November 15, 2017Uncategorized

Robert Nelson

Published Online: November 15, 2017
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Based on a taxonomy that includes discourse and ideology as well as logic and truth, this article identifies doubt as the element most critical to critical thinking.  Not only is doubt intrinsic to questioning but it has a dynamic relationship to purposeful thinking.  Despite its heightened relevance in an age when the separation of truth and falsehood is deliberately blurred in media, doubt is not sufficiently recognized in scholarly literature on critical thinking and is also not favoured by contemporary syllabus design.  Using philological methods, the article reveals that doubt has been handled imaginatively and positively throughout the history of ideas; and its relative marginalization in pedagogy is a historical anomaly, aligning only with the early days of Christianity.  The article argues that if critical thinking is taught without doubt, the syllabus is structurally hostile to critical thinking.

Keywords: critical thinking, doubt, uncertainty, imagination, syllabus design, alignment, learning outcomes, logic, discourse, inconsistency, thought, truth


University lecturers, schooled on the rigours of the refereed literature, are concerned about the quality of information that their students get from the internet.  Knowing that anyone can post almost anything and that the process of vetting is patchy at best, academics worry that students have immediate recourse to repositories like Wikipedia instead of reliable editions written by respected scholars.  Despite all monitory discouragements, students love Wikipedia, because it covers all popular topics; it alluringly appears as the top of many internet searches and is instantly available.  Further, Wikipedia often has more detail than is needed and a bibliography, plus useful links.  A YouTube video is also likely to leap from the search page, promising a more accessible and entertaining treatment than anything that they are likely to gain from the refereed literature.  Academics regularly warn their students of the danger of trusting internet sources—meaning, sources neither in the refereed literature nor on the official subject guide—but students are not to be put off.  The study-practices of undergraduate students can hardly be invigilated; and the warnings about the unreliability of unrefereed digital assets, given that they consult them regardless, simply leave the student feeling a bit shabby in their dependency, undignified and miserable, engaging in renegade unacademic practice instead of good and wholesome bibliographic discipline.

The internet as an untrustworthy repository is not the only cause of suspicion.  Truth claims, fake news and their supporting discourses are now more likely to reach the public not through a search engine—which in some sense parallels the catalogue of the library—but through social media.  Politicians like Donald Trump are skillful in bombarding the electorate and world beyond with sound-bytes that pop up on your Twitter feed and are trafficked beyond because of their ingenious balance of cheek and belligerence.  For anyone seeking to understand the complexities of global politics, the tweets are pernicious.  Instead of clarifying issues, they reinforce an impulse to produce a blast, to act on the impulse as a sign of personal certainty, with appeal to gun-slinging mythologies, where the shooter who is quicker on the draw is successful.  Meanwhile, sites like Facebook harvest our personal interests and plies us with suggestions based upon our previous activity, thus creating an echo-chamber of our prejudices and reinforcing the discourse that figuratively owns our thinking.  It is understandable that academics react to the new digital environment with discouragement.

Against this negative culture, I argue that the profusion of unrefereed sources that tempt the student are one of the best resources for a university education if they are relocated in a process of critical thinking.  If academics can contain the reflex of wanting to isolate students from the messy vitality of the internet, we tantalizingly have the golden opportunity to cultivate critical thinking skills through the welter of open-source information and the tendentious bots that populate our suggestion bars.  Sifting the truth and balanced view from the thick digital landscape of belief and nonsense, confidence and prejudice and confirmation bias, students have at the ready an authentic challenge that bridges academic and professional activity:  how do we rapidly overcome our ignorance so that we can make convincing and accurate representations of our own?  What is the essential ingredient that I can apply in good faith to sort out the unwieldy bulk of opinion and purported fact that I immediately encounter in my favourite digital environment?  In this article, I want to show that this priceless challenge that we mostly pass up will only work for us if we have an elegant and functional view of critical thinking.  For too long, I suggest, we have located critical thinking in a mechanistic framework which will not function happily in our dense environment of informational overload and self-generating prompts, suggestions and mystifying political sound-bytes sprayed like semantic shrapnel.  Rather, the simple processes of questioning and doubting (when actually all that the student wants is certainty) will serve the purpose perfectly.

What is critical thinking?

Critical thinking, which is highly valued and central to the claim of a university education (Halpern, 2014), is difficult to define and hard to teach (Fisher, 2001).  Many definitions sit within a mechanistic paradigm, where the validity of conclusions is assessed through interrogating the suppositions and logic of an argument (McPeck, 1983 and 2016).  For example, the facts upon which an argument rests need to be challenged, either because the reported details (i) may turn out to be untrue, (ii) may be partial and incomplete or (iii) are correct in themselves but are incorrectly applied to a given circumstance.

Sometimes critical thinking is even defined as separating fact from assumption; sometimes, it is seen mechanistically as a process, where input is funnelled into analysis and an output ensues which is marvellously without prejudice, as if anatomizing an argument somehow strips it of bias.  But critical thinking is not guaranteed by analysis, as you can tell by various proverbial religious traditions—Talmudic or Jesuitical, for example—in which arguments are scrupulously and exhaustively unpicked in a discourse that nevertheless carries assumptions that the exegete considers axiomatic but which an atheist would consider illusion.

This article argues that critical thinking depends on the thinker entertaining doubts concerning fact, opinion and positionality, all inextricably mixed in digital environments.  In identifying doubt as the cornerstone of critical thinking—a case that appears to have escaped due attention in the literature—it further argues that there is a structural problem in syllabus design throughout English-speaking universities, which is based on learning outcomes that are aligned with assessment.  Structurally, the paradigm of constructive alignment favours certainty and has difficulty accommodating doubt: we do not, and often cannot, teach doubt.  In this article, the rich creative and imaginative dimensions of doubt are philologically identified in the history of ideas of western Europe; and the relative hostility toward doubt in today’s syllabus design is found to have no counterpart other than the anxious doctrine of the biblical period.

The three zones of critical thinking

We could distinguish three zones of doubt involved in critical thinking: questions of fact, questions of logic and questions of discourse.  Questions of fact cast doubt on the veracity of the information adduced in a case.  Questions of logic cast doubt on the connexions drawn between facts and the inferences that an audience is invited to make.  Questions of discourse cast doubt on the cultural inclusiveness or terminology or interests that animate the case.

Using the example of education itself, we could begin by imagining a body of evidence that demonstrates how children who play violin or piano subsequently do better in education and enjoy better life prospects than those who do not.  The first critical response to the claim is to interrogate the facts.  What does it mean when we identify ‘children who play violin or piano’?  For how long?  At what level?  Does it mean sight-reading or playing Suzuki method?  These questions of fact easily shade off into questions of the completeness of the facts.  Does the study distinguish children who play piano or violin from children who listen to violin or piano, where classical music, say, is a part of children’s lives irrespective of how active they are in playing either instrument?  What about flute or oboe?  What about guitar?

Sticking all the while to the claim over violin and piano, questions of logic enter in the next zone where we contemplate the implications.  For many, the claim immediately implies that violin or piano is the reason for the superior academic performance of the children.  There could be a kind of cognitive development through playing piano or violin—both difficult and demanding instruments—that gives children a special ability to concentrate and predisposes them to the challenges of academic disciplines.  Thinking critically, however, we would be cautious about ascribing the better academic fortunes of the musical children to the practice of their instrument, because ‘correlation ≠ causation’.  There may be a correlation between classical musicianship and student success; but even if playing piano or violin is considered a predictor of student success, it does not follow that it is the reason for student success.

Critical thinking at this level scrutinizes the logical connexion between two phenomena, musical aptitude and academic performance, and distinguishes cause from effect.  The children who practice classical music are relatively privileged.  Their parents are not only wealthy enough to afford a violin or piano but involved and ambitious enough to arrange and pay for lessons and books and concerts; so perhaps the children’s background gives them the head start in academic progress, not necessarily the music or instruments that they play.  It could be, for example, that children who know the word ‘hors d’oeuvres’ also excel at school.  If so, the knowledge of the French culinary term indicates social advantage rather than some necessary component of cognitive development, as if teaching a gastronomic word to disadvantaged children—who may never have seen a menu with foreign terms in it—will somehow result in new scholastic capabilities.  Until cause and effect are distinguished, any assertion from the findings is likely to remain controversial.

Questions of discourse follow.  The third zone of critical thinking focuses on the cultural premises by which the claim has been framed.  It might be observed that the whole discourse of children excelling according to how well prepared they are belongs to a middle-class preoccupation among zealous globalized parents, boastful institutions and other ambitious stakeholders.  There is a subtext that the relative performance of children should be measured in assessments that set one child against another child, that produce rankings, the concern for which belongs to anxious tiger-parents and is answered by institutional swagger.  If music is seen to help, it is credited with a promotional agency along with numerous other advantages that might be sought by parents and others who ‘want the best for their children’.  Though a legitimate area of social science, the discourse is culturally predicated on competitive bourgeois assumptions of excellence and ambition at stakes in which billions of people have no claim or interest.  In the traditional Indigenous cultures of Australia, for example, the eagerness to see your children excel at the expense of other children might be seen as repugnant and somewhat sickening.

Discourse is dialectical.  Any thorough interrogation of the premises of a discourse equates to an issue of perspective.  From whose reality do we examine the world?  It is an imaginative exercise which is value-ridden; and because discourse is so infused with values, it is equally riddled with doubt.  All critical thinking, if it is really critical, must handle doubt.  Yes, it is good for children to do well; and maybe learning classical music is axiomatically a good thing.  But the terms on which we determine ‘good’ are not universal and our preoccupation in seeking good outcomes often involves a collateral abolition of doubt, regrettably, because the good that we do not doubt may be judged by others to be rotten.  Especially if we can reassure ourselves that our inquiry is scientific, we are more likely to discount the need for doubt, because science suggests the absolute, even though good scientists are by nature modest and are quick to recognize the limitations of their inquiry.

Hence, there is special value in a digital environment that does not immediately have the authority of science.  Students can more easily recognize the agency of discourse when a paper does not sit behind reams of citations and empirical data, with their persuasive air of universal principles.  It is much easier to approach digital assets with a spirit of doubt than to wage spiritual warfare against the systematic professors whose writings have been juried to the nth degree for scientific probity.  As part of a learning experience, the information on the internet is much likelier to yield insights through critical thinking.  Further, they have a useful cue in the way that social media channels propagate what they want to hear, thus giving the student a basis to exercise suspicion for rhetorical material that circulates in sneaky tendentious ways.

Clear distinctions between the three zones of critical thinking cannot always be drawn, because the theme of partiality is shared by all of them.  Data gathering, logic and discourse all involve choices and emphasis; and this overlap heightens the need for doubt at all levels, because even the most objective phases of an inquiry are infused with partiality.  The single most necessary element of critical thinking is doubt, because all findings at all levels must be checked for their partiality.  In an educational context, this partiality is easier to detect when the material does not enjoy the imprimatur of the scientific or scholarly community.

Alas, cultural communication generally and education in particular, do not enjoy expressions of doubt.  When we hear from experts, we like certainty, because by and large we seek reassurance in explanations and advice.  If we want to be persuaded one way or the other, it is disappointing to waver.  Sometimes, it can be fatal.  We have to decide, even though not all doubts can be resolved.  A commercial, clinical or legal judgement that is full of doubts is held to be unhelpful or worse than useless, because wayward interpretations can spawn from the obscurities, shamelessly exploited by anyone who can see an opportunity to profit from a regulatory equivocation.  Students also expect certainty from their lecturers and seek it in their subject guides, assessment criteria, marking rubrics, past exams or essays and other hints and templates.  There is a widespread assumption that a lack of certainty may be equated with a lack of clarity—a regrettable defect—and consequently a kind of academic dereliction, an invitation to chaos, arbitrary judgements and irresponsible chance.  We demand certainty over any issue where fairness and equity are at stake, because no student should be disadvantaged thanks to a misunderstanding or an ambiguity in the assessment; and we owe it to each student to have the same level of certainty as every other.

This deep and abiding attachment to certainty creates a problem in coursework programs that seek to cultivate critical thinking.  Critical thinking lives in the cracks, the gaps, the possible breakages.  It is most powerfully cultivated not when students follow or copy their lecturers and conform to their templates but when they doubt them, when they question the apparent certainties and react against them, when they sense a poor fit, an annoying supposition, a disagreement, a fault.  I am most interested in a question if it contains doubts or if I can doubt the terms of the challenge; but my personal disposition is also not universal and there are powerful cultural reasons to marginalize doubt, which are just as notable as the appeal of doubt in discourse.

Doubt as the one certainty in critical thinking

The peculiar virtue of studying doubt is that doubt greatly antedates the term ‘critical thinking’, which appears in the twentieth century close to the time when universities began formulating graduate attributes (Ennis b, 1962).  It is philologically frustrating to work with a term that has no ancestry, because it is clear that intellectuals have practiced critical thinking for many millennia but not by that tag.  So what to make of an ancient practice that lacked a name?  Either other terms existed, like doubt, or the new term of critical thinking is in some sense unnecessary.

There is a near synonym, ‘skepticism’; but skepticism is not quite the same as critical thinking.  Certainly, it is venerable, deriving from Greek philosophical traditions—and with impeccable roots in thought itself (σκέπτομαι, to look around carefully, examine, consider, hence the adjective σκεπτικός, thoughtful, reflective)—but it seldom enters popular language throughout the early modern period, when it was mostly tinged with theological negativity.  Even in the enlightenment, Vico considered skepticism an abasement of philosophy.  He believed that philosophy had fallen so deeply into skepticism that it was professed by learned fools (stolti dotti) to damn the truth (calonniare la verità’, Giambattista Vico, Scienza nuova, conclusion).

Skepticism means that you do not believe something but it does not indicate a good reason for the negative persuasion, which is why we say ‘climate skeptic’ for someone who espouses climate denial or ‘Holocaust skeptic’ for someone who denies that the Nazis committed genocide.  Arguably the opposite of a critical thinker, the skeptic may simply be obstinate before the evidence and does not want to check the science; either by reactionary bias or by some maverick complacency, the skeptic persists with outdated information and conclusions.

Critical thinking is also close to unbias—a difficult noun—but critical thinking is not confined to unbias.  Unbias is a precondition of critical thinking, already observed by Jonathan Swift in 1708 (OED s.v.); but a person can be fair and open-minded yet still lack the ability to think critically.  Critical thinking entails a motivation to seek out shrewdly the missing element, the fault, the uncertainty in what seems to be assumed.  It is not quite argumentativeness but critical thinking nevertheless includes a talent for picking holes in an argument.  To be unbiased only ever means to lack bias:  it is a laudable but passive condition rather than a critical one; and almost by definition, it does not act to a purpose.  To be critical, the thinker actively identifies and assays an assertion or an attitude.  Lacking bias does not entail discovering bias in someone else; in fact, good academics though we be, we could be suspected of having our own unconscious bias to protect; and our jealousy on account of it gives us a motive to snoot out the bias in someone else’s inquiry.  Our doubting has a purpose.  To this suspicion we will return with historical evidence to hand; but our brief search for the antecedents of critical thinking suggests nothing so appropriate as doubt.

Doubt is also not the whole of critical thinking and, like unbias, doubt can only be considered a necessary but not sufficient condition of critical thinking.  Nevertheless, doubt strongly connects all three zones of critical thinking described above, which unbias does not do, because identifying the ideological underpinnings in language—that is, to appreciate problems of discourse—requires more than a freedom from bias.  In contrast to unbias, doubt is active.  It purposefully does the work.  And finally, unlike unbias, doubt is a commonly accepted idea with an enormous and colourful history.  Even though it does not exactly equate with critical thinking, it runs enough in parallel to reveal many telling elements of critical thinking.  In the next sections, this article turns to the history of ideas and unpicks the origins and agency of doubt in western thought, observing how various cultural circumstances either cause doubt to be spurned or embraced, and on what terms.  In these sections, the investigation follows a philological method, citing the evidence of language to uncover the structures of thought that underlie contemporary values.  Apart from short entries in standard dictionaries, these concepts have not, to my knowledge, been systematically examined before.

The aversion to doubt in the Christian tradition

It is difficult to overestimate the spiritual pressure in western culture that discourages doubt.  At the heart of Christian tradition, there is a need for faith which is contrary to doubt.  In the New Testament, there are numerous exhortations berating folk for their feeble belief: ‘O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt (εἰς τί ἐδίστασας; Matthew 14.31).  If you have faith and do not doubt (μὴ διακριθῆτε), miracles and blessings will come your way (Matthew 21.21–22).  It is a binary relationship between worship and belief: some worshipped Jesus and some doubted (ἐδίστασαν, Matthew 28.17).  Actually, the person who doubts (ὁ δὲ διακρινόμενος) is damned, because everything outside faith is sin (ἁμαρτία, Acts 14.23), ‘as it were sin to doubt’, as Shakespeare says (Coriolanus 1.6).  Right down to the organ of feeling, one must not doubt (μὴ διακριθῇ ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ, Mark 11.23), that is, one must not doubt in the heart.  Do not search elsewhere or be of doubtful mind (μὴ μετεωρίζεσθε, Luke 12.29).

The words used for this kind of doubt are different to the unsureness that you might experience in not knowing anything else, like ‘are you speaking to him or to me?’  When Christ issues his dire prophecies of betrayal to the disciples at the last supper, the twelve are in doubt (ἀπορούμενοι) as to who is implicated (John 13.22).  When the doubt is legitimate, it is a case of selecting the likeliest, which can be difficult.  They were startled (ἐξίσταντο) and in doubt (διηπόρουν) as to what it meant (Acts 2.12; cf. 5.24, 10.17, 25.20).  It is a little different to the kind of doubting that one might do in a failure of trust.  With faith, you follow and do not waver, ‘doubting nothing’ (μηδὲν διακρίναντα, Acts 10.20, 11.12).

There is understandable doubt—like the uncertainty about which road to take to reach a good destination—and bad doubt, which impinges upon faith.  There is necessary doubt, where one has to sort something out, and reprehensible doubt where one questions doctrine and, being thus weak in faith, one enters into doubtful disputations (εἰς διακρίσεις διαλογισμῶν. Romans 14.1).  If Paul says that ‘I stand in doubt of you’ (ἀποροῦμαι ἐν ὑμῖν, Galatians 4.20) it means that I do not have the confidence when in your presence or I do not know exactly how to handle you.  Doubt in this case is an indisposition caused by a tough circumstance.  Life throws up problems that cannot always be resolved by faith, like when the pious Peter is faced with the decision of whether or not to deny Christ and opts, as Jesus predicted, for denial.  That is forgivable and radically different from going against doctrine.  In matters that touch upon prayer, one has to act without disputatious doubting (χωρὶς…διαλογισμοῦ, 1 Timothy 2.8).

There are echoes of this distaste for doubt for many centuries (directly rehearsed, as in Torquato Tasso, ‘Di poca fede, / che dubbii? Gerusalemme liberata 8.29) like Milton’s unequivocally negative ‘horror and doubt distract / His troubl’d thoughts (Paradise lost 4.18–19) or his council of devils with ‘their doubtful consultations dark’ (2.486).  Seen from this perspective, there is nothing good about doubt.  But in the larger history of doubt, the biblical anxiety over spiritual uncertainty can be seen as a chronic aberration.

A history of doubt

The words adopted in this anxious culture of faith represent only a small part of the large Greek vocabulary concerning doubt, which antedates the New Testament by hundreds of years.  The Greeks had numerous other conceptions to indicate doubt, often using the motif of ‘two’ or ‘both’, acknowledging that a doubtful circumstance is often a split in the road where one route might either be more circuitous or dangerous or will take you to the wrong place.  The large number of words beginning with the particle for both (ἀμφί) represents the same pattern as the Romans followed in the Latin word for doubt (dubium, two-ish), which is also the origin of our word ‘doubt’ and its counterparts in romance languages.  It is also the motif in languages like German (Zweifel) where the concept of doubt hinges on the particle ‘two’; and in common speech, we might express our uncertainties by saying that ‘I am in two minds’ about a given issue.

The Greeks had adjectival forms for ‘contested on both sides’, disputed, doubtful (ἀμφήριστος), with doubtful mind (ἀμφίδοξος), disputed, doubtful (ἀμφιδήριτος); and around these conceptions, there are strong verbs for being in doubt (ἀμφιβολέω, ἀμφιδοξέω) to think both ways and so be in doubt (ἀμφινοέω).  There is a further category that has its roots in ‘two’ to express the idea of doubt, already in Homeric Greek (δοιή; cf. ἐπιδοιάζω, ἐνδοιάζω) which can also mean perplexity.  The motif carries into being divided in mind (δίφροντις) or doubting, indicating a kind of uncertainty which is frequently justified, as acknowledged through numerous later poetic evocations, such as Shakespeare’s ‘perplexity and doubtful dilemma’ (Merry wives of Windsor 4.5).  If a dilemma is named—such a good Greek word!—the legitimacy of the doubt around it is automatic, ‘a shrewd doubt’ as Shakespeare says (Othello 3.3).

In classical dialectic, philosophers had long pondered the impasse of thought (ἀπορία, literally having no route) or difficult question for discussion, difficulty itself but in the form of a puzzle (ἀπορίᾳ σχόμενος, Plato, Protagoras 321c, 324d, Aristotle, Topics 145b1, Politics 1285b28) or wicked problem.  It had other forms to describe a matter of doubt, question (ἀπόρημα), with adjectival forms indicating ‘inclined to doubt’ (ἀπορητικός) and strong verbs to describe doubting in the sense of being at a loss (διαπορέω; cf. ἐξαπορέω, συνδιαπορέω) as well as abstracted substantives indicating perplexity (διαπόρησις).

The ancient conceptions suggest a rich variety of responses to doubt, some of which are negative, like doubtful in the sense of uncertainty and hesitation (δίσταγμα), again with a direct verbal form (διστάζω, already noted in the New Testament), as well as being at a loss (δίζω).  One even spoke of a doubter (ἐνδοιαστής).  Of course, not all uses of doubt are positive. Hesitation could have dire consequences in fighting, say; but on the whole, the impression gained from Greek thought, which is so linguistically rich around the question, is heroism.  To entertain doubts is to confront doubts, which is brave in the same way that confronting death is brave; hence the value of the concept in dialectic.  To evade doubts is to prevaricate or to fail to grasp what lies in contention.  All decisions are, in a sense, dialectical, because attractive prospects are at variance with one another.  The stuff of Greek tragedy is largely about doubt; and even Greek mythology is full of it, as with the anecdote reported in Xenophon with Heracles at the crossroads (Memorabilia 2.1.21–34), a scene that fascinated artists later in the baroque, like Annibale Carracci (Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, 1596) and celebrated by poets like Marino (L’Adone 2.1.3).  The hero encounters the allegorical figures of Vice and Virtue, who entice him in split directions: a voluptuous lady with translucent veils offers a pleasant and easy life of luxury, while a stern preceptress offers him a stressful but glorious life of duty and social contribution.  Heracles responds heroically, opting for the worthier course with greater net benefit for humanity, even though strewn with tribulations to himself.  This exemplar of entertaining a doubt supplies the renaissance with much heroic spirit.  Heracles would not be such a hero if he were like an automaton, programmed in favour of virtue, and were not torn somewhat by the decision.

Doubt in the renaissance

From the very dawn of the renaissance, doubt was understood as a poetic condition that taunts the mind over something existential, possibly unresolvable, perhaps essentially contested, but around stakes in which the individual has a purpose.  That is why it features hugely over love.  For example, Petrarch tells about doubt assailing him as he wonders how he can live so far from his lover (Canzone 15.9–11); and the soul itself he sees as ‘doubtful and beautifully vague’ (l’alma dubbiosa et vaga, 125.65).

Far from the biblical repudiation of doubt, one can be playful with doubt, because two possibilities are in competition.  For example, there is doubt as to whether his Laura ‘is a mortal woman or a goddess’ (157.7).  Love itself is a doubtful feeling, with doubtful satellites in its symptoms, both ardent and freezing, such that the intellect is in doubt as to which is greater, hope or fear, flame or ice (182.3).  Elsewhere, the poet says that his state is in doubt: now he cries, now sings, both fearing and hoping; and he discharges the burdens in sighs and rhyme (252.1).  Love and life are all temptation and impossible investment; and our early European poet, prefiguring many centuries of neurosis in love, finds that he lives in such fear and eternal war that he no longer resembles what he once was, like a person who is scared and lost on a doubtful path (per via dubbiosa, 252.14), echoed in later poets (e.g. Ariosto, Orlando furioso 1.39.1–4; or Marino, ‘Onde dubbiosa ed impedita il mira / e di foco e di gel trema e sospira.’ Adone 17.54.7–8).

There is also much truth to the portrait, because judgement in courtship concerns timing to make a move; and of course it is riddled with doubt.  You can be too hasty but, as Petrarch says, ‘waiting is also doubtful’ (264.35). The critical choice of moment is always doubtful and recurs much in the seventeenth century with the poet Marino who loves the suspense of a kiss forestalled by doubt (Adone 3.98.5–8), the tension of one about to make move with a doubtful heart (3.111.1–2 and 3.128.5–8)

Doubt is not purely an epistemological condition, where one lacks evidence or the information is incomplete.  It acts in the psychological domain, reflecting a person’s desires in contention, a sense of being lost in the woods, inadvertently becoming waylaid, as the sixteenth-century poet Ariosto says, where a hero is so preoccupied in fantasy that doubt sits among hate and fear (Orlando furioso 2.68.1–3; cf. 25.46.8).  But doubt can also be implicated in joy, where you are so happy that you doubt that it is reality and not a vain dream (11.6.1–4 and again ‘se son sogni questi’, 25.67.3–8).  Doubt often comes with indisposition, paralysis, stupefaction (18.115.8) and sometimes it is dangerous because decisiveness is called for (stare in dubbio era con gran periglio, 19.56.1).  You can be so wracked with doubts that your timidity makes a bridge tremble (31.68.6–7).

But doubt is also legitimate, because one may need to know more to gauge the truth (31.103.4) or involve the kind of tormented decision to move or to stay (pur travagliando la dubbiosa mente, 40.68.1–4).  In matters of affection, there is also no given certainty.  If your spouse is faithful, you have every reason to love and honour, as opposed to one who is in doubt; but some are wrong in jealously, questioning a chaste spouse, while cuckolds may feel totally reassured (42.101).

Love, thanks to jealousy, is a mixture of affections, as the later sixteenth-century poet Tasso reminds us, where new suspicions mingle with solicitous doubts and cold fear (Rime 100.1–3).  Proof of faith and love remains a task of banishing doubt (Rime 221.12–14, 230.1–2, 330, 374) because doubt in itself is not good.  If a pathway in the wooded mountains among thorns and broken rocks is precipitous, it is also described as steep and dubious (erta e dubbiosa, 388.4).  Just the same, for Tasso, doubt is not related merely to faith or predicting the future but the extent of titillation, which is a kind of torment where doubt is beautiful (belli i miei dubbi ancor, belli i tormenti, 476.5).  The same might occur with writing poetry (Rime 487) which is also an immense weight, the teasing of Olympus, no less, the risky loftiest peaks of Parnassus that call you to such a ‘dubious pass’ (1545.5–8).  Love itself fills you with doubts and confusion (dubbia e confusa, 569.77) because it represents a change, removing your previous contentedness or self-containment in scorn or shyness (569.66–81).

Tasso is a poet of exquisite doubts.  The sight of a handsome young woman in a skirt, which he presumably tries to penetrate imaginatively, makes him exclaim: ‘O beautiful doubts, O dear tricks’ (O bellissimi dubbi, oh cari inganni! Tasso, Rime 1019.5; cf. oh dolcissimi dubbi! oh cari inganni! 1202.9).  Even the dawn in his large epic is described in its thinness of light as ‘dubious and unformed’ (Gerusalemme liberata 11.19.1) and the element of doubt that might embarrass a beautiful woman makes her more attractive (19.114.3–4).

Even in decision-making, doubt is not condemned.  Prudence calls for doubt to be the measure of certainty: ‘you weigh the bad with the good, the certain with doubt’ (Rime 691.12–14, cf. Gerusalemme liberata 7.58.1–2).  You might vacillate because of an ‘irresolute doubtful heart’ (5.11.6) but a sage understands that the turn of events belongs to doubtful fate (6.63.6).  Doubt is not a weakness but indicates something legitimately unresolved, possibly tragic, as when love and honour are in contention (Gerusalemme liberata 6.70.7–8; cf. 17.88).  The doubtful circumstances indicate that one must apply special powers of reflexion, turning things around in your mind, to gain a better perspective (19.65.5–8).

Growing doubts in the baroque

By the seventeenth century, doubt had moved from a window of titillation to a position of value.  The sober Milton links doubt and realism when describing how ‘the careful Plowman doubting stands / Least on the threshing floore his hopeful sheaves / Prove chaff.’ (Paradise lost 4.983–85).  In his large love-epic, Marino speaks of interpreting doubtful texts, meaning obscure or recondite (Adone 9.70.5), so that the very idea of doubt is drawn into the lofty world of scholarship.  Adonis has an audience with Mercury, no less, to explain the secrets of science; and in asking an astronomical question he begs the god to untie a knot ‘that has heftily bound up his doubting mind’ (10.13.6).  The job of science is to wrestle with doubt.  Adonis has further questions about the moon: ‘tell me why; I flux among a thousand doubts and cannot find a solid theory among them’ (10.34.3–4).  Most valuably, the discourse turns to the borders of science:  if our studies are so faulty and vain over such easy and simple material, ‘what can guide human judgement in things that are more doubtful and exquisite’ (nele cose più dubbie ed esquisite? 11.205.1–4).  Admittedly, the exquisite in the line means ‘searched out’ or sought for and does not necessarily mean exquisite in the modern sense of exceedingly beautiful.  Nevertheless, the term still carries connotations of being highly desired, which rubs alongside doubt.  And it makes sense.  In science or any investigation, one is seldom insecure about the things that do not matter much: the doubt enters when something crucial or decisive seems to be at play.  But one is never contented with doubt: one hopes that clear truth is revealed and does not remain as ‘dubious oracles’ (13.75.1–2).  Doubt is a necessary phase between wanting something and being befuddled over it, either what it means or how to get it, which is why Marino sees Adonis reflecting over doubts ‘between stupor and piety’ (tra lo stupore e la pietate / Adon dubbio tra sé ristette alquanto, 12.251.1–2).

The enormous artistic output of the baroque is in certain senses aesthetically predicated on doubt.  Beginning with the grainy vigorous styles of the late Titian, artists already in the renaissance enjoyed painting that was somewhat indistinct, not necessarily because the brushwork is imprecise but because the light is too dim for the full explication of volumes; and a fulsome exploration of this tenebrism is proper to baroque painting, with its dramatic chiaroscuro and dark depths.  Art celebrates a world, as Marino says, beneath a doubtful light (sotto dubbia luce, 14.61.3), often seeking shady retreats and times of day where the light fails somewhat, an inn lit by candles or a ‘doubtful wood’ that brings relief to the beautiful limbs of a body (sì belle membra a sì dubbioso bosco, Adone 17.62.2).  The indistinctness of the light makes one want to penetrate the fulness of bodies more completely, giving us a paradoxical awareness of the parts that we do not see so well.  The dubious light of the baroque invites curiosity.  It ignites your fancy, your interest, the desire to improve your perception.  You become motivated to see more.

The strong emphasis on the emotionality of doubt during the baroque reveals not just that doubt is an inspired condition but it is specifically inspired by somewhat negative emotions in contention with positive desire.  Doubt is persistently associated with jealousy that makes a ‘great tussle in the dubious breast’ (Adone 18.104.3–4, cf. 18.159.1–2) and which is captured in the grand poetic paradoxes of Shakespeare: ‘who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves!’ (Othello 3.3), where doubt is directly linked to jealousy (‘my most jealous and too doubtful soul’ Twelfth Night 4.3) and is treacherous: ‘Our doubts are traitors’ (Measure for Measure 1.4).  Doubt may be rational, as noted, but it is riddled with vertiginous energies, ‘Giddy in spirit, still gazing in a doubt’ (Merchant of Venice 3.2), ‘as doubtful thoughts’ are associated with ‘rash-embraced despair’ (Merchant of Venice 3.2).

Dark motives for doubt

Among the advantages of examining doubt in an age that does not want to know about it is that the inquiry reveals some of the psychological structures that underlie critical thinking.  To be critical may be an objective mission, where a researcher, for example, rigorously checks all the imaginable indices of fault, each claim, each method, each jump in logic.  But because these processes of scrutiny depend on doubt, they are sharper when there is a motive to doubt, a desire to seek a reason why something may not be so.  This purposeful desire reaches passion, as the seventeenth-century La Rochefoucauld explains: ‘jealousy is nourished by doubts and they become fury at the end, so that one moves from doubt to certainty.’ (François de La Rochefoucauld, Maximes et réflexions morales 32).  But because it is an element of jealousy, doubt is handled perversely and, when one is in love, one often doubts that which one believes most (on doute souvent de ce qu’on croit le plus, 348) and with similar perversity, La Rochefoucauld recommends that the best remedy for jealousy is the certainty of what one fears, because it either causes the end of life or the end of love; it is a cruel remedy but sweeter than the doubts and suspicions that would otherwise continue (18).

Once jealousy enters—and how does one prevent it?—the mind becomes twisted: ‘you want to hate and you want to love but you continue to love when you hate, and you still hate when you love; you believe everything and you doubt everything; you are simultaneously ashamed and scornful of having believed and having doubted’ (Réflexions diverses, ‘De l’incertitude de la jalousie’ 8).  La Rochefoucauld says that we are never happy enough to dare to believe what we wish for nor even happy enough to be assured of what we fear most.  We are buffeted by eternal uncertainty (Réflexions diverses 8).

Every doubt in the history of ideas has a context, which we cannot examine in detail.  Into the eighteenth century and beyond, we encounter circumstances which intellectually call for doubt—‘your doubt is justified’ (Goldoni, Il servitore di due padroni, 1.3)—and other doubts are a mighty inconvenience alongside ‘suspicions and palpitations’ and ‘a thousand fleas in the head’ (Goldoni, Il ritorno della villeggiatura 1.4).  By the eighteenth century it must have become apparent that there are so many occasions for doubt and such diverse moral reactions to each that doubt would need to be predicated with an adjective.  And so in Klopstock we read of ‘anxious doubts (banges Verzweifeln, Friedrich Klopstock, Der Messias 1.2.523) or furious doubting (wilde Verzweiflung, 1.2.797) or even later the despondent doubts (verzagten Zweifel) that Nietzsche entertains in comparing Greek and German culture. (Nietzsche, Die Geburt der Tragödie 20).

As the ontological consciousness of European writing deepens, doubt becomes more essential, more the sign of insight and refinement.  Among artists and intellectuals of the industrial period, the grand certainties of bourgeois existence crash in poetic credibility; and in their place, we witness imaginative identifications with the pessimistic, the down-and-out, the misfit, the rebel, the flâneur.  The whole of romanticism can be described as doubt for the old world and the enlightenment of the ancien régime; and so too the development of modernism can be seen as the offspring of doubt, doubt about the validity of one-point perspective, perceptual drawing, linear authorial narrative, harmonic melody or representation.  The pattern of questioning the work of the old masters was incipient throughout the whole western tradition, which Nietzsche acknowledges in imagining the scrutiny with which the young Euripides critically reviewed the tragedies of Aeschylus.  As in the language of Klopstock, there is much Sturm und Drang as he observes something incommensurable in every trait, a certain deceptive accuracy and at the same time a mysterious depth (räthselhafte Tiefe).  For the young playwright, everything in the old exemplar becomes problematic, like the use of the choir; and how ‘dubious (zweifelhaft) was the solution to ethical dilemmas!  How questionable (fragwürdig) the handling of the myths!’ (Nietzsche, Die Geburt der Tragödie 11).  In this narrative, there is no suggestion that the great dramas of the master are anything but grand and sublime.  But there is a kind of fault that Euripides sees in them, which invigorates his own creative urge with a kind of impatience.  This restless zeal to unsettle the masterpiece—to see behind its perfection an occasion for doubt—lies at the heart of European artistic culture, as suggested in the title of a book by the artist Wyndham Lewis, The demon of progress in the arts.

Doubt, dissatisfaction, impatience, these are the somewhat Oedipal motivations to lead change in the arts and sciences, metaphorically killing the father, deposing the previous generation, making room for the new, the radical, the rebellious.  The rejection of achievements that belong to one’s parents is logical within the dialectical structure of western development and it would seem somehow unnatural to suppress this urge, even though we also encourage respect for a previous avant-garde.  Nietzsche says that it is not doubt but certainty that makes for madness (Nicht der Zweifel, die Gewissheit ist das, was wahnsinnig macht, Nietzsche, Ecce homo 2.4).  This logic of doubt accords with Nietzsche’s belief that the wisest people in all epochs have judged the same thing in relation to life itself:  it is worth nothing (es taugt nichts) and for that reason ‘always and everywhere you hear the same sound from their mouth: a sound full of doubt (einen Klang voll Zweifel), full of melancholy, full of fatigue from life, full of resistance against life’ (Götzen-Dämmerung 2.1).

Doubts about our approach to education

Doubt in the European tradition, despite the influence of the Christian tradition, has been richly inflected with poetic meaning, understood as essential to feeling, to the terms of existence, to philosophy and ontology.  Our brief history of doubt has revealed a charming peace that the poetic mind has struck with uncertainty, where ambivalence of thought and feeling has been expressed in harmony with curiosity and the critical spirit.  Far from being seen as a threat to faith or orthodoxy, doubt is handled imaginatively, entertainingly, gravely, penetratingly, at times tragically.  One could argue that doubt is essential to all existential thought, whether critical or rhapsodic.

These heroic trajectories of doubt, as faithful as they are to critical thinking, do not match the rhetoric of our age.  As a culture, we are devoted to quality control, the management of risk, strategic planning, positivistic quantifiable assessments, the realistic setting of expectations and reliable delivery.  Doubt is a poor fit.  And that is why education struggles with the noise of the internet, which requires heightened powers of doubt for productive use.

In education, especially, we try to eliminate doubt in every quarter.  We do not want students in any doubt as to expectations, learning activities and assessments, any more than we would have them doubting the value that they get from their studies: we ply students with learning outcomes, assessment criteria and templates for their work in the form of past papers and marking rubrics and assure students that all delivery and learning activities will be in alignment with the learning outcomes and assessment.  The purpose of these anxious objects is to provide certainty and, as far as possible, minimize student doubt.  A positive student experience is equated with certainty.  The problem, alas, is that the more certainty you provide, the more is craved, because students are in competition with one another and seek competitive advantage in any margin of greater certainty that can guide them.  As more information for success is proffered, the more doubt becomes a scandal and the more sclerotic is the dependence on certainty in the ever-proliferating blueprints for learning and assessment.  Uncertainty is seen as a failure of method.  So as students are more and more supplied with certain instructions and templates that enable them to fulfil the criteria well, the basis for discrimination in assessments becomes more and more stressful and dependent on any minor details that remain somewhat capable of doubt.

For the development of an autonomous critical mind, it is not so clear that we do our students a service with all of these provisions.  For critical thinking, it would be better if students could doubt the teacher and doubt the available sources rather than slavishly follow instructions and scope their work strategically in accord with the published criteria.  Not long ago, subjects (or units or modules) were set up with teaching objectives rather than learning outcomes.  In the age before John Biggs and constructive alignment, the inseparability of learning outcomes and assessment was not contemplated.  The teacher’s objectives in the program were one thing; but the use that a student would put them to was quite another.  And likewise, the resources that were supplied or gestured at had an autonomous existence that the student grappled with and either reconciled with the immediate purpose or left to the side.

The suspected incompatibility of doubt and constructive alignment perhaps explains why critical thinking is so often exported to the central study skills area at a university rather than being embedded in the core of syllabus (Davies, 2013).  Thanks to constructive alignment, critical thinking does not find a ready fit in the pedagogical design of syllabus, even if it belongs in the syllabus as method intrinsic to the subject area.  But if a lecture or tutorial does not have critical thinking in it as an integral part of the student experience, it is almost pointless trying to tack it on outside the class (Wingate, 2006).  Meanwhile, in private study for the discipline, we have the student immersed in a digital environment that can only be navigated with doubt.


Doubt, which is the dynamic purposeful element most critical to critical thinking, is also the element least observed in scholarly literature on critical thinking and least favoured by contemporary syllabus design that conscientiously seeks certainties.  We are consequently not in a mood to exploit the opportunities of our richest resource for the creative application of doubt, the internet and even the operation of social media.  When critical thinking is promoted in universities beyond the rhetoric of graduate attributes, it is conceptualized and taught in mechanistic terms that also do not seem to accommodate doubt.  As a result, the teaching of critical thinking—with its armoury of gated flow charts and tables of fallacies—is denuded of its natural poetic magic, its impulsive purposes, its peculiar intellectual charm as a suite of moments of indecision, where imagination is enjoined to create alignments between improbable or irregular statements and possible or probable motives.  The unrefereed literature freely accessed on the internet is the best stimulant for this consciousness.  If critical thinking is drawn out of its natural substrate of doubt through the convenience of positivist teaching paradigms, it is a pedagogical crisis, because doubt is an indispensable ingredient in critical thinking; and if critical thinking is taught without doubt, the teachers are teaching something under the name of critical thinking which is hardly critical thinking at all.


Note:  primary material before 1900 is cited in text according to philological conventions that are standard in lexicography, so that any edition can be checked (e.g. Matthew 6.2). Plays are cited by act and scene; poems by canto, stanza and line; and philosophical texts by chapter and paragraph.

Abrami, P.C., Bernard, R.M., Borokhovski, E., Wade, A., Surkes, M.A., Tamim, R., & Zhang, D. (2008). Instructional Interventions Affecting Critical Thinking Skills and Dispositions: A Stage 1 Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research, 78(4), 1102–1134.

Audi, R. (1989). Practical Reasoning. London: Routledge.

Bailin, S., Siegel, H., (2003). Critical Thinking. In Blake, N., Smeyers, P., Smith, R. & Standish, P. (Eds.), The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Education, Oxford: Blackwell, 181–193.

Cuypers, S.E. (2004). Critical Thinking, Autonomy and Practical Reason. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 38(1), 75–90.

Davies, M. (2013). Critical thinking and the disciplines reconsidered. Higher Education Research & Development, 32(4), 529–544.

Ennis, RH. (1962). A concept of critical thinking, Harvard Educational Review, 32(1), 81–111.

