘learner-centred’ (Neville et al., 2009), which is a feature that is valued and encouraged by most educators. Gaming creates an environment where the learners learn without the interference of the teacher, which provides them with more time for practice, and creates anxiety-free conditions as they are left on their own and not judged. Gros (2007) stated that DGs are user-centred and they can promote challenges, co-operation, engagement, and the improvement of problem solving strategies. Facer et al. (2004) indicated that mobile assisted language learning (MALL) prompts a pedagogical shift from didactic teacher-centred environments to participatory student-centred ones. This should mean that MALL is informal in nature and allows room for individuals to acquire information, as they like and need. Any gaming platform that people can reach online and on the move such as Web 2.0, Second Life, IMVU, or other virtual role-playing environments directly bring the players into the spotlight, so that first-hand experiences and information is exchanged and practiced by individuals. Nevertheless, as Bennett and Matont (2010) discussed, not all young people share the same ‘technology-expert’ profile, and thus, self-centred environments might create lack of motivation and distrust to individual work, implying that formal education would provide a safer environment for students.

FL learning, technology, and games

The FL learning field has always been interested in using technology such as tape recorders, audio and video materials, overhead projectors, televisions, and computers. However, all of these products of technology have been used in the similar way and for the same purposes: to carry out the teaching action in the way the authorities have shown. But today individuals are not so much hooked to the formal learning procedures and rules, since information has become increasingly widespread, everywhere and at anytime. Technological artefacts are much more flexible than formal platforms. Therefore, although the traditional approach has been to ask for direct information and memorisation, the new generation mostly seeks guidance related to where and how they can find the information they need. Today’s digital society appears to prefer virtual worlds to the real or traditional world. Moulder (2004) summarised the situation by presenting the rhetorical question of an elementary school student: “Why should I read about ancient Rome when I can build it?!”. In order to comprehend the matter, teachers need to be involved in the same virtual environments with their students. It would be very natural to expect that for a teacher who has never played DGs, integrating technology and gaming in his/her classes would be a very hard and meaningless task. And actually, teachers often lack the skills and knowledge to integrate technology effectively into their classrooms (Becker, 2007). So while games for language education do exist, they reflect the shortcomings of existing approaches to technology in the field of FL education.

Altogether, research on FL learning and education through technology and games has gained increasing interest and accelerated during the past decade. Recently conducted studies show that there is a shift towards better understanding the new generation learners, and meeting their interests and needs. Kukulska-Hulme (2009) have noticed the potential of mobile phones and other portable devices and carried out a study to discuss the use of these means for language learning as well as the nuances between formal and informal learning, and teaching and learning practices. She concluded that mobility can lead to new perspectives and practices, and that there is an affinity between mobile learning and GBL. In the same way, Wong and Looi (2010) conducted two case studies to find out the impact of MALL in learning English prepositions and Chinese idioms. They determined that MALL has the potential to create unique language learning experiences that would attract and satisfy the new generation learners. In another work, Neville et al. (2009) designed a study where they attempted to teach L2 vocabulary, reading, and culture to university students through interactive fiction games, and observed positive contributions towards subjects’ learning.

Franciosi (2011) explored the relationship between DGBL and task-based language teaching to determine the design features of the two approaches and to present the similarities and differences that might have significant implications for language education. Similarly, Nakata (2008) compared the effect of learning L2 vocabulary by means of word lists, word cards, and computers. Findings suggested that incorporating technology by working with computers created superior results and received higher praise from the learners when compared to other two types of learning. These pieces of evidence support Neville’s (2009) claim that the combination of technology and games would be invaluable for the field of SL acquisition. Again, Rankin et al. (2006) investigated the benefits of a massive multiplayer online role-playing game as a pedagogical learning tool for intermediate and advanced learners of English as a SL, and revealed that the vocabulary of the students who played the game increased by 40%, while the conversational skills and chatting messages increased by 100%.