Ennis, R.H. (1987). A taxonomy of critical thinking dispositions and abilities. In JB Baron, & RJ  Stenberg, (Eds.), Teaching thinking skills: Theory and practice, New York: Henry Holt & Co, 9–26.

McPeck, J.E. (1981). Critical Thinking and Education, Oxford: Martin Robertson.

Siegel, H. (1988). Educating Reason. Rationality, Critical Thinking, and Education, New York: Routledge.

Wingate, U. (2006). Doing away with “study skills”. Teaching in Higher Education, 11 (4), 457–469.

Wyndham, L. (1955). The demon of progress in the arts, Chicago: Henry Regnery Company.


Robert Nelson is an Associate Professor at Monash University in Australia.


Thomas Arnesen, Eyvind Elstad & Knut-Andreas Christophersen

Published Online: November 15, 2017
Full Text: HTML, PDF


Developing students’ digital skills and self-confidence in their ability to purposefully use online learning opportunities is considered important for achieving educational objectives. This study empirically explores antecedents of young people’s beliefs about agency in online learning by applying structural equation modeling to a sample of 3400 Nordic youth age 15–17. The targeted antecedents are young people’s preferences for either net-induced self-determination of learning aims, content, and processes (online culture) or institutionalized schooling as they currently experience it (school culture). We find that both factors are positively related to digital agency, but that the relationship between online culture and school culture is strongly antagonistic. Furthermore, online time in class is positively related to online culture but negatively related to school culture. We argue that formal schooling’s efforts to capitalize on students’ informal learning experiences through introducing more net-based activities in class might bolster digital agency through improved technical expertise (medium-related online skills), while simultaneously de-privilege institutionalized schooling and the acquisition of the substantial knowledge required for the development of content-related online skills. Students’ preference constructions and beliefs regarding formal and informal learning processes are particularly significant if we are to facilitate educationally desirable synergy effects and avoid troubling inconsistencies.

Keywords: student agency, informal learning, formal learning, online culture, school culture

Digital media are ubiquitous in the lives of Nordic youth (Roth & Erstad, 2013). Increasing portions of their lives are spent consuming, producing, and interacting with or through digital media (Westlund & Bjur, 2014). Large-scale studies show that Nordic youth are among the most digitized demographic groups in the world and that they perceive themselves as having advanced digital skills (Fraillon, Ainley, Schulz, Friedman, & Gebhardt, 2013). Engagement in participatory digital cultures (Jenkins, Purushotma, Weigel, Clinton, & Robison, 2009) can influence the way young people perceive learning and the role of formal schooling in their lives (see e.g. Loveless & Williamson, 2013), potentially altering how young people see the relationship between their informal online learning experiences and the purposes, processes, and content of formal education (Buckingham & Willett, 2013; Greenhow & Lewin, 2015). From the perspective of education, ubiquitous connectivity offers a plethora of learning opportunities beyond the scope of formal schooling. Arguably, the degree to which young people are able and willing to take advantage of these online opportunities, that is, to exercise agency in online learning, is becoming increasingly important.

Developing students’ digital skills and self-confidence in their ability to purposefully use online learning opportunities is considered important for achieving educational objectives. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD):

Empowering youth to become full participants in today’s digital public space, equipping them with the codes and tools of their technology-rich world, and encouraging them to use online learning resources – all while exploring the use of digital technologies to enhance existing education processes … – are goals that justify the introduction of computer technology into classrooms. (2015, p. 186)

The OECD’s Definition and Selection of Competencies (DeSeCo) project named the ability to use tools interactively as a psychosocial prerequisite for a successful and well-functioning life (Rychen & Salganik, 2001).

National policymakers draw on the OECD’s work when drafting national curricula. As a testament to the importance attributed to developing students’ digital agency, in 2006, the Norwegian government went as far as to include digital competence in the new national curriculum as a basic skill to include in all subjects at all levels (Kunnskapsdepartementet [Department of Education], 2006). Some educational technologists saw this change as an historic event: “Never before has digital competence achieved such status in curricula, neither nationally nor internationally” (Krumsvik, 2011, p. 39). The importance of developing students’ digital agency is reflected in educational policy priorities both internationally and nationally.

However, there is no consensus on the factors that influence students’ sense of digital agency, although daily participation in informal online culture is often presented as a necessary element. With ubiquitous connectivity, students can engage in participatory digital cultures (Jenkins et al., 2009) that “offer the potential for self-directed or spontaneous learning opportunities” (Greenhow & Lewin, 2015, p. 13). It is presumed that powerful informal pedagogies operate in these everyday participatory online cultures (Loveless & Williamson, 2013), which can empower learners through “greater agency, opportunities to participate in networked communities, and access [to] a wide range of resources to support knowledge building and collaboration” (Loveless & Williamson, 2013, p. 13).

In contrast, digital practices in formal educational contexts are often presumed to exert much less influence on students’ sense of digital agency. In fact, many scholars (e.g., Buckingham & Willett, 2013) suggest that there is a widening gap between students’ out-of-school digital-life worlds and students; experiences at school, that is, that there is a “digital dissonance” in which “educators and learners [are] unable to recognize the potential benefits” (Greenhow & Lewin, 2015, p. 13). Arguably, educators tend to overlook the diversity of some learners’ digital experiences and instead “domesticate” (Salomon, 2016) the Internet and digital technologies to fit traditional, established approaches (Warschauer & Matuchiank, 2010). Internet use in formal contexts, therefore, can conflict with the development of innovative practices seen in some participatory online cultures (Green & Hannon, 2007). Still, the influence of participation in formal school culture can affect students’ sense of digital agency in unexpected ways that either complement and expand on or conflict with and compete with the influences of participation in informal digital cultures.

The purpose of this article is to explore the factors that are associated with learners’ sense of agency in online learning. We are particularly interested in how students’ preferences regarding either informal online cultures (online culture) or formal school cultures (school culture) are associated with students’ sense of agency in online learning and whether these preference constructions are primarily synergistically, independently, or antagonistically related to one another. In addition, we want to see how the provision of time for online activities at school, that is, introducing access to online culture in school settings, is related to students’ digital agency.

It is important to explore these issues for a number of reasons. First, an enhanced understanding can inform the design of technology-rich instructional environments in which attributes of formality and informality function synergistically, not antagonistically, in relation to fostering students’ sense of digital agency. Second, understanding how the development of students’ sense of digital agency is distributed among settings and ideational preference constructions is useful for pedagogical planning and practices in the digital age. Third, the findings can indicate how the current use of online access in participating schools is associated with students’ sense of digital agency and thus provide a basis for problematizing the sometimes exaggerated claims of educational uses of digital technology (Selwin, 2016). Finally, the findings can inform the debate regarding equity pf digital practices in school. The use of digital media for non-academic purposes at school (see e.g. Selwin, 2009) is not evenly distributed among students, and this use might influence some students more than others. This phenomenon deserves attention, and our findings shed light on how deeply entrenched students’ preference constructions truly are.

Research on influences on agency in online learning

Numerous studies on information and communications technology (ICT) in education assume that students’ sense of agency in learning is enhanced by the use of digital technologies. Even though student agency is typically not the research focus, the achievement of agency is presented as an assumed characteristic of self-directed activities, such as searching online, gaming, and new media practices in general. For example, Ito (2010) stated that “looking around online and fortuitous searching can be a self-directed activity that provides young people with a sense of agency” (p. 57); “these forms of gaming represent opportunities to experience collective action and to exercise agency and political will” (p. 220); and “new media practices are becoming the vehicle for some youth to exercise more agency in defining the terms of their own work practices” (p. 301).

Kumpulainen et al. (2009, p. 32) argued that in school contexts, technology can promote student agency when students are allowed to use the digital knowledge they acquire outside school for school purposes:

Outside the classroom, the students have better chances to display their own know-how, which would not necessarily come to its own in the classroom. Children learn things like the use of new technology considerably quicker than adults do, and it pays to make use of this situation by bringing laptops, cell phones, Internet tablets, and other easily usable gadgets into play. Children are also quick to learn and develop new ways of piggybacking technology, so the use of gadgets is an excellent way of highlighting children’s own expertise and agency.

Kumpulainen et al. (2009) argued that the fact that young people tend to be more digitally competent than their elders can be used pedagogically to strengthen student engagement in school learning, while school learning can provide much-needed direction for students’ informal online learning efforts. Similarly, Barron (2006) maintained that it is important to look within and across settings to understand which factors influence students’ digital fluency. She concludes, however, that “we have little information on synergies between participation in technologically mediated informal learning activities and more formal educational environments and the conditions that make boundary-crossing activities possible” (p. 198).

In a particularly relevant empirical study, van Deursen, van Dijk, and Peters (2011) explored the effects of gender, age, attained educational level, Internet experience, and level of Internet use on medium- and content-related Internet skills. Medium-related Internet skills refer to a basic set of skills in using Internet technology (derived from concepts such as instrumental skills, technological competence, technological literacy, and technical proficiency). Content-related Internet skills refer to a capacity to use the Internet strategically as a means of reaching particular goals, such as fulfilling information needs. By analyzing medium- and content-related Internet skills separately, the authors showed that age is negatively associated with medium-related skills but is positively associated with content-related skills. Thus, regarding content, older generations perform better than youth, whereas youth outperform older users in possessing the technical skills necessary to effectively navigate the Internet. The authors also found that educational attainment seems significant for medium- and content-related Internet skills, and they commented that this finding “contrasts somewhat with other research that claims that people learn digital skills more in practice than in formal educational settings” (van Deursen et al., 2011, p. 125). Similarly, the results revealed that Internet experience contributes only to medium-related skills, as the authors found that “content-related skills do not grow with years of Internet experience and the number of hours spent online weekly” (p. 125).

Various concepts denote the ability to navigate digital and information environments for finding, evaluating, and accepting or rejecting information—for example, digital literacy, media literacy, information literacy, digital fluency, digital competence, and digital skills, among others (Miller & Bartlett, 2012). These concepts are based on definitions that in one way or another combine technical aspects, intellectual capabilities, and substantial uses of digital technologies. Although technical expertise dominated early conceptualizations, more recent definition efforts emphasized the intellectual and substantial issues. For example, van Deursen and van Dijk (2009) noted that there is not enough empirical data to validate the structures and content of various definitions of digital competences or skills. Instead, the authors highlighted four research directions:

  1. Operation of digital media
  2. Uses of specific media and the formal structures on which they are built (e.g., the Internet offers hyperlinks)
  3. Content provided by digital media with a focus on information search behavior
  4. Personal goals and benefits for using digital media, that is, strategic skills.

Van Deursen and van Dijk (2009) commented that the strategic skills for achieving personal goals and benefits have never been measured. We maintain that the fourth dimension corresponds closely with the conceptualization of student agency in online learning we use in this paper, because agency implies the strategic self- and goal-directed utilization of digital resources for specific personal purposes. The current study thus tries in a modest way to fill the research gap identified by van Deursen and van Dijk (2009) by exploring how two different student preference constructions, online culture versus school culture, as well as the time spent online in class, contribute to students’ sense of agency in online learning. To our knowledge, no one has carried out systematic empirical research on the nature of these relationships.


Before we turn to the theoretical framework, a brief comment on the role of digital media in the lives of Nordic youth is necessary, along with a brief glance at some of the main features of the educational systems in Norway, Sweden, and Finland—commonly referred to as the Nordic model of education (Blossing, Imsen, & Moos, 2014).

As previously explained, digital media are ubiquitous in the lives of Nordic youth (Roth & Erstad, 2013). Increasing portions of their lives are spent consuming, producing, and interacting with or through digital media (Westlund & Bjur, 2014). Ito (2010) claimed that these tendencies are transnational and that they are associated with friendship and interest-driven genres of participation for the purpose of “hanging out,” “messing around,” or “geeking out.” Large-scale studies show that Nordic youth are among the most digitized demographic group in the world and that they perceive themselves as having advanced digital skills (Fraillon et al., 2013). Castells (2010) coined the term “networked individualism” to describe the way social relationships are organized in the age of pervasive connectivity. With their extensive access, use, and self-confidence regarding these media, Nordic youth seem to epitomize “networked individualism.” Accordingly, “networked,” “connected,” “individualized,” and “creative” are key terms used to characterize the networked generation’s emerging digital identity (Loveless & Williamson, 2013; Rose, 1996; Selwin, 2014; Tapscott, 1999). However, research indicates that procrastination also belongs among these key characterizations pertaining to Nordic youth (Elstad, Arnesen, & Christophersen, 2016). Buckingham and Willett (2013) argued that these transnational trends may contribute to a greater convergence of youth cultures. Thus, it is likely that these trends also influence how young people perceive learning and the role of formal schooling in their lives, as well as how youth perceive the relationship between their informal online learning experiences and formal education.

The present study focuses on 15- to 17-year-olds in urban areas of Norway, Sweden, and Finland. From a European perspective, these countries form an interesting enclave, as all three represent Nordic welfare societies that emphasize strong public institutions, as well as self-determination and rights for young people. In terms of educational systems, the three countries still champion ideals of social cohesion, equal opportunity, and egalitarian values, the main tenets of the so-called Nordic model of education, at least at the rhetorical level (Blossing et al., 2014). In addition, the structural features of these societies are comparable—for example, nine or ten years of universal compulsory schooling and a relatively moderate proportion of private schools.

However, there are also notable differences between schooling in Norway, Sweden, and Finland. Finnish learners have performed within the top range of school achievement among OECD countries (though now in a slight decline), while Norwegian and Swedish learners have shown mediocre performances (OECD, 2015). Some commentators attribute this difference to the high status of teachers in Finnish society (Sahlberg, 2014), which gives Finnish teachers a stronger position of authority while conducting their work (OECD, 2015), and the correspondingly low status of teachers in Swedish and Norwegian society. Another difference is the degree to which computers are used in schools: Finnish learners use computers less frequently than Swedish or Norwegian learners (European Commission, 2013). The present study examines the age range (15–17 years) at which young people in Norway, Sweden, and Finland need to make key decisions about the type of higher education that they are going to undertake. At this stage, young people are first sorted into grades or streams, in accordance with the Nordic educational model (Antikainen, 2006). In Nordic welfare communities, upper secondary education is regarded as a right (Blossing et al., 2014), while the opportunities for 15- to 17-year-olds to enter the workplace are limited.

Despite some signs of reform, the traditional school model remains an important premise for the Nordic design of the institutional arrangement we call schooling (Blossing et al., 2014). To be effective, the traditional model depends on learner socialization; that is, the learner needs to accept, or at least adhere to, the school’s values. Arguably, this socialization, in turn, legitimizes the teacher’s authority and the tasks that the school assigns. However, this traditional school model accommodates a continuum of differences. In Norway and Sweden, national authorities have, to a large extent, implemented a policy of promoting learners’ acquisition of knowledge and skills in the academic areas covered by large-scale international surveys, for instance, by introducing national tests in these subjects (Blossing et al., 2014). Thus, these large-scale international comparative achievement studies have influenced the structure of traditional academic school subjects, such as mathematics and science, but also reading literacy. To strengthen learning results, Swedish and Norwegian authorities have asked teachers to increase the learning intensity in traditional subjects at school (Blossing et al., 2014). Therefore, the increased learning intensity and the growing importance of traditional subjects have widened the gap between learners’ personal fields of interest and the content offered in schools. Some scholars (e.g., Erstad & Sefton-Green, 2013) have entertained the hope that the use of computers could bridge young learners’ interests and school content. Finnish learners also experience this gap (Hakkarainen et al., 2000; Hietajärvi, Tuominen-Soini, Hakkarainen, Salmela-Aro, & Lonka, 2015), even though the Finnish educational authorities have followed a different approach than their Norwegian and Swedish counterparts (Sahlberg, 2014).

Theoretical framework

We draw upon an analytical approach that first requires constructing a model of the social relationships to be analyzed. The analytical model includes the elements we believe is important. As there is no established consensus on the explanatory frameworks or social mechanisms that account for students’ sense of agency in online learning, our theoretical framework consists of what we consider plausible factors and salient relationships based on theoretical presumptions, previous research, and professional experience. The target of analysis then becomes the structural equation model (SEM) that we construct, not the reality that the model is intended to explain.

The model we use is shown in Figure 1, and it includes the following six constructs:

  1. Time spent online at school, that is, the time students report that they spend online during an average school day.
  2. School culture, that is, a student preference construction characterized by the acceptance of institutionalized schooling as students currently experience it.
  3. Online culture, that is, a student preference construction characterized by an emphasis on self-determination in learning content, processes, and aims induced by online access and experience.
  4. Agency in online learning, that is, students’ experiences of being able to use online resources in a goal-directed manner to achieve learning goals.
  5. Attitudes, that is, students’ views regarding which of the two learning arenas (school or online) is most conducive for developing good attitudes, such as honesty and respect for others.
  6. School associations, that is, students’ views regarding the extent to which students associate their schooling with engaged participation and meaningful content, for example.

In Figure 1, the arrows indicate expectations of relationships, while the double-headed arrows suggest indeterminate associations.


Figure 1. Theoretical model of the antecedents of agency in online learning.

Our main line of exploration, however, concerns the targeted antecedents for agency in online learning, namely, school culture, online culture, and time online at school, as shown in Figure 2.


Figure 2. Theoretical model of primary antecedents of agency in online learning.

The relationships between attitudes and school associations and the other constructs are of secondary concern in this paper (see Figure 3). Their main function here is the extent to which the empirical associations support or contradict the main line of exploration concerning the targeted antecedents for agency in online learning. Thus, in addition to being an integral part of the overall model, the relationships between attitudes and school associations and the other constructs also are means of validation.

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Figure 3. Theoretical model of secondary antecedents of agency in online learning.

We model a strictly limited part of the social reality, and the process of including or excluding factors, that is, deciding which are essential, is theoretically informed. Above, we argued that agency in online learning is an important issue for learning in the 21st century, as reflected in various international and national policy documents. When considering potential sources of influence on students’ digital agency, we draw on lessons from the learning ecology approach and connected learning; that is, we use some of the ideas developed within these frames while not fully embracing the more radical definitions of learning found in this literature. For example, connectivists (Siemens, 2004, p. 6) claimed that “[t]he pipe is more important than the content within the pipe. Our ability to learn what we need for tomorrow is more important than what we know today. (…). [L]earning is no longer an internal, individualistic activity.” What we borrow from this literature, however, is the increased focus on the interplay between contexts (informal, non-formal, and formal) and the learning trajectories for developing students’ understanding and expertise. Barron’s (2006) explication of the poly-contextual (Arnesen, Elstad, Salomon, & Vavik, 2016) trajectories of “tech wiz” kids’ learning, in particular, influences our thinking.

In a learning ecology–inspired model of the processes of and contexts for students’ digital literacy practices, Sefton-Green, Marsh, Erstad, and Flewitt’s (2016) stated that practices are shaped by social contexts at the micro-, meso-, and macro-levels, and that the specific contexts shape the meaning children themselves ascribe to their digital practices. When considering how young people develop agency in online learning, we accept the idea that contextual influences are important. Young people do not act in isolation; instead, they draw on their communities’ ways of seeing, talking, and framing experiences. Thus, participating in online culture can influence how young people see and talk about formal schooling and potentially alter how they view the interplay between their informal online learning experiences and the purposes, processes, and content they encounter at school. However, at the same time, in line with a moderate methodological individualism, we assume that these contextual influences shape learning through individual students’ interpretation of these influences, that is, that intentional states of individual actors drive individual actions that help explain social phenomena. For the purposes of our model, we assume that students’ experiences of participating in formal schooling versus informal online learning influence students’ preferences: That is, some students lean more toward self-direction and individual autonomy in choosing their learning content, processes, and aims, while others lean more toward institutionally organized support. However, the concepts are analytically separate. Theoretically, then, we expect that the more technologically oriented online culture exerts a strong influence on students’ sense of agency in online learning, while the schoolingoriented school culture is unrelated to students’ digital agency.

Many schools in this study attempt to bridge the alleged gap between schooling and students’ online life-worlds in different ways. The first step is often to introduce increased online access in classrooms. Theoretically, then, increased online access at school can be seen as an effort to introduce attributes of online culture into the dominant school culture, depending, of course, on the nature of the implementation. Based on this increased access, we expect that time online at school exerts a medium influence on students’ sense of agency in online learning, that is, somewhere between the anticipated strong influence of online culture and the unrelated nature of school culture.

The model includes two other constructs, attitudes and school associations. Attitudes refer to whether students deem online culture or school culture more conducive to promoting good attitudes. The higher the value for attitudes, the stronger the student believes in online learning compared to formal learning. Theoretically, then, we expect a positive relationship between attitudes and online culture and sense of agency in online learning, and we expect a negative relationship between attitudes and school culture.

The construct of school associations is intended to tap into students’ formal learning experiences. Higher values for school associations indicate more positive experiences with formal schooling. Theoretically, then, we expect that school associations are unrelated to agency in online learning but are positively related to school culture and negatively related to online culture.

One critique of the learning ecology approach suggests that it highlights balance, harmony, and coherence, while obscuring relationships of tension, conflict, and contradictions. Carrington (2013, p. 209) stated that “an ecological framing looks to find a contributory role for all components.” We address this challenge by creating a theoretical model that is based on assumptions of interplay between formal, informal, and non-formal contexts, but that is disentangled from assumptions of harmony. This opens up the possibility of discovering empirical relationships characterized by conflict, as well as by coherence.

In addition to the theoretical bases for the hypothesized relationships included in the model, we use Ito’s (2010) terms for young people’s engagement in online activities as an analytical lens for interpreting the empirical results. As mentioned previously, Ito (2010) distinguished between interest-driven and friendship-driven genres of online participation for the purposes of either “hanging out,” “messing around,” or “geeking out.” Friendship-driven practices refer to “dominant and mainstream practices of youth as they go about their day-to-day negotiations with friends and peers” (Ito, 2010, p. 16), and interest-driven practices are what young people “describe as the domain of the geeks, freaks, musicians, artists, and dorks – the kids who are identified as smart, different, or creative, who generally exist at the margins of teen social worlds” (Ito, 2010, p. 16). Facebook and similar social media sites are emblematic of friendship-driven practices, while interest-driven practices are more often linked to sites devoted to gaming, media production, and other specialized interests.



This empirical study used a survey administered to students at 60 secondary and upper secondary schools in Norway (20 schools), Sweden (16 schools), and Finland (24 schools) in February and March 2013. In all three countries, we chose schools located in or near urban areas, as urban youth are more likely to have full broadband access and thus, have more opportunity to engage in the full spectrum of online activity and develop similar digital habits. A total of 3400 students in general study programs participated voluntarily. The final analysis included 3045 learners, after we excluded cases with missing values. None of the learners who were present for the survey administration declined to participate.


Learners answered questions about various aspects of schooling and school propositions. A classical test theoretical paradigm was followed, in which psychological constructs and items (see Table 1) were contextualized through a set of individual questions given to the learners. The learners were asked to respond to questions using a 6-point Likert-scale with alternative response choices: Strongly disagree (1), Disagree (2), More disagree than agree (3), More agree than disagree (4), Agree (5), and Strongly agree (6). The construct used for time online at school (ICT) was an exception in that it was based on the number of hours the respondents reported being online during a typical school day.

Table 1. Model constructs, indicators, and residuals.

Concepts and indicators Abbreviation Residual
Sense of agency in online learning ag_l Eag
Online experiences strengthen my ability to participate in discussions v20 e20
The net helps me develop good study habits v21 e21
My thoughts and opinions are taken seriously online v22 e22
The net enables me to understand the world around me better v27 e27
Online culture net_l Ene
I would prefer to learn where and whenever it suits me, rather than in school according to a common curriculum v29 e29
School learning is of minor importance for my future life v31 e31
Come to think of it, the Internet is now more important than school v32 e32
School associations pse_l Eps
Meaningful content v70 e70
Learning v72 e72
Engaged participation v73 e73
Attitudes att_l
Respect for others v58 e58
Honesty v59 e59
Good behavior v60 e60
School culture val_l
I hate school (reversed) v02r e02
I enjoy school learning v05 e05
Time online at school ict Eict
How many hours per day do you spend online at school? ict Eict


The analyses were conducted using SPSS and AMOS. Cronbach’s alpha was used to assess the reliability of the indicators for each subscale. Alpha coefficients of .65 or higher are usually considered acceptable (Nunnally, 1967). In Table 2, we present the Cronbach alpha for each construct, for the total sample (Nordic) and each country. These results strengthen the case for operating with a single category for all participating Nordic students.

Table 2. The Cronbach alpha for each construct.

Construct Item no. Finland Sweden Norway Nordic
Attitudes, att_l 3 .86 .85 .85 .85
School culture, val_l 2 .72 .66 .71 .68
Online culture, net_l 3 .72 .70 .74 .71
School associations, pse_l 3 .73 .84 .82 .81
Sense of agency, ag_l 4 .67 .70 .71 .70

Confirmatory factor analysis (CFA) was used to assess the factor structure. The assessments were based on the p values (p-kji) for the chi-square statistic (kji-kvdrat), the root mean square error of approximation (RMSEA), the comparative fit index (CFI), and the goodness of fit index (GFI). The standard criteria of p < .05, RMSEA < .05 and GFI and CFI >.95 were used to determine good fit (Kline, 2005). The model’s fit indices are acceptable: RMSEA = .035, GFI = .983, and CFI = .978.

In Table 3, we present descriptive findings (mean and standard deviation (SD)) for each indicator for the total sample and for each country separately. The small variation in results between Norway, Sweden, and Finland supports our decision to refer only to Nordic learners. We comment on the descriptive results in more detail in the Results section.

Table 3. Descriptive findings for indicators used in the analysis.

Indica-tors Total, N = 3045 Finland, n = 479 Norway, n = 1058 Sweden, n = 1508
Mean SD Mean SD Mean SD Mean SD
v58 2.31 1.18 2.15 1.07 2.41 1.27 2.30 1.15
v59 2.27 1.18 2.01 1.01 2.38 1.26 2.27 1.16
v60 2.06 1.08 1.91 1.00 2.12 1.11 2.07 1.07
v05 4.04 1.10 4.09 1.08 3.85 1.13 4.15 1.05
v02r 4.48 1.25 4.33 1.28 4.58 1.26 4.45 1.22
v70 4.04 1.13 3.50 1.11 4.23 1.10 4.09 1.09
v72 4.51 1.06 4.45 1.01 4.59 1.07 4.48 1.06
v73 3.98 1.10 3.81 1.19 4.03 1.10 3.99 1.06
v29 1.96 1.04 2.18 1.07 1.81 1.02 1.99 1.03
v31 2.00 1.13 2.05 1.12 2.00 1.19 1.98 1.08
v32 2.58 1.37 2.78 1.39 2.24 1.33 2.74 1.34
v20 3.39 1.32 3.23 1.29 3.40 1.40 3.44 1.27
v21 3.04 1.18 3.13 1.14 3.01 1.24 3.03 1.15
v22 3.08 1.19 3.16 1.16 3.10 1.22 3.03 1.18
v27 4.35 1.16 4.26 1.18 4.47 1.13 4.30 1.17
ict 3.49 1.43 3.18 1.41 3.67 1.42 3.46 1.43

The empirical findings relevant to the research questions are presented in the SEM model in Figure 4. We comment on these findings in more detail in the Results section.

Figure 4. Antecedents to agency in informal online learning. The total sample is 3045. Associations between ene and eps. Abbreviations: ag_I = Sense of agency in informal online learning, net_I = Online culture (the learners’ preferences inscribed in terms of free choice and self-actualisation), att_I = Attitudes induced by the Internet, val_I = School culture (valuing schools as an institution), pse_I = School associations (perceived characteristics of the school), ict = time spent online at school.

In Figure 5, we present the analyses conducted to show the extent to which the construct of online culture is associated with gender and socioeconomic status (SES; measured as the reported number of books in the home).


Figure 5. The associations between online culture (net_I) and (1) gender (binary variable where girls = 0 and boys = 1) and (2) the reported number of books at home.

Figure 5 shows that the association between gender and the construct of online culture is negative (b[gender→net] = -.22); in other words, boys value online culture more than girls. The figure also shows that the reported number of books in the house is not statistically significantly related to online culture. However, the extent to which the reported number of books in the home measures SES is debatable. Still, the results indicate that online culture is not associated with a particular SES group but is more strongly associated with boys than with girls.[i] The fit indices in Figure 5 are acceptable: RMSEA = .041, GFI = .997, and CFI = .990.


Our primary research objective was to determine how the students’ preference constructions about learning, school culture and online culture, are related to students’ sense of agency in informal online learning. We also wanted to see how schools’ current efforts to bridge the alleged gap between young people’s digital-life worlds and students’ formal education by providing time online at school is associated with students’ sense of digital agency.

Figure 4 shows that the relationship between online culture and digital agency is large and positive ((b[net→ag] = .49). This result aligns with our theoretically based expectations. It indicates that the more students harbor online cultural learning preferences, the more the sense of agency the students experience in informal online learning. Figure 4 also shows a medium-large and positive ((b[val→ag] = .27) relationship between school culture and digital agency. This result is not in line with our theoretical expectations, as it indicates that the more students identify with formal schooling, the stronger their sense of agency in informal online learning. Regarding the relationship between the two preference constructions, Figure 4 shows a large and negative path coefficient ((b[val→net] = -.56). This means that even though both contribute to explaining students’ sense of digital agency, the internal relationship is statistically significantly negative; that is, the more students identify with online culture, the less they identify with school culture. In other words, the two constructs are neither synergistically nor independently related but are strongly antagonistically related. The fact that the constructs simultaneously contribute positively to a sense of digital agency indicates that their contribution is due to mediating factors not included in the model, for example, technical expertise in the case of online culture and substantial expertise in the case of school culture.

In terms of schools’ efforts to include online culture in the dominant school culture by providing time online at school, Figure 4 shows time online at school has a medium and positive relationship with students’ digital agency (b[ict→ag] = .23) . This result is in line with our theoretical expectations, and it suggests that the more students spend time online at school, the more the sense of agency they experience in informal online learning. The relationship with school culture, however, is medium and negative ((b[gender→net] = -.21). The result suggests that the more time students spend online at school, the less they appreciate their schooling. This result seems to suggest that providing more time online does not necessarily have a positive motivational impact on formal educational practices. Instead, Figure 4 shows a small but positive relationship with online culture (b[ict→net] = .10), that is, a preference for self-determination in learning aims, processes, and content.

Our secondary research objective was to see how students’ experiences in developing good attitudes either online or at school are associated with the other constructs. This objective aims to understand how students’ views of school characteristics (e.g., engaged participation) are related to the other constructs. These empirical results are shown in Figure 4.

A higher score for the attitudes construct indicates a stronger belief in the efficacy of online learning in promoting good attitudes, whereas a lower score indicates a stronger belief in the efficacy of formal schooling in promoting good attitudes. Figure 4 shows a medium-large and positive association between attitudes (abbreviated att) and time online at school (b[att→ict] = .22), online culture (b[att→net] = .19), and agency in online learning (b[att→ag] = .23). In other words, the more students experience that their online activities promote good attitudes, the more the students (1) spend time online at school, (2) the more they prefer self-determination in learning content, processes, and goals, and (3) the stronger the students’ sense of agency in online learning. Furthermore, Figure 4 shows a medium-to-large and negative relationship between attitudes and school associations (b[att→pse] = -.15) and school culture (b[att→val] = -.41). That is, the more students think that online activities promote the development of good attitudes, the less students have positive associations with formal schooling, and more specifically, the less students appreciate their formal schooling.

Because higher scores for school associations suggest that the students associate formal schooling with positive qualities, such as engaged participation and learning a lot, the large and positive relationship (b[val→pse] = .58) with school culture is in line with our theoretical expectations. The medium-large and positive relationship between school associations and agency in informal online learning (b[pse→ag] = .17) and the medium and negative relationship between school associations and online culture (b[val→ict] = -.21) were anticipated based on our theoretical assumptions. There seems to be a strong link between liking formal schooling and associating schooling with positive attributes, such as learning a lot and engaged participation. The link between school associations and agency in online learning is weaker but still positive. Again, we see that the more students associate something good with formal schooling, the less they embrace online culture.

Overall, the results for the secondary relationships seem to corroborate the results for the primary relationships. That is, both preference constructions contribute to students’ sense of agency in informal online learning, and the preference constructions are markedly antagonistically related.

Discussion and conclusion

This study primarily aimed to explore antecedents of students’ sense of agency in online learning activities. The three main antecedents we targeted were school culture, online culture, and time spent online at school. The importance of exploring these constructs’ contributions rests in the antecedents’ centrality to students’ lives, not only in terms of the large amount of time students spend interacting in these arenas but also due to the constructs’ role as all-encompassing frames of reference in terms of students’ meaning-making processes. Understanding students’ preference constructions and beliefs regarding formal and informal learning processes is particularly significant if we are to enable and facilitate educationally desirable synergy effects and avoid troubling inconsistencies and mutually reinforcing contradictions. If we want to revitalize institutionalized schooling, unintended devitalizing effects might occur if our strategy is to introduce into the dominant school culture a competing online culture characterized by an emphasis on self-determination in learning content, processes, and aims. We argue that formal schooling’s efforts to capitalize on students’ informal learning experiences through introducing more net-based activities in class might bolster digital agency through improved technical expertise (medium-related online skills). However, this activity may simultaneously de-privilege institutionalized schooling and the acquisition of substantial knowledge that arguably is required for the development of content-related online skills.

First, we found that all three main antecedents are positively related to students’ sense of agency in online learning. For online culture and time spent online at school, the results are in line with our expectations based on previous research and theoretical assumptions. It makes sense that a preference for self-determination in learning aims, processes, and content that Internet access opens up would go hand in hand with a sense of digital agency, that is, feeling confident that one is able to utilize the online space for learning purposes. In fact, one might argue that it takes a lot of confidence to prefer independent online learning to the relative safety of attending institutionalized schooling. As for the other finding (that an increase in time spent online at school is positively associated with agency), it might seem that the effort to introduce digital technology in schools has succeeded in terms of students’ confidence in using digital technology for learning purposes. However, this interpretation relies on the premise that the relationship is causal; that is, increases in time spent online cause the effect of a heightened sense of digital agency. If, instead, this is an instance of reverse causality, that is, students with a higher sense of agency in online learning spend more time online at school when offered the opportunity, then an increase in the availability of digital learning opportunities does not increase students’ sense of agency; it only increases the time spent online by the most agentic students. We will look more closely at this possibility after discussing the other findings.

The third positive relationship concerns school culture and agency in online learning. Based on previous research and theory, we anticipated the two factors would be unrelated. We did not expect that an appreciation of formal schooling and school learning would align with students’ sense of agency in informal online learning to such a degree, that is, a medium-sized path coefficient (b[val→ag] =.27). Still, the finding makes sense when we consider that agency in online learning is not only about medium-related skills (i.e., the ability to adequately navigate online learning spaces) but also about content-related skills related to substantive issues. If we propose that a sense of online confidence is influenced by medium- and content-related skills, then the impact of the knowledge acquisition and the understanding developed within the frames of formal schooling might increase students’ online agency. If this is a matter of reversed causality, then a higher sense of online agency indicates a greater appreciation for schooling. This does not seem to be an equally convincing explanation, because, as far as we can see, there is no obvious candidate for a process through which digital agency would affect appreciation for schooling. Given that the causal direction is as hypothesized (i.e., from appreciation for schooling to online agency), we have reason to doubt the connectivist claim that in the digital age, knowledge is not an individual possession but an individual’s access to a network. The claim that the pipe is more important than the content of the pipe rests on the assumption that previous knowledge is not involved in the process of accessing new knowledge, that is, that it is possible to know what to look for without depending on previous knowledge. The study results suggest that appreciation for school learning goes hand in hand with a sense of digital agency, and we maintain that this can be reasonably accounted for by an increase in content-related Internet skills. This does not mean that we subscribe to a narrow individualist view of knowledge, but that through formal schooling, students receive access to a type of specialized and abstract discourse that is conducive for competent participation in a range of situations, including online arenas.

In addition to exploring the relationships between the three constructs and agency in online learning, we set out to understand how the two preference constructions of school culture and online culture relate to each other. Given that we found that both constructs are positively related to agency in online learning, we would expect that the associations between them would be only slightly negative. However, we found a very large and negative association between the two constructs. It was so large that they can be described as mutually contradictory and distinct categories. As we discussed above, there is a possibility that technical aspects of Internet skills mediate the relationship between online culture and digital agency, while substantive online skills mediate the relationship between school culture and digital agency. The plausibility of this inference is strengthened by the large size of the internal relationship between online and school culture. The negative relationship means that the more a student subscribes to online culture, the less he or she appreciates formal schooling and school learning as he or she currently experiences it. This impression of a conflict is strengthened and corroborated by the empirical findings pertaining to the secondary constructs of attitudes and school associations, for example, by showing a negative relationship between school associations and online culture (b[val→ict] = -.21) but a large and positive relationship between school associations and school culture (b[val→pse] =.58).

The extent to which this conflict is present in the student community and within individual students’ frames of reference is an empirical issue. The dynamics of such a conflict are a subject for future research. This study is not longitudinal and does not address the temporal dynamics of the conflict apparent in these results, and we are careful not to draw strong conclusions based on a single study. However, if our finding is an empirical expression of the developing dynamics of a mutually reinforcing contradiction within individual students’ frames of reference regarding meaning-making, learning, and educational processes, this is something that educational authorities must take seriously. From this perspective, our finding that the time spent online at school is positively related to online culture (b[ict→net] =.10) and negatively related to school culture (b[val→ict] = -.21) might suggest that schools’ current efforts to increase the relevance of formal schooling by providing increased online access is misplaced. In other words, this effort by schools might have the unforeseen and politically undesirable side effect of undermining rather than enhancing students’ appreciation for school and school learning. If the aim is to revitalize institutionalized schooling, then unintended devitalizing effects might occur if the strategy involves the introduction into the dominant school culture of a competing online culture characterized by an emphasis on self-determination in learning content, processes, and aims. Understanding students’ preference constructions and beliefs regarding formal and informal learning processes is particularly significant if we are to enable and facilitate educationally desirable synergy effects and avoid troubling inconsistencies and mutually reinforcing contradictions. We argue that formal schooling’s efforts to capitalize on students’ informal learning experiences through introducing more net-based activities in class might bolster digital agency through improved technical expertise (medium-related online skills). However, it may simultaneously serve to de-privilege institutionalized schooling and limit students’ access to a specialized and abstract discourse that is conducive for competent participation in and strategic use of online arenas (content-related online skills).

The limitations of this cross-sectional, questionnaire-based, “snapshot” research contribution are well documented. We acknowledge these limitations and argue that they can serve as points of departure for future research. First, conceptual studies are required to improve construct validity and as a basis for more comprehensive SEMs, including pertinent moderating and mediating variables. Second, we need longitudinal, experimental, and case studies to improve causal inferences (internal validity) by determining not just whether the relationships are causal but how and why causal chains and constellations produce the identified effects. Third, improvements in external validity are called for by conducting comparative research on randomized groups enabling statistical generalization, and carrying out similar research at different locations, people and contexts. Fourth, we need qualitative studies that aim for analytical generalization based on theorization of operating causal mechanisms in context.

Acknowledgments: This research project was funded by a grant (218245) from the Norwegian Research Council.

Conflicts of interest: The authors declare no conflict of interest. The study sponsors had no role in the design of the study; in the collection, analyses, or interpretation of the data; in the writing of the manuscript; or in the decision to publish the results.


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Biographical information

Thomas Arnesen is an Assistant Professor at the Western Norway University of Applied Sciences in Norway. Arnesen is also a doctoral student at the University of Oslo, Norway. His research explores the role of ICT in students’ lives.


Eyvind Elstad is a Full Professor at the University of Oslo in Norway. His research interests are mainly teacher education, teachers’ work, and ICT and education.


Knut-Andreas Christophersen is an Associate Professor Emeritus at the University of Oslo in Norway. His research interests are mainly research methodology and statistics.


[i] Finally, we conducted an analysis to check whether there is an empirical connection between sense of agency in online learning and learners’ grades in Mathematics and in English as a Foreign Language (EFL) but found no empirical connection. The correlation coefficient between sense of agency in online learning and self-reported Mathematics grades was -0.012, and between sense of agency in online learning and self-reported EFL grades -0.001.

Frédérik Lesage & Gwénaëlle André

Published Online: September 1, 2017
Full Text: HTML, PDF


This paper is an exploratory investigation into how social constructivist pedagogical theories shaped the development of personal computing in the mid to late 20th century. There are two main objectives for such an investigation. The first is to highlight the contingent historical nature of the application of these pedagogical theories in the development of human-computer interaction for personal computing. The second is to show how social constructivism as a theory of knowledge that links pedagogy to democratic thinking was implemented as a ‘mode of operation’ by key early designers of personal computing technologies before being taken up and adapted as part of capitalist modes of production and distribution. This account leads us to conclude that the social constructivist mode of operation for personal computing has become a technology of the self that privileges ‘interaction for interaction’s sake’. The paper concludes with a discussion of the consequences of this conceptualisation and analysis for how we understand personal computing as public pedagogy and elaborates potential implications for future research.

Keywords: Interactivity, personal computing, social constructivism, mode of operation, public pedagogy


Whether through mobile devices or desktop computers, most of the digital media we access today are accessed through graphical user interfaces (GUI) designed for individual users-consumers. The ubiquity of this particular techno-social configuration that we refer to in this paper as ‘personal computing’ has become so commonplace that it is often difficult to imagine alternatives. In order to begin to unpack the “taken-for-grantedness” of personal computing we will show how specific pedagogical theories shaped its development in the mid to late 20th century. Our objective is not to examine the development of personal computing as an instructional platform within pedagogical institutions. Instead, we set out to revisit how social constructivist theories of pedagogy were used to prescribe the interaction between humans and computers in the 1960s to early 1980s. Other scholars have touched on how theories of learning informed the early designs of personal computing (see for example Papert et al. (1993); Bardini (2000); Barnes (2000); Maxwell (2006)). We build on this previous research to show how social constructivist pedagogy worked as a ‘mode of operation’ for these designs. The paper will therefore begin with a theoretical outline of what we mean by social constructivist pedagogy as a mode of operation, followed by a historical survey of key moments and actors in the development of personal computing that render this mode of operation discernable. We then conclude with a discussion of the consequences of this discernment for our understanding of personal computing as a type of public pedagogy and elaborate potential implications for future research.

Social Constructivist pedagogy as a ‘mode of operation’

Before diving into a historical examination of how social constructivist theories informed early conceptions of personal computing, it is important to unpack what we mean by social constructivist pedagogy as a ‘mode of operation’. We draw the concept from an unlikely source: Erwin Panofsky’s research on the impact of Scholastic philosophy on French gothic cathedral designs between the years 1130 and 1270 (1957, p.21). According to Panofsky, Scholasticism was the dominant philosophy taught around Paris at the time. A key concern for scholars in this moment in history was to express and reconcile a fundamental contradiction through their writing: how to use reason to argue for faith in God. One of the ways in which these scholars successfully addressed this concern was not by using reason to directly prove God’s existence but to use it to effectively elucidate and clarify articles of faith:

“[…]The principle of manifestatio which determined the direction and scope of their [scholastic thinkers’] thinking also controlled its exposition and subjected this exposition to what may be termed the POSTULATE OF CLARIFICATION FOR CLARIFICATION’S SAKE.” (Panofsky, 1957, p. 34-35)

Panofsky found that the techniques they devised to structure their arguments in writing instilled a ‘mental habit’—a ‘principium importans ordinem ad actum’ or ‘principle that regulates the act’ (Panofsky, 1957, p.21) or mode of operation—that was in turn reflected in the architectural designs of the cathedrals of this same period. “Like scholasticism on parchment, the Gothic cathedral sought to write in stone “a permanent peace treaty between faith and reason”” (Holsinger, 2005, p. 98). Panofsky’s iconological analysis has influenced subsequent scholarship including Pierre Bourdieu’s conception of habitus as something that transforms ‘the collective heritage into an individual and collective subconscious’ (Holsinger’s (2005, p. 110) translation of Bourdieu). Michel Foucault (1994) also showed interest in Panofsky’s work, writing that it helped identify a ‘discourse subsumed to practice’ which has some parallels to Foucault’s conception of ‘dispositif’. We believe Panofsky’s approach can be usefully adapted for research on human-computer interaction and the graphical user interface because it creates a conceptual and methodological continuum between different media formats similar to the one called for by Johanna Drucker (2014, p. 139).

Taking inspiration from Panofky’s approach, we define mode of operation as a technique for mediating an intractable ontological problem. Our goal in adapting elements of Panofsky’s iconological method to the study of personal computing is to examine how a different theoretical tradition—social constructivist theories of pedagogy—developed into a mode of operation that expressed and resolved a different kind of ontological problem facing Western society and particularly the United States (U.S.) in the 20th Century. This ontological problem involved imagining how freethinking human beings, as a requirement for a working capitalist liberal democracy, could be taught to become better freethinkers. We show how the social constructivist mode of operation resolved this problem by positing that learning takes place through a human’s controlled interaction with an environment. We then show how the postulate for this mode of operation was adapted by influential figures in the early days of personal computing by studying how this mode of operation was translated into design adages or mottos. In the final section, we argue that this mode of operation has since, thanks to the rapid dissemination of personal computing into almost every aspect of everyday life, become an important part of our ‘individual and collective unconscious’ in the form of a public pedagogy that can be summarised as interaction for interaction’s sake.

The Ascendance of social constructivism as a pedagogical theory

Making education more ‘democratic’

Behaviourist theories of the mind that dominated the early 20th century conceived knowledge as something that was imparted through repetition (Pavlov, 1927). Skinner (1968) envisioned the use of learning machines in order to shape behaviours. This conception of knowledge had important implications for understanding the role of media technologies in American society at the time. In particular, there emerged a concern for the role of media technologies in political perceptions and thinking between the two World Wars that, following the Second World War, would lead to concerns for the impact of ‘mass media’ (Peters, 1996). In the span of only a few generations, the U.S. saw the rapid rise of electronic media like the telephone, film, and radio. To some, the political propaganda of the 1930s onwards extended the manipulative tactics of commercial advertising into a new and dangerous realm (Turner, 2015). Mass media were accused of turning people into automata and of fostering the potential for totalitarianism due to its ability to centralize and distribute the ideas and emotions of an individual or institution. But for a number of critics, mass media mattered not only for their ability to deliver infectious messages, but also for the patterns of behaviour they demanded of their audiences.

Behaviourist conceptions of mind and how they could be applied to an understanding of the media were challenged by other competing theories like those of cognitivism and pragmatism. Part of this challenge involved successfully applying these alternative conceptions to the field of pedagogy (Piaget, 1972). Another of these challenges entailed the perceived link between education and democracy in the 20th century. According to John Dewey (1916), the explicit purpose of education was to reinforce democratic thinking in people in order to make better citizens. The focus was on individuals within collective modes of interaction. The individual was a vehicle through which the group lived. Dewey stressed the link between society, education, and communication by focussing on the interaction between individual thought, learning, and the collective environment surrounding the individual. Through this approach education became a social and political matter.

In response to the burgeoning Cold War in the 1950s and 60s, the American government and other American institutions began funding research that addressed questions of how to foster democratic thinking (Barbrook, 2007; Bowker, 2005); Turner (2015)) including through new pedagogical approaches. Of significant concern was to what extent individual psyches were malleable and/or independent. Social constructivism would emerge in this intellectual and political context as an intellectual tradition that, when applied to pedagogy, accentuated the interactive relation between individual and his/her environment as a means of learning. Although ‘social construction’ has been used to refer to a broad and heterogeneous set of intellectual traditions (Hacking, 1999) the focus in this paper is on the field of pedagogical theory. This approach posits that the learner constructs his/her own knowledge, according to his/her prior learning and experiences, by interacting with his/her specific environment. The educator, in such a model, is a facilitator who provides a safe and constructive learning context. Social constructivism is not an entirely unique theory of pedagogy and there are arguably as many constructivist theories as there are theorists. While it is impossible to adequately cover the entire breadth and depth of its application to the discipline, we instead focus on the work of a key scholar who was influential in the development of personal computing in the 1960s and 1970s: the American Jerome S. Bruner.

Jerome S. Bruner

During the Second World War, Bruner worked as a social psychologist exploring propaganda, public opinion, and social attitude for U.S. Army Intelligence (Smith, 2002). In 1960, he authored “The Process of Education” (Bruner 1960) which was the distillation of a national consultation of experts commissioned by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences to improve education in primary and secondary schools across the country. The book was quite successful and subsequently became a point of reference for international debates on the future of pedagogy (Bruner 1960/1977: vii).

A significant aspect of Bruner’s research contribution to the field of pedagogy was how he combined elements of the theories of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky to develop what some would refer to as ‘optimal mismatch theory’ (Kuhn, 1979) also referred to as ‘scaffolding’. We will use the next few paragraphs to briefly explain some elements of Piaget and Vygotsky’s work in order to show how they were used in this theory.

According to Piaget (1952), there are two processes in action when someone learns something: ‘assimilation’ and ‘accommodation’. In assimilation, what is perceived in the outside world is incorporated into the learner’s internal world without changing its structure. But in accommodation, the person’s internal world has to accommodate itself to the evidence with which it is confronted and thus adapt to it. Piaget used this idea to help establish a model of a child’s intellectual development. He argued that intelligence develops in a series of stages that are related to age and are progressive because one stage must be accomplished before the next can occur.

Vygotsky (1978) has been referred to as the ‘father’ of social constructivism for his emphasis on environment and the notion of ‘zone of proximal development’ – referring to “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers’ (Vygotsky, 1978, p.86). He was partly inspired by Piaget’s chronological stages of development but not tied to specific age constraints. Once again, interaction was essential in the process of learning: people learn by interacting with their environment. For Vygotsky, the introduction of the right interaction between learner and other actors in his/her environment was the key point of entry to improving pedagogy.

Bruner’s innovation was to adapt the above conception of interaction and development to a systematic application of what has come to be known as ‘scaffolding’ (1976):

“This scaffolding consists essentially of the [teacher] “controlling” those elements of the task that are initially beyond the learner’s capacity, thus permitting him to concentrate upon and complete only those elements that are within his range of competence. The task thus proceeds to a successful conclusion. We assume, however, that the process can potentially achieve much more for the learner than an assisted completion of the task. It may result, eventually, in development of task competence by the learner at a pace that would far outstrip his unassisted efforts.” (Bruner, 2006, p. 199)

According to Bruner, knowledge representation in learning took place in three modes: 1) enactive (knowledge is stored in the form of motor responses (action-based knowledge)); 2) iconic (knowledge is stored in the form of visual images (image-based knowledge)), and; 3) symbolic (knowledge is stored as words, mathematical symbols…(language based knowledge)). Any subject could learn through these modes of knowledge at any stage of development in a way that fit his/her cognitive abilities as long as the instructor could adequately identify the learner’s level. Scaffolding involved ensuring that the instructor provided just the right level of challenge for the student so that he/she progressed through different levels of representation. For Bruner, media technology represented only one of many potential tools that constituted part of scaffolding for learning:

“Clearly, the machine is not going to replace the teacher—indeed, it may create a demand for more and better teachers if the more onerous part of teaching can be relegated to automatic devices. Nor does it seem likely that machines will have the effect of dehumanizing learning any more than books dehumanize learning.” (Bruner, 1960, p.84)

Bruner limited computer technology’s role in teaching and learning as an automatic storage device analogous to a book. Scaffolding could therefore be characterised as an approach that could reconcile designing a pedagogical system for free thinking individuals by prescribing ways to design interactions: measure an individual human being’s level of learning and intervene in this person’s environment in controlled ways in order to progressively foster their development.

Contextualising the early days of personal computing

The above section elaborated some of the basic tenants of social constructivist approaches to pedagogy and how ‘scaffolding’ represented a design framework for teaching and learning based on the postulate that controlled interactions between a human and his/her environment could lead to learning. Before elaborating on the way in which this theory developed into a mode of operation for personal computing we must set the political, cultural, and social contexts of the development of personal computing, namely how key developments in personal computing, especially in California, coincided with the emergence of the counterculture (Turner, 2013).

Californian counterculture was a cornerstone of the early political and social formations of personal computing. The white middleclass American and European children of the Cold War era found themselves surrounded by educational and employment opportunities that their parents could hardly have imagined. This transformed adolescence into a space of personal experimentation between the freedom of childhood and the employment and family demand of adulthood. This new generation questioned the hierarchical structures of traditional institutions during the 1960s through social, political, economic and pharmacological means.

The seeds of personal computing were planted simultaneously in the east and in the west coast of the U.S. (Markoff, 2006). But California offered an environment that was unique, crossed by counterculture, research lab and entrepreneurship spirit that would later be recognized as the founding culture of personal computing (Barbrook & Cameron, 1996; Flichy, 2007).

Even if most of the funds for computing research at the time were granted by the military-industrial complex, the organization of its research labs eschewed hierarchical structures, preferring interdisciplinary collaboration. They found in places like Stanford the kind of political and cultural space they needed to develop their personal conceptions of computers. (Rheingold, 1991, p. 79) The specific context of California in the 1960s and 1970s allowed this geographic area to be a “trading zone” (Turner, 2015). It allowed researchers and engineers to have a feedback of the first users of what will become the personal computer.

The belief that new technologies could be part of a different, more creative, approach to social arrangements in ways that challenged established institutional structures extended to teaching and learning. A growing body of scholarship and advocacy aimed at challenging the assumption that schools and other traditional pedagogical institutions were the only place to educate people. Scholars like Ivan Illich (1973) were highly critical of institutions of learning. Learning could be found everywhere and what people learned in schools was, he argued, official political communication. The higher education, the U.S. saw the emergence of many Free Universities that were speaking to a growing movement of people who were frustrated with the mainstream university system. Based on an open curriculum, anyone could offer a course in anything. The Midpeninsula Free University led by two computer scientists, Jim Warren and Larry Tesler and based at Berkeley, was one the largest and most successful (Markoff, 2005).

Ted Nelson’s Project Xanadu in the 1960s was another example of this kind of anti-establishment approach to digitally mediated pedagogy. He saw in the emerging discipline of Computer Aided Instruction (CAI) an oppressive and paternalistic institutional order:

“This [CAI] was not the tradition of literature. This was not the tradition of free speech. It was the tradition of the most oppressive aspects of the bureaucratic educational system, dandied up to look scientific.” (Ted Nelson quoted in Fraase 1992, p.169)

The above examples briefly flesh out the broader social, cultural, and political contexts surrounding the emergence of personal computing. California in the 1960s was an ideal place to explore and blur social and cultural boundaries related to traditional institutions including education. This relatively small area was a fertile ground for alternative models of social agencies that privileged anti-establishment conceptions of agency and freedom.

Uncovering the social constructivist mode of operation in adages for early designs in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI)

While artificial intelligence represented a prestigious goal for many computer scientists in the 1950s and 1960s, other researchers set out to develop individual ‘mind amplifiers’ (Rheingold 1991 p.70) that directly tackled the challenge of designing practical interactions between humans and computers. An important challenge for these computer researchers was therefore to imagine how humans and computers could interact. It is through this challenge that we begin to see how social constructivist pedagogy as a mode of operation could contribute to early conceptions of personal computing. This mode of operation provided the grounds for a ‘permanent peace treaty’ for HCI by postulating that freethinking humans learn through controlled interaction with their environment. The question that remained was: what role would the computer play in this model?

As stated above, early experiments in personal computing were embedded in a complex and dynamic political and social context. In order to make our case for the significance of the social constructivist mode of operation for personal computing we need to revisit key moments in the history of the development of HCI. While an in-depth analysis of these moments is beyond the scope of this paper, we will focus in the following section on three key actors whose contributions to personal computing are well established: Douglas Engelbart, Seymour Papert and Alan Kay (Bardini, 2005; Barnes, 2000; Markoff, 2005). Specifically, we will examine how these three researchers articulated the social constructivist mode of operation in adages or maxims that defined their approach to HCI. This account will necessarily deal with the early experimental research stages of the development of HCI when utopian technical imaginaries played an important role in shaping technical designs (Flichy, 2007).

Douglas Engelbart: “bootstrapping”

One of Douglas Engelbart’s important early influences was Vannevar Bush’s article “As we May think” (Bush, 1945). Bush believed that humans would soon be overwhelmed by an overabundance of information. For Engelbart the solution to this problem was to create tools that enhanced human intelligence by organizing and sharing information. While much of the publically funded institutional focus for computing at the time was on artificial intelligence, Engelbart explicitly focused on human intellectual enhancement through computing (Bardini, 2005; Barnes, 2000; Rheingold, 1991).

Although we could not identify a direct connection between Engelbart’s early work and the works of Piaget, Vygotsky or Bruner, his ideas shared important influences with theirs including the frequent references to Benjamin Lee Whorf and Alfred Korzybski. (Bardini, 2005; Barnes, 2000). For example, Lee Whorf’s theory of linguistic relativity that humans’ descriptions of the world and their cultures were shaped by the language they used to communicate—played a role in Engelbart’s early reflections on how human thought could be amplified. By extension the way an individual communicated shaped what that individual thought. In 1962, Engelbart devised a 4-step model of development for understanding how a human could interact with computers designed for mind amplification:

“For Engelbart, there were four stages in the evolution of the human intellect. In the first, “Humans rose above the lower forms of life by evolving biological capability for developing abstractions and concepts.” In the second, they “made another great step forward when they learned to represent particular concepts in their minds with specific symbols.” In the third, they took “another significant step” when they developed “means for externalizing some of the symbol manipulation activity, particularly in graphical representation” (1962, 21-23).” (Bardini, 2005, p.55)

The fourth stage was where the symbols with which humans represented concepts could be moved, stored, operated by means of special cooperative technological devices:

“In the limit of what we might now imagine, this could be a computer, with which we could communicate rapidly and easily, coupled to a three-dimensional color display within which it could construct extremely sophisticated images with the computer being able to execute a wide variety of processes upon parts or all of these images in automatic response to human direction.” (Engelbart, 1962, p25)” (Bardini, 2005, p.55)

This brief sketch of Engelbart’s four stages of human intellectual evolution bare striking similarities to Piaget’s cognitive steps of development: sensorimotor (where we are only aware of what is in front of us), preoperational (the thinking is based on intuitions), concrete operational (difficulty to think abstractly or hypothetically) and formal operational (ability to think with abstract concepts). For Engelbart this interaction between human and machine could be characterised as a type of co-evolution that he referred to as bootstrapping based on ‘the cybernetic notion of positive feedback’ (Bardini, 2005, p. 24). By interacting with machines, the human intellect would be improved which would in turn lead the human to improve the machine.

“You build a system; you evaluate it. You make some improvements. You evaluate those, and you constantly take what you can learn and achieve to make the next improvement. That’s evolution in the standard sense of the word. But add an ingredient to this evolutionary characteristic: we are evolving technics to help problem-solvers. Well, we’re problem-solvers, so if the actual sample cases we build, use and evaluate are those we ourselves can use to do the analysis, design, instrumentation and operation of our systems, then we learn about how to make people work effectively, the more effectively we can work in harnessing these improvements. It’s an added ingredient of our research strategy that we call “bootstrapping”” (Engelbart, 1968, 23) in Bardini, 2005, p.57)

According to Engelbart, humanity’s evolution depended on humans becoming actors of their own evolution; to interact with tools and to have a good understanding of their context. In contrast to pure automation of thought as characterised by AI (Rheingold, 1991, p.82), Engelbart believed human evolution occurred in stages through interaction with its environment. As with scaffolding theory, a human learner occupied the central place in the process of development. He/she is empowered to control the interaction with the technology. Engelbart produced our first example of a social constructivist mode of operation for personal computing: knowledge could not be automated; it was instead produced by a freethinking human through his/her interaction with a computer under his/her control. Both approaches conceptualized the human as freethinking problem-solver who works towards solving harder and harder problems by interacting with his/her environment in order to gain more knowledge. The key distinction between bootstrapping and scaffolding was that the learner and the instructor were one and the same person. By reflexively analysing one’s interaction with the computer, the human continually tried to improve how it could amplify his/her thinking. Engelbart’s user was an “intellectual user” and then a “knowledge user”.

Seymour Papert: “low threshold, no ceiling”

One of Seymour Papert’s key contributions to the early years of personal computing was his work developing LOGO; a programming language designed to help children learn mathematics. Papert himself credited his five years working with Jean Piaget in Geneva as one of the significant early influences on his work. In his important book Mindstorms (1993), Papert explicitly framed his approach within Piaget’s own views of learning while also taking great care to present this approach in a way that challenged traditional programmatic curriculum (p.31):

“I see Piaget as the theorist of learning without curriculum and the theorist of the kind of learning that happens without deliberate teaching. To turn him into the theorist of a new curriculum is to stand him on his head. [ret] But “teaching without curriculum” does not mean spontaneous, free-form classrooms or simply “leaving the child alone.” It means supporting children as they build their own intellectual structures with materials drawn from the surrounding culture. In this model, educational intervention means changing the culture, planting new constructive elements in it and eliminating noxious ones.” (Ibid, pp.31-32)

Papert’s approach was a direct counter to technologically deterministic or behaviourist views of teaching tools. He emphasized a view of learning that was critical of drill and practice yet also emphasized the importance of giving maximum freedom to the child-learner by introducing an open-ended yet controlled environment that responded to the child’s development. Key elements of his vision included creating an open culture surrounding the learning process and making the computer a supportive tool within this culture. Computers could enable children to learn about complex situations, not by “learning computers” but rather by learning mathematics with the help of computers.

By the late 1970s, electronic media was taken seriously as a pedagogical tool that could be incorporated into the classroom but Papert remained critical of Computer Aided Instruction because of how it replicated traditional pedagogical models of instruction. Papert would apply his own insights, which he would later label ‘constructionism’, at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab in the early 1980s. There was therefore an inherently political dimension to Papert’s work in that he set out to challenge institutional pedagogical models.

“But if, as I have stressed here, the model of successful learning is the way a child learns to talk, a process that takes place without deliberate and organized teaching, the goal set is very different. I see the classroom as an artificial and inefficient learning environment that society has been forced to invent because its informal environments fail in certain essential learning domains, such as writing or grammar or school math. I believe that the computer presence will enable us to so modify the learning environment outside the classrooms that much if not all the knowledge schools presently try to teach with such pain and expense and such limited success will be learned, as the child learns to talk, painlessly, successfully, and without organized instruction.” (Papert, 1993, p.4)

A clear way in which Papert’s approach applied scaffolding was through the design motto that the LOGO programming language should be “low threshold, no ceiling” (Brand, 1987 p.123): the initial level of knowledge required to use the programming language should be relatively low for any child but the possibilities afforded by the programming language should be limitless. Just as with Engelbart’s vision, the individual human learner was considered the a priori agent of the interaction. Unlike Engelbart’s vision, however, the learner and instructor were no longer one and the same person. The learner had no prior knowledge in computing and depended on the intervention of an instructor to guide the interaction. Any child had the inherent capacity for free thought but such capacity was under threat by either uncontrolled interaction or the stifling effects of traditional pedagogical institutions. The instructor took on a pastoral role and provided technology as part of a learning environment that fostered the learner’s development. Whereas Engelbart’s scaffolding supported a continuous evolutionary interaction between a self-reflexive expert and his/her environment, Papert’s scaffolding entailed an instructor building a foundational base from which the learner’s potentially limitless capacity to learn an ‘essential learning domain’ could be extended. These domains provided ballasts for the interaction between instructor and learner. Computers were tools that contributed to the scaffolding with which the child learned the domain independently of traditional preconceptions of how this child should learn this same domain.

Alan Kay: “Doing with images makes symbols”

Alan Kay is the last of the three characters in this account. His contribution to the development of a graphical user interface (GUI) is essential to any understanding of personal computing (Manovich 2013). Kay was known within computing research circles for having designed the ‘Flex machine’ while at the University of Utah in the late 1960s. In latter reflections on these early designs, Kay recounted how his early experiments led him to an insight that would drive subsequent work on GUIs, namely that a new age of personal computing was on the horizon, in which:

…millions of potential users meant that the user interface would have to become a learning environment along the lines of Montessori and Bruner […] early on, this led to a 90-degree rotation of the purpose of the user interface from “access to functionality” to “environment in which users learn by doing.” This new stance could now respond to the echos of Montessori and Dewey, particularly the former, and got me, on rereading Jerome Bruner, to think beyond the children’s curriculum to a “curriculum of user interface.” (Kay, 1996 a, p.552)

Kay called his new media machine the Dynabook; a dynamic book (Bardini and Hovarth, 1995). His goal would be to develop a computer as a medium like a book that could be controlled by the reader. It would provide cognitive scaffolding in the same way books and print media had done in recent centuries but it would take advantage of the new affordances of computation and provide the means for a new kind of exploration and expression.

Based on his early successes, and influenced by Engelbart’s work on mind amplification and Papert’s success with LOGO, Kay would go on to create the Learning Research Group (LRG) at Xerox PARC. Although the LRG’s focus would also be on designing computers to support children’s learning, a subtle but important difference with Papert’s work was the conception of the computer as medium inspired by the likes of Marshall McLuhan (for example, see Kay & Goldberg (1976)) rather than as a tool (or Engelbart’s own conceptions of the computer as a ‘vehicle’ (Kay, 1996a)). Children would not work towards understanding an essential learning domain like language or mathematics with the help of computers but would instead be invited to unlock the learning potential of the computer as medium through the ‘curriculum of user interface’. This distinction of the computer as a medium instead of a tool allowed Kay to reinterpret certain key aspects of Papert’s work.

By building on Papert’s insights, Kay retained the principle that the child was a potentially limitless fount of creative free discovery and learning who should be unshackled from traditional pedagogical modes of control. The LRG would therefore continue to strive to maintain a ‘low threshold and no ceiling’ design principle. But while Papert’s conception of ‘no ceiling’ to interaction was contained within an ‘essential learning domain’ like mathematics thereby tethering the computer to an instrumental purpose, Kay’s media machine had no such limit or instrumental purpose. The computer was no longer a component of the scaffolding to support the learner’s interaction with an environment. Instead, the computer was the environment; a McLuhan-inspired media ecology.

How this shift could take place can best be understood by examining Kay’s famously Bruner-inspired adage “doing with images makes symbols.” It is this adage that helped Kay conceptualise how the Dynabook’s GUI would work. The adage created a ‘synergy’ (Barnes, 2007) of Bruner’s different levels of representation and learning. The first two levels, the enactive (‘doing’) and iconic (‘images’) were incorporated into the design by enabling children to use a mouse to click on icons in order to run certain functions. The third level, the symbolic (‘symbols’) was afforded by creating a programming language, Smalltalk, that was used to create the entire operating system:

‘The Smalltalk programming language was developed first, and it was then used to build an operating system and graphical interface. With Smalltalk, the Xerox researchers built an entire programming environment that included editors, debuggers, and compilers. In turn, they used these tools to implement several large-scale applications, such as paint, music, and animation systems.’ (Barnes, 2000, p.25)

While Kay and his collaborators mostly placed the emphasis on ‘doing’, ‘images’, and ‘symbols’ as representative of Bruner’s three interrelated levels, what we would like to emphasize here is the way in which the sentence structure prescribed an implicit order to its synthesis of the three levels. The preposition ‘with’ in this sentence established an agreeable, open-ended, relationship between ‘doing’ and ‘images’ (a statement like ‘Doing according to Images makes Symbols’ would have been entirely antithetical to constructivist conceptions of pedagogical interaction between an individual learner and a scaffolded environment that included the computer). But it is unclear whether ‘doing’ functioned as a noun or a verb in this adage. The verb ‘makes’ in the adage suggested a significant order to the synthesis. This specific formulation classified the symbolic to a different priority than the other two levels. Symbols were the natural outcome of the interaction itself. The meaning of the adage would have been entirely different if stated as ‘Doing with images and with symbols’? In Kay’s approach to personal computing, programming was no longer part of a scaffolding that supported a means to an end – a tool that helped someone learn an essential learning domain like writing or mathematics. Instead, the programming language of the computer became the foundational ontology of the pedagogical interaction and programming computers became an essential part of HCI. This emphasis on the symbolic level as the source of control to interacting with the computer was reflected in Kay’s acknowledgement that a certain basic understanding of programming would necessarily represent the minimum threshold to adequately participate in all forms of personal computing.

“Although a personal computer will be supplied with already created simulations, such as a general text editor, the wide range of backgrounds and ages of its potential users will make any direct anticipation of their needs very difficult. Thus the central problem of personal computing is that nonexperts will almost certainly have to do some programming if their personal computer is to be of more than transitory help.” (Kay, 1977, p.231)

By articulating a mode of operation with the personal computer as an environment, “doing with images makes symbols” subtly changed the conditions of peace treaty for interactions between humans and computers. The human learner remained the central figure of the interaction but his/her pedagogical interaction with the computer-as-media was split into two different types: learning with the help of the computer (enactive and iconic) and learning the computer (symbolic). In the following concluding section, we will elaborate what this split might mean for an understanding of contemporary digital media.

Discussion: HCI as public pedagogy?

From prototype to commodity

By the early 1980s, Alan Kay (1984) and other computer researchers interested in the pedagogical potential of personal computing like Arthur Luehrmann (1980) saw the advent of commercial application software, particularly Visicalc, as a significant threat to their original visions. For them, an approach to personal computing that emphasized an interaction with application software through a GUI that did not require an understanding of how to program computers (in other words, that did not require an understanding of the symbolic dimension of computer-mediated interaction) was detrimental to a true pedagogical engagement with computers. Their frustration suggested a degree of disillusionment with how personal computing had developed once it shifted away from the research lab and into everyday life. Personal computing was no longer purely experimental technological projects or pastimes. As personal computing took on economic, cultural and socio-political importance, the utopian (Flichy, 2007) ideals espoused in the various articulations of the social constructivist mode of operation articulated in the adages presented in the three cases above were re-appropriated to produce an ideological design that was more profitable and consumer friendly set of products. IBM’s ambiguous marketing for its Personal Computer (PC) in the early 1980s presented this technology as a tool both for business and for home use. Companies like Apple, whose founders had close ties to the Californian counterculture and hobbyist movements of the 1970s, devised strategies for building computers for the growing consumer market of the 1980s. These hardware technologies and their related software were marketed as gendered middleclass tools (Reed 2000). But despite these transformations, it is important to stress that the personal computer itself had a modest early success compared to other electronic media at the time (Winston 1998, p.240).

We do not contest the claim that a progressive transformation in personal computing took place from the 1970s to the 1980; one that involved a shift away from a more interpretatively flexible, experimental interaction towards a dominant mode of interaction whereby consumer products were designed to promote a GUI as a standalone mode of interaction. But the dismay expressed by the likes of Kay and Luehrmann also highlighted to what extent HCI had become a contested topic of cultural, political, and social significance. What we would like to do in this final section is to call for a more in-depth reflection on how these pedagogical visions for personal computing, in combination with the implicit putting into practice through an underpinning social constructivist mode of operation, combined into a more generalised technological imaginary and its associated epistemic order for HCI in which the symbolic dimension of personal computing holds a privileged place.

A public pedagogy of personal computing as “make it work”?

As we have argued throughout this paper, a social constructivist mode of operation was embedded, from the beginning, into the development of personal computing. This mode of operation was based on the postulate that humans could learn to become better freethinkers through a controlled interaction with a digitally-mediated environment. The above analysis focused on three adages for designing HCI in the early days of personal computing. Engelbart’s ‘bootstrapping’ mantra involved an adult knowledge worker who learned from designing a computer. Papert’s ‘low threshold, no ceiling’ adage involved a child learning an essential learning domain independently of institutions like schools under the pastoral gaze of an instructor who tended to a computer-amplified learning environment. In Kay’s ‘doing with images makes symbols’ the computer became the learning environment in which symbolic interaction took on a privileged role.

The pattern in all three of these axioms was that the interaction itself was the source of learning. Through this analysis we would argue that HCI based on the social constructivist mode of operation developed into a particular type of ‘technology of the self’ (Foucault, 1988; see also Bakardjeva & Gaden, 2012) that encouraged individuals to take on the responsibility of managing their own interactions with personal computing as forms of self-care and self-improvement. Stewart Brand’s description of Papert’s later work at MIT encapsulated how HCI could be deployed as a technology of the self:

“Some people worry that [Papert’s] kind of approach in school, or in life, can lead to loss of rigor and discipline, and indeed there are lots of fraudulent forms of interactivity that can relax into a self-perpetuating sloppiness. But when a teacher and student, or anyone, stick with the drive to make an actual connection, an actual program actually run (in a computer or in life), the rigor grows. Discipline flips from the external and oppressing “get it right” to the internal and intellectual “make it work.”” (Brand, 1987, p.127)

The way in which Brand’s account blurred the distinction between ‘school’ and ‘life’ as well as the distinction between running a program on a computer or running a program in life perfectly captured how the growing ubiquity of personal computing as a model for learning produced a complex entanglement between its technical imaginary and its implementation as part of social life in ways that extended beyond traditional pedagogical institutions. Interaction with the computer became an end in itself; a kind of ‘interaction for interaction’s sake’ in that making the computer work became the means and the ends. This type of discipline of the self also continued to elevate symbolic interaction with the computer —making ‘an actual program actually run’—to a higher level of epistemological and ontological importance. By implication, this elevation also meant that those who interacted with personal computers through commercial application software that did not require a symbolic level were deprived of personal computing’s full pedagogical potential.

We have argued that the early designs for personal computing were informed by a mode of operation that conceived of ‘interaction’ as a pedagogical process. Our objective has not been to claim the value or detriment of constructivism as a paradigm for teaching and learning. Nor has it been to claim that this mode of operation determined all of the facets of personal computing. Rather, what we set out to do was to analyze and better understand how it was applied as a mode of operation for the early designs of personal computing. With the growing ubiquity of GUI and personal computing more broadly, the social constructivist mode of operation is now no longer bounded to experimental designs or to institutional pedagogy. It has arguably become a kind of ‘public pedagogy’ in the mould developed by scholars from Antonio Gramsci (1971) and Pierre Bourdieu (1967) to, more recently, Jean Giroux (2011). Giroux argues that digital media together represent one of the ‘new sites of public pedagogy’ that make-up ‘the organizing force of neoliberal ideology’ extending beyond the classroom and into nearly every aspect of our mediated lives.

What we need to better understand is how the logic of capitalism and its digitally mediated pedagogical address strategically appropriate and redeploy the social constructivist conception of pedagogy and its historically contingent modes of operation. For example, we need to ask if and how the prioritisation of the symbolic level of interaction over other levels is deployed to produce epistemological orders of worth within everyday social and cultural contexts beyond pedagogical institutions. Contemporary perspectives on public pedagogy interpret the proliferation of digital media as “new sites of public pedagogy which have become the organizing force of neoliberal ideology are not restricted to schools, blackboards and test taking” (Giroux 2004: 750) not due to some kind of technological determination but because of the “growing concentrations of corporate power, and unparalleled meaning producing capacities”.


The main objective of this paper has been to examine how social constructivist pedagogical theories have shaped the development of personal computing in the mid to late 20th century. By demonstrating how social constructivism as a theory of knowledge that links pedagogy to democratic thinking was implemented as a ‘mode of operation’ by Douglas Engelbart, Seymour Papert, and Alan Kay we highlighted the contingency of certain taken-for-granted conceptions of interaction for personal computing. We also argued that these modes of operation for personal computing, once re-appropriated into mainstream commercial culture, produced a kind of public pedagogy based on ‘interaction-for-interaction’s sake’ that privileged the symbolic over other levels of interaction.

By underscoring the significance of social constructivist pedagogical theories as part of the project of personal computing, we hope to initiate a reflection that may help identify and nurture alternative modes of operation that could nevertheless reconcile or reinterpret the kinds of intractable ontological problems for which it was initially developed.


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Biographical Information

Frédérik Lesage is an Assistant Professor in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University (SFU). His current research interests deal with the vernacular and middlebrow in digital media cultures. His most recent work applies mediation theory to an investigation of how consumer-driven application software like Photoshop enable and constrain modes of criticality in contemporary culture.


Gwénaëlle Andre is a Research Assistant in the School of Communication at SFU, and in the Faculty of Education at the university of Alberta. She completed her M.A of technologies of Education in France on the topic: “Teenagers and digital: How Sociable are they?” examining how teenagers use digital to create and share in the purpose of building their own personalities and socialization. Her current research interest is in the cross of educational theories and the beginning of personal computing.


Heather Brown

Published Online: September 1, 2017
Full Text: HTML, PDF


Young adolescents are highly engaged in literacy practices involving the use of digital technologies, both inside and outside of school. This study examines how the out-of-school use of digital technologies creates spaces in which young adolescents construct and negotiate positive learner identities. Through vignettes of four young adolescents, this research uses the conceptual framework of ‘figured worlds’ (Holland, Lachicotte, Skinner and Cain, 1998), to develop an understanding of the construction of learner identities through out-of-school use of digital technologies. The discussions of the participants reveal ‘figured worlds’ of friendship, homework and soccer that transcend the traditional boundaries of the real and the virtual, revealing a connected and dynamic concept of space. Within these worlds, the young adolescents move in and out of learner and teacher roles when necessary to learn or advance their skills, and in doing this, are developing self-understandings and conveying these understandings as performances within a figured world.  This study argues that the learner identities are constructed and negotiated by the young adolescents are strong, positive and to varying extents self-crafted.

Keywords: Figured worlds, identity, affinity spaces, young adolescents, digital technologies, mobile technology

Australian adolescents are eager users and consumers of digital technologies and outside of the classroom they are gaming, communicating, consuming and producing texts (ACMA, 2016). Smartphones, internet access and social media sites have become woven into the daily fabric of their lives, both in and out of the classroom (Morgan, 2014). Digital technologies have helped to challenge and broaden the definition of literacy to better reflect social literacy practices and the multimodality of modern texts. In this article, I aim to explore the identity work that occurs in literacy practices mediated by digital technologies. I draw on the theoretical framework of ‘figured worlds’ (Holland, Lachicotte, Skinner and Cain, 1998) to unpack the merging of on- and offline spaces and conceptualize identity work. Empirical data is presented in the form of purposeful conversations with four young adolescents that illuminate the figured worlds they inhabit and present them as spaces where positive learner identities are created.

Identity and Figured Worlds

As literacy is recognized as a social practice, theorists have also become increasingly curious about how peoples’ identities mediate and are mediated by the digital literacy practices they are involved in (Moje and Luke, 2009). In this article, I define identity as dynamic self-perceptions or understandings. Identity work is a cultural phenomenon whereby people make sense of themselves and convey these meanings to others (Urrieta, 2007b). The self-understandings of identity are ever changing and evolving building up through overlapping life experiences. ‘People produce identities through participation on cultural activites that allow them to engage conceptual and procedural identity production.’ (Urrieta, 20017b, p. 119). Drawing on the work of Holland et al (1998) and also Urrieta (2007b), Identity is understood as being in a constant state of flux and thus is about becoming, not being. Self-understandings of identity are reflected in cultural activities as performances and improvisations.

The work of Holland et al (1998), in their theories of ‘figured worlds’, self and identity, provides a useful framework to understand identity work in literacy practices. Figured worlds are spaces where people ‘figure’ who through the roles, activities, and relationships that are performed in these worlds. The figured world is the loci of where identity work occurs, where people produce and perform self-understandings within cultural activities. Urrieta (2007) draws on the work of Holland et al (1998) to define identity as ‘how people come to understand themselves, how they come to figure who they are, through the ‘worlds’ that they participate in and how they relate to others within and outside of these worlds’ (p. 107). Figured worlds are conceptualized according to four broad points:

  1. Figured worlds are a cultural phenomenon to which people are recruited, or into which people enter, and that develop through the work of their participants.
  2. Figured worlds function as contexts of meaning within which social encounters have significance and people’s positions matter. Activities relevant to these worlds take meaning from them and are situated in particular times and places.
  3. Figured worlds are socially organized and reproduced, which means that in them people are sorted and learn to relate to each other in different ways.
  4. Figured worlds distribute people by relating them to landscapes of action; thus activities related to the worlds are populated by familiar social types and host to individual senses of self (Urrieta 2007, p. 108).

The work of Holland et al (1998) provides a useful theoretical framework for understanding the identity work of young adolescents’ digital technology practices both in and outside of school.  In a similar study, Lewis Ellison (2014) also uses the theory of figured worlds to help unpack the identity work of two young adolescents playing The Sims 2 video game. The figured world can be a site of possibility where individuals have agency and choice in the roles they act out. Contradictory to this, the figured world is also a site of constrained social reality that is situated within and mediated by relations of power, meaning that sometimes individuals act out the script given to them. The work of Holland and colleagues (1998) allows us to understand how the on- and offline worlds are weaved, merged and connected as sites of identity work for young adolescents. Material and immaterial objects and places combine to create ‘joint imaginary spaces’, or figured worlds where literacy practices take place (Kervin, Verenikina and Rivera 2015). It also allows us to understand how choice, agency and participation are central to an individual’s concept of self within a particular discourse or ‘world’.

As adolescents negotiate these worlds, they learn skills and ways of being.  In this article, I use the term ‘learner identity’ to refer a particular aspect of identity, highlighting particular aspects of identity work concerned with understanding the self as a learner. Learner identity can be understood as both how we position, or craft, ourselves as learners, and how we are positioned as learners by others. Learner identity can be produced through or by learning, and also be a context necessary for a particular kind of learning (Sinha, 1999). In contemporary research of adult education and lifelong learning, learner identities are often expressed as epiphanies, turning points or learning moments along a biographic life course (Sefton-Green and Erstad 2013). The expression of learner identity can, therefore, be seen as both or either ‘identity as position’ and/or ‘identity as narrative’. Both approaches ‘open up ways of putting people in the messy materiality of their lives at the centre of educational research and seeing learning as part of a wide range of social processes’ (Sefton-Green and Erstad, 2013, p. 3).

Informal and Out-of-School Learning

I have used the work of Rogoff, Callanan, Gutierrez and Erickson, (2016) to provide a useful description of informal learning. They define informal learning as having the following characteristics: ‘It is nondidactic; is embedded in meaningful activity; builds on the learner’s initiative, interest, or choice (rather than resulting from external demands or requirements); and does not involve assessment external to the activity.’ (Rogoff et al, 2016, p. 358). The recent saturation of digital technologies in the lives of young adolescents has implications for learning, literacies and identity work. The greater opportunities for students to move across ‘sites of learning’, both online and offline, in-school and out-of-school, raises questions of how these contexts relate to each other in the 21st Century. Sefton-Green and Erstad (2013) describe the ‘digital disconnect’ between the digital learner and the school as a significant disjuncture. They argue the importance of a greater understanding of ‘informal learning’ and, rather than seeing it as oppositional to traditional in-school learning, looking at how informal and formal learning can work together in a complementary fashion.

Social groups, networks and connections are a defining feature of much of the digital technologies used by young adolescents outside of the classroom. (Morgan, 2014). To further understand the social interactions within figured worlds, it is useful to apply the concept affinity space, from the work of Gee (2004) on situated language and learning. The affinity space is a place of informal learning, often online, where people come together to share and participate in a common activity or interest. Gee builds on the work of Lave and Wegner (1991) who first described the idea of the ‘community of practice’ where students apprentice themselves to be part of a community through which they learn from others (2004, p. 68).  The affinity space puts the emphasis on the ‘space’ rather than the group of people, therefore departing from the problematic use of the word community (Gee, 2004, p. 68-69).

Participation in an affinity space is a social literacy practice which creates a space for the identity work of young adolescents. Parallels can be drawn between affinity spaces and figured worlds, in that individuals are actors playing out, or forging roles in social landscapes of action. Both concepts flesh out the spaces in which the individual constructs and negotiates their identities. Gee’s affinity space provides us with a lens for examining the figured worlds of informal, out-of-school learning. This model allows us to unpack the identity work of young adolescents engaged with digital technologies.

The Study

Thanks for letting us do this. It’s nice to come out and talk about it. No one has ever asked us these questions before. – Rana, participant

This study involved four participants, all year 6 or 7 students from the school where I work part time as a literacy coach. I became aware that there were several students in the class with a high level of interest and involvement in using digital technologies outside of school. Students had chatted with me in class about their gaming and use of social media and I became interested in the students’ identity work and informal learning within online spaces. These digital literacies and practices outside of school warranted further research. I conducted a small-scale qualitative inquiry to explore further. The simple and telling quote from Rana (expressed at the conclusion of the interviews), indicated her willingness to discuss her daily literacy practices with me.

The Participants

Four participants, two boys and two girls, were involved in the study. Their interests and use of digital technologies outside of school is detailed in the table below.