There are few games developed and proposed for education and more specifically for SL/FL learning and practise. The existing commercial games used for FL education such as Scrabble and Taboo, or the educational games such as ‘Spell it’, ‘Word puzzles’, ‘Hangman’ and so on have been used for a long time. Nevertheless, there is no investigation and evidence in the literature related to the effect and benefit of these specific games for language learners. We have also observed that educational faculties and the programmes that train FL teachers do not provide students with sufficient knowledge and skills to use games in their classrooms. There are courses in the programs such as ‘Language Teaching Materials Adaptation and Development’ and ‘Teaching Technologies and Material Design’, but the content and products of these courses seem to be not very effective for three reasons: the practical applications at schools have not changed over the past decade; the materials developed in the departments seem to be either old fashioned or impractical to carry around to classrooms; and they are hard to adapt to different platforms and settings.

In the present study our initial motivation was to develop a game that could be used in all language classrooms, in any foreign language, and with students of every linguistic proficiency level. We also tried to design the game in such a way that it would be relatively easy to transfer it to online and digital environments.  The present study reports the findings related to the application of the printed version of the VocaWord game that was introduced by Uzun (2009). A quantitative approach was adopted for data collection regarding the vocabulary knowledge of the subjects, and qualitative methods were employed to elicit their beliefs and observe their attitudes about using/playing the game in their English classes. The present study aimed at finding answers to the following questions:

  1. Is there a positive relation between playing the VocaWord game and the vocabulary knowledge of the subjects? And, if there is a positive effect, to what degree did playing the game improve subjects’ repertoire of English words?
  2. Are there any gender related issues regarding the game playing process and the success level of the students?
  3. What are the attitudes and beliefs of the subjects related to playing games in the English classes?


In the following, the components of our educational game (see Appendix 1) and the implementation procedures will be described and explained. The vocabulary learning and practising game that we present here is the empirical, modified and upgraded version of the work proposed and introduced by Uzun (2009).

VocaWord is the name of our game. VocaWord was designed as a board game that is played quite similarly to one of the world’s most famous games, Monopoly. The main difference of our game is that it focuses on learning and practising vocabulary in a FL. As there is a significant consensus in the SL/FL literature that knowing the most frequent 2000 words in a language would be a vital possession (Nation, 2001:16; Meara, 1995; Laufer and Nation, 1999; Hancioglu and Eldridge, 2007), originally the game was intended to integrate the most frequent English words so that players would both learn unknown words and practise the words that they already know. However, the content in this version was modified to meet the course content and the curricular goals. It should be indicated that the game suggested here can be used as a supplementary material in SL/FL education immediately after the learners reach a basic beginner level, and also it can be played in any given language by just replacing the letters on the board and the words on the cards accordingly with the alphabet of that language. Lists of the most frequently used words of many languages already exist, but there is a need to prepare the lists of all languages to fully enhance VocaWord.

It should be declared that the current version of the game (i.e. printed VocaWord), which was used in the present study, could be implemented in a virtual environment once it is programmed by any suitable computing language and transformed to an online or digital game to be played on computers and/or mobile phones. This would suit the tendencies and habits of the FL learners in our age of technology.

The components of the game

VocaWord consists of a board, 4 card packs, and the dice. In the following, each of the components will be described and the rules of the game will be explained.

The board

The board contains 32 spaces, 24 of which contain letters of the alphabet, and 8 of which (4 translation card spaces and 4 lexical competence card spaces) direct players to pick the card on the top of the relevant pack. Players go over these spaces and collect letters with which they form words and collect points, or pick cards from the specified card packs and follow the instructions. Instructions and rules for players to follow (when they are not sure what to do during the game) are written on the board as well.

The card packs and the dice

Four card packs were prepared in accordance with the curriculum and the course book. We extracted all the vocabulary (see Appendix 2) from the six units (Units 7-12) of the course book (Oxford Headway Elementary, Third Edition) and wrote them on the ‘translation cards’ with their L1 equivalents on the other side (one word on each card). When players land on the translation cards spaces, they have to pick a card from this pack and say the L1 equivalent of the written word. They do not need a teacher around for correction or approval, as the other side of the picked card provides immediate feedback for all the players around the board. The ‘lexical competence’ cards contain a certain number of the words from the mentioned units of the course book and simple exercises similar to the ones in the workbook of the students.