Name (All pseudonyms) Rana Brooke Jake Kai
Sex Female Female Male Male
Age 13 13 12 12
Interests in digital technologies Instagram, Instant Messaging (IM) and Facebook YouTube, Instagram, IM and Facebook Gaming, Facebook and YouTube Gaming and YouTube

Given that we already knew each other, the data collection process involved engaging in purposeful conversations (Burgess, 1982, 1988) with each of the students. Each participant was involved in two rounds of purposeful conversations and then paired up in a focus group conversation. The aim of the purposeful conversations was to create a dialogic, open and natural exchange where the participant could potentially take lead of change direction. Each conversation was approximately thirty minutes in duration and included preplanned questions and periods of more natural and flexible conversation. All conversations were transcribed and analysed to locate and follow trends in the dialogue. I present many excerpts verbatim from the transcriptions to foreground the voices of the four student participants. I work to weave their words with literature, and my own thoughts, to present a rich portrayal of their complex literate practices.

The participants provided deep and revealing insights into their use of digital technologies providing a sense of the opportunity for identity work it afforded. I was impressed with the ways they articulated their practices and thoughts about learning outside of school. Essential to the discussion of this study is an understanding of the identity and positioning of the researcher. Before this study I had a familiar relationship with all four participants. As a literacy coach at the school where the students attend, I had spoken to them casually at various times around the school and on yard duty. I had also worked as a mentor for the classroom teacher of the participants and was in their classroom one lesson a week, either teaching, team teaching or observing the classroom teacher. Although my relationship with the students would not have been as close and familiar as a regular classroom teacher, it still assumed a relationship of teacher/student and the discourses of power and positioning that this is situated in. I am aware that my position as ‘teacher’ for these participants, may have limited or sometimes tainted the conversations. It needs to be understood that the four stories I tell in this research are the four stories that four young adolescents chose to tell a teacher, researcher, adult, female, mother.


Sites of informal learning, particularly those embedded in digital technologies are rich and complex spaces where young adolescents can construct and negotiate positive learner identities. This identity work occurs within figured worlds where people are constantly developing and acting out self-understandings. The following conversation excerpts from the participants, along with my discussion, describes and fleshes out the identity work that occurs within these figured worlds. After my conversations with the participants, I identified three clear figured worlds that were important in the lives of the participants. These three figured worlds: friendship, homework and soccer all transcend online / offline, as well as in-school and out-of-school spaces.

The Figured World of Friendship

My conversations with both Brooke and Rana would often emphasize the importance of their friendship groups both on- and offline. The figured world of friendship is a loci for the girls to understand themselves, particularly in relation to others.


B I’ve got a lot of friends. I don’t know the exact number. Most of them are my friends and I have a few

family members but I don’t have anyone I don’t know on there.

H So it’s mainly your friends at school?
B Yeah and like netball.
H Ok and friends of friends and stuff. So if someone randomly asked to be your friend?
B Yeah I would just deny their request.

Rana and Brooke

H How do you think that Facebook changes your friendships? Does it change them?
R I think it makes             them stronger, like I’m going to a different high school next year and all my friends are going to Spring High (pseudonym). So I can still keep in touch with all of my friends over Facebook and if I didn’t have that I probably wouldn’t see them or keep in touch with them. It’s harder to organise something if you can’t just message them.
H Does that make you feel better about going to a school that no one else from here is going to?
R Yeah, because I can still communicate and keep in touch with them and I don’t want to just lose             my friends.
B It’s really good for just organising stuff. Like the other night, R and I were talking and we were             saying we should go over to each others’ houses or whatever, like you are just in a conversation             and it turns into something else.
R Yeah, it develops into something to see each other and if we didn’t have that it probably wouldn’t happen.


H So how many friends have you got on Facebook?
R Well, I don’t know exactly, but there is a fair few, but I don’t accept anyone that I’m not close to. Like even if I know them, I went to school with them for a little while, I still probably won’t             accept them, like not that I don’t care what they’re doing, but I don’t need to see what they like       or anything because I don’t have a close relationship with them.
H So you don’t use Facebook as a way to make friends but you use it to keep in touch with your Friends that you do have so what kind of things do put on Facebook then?
R Well I use it to talk like with the Messenger part and yeah just look at videos or what my             friends have posted like what they’ve been doing.

Here, Rana and Brooke talk about the role of social media in their friendship circle. It enhances existing friendships and relieves anxiety about going to a new school without friends. Social media strengthens friendships as it allows for easy access to communication with people you do not see regularly. This finding is consistent with those of Hoff (2016), Lewis and Fabos (2005) and Mallan, Ashford and Singh (2010), who found that the participants existing offline relationships were strengthened, rather than the formation of new friendships, through the use of social media. Friendship and trust are transitive between off- and online spaces and without trust, young adolescents are less likely to engage in social media (Hoff, 2016). Both Rana and Brooke also discussed at length how they do not accept friend requests from people they don’t know on any form of social media. While they both enjoy looking at celebrity YouTube channels and Instagram accounts, they have no desire to make new friends with people who are not in their ‘real’ life friendship circle.

‘While as a cultural artefact, the Internet is often constructed as creating new relationships, including new forms of identity, cultural border crossing not otherwise possible, illicit romances that break up families, etc., in practice it is likely that the Internet is more often one tool and social space among many that people use to extend themselves and their relationships.’ (Leander and McKim, 2003 , pp. 220).

As Leander and McKim (2003) suggest, the Internet is one more social space that makes up the figured world of friendship for Rana and Brooke. The online social space strengthens and extends friendships, exhibiting similar dynamics usually attributed to young adolescent relationships, such as peer pressure and anxiety about exclusion, as shown in the conversation below.

Rana and Brooke

R Some people might have peer pressure to do it as well because it might be the thing that your group of friends is doing.
H Have you ever felt that pressure?
R Sometimes, like I was the last one to get Facebook, like fairly the last one to get Facebook out of all my friends so I sort of felt that they all have it so I should have it too.
H So to be with your friends still you needed to have that technology too.
B And everyone would be “do you have Facebook?”
R And everyone would be like, “Uh, you don’t have Facebook. Oh man, you’re a weirdo.” So I would say “Yeah, I have Facebook.”

The girls, who think of themselves as very sociable and friendly at school, see the use of social media as an extension of this identity, thus building up layers of their identity. In my conversations with Rana, she spoke of feeling the pressure being the last one in her friendship

group to get a Facebook and Instagram account. She felt it was important not to be left out of this activity in her friendship circle. This demonstrates how vitally important the virtual space has become in Rana’s real life friendship group and her identity within this group. She describes how the virtual space created by digital technologies is part of, not separate to the real friendship group she is part of day to day and in and out of school.

The figured world of friendship is a dynamic and complex space, crossing over on- and offline sites and weaving school and out-of-school lives together. For Rana and Brooke, it is within this world that they construct an identity for themselves and convey it back through performances in the figured world. Crucial to this identity work is that identity is relational and is always constructed as what one is not (Urrieta, 2007b). Rana clearly expresses her desire to be part of the collective that make use of social media, as opposed to the ‘other’, people who do not have Facebook.

The Figured World of Homework

In the lives of the two girls in this study, digital technologies extend, enhance and develop aspects of their day to day lives. Homework is another figured world where young adolescents engage in social space both on- and offline, and both at school and at home. While the homework set for the participants is largely individual and traditional in nature, and not necessarily requiring digital technologies to complete, the participants have chosen to create a social world using digital technologies around the nightly practice of doing homework.


H What about homework, do you have your phone out?
B Yeah I actually think it’s really useful. Just say you’re doing maths and my phone has a             calculator on it and I could just ask Siri a question, just say, like a dictionary meaning for blah      blah blah and she would tell me. It’s a quicker, easier way to do it.
H And do you ever sneaky check Facebook
B Yeah maybe ha ha.
H Do you ever get in touch with your friends about homework, like your friends from school?
B Yeah like Kate and Emma (not their real names), like I will message them about to see what they are doing and if they are doing homework then I will FaceTime them or Skype, video call    or

whatever and we double check answers with each other and just talk about it. It’s a better           way to do homework cos its funner.

H And why else is it better?
B Cos I can talk to them and double check your answers and it’s better than just sitting in a room and focusing on one thing. It’s like they’re there and its funner doing things with friends.
H Do you feel more confident with them there?
B Yeah, and if you don’t really get it you can just say how do you do this and they’ll tell you and      it does make you feel more confident in your answers.
H So do you think you do a better job?
B Yeah, and I don’t stress as much about it, it’s more easy going.
H That’s interesting. If you had to do it by yourself, would you stress about it sometimes?
B Yeah, a little bit like I’m not sure if I’m doing it right. and it’s sort of like, well in reading             groups we are doing a book cover and we are doing a fantasy one. It’s like she was showing me             her book cover and it gives me ideas.

Brooke discusses the important role digital technologies play in completing homework for school. She naturally turns to Siri and uses Facetime and Messenger to collaborate with her peers to seek feedback and generally relieve anxiety over homework by feeling like she is not alone. Brooke’s use of social media here provides a space that fosters support, feedback and compliments, which are easier to give and receive within the security of the online space (Retallack, Ringrose and Lawrence, 2016). We see here what Ringrose and Renold (2015) refer to as a ‘circulation of affective solidarities’, central to the building of the friendship group of the girls and also contributing to the construction of their positive learner identities. They feel confident and capable in a more collaborative environment and approach the tasks with a sense of fun. In my discussions with the girls about homework, they made sense of their experiences across the spaces of on- and offline. These spaces mesh together to form the figured world of homework.

The figured world of homework for the participants was an interesting space to explore. Essentially, Brooke and her friends have taken a traditional and routine aspect of school learning and, by choosing to incorporate the use of digital technologies, have developed a space where they engage in further understanding themselves as learners. Brooke expresses her positive learning identity here, performing confidence and seeking dialogue and feedback to push her standard of homework.

The Figured World of Soccer

The majority of conversations I had with Jake were about soccer. It was an important part of his life, identity work and his literate practices outside of school. Jake plays soccer in the virtual sense on his Xbox and in the physical sense at club level and at school. For Jake, the figured world of soccer is a social space that encompasses school and home, and on- and offline domains.


H So you said you play the FIFA soccer game a lot, do you play real soccer?
J Yeah, I play indoor soccer once a week at the YMCA and every chance I get I play soccer, at             lunch or at recess and on the weekend.
H You play with the boys out here on the hard-court don’t you?
J [Nods]
H So that’s something you’re interested in life but you like playing it on the computer as well. If      you had your choice which one do you prefer?
J Probably the online experience cos you don’t really get tired.[Both laugh]


J Yeah Sean (pseudonym) and I play FIFA and with his brother, we play online through Xbox because we both love soccer so we both play on the Xbox.

In the example above, Jake discusses his favourite Xbox game, FIFA. This MMOG involves playing soccer against other online opponents, and in some cases (FIFA Ultimate Team) becoming a team manager and creating a team to play against other opponents. Jake describes this game as a reflection and extension of his ‘real’ life passion, playing soccer. Much of his online involvement in soccer is also deeply entrenched in his close friendship group from school. They play FIFA online together, sometimes in the same physical house, and at other times, online. They also watch and share YouTube clips about FIFA and are working together on a YouTube channel around this game.

Jake’s involvement in FIFA gaming is rich in the use of what Apperley and Walsh refer to as paratexts where ‘The term paratext is mobilised to describe the print and multimodal texts used and often developed by game players that circulate in the complex nexus of literacy practices that make up digital gaming cultures’ (Apperley and Walsh, 2012, p. 116). Jake discussed with me the types of paratexts he reads or views in order to fully participate in FIFA gaming. These include watching soccer games on TV and on the internet, reading online newspaper articles such as Football Daily, Reading soccer articles in the local paper The Advertiser, Visiting soccer website Foothead, Liking and following various football teams and players on Facebook, and endless conversations with friends, both on- and offline. Jake confidently researches, synthesises and applies this information in the hope to create a successful soccer team to play in FIFA. When successful in the game he can then capture these sequences to upload on his own YouTube channel. He locates and weaves together both modern multimodal and more traditional print-based texts in skilful literacy practices that shape and enhance his figured world of soccer.

Understanding the paratexts that are involved in Jake’s gaming world forces us to consider how much this ‘virtual’ world is meshed with Jakes ‘real’ world, and also with the more traditional texts accepted and commonly used in formal schooling. For Jake, the act of playing a soccer computer game is, in fact, a complex practice of text consumption and production that weaves in and out of virtual and real spaces. It is not the time spent playing computer games, the time spent playing soccer, or the time spent reading soccer related texts alone that wholly define Jake’s identity. Rather it is the flow between these activities and spaces that build and laminate as identity construction.

Soccer is a popular sport at Jake’s school and is played by groups of students (mostly boys) at each break time. As Swain (2000) found, soccer (referred to as football in Australia) is part of the dominant practices of acting out masculinities and establishing oneself as a ‘real’ boy at school. Jake’s online FIFA gaming together with his knowledge of the sport allow him greater access to participate in these hegemonic constructions of what it means to be a boy at his school. The online layers of Jake’s figured world of soccer contribute to his identity as a footballer and offer status and inclusion in a social group that may not otherwise be available to him. Using the lens of figured worlds, we see how Jake masterfully uses the cultural artifacts available to him to participate in this world and construct a strong identity of soccer player. Within this landscape of action, Jake understands and conveys himself through a variety of performances and improvisations.

Noobs and Masters

Within the figured worlds that the participants inhabit both on- and offline, there is a blurring of roles between learner and teacher. The situations described by the participants display characteristics of affinity spaces (Gee, 2004), where people are drawn together by a common endeavour, and support each other to achieve a common goal. Gee’s (2007) work on video games and learning describes gaming culture as often supportive and sharing, rather than competitive. In the conversations below, Kai talks about his experiences playing MMOGs and how he slips between the roles of learner and teacher when necessary. This process happens organically, without structure and formality.

Kai and Jake

K Like teaching someone new, another label that some people call them is a ‘noob’…
H A noob?
K A noob, they don’t really know much stuff, it’s a label that some people call them. I don’t             really use that label but I’ve heard it before.
H So how do you know when people are noobs?
K If they’ve never played the game before and they are really bad.
H Do they come out and say it, or do you just pick it up?
K Yeah, you can see that they are struggling.
H So what do you do then when the kids are struggling?
K Most of the time I just help them, or just teach them. If they are at your actual house playing      with you then you can help them, like actually help them. But if you are playing online you     can stick around them and help them that way, so they kind of learn from you because you           are always with them and helping them.
H Do you do that often?
J Yeah
K There could be someone way better at the game than you and they might teach you. But yet          the people that are better at the game than you, they still might not know some things so you             can help them as well. So even if they are better at the game than you, you can still teach      them things. Like I still teach my mum things because you keep on learning new things.

In the extract above, Jake and Kai discuss how they slip between roles of novice and expert in a constant organic cycle of teaching and learning. Whilst in an MMOG environment, players will look out for each other and support each other’s acquisition of skills. ‘Noobs’, short for newbies, are picked out by their lack of skill or understanding of the game. Support for noobs is offered by direct instruction or through modelling by a more experienced or skilful player. This is a characteristic of an affinity space where newbies and masters all share the same space. ‘The whole continuum of people from new to experienced, from unskilled to highly skilled, from minorly interested to the addicted, and everything in between, is accommodated in the same space’ (Gee, 2004, p. 77). This unsegregated mingling contributes to the identity work and learning of the players.

Jake and Kai use the term noob and discuss the regular occurrence of finding and supporting noobs within a game. As also discussed in Sjoblom and Aronsson (2014) game players use labels such as noobs or experts to position others in terms of skill ranking or experience and ascribing to them specific learner identities (p. 194). Although this positioning is evident in my discussions with the boys, they also clearly describe how these roles or positions are slippery and changing depending on the circumstance. They explain how even inexperienced players can become ‘teachers’ and support more experienced players. The boys recognise that sometimes they are noobs and sometimes they are masters, even in the one space. There are many different routes to participation and to achieving status. You may be technically good at playing the game, or you might be good at supporting others, or you might be good and capturing and uploading content about the game.


K Most of the time if I can’t figure something out when I’m playing on my own. I’ll just do something else on the game so I’ll kind of abandon it for a while and then I’ll wait until some friends come over to my place one day and then we can play it together and see if they know and see if we can get through it there but if they don’t know I’ll wait a bit longer until other friends come over. So basically it’s just kind of leaving it until someone knows how to do it.
H Do people come to you for help as well?
K Yeah sometimes I go over to their place and if they’re stuck and I can go oh you do this and then this and then this and we will play it together to get through. And sometimes it’s the            simplest things and we go why didn’t we do that?
H It’s always easier to figure things out when you have people to bounce off. So you don’t really have a teacher for that kind of stuff do you?
K Well, we are all kind of all teaching each other really.
H Yeah
K Technically everyone’s the teacher and everyone is the student cos you are all teaching and learning.

In the above excerpt, Kai explains the importance of others in his world of gaming for his learning. If feeling stuck in a game, he knows that often the best strategy is to wait until he has his gaming friends around to learn from each other. He has access to his friends in both his real world, when they come over to his house and in his virtual world when he chats to them online.  Haugsbakken and Langseth (2014) argue that the connections and self-organisation afforded by digital technologies are crucial and positive elements of learning in the digital age. Kai’s description of what he does when stuck in a problem show both a high level of self-organisation, but also highlight how important connections are in his learning. Within his figured world of gaming, he connects to people in real life and virtually to solve problems and progress further. Similarly, Lewis Ellison (2014) found an affinity space between cousins playing video games together and creating a symbiotic relationship of teaching and learning.

These snapshots of learning challenge the traditional oppositional relationship of teacher and student to offer a view where ‘everyone’s the teacher and everyone is the student.’ Kai’s discussion here captures how knowledge is distributed across the network within an affinity space. Connecting with others within the space builds capacity and knowledge across the network as a whole. ‘Such knowledge allows people to know and do more than they could on their own’ (Gee, 2004, pp 78). Rogoff et al’s (2016) definition of informal learning describes the learning process as nondidactic. While the idea of noobs and masters can be didactic, the ability to take on either role is open and ever-changing. Jake and Kai feel comfortable with performing either of these roles within the figured worlds of gaming.

Participation and Agency

Central to the figured worlds described above is the theme of participation and agency. From choosing who to follow or block on social media, to creating online content and running a YouTube channel. The participants spoke positively about their ability to participate on different levels when using digital technologies.


B Well, I just thought about starting my own YouTube channel. I was going to start on an             iPad and I talked to mum about it and everything but then I forgot it. I didnt start it up,      but mum and my step dad were happy for me to do it.
H And what were your ideas?
B Well I watch a lot of videos about room decor and DIY. There is some really cool cheap easy             things you can do and it makes your room look really nice so I reckon I would just show             people how to, like inspire them to do their rooms and stuff and cute stuff to do.
H So you talked last time about possibly having your own YouTube channel. Do you think you would have to learn things for that? How would you go about that?
B Like things to put on my channel or ways to set it up?
H Yeah both.
B Yeah I think I would have to have a look at things to talk about and I was saying I want to         do room decor like DIY.
H Yeah that’s right.
B So I would have to get ideas and have a look at how to do it and then I could explain it.
H And you feel confident that if you had to learn stuff like that you would know what to do?
B Yep and I have got my sister and her friend Lucy has a YouTube channel, and I haven’t             really watched many of her clips but I could ask her to help me.


J Well I just basically think about what I enjoy doing and what others would enjoy throughout. Like on my schedule at the moment I only have two channels but I’m thinking about making a third. One channel would be about soccer and the second channel would be about           gaming in general and the third channel is spread between me and my friends.

H Like just a social thing for fun?
J Yeah the videos that we do together.

Brooke’s discussion around her use of YouTube is an example of the many routes to participation and status using digital technologies. Whilst Brooke enjoys watching comedy on YouTube as downtime activity and substitute for TV we see it has a power greater than that. The content Brooke watches is ‘user generated’, seemingly regular day-to-day people, often teenagers who have created their own channels and uploaded self-made content. Both Jake and Brooke found this characteristic of YouTube interesting and enticing to be an active, rather than passive, participant. Jake, with a group of friends, has made content about gaming for the last few years and is attempting to get back into it with content about the game FIFA. Brooke has entertained the idea of creating and uploading YouTube videos and feels confident that she has both the technology and the skills to be able to do it. Here we see evidence of the participatory media culture described by Jenkins (2009) and expanded in Lange and Ito (2009) and Lange (2014).


H So you really enjoy it?
J Yeah cos a lot of my time is spend gaming and watching YouTube which is what you would do when you make a YouTube channel. And you can expand throughout the community, not just in the game but now in a different community.
H What do you mean a different community?
J Well you can expand through an amount of YouTube communities, fans or people who want        to work with you.
J …it’s more about what we enjoy and how we want to spread throughout the community just             making videos with each other because we like playing games with each other.
H So how would you describe yourself as a learner then?
J Well what I have tried doing in the past week has gone pretty far so far. I did upload my            first video. I already knew how to do that from went I did it a few years so it was taking        what I learned before and what I’ve learned now and put it together to make what I enjoy.


B Yeah well Miranda Sings, she just started off by doing funny videos and now she is famous         and has so many subscribers.
H And is that something you would like to do?
B Yeah.
H So do you have to put a lot of thought into what you post?
B I think so but I think it would be better if you were a bit of a goof ball too. Like fold the             right-hand corner [said in serious robot voice]. It won’t be serious.
H Is that just you?
B Yeah.

For the boys involved in various games, Brooke watching YouTube, and for Rana looking at Instagram, leaders and role models are porous. Content creators are often teenagers or young adults and seen more as ‘everyday’ people than traditional leaders or famous ‘stars’. Along with the blurring of lines between teacher and student is also a blurring between the leader and the follower. ‘We have seen the boundary between leader and follower is vague and porous, since players can generate content for the game or the site.’ (Gee 2004, p. 79). Role models are those who create successful texts and attract audiences and all participants of an affinity space, regardless of experience level, can generate content. Operating in an affinity space, both consuming and producing texts, involves high levels of literacy in understanding the semiotic domains of the space (Gee 2007).

All four young adolescents in this study discussed a real desire and level of agency in their participation using digital technologies. They understand how they can network, create content and participate on different levels, and feel that they have some control over this. Figured worlds ‘provide the loci in which people fashion senses of self –that is develop identities.’ (Holland et al, 1998, p. 60). The permeation of digital technology into these loci opens opportunities with new players and new improvisations within figured worlds. The identity work that occurs reflects a view of identity that is about becoming, rather than being. The participants express their identities in terms of what was possible and what they could become. The use of digital technologies played an important role in this as it opens opportunities to participate in cultural spaces, or figured worlds, that contained figures at all various levels of achievement. Therefore, within figured worlds embedded with digital technologies, people are sorted and organised in interesting ways and this impacts on the ways people learn to relate to one another.


In the figured worlds inhabited by the participants in this study, the traditional construction of binary opposites between on- and offline worlds, real and virtual are challenged. Identity work happens horizontally across these sites, forcing us to conceptualise the idea of site as social and dynamic, rather than fixed or physical (Tsolidis, 2008). We shift from understanding these sites as things, to an understanding of the productive process and flow that occurs across sites. The theoretical framework of the figured world, encapsulates such a space, and allows us to explore the way people, as figures within these worlds, understand themselves and convey these understandings through performances. Each participant in this study plays out actions and improvisations on a daily basis, constantly developing and redeveloping their self-understandings in relation to others in the collective.

For Jake, the figured world of soccer shifts dynamically across the real and the virtual worlds. Similarly, for Rana and Brooke, the figured world of friendship encompasses both on- and offline domains of the girls’ lives. Even the traditional practice of routine homework occurs in both their on- and offline worlds. ‘The significance of figured worlds is that they are recreated by work, often contentious work, with others; thus, the importance of activity, not just in a restricted number of figured worlds, but across landscapes of action.’ (Urrieta, 2007, p. 109). The participants use the term ‘in real life’, sometimes shortened to ‘IRL’ online, to differentiate events that happen on- or offline. The conversations with the participants of this research, however, reveals how inseparable on- and offline worlds are, and how the online space is very much ‘in real life’.

In the stories of the four adolescents in this study, we can see what Holland and Leander (2004) define as ‘lamination’. The metaphor of lamination works to describe how identity is built up and thickened with layers of memories, experiences and artifacts. While each layer retains its original distinctiveness, it bonds together to form a new configuration. The flow between worlds creates layers of identity for the young adolescents. As Jake plays soccer at lunch time, goes home to play FIFA on the Xbox and then watches soccer moves on YouTube, he is constructing his identity as both soccer player and fan. Jake’s stories of soccer express his learner identity through his desire to improve, to learn from others and a commitment to participate across various sites, both real and virtual.

This research focused on the construction and negotiation of learner identity in the out-of-school use of digital technologies, which I found to be complex and positive. While the figured worlds of the participants, the soccer games, the friendship groups and the homework, crosses over into school life, I have not compared or understood the complexities of the identity work that occurs in the literacy practices in the classroom. Literacy classrooms are full of labels and identities used to categorise and sort our students: the good reader, the struggling reader, the reluctant reader and the illiterate. How does the young adolescent identify themselves in the literacy classroom and how does this impact on the identity work that occurs outside of school? Is there reconciliation, transfer and connection between the identity work of young adolescents in- and out-of-school. The identity theories of Holland et al (1998) particularly the process of lamination, or sedimentation of identity layers would be a useful conceptual tool for unpacking some of these tensions and relationships.

The stories of Brooke, Rana, Kai and Jake create a sense of possibility and positivity. They create an interesting, candid and intimate narrative of the identity work in the figured worlds they participate in. On- and offline spaces are merged and equally as real, as equally important, and as equally routine (Leander and McKim 2003; Leander 2014). The online space is not always an exotic or sinister fantasy where young adolescents escape, it can be, rather, an extension of their existing friendship groups, learning and interests. The connectedness and multimodality of the online dimension of their existing figured worlds often provides a rich and dynamic space for literacy practices and identity work. The inclusion of digital technologies in the figured worlds of the participants allows for different players, different relationships and different opportunities for self-understandings, than in spaces devoid of digital technologies. Within these worlds, the model of learning adopted resembles an affinity space, disrupting the traditional roles of teacher and student and building a dialogic network based on sharing knowledge, rather than hierarchal knowledge (Gee, 2004). In the figured worlds explored in this article, digital technologies add a dimension that encourages positive learner identities.

The figured worlds of friendship, homework and soccer in this study, like all spaces of social reality, are mediated by relationships of power (Holland et al, 1998). There is a sense in the conversations with the participants that digital technologies can assist in allowing them to become or discover who they want to be by allowing them to easily produce texts, create, play and connect with others. The participants felt great control and choice over what they play, what they watch and who they talk to. The world of possibilities opens and experts and leaders become accessible. In the realm of informal learning outside of school, the participants have some agency over the construction and negotiation of their own learner identities. Identity construction is reflected as a process of becoming, rather than being.


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Biographical Information

Heather Brown is a literacy coach in the northern suburbs of Adelaide. She has completed a Master of Education, specialising in Language and Literacy, at the University of South Australia. Her research interests are in the areas of literacies, digital technologies and social justice issues.


Grace Pigozzi

Published Online: April 1, 2017
Full Text: HTML, PDF

Abstract: Conducting research online that focuses on various writing genres with adolescent authors demands imagination and improvisation as their composition meanders across multiple communities, forums, and expressive modes, while it simultaneously ignores boundaries and creates new spaces. Research of online contexts is crucial as technology plays an increasing role in education policy (CCSSO/NGA, 2010). As unique windows to adolescent online writing, affinity spaces as semiotic spaces are nested between competing cultural entities in which cultural identities across differences of class, gender roles, and values are negotiated (Bhatt, 2008). Affinity spaces have the capacity to create new structures of sociolinguistic and semiotic authority as they redefine approaches to disciplinary learning, and group and individual identity. It is within the discursive spaces of online out-of-school writing that educators can strive to cultivate a similar classroom space for explicit instruction in formal writing. This paper from a study of adolescent writers in an urban Midwestern literacy center compares and contrasts appropriate methods for inquiry as it explores the instructional potential of blogging to engage students more authentically and dialogically than long-established pedagogical practices.

Keywords: Virtual research methods, ethnography, case study, affinity spaces, adolescent identity


Zora and Mina are poets and short story authors who blogged their writings in the context of a larger online creative writing ensemble. Together and with other group members, they discussed, planned, and revised their work. They shared mentor texts, including poetry slam videos and current social media memes. However, Zora, 14, and Mina, 16, were very different types of participants; Zora participated remotely via Smartphone while Mina attended weekly meetings in the literacy center of an urban Midwestern university.

Research focused on adolescent writing is inspired by renewed calls to support writing more comprehensively in schools. Assessment reports indicate that middle and high school students lack solid writing abilities. In 2011, the Nation’s Report Card revealed a marked decline in the writing ability of eighth graders: roughly 25% of both eighth and twelfth graders performed at the proficient level in writing (NCES, 2012). By contrast, the 2007 Nation’s Report Card states that 33% of eighth graders were proficient in writing; and 24% of twelfth graders were proficient in writing (Salahu-Din, Persky, & Miller, 2008).

National reports, including Writing Next (Graham & Perin, 2007) and the National Commission on Writing (2003), address the lack of proficiency in adolescent writing and the neglect of the nation’s schools to make writing a priority. Additionally, these accounts reference the value of writing for individuals, such as writing to build skills and knowledge, and for society at large, such as writing to benefit the workplace and economy.

Further, the need to foreground adolescent writing in the nation’s schools is echoed in analyses of low proficiency scores when the online writing abilities of adolescents is measured. Very low proficiencies are linked to low SES, yet they are also linked to deficits in literacy skills that students need for successful online reading and writing. Such trends make writing all the more difficult to teach, particularly when all students assessed generally do a poor job of communicating in online formats. Studies show that overall adolescent proficiencies in reading to locate effectual online sources, and critically evaluating and synthesizing that information are low to moderate (Castek, Zawilinski, McVerry, O’Byrne, & Leu, 2011; Leu et al., 2015).

However, according to a recent PEW Internet & American Life Project Report, 92% of all middle and high school students in the United States go online daily. Of those users, 24% report going online almost constantly, and 56% of teens go online multiple times per day. Further, 85% of adolescents, ages 12-17 engage at least occasionally in prolonged online writing (Lenhart, 2015; Lenhart, Purcell, Smith, & Zickuhr, 2010).

Internet use by adolescents is soaring, yet as young people communicate online with more frequency, they do so in less effective ways. Moreover, the literacy tasks that students elect to do beyond school, in out-of-school literacies: the intentional, personal, and everyday uses of literacies that adolescents increasingly practice online, such as social media use and fan fiction writing, go largely understudied and underreported. This occurs despite continued calls for exploring the potential of digital literacies to engage youth in academic literacy tasks, and despite the fact that young people report engagement in intentional literacy tasks at high levels, as statistics indicate (Lenhart, 2015). The fact that young people elect to engage in complex online writing tasks contradicts claims that they have low literacy abilities. Generating and obtaining information through digital media is central to the lives of adolescents, and they are utilizing the Internet in increasing numbers and ways (Alvermann et al., 2007). Reliable research depends on thorough and consistent means of conceptualizing and considering these activities in order to determine implications for classrooms and learning.

Conducting online research that focuses on writing genres with adolescent authors demands imagination and often improvisation as composition meanders across multiple communities, forums, and expressive modes, while it simultaneously ignores boundaries and creates new spaces. Designing such research leaves one puzzling whether it is possible to develop adequate theory when the focal object or phenomenon of study is itself transient, constantly being redefined by fluctuating content. Viewing websites as discursive contexts of social construction, this paper aims to contribute to methodological inquiry rather than discuss the Internet as a communication tool. As online interaction becomes a way of being in the world, where complex aspects of self, other and identity are continually negotiated, texts produced online become transformative, reflecting a social construction (Markham, 2004). In particular, I am interested in understanding how social enactments of identity through creative writing are negotiated, experienced, and theorized in affinity spaces. Briefly defined, affinity spaces are semiotic spaces, or sets of spaces, for individuals to interact with one another, to pursue a common interest and to share and gain knowledge that is dispersed and distributed across its many members, throughout the entire space. A semiotic space is one in which meaning is mutable; texts are rich with potential rather than assigned meanings. The reader as well as the writer is allowed productive agency in meaning making (Gee, 2004, 2005; Knobel & Lankshear, 2007). Participants published work on the Edublogs site using laptop computers, available in the literacy center. is a centralized location for students to publish their creations as well as being a secure, closed site to encourage reflection and collaboration (Edublogs, 2013). On a closed site, for the purposes of this study, only participants on that site could view blog postings.

Taking examples from a larger blogging research study, this paper attempts to reconcile the affordances of affinity space and its interactive participants with the constraints of immersion in a culture that continually evolves online in an effort to determine the most effective design for research. In tracing the development of traditional ethnographic and case study methods into corresponding online methods, several methodological questions arise. Can saturation in affinity space culture with virtual ethnography be accomplished if research—the interview in particular—is conducted only in space and not in physical place? If participants interact both online and offline, that is, in a setting with practices not mediated by the Internet (Leander & McKim, 2003), beyond the boundaries of affinity space, can the ensuing research report possibly meet criteria for high-quality ethnography (Baym, 2009) or must it be recast as case study? Furthermore, how do these issues impact data collection and analysis? Presenting data from both perspectives, I argue that in online research, unless the investigator is able to connect with participants in multiple online spaces, conduct incisive and complete interviews, and then unambiguously bound artifacts as data, virtual ethnography is impossible. In the study of cultural phenomena in which the researcher investigates contemporary events in real-life contexts, connective case study is far better suited as a method to investigate events that occur online, particularly in affinity spaces, where the boundaries between phenomenon and context are vague. At best, the researcher can produce reports of experience and to offer evidence that describes a contemporary phenomenon in a real life context (Yin, 2009). Further, supporting this idea, qualitative case study often focuses on experiential knowledge of a certain case, and is closely related to current social and political influences (Stake, 2005).

As the study of culture, ethnography attempts to describe or construct theories of the beliefs, behaviors, and thought processes of people situated in local time and space (Patton, 1990; Purcell-Gates, 2011). With virtual ethnography, an interpretive method for studying online culture, the positionality of the researcher shifts with the dynamics of culture as it evolves online (Greenhow, 2011; Hine, 2004).

A salient issue to the evolution of methods is how virtual ethnography invokes traditional ethnography, and assumes online ethnographic fieldwork is as thorough and robust. However, marked differences between the continual fluctuations of identity, cultural location, and individual investment of participants in online spaces, in contrast to relative stability of such matters in traditional ethnography, reveal one disparity between online and traditional ethnography (Driscoll & Gregg, 2010).

Key concerns involve saturation in the context defined by the role of the researcher in the site, interview quality, and bounding. With a focus on patterns created from threads of artifact and connection as an alternative to interweaving thicker strands from interviews and field notes (Driscoll & Gregg, 2010; Hine, 2004)  the synthetic fabric of virtual ethnography is of vastly different quality than that of traditional ethnography. Moreover, in the absence of tangible culture, identities, and social structures, for the purposes of research, the effervescence of traditional ethnographic fieldwork becomes flattened. Authenticity is difficult to pinpoint, as human presence is represented as text and timestamp rather than visible, active beings. Furthermore, explicit a priori bounding (Greenhow, 2011), triangulation of artifacts, interviews, and field notes in a manner compatible with case study transfer to an online context more dependably than ethnography.

Literature Review

A blog consists of time-stamped journal entries that are generally comprised of thematic pages with commentaries. Blog authors may update several times daily, weekly, or monthly. Generally, blogs are easily editable and entries are organized in reverse chronological order (Mazur & Kozarian, 2010; Zawilinski, 2009). Content analyses demonstrate that akin to keeping a personal handwritten journal, maintaining a blog is considered an intentional writing practice, most often accomplished on a personal, as needed, or as-wanted basis. Blogs are both collaborative and individualized. Their format promotes self-expression and singular, as well as joint editing by posting comments in which writers give or receive online feedback. With further coordination and an expansion of themes and topics within an educational setting, blogs can also be interdisciplinary (Huffaker, 2005). While practices such as collaborative movie making or digital storytelling may create affinity among communities taking part in the practice, comparative case studies suggest that blogging creates an affinity space that drives the dynamics of interaction. (Freidus & Hlubinka, 2002).

Identity and Literacy Development

In a single-case study, Kinney (2012) discusses the variety of purposes that online writing has for young writers. With adolescents, blogs and other forms of online writing present a platform for recounting stories, making meaning about topics and events relative to their lives, fostering community and social awareness, and activism. Online writing can also support construction of identity. Involvement in non-mainstream literacy practices provides an opportunity for adolescents to affiliate and connect with a particular social group as well as explore a variety of online personas in conjunction with literacy development (Kinney, 2012). For theory construction or a deeper inquiry into literacy practices outside of school, creative writing on blogs provides an arena for young authors to explore many types of writing for a wide audience, to evaluate and appreciate the writing of others, and to enact and explore personal identity as authors create new meaning in the process. In a context known as an affinity space, blogs become an equalizing function, but that space may be one in which little more is known about each other than user name and choice of writing topics (Gee, 1992).

As they increase their comfort with both wider audiences and technology, authors must read and write as they would on paper. In this sense, blogs represent an ideal medium for literacy development. By means of their widespread popularity and ease of use, content analysis shows that blogs remain equitable for all age groups, interests, and genders, and still provide a medium for learning programmatic skills (Huffaker, 2005). For example, blogging offers access to primary sources of information, often included as hyperlinks on original posts, along with multiple interpretations of complex events. Another case study demonstrates that by reading others’ blogs, students benefit from their peers’ reflections and have the opportunity to see emerging ideas rather than only final, edited compositions (Lapadat, Brown, Thielmann, & McGregor, 2010).

Students become more active participants as the roles of writer and audience expand. Magnifico (2010) describes participation in online writing spaces as a forum in which readers and writers become conversation partners as well as active listeners, denoting a transformative shift in writing practices. The relationship becomes akin to that of orator and responsive audience instead of writer and passive reader. Further, electronic media has opened a window for clearly viewing the dynamics of how writers consider and interact with their audiences, as a series of case studies suggests. The communicative, interpersonal nature of writing is visible in online spaces than ever before (Lammers, Magnifico, & Curwood, 2014; Lensmire, 1994; Magnifico, 2010).

Blogs are robust spaces for literacy development. The process of blogging provides adolescent writers with tools and affordances for collaboration, storytelling, taking up more active roles relative to writing, and unique paths to making meaning. Methodological approaches used to research young writers on blogs include several content analyses, interview studies, and case studies. While blogs about online research exist, little connective ethnography has been applied to blogging research (Murthy, 2008), it has been used with affinity space studies.

Theoretical Framework

Reading and writing is first a collective, socially organized practice that utilizes a symbol system and a technology for creating and disseminating it (Scribner & Cole, 1981). Writing incorporates the sharing of knowledge—thought, insight, and even questioning—for particular purposes in a specific context, in this event, discussing creative writing on a blog.

Text comprises a variety of semiotic modes, including written print, visual, oral, and aural material presented online (Alvermann, 2002; Gavelek & Bresnahan, 2008; Kress, 2003). To understand texts is to know how such things as layout and grammar serve to relate online writing to other forms of writing used in similar contexts, to discover how writers are located in position to others within a group, and whether online writing is used to take action in the world. Further, what is deemed text relies upon the social and cultural means in which it is presented and interpreted, and that may change from one domain to another (Moje, Stockdill, Kim, & Kim, 2009; Stone, 2007).

Yet literacy is not only a way of presenting a perspective; it also is a powerful way to create and present oneself. In dialogue and written interaction, we use literacy to shape and to present our identity to others. In my work, I use positioning theory (Davies & Harré, 1990; Harré, Moghaddam, Cairnie, Rothbart, & Sabat, 2009) to analyze connectivity of literacy events in affinity spaces.

Affinity spaces are open and link to other spaces so that knowledge is shared and transformative. Yet, each affinity space maintains a distinct vision, culture, and set of norms, either in person or online (Gee, 2013) that are negotiated by affinity space members over time. On the Internet, people enter affinity sites, such as a novel writing or blog spaces, and can contribute in many different ways, with different people for different reasons. Depending on the space, members may engage in peripheral participation by reading but not interacting, or more actively, by commenting on others’ blog posts, adding a character, or writing a completely new piece (Curwood, Magnifico, & Lammers, 2013; Lave & Wenger, 1991).

With blogging, the acts of writing and reading, as well as interpretation of meaning, varies from one person to another. Blogs are used for a variety of purposes that serve multiple needs and interests. This occurs as part of daily, enacted, lived, deliberate, value-rich social practices. In this sense, voluntary writing on blogs is viewed from a sociocultural angle (Lankshear & Knobel, 2008). In order to observe and gain new knowledge from human behavior in sociocultural contexts, adopting an appropriate method that embraces all that is emerging in the online context is crucial.


Examining new blends of semiotic sources, intersecting sets of purposes by those involved, and perhaps facets of identity that are shaped and reshaped as learning occurs are difficult to conceptualize without virtual ethnography methods that attend to layers of context occurring online and the interrelationships surrounding literacy practices. Systematic observation, multiple participant interviews, repeated rounds of qualitative coding with thematic analysis are means of consolidating and refining participant interactions to describe broader literacy enactments in affinity space ethnography. (Curwood et al., 2013; Gillen, 2009; Greenhow, 2011; Hine, 2000, 2004).

Hine (2004) clearly delineates how to use what she terms virtual ethnography to investigate the ways in which use of the Internet becomes socially meaningful, by viewing online interaction as both culture and cultural artifact. The shifting boundaries between physical place and virtual space should be continually interrogated. Yet, the process of virtual ethnography is not necessarily one of long-term immersion; rather, it is a practice of recurrent engagement. That engagement demands a mediation that adds a reflexive aspect to virtual ethnography. Through the immersion process, the ethnographer visits online spaces, discusses and observes those spaces with participants, and views online spaces in other social settings. Representation can only be partial, with interpretations relevant to research questions rather than depicting faithful reports of objective realities. Finally, virtual ethnography is considered adaptive ethnography, as it mediates itself to the conditions in which it finds itself (Hine, 2004).

In online contexts for research, the concepts of “field” and “participant” become problematized (Greenhow, 2011). An online site is not regarded as a fixed entity, or as a meaningless and functionless space. Participants learn the uses of and give meaning to content within an online space. The meaning of a space emerges through the ways in which individuals use it (Fay, 2007; Hine, 2000).

In expanded ethnography, another online method, the role of researcher is multi-situated, that of simultaneous observer and participant. By learning through practice, and achieving the ability to check interpretations through recursive engagement, the researcher achieves a deep familiarity with the site. In doing so, the researcher becomes close enough to the subject or object of study to understand how it functions at the micro-level of interactions (Beneito-Montagut, 2011).

Choosing from the multiple terms of expanded ethnography, virtual ethnography, and affinity space ethnography, I selected an umbrella term, “connective” articulated by Leander (Leander, 2008; Leander & McKim, 2003), because it maintains focus on the interaction rather than location. Connective ethnography offers a framework for systematic inquiry into literacy phenomena that are continuously changing or about which little is known. Like traditional ethnography, connective ethnography presents an accurate reflection of participant perspectives and behaviors (insomuch as is shared with the researcher) and uses inductive, interactive, and recursive data collection and analytic strategies to build local and cultural theories, but the data is comprised of artifacts generated online (Greenhow, 2011; Hine, 2000).

With connective ethnography, bounding occurs by cultural processes, in this event, on a blog. To contrast connective ethnography with traditional ethnography, bounding occurs fluidly in cyberspace as connectivity, rather than by groups in one school, classroom, or a particular collective of students and their artifacts. However, connective boundaries can only be constructed retroactively (Fay, 2007). In traditional ethnography, a central theme is cultural understanding, with potential for new theory creation. The researcher interprets what the culture is, borrowing core elements from anthropology. Drawing on quantitative methods to establish patterns is allowable. To unpack what makes ethnography empirical, trustworthiness is crucial to the method, as it links the tenets of credibility, transferability, and dependability together. Credibility, akin to validity, includes adequate time spent in the field, persistent observation, peer debriefing, inclusion of negative cases and negative examples, member checks. Transferability involves thick, rich description that adequately provides insight and routes to further research. Dependability includes a systematic, reliable approach, clear methods for triangulation, work that builds on past studies or stepwise replication, and an inquiry audit of the processes and products resulting from them (Guba & Lincoln, 1994; Heath & Street, 2008; Purcell-Gates, 2011).

Ethnography is a case study, but a case study is not always ethnography. A critical characteristic of case study research is that it is a bounded system that defines what is excluded and included in a study. In collective case study, or multiple case studies, researchers investigate numerous cases to study a phenomenon, group, condition, or event. It is the responsibility of the researcher to build a convincing chain of evidence within the study (Barone, 2004; Dyson, 1995; Merriam, 1998; Stake, 1995). Case studies become complex as they are created around multiple data sources that must be analyzed for themes or patterns—often with huge amounts of data that may be difficult to clearly resolve into subsequent conclusions. Traditional case study methods necessitate holistic description, multiple sources of evidence, and finely-detailed analysis of a single entity, phenomenon, or social unit. A chain of convincing and converging evidence, constructed as data from across contexts is analyzed (Patton, 1990; Yin, 2009). With virtual case study, bounding can also occur by connectivity, but exactly how is unclear.

The few research reports identified as “online case studies” are frequently case studies of online academic courses (Poole, 2000; Vonderwell, 2003). Extant scholarly literature consistently lacks clear methodology detailing how the connected space impacts issues such as data collection and analysis. How the participants interact with the researcher appears to be decisive.

Researcher positionality is a caveat. My role as participant-observer frequently became that of facilitator as I was called upon to assist bloggers with access to and functionality in the site, at times making me neither participant nor observer. Within the culture of the affinity space, my impact on the group often flowed away from fellow writer to technical support; that is, my direct participation was often forfeited to maintain first-hand observation of the social context at various points throughout the study. In addition to considering the roles of all participants online, as researchers we must also weigh how user mobility, access, and intentional or unintentional representation characterize enactments of identity (Driscoll & Gregg, 2010). Personal, and often illogical online habits influenced how each blogger used the Internet as well as the site itself.

In my affinity space investigation, I considered how to achieve adequate immersion in affinity space culture for connective ethnography if research is conducted only in space and not in physical place, especially if researcher-participant interaction is limited to the reading the artifacts and interviewing a sample of affinity space participants. The mode of data collection became foregrounded. The context of a face-to-face interview is distinctly different from an interview compiled from multiple blog comment threads, and still dissimilar in quality and data format from perhaps Skype interviews, or possibly question-and-answer chains of email messages. I considered whether an affinity space study could permit for interviews conducted beyond the determined affinity space.

However, if participants do meet both online and then offline, that is, in a setting with practices not mediated by the Internet (Leander & McKim, 2003), extending the boundaries of affinity space, is it still a connective ethnography, or is it a case study by default? Again, how do these issues impact data collection and analysis?

The Present Study

Two participants, Zora and Mina (self-selected pseudonyms from favorite authors) participated in the same blogging affinity group. The affinity space, bounded by offline verbal and online written interaction between participants included both girls. Expanding the boundaries of affinity space allowed for multiple data sources to enrich interpretations of how participants enacted their identities, and enabled multiple participant perspectives for consideration. Each writer generated very different data, yet all were remarkably similar in terms of their writing content and themes. Over a ten-week course of two-hour writing sessions, Mina attended weekly group meetings with eight other authors in the literacy center of an urban Midwestern university. Zora blogged remotely, although she had briefly met other group participants.

Data Sources

Each blog post was considered an individual unit of analysis. Written artifacts were triangulated with observational and interview data. Differing interview procedures exemplify data collection inconsistency (Smagorinsky, 2008).

Field notes were systematically gathered from observations as participants discussed and selected topics, conducted online research for background information, and wrote their blog posts and comments (Baumann & Bason, 2011; Greenhow, 2011; Stake, 1995). Initial data analysis included coding of patterns, events, actions, etc. of the triangulated data (Charmaz, 2003). A detailed observation log was kept with checks of Web browsing histories of each participant. Logs enabled indexing of websites utilized for research, as well as sourcing for selected model texts, images or video, and final blog posts. Observation logs were included to define bounding and enhance description of the participants’ use of Internet space in relation to affinity space, and to track where they interacted online. Zora self-reported her observation log.

The core divergence in the data collection process was interview protocol. Face-to-face interviews with Mina were audio recorded, transposed, and coded. More challenging for collection and coding was Zora’s open-ended interview, conducted by phone with follow-up questions via email. Her recursive engagement and nuanced responses were often difficult to capture.


Identifying connections in multiple spaces, completing thorough interviews, and accessing multiple artifacts as data were key tasks. As the findings demonstrate, how affinity space culture was bound as either online, offline, or a combination of both affected triangulation of field notes, interviews, and artifacts in distinctive ways. In the end, several factors indicate methods clearly more consistent with case study, including the interactions within affinity space, data gathered from across contexts, and the constructed identities enacted in the blog space.

As part of a larger study on adolescent identity and writing, positioning theory coding entailed categorizing relational and interactive positionings within writing on the blog, and, in Mina’s case, some positioning within the group meetings at the physical site. Despite their differing perspectives and entry points to the blog space, Mina’s and Zora’s positioning, like their written content and themes, were remarkably similar.

Field Notes

Field notes included detailed transcript notations, memos, and observations from the physical site. Coding matrices using NVivo11 revealed Mina positioning most frequently as author and editor, self creating other. Accounts of Zora, with less time spent in physical place, demonstrated more positioning as self with other writers, less frequently as author or editor. Zora’s communications with other participants were more in the role of apprentice blogger, seeking clarification about content rather than the creative process itself. Direct insight to her writing practice was unavailable as she blogged most frequently from home.

Similarly, while Zora reported through phone conversation her online involvements on other sites for research and accessing mentor texts, it was possible to directly check the search log of Mina’s laptop at the physical site. While neither participant was reflexively followed in real time, the broad range of sites available from Mina’s search history provided information about inspiration for her specific blog posts. The emails, photos, and texts, in addition to the site names shared by Zora provided different information, less about her writing, and more connected to her personal interests.

Analyzing and integrating the various traces that users leave on the Internet are consistent with an ethnographic approach. This technique was utilized for triangulation with other data sources to avoid narrative or textual content analysis, that could bias text over other online interactions (Beneito-Montagut, 2011; Soukup, 2000). Overall, field note data yielded details about Mina as a writer, and Zora as Internet navigator.


Mina sat for face-to-face, open-ended interviews on three occasions throughout the study. In total, word count for her interview data was 2233 from 62 questions. In contrast, in one phone interview with email follow-up, Zora answered 17 questions, with a total word count of 231. Samples from the same question set follow.

Mina: I don’t really download songs. I use Spotify.” [Does math on fingers.] Probably two hours/day. Fifteen to twenty hours per week.
Facilitator: Blogging?
Mina: Tumblr…. I always do that whenever I have a free period or I’m bored. [Counts on fingers again.] Cut down to fifteen hours/week from 20 hours/week. That doesn’t include writing. Blogging for me is posting pictures. Posting pictures that I find from the Internet.
Facilitator: Vlogging?
Mina: Nope.
Facilitator: Using Fanzine or other creative writing sites?
Mina: Twenty, twenty-ish.
Facilitator: What are your favorite websites?
Mina: Tumblr. Wikipedia. [Pause.] Also, when you asked me what websites I go on, I forgot YouTube, although I don’t know why. Cuz I was like, ‘Oh yeah, YouTube.’ And I go on public sites, not always Tumblr, but YouTube for sure.
Facilitator: Do you use the Internet at school?
Mina: Yes. We all have iPads.
Facilitator: What classes?
Mina: All, except PE. We use apps in PE though.

Zora used a cell phone as she answered the same questions one-on-one on an afternoon when the affinity group was not present in the physical site. She opted to use the phone call format over Facetime, although she reported using Facetime more frequently with friends.

Facilitator: How often do you download songs?
Zora: No. I watch YouTube sometimes. It depends on chores.
Facilitator: Blogging?
Zora: No.
Facilitator: Vlogging? Do you watch video blogs?
Zora: Yes. Less than an hour a day.
Facilitator: How often do you use Fanzine or other creative writing sites?
Zora: I read on those sites. Maybe one hour a day.
Facilitator: What are your favorite websites?
Zora: Wattpad. YouTube. I read books.
Facilitator: Do you use the Internet at school?
Zora: No.

Missing from the interview process with Zora were indications of prosody, gesture, and the opportunity to immediately follow up with more specific questions about her writing. However, for both cases, interviewing provided key contextual information about personality and meaning making online.


Considering poetry, Mina was present with other writers in the affinity space during discussion of mentor texts. Responding to a poetry slam video, Mina made meaning from it, conversing about unrequited love. Positioning as poetry slam specialist among other poets, she noted in discussion how slam poetry has dramatic aspects and described how the author’s sentiments shifted in the poem.

01 Mina: Yeah, he refocused his feelings on her. He was obsessed
02 with her.
03 Facilitator: Obsessed?
04 Mina: Yeah. But he transferred from objects to her.

Her own poem shared similar emotions. In a blog post, Mina developed a theme of a loss of love.


Figure 1: Excerpt, Mina’s poem

Without physical participation in the group discussions, analysis of blog posts was dependent upon written discourse with Zora. As she directly addressed the reader in the following poem, she positioned as self with other, but as writer opposed to the theme, which is again of love lost. The reader is also positioned as bystander in Zora’s poem.


Figure 2: Zora’s poem

At this juncture, Mina and Zora interacted as Mina posted a comment, “This is very nice, and the usage of second-person is great! Nice job.” Zora did not respond, and did not write another poem or employ second person voice in her writings.

An overall lack of comments left Mina feeling that others in the blogging affinity space did not understand her work. Indeed, her short story, inspired by a poem, was complex. Mina was able to explain not only her choice of motivating author, but also suggest the emotions upon which she chose to draw for her writing.

I think Emily Dickinson [wrote like this]. Maybe “I Heard a Fly Buzz”? I think that’s what it’s called. This lady, she was dying, waiting to see God. That’s what it’s about. I wanted to write about that feeling right before you fall, or land. Where you just fly. She was dying.

Instead of waiting to see God as Dickinson had, the protagonist in Mina’s story reflected upon her recent past experiences and her regrets over them. Mina wrote from the stance of bitter protagonist, one far older than her current 16 years, as she graphically narrated her own death. When she ruminated, “Their intentions are just, I suppose,” she aligned herself with the antagonist despite that fact that the character did not jump, instead, “felt calloused palms pressed into the small of my back.” In other words, she displayed agreement with the decision of those who pushed her from a fatal height. Emotionlessly, she acknowledged a carefree culpability and the fundamental fact that life would soon end: “I am okay, I promise.” Regret soon emerged, along with a second order position, rejecting her situation, placing her in opposition to the antagonist as the poem ends.


Figure 3: Excerpt, Mina’s story

Zora reflected on more tangible events in her short story, yet her self-deprecation and sense of loss were also palpable, akin to those expressed by Mina.


Figure 4: Zora’s story

Zora expressed herself as a young woman learning about relationships and egocentricity in face of technology. Like Mina’s “I should I should,” Zora conveyed the realization of how technology “has made me miss out on so many opportunities. But not only that, it built me to be the selfish monster I am.” Unlike Mina’s tale, this story contains dialogue and some character development. The pivotal “Until now” also suggests change. Acknowledgement of awareness of her selfishness occurred when “a Boy” broke through her loneliness, forcing her to take responsibility for her actions.

Discussion and Summary

Although boundaries continually changed, interrogation of that change was not always prudent or necessary. User access and mobility caused as much fluctuation of boundaries as did connectivity on the blog site. In the absence of physical representation, an abundance of artifacts in the form of captured dialogue from comment spaces and blog posts was necessary to generate thick and rich description of interlocutors. More importantly, bounding was different for Zora and Mina. Zora was seldom in the expanded affinity space. Interviews were vastly different, even if blog artifacts were similar.

Occupying Spaces

In virtual ethnography, repeated rounds of qualitative coding with thematic analysis are means of consolidating and refining participant interactions to describe broader literacy and identity enactments. Yet Zora and Mina occupied Internet space in very different ways. Zora navigated from beyond the bounded affinity space, into the blog from other sites and affinity spaces to read and to post her writings. Mina often worked in reverse, perusing the blog, and then navigating away, or offline altogether to the physical boundaries of affinity space. Because not all interaction online is observable, field notes were expanded to blend the physical with the online site as affinity space, bounded as such to capture additional interaction because what was emerging online was insufficient data for the purposes of an identity study. The “field” was the affinity space comprised of discourse from the literacy clinic and blog writing.

Engaging in virtual ethnography is the complex process of becoming acquainted with an online culture through immersion. However, on Internet sites, immersion is accomplished by visiting field connections rather than field sites, and allowing for the shifting of boundaries. Internet use becomes socially meaningful by viewing online interaction as both culture and cultural artifact in that continual, intermittent engagement. In contrast, my unexpected duties as facilitator precluded me from maximum immersion. Most often, I was less participant than observer. My shifting role provided opportunities for uniquely rich description as I had access to all stages of the writing process for those interacting in physical space, where I could discuss emerging themes or insights. By not overtly participating, missed were my chances to develop predictions or follow sudden hunches about the how Zora or Mina might conceptualize, for example, values or responsibilities in their characters as part of their literate identities.

Invisibility in Interviews

In the case of Zora, the absence of nonverbal cues, facial expression, and the opportunity to extend open-ended questions impeded the interview process, and threatened to muddle interpretation of her intent and meaning-making process. Conducted outside of the affinity space, the interview data of Zora also complicated direct comparison with that of Mina because typical rules of conversation do not apply in the fragmented structure of online and phone conversation. Sarcasm, irony, and even humor can be difficult to discern in text. Many paratextual elements may be difficult to ignore as non-meaningful data, or to categorize effectively. Because it can constrain, hide, or minimize the visible products of interaction (bodies, clothing, gesture, etc.) the Internet fosters specific focus on the building blocks of culture at the basic level of interaction (Markham, 2004). Moreover, the interview with Mina was conducted within the bounding of the affinity space. As Zora maintained a limited mobility while conversing from home, her interviews and artifacts originated from beyond the bounding of affinity space, contrary to specified terms of connective ethnography.

Regarding the complexity of researcher-participant relationships, Greenhow (2011) concedes that interviews are often not possible in virtual ethnography. Most problematic for the interview process is the acceptance that representation can only be partial, with interpretations relevant to research questions rather than depicting faithful reports of objective realities. As virtual ethnography is considered adaptive ethnography, mediating itself to the conditions in which it finds itself (Hine, 2004), patchwork interviews are considered perfectly acceptable, which raises questions of rigor for systematicity and data triangulation.

Timestamped, Textual Artifacts

With a timestamp and a permanent digital artifact, written connections among contributors remained visible to all affinity space participants. How users perceived the nature of text adds a layer of complexity. While engaging in creative writing in a somewhat casual communication style consistent with blogging, users do not necessarily conceptualize text in a similarly casual manner. Indeed, users frequently conceptualize and responded to the text as a concrete and permanent vessel for truth (Markham, 1998). Mina wrote a positive comment to Zora’s blog story. In doing so, she acknowledged having read it, and opened interaction around writing that Zora subsequently ignored, dismissing her interest and possibly, her accountability for it. Moreover, as meaning is unique to the extent that it belongs to linguistic or written interaction of individuals or groups within specific social contexts (Medvedev & Bakhtin, 1985), the opportunity to make and share meaning with the group was lost through Zora’s truncated participation.

Mina expressed disappointment when responses to her writing were oral rather than written. She had no record of lasting connection, and, she felt, of meaning making around her blog writing. Without a permanent record in a digital afterlife, even on a closed site, participants privileged text over oral discourse. Intense weight given to artifacts is consistent with Hine’s (2004) conception of digital ethnography, yet without interviews and field notes, artifacts depict an incomplete story.

The boundaries of affinity space enabled online interaction, and the production of written artifacts, even as it limited participation by location, time and connectivity. Were both participants equally accessible, other methods, certainly traditional ethnography or an immersive interview study would have been plausible.

Methodological Considerations

While all forms of interaction, not just face-to-face, are ethnographically valid, discerning truth and authenticity of participant contributions, particularly in any online format where identity construction and portrayals are central is problematic (Greenhow, 2011) and threatens dependability. These issues impact data collection and analysis by increasingly moving researcher focus away from location and boundary to flow and connectivity. Matters of credibility arise when ethnographer and participants have limited interactions. Overlaps or discrepancies in online and offline identities are not apparent, nor are interrelationships among all writers. In the absence of complete browser histories, the importance of artifacts increases. Because connective ethnography relies less on interviews and more on artifacts, this is a salient concern. With a limited number of artifacts, an over-reliance on document analysis brings trustworthiness into question. My perceptions and opportunities to interpret data were constrained by the observability of threads of interaction and the resulting artifacts. But it is the interpretation of those artifacts that are called most into question. As silent perusal is considered authentic participation in affinity space, not all interactions can emerge as artifacts.

Positioning theory represented in microethnography traces dialogic processes in ways that are pertinent to demonstrating how participants establish or maintain relationships, and how they construct knowledge (Baker & Green, 2011). Positioning theory analysis, selected a priori, was imposed on the data, instead of later developing axial coding in grounded theory (Charmaz, 2008), privileging case study methods over ethnography.

As a researcher, having access to Zora in other online spaces beyond the affinity space provided a deeper immersion in the practices of one blogger, but only a glimpse into the Internet culture she inhabited. Her interests were apparent in her choices of Internet YouTube video blogs, and creative writing on Wattpad. However, as affinity space participant, Zora’s absence from the physical place of the blogging sessions limited the quantity of data regarding her meaning making with other bloggers. The data produced by Zora was abundant; yet data from Mina is thicker and more multilayered, as it originated from multiple, verified perspectives. For example, Mina received few comments on her story, yet she did receive feedback form peers on it because they elected to discuss it as a group instead, as the discussion data in field notes demonstrated. The data connected to Zora did not provide similar opportunities. Her navigation through Internet space revealed few direct relationships between visited sites and written artifacts. In both cases, their data provides information about identity, yet individual identity, not that of the group, and definitely not about identity of the culture.

The instability of identity enactments, personal time investments, and cultural location of participants in this study shimmered with novelty in the threads of online written designs, but could not always be woven into data before vanishing, particularly in the case of Zora. Her writing was often curtailed by inaccessibility of devices from home. Her interviews and connections with other writers were constrained by time, place, and space. Likewise, although she completed an observation log, she did not report time spent on the blog reading but not interacting.


Virtual ethnography can be viewed as both a method and a product (Greenhow, 2011). This inquiry uses virtual ethnographic methods for a case study about blogging. The phenomena of study are identity and blog culture. Findings illustrate how individuals enact their identities in writing, arguably more credibly with increased time spent in both online and offline contexts. Thus, with more data generated for triangulation, clearer insight into variations in identity portrayals is possible. A caveat of engagement in virtual ethnography is that the Internet, or even a blog site, is not a closed or autonomous system in any way. It is always dependent upon the world in which it is embedded The separation of online and offline realms is an artificial one, particularly as literacy is practiced across this divide. (Marsh, 2014). In this inquiry, the location and situatedness of participants is crucial. When the study is bounded by connectivity of participants in the affinity space, all participants should inhabit that same space for consistency in data collection and analysis. In the event of atypical participant involvement, as in the case of Zora, tracking interactivity in a tightly bounded system through connective case study is fundamentally more suitable for individuation as well as comparisons.

This connective case study edges close to ethnography in that it is more descriptive than explanatory in nature. When framed either way, crucial interpretations may be overlooked. In determining this to be case study, what was lost was the opportunity to navigate through other writing spaces with both girls, participating with and observing their sourcing of mentor texts and other research information for their creative writing pieces; to conceptualize culture construction through discourse in a manner mediated by the Internet. What is gained is a context-sensitive, layered analysis and implications of identity enactments originating from data collected as users learned a challenging new online format. Unique portraits of writers approaching their topics and the Internet vary in unusual ways, but are comparable by case study, as this inquiry unquestionably is.

Topical choices made for creative writing, personal background and experiences with shared writing, and the very controlled online representations of self, along with an impulsiveness reinforced by the mode limit how complete a picture of any culture can be, especially in a classroom context (Driscoll & Gregg, 2010). Rather than virtual ethnography, the comprehensiveness of connective case study methods offers a trustworthy and innovative investigative trajectory enabling synthesis of the social fibers of meaning making with emerging culture, along with students’ connection to it, for inquiry into online writing.


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Biographical Information

Grace Pigozzi is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the College of Education at Dominican University in River Forest, IL. Significant areas of scholarship include adolescent writing, positioning theory, multilingualism, and multimodality. Conference presentations encompass research on motivation and identity germane to writing in online spaces. Future research interests endeavor to discover unique pathways to guide and support learners who strive for academic success through creative self-expression.


Katie Davis, Anthony Ambrose & Mania Orand

Published Online: March 15, 2017
Full Text: HTML, PDF

Abstract: This study documents opportunities for identity and agency experienced by students in urban school and afterschool contexts, with a focus on digital media’s role in shaping these opportunities. We conducted focus groups and interviews with 43 students and six teachers affiliated with an urban public high school and a network of afterschool programs in the United States, as well as participant observations of nine afterschool sessions and three school classes. Compared to school, afterschool programs afforded students greater opportunities for identity expression, with digital media generally playing a supporting role. We found that the institutional constraints and sociopolitical dynamics that shape students’ experiences in school and afterschool contexts are largely mirrored in the ways technology is used in these contexts. Introducing digital media into a setting will not necessarily change these dynamics, though we did see potential for disruption in some afterschool settings. The findings provide new insight into digital media’s role in supporting identity and agency in school and afterschool settings.

Key Words: Digital media; identity; agency; formal and informal learning contexts


Carlos, a tenth-grade Latino boy, loves to read. In fact, reading is core to his identity. “I say I read more than what I eat, because reading is life for me. I love reading. Reading is like, I get home, and I just read. I am like the bookworm.” Carlos does most of his reading on his iPad. In school, he is often among the first in his class to finish his work, and when this happens he takes out his iPad to read. However, as soon as his teacher sees him, she tells him to put it away, assuming that he is off-task. Carlos attends a public high school located in an urban neighborhood in the Northeast, but his story could have come from any number of urban public high schools across the United States, where technology use is tightly controlled and teachers tend to discourage use of personal devices in the classroom (Ito et al., 2013). For Carlos, such restrictions represent a missed opportunity to find a space for interest-driven technology use in school.

Drawing on students’ interests and sense of identity is now well recognized as playing a valuable role in supporting the learning process, both in formal and informal settings (Barton & Tan, 2010; Holland et al., 1998; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Nasir & Hand, 2008; Wortham, 2006). Learners need to see themselves in their learning experiences in order to engage deeply in them. The advent of openly networked technologies has introduced exciting new opportunities for supporting identity—the set of values, goals, and beliefs that individuals use to define themselves (Erikson, 1968; Schwartz, 2001)—and agency—marked by self-determination, a belief in oneself, commitment, and purpose (Cote, 2000)—in learning. When playing Minecraft—a sandbox video game popular among youth—players tap into their gamer identities as they develop skills in computer programming, physics, and systems thinking. On fanfiction sites, authors tap into their fan girl or fan boy identities as they develop their writing skills (Campbell et al., 2016; Evans et al., 2017).

The current study investigates whether and how digital media technologies afford or constrain opportunities for identity and agency in urban educational settings. We conducted a yearlong investigation of high school students’ experiences with technology in school and afterschool settings in the United States. Through focus groups and in-depth interviews with 43 students and six teachers, as well as participant observations of nine afterschool sessions and three school classes in an urban public school district, we documented the variety of ways in which technology was used by students and teachers. We focused in particular on how digital media use intersected with opportunities for identity expression in these learning contexts. Our work provides new insight into technology’s role in supporting identity and agency in learning among urban youth.

Theoretical context

Identity’s role in learning

Theory and research underscore the important role that identity plays in learning (Holland et al., 1998; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Nasir & Hand, 2008; Wortham, 2006). As a process of deepening participation in a social practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991), learning requires a change in how one sees oneself in relation to the practice. This process hinges on making the transition from seeing oneself as a peripheral observer to someone who is an expert and central actor.

Schwartz and colleagues (2013) identified three types of identities that are particularly salient for urban youth and affect their learning experiences in school and afterschool settings. Personal identity comprises the goals, values, and beliefs that individuals use to define who they are today and who they might become in the future (Erikson, 1968; Oyserman & Destin, 2010; Schwartz, 2001). Ethnic identity involves the role that individuals’ ethnicity plays in their sense of self (Phinney & Ong, 2007). Ethnicity can play a more or less central role in, and can be seen as a more or less positive component of an individual’s identity. Cultural identity relates to the way individuals see themselves and their country of origin in relation to mainstream American culture. For urban youth growing up in immigrant families, ethnic identity and cultural identity may be more significant and interact more directly with personal identity than for white youth living in non-immigrant households (Schwartz et al., 2013).

Personal, ethnic, and cultural identities can affect how youth come to see themselves—or not—as capable learners within certain domains (Schwartz et al., 2013). Fordham and Ogbu (1986) described how some African American youth resisted performing behaviors in school that they and their peers perceived as “acting White.” These behaviors, such as studying hard and speaking standard English, are tied to the institutionalized norms and cultural practices of mainstream (white) American culture that dominates U.S. public schools. Therefore, adopting such behaviors was seen by youth to be in conflict with their ethnic and cultural identities. Resolving this conflict is a complex matter, but research suggests that introducing supportive mentors, giving youth opportunities to demonstrate choice and responsibility, and acknowledging and honoring young people’s ethnic and cultural identities can be beneficial (Hudley & Daoud, 2008; Hudley & Duran, 2013; Masten, 2001). The resulting sense of personal agency—what individuals can imagine themselves to be and to do—can support youth’s identities as learners (Barton & Tan, 2010). Barton and Tan (2010) emphasize the dialectic relationship between agency and identity by describing how agency enables individuals to assert their identities in a particular setting as well as imagine new identities for themselves. A sense of personal agency makes it possible for individuals to act on and therefore change their environments.

Identity Expression in School and Afterschool Contexts

Social and institutional structures affect urban youth’s opportunities for identity expression in school and afterschool contexts. Hand, Penuel, and Gutierrez (2012) described how dominant social, cultural, and institutional discourses are reflected in our educational system and give rise to a “doing school” frame that positions teachers and students in specific ways. The doing school frame—which appears most salient in urban school contexts—is characterized by “rote and shallow learning performances” (p.255) in which students take on passive roles as they receive information delivered by the teacher and reproduce it by raising their hands to answer the teacher’s questions, filling out worksheets, and taking tests. Students are not given the authority to construct knowledge for themselves, or question the knowledge that they receive from the teacher. Hand et al. observe that framing students in this way serves to recreate the racial and power hierarchies that prevail in the broader society.

Consistent with the doing school frame described by Hand et al. (2012), Moll and colleagues observed that the classroom is typically closed off from students’ social worlds outside school (Moll, 1992; Moll et al., 1992; Moll & Gonzalez, 2004). Teachers fail to draw on their students’ “funds of knowledge”—the skills, knowledge, and mentorship opportunities that youth experience by participating in the everyday practices of their families and communities. Instead, teachers know their students only by what they present in the context of the classroom (Moll et al., 1992). As a result, key opportunities to acknowledge students’ personal, ethnic, and cultural identities and tie them to their learning are missed.

Operating outside the high-stakes environment of the formal education system, afterschool contexts typically lack the same social and institutional constraints that give rise to the doing school frame that prevails in many urban schools (Cole & Distributed Literacy Consortium, 2006; Ito et al., 2013). For urban youth, afterschool experiences have been associated with increased resilience, sense of competence, and likelihood to attend college (Peck, Roeser, Zarrett, & Eccles, 2008; Schwartz et al., 2013; Zarrett et al., 2009). For instance, in Barton and Tan’s (2010) study of an afterschool science program, middle school students took on roles as both producer and critic of science during the process of researching and producing documentaries about the science behind urban heat islands. Given the direct relevance of the topic to students’ community context, these roles were experienced as personally meaningful and consequential (Stevens et al., 2006); the science exploration was directly connected to students’ lived experiences, and they were even able to share their emerging science understanding with members of their community.

New Media, New Identities

With the advent of digital media technologies, there is growing interest in exploring the extent to which their particular affordances shape identity and agency in distinct ways with respect to learning processes and opportunities. The connected learning model developed by Ito and colleagues provides a theoretical framework linking digital media, identity, agency, and learning (Ito et al., 2013). Students’ interests are placed at the center of learning and used to promote academic achievement, civic engagement, and future educational and career opportunities. Building on previous work demonstrating the importance of leveraging personal identity and interests to support academic engagement and learning (Hidi & Renninger, 2006; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wortham, 2006), the connected learning model describes how digital media technologies can be used to empower students, support their identities as learners, and enrich their learning experiences. Undergirding the model is an equity agenda that aims to broaden access to learning for youth who have traditionally been blocked from such opportunity. The model is therefore particularly applicable to urban education contexts that struggle to provide students with adequate material resources, high quality, culturally competent teachers, and learning opportunities that go deeper than teaching to the test.

Connected learning unites three contexts for learning: young people’s personal interests, peer cultures, and academic studies (Ito et al., 2013). Like previous scholars (e.g., Hudley & Duran, 2013; Moll et al., 1992), Ito and colleagues recognize that these contexts typically remain separate from each other, particularly for urban youth. Opportunities to draw on students’ personal interests and peer cultures in order to engage them in the learning process are often missed. The learning environments best able to unite the three contexts for learning are defined by three core properties. Adults and youth come together around a shared purpose; learning opportunities arise in the context of active production rather than passive consumption; and openly networked infrastructures are used to connect students to people, resources, and contexts beyond their immediate environment and disseminate their learning productions to audiences of import.

Existing research shows how youth are able to draw on their personal interests and peer networks to a greater degree when using technology in informal contexts than when they are in school (Furlong & Davies, 2012; Greenhow & Robelia, 2009; Lai et al., 2013; Sefton-Green et al., 2009). In school—particularly urban schools—technology use remains limited and used primarily for direct instruction (Padron et al., 2012). Livingstone and Sefton-Green (2016) documented the control-oriented nature of technology use in a middle school class serving a mixed neighborhood in London. Their ethnographic case study showed how the social and institutional constraints present in the school served to limit students’ use of technology to only the most basic tasks. For instance, they documented how teachers used the school’s learning management system to keep track of student attendance, behavior, and grades, and how the class Smart Board was used primarily for one-way communication from teacher to students. Moreover, despite the ethnic and socioeconomic diversity among students, teachers did not take advantage of networked technologies to connect to and incorporate students’ cultural backgrounds into their teaching.

The Current Study

Emerging research in the area of digital media and learning points to distinct opportunities and challenges associated with using technology to support identity and agency in learning in school and afterschool contexts (Cole & Distributed Literacy Consortium, 2006; Ito et al., 2013). This work also highlights the need to account for the sociocultural contexts in which technology use and learning take place (Selwyn, 2010). The current study builds on existing research by documenting the opportunities for identity and agency that students in urban settings experience in school and afterschool contexts and the specific role that digital media technologies play in shaping these opportunities. We pay particular attention to both the opportunities and challenges that are specific to each context. In contrast to some work in this area, which places technology at the center of the learning experience (e.g., Barron, 2004; DiSalvo et al., 2014), our work examines the supporting role of technology in a variety of formal and informal learning settings. Through focus groups and in-depth interviews with 43 students and six teachers affiliated with an urban public high school and a network of afterschool programs in the United States, as well as participant observations of nine afterschool sessions and three school classes, we explored the following research questions:

1. What are the identities available to students in the Afterschool Network and how do they compare to the identities available to them in school?

2. How do students use digital media technologies to express themselves in school and afterschool settings?


Research site

The research site comprised a network of afterschool programs, the Afterschool Network, which serves high school students attending public school in an urban city in the Northeast United States. In 2008, the Afterschool Network launched a new high school initiative to build on the organization’s long-standing middle school programs. In 2012, students in one high school began receiving high school elective credit for participating in these afterschool programs, which the Afterschool Network calls Expanded Learning Experiences (ELEs). Community partners lead these programs, while teachers in the school district observe and assess student learning. Assessment is based on students posting weekly blog entries on the Afterschool Network website, as well as giving a final presentation of their learning to teachers and community members at the end of the term. In 2012, the Afterschool Network began awarding digital badges to students for their successful completion of ELEs. These digital badges are displayed on students’ profiles on the Afterschool Network website. The ELE program expanded to a second high school in fall 2013, and a third high school was included in spring 2014. Our research was conducted during fall 2013 and spring 2014.

Sample and Data Collection

Consistent with a social constructivist approach to research that seeks to gain insight into the subjective meanings that individuals ascribe to their lived experiences (Creswell, 2009), our methods of data collection included in-depth interviews, focus groups, and participant observations. Interviews and focus groups gave us insight into participants’ perceptions of their experiences, as well as their values and commitments (Maxwell, 2005). Participant observations gave us firsthand knowledge of students’ afterschool and school experiences and the nature of their participation in these settings (Emerson, 2001).

Student sample. We conducted eight in-person focus groups or student pair interviews with a total of 43 students, which represents 36% of the approximately 120 students enrolled in the ELE program during the 2013-2014 academic year. Drawing on the connected learning framework, we asked students about their experiences at the ELEs and in school; the degree to which their experiences align with their personal interests; and their use of technology in each setting (Appendix A).

We adopted a purposive sampling approach in an attempt to include students who mirrored the demographic characteristics of the school district. We also sought representation from each of the three high schools participating in the ELE program and all 17 of the ELE classes offered. Of the 21 students who provided demographic information, 13 (62%) were female, 13 (62%) were Latino, 7 (33%) were African American, and 1 (5%) identified as Asian. These statistics reflect the demographic characteristics of the broader student population in the public school district. In 2013-2014, 63% of the high school students enrolled in the public schools identified as Hispanic, 19% were Black, 10% were White, and the remaining 8% identified as either Native American, Asian Pacific, or Multi-Race. In our sample of student participants, three students (14%) were in Grade 9, ten students (48%) were in Grade 10, six students (29%) were in Grade 11, and two students (10%) were in Grade 12. To protect their privacy, we did not specifically ask students about their immigrant status. However, four students made explicit reference to emigrating with their families in recent years from Dominican Republic.

Adult sample. We conducted in-depth interviews with six teachers of record for ELE programs. Some interviews were conducted by phone and others in person. As high school teachers employed by the school district, teachers of record are responsible for assigning students’ grades and deciding whether students receive high school elective credits for their participation. They observe ELE sessions during the semester; read and respond to students’ blogs; and take part in the judging at the Exhibition Event at the end of the term. In the interviews, we asked questions about the goals and activities associated with each ELE program; the nature of students’ engagement in ELEs and in school; and the use of digital media (Appendix B). Our sampling strategy aimed for a diversity of subject areas taught. Participants taught a wide variety of subjects, including math, visual art, physical education, international studies, foreign languages, and special education.

Observations. We conducted participant observations of nine ELE sessions in October 2013 and April 2014, representing 53% of the 17 total ELE programs offered that year. Each observation lasted approximately two hours, which was the length of each session. We aimed for a diversity of programs with respect to subject focus. The topics of the sessions included Android app programming; architecture, construction, and structural engineering; engineering of self-propelled model cars; visual art and design; arts appreciation; leadership in the school community; learning English as a second language; building and maintaining a functional bicycle; and discussing issues of empowerment with girls. The researchers participated in sessions and compiled detailed field notes during and immediately after each observation (Emerson, 2001).

In April 2014, we conducted hour-long observations of two math classes and one art class in the original high school to participate in the ELE program. We approached teachers who had previously participated in an interview. Due to teachers’ restricted schedules, we were not able to conduct as many school observations as ELE observations. As with the ELE observations, we compiled field notes during and immediately after each session.

Data Analysis

The interviews and focus groups were audio-recorded and transcribed, and detailed field notes were produced for each participant observation session. We conducted a thematic analysis (Boyatzis, 1998) of the transcripts, and used the observational data to investigate the extent to which these themes were observed firsthand in the ELE and school settings. In the first stage of analysis, the authors read through all transcripts independently. In research team meetings, we discussed emerging themes as they related to our research questions. The coding scheme that resulted from this process comprised two broad categories of codes: (1) codes related to students’ interests and identities (including personal, ethnic, and cultural identities) and (2) codes related to students’ technology use in ELEs and in school. Within these superordinate codes, sub-codes were created to distinguish between setting (ELE vs. school), the presence or absence of opportunities for identity expression, the specific type of technology used, as well as challenges to technology use in each setting (see Appendix C).

To ensure the codes were applied consistently and accurately to the entire data set, we employed a joint, iterative process of collaborative discussion and independent corroboration (Smagorinsky, 2008). Two researchers independently applied the codes to a transcript selected at random. Kappa statistics for the superordinate codes were calculated at 0.79 (identity) and 0.73 (technology use), well above the 0.60 cutoff suggested by Landis and Koch (1977). The research team documented areas of agreement and disagreement and clarified through discussion the definition and appropriate application of each code. We then divided and coded the transcripts independently, meeting weekly to discuss our coding progress and any questions that emerged.


Overall trends

We coded all transcripts for instances when participants spoke about the identities available to students in the Expanded Learning Experience (ELE) programs and at school. We further classified these statements as having either a positive or negative valence. Because there were more interview questions about the ELEs than school (see Appendices A and B), overall we coded more ELE-related identity statements (69 references) than school-related identity statements (35 references). With respect to the proportions of positive to negative identity statements, there was a clear distinction between the ELEs and school. Whereas 96% of ELE-related identity statements were positive (66/69 total references), only 26% of school-related identity statements were positive (9/35 total references). These figures are reported in Table 1.

Across all interview transcripts, 533 excerpts were coded as evidence that students were using technology either at school or in their ELE programs. From these excerpts, 475 (89%) were coded as evidence of using technology in the ELE programs and only 58 (11%) referred to the use of technology at school (Table 1). This large discrepancy is due in part to the fact that the interview protocols included specific questions about the Afterschool Network’s website, blog, and use of digital badges, and there were no such parallel questions related to school (Appendices A and B). However, the remainder of the interview protocol included an even balance of questions about technology use in school and afterschool settings. The technology-related excerpts represent instances in which students and teachers spoke about students’ use of technologies such as computers, mobile phones, the Internet, email, TV, and websites, as well as challenges or barriers to technology use in both settings. Of the 475 excerpts coded as ELE-related technology use, 17 (4%) related to specific challenges or barriers students faced in using technology in their afterschool programs. By contrast, 13 of the 58 school-related excerpts (22%) related to challenges or barriers to technology use (Table 1). In what follows, we delve more deeply into these overall trends by sharing representative participant quotes and summaries from our participant observations.

Students’ Experiences in the ELE Program

Supports for identity. Agency figured prominently in the positive ELE-related identity statements. Both youth and adult participants noted the sense of agency that students gained from creating something new in their ELE courses. One student described the sense of accomplishment he experienced in the Bicycle Design program: “We built a car out of food. It was really hard to get that thing down the ramp. I mean, after I built [it] I was pretty proud.” In addition to the focus on creating, this quote also illustrates the sense of agency that came from being challenged, which was present in several other student comments. Technology often functioned to support and enhance students’ sense of agency. For example, one student described the sense of accomplishment he felt as a result of working to master the technology used in the Live Music Mixing ELE: “After when I finally got it [scratching] right after like 15 thousand tries, I was so happy. I wanted to fall and just cry.”

The most frequently cited source of agency related to the fact that students were given a voice and trusted with responsibility in the ELE program. When students were asked to compare their ELE and school experiences, one student observed: “I feel like maybe I guess we’re given more responsibility and we’re trusted more [in the ELE program] than you are at school.” When the interviewer asked how being given that trust made him feel, the student responded: “Empowered.” In one ELE called Talking Justice, students explored racism and how it affected their experiences. One student reflected on her experience in this ELE: “We were able to like voice our opinions and talk about, give our opinions about what’s happening in the world and then discuss it with the other students.” In Debate Club, students researched laws and policies that affected housing in their neighborhood and used this research to formulate arguments and propose solutions. Through these experiences, students were given a voice in a broader sociopolitical conversation that affected their lives and their communities.

Students’ positive sense of identity in the ELEs was frequently tied to the freedom they were given to explore their interests and express themselves. One student observed: “They let us be us [in the ELEs], like they let us, it’s not all instructions and ‘do this and do that’ [like in school].” Students agreed that it was not just the ELE teachers who encouraged them to express themselves freely; they felt supported by other students who shared their interests. One student commented: “I like how everybody just like accepts what you do and have the same interests with you.” Often, the interests students explored in the ELEs related to what they might study or become in the future. One student explained why he decided to sign up for Car Design: “[In] Car Design, you kind of learn how to build different cars and structures and just kind of Physics stuff. I thought I might want to go into that.”