These exercises are ‘fill in the blanks’, ‘matching’, ‘find the synonym/antonym’ etc. The cards are placed on a separate box and the players cannot see the L1 side during the game. The other two card packs are given to students either as a reward (1 cards) where players receive some additional letters or a JOKER to form words and receive points later on, or as a punishment (2 cards) where players are asked to give back from the letters that they have collected while going over the board or are directed to pick a card from the lexical competence pack. There are 235 translation cards,80 lexical competence cards, 56 1 cards, and 32 2cards. Students do not keep any of the cards during the game; they instead return the picked card to the bottom of the pack so that the same words and exercises are circulated and practised during the game. This – practising the words – is the aim of the course book and workbook used.

The rules of the game

The main rules of the game are printed on the underside of the board so that all players can have a look during the game. The game can be played with two or more people, either as individuals or in pairs/groups.The ideal situation would involve four players, each sitting on one side of the square board. Each player rolls the dice and moves their token according to the number thrown on the dice. If the player lands on a letter space, they note down the letters and collect them to form words later on. Words are awarded points based on their length. A word of 1-3 letters is worth 3 points, 4-5 letters 5 points, 6 letters 7 points, and a word of 7 or more letters receives 10 points. (Both the number of the letters given on the spaces and the points given to formed words can be changed as needed). If the player lands on a translation space, they must take a card from the translation pack and provide the correct L1 translation of the word on the card. If they respond correctly, they receive one card from the cards 1 pack as a reward, but if they do not they must pick a card from cards 2 and follow the instructions on it. After this, the next player throws the dice and the game goes on in the same way. The winner is the player with the highest score at the end of a predetermined time, for example 30 minutes, or the first to reach a certain score, for example 30 points.

Prior to applying the game, we piloted it with a group of students and modified the rules and the cards in accordance with the feedback of the learners, so that the game became more motivating, challenging and exciting.

The testing tool

Once the game rules and components were consolidated, we prepared a vocabulary quiz (see Appendix 3) to apply as a pre-test and post-test to the subjects. The vocabulary quiz consisted of four parts. In the first part, there were 13 pictures that had to be matched with the provided words. In the second part, there were 10 sentences with a gap and twelve words (2 surplus words were provided to increase the difficulty) where the students were required to fill in the gaps with the appropriate words. In the third part, there were 11 L2 words and seventeen L1 words (6 surplus words were provided to increase the difficulty) where the students were asked to match the words. In the last part, there were 14 L2 words where the students were asked to write their L1 equivalents. The total number of the items was 48 (8 words from each of the six units of the course book).  All the items were prepared in such a way that they would be similar to the exercises in the course book and the workbook of the students. Likewise, all the words that were required in the items were from the list that we derived from Units 7 to 12 of the syllabus. In order to check the usability of the testing tool, we piloted it with the same students that we piloted the game with (N= 8).


We selected two first year classes from different departments (the Mathematics Teaching Department and the Department of Psychological Counselling and Guidance) in the Faculty of Education, and randomly assigned them as the control group and the experimental group. The Control group (N= 34) consisted of 14 male and 20 female students, and the Experimental group (N= 36) consisted of 14 male and 22 female students. 9 subgroups (with one board each) were formed for each session of play, which changed weekly to allow different people to play together. The age of the subjects ranged between 18 and 19. Our observation was that although the subjects were similar, there were minor nuances related to both their socioeconomic background and linguistic ability. Nevertheless, since we believe that social sciences cannot fully assure laboratory-alike conditions, and since we actually observe that our classrooms are certainly never homogeneous, we decided to carry out our study within the natural and usual conditions that existed.


The application of the pre-test and post-test as well as the interview session, implementation procedures of the game, qualitative observations, and the data analyses will be explained in the following and further in this paper.