With respect to technology use and freedom of expression, we saw very few restrictions placed on students’ use of their own devices in the ELE programs. During our observation of an App Creator session, for instance, students gathered around one student’s cell phone to watch a YouTube video, another student used his iPad to test the app he was creating, and a group of boys carried on a texting conversation on their phones. In our observation of a Be Heard program—an ELE program for girls to discuss women’s issues, such as body image and sexism—the teacher invited students to take out their phones to Google search various words and terms related to the discussion topic (body image), for instance, “the perfect female body,” “beauty,” and “human Barbie.” These examples illustrate how the use of technology in the ELEs offered students a sense of legitimacy in their efforts to create an empowering identity.

Barriers to identity expression. Though the positive instances of identity expression in the ELE program outnumbered the negative considerably, some students and teachers did point to specific challenges they experienced with respect to self-expression in their afterschool programs. One challenge faced by students in the ELE program related to crossing geographic and cultural boundaries to participate in afterschool programming. The Bicycle Design and App Creator programs were both taught on the campus of an elite private university by graduate and undergraduate students attending the university. To get to these programs, students had to take buses to unfamiliar parts of the city. One ninth-grade girl, Daniella, was taking the App Creator ELE program and described the discomfort she felt when she was on the college campus, surrounded by high-achieving college students: “I just don’t feel like – I feel weird, and I don’t feel like that’s like my school.”

We witnessed Daniella’s discomfort firsthand during our participant observation of an App Creator session. Halfway through the session, the two college students running the program led the students out of the computer lab to an upstairs space for them to have a snack break. In contrast to the playful banter that marked the students’ interactions with each other in the lab, they were much quieter while walking in the hallways, crossing paths with the students attending the university. Daniella asked one of the program coordinators several questions about the school, such as how grading worked and whether there was an honors system. She asked these questions in a quiet, uncertain voice that contrasted noticeably with her usual outgoing, playful tone. The students’ demeanor and comments recorded in the field notes for this participant observation session suggest that they felt decidedly out of place at this elite university. Though the university was only a few miles from the students’ neighborhood, they experienced it as unfamiliar and unattainable.

Students looked to technology to help them cross such cultural boundaries. In our observations of the ELE sessions held on college campuses, we observed that students used their cell phones to navigate an unfamiliar space and create a connection between it and their everyday social contexts. The GPS capabilities of their phones helped them to find their way to and from the ELE program, while their camera and social media apps allowed them to share their experiences with their friends outside the program. For instance, the Bicycle Design session we observed involved a field trip to a nearby racecar workshop. During the walk, students took multiple pictures of themselves in front of various buildings and sites on campus and uploaded them to Facebook and Instagram.

Challenges to technology use. Not all examples of technology use in the ELEs were positive. Students and teachers identified several challenges they faced with respect to accessing and using networked technologies in the ELE program. Students told us that they often experienced problems signing in to the ELE website. Our participant observations suggest that the problems usually involved students forgetting their username or password from one week to the next. We learned that they were unlikely to log on between sessions due to an absence of internet access at home, as well as the school’s firewall, which blocked the ELE website. We also observed that there were not enough computers at some of the ELE sites. Because students had to take turns writing their blogs at the end of a session, some of them were unable to complete their entries. This sense of rushing to write and submit a blog post contributed to a feeling held among some students and teachers that the website, blog, and digital badges were not fully integrated into all ELE programs. The lack of engagement in these digital media-related activities was likely associated with the fact that they were not something that teachers purposefully designed into their curriculum; rather, they were introduced by the Afterschool Network administrators, who used them for assessment purposes so that students could earn high school elective credit for their participation in the ELE program.

Students’ Experiences at School

Barriers to identity expression in school. Students tended to experience school as a place where they lacked freedom to explore their interests, where they were not trusted, and where it was difficult to show “the real you”—all factors that constrained their personal agency. Both students and teachers observed the challenges posed by the structured nature of school, including the pressures associated with a mandatory curriculum, preparing students to pass high-stakes standardized tests, and the logistics of managing a large number of students with diverse abilities, interests, and needs. Such an environment restricted students’ ability to explore what interested them and inhibited their ability to express aspects of their cultural identity. One student described what happened when her Dominican heritage bumped up against the structure and restrictions at school: “Like I like to yell a lot at my house. [We’re] from Dominican, you know? So we yell a lot. If I yell [at school], I get in trouble.”

The way technology was used in the classroom reinforced this emphasis on structure and restrictions, with the effect of limiting students’ ability to exert their personal agency. We observed several instances of teachers using school-owned technologies to control students’ actions in the classroom. For instance, we observed a 10th-grade math class taught by Mr. Mason, a young teacher who had taught for two years through Teach for America and was now in his third year teaching at the school. We observed Mr. Mason using technology throughout the class period. He used a Smart Board to teach content and give directions; he showed a video about calculating the area of a circle, which he controlled through the sole desktop computer in the room; and he assigned a student to enter data into a classroom management program called Classroom DoJo using the one laptop computer in the room. Classroom Dojo displayed all students’ names, each associated with an avatar. Beside these avatars were green bubbles with a number inside, which represented the number of points each student had earned so far that period. Students received points for paying attention, patience, working hard, and other on-task behaviors.

Our observation of Mr. Mason’s class as well as our follow-up interview with him revealed him to be a dedicated, enthusiastic, and highly qualified teacher who enjoyed a positive rapport with his students. Yet, he told us that he felt considerable pressure to keep up with the curriculum and help his students to pass the state-mandated tests. Maintaining control over his class was necessary to achieve this primary objective. Consequently, Mr. Mason explained that he found himself resorting to using technology primarily as a classroom management tool that helped him to move through the curriculum.

In addition to facing restrictions on school-owned devices, students described restrictions on using their own devices at school. One student observed: “In school, it’s assumed that any time you take out a mobile phone to do anything, it’s something that is not school-related.” The student featured in the opening vignette of this paper, Carlos, illustrates how the restrictions placed on students’ technology use were often tied to students’ feeling that they were not trusted and lacked freedom to explore their interests in school. Carlos explained:

I actually, you know I actually take my iPad and I download a book for my iPad, and every time I get bored in class, or I finish doing my work first because I’m one of the first people to do the work first, I work fast. I be reading books and the teacher will be like, ‘Put that away.’

Students also felt constrained by their fellow classmates. One student made a sharp distinction between how her peers act in school versus at the ELEs:

In school some people, they come, all they want to do is like hang with their friends. They don’t want to show their intelligence or that. But then like after school, they show like the real you. Like they show you who they really are. Exactly, like having fun, showing that they’re not boring, they’re smart, all that. But like in school, they’re, they don’t want their friends to know that they’re really smart because like they don’t want their friends to judge them off who they are.

In this quote, the student described two distinct peer cultures: one that celebrates being smart, the other that discourages that inclination in order to avoid being judged. One student’s experiences stood out as a notable exception to this pattern. She explained that she used to feel stifled in expressing her academic bent at school until she started taking Advanced Placement (AP) classes. Now, she said, “it’s much more enjoyable to be able to discuss such great ideas with people you know that like, want to be there [too].”

Positive experiences at school. Though challenges associated with identity expression, agency, and technology use were predominant in our data, we did identify positive examples of using technology in school to support students’ self-expression and sense of agency. In one instance, when student participants were asked to compare their use of technology in the ELE program and at school, one student commented:

I think it also goes back and forth. [The teacher] has realized that whenever we have our phones out in the middle of discussion, it’s not because we’re being anti-productive but rather we’re trying to add to the discussion by like gaining knowledge really quickly.

This student observed that some teachers at school gave students freedom to use their devices in class because they recognized they could have a positive impact on students’ productivity. Another student talked about how creating PowerPoint presentations and being challenged in gaining proficiency in computer class impacted her self-efficacy:

That class [computer class] told me so much about myself and the career pattern was like actually like I want to take when you’re, more like, when you get out of high school. And it improved my presentation skills too. I was so shy before, I couldn’t speak up. And now I can speak up.

This student described two positive school-related identities: one that gave her a voice in computer class (short-term) and one that helped her identify a possible career path (long-term). Even so, it is notable that in this computer class, instead of learning to design and code an actual website, students merely created PowerPoint presentations of what they would like a hypothetical website to look like. Most students we interviewed complained about their inability to build real websites in computer class.


Findings from the current study reveal differences in urban students’ opportunities for identity expression and agency in school and afterschool settings, as well as differences in the way digital media were used to support or limit identity and agency. Consistent with the connected learning model (Ito et al., 2013), students’ interests were placed at the center of the afterschool programs and connected both to the immediate focus of learning and the broader social, cultural, and political factors affecting their lives. In this way, students’ personal, ethnic, and cultural identities (Schwartz et al., 2001) were recognized and used to support their learning. In contrast, the existing institutional constraints of urban public schools—which mirror the racial and power hierarchies in the broader society (Hand et al., 2012; Vasquez Heilig et al., 2014)—had the effect of limiting students’ ability to express their identities and assert their personal agency, including through the use of digital media technologies.

Students’ sense of agency and identity were supported in a variety of ways in the ELE programs. In a manner consistent with connected learning (Ito et al., 2013), students were given opportunities to take on integral roles as they engaged in authentic practices alongside peers and teachers. In the Talking Justice and Debate Club programs, for instance, students explored sociopolitical issues affecting their lives, such as institutional racism and housing laws in their communities. Similarly, the Be Heard program engaged girls in critical discussions of body image and sexism. By drawing on students’ personal, ethnic, and cultural identities in these ways (Moll et al., 1992; Schwartz et al., 2001), the ELE teachers were able to make learning personally relevant and consequential (Stevens et al., 2006).

The ELE programs also supported agency by engaging students in challenging activities that focused on creation (Ito et al., 2013). In programs like App Creator, Bicycle Design, and Live Music Mixing, students experienced the challenge of engaging in authentic practices that interested them, which gave meaning to their activities and resulted in a sense of accomplishment when they rose to the challenge. In the App Creator program, for instance, students assumed the role of an app developer as they created apps that could be downloaded to a mobile device and used by others. By assuming the role of creator, students were able to see the broader relevance of their learning.

Student self-expression in the ELE programs was marked by a sense of freedom and social support, which further supported their sense of agency and identity. Students valued the ability to pursue their interests and explore new ones, all in a supportive environment. Consistent with the connected learning principle of shared purpose (Ito et al., 2013), they explained that they felt this support both from the ELE teachers and their peers. In a manner reminiscent of Fordham and Ogbu’s (1986) study of African American youth resisting “acting White” in school, students said they felt more freedom in the ELE program to share the side of themselves that was interested in academic pursuits. In contrast to most of their classmates in school, they knew that their peers in the ELE program shared their interests and academic inclinations. In this way, the ELEs united the three spheres of connected learning in being academically oriented, peer-supported, and interest-driven (Ito et al., 2013). Moreover, students’ unconstrained use of digital media supported connections among the three spheres. During our observation of the App Creator program, for instance, students simultaneously used their phones and iPads to carry on texting conversations with their friends and to try out the apps they had created. The fluidity with which they moved between these different activities meant they did not have to partition their social, personal, and academic interests.

Opportunities for agency and identity were considerably more restricted in school than in the ELE program. Students described feeling that teachers did not trust them and viewed their actions—such as going to the bathroom—with suspicion. They also did not feel as though they could express their ethnic or cultural identities freely, such as the girl who experienced conflict between her Dominican heritage and the behavioral expectations of school. The experiences of these students are consistent with the “doing school” frame described by Hand et al. (2012), and demonstrate the failure of this urban school to incorporate students’ “funds of knowledge” in the learning process (Moll, 1992; Moll et al., 1992).

The sociopolitical forces shaping urban public schools affected how students used technology in school. Consistent with previous work (e.g., Greenhow & Robelia, 2009; Livingstone & Sefton-Green, 2016; Sefton-Green et al., 2009), we found that students’ use of technology in school was considerably more constrained, which in turn constrained their ability to express and explore their interests and assert their personal agency. Their use of personal devices was restricted, and school-owned technologies were often used more as a classroom management tool than as a tool for learning or creation. We saw this in Mr. Mason’s use of the Classroom Dojo software, which helped him to manage his class of diverse learners and move more efficiently through the math curriculum. Though he expressed the desire to use technology in more innovative ways, he noted the pressure he felt to prepare his students for the state-mandated tests.

Though the restrictive “doing school” frame was not seen in the ELE programs, our findings did reveal how similar sociopolitical dynamics shaped students’ afterschool experiences, including their experiences with technology. For instance, many of the technology challenges present in the ELE program related to access, including access to networked computers at the ELE sites and at students’ homes, and school firewalls blocking access to the Afterschool Network website. These challenges are consistent with Ito et al.’s (2013) observation that opportunities for rich learning experiences with networked technologies are currently not evenly distributed in society due to socioeconomic disparities. In some cases, however, networked technologies appeared to help students overcome sociopolitical and cultural barriers. Our observations revealed how students used networked technologies to help them manage the discomfort they felt leaving their neighborhood to attend ELE programs held on the campuses of elite private colleges. Students used their phones both to find their way around unfamiliar, often intimidating spaces and to connect their afterschool activities to their social contexts at home. In this way, networked technologies helped them to overcome the geographic and cultural boundaries that undermined their afterschool experiences.


These findings hold important implications for school administrators, teachers, and staff looking to incorporate digital media into their practices. First, our results show the value of using digital media in ways that align with and support students’ interests, provide them with opportunities to take on meaningful, creative roles, and connect to their social and cultural contexts. At the same time, our findings demonstrate how existing institutional practices and constraints can make it difficult to use technology in these identity- and agency-supporting ways, particularly in formal educational contexts. It is unrealistic to expect that educators in urban public schools will have the resources, time, or freedom to incorporate technology in precisely the same way as the afterschool programs in this study. Nevertheless, awareness of how technology can be used to support student agency and identity is an important first step. We recommend educators take stock of their existing learning environment, bringing a critical eye to the opportunities it affords and constrains. Such awareness will position educators to take advantage of existing opportunities for incorporating technology in identity-supporting ways, and perhaps find workarounds to the constraints that threaten to co-opt technology in service of the “doing school” frame (Hand et al., 2012). Ideally, policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels will work toward removing the existing barriers that limit the experiences of students in urban schools.

Limitations and Future Directions

Our approach of combining interviews and focus groups with participant observations yielded a rich portrait of the opportunities for identity and agency that students experience in school and afterschool settings. Though we were able to observe a variety of ELE programs, we found it more challenging to obtain permission to observe a similar variety of school classes. As a result, we had to rely somewhat more on students’ and teachers’ accounts of their school experiences than on direct observation, limiting our ability to corroborate these accounts. We also spoke with considerably more students than teachers, skewing the present account more towards the student perspective.

Though we view the variety of afterschool programs and school classes that we observed as a notable strength of the current study, it did prevent us from examining any one program or class in depth. Future work would complement our approach by investigating a single afterschool program and school class over a sustained period of time. For instance, it would be worthwhile to observe an entire semester of App Creator concurrently with a school-based computer class, ideally with some of the same students enrolled in both classes. This approach would yield valuable insight into the student experience and use of technology in afterschool and school classes that have overlapping content. It would also enrich the study to examine how, if at all, students’ experiences at home intersect with their afterschool and school experiences.


The findings from the current study provide new insight into digital media’s role in supporting the identities and personal agency of youth living in urban neighborhoods as they participate in school and afterschool settings. Our work shows how the greater constraints placed on students’ digital media use in school translated into greater constraints on their identity and agency. By contrast, the afterschool programs we examined provided a more supportive environment for students to develop their identities and sense of agency. In particular, these programs were better positioned than school settings to leverage digital media in a way that encouraged students to express their identities and assert their personal agency. We also found that the institutional constraints and sociopolitical dynamics that shape students’ experiences in school and afterschool contexts are largely mirrored in the ways technology is used in these contexts. Introducing digital media into a setting will not necessarily change these dynamics, though we did see potential for disruption in some afterschool settings. These findings hold relevance for educators, policymakers, and researchers exploring ways to incorporate digital media technologies into urban school and afterschool contexts in ways that support students’ identities as learners.


The authors wish to thank the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for supporting the research reported in this paper.


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Biographical information

Katie Davis is an Assistant Professor at the University of Washington Information School, Adjunct Assistant Professor in the UW College of Education, and a founding member of the UW Digital Youth Lab. Her research explores the role of new media technologies in young people’s personal, social, and academic lives, with a particular focus on the intersection between technology and identity development during adolescence and emerging adulthood.


Anthony Ambrose is a graduate of the Master in Library and Information Science program at the University of Washington Information School in Seattle, Washington. As a graduate student, he contributed to research projects investigating cyberbullying, online communities, and technology’s role in student learning and self-expression.

Mania Orand is a PhD candidate in the field of Human-Computer Interaction at the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington. Her research interests are in the areas of design research and user research (UX) focusing on designing interactive tools for complex systems.

Jon M Wargo

Published Online: January 25, 2017
Full Text: HTML, PDF

Abstract: Interested in the semiotic stretches youth employ to navigate (in)equality online, this paper interrogates the seemingly mundane practices of youth writing with new media to read how “collecting” and “curating” were mobilized as facets of youth activism. By focusing on curating and collecting as two forms of remediated communicative practice, this paper interrogates the taking on of what youth in a larger “connective ethnography” (Hine, 2015; 2000; Leander, 2008) called a #socialjusticewarrior stance. Zeroing in and tracing the connective lives Zeke, Camille, and Jack (all names are pseudonyms) led across their networked connections of writing, this paper illuminates how issues of race, gender expression, and queer identities converged to collect a social justice orientation into the larger Kilgore and San Miguels communities. Comparatively, I provide a counter-story from one young person (Ben) whose curated work of self-presentation fostered a more cosmopolitan version of self. I detail how Ben, in comparison to Jack, Zeke, and Camille curated through the acts of digital literacies to far extend his reach of what cultural justice looked like. Reading the ethos of online activism as a folksonomy, this paper works to stretch the imagination in considering what a tap, swipe, and click may do for architecting and building equity for youth and youth communities.

Key Words: Digital writing, identity, LGBT youth, social justice, Tumblr, youth activism

Introduction and overview

Interested in the semiotic stretches lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth employ to navigate (in)equality online, this article draws on data from a longitudinal connective ethnography to explore the seemingly mundane practices of youth writing on Tumblr. More specifically, it focuses on curating and collecting as two forms of remediated communicative practice and “genres of participation” (Jenkins, Ito, boyd, 2015) to interrogate the taking on of what youth called a “#socialjusticewarrior stance” on Tumblr. Zeroing in and tracing the connective lives Camille, Jack, and Zeke (all names are pseudonyms), led across their networked connections of writing, I illuminate how issues of racialized identity and gender expression converged to collect a social justice orientation. Comparatively, I provide the counter-story of Ben, a young person whose curated work of “social justice-ing” (his words, not my own) was argued to foster a more cosmopolitan action. Nonetheless, for Ben, Jack, Camille, and Zeke, the network of Tumblr and “folksonomy” (Noruzi, 2006; Vander Wal, 2005) of the #socialjusticewarrior community provided a self-identified agency for action. Acting as a space to build community and create coalition, pervasive computing offered itself as a practice to write the activist self. Reading collecting and curating as the ethos of online LGBT youth activism, this paper stretches the imagination to consider how a tap, swipe, and click may foster and build equity for historically marginalized youth and youth communities online.

Being a #socialjusticewarrior and Coming to Queer on Tumblr

Created in 2007, Tumblr’s status as a social media platform is best known for “fostering spaces for socially marginalized users, including youth, people of color, queer people, and the disabled” (McCracken, Stein, & Cho, forthcoming). Allowing authors to create content, categorize or tag it, and then share it with other users. Tumblr users compose through seven forms of creation (text, photo, quote, link, chat, audio, and video). Similar to Facebook and Twitter, Tumblr users have the ability to like and/or share other user’s posts. In contrast to other microblogging sites and social networking platforms, however, Tumblr requires almost no personal information. As such, every user’s primary tumblelog is public. With its relative ease to “find yourself a suitable digital community” (Marquart, 2010, p. 74), Tumblr is a perfect platform to investigate youth writing, community building, and the ethos of online activism.

As I became interested in interrogating the rhetorical affordances of Tumblr, an indexical identity surfaced as a primary trope that youth users leveraged to gain voice. Jack, a then 18-year old trans-masculine student indexed himself as a social justice warrior in our first interview. As Jack contended, “you can’t just BE a #socialjusticewarrior, you DO #socialjusticewarrior.” #socialjusticewarrior was a hashtag used by many to draw attention to issues of inequity that surfaced on Tumblr. Enacting a #socialjusticewarrior stance fell under a user paradigm of #donttagyourhate, a hashtag used in partner with #socialjusticewarrior to discourage users from posting dehumanizing or disparaging text. Being a #socialjusticewarrior, however, was also a category that many Tumblr users employed as a pejorative to illuminate young people who reified a shallow multiculturalism across the site.

The longer I spent working with Ben, Camille, Jack, and Zeke, the more aware I became of the distinct logics of collecting and curating, two of the social practices and genres of participation that sutured definitions of what it meant to be a #socialjusticewarrior. As I engaged youth to help me slow down and listen to the screen, two primary research questions guided our collaborative inquiry and line this article: a) How do LGBT youth enact and construct their identities as #socialjusticewarriors across Tumblr? and b) How do LGBT youth navigate (in)equality and garner a #socialjusticewarrior visibility through the practices of collecting and curating?

Collecting Social Justice and Curating Cosmopolitanism: Stretched Practices for Connective Composing

Theoretically, collecting and curating operated as both material practices in memorializing people and events as well as digital genres of participation into youth activist communities online. As I put my ear to the screen, listening for the resonances of digital writing that stretched across the social environs of Tumblr, collecting and curating crystalized as two of the social processes that Zeke, Camille, Jack, and Ben used as part of the larger folksonomy of mobilizing cultural justice as a #socialjusticewarrior. Curating and collecting allowed youth to index an activist voice in the cacophony of digital echoes. Below, I operationalize what I mean by collecting and curating and speak across how these practices manifested a sense of collective community and generated at times a more cosmopolitan dialogue across the publics of Tumblr.

Collecting is a process of distinct social practices that materially situate humans in particular cultures (Rohan, 2010). These cultures, as I document in the intricacies and findings below, invariably intertwine public and more private, and I would argue online as well as offline, lives. Collecting is a project that traces how lives intersect temporally with particular movements and ideas. According to Rohan (2010), collecting is a “lifetime, identity-forming process that leads to collections through annotation” (p. 54). As she argues, it is a practice that resonates across more standard publics of school, home, and the professional workplace. For the youth I worked alongside of, collecting was a process of internalization. Marked by the Tumblr practices of reblogging, tagging, and favorite-ing, youth used the broader practice of collecting to reflect how they saw themselves. Collecting was an introspective and personal act. It made deeper pathologies and more affective based moments of social justice work manifest.

In contrast to collecting, curating was a more productive rather than consumptive enterprise. Quite popular in contemporary literacy studies, curation, according to recent scholarship, heightens the composing process for young people (Potter, 2012; Potter & Gilje, 2015). For the #socialjusticewarrior, however, the social practices of curating digital artifacts focused on arranging items so that the activist self was forefront. If collecting is a nexus that begs to be read in multiple ways, curating is a social practice and genre into participation that demands precision of language, relationships, and affiliations. Curating is an aesthetic reverie for that which may not necessarily be. In comparison to collecting, it rests upon a single and fixed story. For Milhailidis and Cohen (2013), curation is a story-ed “act of problem solving” (p. 4). It creates a sense of responsibility for the curator. As Chocano (2012), perhaps satirically demonstrates, the trouble with the practice [curation] is the trouble of the “feeling.” She argues, “…products are no longer the point…And now we can create that feeling, then pass it around like a photo album of the life we think we were meant to have but don’t, the people we think we should be but aren’t” (Chocano, n.p. 2012). Curating, as I highlight in the findings section, was used to “save-face.”  It allowed participants to simultaneously both acknowledge their own privilege while provisionally disavow from more local movements they felt excluded from.

Collecting and curating, taken together, functioned as part of a larger #socialjusticewarrior folksonomy. As Vander Wal (2005), argues, a folksonomy is a “bottom up social classification” (n.p).  Collecting, as part of this larger #socialjusticewarrior classification scheme, I argue is used to mobilize social justice. It allowed users to collect followers and garner visibility towards a shared commitment to issues of inequality. Curating for the #socialjusticewarrior functioned less as a shared commitment towards working against injustice but rather as a “way of viewing the world that…is concerned with the transgression of boundaries and markers” (Stevenson, 2003, p. 332). Users used the practice of curating to enact a cosmopolitan stance. Conceptually tracing how participants collected social justice and curated cosmopolitanism allowed me a way into addressing the hybrid possibilities for communicating across transnational global spaces, hyper-mediated texts, and diverse social practices. Curating cosmopolitanism, in contrast to collecting social justice, embodies a conceptual orientation into “belonging” in our current “cosmopolitan moment” (Beck & Sznaider, 2006). Rather than solely considering collecting and curating as forms of “navigation across contexts” (Abu El-Haj, 2009; Luke & Carrington, 2002), I consider these practices as rhetorical acts, tactics that reposition our understanding of belonging and difference through observable online practice. While not directly cited by participants as rationale for why and how they were collecting and curating, tenets of social justice and cosmopolitanism were theoretically and epistemologically embedded within their practices of writing the #socialjusticewarrior self. Collecting and curated served as the bridge between content and circulation. Through the creative labor of collecting and curating, enacting a #socialjusticewarrior stance, I argue, is sometimes less about personal investment and more about the framing that effects outside reception and orientation.

Method: Building a Folksonomy for the #socialjusticewarrior on Tumblr

Data for this article originates from a larger longitudinal connective ethnographic (Hine, 2015; Leander, 2008) study exploring the networked literacy lives of a diverse group of LGBT youth across contexts. The primary goal of the larger study was to understand how LGBT youth engage in varying levels of mediation as they negotiate community/ies, construct (queer) visibility, and orchestrate convergent identities with the use of new media and digital technologies. For the particulars of this article, I focus on four of these youth: Camille, a multiracial lesbian female; Jack, a white trans-male; Ben, a white gay male; and Zeke an African American gay male. Camille and Zeke attended Center Ridge High, an arts-magnet school located in an urban city near a sizable Midwestern university town while Jack and Ben attended City Town, a high school 15 miles adjacent to Center Ridge located in a more affluent suburb. Although attending different schools, Jack, Camille, Ben, and Zeke were chosen as focal participants for this article given their self-identifications as being part of the LGBT community, networked status as “followers” (of one another) on the Tumblr platform, and their willingness to share their selves and their writing. Most importantly, when detailing their experience as a #socialjusticewarrior, each documented the practices of collecting and curating as those which guided their composing on the site.

As a queer researcher and English educator, I gained access to Center Ridge and City Town high school in ways an outsider would not have received. While my peripheral status on Tumblr, and limited proficiency on social networking spaces, offered me the opportunity to ask questions related to the meta-processes of youth composing, my insider position as queer person also offered me valuable insight. Residing in this liminal space, and considering my relationship to the site, I was aware of the competing subjectivities and their potential impact on how I approached and analyzed the data. In an effort to keep biases at bay and increase reliability, I employed member-checking strategies by allowing youth to review transcripts, preliminary findings, and all multimodal artifacts documented here (Lincoln & Guba, 1985).

Participant observation, saturated by virtual ethnographic methods (Boelstorff et al., 2012; Kozinets, 2010), across sites was the primary mode of data collection. I conducted and audiotaped semi-structured active interviews (Holstein & Gubrium, 2002), collected multimodal work, wrote field notes, and textually analyzed student’s “literacy artifacts” (Pahl & Rowsell, 2003). Divided into topical categories, interviews (ranging from 45 to 90 minutes) elicited responses related to the larger research questions as well as the features of their collecting and curating across contexts. Apart from informal exchanges (e.g., text message, personal email, etc.) and semi-structured interviews, I met with participants 1:1 to document how each user was using Tumblr as a #socialjusticewarrior. I transcribed and coded all interview and think-aloud sessions and Tumblr blog posts (n = 434 posts). Using QuickTime screencast, I recorded analytic memos to capture audio/video posts. Visual reblogs, text-based conversations and/or alphabetic print were captured using the screenshot feature on my computer.

I analyzed data with a particular focus on understanding how LGBT youth engaged with collecting and curating across the Tumblr context. I began with open coding (Miles & Huberman, 1994) after a close reading of the first set of interviews. After multiple iterative re-readings of interview transcripts, I analyzed how Ben, Camille, Jack, and Zeke shifted their ways of navigating (in)equality as a #socialjusticewarrior as it pertained to particular social issues. Using “sensitizing” concepts (Charmaz, 2003), I open coded the types of inequality, identities, and types of particular Tumblr actions (e.g., reblog, favorite, remix) embedded in the larger #socialjusticewarrior movement. After, I moved to axial coding, collapsing how particular practices were enacted across the larger #socialjusticewarrior folksonomy.

Focusing on the conceived space of Tumblr and the mediated imaginaries of the #socialjusticewarrior, I began analyzing how collecting was mobilized as social justice and how curating was considered a form of cosmopolitanism. The numbers of posts were so great in magnitude that I refined my focus prior to examining specific events of collecting and curating. I re-read the interview transcripts and asked more detailed questions to Jack, Camille, Ben, and Zeke about the meta-processes they were using when writing the #socialjusticewarrior self. As a researcher, I was curious to see users think-aloud when posting and when mining their Tumblr archive for examples of the types of practices they cited earlier. This procedure, what participants and I called “tech-tual listening,” adopted features from protocol analysis (Haas & Flower, 1988) to nuance understanding of the ideological processes undergirding collecting and curating. In developing the tech-tual listening session, I met with each participant one-on-one and inquired about the general practices I saw youth employ when tumbling. This more focused selective coding procedure (Strauss & Corbin, 1990) produced distinctions within each category and allowed me to frame findings thematically (see Figure 1).


Figure 1: Taxonomy of #socialjusticewarrior

In my presentation of findings, I provide exemplars from the data that illustrate the multiple ways youth collect social justice and curate cosmopolitanism through their participation in the microblogging community of Tumblr as well as the enactment and construction of a #socialjusticewarrior self.



As practices, collecting and curating were the particulars of a much larger folksonomy of branding identities so as to be read as a #socialjusticewarrior online. For Ben, Jack, Camille, and Zeke, collecting and curating designed spaces that allowed LGBT youth to control, select, and publish distributed selves. It complicated competing discourses about what it meant to be both queer and an activist. In the remainder of this paper, I unplug from the theory of collecting and curating to present analyses of the types of social tactics youth employed on Tumblr to enact a #socialjusticewarrior identity. I present their importance as I lay out the subsections of findings: #donttagyourhate: Being a #SocialJusticeWarrior, Feeling Race, and Collecting Community and Curating Cosmopolitanism. For Zeke, Camille, Ben, and Jack, purposeful digital media production gave youth membership into communities they could not find elsewhere, acceptance to worlds where the resources and practices employed were working to design more just social worlds for some (e.g., the #socialjusticewarrior) while maintaining a periphery for the “other.”

#donttagyourhate: Being a #socialjusticewarrior, Feeling Race, and Collecting Community

Swiping, tapping, and clicking, youth were constantly participating in the haptic project of collecting and curating. Behind cashier stations or sitting cross-legged on lab tables in school, youth asserted their identities as #socialjusticewarriors through particular actions on Tumblr. Participants deemed one of these actions, reblogging, a novice Tumblr competency. It, however, was centered in the larger enterprise of collecting. Reblogging is an a priori discourse, one where participants are not contributing to, but rather recirculating, images and texts. Reblogging was not an act of writing the #socialjusticewarrior self, but ultimately a way of collecting the #socialjusticewarrior self. Reblogging and the reciprocal remixing that encompassed the action of collecting, reflected and recycled multiple voices, voices realized to and through different modalities. My time with Jack, Ben, Camille, and Zeke, however, suggested that reblogging might also be an act and practice that users, especially those who are historically marginalized, use as a means to gain visibility in a world where their youth minority status only further pushed them to the periphery. It allowed youth participants to read, re-circulate, and write social justice on one’s own terms. Collecting was mobilized as an act of resistance.

Being read as a member of the LGBT youth community was an identity of primacy for the #socialjusticewarriors I encountered. They used reblogging to critique and combat homophobia. Zeke, for instance, reblogging a rainbow sign that read “Hate is not a family value” from the blog gaymarriageusa, indicated that this type of practice not only contributed to the visibility he gained as a queer youth member on Tumblr, but also depicted the type of #socialjusticewarrior self he was trying to render intelligible. Reblogging, according to Zeke, served as a “type of educating” and “activism,” actions that his closeted status at home silenced in the public sphere. Camille, Zeke’s closest confidant, also saw this type of reblogging as a way to increase her queer visibility on Tumblr. Reblogging an image of two white male youth holding the letter ‘s’ to remix the New Hope Church’s message of “God says homosexuality is sin” to “God says homosexuality is in,” Camille collected online to combat homophobia she felt at school. As an out participant, she often felt that “…school was the space that was most homophobic, on Tumblr I can write back.” She argued that the digital platform of Tumblr and the act of collecting acted as mediators, allowing her to speak back to classmates and peers. Tumblr, for Camille, was a space where her #socialjusticewarrior self felt “most like me.”

Apart from reblogging to combat homophobia, participants also used Tumblr to compose the gendered and sexual self. In our 1:1 meetings to look at participant writing, Zeke, Jack, and Camille shared many sexually explicit images that lined their tumblelog. As we surveyed their archive, a perspective allowing users to see posts categorized by month, I asked participants about the type of visibility these collected images, in particular, elicited from followers. Zeke and Jack argued that the plethora of half-clothed male models and celebrities featured on their blogs were their “type,” highlighting that the #socialjusticewarrior had desire. Camille was more assertive, asking me if I was uncomfortable seeing scenes of intimacy. When I asked her why there were so many reblogged images that could be considered sexual, Camille was quick to name that she too, “…had a sexuality” and that she should not censor it.

The “sexual literacy” (Alexander, 2008) work fostered through the action and practice of collecting is not new. At a more abstract level, writing in digital environments as a practice to collect and elicit community membership in affinity spaces is a well-documented phenomena for digital literacy scholars interested in affinity networks and communities of practice (Black, 2009; Curwood, Magnifico, & Lammers, 2013; Lam, 2009; Lammers, 2016; Lewis & Fabos, 2005). Reblogging brought to light a myriad of stylistic choices that rendered youth-driven creation and collecting not only as a product of identities, but also a social critique and call to action. One’s personal differences (e.g., race, gender identity, etc.) colored their collecting experiences quite differently. In the next sections, I read across Jack and Camille’s collecting to decode the varying hues of being and becoming a #socialjusticewarrior. By doing so I hope to present how the seemingly mundane new media practices of tagging and remixing warrant greater attention into the distinct logics and rhetorical affordances embedded in collecting as a social tactic.

Apart from reblogging, participants also remixed as a way to educate those who follow them on Tumblr. As I discussed the practices of reblogging with participants, many would comment how they would add-on to someone else’s post. This additive feature was central to how remixing was figured as an action of collecting. Remixing, “…involves taking cultural artifacts and combining and manipulating them into new kinds of creative blends and products” (Lankshear & Knobel, 2011, p. 95). Argued to be an act of “educating” their peers and followers, remixing for participants was not always what it seemed. Jack, for instance, was someone whose own reblogging and remixing was braided into trans-activism. He critiqued those both in and outside of the LGBT community. In a post he tagged #urwelcome and #socialjusticewarrior, Jack reblogged from yourmatespirit the following (see Figure 2).



Figure 2. Jack’s reblog

When I asked Jack why the tags were added to index the reblog of yourmatespirit’s post, Jack consistently went back to argue that “educating” was central to collecting social justice. A trans-man, Jack recounted several stories of how his school and the conception of the LGBT community it proliferated dismissed the T in the LGBT acronym of identity politics. Jack felt as if he was speaking back to those allies who quickly “friend-ed” the gay and lesbian teens at school but who secluded him and other transgender peers. For others, however, collecting as a form of remixing and reblogging imagery was felt differently.

Unlike Jack, Camille’s collecting across the larger study created an archive of racial justice work. Camille was aware of the power of utilizing other people’s words to describe, with a certain intensity, her own #socialjusticewarrior convictions of self and community. On Tumblr, in particular, her collecting was not only spliced by reciprocal remixed satire but through reblogged images and hyperlinked stories documenting the hostility towards Black bodies. In a post she reblogged from Zeke, originating from the user softcore-fuckery, Camille detailed a timestamp of hate from July 17th (the execution of Eric Garner) to an unarmed black teen being shot ten times by Ferguson police (August 9th, 2014). She reblogged the post, foregrounded by an image of Eric Garner, and remixed the text to read: “Things you should know: this happened in the past 23 days.” For Camille, Tumblr was a space she traversed while “feeling black” (her words, not my own), a geography whose own siloed identity practices of drop-down menus asking for race, ethnicity, and checked genders fostered a commitment to community that was felt in being and collecting a #socialjusticewarrior self.

The register of “feeling” black for Camille was illustrative as repeated discourses of #blacklivesmatter circulated on her dashboard. Her collected posts acted as small interjections on my own Tumblr, an otherwise institutional space used to document the project. One morning in early September, as I scrolled through my dashboard, Camille’s reblogged image of a public lynching caught me off guard. Reblogged from buttsqueezin-season, the image was a collage of two photos, a public lynching photograph taken from an open-access archive and a digital photo of a “license” in which owners would have the right to “hunt” African Americans. Camille’s image, reblogged by more than 2000 users, included descriptor text that read, “Don’t ever tell me to get over it. This is the shit they don’t teach you about in school. Fucking Christ.” I listened to Camille’s text describing the “shit they don’t teach you in school” to consider how she felt at Center Ridge and the larger community. As I argue elsewhere, these “techtual counter-economies” of writing allowed youth of color to “purchase” voice through media and monetized accounting systems of digital literacy practice (Wargo, 2016). For Camille, Zeke, and other African American youth I learned from, digital disidentification, or the “disavowal of the recognition of race in local contexts in favor of comfortably distant global ones” (Nakamura, 2002, p. 22), was a position impressed upon them in the #socialjusticewarrior community. Even through the process of collecting, race was an affective register that was felt across users.

As a practice and orienting device that is often entwined with, and set apart from, reblogging and remixing, Camille, Ben, Zeke, and Jack evoked hashtags as a #socialjusticewarrior in a number of utilitarian ways. The hashtag functioned in the space between the contextual and the chronological. A node of continued context across media, conversations, and locales, the hashtag #socialjusticewarrior emerged temporally. It pointed to itself as it pointed to other texts it marked within its ambit. #socialjusticewarrior, as a locating device for collecting, functioned as pragmatic and metapragmatic speech. As an orienting device, the #socialjusticewarrior hashtag was a meta-communicative tactic that highlighted difference across the Tumblr community. The hashtag functioned both as a means to collect followers and garner visibility while simultaneously delineating and creating siloed categories of identity-making.

Participants talked about Tumblr’s search function as being the primary mechanism to collect and categorize followers who had similar interests in queer issues and activism. Zeke, someone whose primary focus was finding LGBT followers on Tumblr, argued, “…if you type in #marriageequality in the search bar you’ll find posts that show people who are in support of it. Those are the people I would follow. You collect them.” Through these participatory networks, where tags acted as a source of discourse and identity, youth created #socialjusticewarrior counterpublics. As an outsider whose own limited knowledge blurred my vision of the function participants deployed to tag and garner attention, I became fascinated in how youth who were not out at school and at home were quite visible on the platform. In a post Zeke mined for me in a one-on-one meeting at school, he showed me how his own identities on Tumblr were in tension (see Figure 3). Zeke tagged the post with #NationalComingOutDay #ComingOut #LGBT #Gay. #GayMale #Closeted #Ashamed. Zeke’s post had multiple likes and was reblogged across several follower’s blogs. The “closeted self” Zeke invoked in the post is at first debilitating. The post portrayed Zeke as helpless in his quest for self-acceptance. The uptake and status of his post, however, provided Zeke with an emergent visibility. His blog, and this post in particular with tags that are widely used across the Tumblr platform (#LGBT, #Gay, #Ashamed), provided a currency for Zeke and his gay visibility. On a space where the constellation of visibility is the blueprint to one’s own individual experience, youth used the practice of tagging to architect identities that are at times multiple, shape shifting interests to match an identity they did not always collect, but was sometimes written for them.


Figure 3. Zeke’s post “National Coming Out Day”

Participants also used tagging, like reblogging, as a means to “educate” people. The hashtags became events themselves. Invoking the tag as a type of tool for indexing knowledge followers and other users should know, participants used the practice of tagging as an apparatus to promote equality and combat homophobia. The function of this type of activism had a distinct name and genealogy across Tumblr participants. This function, #donttagyourhate, according to Jack, Camille, and Zeke was a “golden rule for Tumblr use.” First introduced to me by Jack, a participant who often times tagged posts with #lifewiththejack and #tproblems (“t” standing for transgender), #donttagyourhate was a cautionary message for users to not tag their dislike or bias for or against something/someone.

Although all participants noted how #donttagyourhate promoted a certain type of activism for followers, Jack used it primarily as a means of writing to a particular subgroup of the LGBT community, the trans-community. In “Testosterone TMI,” Jack wrote (see Figure 4):


Figure 4. Jack’s post “Testosterone TMI”

The post, tagged with #pubertythesecondtimearound and #lifewiththejack was a piece of personal writing, written to document an experience. It, however, also had a secondary purpose. According to Jack, he was using the hashtag to educate individuals about his own transition experience. Tagging the post with #pubertythesecondtimearound before the tag #lifewiththejack gave operative power to the bodily transformation he was undertaking and the déjà vu of puberty. Jack was making the “T” discourse a primary one, where his own posts operated to promote a dialogue often times silenced in LGBT youth discourses.

Tagging, reblogging, and remixing, understood here as actions and practices enfolded within the larger social process of collecting, are useful in examining how youth are writing the #socialjusticewarrior self and creating private and public spaces online. They nuance how equality was not only an ideological stance these young people took on by indexing themselves as a collectors of social justice, but nuance the intricacies of collecting as a genre of participating in online activism. On a short timescale, events and studies such as the examination of the #socialjusticewarrior illuminate how the hashtag worked as a uniting thread of discourse, allowing those who use it to feed into and collect an ongoing and evolving conversation.