The Application of the testing tool

The testing tool was applied as a pre-test a week before the implementation period of the game, during the usual hours of the classes, while the post-test was applied a week after the game implementation. Students were allowed as much time as they needed to complete the vocabulary quiz both during the pre-test and post-test. Both sessions took no longer than 40 minutes. Additionally, we interviewed the students to elicit their opinions about the game and how they felt during the application sessions that were held in the classes. We asked the following question after the post-test: What do you think about the gaming sessions that were held during the classes and how did you feel?

The Implementation of the game

Prior to applying the game with learners in the classroom setting, we asked a group of volunteer students (N= 8) to help us in the piloting of the game. These students were not from the same class and department of the subjects that were in the control or experimental groups. We explained the game to the eight students (randomly assigned two groups of four persons) and asked them to start playing the game. The students played the game for about an hour, for two days. Their opinions and feedback were obtained and evaluated both during the piloting and after the gaming sessions, and the necessary modifications were carried out. With the experimental group we did the same thing, which was explaining the rules of the game and demonstrating how the game would be played.

The game was played during the last hour of the weekly 3-hour class for a period of 6 weeks. The nine sub-groups in the experimental group played the game each week, and it was recorded that each player made at least 50 turns each week. Each student was able to form some words with the collected letters, and each student had to pick from the translation cards or lexical competence cards at least 20 times each week. The researchers carried out both the application of the testing tool and the gaming sessions were monitored and recorded by the instructor of the course, and the interviews.

Analyses of the Testing and Interview

For the analyses of the pre-test and post-test results, we gave 1 point to each correctly done item, and the total evaluation was done out of 48 (the highest possible score). We calculated the scores for each student from both tests, and also compared the results according to the genders. For the purposes of triangulation, we planned an interview session with the students in the experimental group (5-7 minutes with each student) to better understand their opinions about the game and the game playing procedure. The interviews were tape-recorded and transcribed, read several times by the researchers, and content and coding analyses were carried out. Students’ views were grouped and the significant utterances, focused on the game itself and its playing procedures, were underlined during the analyses. In the results and discussion part, the same, very similar, or repeated thoughts were given only once represented in one student’s words.

Results and Discussion

According to the quantitative results derived from the examination of the pre-test, no significant differences existed between the subjects in the control group (mean score 28.32) and the experimental group (mean score 27.61). As a result of the treatment based on the game played, there was noticeable progress related to the vocabulary knowledge of the subjects, with superiority of those in the experimental group (see Table 1).

Student Gender Control Group effect Experimental Group effect
Pre-test Post-test Pre-test Post-test
Student 1 M 31 34 +3 25 35 +10
Student 2 M 29 34 +5 21 36 +15
Student 3 M 29 35 +6 30 37 +7
Student 4 M 7 19 +12 34 45 +11
Student 5 M 34 36 +2 27 38 +11
Student 6 M 17 19 +2 34 38 +4
Student 7 M 18 24 +6 38 41 +3
Student 8 M 10 20 +10 32 39 +7
Student 9 M 38 44 +6 23 33 +10
Student 10 M 33 39 +6 23 35 +12
Student 11 M 33 41 +8 38 47 +9
Student 12 M 29 34 +5 32 36 +4
Student 13 M 22 29 +7 14 28 +14
Student 14 M 32 36 +4 37 45 +8
Student 15 F 36 39 +3 32 43 +11
Student 16 F 25 30 +5 32 38 +6
Student 17 F 33 36 +3 35 39 +4
Student 18 F 39 42 +3 25 32 +7
Student 19 F 35 40 +5 25 35 +10
Student 20 F 29 37 +8 23 32 +9
Student 21 F 35 37 +2 29 40 +11
Student 22 F 21 25 +4 11 20 +9
Student 23 F 36 40 +4 36 45 +9
Student 24 F 26 34 +8 25 37 +12
Student 25 F 34 38 +4 31 40 +9
Student 26 F 31 34 +3 36 46 +19
Student 27 F 24 29 +5 27 46 +19
Student 28 F 37 42 +5 24 41 +17
Student 29 F 14 21 +7 24 40 +16
Student 30 F 35 40 +5 27 41 +14
Student 31 F 34 37 +3 19 34 +15
Student 32 F 34 36 +2 21 38 +17
Student 33 F 25 31 +6 31 38 +7
Student 34 F 18 22 +4 21 33 +12
Student 35 F - - - 34 43 +9
Student 36 F - - - 18 35 +17
Total Mean 28,32 33,35 +5,02 27,61 38,02 +10,66