Curating Cosmopolitanism

Despite the rhetoric surrounding the ease in which one “collected” on Tumblr, and the relatively shallow definition of multiculturalism that being a #socialjusticewarrior may purport, its counter-part, curating, was far more fragile. “So,” I declared, shifting in my seat preparing for an interview with Ben, “we’re going to end the same way we started.” Ben took out a large yellow scarf. Intricate stitching marked it as a pashmina. “My parents bought me this when they were in Europe last week. Can we take a picture? We have known each other for so long. I want to remember this.” At the start of my work with LGBT youth, I engaged them with a process known as artifactual interviewing. Artifactual interviewing allowed participants to story through an object. It allowed me, as a researcher, to see how youth used material texts to narrate particular versions and iterations of past, present, and future selves. “It’s worldly.” Ben added, “I want this to represent how I see my future. I want to be all over the place. I want to travel.” As I lifted up my iPhone, arching my best long-arm to take the selfie, Ben demanded, “Filter it!” “What?” I asked. In less than a second, Ben took the phone, swiped to the left twice and filtered the photo. “The lighting in here is bad for me.” Ben, visibly marked by his bleach blonde hair, and over-sized cardigan finished his thought, “Make sure we look good, right?”

Looking good for Ben, however, was far more than the materialist obsession I hinted at above. Here, I want to zoom in on the concept of filtering and illuminate how it illustrates the practice and social tactic of curating. In comparison to Zeke, Camille, and Jack, Ben curated his participation across networked literacies to present a certain version of activist and #socialjusticewarrior self. He used the functions of curating to at once stretch across local and global communities and demand that others bridge their more local senses of activism for more global concerns of pluralism while simultaneously disavowing more local concerns for community and agency. For Ben, curating was a form of “imagined cosmopolitanism” (Zuckerman, 2013), a genre of action that others outside of his small friend network were seemingly incapable of achieving.

As with any ethnography, the stories told were spliced by current events and tragedies. In the latter stages of fieldwork, larger social movements born out of the untimely death of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Sandra Bland backdropped much of the youth activism collected by youth, and African American participants in particular. As I glossed earlier, these movements and moments of resistance elicited a sense of “feeling black” that was new for Zeke and Camille. For Jack, blog posts from the #blacklivesmatter movement were signposts for him to understand that being an ally to cultural justice was work, not a name you take on, but rather actions and a disposition that you embody by acknowledging your own privilege and commitment to justice. While Ben did not outwardly disagree with the actions and practices of the larger group, he was wary of some whose allegiance was newly fostered by the revolution.


Everyone these days is a sheeple. Well, person, I guess. You know sheeple right? Those who just follow, who just go along with it because it’s trending. They want to follow trends. I don’t care as much. I think its funny otherwise. Sometimes I sheeple just to save face. It’s just another mode of communication. You have to curate yourself.

Much like the picture that Ben quickly transformed through the practice of filtering, so too was he aware of the precision needed to save-face, to curate a #socialjusticewarrior self that allowed him to traverse the particulars of the local and more global.

Despite his tactical response in showing affinity for the #blacklivesmatter movement, Ben’s larger interests were, as he argued, “more worldly.” When I sat down with Ben at City Town, articulating my own commitments to stopping police brutality and my apprehension in being read a particular way by sharing or re-posting recent news articles on Facebook by my more conservative Indiana family, Ben shook his head.


It’s probably really different here at City Town than it is at Center Ridge…we have a very large Islamic community. You see that as soon as anything happens. We all go on defense mode. It’s like the #JeSuisCharlie thing. Those people who were just retweeting or reblogging the #JeSuisCharlie movement were idiots… They [Center Ridge youth] aren’t surrounded by worldly people. I interact with diverse communities. My friends talk about this. We talk about stupid people…the limits of only considering U.S. racism.


What do you mean by stupid?


I am the only white kid in the group. I’m also the only boy in the group. We share in that. We’re different. We saw what was first a movement of free-speech and we said, “That’s not free speech, that’s hate.”

I quickly inquired about the #JeSuisCharlie movement that transpired online, as it was picked up by Snapchat, another mobile media application, and streamed through all participant’s feeds. In fact, Zeke and Camille, in another interview inquired why U.S. based current events never made the Snap dashboard while others, such as the #JeSuisCharlie movement did. I didn’t ask this larger question, but instead interrogated his own knowledge and relative apprehension with the movement.


It is disrespectful to draw the profit. It is very disrespectful. One of my friends made her icon on Tumblr the #JeSuisCharlie template and I just was like “Ah, god, no!” I blocked her. I can’t have that connected to me. That’s not being a #socialjusticewarrior.

I am cautious to detail these particulars here as in some ways they may demonize a young person for not acknowledging his own privilege. They detail what Jenkins (2006) would call a “pop cosmopolitan,” a user “whose embrace of global popular media represents an escape route of the parochialism of her local community” (p. 152). This is not my intention. To gain a larger perspective on why Ben’s focus is so “global” if you will, we need to work backwards and suture his curating practices online to his more everyday activist work.

The closer I “listened” to Ben, the more I started noticing these bright spots of worldly interests. From highlighting the aesthetic of K*POP with Korean characters curated to his reblogs, to a post entitled “7 lies the US Needs to Stop Telling About Women Who Wear Hijabs,” his curated archive transpired into what he coined as “soft activism.”


With the Internet we have a more expansive view of worldly news. We’re doing what people once did in the streets. We [residents of City Town] aren’t in the cities. There’s nowhere that it’s happening to join in. The Internet helps spread the word. We utilize resources that didn’t exist when you were in high school. It’s like soft. It’s soft activism. Same principles of holding a sign and yelling, less dangerous. I prefer it.


This “soft activism” for Ben, however, was curated. Streamed through a reblog, retweet, favorite, like, or original post of his own, Ben gave face, sometimes quite literally as he frequently took selfies with descriptor text captioning the photo with “social justice-ing” to bookend the work he did on Tumblr (see Figure 5).


Figure 5. Ben’s social justice selfie


When I asked him directly about the curating I was seeing he was quick to help build my working definition.


You look for the best content. You choose how to present it. It’s about communicating using what you have, thinking about how you use your resources…You get a voice through others. It works through reblogging. You have to think about organizing other people’s content. You can’t do it haphazard like.


So what is important for this type of practice?


The comments, always read the comments.


You read the comment before you reblog?


Always. You need to make sure THOSE are in agreement with you.

Although taking on a quite different function than collecting, curating was just as rigorous as a composing practice for exploring the range of identities presented as a #socialjusticewarrior. The syntactical structure of the hashtag #socialjusticewarrior partnered with #donttagyourhate was less important for Ben as curation was marked by discursive protest and activism united by user’s comments. Unfortunately, for Ben, and for many of us whose own echo chambers of microblogging produce a homophily of in-group advantage, we are sometimes blind-sided by the other, thinking we are working to enact a #socialjusticewarrior stance without ever acknowledging that disagreement, disruption, and conflict are the tropes that we must mediate through in order to better understand and acknowledge one another. Without this acknowledgment, we uphold the common neologism of “cyber-utopianism” (Rushkoff, 2002), the liberatory idea of technology being the particular logic that surpasses difference. Sometimes, however, as Camille and Jack helped illustrate, recognizing that difference is what makes us human.

In the same manner that I cautioned us from thinking less of curating as a social practice for enacting a #socialjusticewarrior stance, so too do I want to caution us from thinking less of Ben as an agent of queer activism and cultural justice. For many of the young people I encountered, curating, despite their more focal action of collecting, was a form of citational practice that harkened back to other youth communities they traversed online. Curating became a form of community activism, a practice that led users to foster connections of the unfamiliar through what Vasudevan (2014) would call a multimodal cosmopolitanism. These curated forms of community continued as I explored how queer intersected with the ideational position of being a #socialjusticewarrior. As I shared parts of data analysis with youth in early stages of writing, I kept coming back to the question, “Ok, so how does being queer or being LGBT impact being a #socialjusticewarrior?” Camille quickly responded with, “Sure it’s there, but it isn’t just that. I’m not just gay. I’m black. I’m vegetarian, a reader of books, a lover of nursing, a wannabe writer. I am all of those things, so my #socialjusticewarrior identity is all of those things.” Refracted identities, in all their forms, were liked, supported, celebrated, and maintained through the larger enterprise and folksonomy of collecting and curating on Tumblr.


Making Sense of the Cracks: Collecting and Curating as Mobilizing Social Justice


Scrolling through Camille’s Tumblr dashboard at the conclusion of fieldwork, I stumbled upon a photo-post that captured the question, “Why do we just accept things?” I took a screenshot on my iPhone and archived it to later ask where she was when she captured the tagged wall and to inquire why she posted it (see Figure 6). “You know that is in Kilgore, right?”


Figure 6. Kilgore community bridge tagging

“Can you show me where?” I inquired. Quickly she scooted out of the cafeteria booth where we sat and led the way. When we got to the wall it was repainted, resurfaced to get rid of the red text and adjacent imagery that was once etched onto it with graffiti. Standing inches away from where the text had once surfaced, Camille touched the wall. “You can see cracks in it where the paint chipped.” With her fingernails she began to loosen some of the dead paint off the cement. As I touched the cracks, joining Camille in the exploration of the wall, I couldn’t help but think of the explicit connection to Tumblr that the wall provided. Like the #socialjusticewarrior, individuals tagged it to push back against institutional tensions and collect reactions to local governance. They reblogged and recycled remixed discourses with stenciled pop-culture references. They scribed their names to curate and timestamp when and where they were on a specific date and time. In closing, I want to meditate on the wall and interrogate how collecting and curating operated as LGBT youth social tactics, cracks to combat macro-level inequality.

The modes and social tactics Zeke, Jack, Ben, and Camille employed tells us much about how the LGBT youth subject, and the #socialjusticewarrior in particular, is constructed on Tumblr. To understand how Jack, Camille, Ben, and Zeke used collecting and curating as a folksonomy of practice to navigate (in)equality, we must return to the distinction made by considering these so-called communicative acts not as solely practices, but as social tactics. Understanding collecting and curating as social tactics operationalizes the various modes Zeke, Camille, Ben, and Jack transformed in circumventing issues of difference and conflict. Collecting and curating allowed youth to create community, maintain queer-kin relations, and create social norms for interaction. However, as I illustrate above, Tumblr as a locus and site was neither wholly liberatory nor wholly oppressive. Although there were moments where youth critically engaged in analyzing and critiquing public issues of concern, social tactics also functioned to isolate and deprive individuals’ voice, namely those whose identities did not align with acceptable forms of difference. Youth collected and curated to stretch across broader social and cultural contexts of discomfort. Participants did not only use these practices to create isolated geographies of self-expression but to also speak back to the (in)equality they encountered in school and home.

Reading Camille, Ben, Jack, and Zeke’s collecting and curating as an invitation, educational researchers have the opportunity to explore and examine the digital dexterity youth are practicing as a means to compose more just social futures. Participating in critical conversations about power and engaging with public discourses surrounding equity and injustice, young people are acting as intermediaries of cultural and global justice work. The rhetorical affordances of collecting and curating, amidst today’s hypermedia landscape, tells us much about how youth use digital media production to navigate identities in difference. At one level these genres of participation for mobilizing social justice are indicative of the emerging and hybrid forms of writing in the age of “electracy” (Arroyo, 2013; Ulmer, 2003), a paradigm shift born out of the advent of the Internet that gives experience, rather than description or mere production, a higher register of meaning. At a secondary level, Tumblr for participants acted as a digital environment wherein cosmopolitanism and social justice work conceptually sat. As participants illuminated, the multi-voiced experience of writing on Tumblr was not only deictic, but also performative in its composition. Users ritualistically composed varying vignettes of felt subjectivity. In centered spaces of racism, xenophobia, heterosexism, and homophobia, youth were writing from the virtual world to combat and disavow embodied conflict. Thus, rather than focusing solely on how these youths indexed their activist experience through the paradigm of the #socialjusticewarrior, I want to highlight the critical literacy work Camille, Zeke, Ben, and Jack engaged in. They may have not tagged their hate, but as youth writers they surveyed difference, interrogated dominant discourses of privilege, and reflected on their own multiple identities as youth minors. Therefore, this paper’s provocations lie not in the refusal of tagging hate, but rather navigating, combatting, collecting, curating, and writing against it.


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Biographical Statement


Jon M. Wargo is an assistant professor of Teacher Education and core faculty in the Reading, Literacy, and Literature program area at Wayne State University. Interested in how writing moves, his research uses feminist, queer, and post-structural modes of inquiry to explore how youth use literacy, and technologies of composition in particular, to design more just social futures.



Linda Radford

Published Online: January 25, 2017
Full Text: HTML, PDF

Abstract: In this paper, inspired by the challenge Atom Egoyan provides for educators in Adoration, I offer the film as a heuristic to digital citizenship to read two university driven digital initiatives.  I argue that digital citizenship is always emerging, and can be understood as a form of currere, where the personal and historical underpin “digital acts” that rewrite the notion of subjectivities as being disembodied in the seemingly atemporal space of being online.  As a teacher educator who is part of the Urban Communities Cohort (UCC) team, one of the five different streams incoming Bachelor of Education students choose upon entering the program at the University of Ottawa, I am interested in exploring the concept of currere as it applies to digital citizenship and asking why it matters to urban schools in Ottawa. My inquiry is part of a larger project entitled, Developing Mobile Media Spaces for Civic Engagement in Urban Priority Schools, located in Ottawa, Canada that is supported by Social Sciences and Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Insight Grant.

Key Words: Teacher education, urban schools, digital citizenship, currere, film, cosmopolitanism


Arguably one of the most compelling Canadian movies that takes up digital youth is Atom Egoyan’s (2008) award-winning Adoration.  This feature film, directed in non-linear segments which leaves the viewer with the feeling of being in multiple temporalities, left to puzzle together the plot, features a 16-year old protagonist named Simon who writes a controversial assignment for his French class that intertwines his family history with a news story involving terrorism. Encouraged by his teacher, Sabine, to take the story further and further, Simon claims his mother was seduced by a Middle Eastern man after which she naïvely tries to board a plane without knowing her husband has planted a bomb in her bag. The result is a controversy that blends a fictional class assignment and the reality of terrorism, and the debate goes viral on the Internet.  The film hinges on critical scenes where Simon engages in productive and impassioned debates about citizenship and belonging, all while doubly mediated on his computer screen. That is, by putting his story on the Internet, it is promptly taken up by a multitude of viewers.  At the same time, he views the viewers responding to his story in real time (Figure 1).

Given the routine nature of youth being online all the time, Simon sitting in his bedroom on the Internet with twelve people speaking back to him leaves us with the feeling that the scene is both normal — even banal — and also somehow revolutionary.  In exploring the political role of subjectivity in cyberspace, Foucault’s concept of the transformation of power as applied to the digital (Isin & Ruppert, 2015) comes to mind as we see Simon act through the Internet. One large group chat becomes a multitude of simultaneous voices about Simon’s provocative narrative crisscrossing lines of debate around terrorism, loss, xenophobia, values, and questions of free will and determinism.  Like rapid fire, his debate even extends beyond his peer group to include people who mourn the accident that didn’t happen, and those who use Simon’s story as a means of pushing their hatred further like the anti-Semitic discourse of a neo-Nazi sympathizer and the outrage of a holocaust survivor.  In Being Digital Citizens (2015), Isin and Ruppert argue that the Internet allows “doing things with words and saying words with things [devices always connected to the Internet]” and this dynamic cultivates a space of digital citizenship whereby taking action online through words constitutes a speech act that lays the groundwork that they term “digital rights claims” (p. 2). Sabine’s unorthodox work in the classroom and failure to regulate Simon’s on and off line behavior ironically paves the way for Simon’s creative, yet critical journey involving others who are affected by this story and who grasp at a range of possible truths through their dialogue.  We might reimagine the chaos of voices talking to, and on top of one another, and oftentimes clashing as one of the defining structures of citizenship borne out of such “digital acts.”

Figure 1. Hypermediation: Simon, while eating a bowl of corn flakes, engages with his classmates about issues of citizenship through his fantastical narrative that his father was a monster and his mother a naïve and unwitting accomplice.

For years, I have been showing this film to my students in the Education program at the University of Ottawa, in a range of courses — Globalization and Citizenship, Internationalization of Curriculum Studies, Racism and Anti-Racism, and Schooling and Society, to name a few.  The main themes drawn from a postcolonial/decolonization lens are often overshadowed by my students’ seeming infatuation with the fact that Sabine is fired for perceived transgressions. She pushes the pedagogical and moral boundaries of teaching French in a Toronto high school classroom.  Ultimately, she pays the price for her decision to encourage Simon to flesh out his school assignment by losing her job because his fictional assignment goes viral, drawing the attention of school administration and their ire about the unregulated online behavior of her student. My students’ focus stems from their fear of their digital footprint — that what is said online stays there.  In Bachelor of Education programs, one of the main lessons in professional ethics amounts to a stern warning about posting anything unsavoury, political, or damaging on social media because teachers represent a supposedly higher moral ideal than other professions.  The publication of the Ontario College of Teachers, Professionally Speaking, often features articles about teachers’ responsibilities online.  Its most recent article on the subject (June 2016), entitled “Going Social,” reminds teachers across the profession that “you’re a role model” and that they “must be aware that what they do in their private lives can be subject to scrutiny” (p.29).  In Being Digital Citizens, Isin and Ruppert (2015) again remind us that “the struggle over the things we say and do through the Internet is now a political struggle of our times, and so is the Internet itself” (p.2).  And nowhere do we see this more than in the field of education.  Teachers’ self-policing of digital online practices trickles down to how they teach students in their practicum placements.  In drawing out these responses to the film in terms of the moral regulation of the digital space, I work towards having my students read further to consider what Egoyan opens up in representing the political subject “not as a coherent and unified being but as a composite of multiple subjectivities that emerge from different situations and relations” (p.4).  Furthermore,

The citizen, it is observed, engages (or fails to), participates (or fails to), and receives (or fails to) rights and entitlements.   The figure, then, is largely an already present figure or problem figure.  To put it differently, the figure of the citizen is a problem of government: how to engage, cajole, coerce, incite, invite, or broadly encourage it to inhabit forms of conduct that are already deemed to be appropriate to being a citizen. What is lost here is the figure of the citizen as an embodied subject of experience who acts through the Internet for making rights claims. (p. 9, emphasis mine)

Through Egoyan’s film, we can see how the digital citizen comes into being through the dynamic of the technological and political.  What the above quotation makes clear is that cyberspace and the space of the so-called “real world” are not mutually exclusive.  Invoking Foucault, citizens are subjectivized online not as disembodied beings, but as subject to same bounded laws, expectations of performance, and ideas as in conventional conceptualizations of good citizenship.

Using Adoration as a heuristic for digital citizenship, I contend that Simon’s process of connecting his personal history to political and historical events enables him to make digital rights claims, and, thus, he comes into being as a digital citizen.  This can be likened to the process of currere, which is a curriculum studies practice whose history I will explicate in the literature review section later in this paper but introduce here.  Currere, defined first by Pinar in 1975, is a process in which I ask my students to engage, as new teachers, as a means to prepare them to enter into dialogue with their students about ideas of citizenship, identity, and culture. Currere has four stages: regressive, progressive, analytical, and synthetical.  The regressive stage returns us to our autobiographical and educational past, as when Simon has flashbacks of his real childhood and the images are conflated with the enactments in his mind’s eye of his fictional mother boarding the plane, which never happened.  The class assignment reawakens Simon’s memories of loss of his parents, but the details remain fuzzy even until the end of the film, at which the viewer is still not certain if the (finally) clear picture is Simon’s recollection or not.   The progressive turn of currere asks us to imagine our perceived future and the movie is an embodiment of this stage.  The entire plot centers around the possible future of Simon’s story, and by extension his life, the larger the lie becomes.  The twists and turns to the narrative that he invents is a reaching into the depths of cyberspace to understand himself by understanding the self as other.  The next stage is the analytical stage, in which one looks at his or her educational past, present, and future together.  What is the atemporal scene that is under construction on account of the many twists and turns of Simon’s story?  The online dialogue calls forth historical trauma re-articulated by Simon’s online commenters, combined with the nonlinear telling of his family history in a space open to trolls, followers, and friends alike. Finally, there is the synthetic turn, which relates the previous stages to the larger political and cultural context.  This stage is enacted simultaneous to the previous three in this film as the political and cultural milieu of the news article is the impetus for the entire narrative in the first place. The stages of currere, by definition, are not linear. Rather, they are related in a cyclic manner, speaking to one another.  Each of the four stages is reflective and situated temporally — speaking backwards and forwards at once, thus challenging presentism.

In this paper, inspired by the challenge Egoyan provides for educators, I offer a reading of two university driven digital initiatives with and against Adoration.  I argue that digital citizenship is always emerging, and can be understood as a form of currere, where the personal and historical intersect in the seemingly atemporal space of being online.  As a teacher educator who is part of the Urban Communities Cohort (UCC) team, one of the five different streams incoming Bachelor of Education students choose upon entering the program at the University of Ottawa, I am interested in exploring the concept of currere as it applies to digital citizenship and asking why it matters to urban schools in Ottawa. My inquiry is part of a larger project entitled, Developing Mobile Media Spaces for Civic Engagement in Urban Priority Schools, located in Ottawa, Canada that is supported by Social Sciences and Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Insight Grant.[i] The basis for the grant was to extend research garnered from observing classrooms devoid of progressive pedagogies that employ digital modes of engagement, and from living and working in an urban community where digital technologies and social media have the potential to galvanize citizens around educational issues but seemingly fail to do so.  This ongoing five year project seeks to advance knowledge of existing digital and pedagogical practices used by teacher candidates to foster students’ digital literacies;’ investigate digital media across the curriculum to create and evaluate learning experiences to support active digital citizenship; to provide a model of sustainable Faculty/school partnership for other teacher educators; and to exemplify pedagogical strategies that support urban high school students as active digital citizens now and in the future.  In the following literature review, I take up the concepts of digital citizenship and currere so to provide a framework for my reading the two scenes of digital citizenship practices at the University of Ottawa — what I will be calling digital currere in the section that follows.

Review of the literature

Digital Citizenship

While in this paper I am arguing that Egoyan’s film adds to the conversation taking place about what digital citizenship is, digital citizenship is defined in many ways in academic journals, teacherly periodicals, government white papers, and popular literature.  Bearden (2016) offers us a straightforward way into the concept, suggesting that digital citizenship “encompasses a broad range of behaviours and skills needed in today’s digital environments” (p. 1). Similarly, Heick (2013) speaks specifically to educators about digital citizenship, contending that it is “[t]he quality of habits, actions, and consumption patterns that impact the ecology of digital content and communities” (n.p).  In all of these definitions, Canadian students are presumed to be  “digital natives” (Prensky, 2001), a term which refers to individuals who were “born or brought up during the age of digital technology (Oxford Online, 2016). This assumption intersects with the fact that Canadians spend more time online than citizens of any other country in the world, averaging 45 hours per month (Canada Online, 2013).  Ribble (2015) reminds us that society has shifted underneath our feet, “to the point where it is often difficult to separate the technology from the users” (p. 20).  What is at stake during this age of posthumanism (Hayles, 1999) is the role of formal education in the shaping of student participation in civics, particularly when citizenship is still an “essentially contested concept” (Beck, 1996).

The concept of digital citizenship is taken up in schooling as a form of character education (Ohler, 2012).  Character education online mostly consists of teaching students to be informed participants in society by choosing and consuming reliable political and cultural information; avoiding participating in various forms of cyberbullying, and; be aware of trolling, sexting, and other dangerous practices online (Ribble, 2015; Crompton, 2015; Gibbs, 2015).   However, Ohler (2010), as a futurist, offers a fresh definition of what digital citizenship might mean:

…a new perspective of citizenship has entered the public narrative that feels so different that we have given it its own name: digital citizenship.  This term arises from the need to reconsider who we are in light of the globally connected infosphere in which we find ourselves.  That is, given citizenship seems to be directly related to behaviour and social organization, and given that the Digital Age facilitates new kinds of both, we need to update our perspectives about citizenship to provide a more complete picture of who we are. (p. 2)

This definition expands the notion of digital citizenship by avoiding prescribing specific practices.  Rather, Ohler’s (2010) definition leaves room for new individual practices, engagements, and activities.

Since our online behavior is both public and permanent (once uploaded, content is difficult to remove), we might find ourselves falling back into old debates which propose that on the one hand, citizenship is a matter of public concern, and on the other, it is about private membership and preserving personal choice. As expressed by McLaughlin (1992), this juxtaposition can be named “thick” and “thin” citizenship education, where the former involves inclusive, inter/active, process-based methods, and the latter passive, didactic, civics-based, content-led, and exclusive practices.  This structured binary is not always maintained online, yet it is easy to spot instances of the passive/active dynamic surfacing, as students can choose to be mere consumers of information presented to them or active critics who can debate, envision, and propose alternative ways to engage with the structures of democracy (Arthur and Davison, 2000). Either way, the online forum makes it easier to express one’s opinion as a post or a “like” on Facebook, to use one example.  As others have critiqued, passive forms of participation, such as “clicktivism” or “slacktivism” to employ marketing tactics to promote causes without having many real effects on society (White, 2010).

Recent scholarship, however, challenges this critique, particularly taking up the concept of “signal boosting” in relation to the idea of “community cultivators” (Aberl, 2016).  Community cultivators are people who spread knowledge about community issues that need social, financial, or emotional support.  The people sharing the message often re-post or re-blog without adding their own personal commentary, and “[t]housands of examples can be found by searching “#signalboost” on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram” (Aberl, 2016, p. 47).  Questions about digital violence have emerged on account of hate campaigns such as the controversial twitter hashtags in France, including #SiMonFilsEstGay, #SiMaFilleRameneUnNoir, #UnBonJuif, and #SiJetaisNazi (see Chrisafis, 2013). Isin and Ruppert (2015) look at all of these different power dynamics, arguing:

that citizen subjects are summoned and called upon to act through the Internet and, as subjects of power, respond by enacting themselves not only with obedience and submission but also subversion. If indeed we understand cyberspace as a space of relations between and among bodies acting through the Internet, ways of being digital citizens is a site of struggle between virtuous, malicious, righteous, and indifferent acts. (p. 12)

With subjectivities written into being through the performance of writing the self online, the boundaries between the physical body and the perception that the online persona as disembodied become blurred. As well, as we have seen in the recent momentum gained by the #Black Lives Matter movement, social media has the ability to galvanize individuals to take to the streets in the name of civil rights and equality. Digital citizenship thus has the power to bring people together in the name of prejudice and divisive politics as much as social justice.


Reading the literature cited above alongside the film Adoration is informative.  In Emma Wilson’s (2010) interview with Atom Egoyan, he explains that the power of digital storytelling for Simon is to “test out th[e] fantasy” that his father was not a monster. Egoyan explains, “[t]he technology accelerates the process in a way that would otherwise be unimaginable… It releases different energies that become part of his manic journey. He finds communities that would never have existed in the physical world” (p. 34). In the borderlands between online and offline worlds, like Egoyan, we can begin to ask about the limits of certain narrative forms and what the role of provocative discourse might be in shaping a new understandings of citizenship.

Currere, as outlined in the steps earlier in this paper, asks how students and teachers experience their lived curriculum through narrative.  There is an emphasis on the expressive act, a challenge to considering one’s subjectivity as a story told with the belief that there is an objective truth.  In other words, there is no singular way to tell the story of one’s life.  As part of emphasizing the expressive act, Pinar and Grumet (1976/2005) establish that curriculum cannot be considered a thing (a noun) and it is also not a process (a verb).  It is a social action, and a hope and a product of our labour to learn, changing as we change through time and as we touch different histories.  Taking a view of subjectivity as never complete, subjects occupy multiple, shifting, differing, and moving positions with relation to culture, gender, race, and sexuality.  Thus, part of currere might be to inspect the fractures or dis/jointedness in the unified (Cartesian) subject.  Speaking about cyborg pedagogy, Garoian and Gaudelius (2001) describe how our identities become aesthetically absorbed into cyberspace on account of the embodiment experienced by being online.  One form of resistance on account of being online, using currere, is for students to challenge the “rich” narratives that permeate educational discourse as Pinar (1994) explains. However, Garoian and Gaudelius (2001) go on to describe this process:

When students identify their own ways of performing what they have learned in school, they transform the curriculum from a reified construct to one that is dynamic, fluid, and diverse in its interpretations. What currere offers cyborg pedagogy is the possibility to expose, examine, and critique the oppressive conditions of digital media, its ability to reproduce identity, and to eradicate the body’s cultural and historical difference. (p. 344)

This is attentive to the body’s excesses; namely, that which flows over the boundaries of what is means to be contained by the definition of “student” or “teacher.”  As well, it returns us to Isin and Ruppert’s (2015) concept of the embodied citizen who through experiences on and offline makes rights claims that illuminate how normalized subjectivities might constitute the provisional in education, including such categories of race, class, gender, and ethnicity.

A lens for understanding digital citizenship practices

Currere serves as an autobiographical theory and method to study the lived experiences (curriculum) of individuals in educational settings. As such, it becomes a beginning point for the teacher candidates to understand their “emplacement – temporal as well as spatial …that confront[s] the historical moment…[and] reactivates the past in the present” (p. 51).  Furthermore, Kanu and Glor (2006) remind us that:

[t]he method of currere foregrounds the relationship between narrative (life history) and practice, and provides opportunities to theorize particular moments in one’s educational history, to dialogue with these moments, and examine possibilities for change. (p. 104)

In this paper, I use the term digital currere to refer to practices associated with “comprehensions of alterity, including the self-knowledge that enables understanding of others” (Pinar, 2013, p. 50) through the digital realm. As Egoyan’s Adoration illustrates, the spatial and the temporal are dispersive online, as students sit in their homes with their different cultures and politics, confronting this historical moment of the telling of the story they perceive to be real.  The recognition of alterity takes social form in the digital, as people share ideas about respecting others, the value of dialogue, and how growing up in different circumstances influences one’s beliefs.

Furthermore, one of the ways currere takes form is through what Pinar (2013) calls a “cosmopolitan curriculum” (p. 49).  The reason for my interest in cosmopolitanism is because the Urban Communities Cohort is focused on the perspectives of a variety of communities: local, indigenous, new immigrants, among others.  This diversity of perspectives contributes to the concept of the “passionate lives” (Pinar, 2013) that form the basis of a cosmopolitan curriculum.  Pinar (2013) explains: “Focused less on institutional allocations of coursework than on its subjective structuration, a curriculum for cosmopolitanism cultivates comprehensions of alterity” (p. 50). An example of such can be found in Adoration, where we see students grappling with issues that are commonplace in the news yet are formative for them as young adults confronting the possible reality of issues of terrorism, questions of ideology, and the pressures of capitalism in their social circle as it applies to their classmate, Simon.  The vocabulary of “values,” “morals,” “participation,” and “civic engagement” that are rehearsed in social studies classrooms are suddenly made real and urgent in the digital realm. Students’ subjectivities are formed in and through heated discussions that challenge their concepts of self.  In other words, Egoyan’s film adds to the conversation in educational research by showing us that students are authors of the definition of digital citizenship when they, as Pinar (2013) would say, “grapple with the problem of my life and flesh” (p. 59).  In a cosmopolitan curriculum, such grappling is inextricably linked to subjectivity and a recursive examination of the self, bringing practices of citizenship in direct contact with currere, both shaped by the digital.

A lens for understanding digital citizenship practices
Currere serves as an autobiographical theory and method to study the lived experiences (curriculum) of individuals in educational settings. As such, it becomes a beginning point for the teacher candidates to understand their “emplacement – temporal as well as spatial …that confront[s] the historical moment…[and] reactivates the past in the present” (p. 51).  Furthermore, Kanu and Glor (2006) remind us that:
[t]he method of currere foregrounds the relationship between narrative (life history) and practice, and provides opportunities to theorize particular moments in one’s educational history, to dialogue with these moments, and examine possibilities for change. (p. 104)
In this paper, I use the term digital currere to refer to practices associated with “comprehensions of alterity, including the self-knowledge that enables understanding of others” (Pinar, 2013, p. 50) through the digital realm. As Egoyan’s Adoration illustrates, the spatial and the temporal are dispersive online, as students sit in their homes with their different cultures and politics, confronting this historical moment of the telling of the story they perceive to be real.  The recognition of alterity takes social form in the digital, as people share ideas about respecting others, the value of dialogue, and how growing up in different circumstances influences one’s beliefs.
Furthermore, one of the ways currere takes form is through what Pinar (2013) calls a “cosmopolitan curriculum” (p. 49).  The reason for my interest in cosmopolitanism is because the Urban Communities Cohort is focused on the perspectives of a variety of communities: local, indigenous, new immigrants, among others.  This diversity of perspectives contributes to the concept of the “passionate lives” (Pinar, 2013) that form the basis of a cosmopolitan curriculum.  Pinar (2013) explains: “Focused less on institutional allocations of coursework than on its subjective structuration, a curriculum for cosmopolitanism cultivates comprehensions of alterity” (p. 50). An example of such can be found in Adoration, where we see students grappling with issues that are commonplace in the news yet are formative for them as young adults confronting the possible reality of issues of terrorism, questions of ideology, and the pressures of capitalism in their social circle as it applies to their classmate, Simon.  The vocabulary of “values,” “morals,” “participation,” and “civic engagement” that are rehearsed in social studies classrooms are suddenly made real and urgent in the digital realm. Students’ subjectivities are formed in and through heated discussions that challenge their concepts of self.  In other words, Egoyan’s film adds to the conversation in educational research by showing us that students are authors of the definition of digital citizenship when they, as Pinar (2013) would say, “grapple with the problem of my life and flesh” (p. 59).  In a cosmopolitan curriculum, such grappling is inextricably linked to subjectivity and a recursive examination of the self, bringing practices of citizenship in direct contact with currere, both shaped by the digital.


Teacher Education, Digital Citizenship and Egoyan’s Adoration

Returning now to a pedagogy that uses currere as a means of attending to Ohler’s (2010) definition of digital citizenship that challenges us to paint “a more complete picture of who we are” (p. 2), I provide two cases, one that involves blogging and the other that employs augmented reality.  These two projects help to define the currency of the concept of digital citizenship, allowing for rich complexity of the plethora of individual experiences that are constantly unfolding in the digital in teacher education.  Working alongside the teacher candidates in the urban cohort, we moved out from behind the curtain of the university’s virtual campus of Blackboard Learn.  To start the journey, students read Cynthia Chambers’ (2006) seminal curriculum studies article, “Where Do I Belong? Canadian Curriculum as Passport Home.”  Reading their own lives with and against Chambers’ coming of age story in which she shares intimate details of her life including an ethnocentric/settler upbringing, homelessness, love, and alcoholism, students begin to develop their own cosmopolitan curriculum.  They attend to the facets of ‘the autobiographical, historical and biospheric” (p. 49), which are part of Pinar’s cosmopolitan curriculum.  They begin doing this in a number of digital ways such as establishing blogs and using apps.  Watching Adoration and my earlier journey with students reading the film inspired the pedagogy that underpins both projects – the blogging and augmented reality app.  And the film thus became a heuristic that enables a reading of dimensions of digital citizenship in both projects.  In this paper, I’ve returned to running after the fluid concept of digital citizenship that all too often is hemmed in by regulatory discourses that leave out its generative personal and political nature.

Blogging to Reactivate the past in the present. The first project involves teacher candidates’ creation of blogs. Using blogs (choosing from a number of platforms such as wix, blogger, weebly, and wordpress) allows the teacher candidates to branch out and include a wide variety of modes of engagement.  More than just a repository of pedagogical content for the classroom, teacher candidates often include photo essays, twitter feeds, poetry, news links, external videos and sources that they find inspirational.  This is all part of working through their subjectivities as they absorb the concept of being a teacher.  While many of them, as our emerging data for this project reveals, did not explicitly equate this with a form of digital citizenship, through these paths, they invent and reinvent the definition of teacher, one teacher candidate at a time. Interestingly, in Adoration, Simon’s teacher, Sabine, pushes Simon to work through his unconventional interpretation of her routine assignment to extraordinary ends.  Though taken to an extreme, Simon’s teacher explores the question of “Where Do I belong?” as a person who has had a traumatic past.  Both of Sabine’s parents were killed in a civil war, prompting her immigration to Canada.  Through Simon’s engagement with the assignment, she reads for the plot of her own loss, which is the process of currere that involves looking to how the past is enacted in the present.  Sabine’s lingering in the regressive stage of currere involves her return to her memory of the past “to recapture it as it was and as it hovers over the present” (Pinar et al., 1995).  Interestingly, Simon’s parallel act of mourning the loss of his parents — his digital currere taking place across time and space — is the impetus for Sabine to continue encouraging him to develop his narrative.  In so doing, she lives vicariously through Simon’s progressive stage, wherein he free associates his future, looking at “what is not yet the case, what is not yet present” (Pinar, 1994, p.24).

Like Sabine, the teacher in Adoration, the teacher candidates at the University of Ottawa, engaged in the process of digital currere, remind us that the identity we commonly associate with the trope of “teacher” is not fixed — just as educational research has begun to show us there are many different forms and manifestations of digital citizenship.  Their blogs and wikis are not just highly individualized, but also contain passionate opinions, political leanings, and forceful ideas about both education and the world.  While to some, the choice to write the self publicly online might be risky for a future career, one might contend that it is part of a larger project of evolving the concept of the contemporary citizen.  Citizenship in this contemporary model, as Isin and Ruppert (2015) contend, necessarily goes beyond accepting the nationalist view of a rights-endowed citizen in favour of the individual whose subjectivity hinges on making rights claims in the digital.

An example of a rights claim that emerges from a passionate life lived online can be traced in the work of a teacher education student named Mary[ii] who writes on her teacher-blog of memories of growing up in Africa.  After reading Thomas King’s (2012) The Inconvenient Indian, Mary responds with her own cosmopolitan curriculum from her past before immigrating to Canada:

I remember during our visits to the village, some of our uncles & grandparents will tell us history of our people; the land; our culture; etc. as we sit outside in the moonlight; their narration wasn’t in a strict sense but it was true stories of our people and how we have journeyed so far, to us it was history… Did we get the whole story of what happened in their youth; did we get all the facts on why some of them completely rejected the white man and their education, medicine, soap, clothes, food etc; of course not, we may only see through a glass darkly and get just a glimpse of history.

Mary’s blog response, entitled “Reminiscing,” first works through the regressive stage, a gathering of past memories — the importantly, educational experience of being there, in the village, learning through the stories told by elders. As Pinar describes in Autobiography, politics, and sexuality: Essays in curriculum theory (1994), by recording these past memories, Mary brings the past into the present.  Moving forward to the analytical stage of currere, Mary’s post about reading King’s history of Indigenous peoples in Canada informs her present moment.  Mary writes that the King quotation that “[o]ne of the difficulties with trying to contain any account of Indians in North America in a volume as modest as [The Inconvenient Indian] is that it can’t be done” inspired her connection to the concepts of leaving behind the need to know why members of her culture “completely rejected the white man.”  The metaphor of glimpsing “through a glass darkly” to reveal a partial history is a revelation that constitutes the synthetical stage, whereby the historical past informs Mary’s childhood memories which are then recalled in the present moment in her formation as a new teacher.  Combined with her reading of King, Mary brings us into the present under the moonlight, so to speak.  Speaking of the journey of her people “so far,” Mary looks forward for herself and others like her, invoking the progressive stage.  I would contend that the blog writing is the synthetical stage, whereby Mary brings together the strands of the regressive, progressive, and analytic, to re-emerge in the “lived present and interrogates its meaning” (Kanu & Glor, 2006, p. 105).  Disrupting the focus on a moral disposition stemming from a rational subject, the blogging becomes a mechanism for digital acts as well as living within the affordances of technology.  The political significance here is that the blogging is a response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Call to Action (TRC) (2015); it is a recognition, within the field of education, of how colonialism eradicated the strength and diversity of indigenous peoples in North America.

Triggering history and augmenting realities using Aurasma. The second example involves the use of the mobile app Aurasma ( that also enters the topic of the TRC (2015). Aurasma has been popularized in advertising, but has been reimagined in all sorts of pedagogical contexts.[iii] Users of this app have transformed its purpose through inventiveness and creativity both of which are referred to as 21st century learning competencies (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2016). Also taking up the topic of Reconciliation and the Call to Action, teacher candidates created Auras, which are video montages triggered by locations. The locations and events captured in the Auras were key for the teacher candidates to tell the stories they wanted to tell about colonization, decolonization, reconciliation and responsibility. This assignment allowed students the freedom to read themselves with and against the prescribed curriculum and the space we call the University of Ottawa that is located on unceded[iv] Algonquin territory.

In studying Indigenous history and its absence on the University of Ottawa’s campus, teacher candidates created films that represented the reconfiguration of their thoughts and physical engagement with the space that has long neglected Indigenous histories, knowledge and epistemologies. As Pinar reminds us, “understanding is instead a retrospective judgment rendered by those who have been reconfigured by what they have studied and how they have lived” (p.50). In looking to what teacher candidates are doing with their Auras, I remain mindful that the difficult knowledge they are coming up against and might even be resisting in and through their work, gives us a glimpse into what challenges our subjectivities and the ways that we see ourselves in the world.  As one participant, Thomas, wrote about his venture into learning about Anishinaabe teaching practices, which included a trip to a reserve in Quebec, in preparation for making his Aura:

I stumbled upon an article entitled “Stories, Dreams, and Ceremonies – Anishinaabe Ways of Learning” by Leanne Simpson.  Leanne spent some time on an Anishinaabeg reserve conducting observational research.  In her work, she captures a few key principles within the internal transmission of Anishinaabe cultural learning…I have gained a tremendous amount of respect for the deep sense of spiritual belonging that is associated with Anishinaabeg culture.  Indeed, I was enlightened to the fact that any learning experience should be treated as a life-long process built off of the act of self-reflection and sharing.  I believe all educational models would benefit from incorporating this notion within their basic foundation.

In his writing, Thomas describes how education should be about acts of self-reflection, and his entry into the space of the digital in the form of a public blog for the course. Like Thomas, the other teacher candidates in the course were able to use the digital to narrativize their subjective engagements with the world in new ways, which then become part of their autobiographical structuring. This happens in and out of time, where the present of decolonization comes crashing up against the monolithic institutions such as universities that thrive on historically entrenched hierarchies that champion Western epistemological traditions. The important work of decolonization begins to take place through narrative engagements with the self precisely because teacher candidates continue to study on Algonquin territory through their whole program. Digital acts (Isin & Ruppert, 2015) are part of becoming a teacher.  Using apps like Aurasma become both authority and rebellion.  The jarring reality of being on unceded land also forces us as researchers alongside the teacher candidates to re-examine our places as citizens.  Digital projects such as the Aurasma bring to life Chambers’ question of where we all belong, particularly in this academic hierarchy that goes from the university classroom down to preschool. Along the way, it helps to unravel the hierarchy that we come to rely on to validate our very existences as learners and teachers.