Table 1. The pre-test and post-test scores of the subjects

The results presented in Table 1 demonstrate that the experimental group (+10.66) subjects doubled the total vocabulary knowledge improvement of the control group (+5.02), which suggested that playing VocaWord in the classes contributed positively to the L2 vocabulary acquisition of the students. This finding answered our first research question: Is there a positive relation between playing the VocaWord game and the vocabulary knowledge of the subjects? And, if there is a positive effect, to what degree did playing the game improve the subjects’ repertoire of English words?

In relation to our second research question: Are there any gender related issues regarding the game playing process and the success level of the students? We partially found the answer here by calculating the vocabulary acquisition means for both genders in the experimental group (see Table 2), and partially in the interview analysis procedure. It was determined that there was not a huge gap between the vocabulary acquisition means of the female (11.77) and male (8.92) subjects, a result suggesting that both genders benefited from the game similarly. Yet, we observed that there was a superiority of approximately +3 words in favour of the female students. According to this observation, it might be possible to comment that VocaWord benefited the female subjects more. The interview analyses revealed a similar positive attitude from both genders towards the application of the game sessions in classroom.

Female Gender Male Gender
+11 Student 1 +10 Student 1
+6 Student 2 +15 Student 2
+4 Student 3 +7 Student 3
+7 Student 4 +11 Student 4
+10 Student 5 +11 Student 5
+9 Student 6 +4 Student 6
+11 Student 7 +3 Student 7
+9 Student 8 +7 Student 8
+9 Student 9 +10 Student 9
+12 Student 10 +12 Student 10
+9 Student 11 +9 Student 11
+19 Student 12 +4 Student 12
+19 Student 13 +14 Student 13
+17 Student 14 +8 Student 14
+16 Student 15
+14 Student 16
+15 Student 17
+17 Student 18
+7 Student 19
+12 Student 20
+19 Student 21
+17 Student 22
+11.72 Mean Effect +8.92 Mean `effect

Table 2. Mean effect results for genders in relation to vocabulary acquisition

The qualitative observations revealed that the students in the experimental group were more motivated during the classes. The interview sessions showed that the students in the experimental group were friendlier towards the instructor, and more comfortable and relaxed during the formal examinations. During the interviews, the subjects in the experimental group indicated that the English course has become much more exciting, refreshing, and comfortable after the implementation of the gaming sessions. They also articulated that playing with their classmates improved their social relationship and self-confidence, will for collaboration and group work. The students mentioned that they learned new words from one another, and even words that were not in their course book or workbook. Some sample responses of the students related to the question “What do you think about the game playing sessions that were held during the classes and how did you feel?” are presented in Table 3 below. The same or very similar responses of each student were not repeated in the table.

Student 1 I liked the game. It created a competitive environment.
Student 2 I felt enjoyed. The mechanical content of the course has been reduced.
Student 3 We were extra motivated as we knew that we would play the game.
Student 4 I liked forming groups with my friends and learning from each other.
Student 5 We felt privileged in this course compared to the other courses.
Student 6 I really enjoyed my English classes.
Student 7 It contributed to my preparation for the examinations.
Student 8 I became eager and encouraged to use the words in real life.
Student 9 It would be great if I could play the game at home too.
Student 10 We would like to play this game online or on mobile phones.
Student 11 Everything was wonderful.
Student 12 I attended the classes with pleasure.
Student 13 I had the chance to make closer friendship with my classmates.
Student 14 We socialised while enjoying ourselves and learning English words.
Student 15 I had very good time during the classes.
Student 16 I wish I could buy this game to play it at home with my family.
Student 17 I was the winner in most of the sessions, so I enjoyed myself.
Student 18 I feel that my vocabulary knowledge has improved.
Student 19 We would like to play the game more often and for longer time.
Student 20 VocaWord is definitely a promising and helpful game for FL learning.
Student 21 Other classes that didn’t play a game during the courses were jealous.
Student 22 It would be great to play the game on my computer.
Student 23 I would like to try it with the Russian language.
Student 24 The game was easy to play.
Student 25 The rules of the game were simple and the content was meaningful.
Student 26 We had an alternative to practice our word knowledge.
Student 27 It would be better if different exercises and challenges were provided.
Student 28 I could feel more comfortable if I played with my closest friends.
Student 29 It was nice to see how much vocabulary I knew.
Student 30 The game looks very professional and well designed.
Student 31 Is it possible to make a similar game for grammar and other skills?
Student 32 My spelling has improved.
Student 33 We could play better and more popular games.
Student 34 We could play at the beginning of the lessons rather than in the end.
Student 35 Nobody complaint about playing game instead of doing formal exercises.
Student 36 Some of the people in the class have richer repertoire of vocabulary.

Table 3. Responses of the students to the question What do you think about the gaming sessions that were held during the classes and how did you feel?

The opinions of the experimental group subjects demonstrate that there was a general satisfaction and contentment in relation with the application of game playing in classroom despite some minor concerns about the content of the game, classmate issues, and the procedure of the application. The italic sentences imply some of the critical reaction or thoughts of the students.

Qualitative observations

In the present study, the product-oriented quantitative data is provided through the pre and post vocabulary tests that aimed to reveal the effects of the VocaWord game on the subjects’ repertoire of English words. The interview sessions following the post-test were a component of the qualitative dimension of the study to better understand the students’ opinions about the game and the game playing procedure. To further support that dimension and ensure more triangulation; four randomly selected groups in four different weeks, who were videotaped for another study, were observed to shed light on the process itself and inform the quantitative products data. Another motivation was to cross-validate what the subjects had reported in the interview sessions.

It is a fact that it is not possible to observe everything (Patton, 1987) in participant observation while videotaping allows repeated viewing. However, as the analysis of the observations had to have some particular focal points in this study, “sensitizing concepts” (Patton, 1987: 82) were determined to ease the task and have some observational foci for when viewing and analysing the records. While determining those sensitising concepts, the characteristics that the relevant literature attributes to beneficial pedagogical games and the aims that the researchers had set while developing the game were considered.

Below is the list of the observational foci, which were specifically attended to during the views of the records and used for interpretation in the analyses.

  • whether it caused any procedural difficulties and/or hesitations while being played
  • whether it is played with sustained motivation
  • whether it was entertaining for both girls and boys
  • whether it seemed to serve to further socialisation among the students

The recorded four sessions were viewed in two sittings on two different days rewinding and fast-forwarding the videos whenever needed. During the sittings, an academic that specialised in educational sciences accompanied the four researchers. In consideration of the observational foci mentioned above; the recordings were viewed, notes taken, discussed and interpreted until the conclusions were drawn by consensus among the five researchers.

First of all, it was determined with almost no doubt that the playing of the game did not cause any procedural difficulties for the students. We believe that this is because the game has a lot in common with some well-known board games like Monopoly and information about the rules and the instructions to follow (when players are not sure what to do during the game) are written on the board.

Regarding student motivation: it was observed that no obvious lack of motivation or boredom, which is likely to be caused by a one-dimensional, mechanic and monotonous way of learning, arose. Some students seemed more enthusiastic, but the others never failed or were late to do what they were supposed to do in the course of the game because of not being motivated enough by the game and thinking about something else. None of them were observed to be trying to evade his or her turn without doing the best to come up with the elicited action. Corresponding with this, the game did not seem to function differently with boys and girls in terms of being entertaining and motivating. The agreement was that it kept all its players alert and motivated till the end in a fun atmosphere.

Lastly, whether the game served to further socialisation among the students was the point where the consensus was the least clear among the researchers. More from the students’ lives is needed to make a definitive judgment on it. However, the comfortable atmosphere in which almost all the students frequently swapped good-natured banter was deemed to be promising for the game.

Quantitative statistical analyses

Table 4. Are there any significant differences between the groups considering the pre-test results?

Group N S df t p
Control-Pre-test 34 28,32 8,23 68 0,396 0.693
Experimental-Pre-test 36 27,61 6,77

The descriptive statistics showed that the students in the control group seemed to perform very similarly in the pre-test (M:28,32; SD:8,23) compared to the students in the experimental group (M: 27,61; SD: 6,77). An independent samples T test indicated that the difference between the students’ test results in both groups in the pre-test was not statistically significant t(68)= -0,396 , p> 0.05. Therefore, it can be claimed that there were not any significant differences in the students’ vocabulary knowledge levels in the pre-test.

Table 5. Are there any significant differences between the groups considering the post-test results?

Group N S df t p
Control-Post-test 34 33,35 7,16 68 -3,07 0.03
Experimental-Post-test 36 38,02 5,49

The analysis of descriptive statistics showed that the students in the control group seemed to perform less successfully in the post-test (M:33,35; SD:7,16) than their counterparts in the experimental group (M: 38,02; SD: 5,49). An independent samples T test was carried out to see whether the differences between the students’ test results in both groups in the post-test.  The results reveal that the difference between the group scores t(68)= -3,07, p< 0.05 was  statistically significant with a medium effect size d=0.73. Therefore, it can be claimed that the students in the experimental group scored statistically higher scores in the post-test in comparison to the students in the control group.

Table 6.Are there any significant differences between the pre-test and post-test results in the control group?

Test N S df


Pre-test 34 28,32 8,23 33 -12,59 0.00
Post-test 34 33,35 7,16

The descriptive statistics showed that the students in the control group performed lower success levels in the pre-test (M:28,32; SD:8,23) compared to their scores in the post-test (M: 33,35; SD: 7,16). A paired samples T test indicated that the difference between the students’ test results in both tests differed at a statistically significant level t(33)= -12,59, p> 0.01 with a very large effect size d=2,32.

Table 7.Are there any significant differences between the pre-test and post-test results in the experimental group?

Test N S df t p
Pre-test 36 27,61 6,77 35 -15,42 0.00
Post-test 36 38,02 5,49

The descriptive statistics showed that the students in the experimental group performed less successfully in the pre-test (M:27,61; SD:6,77) compared to their scores in the post-test (M:38,02; SD:5,49). A paired samples T test indicated that the difference between the students’ test results in both tests differed at a statistically significant level t(35)= -15,423, p> 0.01 with a very large effect size d=2,57.

Table 8.Are there any significant differences between the pre-test results of male and female participants in the control group?

Pre-test N S df t p
Male 14 25,85 9,49 32 -1,489 0.146
Female 20 30,05 6,95

The analyses showed that the female students in the control group scored slightly higher in the pre-test (M:30,05; SD:6,95) compared to the male students in the same control group (M: 25,85; SD: 9,49). An independent samples T test indicated that the difference between the students’ test results in both groups in the pre-test was not statistically significant t(32)= -1,489 , p> 0.05. Therefore, it can be claimed that there were not any significant differences in the students’ gender with regards to their vocabulary knowledge levels in the pre-test.


To sum up, we provided an overview related to technology/computers, digital/video/computer/online/mobile games, learning/education, and specifically SL/FL acquisition and discussed the present situation of education. We developed a FL vocabulary game, tested it with real students in real classroom settings, and proposed an example for further material development studies hoping that new and more improved language learning games will be created and distributed. Our observation was that language classes can benefit signifigantly from even traditional games, thus digital tools would certainly bring additional power once opportunities become easier to employ and launch. We also hope that language teaching/learning research suggests new methods and techniques for teachers to better serve the emerging type of learners in the future.


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