Returning to Pinar’s (2013) description of the subjective movements of a cosmopolitan curriculum, we learn that “[t]he force of history determines us, as victims and beneficiaries and all points in-between, as it demands that we reconstruct what it has done to us” (p. 54). In Adoration, Egoyan provides us with a glimpse into just such a curriculum. The students’ speaking from their homes via the split screen into Simon’s bedroom, debate the determinism of history in producing victims and beneficiaries.  At the same time, Simon, through the four stages of digital currere, reconstructs his personal narrative to help himself understand what happened to his real parents who died in a horrific car accident and were, in fact, not terrorists.  In trying to understand the larger lived curriculum of teachers in the Bachelor of Education program, I learn from the Aurasma project how interacting with the history of how Indigenous peoples have been treated and marginalized has shaped their subjectivities.  Using the progressive and regressive structuring of currere, I encourage them to identify how they relate to the place of their education (that is, the University of Ottawa), its Westernized and sanitized curriculum.  The analytical stage enables students to unpack the implications of these two features for their future practice. In undertaking the final, synthetical moment in the currere process, teacher candidates can question their own positionality along the spectrum between victims and beneficiaries as they reconsider Canada’s genocide and the TRC. Entering the field at a time when education is touted as the key to Reconciliation, the work of writing themselves into the narrative as new teachers is crucial.


The Afterlife of Films

How do the above examples help illustrate the overall question of what engaging with different forms of digital participation and technology in the classroom might offer to students becoming digital citizens?  The experience of the film character Simon provides a lens to understand what social forms student subjectivities take when students are asked to grapple with regimes of power and surveillance that intersect their private lives. Like Simon, who enters several online communities globally on account of his story going viral, the pedagogical experiment with digital practices, in the context of the SSHRC funded project, aims to support a curriculum that weaves student interests with their digital engagements both inside and outside of the classroom.   And just as Simon is motivated by what happens in school to explore and narrativize and re-narrativize his story online – for better or worse – we want to push our teacher candidates so that their students might be similar to Simon in how they engage their lived curricula in digital worlds. This breathes life into the definition of curriculum, which is still often treated as static even while we know it is dynamic, constantly under revision, and undergoing re-authorship.

Through the lens of the exploration herein of digital participatory communities, informed by a reading of Adoration, I illustrate how students come to know history through themselves and challenge the boundaries of their own subjectivities. Foregoing a slip into functionality around the use of technology, digital communities that emerge organically and with autobiographical, historical and biospheric narrations illustrate “passionate lives,” what we might imagine of teachers who will be facilitating learning with youth in our urban classrooms.  Together, through digital currere, they can reach for ways to enhance their experience of online realms, taking up cosmopolitan curricula and questioning what kind of civic engagements take place while broadcasting  “live” with others in the world. Following Pinar (2013), digital citizenship embedded in a cosmopolitan curriculum becomes significant in “its provision of passages between the past and present” (p. 49).   I offer insight into teacher education by illuminating how teachers’ digital acts – despite the culture of censorship that pervades educational discourse – provides a space where the personal and political are symbolized. These symbolizations help to grow our future public intellectuals – the teachers of our children.  Learning to participate in discourse with others beyond boundaries — of language, nationality, political views, and disciplines, and even bodies versus machines — challenges us to question the fixed conceptualizations of digital citizenship.


Aberyl, K. (2016). Activism in Transition: Social Media Activism and the Contentious Politics of Social Change. Retrieved 07 15, 2016, from Knowledge Bank (

Arthur, J., & Davison, J. (2000). Social literacy and citizenship education in the school curriculum. The Curriculum Journal, 11(1), 9-23.

Bearden, S. (2016). Digital citizenship: A community based approach. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Beck, J. (1996). Citizenship education: Problems and possibilities. Curriculum Studies, 4(3), 349-66.

Chambers, C. (2006). “Where do I belong?” Canadian curriculum as passport home. Journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Curriculum Studies, 2.

Chrisafis, A. (2013, January 9). Twitter under fire in France over offensive hashtags. Retrieved July 15, 2016, from theguardian:

CIRA. (2013). Canada Online. Retrieved July 15, 2016, from CIRA Factbook 2013:

Dubowski, S. (2016). “Going Social.” Professionally Speaking. Ontario College of Teachers. June, pp. 29-31

Egoyan, A. (Director). (2008). Adoration [Motion Picture].

Greyell, L., & Becker, K. (2011, February/June). Digital Citizenship. Retrieved July 17, 2016, from ETEC510 Design Wiki: Technology-Enhanced Learning Environments:

Hayles, N. K. (1999). How we became posthuman: Virtual bodies in cybernetics, literature, and informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Heick, T. (2013, May 2). The definition of digital citizenship. Retrieved July 10, 2016, from teachthought: we grow teachers:

Isin, E. & Ruppert, E. (2015). Being digital citizens. London: Rowman & Littlefield International.

McLaughlin, T. H. (1992). Citizenship, diversity and education: a philosophical perspective. Journal of Moral Education, 21(3), 235-46.

Ohler, J. (2010). Digital community: Digital citizen. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2016, Winter). 21st century competencies: Foundation document for discussion. Retrieved July 14, 2016, from Edugains:

Pinar, W. (2013). George Grant’s cosmopolitan critique of education. Encounters/Encuentros/Rencontres on Education, 14, 49-69.

Pinar, W. & Grumet, M. (1976/2005). Toward a poor curriculum. Troy, NY:Educators’s International Press.

Pinar. W. (1994). Autobiography, politics, and sexuality: Essays in curriculum theory, 1972-1992. New York; Peter Lang.

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon, 9(5), 1-6.

Ribble, M. (2015). Digital citizenship: Nine elements all students should know (3rd ed.). Eugene, OR; Arlington, VA: International Society for Technology Education.

TRC (2015). Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to action. Retrieved

White, M. (2010, August 12). Clicktivism is ruining leftist activism: Reducing activism to online petitions, this breed of marketeering technocrats damage every political movement they touch. Retrieved July 17, 2016, from theguardian:

Wilson, E. (2010). Desire and technology: An interview with Atom Egoyan. Film Quarterly, 64(1), 29-37.

Biographical information

Linda Radford is an Adjunct Professor and coordinates the Urban Communities Cohort at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Education, where she teaches a variety of undergraduate and graduate courses. Her research interests include curriculum policy and renewal, digital pedagogies that foster self-reflexive reading practices and social change, and the empowerment of marginalized youth through engaging literacies in critical ways. Her work has appeared in publications such as the McGill Journal of Education, Affective Reading Education Journal, Journal of the Canadian Association of Curriculum Studies and Multicultural Education Review, as well as in Changing English: Studies in Reading and Culture.  She is a co-investigator on a Social Science Humanities Research Council project that examines beginning teachers’ identity formation in relation to digital citizenship and its pedagogic possibilities to foster agency in youth in urban priority schools.


[i] I would like to acknowledge my co-investigators, Dr. Ruth Kane and Dr. Nicholas Ng-A-Fook for their encouragement that I flesh out my ideas on digital citizenship, subjectivity, and cosmopolitanism in relation to our project.  Thank you to Tasha Ausman for her help as a research assistant. As well, I would like to thank SSHRC for funding this valuable research through an Insight Grant.

[ii] Participant names in this paper are pseudonyms.

[iii] This project arose from my collaborative work with Dr. Avril Aitken of Bishop’s University.

[iv] Interestingly, in the writing of this paper, I noted that the word “unceded” is not recognized as a word in the English language according to the Microsoft dictionary associated with Microsoft Office Suite.  Another colonial and corporate slip?

Casey O’Donnell

Published Online: November 14, 2016
Full Text: HTML, PDF

Abstract: This essay explores the ephemeral character of platforms and the critical role that theoretical frameworks play in making sense of platforms as socio-technical assemblages. Through an exploration aimed at further complicating the Nintendo Wii as platform and exploring Twitter as platform, the essay considers the crucial role of theory in the unpacking of black boxes. In an attempt to render platforms accessible, it is quite possible they have been presented as more opaque, and their analysts have not adequately debugged the messes they have encountered.

Key Words: Platform Studies; Alien Phenomenologies; Science and Technology Studies; Twitter; Debugging


In the early summer of 2012 at a meeting of the Foundations of Digital Games (FDG), I assembled a variety of researchers interested in exploring the micro-blogging site Twitter from the perspective of platform studies. I populated the panel with researchers and developers who had explored or created games or software for Twitter. I asked each of them to think about Twitter as a platform. Yet, according to Montfort and Bogost’s original charge of platform studies, such a thing would not qualify as a platform by their original definition. As others have noted, the conceptual category of platform has enjoyed a great deal of scholarly attention, which has not been explored by that of platform studies (Leorke, 2012). According to the more orthodox version, Twitter was simply “software that runs on platforms,” (Montfort & Bogost, 2009, p. 3) rather than a real platform, “[w]hatever the programmer takes for granted when developing, and whatever from another side, the user is required to have working in order to use particular software,” (Montfort & Bogost, 2009, pp. 2-3). Yet, what was interesting was that as I attempted to explore Twitter games from this perspective, I increasingly grappled with the ephemerality of precisely what a platform was. At first I assumed it was a consequence of my analytic transgression, but in reality, similar questions could have been leveled at any number of platforms. In my contribution to that FDG panel, I returned to Codename Revolution: The Nintendo Wii Platform (Jones and Thuruvathukal, 2012) and began to re-ask the question, “Where is the platform?”

The ephemerality of the Wii

In the spring of 2007, Chris Hecker, a game developer long associated with the Game Developers Conference (GDC), and in particular as part of the perennial ‘rant’ session, spoke. He began that year’s rant with the relatively simple, but spirited statement, “The Wii is a piece of shit!”1 This statement sent shockwaves through the enthusiast press surrounding the game industry. Game developers present in the room at that time, however, cheered and applauded. It was striking to see such heated enthusiast press coverage over something, which for developers was a humorous non-event. Hecker went further, mocking the console, presenting a slide that made it appear as if the “severely underpowered” machine was simply two GameCube consoles duct-taped together. Again, the audience roared. What struck me as funny, at the time, was that the original Development Kits, or DevKits, for the Wii actually were GameCube DevKits with a few additional wired inputs. At that moment, in 2007, I was nearing the end of a three and a half-year stint of ethnographic participant observation at a game studio working on a PS2 and Wii title. For this team, the Wii, as a platform, started as a GameCube DevKit—, not two of them taped together, just a single GameCube DevKit. I suspect that many game developers in the room that day were in on that aspect of the joke as well. Of course the Wii became the more self-contained and expanded device as time moved forward.

As I read Codename Revolution, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing. Even as an attempt to explore the platform of the Wii, the device remained too ‘thingified’, too black boxed, too polished. I always perceived one of Platform Studies’ goals to be the dynamic decompression of highly black-boxed2 machines and the games that ran on them. However, the Wii was presented very much as the device found on a store’s shelf. It was slick. It was finished. Yet, as the numerous updates issued to the Wii’s firmware over the years ought to indicate, it was far from finished.  Ultimately, it was halfway through the text that I found the source of some of my anxiety.

Developing software for the Wii involves programming for its particular affordances and within its particular constraints. This includes first of all programming for the intuitive interface provided by the Wii Remote controller. In fact, Nintendo’s SDK, which a third-party developer can purchase3 after being successfully accepted and registered as an official Nintendo developer,4 ships with a tool called LiveMove, made by AiLive, which offers a graphic user interface (GUI) for “training” a new game to recognize a repertoire of motions by the Wii Remote. The programmer turns it on, repeats a series of named sample motions (flipping a pancake, say) in various speeds and at different angles, and the program then captures those and automates the code for integration into a game under development (in this case, it might be a restaurant game). (Jones & Thiruvathukal, 2012, p. 73)

I have no idea when LiveMove became a product included with the Wii DevKits, but it certainly hadn’t been part of the platform the team of developers working on Spider Man 3 initially encountered.  I recall the heady days of development; when the team working with on the Wii dumped WiiMote data into Excel in order to do the kind of statistical analysis that surely LiveMove was attempting to automate for the developer. So is LiveMove part of the platform? Or is it a swerve in the platform? The ambiguity of the data from the WiiMote is what led to the development of Motion Plus for the WiiMote. So, which one is the platform? As a developer, what is to be assumed? With questions like this, it was too late. I’d gone down the rabbit hole.

Nintendo’s broader software SDKs, included with Wii DevKits, contain all sorts of utility libraries that encode ideas about how games ought to be developed. Memory use and allocation is actually quite different between games and “typical” software.5 Nintendo’s SDKs explicitly encourage the use of memory pools. The format that images and data take within the file system, assumed by the Wii’s underlying operating system, are also encoded in calls specific to the Wii’s SDK. The entire SDK remains a decedent of the GameCube’s SDK. What about the wide use of the scripting language Lua by many Nintendo developers? All of these are part of the platform according to Montfort and Bogost, but it’s most certainly not part of Codename Revolution. So, where precisely is the platform?

Once I started down this line of inquiry, it became much more difficult to isolate platforms. But, that is precisely what makes them such interesting units to explore. They swerve and shift throughout their lifespans. Examples abound, the Nintendo Entertainment System’s (NES) use of various “mappers” on individual cartridges that adjust the behavior of memory mapping as it relates to the underlying Pixel Processing Unit. The introduction of battery aided game-save systems is also an excellent example. The Super Nintendo Entertainment System’s (SNES) ability for cartridges to not only contain memory mappers, and semi-volatile memory, but actual co-processing units. For example, many developers’ realized that texture context switches were particularly computationally expensive on Sony’s PlayStation 2, which lead to the re-discovery and use of Atlas Texturing to work around those limitations.

Time and again, the very assumptions that developers can make about a system are liable to shift and move under their feet throughout the creative process and over the lifetime of a piece of hardware. Which, isn’t to say that these objects aren’t important and worthy of analysis, but that an approach that mimics those applied to the Atari VCS may prove insufficient to unpack and explore these important artifacts. Perhaps this critique matters doubly so as platform’s tendrils reach ever further to distributed computer platforms.

On Twitter games

What makes Twitter an interesting platform is that it tends to exhibit many of the issues that are core to exploring what precisely is meant by platforms and our analysis of them. In February of 2011, the third Global Game Jam kicked off with an accompanying ‘achievement,’ titled, ‘Aggregation,’ which required that whatever game was created “uses or combines existing web services and online data (e.g. Google Maps, Gmail, Twitter, Facebook, airline services, news, stocks, etc.) as part of the gameplay.” Out of this a handful of games were developed that made use of these elements. Two games, in my opinion, stood out. Each used Twitter’s REST API6 as a means for exploring gameplay. Twoetwy and twitapocalypse were two games, built on very different technologies, each using Twitter as a core element of their gameplay.

Twoetwy was built using Adobe’s Flash authoring system. The game connected to Twitter’s ‘firehose,’ or general public timeline. It used this data to populate a game space where a player assembles new tweets by flying a bird around on the screen, collecting falling words drawn from the deconstructed firehose-based tweets. Once assembled the player could then tweet the assembled phrase accompanied by the #Twoetwy hashtag.

Twitpocalypse was built on top of the relatively new HTML5/CSS/JavaScript standards and the Impact JS JavaScript game development library. Twitpocalypse went further than Twoetwy, requiring the user to authorize the application, which then allowed the game to crawl through the user’s personalized feed. The game then allowed the player, pictured as the Grim Reaper, to harvest unsuspecting people glued to their phone screens. The player was is rewarded for reaping those killing people that they don’t follow and are penalized for killing not of those accounts that they do follow. An incorrectly reaped soul then displays their profile image, indicating your mistake. The game played with what might be referred to as the “Facebook Effect;” do we know the people we follow or have friended?

Returning to the question of platforms, however, how would one characterize either of these game’s platform? Neither is reducible to HTML5 or JavaScript or JSON or Flash or PHP or Twitter or Chrome or WebKit or HTTP. Even those objects have shifted and mutated over time. What does it mean to be a platform in contexts such as these?7

Analytic Invocation

In the formulation of Racing the Beam, much of the theoretical platform is never hinted at, ostensibly to widen the readership of the series. The lifeblood of a platform studies text is its own platform; the assumptions made by the researchers. These assumptions are the system through which material is made sense of and put into motion in the series. One can only suspect what precisely that underlying system was for Bogost and Montfort, though one rooted in Object Oriented Ontology (OOO) and Alien Phenomenology seems most likely.8

Yet, by not placing such material in the text, it is excised from the platform. This lack of conceptual nuance results in texts that explore platforms in ways that may have proven productive for the Atari VCS, but prove inadequate for others. To return to a concept deeply related to Latour’s Actor/Actant-Networks, briefly indexed in the development of an Alien Phenomenology: that of Law’s messes.9 It is important to note, that Law’s messes are deeply rooted in research practice (Law, 2003). Actor-Network Theory, for Law, goes hand in hand with research methods. Theory and practice are intertwined; they are part of his research platform. The mess, Law might argue, goes with interesting and unexpected research findings.10 Rather than jettison the mess, I would press with a query specific to game development.

How do game developers make sense of the mess? Clearly, if one looks at the complexity of what massive teams of developers produce, games and the platforms they build these systems for, it’s a mess. But, I don’t believe that messes cannot be grasped. Even if it’s a mess, there is a system at play that can be understood by humans. In the words of one informant, an engineer, from my early work with AAA game developers:

There is an emotional component to it. You’ll be like, “that can’t be broken.” You gotta get over that pretty quick. You say, “well, it’s broken.” Maybe you’re afraid it’s impossible. But you know, if you take the time, the gruesome horrible time, you can always, if you have to, map out the transistors and follow the flow of logic. It will come out in a wash. You have to be persistent.

I like to think of this approach as one modeled on the debugger. The debugger is a software programmer’s tool that allows them to observe the execution of a program’s code as it progresses though its execution. It is part technology, but also part mindset. It can be mind-numbingly tedious, as my informant noted with, “the gruesome horrible time.” Yet, it is also part intuition. Some people are better at debugging than others. The process exemplifies what can make game development and the deconstruction of platforms difficult. Yet, it is precisely the ability of the analyst to ‘step-into’ those areas that intuition suggests are worthy of analysis.

There is no reason that our analysis of these large systems couldn’t take on the character of debugging. What are the interesting sub-routines worth examining? Where are there the most bugs or glitches? Where are the fewest? Having a sense of what needs exploration is the kind of creative analytic work that I have cited as critical to the work of game developers. Why can’t this approach be applied to our analysis of platforms?

None of this is to say that what has been produced as part of the platform studies series is not impressive. It certainly is and will likely continue to be. Rather, it is a provocation to would-be platform analysts to not only explore platforms already built, but to delve deeply into them in ways that surprise both reader and analyst. This may prove problematic, because many platform owners do not want the buggy, glitchy, or rough sides of their platforms made visible. Just as when Chris Hecker indexed a perceived failing of the platform, and was disciplined for his transgression, it is possible that platform studies may reveal aspects of platforms that are less than desirable or had unintended consequences, as noted about the NES (O’Donnell, 2011). It may also be that platforms were intended to be one thing, but over time possibilities are scrapped for reasons unknown, such as Mario Factory in the era of the SNES (O’Donnell, 2013).

Each platform explored by platform studies needs to debug, thoroughly and theoretically, each object. This will require a delving into the unit, its software, peripherals, code, and plethora of other elements. It becomes the analyst’s job to develop an intuition for those elements of the system needing greater or lesser scrutiny. Being clear and upfront about what guided that particular deconstruction is critical.


1 It is interesting to note that the rants of GDC often serve as important markers throughout recent game development history. They serve as an important release valve, or moment to index important shifts or issues facing the worlds of game developers. I have found them to be telling moments throughout my research on game developer practice and culture.

2 While I respect the desire for platform studies to remain accessible, by not tipping their hat to the literature that supports the analytical framework of the texts, the render their platform opaque. It is critically important to what made Racing the Beam impressive and is lost to the lay reader. By disconnecting the text from those theoretical works, it renders the role it played in the analysis mute.

3 DevKits are actually leased devices. They are not bought or sold. Because the hardware distributed along with the SDKs, often have capabilities (such as ROM writers) that the manufacturers do not want to have “in the wild.” The devices remain owned by the company that created it. Developers lease the devices and the software through licensing agreements.

4 This process is actually quite fraught and subject to a variety of rules and regulations that are largely undocumented, but well known to established developers (O’Donnell, 2011). Interestingly, in the case of the Wii and all of Nintendo’s consoles, the developer licensing portal is known as “Wario World.” Quite humorously, the landing pad for third-party developers for Nintendo is named after the annoying antihero of the Nintendo world.

5 While a game’s engine may be thought of as software, games should not be thought of as “just” software (O’Donnell, 2012). Many practices that are deployed within game development would be frowned upon by “traditional” software development practices. Because games often have the luxury of taking over a device, it isn’t necessary for them to behave like traditional desktop software.

6 Representational State Transfer (REST) Application Programming Interfaces (API) are one of the most widely used by web-based service providers.

7 And these contexts also shift over time. Facebook or Twitter may make changes to their API that require modifications to existing games, or they may simply stop functioning. In some cases, these changes are made with little or no warning provided to developers. Games may stop working and it becomes the job of developers to respond to users frustrated with a broken game.

8 My assumption comes from comments found in: (Bogost, 2012, pp. 131-132). What I like about the particular section noted is the chapter’s entitlement “wonder,” which is what makes Racing the Beam such a compelling text. It is clear from the material that both authors are in wonder and wondering with the Atari VCS. Codename Revolution: The Nintendo Wii Platform, however, leaves me less with a sense of wonder and more a sense of closure, something that would puzzle any scholar exploring socio-technical systems.

9 As far as Actor-Network Theory theorists go, Law has proven very productive for my work. From heterogeneous engineering (Law, 1989) to monsters (Law, 1991) to messes (Law, 2003).

10 Rheinberger (1997) has noted that it is actually the potential for noise or new messes that make experimental systems useful. If they are completely incapable of providing unexpected results, they become simply tools, rather than part of the experimental system groping to understand new and interesting things.


Bogost, I. (2012). Alien Phenomenology: or What It’s Like to Be a Thing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Jones, S. E., & Thiruvathukal, G. K. (2012). Codename Revolution: The Nintendo Wii Platform. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Law, J. (1989). Technology and Heterogeneous Engineering: The Case of Portuguese Expansion. In W. Bijker, T. P. Hughes, & T. Pinch (Eds.), The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology (pp. 111-134). Cambridge: MIT Press.

Law, J. (1991). A Sociology of Monsters: Essays on Power, Technology and Domination. New York: Routledge.

Law, J. (2003). Making a Mess with Method. Retrieved from

Leorke, D. (2012). Rebranding the Platform: The Limitations of ‘Platform Studies’. Digital Culture & Education, 4(3), 257-268.

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

O’Donnell, C. (2012). This Is Not a Software Industry. In P. Zackariasson & T. L. Wilson (Eds.), The Video Game Industry: Formation, Present State and Future (pp. 17-33). New York: Routledge.

O’Donnell, C. (2013). Wither Mario Factory? The Role of Tools in Constructing (Co)Creative Possibilities on Videogame Consoles. Games and Culture, 8(3), 161-180. doi:10.1177/1555412013493132

O’Donnell, C. (2011). The Nintendo Entertainment System and the 10NES Chip: Carving the Videogame Industry in Silicon. Games and Culture, 6(1), 83-100.

Rheinberger, H.-J. (1997). Toward a History of Epistemic Things: Synthesizing Proteins in the Test Tube. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Biographical information

Casey O’Donnell is an Associate Professor in the Department of Media and Information at Michigan State University. His research examines the creative collaborative work of videogame design and development. This research examines the cultural and collaborative dynamics that occur in both professional “AAA” organizations and formal and informal “independent” game development communities. His research has spanned game development companies from the United States to India. His first book, Developer’s Dilemma is published by MIT Press.


Raiford Guins

Published Online: November 14, 2016
Full Text: HTML, PDF

Abstract: “What is the research value of a platform studies approach for the writing of game history?” This is the question that I assign to students enrolled in my Game History course each year.  In this short reflective piece, I “take the test” like my students to discuss platform studies as a method for historical study.

Key Words: Atari VCS, Platform Studies, Racing the Beam, Graphic Design, Industrial Design

Stanley Fish once turned his student’s innocent question into a famous book title, Is There A Text in the Class? On a smaller scale – not to mention feeling like a minnow in comparison – I too have drawn from a question raised in the classroom. Since 2010, I have taught CCS/DIA 396 Game History at Stony Brook University. This semester-long course is divided into four parts: Epistemologies of Electronic Games, Electronic Games in Public and Domestic space, A Platform Study of the Atari VCS, with the fourth part devoted to a recent topic related to game history.1 I do not teach a survey on the “history of games”. We spend fifteen weeks wrestling with the practices and problems of writing about and documenting games as history. Part 3, devoted to Platform Studies, is taught as a “case-study-within-a-case-study”. We learn from Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost’s (2009) own case study of the Atari VCS platform while treating their landmark book, Racing The Beam: The Atari Video Computer System, as a case study of a possible method for doing game history.2

The question that I have adopted as my title to this brief article grew out of the first time teaching Racing the Beam. I encouraged my students to collaborate with me to turn our experience of reading the book into a project that we would all enjoy working on and from which we would benefit intellectually. I did not have my class read nearly every page with a preconceived form of assessment ready-to-hand (this was before administrators imposed draconian learning outcomes on academics who used to enjoy teaching).  Here is the short question that we generated: “what is the research value of a platform studies approach for the writing of game history?”  My students are asked to explain “how” a platform study might offer us critical insights into the history of games as opposed to surveys, non-methodological, and especially non-critical works that have largely defined game historiography.

I enjoy reading these short papers each year. They provide a little window into whether or not my students are learning to think about the history of games – especially how it is written – as much more complex, demanding, challenging, rigorous, and rewarding than the ever-present time-line on game history will ever be. I also want them to feel the intoxication of the historical study of games like their professor.  In that spirit, it seems only fair for me to “take the test” – reminiscent of when Rachel asked Deckard if he ever took the Voight-Kampff empathy test from Blade Runner – and respond to the question that they have to think about each Fall. My plan in responding to this question is to reflect on how I teach Racing the Beam to then share my brief thoughts on the question in relation to my own research. Here goes.

We kick-off our discussion of Racing the Beam backwards: we transform the book’s “Afterward” into a “Preface” in order to understand the concept of a “platform” as well as the aims and goals of a “platform study” as articulated by the book’s authors and book series editors. We spend a great deal of time working with the “five levels of digital media, situated in context” figure/chart – Reception/Operation-Interface-Form/Function-Code-Platform – that visualizes established and emergent practices for studying video games (with the platform level being emergent at the time of the book’s writing3). We seek to contemplate the heavy lines demarcating each modular epistemological frame as porous rather than rigid. We arm our thinking with an understanding of what a platform entails, what a platform study aims to accomplish, and start to consider how diverse historical, social, economic, and cultural contexts can be brought to bear on “the doing” of a platform study.

We warm to a neat definition of “platform studies” offered in a companion piece authored by Bogost and Montfort with the delightful title, “Platform Studies: Frequently Questioned Answers” (2009).  Under the final section entitled, “Our Concept,” they write, “Platform studies investigates the relationships between the hardware and software design of computing systems (platforms) and the creative works produced on those systems […]” (p. 5). Each chapter of Racing the Beam supports this claim well as my students gain invaluable insights into “why” Atari’s game programs look and play the way they do.4 In fact, they stop laughing at Atari’s Pac-Man (even E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial) once they gain an appreciation of the technical conventions and constraints of the Atari VCS as a platform. To further support this understanding of the creative (and challenging) process of programming for the Atari VCS platform I find it incredibly valuable to have my students hear from those who did it: we watch Howard Scott Warshaw’s Once Upon Atari, two-hours of interviews with former Atari employees. Tod Frye’s surly line about “mangling some coin-op game” to port a successful title (e.g. Namco/Midway’s Pac-Man) to the Atari VCS is really an eye-opener for my students while introducing another level of constraints beyond the technical.  Montfort and Bogost make good on their claim to connect the platform to other constitutive levels so that my students learn that corporate (mis)management (e.g. intentionally over-producing Pac-Man, its development restricted to 4K ROM) as well as financial constraints (e.g. the absurd amount paid to Spielberg for rights to E.T.) also shaped the games that we play.

From these introductory lectures we proceed to move chapter-by-chapter. I pair the chapter on “Combat” with a lecture based on my research devoted to Cliff Spohn who established the artistic standard for Atari’s consumer electronics division and is personally responsible for nearly twenty box covers for the VCS, artwork for 400/800 computer software titles, and one coin-op machine (Atari Soccer, 1979).5 Such a lecture is included for a number of reasons. Montfort and Bogost also (albeit briefly) engage with box cover artwork and packaging in their discussion of Activision (Chapter 6 on “Pitfall!”) and I find it useful to establish Atari’s branding style at length before examining how the new company drew from Atari’s established packaging style to promote its own form of game cartridge packaging (a style less indebted to Atari’s box-cover image realism than illustrative of in-game graphics). I place Atari’s packaging within the historical context of late-1970s commercial art forms such as movie posters and LP sleeve design to help evaluate how the new medium of an interchangeable ROM cartridge attempted to compete with older and long-established media forms and their accompanying graphical formats used in advertising.

In addition to the above, we compare the graphic design of cartridge boxes for the Atari VCS with artwork utilized on Atari/Kee Games coin-ops. Here we see a radically different graphic design sensibility applied to products housed within the coin-op division compared to Atari’s consumer products division. We ask: What role did location play in influencing these different graphic design practices and styles? What is the relationship between the graphic design of a game cartridge box and the game it contains?  Lastly, by offering a lecture and readings on Cliff Spohn we are also able to consider the role that other forms of creative labor – not just programming – played in helping to shape products for Atari as well as user experiences with its products. Those single images adorning the face of Atari’s cartridge boxes had a lot of work to perform upon their release to tempt potential customers with depictions of imaginary worlds and now serve to evidence the role that artists played in helping to establish the Atari brand. Moreover they surface a design process that has received little attention in the field of graphic design as well as game history.

Pairing different materials, contexts, and histories with the deep examination of the VCS platform continues with the remaining chapters in Racing the Beam. For the chapter on “Adventure” we discuss the experience of playing text-based adventure games while also delving into the graphics and social experience of tabletop role-playing games (e.g. Dungeon and Dragons). The chapter on “Pitfall!” maintains this emphasis on the social in a lecture on the construction of a “gaming community” that Activision created via its Activisions newsletter (along with the company’s World Record Scores sew-on patches like the “Save The Chicken Foundation” for high points achieved on Freeway). We also learn about significant court cases that made it legal for a third party software provider to produce products for the Atari VCS (the history of games is in dire need of historians of law). We then turn our attention to “Pac-Man” with special interest in Racing the Beam’s examination of the game program’s “flicker” problem. An important question for me – that I think Racing the Beam addresses very well – is how to position a game’s “flaws” or “failure” not as a reason to reject or ridicule the process of development or even the developer but to address these circumstances within a techno-historical context. Examining the porting/translation process of Pac-Man is an excellent means to address such a context. Equally, and given the age of my students, it is increasingly important to not just say that Pac-Man was a “cultural sensation” but to demonstrate this important aspect of the game’s history and longevity.  This is the perk of curating a game collection. I am able to bring in the Milton-Bradley Co. Pac-Man board game as well as a number of other tie-in products to evidence the game as a phenomenon. An additional topic that receives a good deal of lecture time is the role of the coin-op game in the early 1980s. It is imperative to communicate that the medium of the coin-op was the reigning standard of game play and that it served as content for consumer product translations long before other media like film.

I conclude our “case-study-within-a-case-study” by building out combined chapters on “Yar’s Revenge” and “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back” into a series of lectures devoted to Atari’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.  I apply many of the concepts from platform studies to an analysis of Warshaw’s game and layer the various constraints – financial, developmental, technical, translational (e.g. film to game), social – that influenced as well as impaired the title’s success. We are particularly interested in studying how the game itself was promoted via the new industry of video game magazines with ample time spent reading reviews of the game from its original era of release in contrast to the vitriol of contemporary perspectives on the game. Here I am appealing to the level of “Reception/Operation” to understand how exactly the game was received upon its release rather than have the persistent negative tide of reviews from the present over-determine the past.

This reflection on how my game history course studies Racing the Beam does not regard these other contexts of focus as “supplemental” to a platform study of the Atari VCS. Rather I regard, not to mention teach, such contexts as complementary to a platform study project. When we speak of “context/s” we do so by regarding the Atari VCS as doubly constructed: we study the formative contexts that helped to shape/situate the Atari VCS as a platform and the contexts that it shapes.

A platform study brought my class to the artifact; it allowed us to engage with computational architecture, Atari’s culture of software development, and the creative measures employed to build games via hardware constraints of the VCS. To study a video game system from the orientation of engineering and its operation has enormous merits for our understanding of the system in question and the games that it runs. These facets would have been grossly neglected by the contexts – largely cultural/design history, business history, and social experience – that I have personally paired with my class’s reading of Racing the Beam. Paired by the rational structure of a course syllabus we are able to occupy a number of different perspectives from which to contemplate the Atari VCS as a historical artifact.

Given this and to return to the class assignment, I agree with the bulk of student essays that argue that a platform study provides great value to the historical study of games while expressing a cautionary tone that such a study in isolation from the various “levels” cannot assume a historical study, not even one devoted to the history of technology (as that field rarely holds a technological artifact in isolation from dependent and contextual histories).  My students fully grasp that Montfort and Bogost are not, in any way, advocating for such a singular concentration that would warrant the charge of “isolating the VCS platform from other contexts” as clearly and convincingly articulated in their “Afterward” (or, in our case, “Preface”). They do, though, want to engage with the challenge of working with a platform studies orientation across multiple contexts and as a means of doing game history to test its conventions and constraints. They endeavor to speculate about the connections between “technical specifics”, history and historiography.6 As a student once wrote, “just because a platform is old, doesn’t mean that a platform study is interested in attending to questions of history.” An important point here is that the question of how a platform study can serve as a historical method is reliant upon the types of questions that a researcher interested in history would ask of a platform. For example, a researcher examining the MOS 6507 chip used in the VCS may want to build larger contexts from which to study this particular part of the hardware in conjunction with establishing its function. A history of microchip production in the mid-to-late 1970s would certainly be of interest to such a researcher as would a broader engagement with the rising tech industry of Silicon Valley in this era. The VCS then becomes part of a much larger history of computing. It is easy to see cultural, business, local and global histories emerge that can wrap around the study of the VCS as a platform. The platform, in this scenario at least, is studied for its technical components but is also a magnifier to help bring other related areas of interest into focus. Many different orientations are put into conversation.

In closing I want briefly to touch upon my current research on game history and discuss what I take to be a complementary arrangement with platform studies though, in a way, that may appear utterly odd, if not at odds. In addition to starting with Racing the Beam’s “Afterward” I also disassemble an Atari VCS in class (it is secured only by four screws). I do this for a number of reasons. I want to translate the VCS’s design schematic from a Powerpoint slide into an actual PCB housed within the plastic console assembly. Schematics are abstract and mean little to those without an engineering back ground. So I give my students the end product of such abstraction. I also want to show how the board physically connects with the console’s interface including input device ports. Literally and metaphorically this demonstrates an observable relationship between a machine’s guts and its industrial designed plastic dermis. And, finally, such an action performs a hands-on, personal experience with technology, the need to disassemble/reassemble in order to occupy – even if momentarily – an orientation to gain necessary technical insights.  Placing the PCB behind me on a table, I then ask one question: why is the plastic body of the console so much larger than its circuit board? My students have already sat through a lecture on coin-op cabinet design and one devoted to understanding the domestication of gaming devices and the role that industrial design played in this process of familiarizing “TV-Games” within the U.S. home of the late 20th century. We discuss the affordances of different design attributes across numerous gaming devices and spend ample time examining where such devices would be physically located within the home. I like to flip over consoles to point to the little rubber stoppers that help stabilize the artifact on a smooth surface like a coffee table. And students – via direct in-class interaction with game artifacts – discuss the “awkward” social relation of twisting a knob so close to another student when playing on a 1976 Atari Pong system.  We talk about the poor design model of hardwired controllers, examine the built-in storage space for game cartridges of the Bally Professional Arcade, ponder the sensibility (or cruelty) of disc controllers on the Mattel Intellivision, and work to understand how the word “computer” served as branding for many game systems (especially those like the Magnavox Odyssey 2 with a membrane keyboard). So when confronted by the oversized empty “hull” of the VCS I hold up in front of them they tell me that its form is due to aesthetics (to look “good” in the home) and that its size signals something “substantial” to help justify an investment in hardware that will also require multiple purchases of software titles (then a new consumer practice).

If I am to understand the “platform” as “the hardware and software design of computing systems” (Bogost and Monfort, 2009, p. 5) that in this exercise rests behind me on the table, what am I holding aloft and why does this matter for the historical study of games? I opened up the “black box” as platform studies encourages yet I am not solely interested in its contents. It is the “box” itself that commands my attention: an end product of industrial and interaction design. Racing the Beam does touch on the industrial design of the VCS as this is not a primary focus for platform study. Its language, one could argue, is not geared to such a sustained consideration.  Metaphors of “depth” pulse through the language of platform studies. The “[…] serious scholar of digital media might need to delve deeper into the material construction of software and hardware” (Bogost and Montfort, 2009, p. 5). Or, platform studies as a method purports to “dig down to the code,” or “to the metal” in its vernacular.7 And the very way of visually conceptualizing a platform – again referring to the chart from Racing the Beam and published on the Platform Studies webpage – in regards to other levels of game study occupies a foundational level “beneath” all others. It is fair to say, then, and this is not a criticism, but an observation of a specific organizational apparatus, that the platform, rightly claimed as neglected, has shifted status from overlooked to fundamental importance in defining “the game” and modes of its analysis.

My research occupies an opposite sphere. I consider it “superficial” in comparison to platform studies emphasis on depth. Calling my research “superficial” also runs the risk of it not being regarded as “serious scholarship” if such an endeavor is defined in terms of “depth”. I scale surfaces made of wood, vacuum formed plastic, glass, cardstock and fiberglass: forms molded and adorned to help constitute the game as well as the experience of play; forms anything but neutral, far from uniform. I have long held historical interest in graphic and industrial design of games—consoles, cabinets, and packaging. Some of my research interests on these topics have surfaced in article form and in Game After: A Cultural Study of Video Game Afterlife (2014). My next book, Atari Modern: A Design History of Atari Coin-Op Cabinets, 1972 – 1979 will be a marriage (a happy one I hope) between design history and game history. A platform study of the Atari VCS, or to speak to my research interests, the company’s coin-op games, would not help me get to the surface of where I want to be. That’s about molded plastic, ergonomics, visual communication, industrial and interaction design, not “the metal”.

While I do not think that this work would be, or even needs, or wants to be, considered platform studies, I do think that there is a mutual benefit for the design history of games that I am invested in to form a friendship with platform studies which may of course have already happened. We would be able to talk exteriors and interiors. Game history would win big as would design history given its current neglect of video games.8 And I think that this “level”, one that does not presently slot well into the existing configuration, would be one means of working towards a “full platform study” that Bogost and Montfort argue “will also consider how the platform came about in its particular shape, and how that particular shape later influenced how and what later things were brought about” (2009, p. 5).

So instead of squeezing my research interests in design history (the field) and the history of design (the subject) into “that chart” I’d prefer to visualize all of these “levels,” including mine, in the form of a Venn diagram. For me the Universe is game history so that unions, complements, even differences of diverse sets can be configured into useful and exciting intersections between all levels for the writing of game history without the need of any foundation, core, or hierarchy. We could simultaneously manage micro and macro histories, work within specific sets of knowledge while seeking unions with others. A platform study teamed with design history, therefore, would continue to take us under the hood while not forgetting aerodynamics.


1 Topics have included: The Preserving Virtual Worlds Final White Paper Report, the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s The Art of Video Game Exhibition, the excavation of the so-called “Atari Landfill”.

2 I am only going to focus on Racing the Beam because it is the platform series book that I know best on account of teaching the book for so many years. The 1970s is also a major decade of interest in my own research in game history. I am well aware that Montfort and Bogost do not limit platform studies to video games but, given the above, I will for the sake of this short essay.

3 It is very fair to say that a “platform study” approach to the study of video games – if not computational technology in general – has successfully and influentially ascended to a position of acceptance in a very short period of time. The book series is less than ten-years old with Racing The Beam being its launch title in 2009.

4 I have intentionally kept this in the present tense because we play each game examined in Racing the Beam on an Atari VCS in class and these are first encounters with game programs developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s for my students born into the world just before nail-clippers on airplanes signaled a happy past.

5 This was actually news to Spohn when I recently informed him about the coin-op machine.

6 I have placed “technical specifics” in quotations to draw attention to Bogost and Montfort’s corrective to the charge that “Platform Studies is about technical details, not culture” (2009, p. 4). Their retort is that their project is about “the connection between technical specifics and culture” whereas my class wants to not just swap the word “culture” with “history” but to place both “technical” and “culture” within historical considerations.

7 See “Home” @

8 Is it permissible to regard platform studies as part of Design Studies, Design Culture, and Design History? If so, we would have to understand “game design” as more than software development.


Bogost, I., & Montfort, N. (2009). “Platform Studies: Frequently Questioned Answers.”

Proceedings of the Digital Arts and Culture Conference. Retrieved from

Guins, R. (2014). Game After: A Cultural Study of Video Game Afterlife. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Montfort, N., & Bogost, I. (2009). Racing The Beam: The Atari Video Computer System.

Cambridge: MIT Press.

Platform Studies. Retrieved March 10, 2015. Website:

Biographical information

Raiford Guins is Professor of Cinema and Media Studies in the Media School at Indiana University. He is Principal Editor of the Journal of Visual Culture and co-editor of MIT Press’s “Game Histories” book series with Henry Lowood ( He is the author of Game After: A Cultural Study of Video Game After (MIT Press, 2014) and is currently researching his next book: Atari Modern: A Design History of Atari’s Coin-Op Cabinets, 1972 – 1979 (Bloomsbury Academic). His writings on game history appear in the following journals and magazines: The Atlantic, Cabinet, Design and Culture, Design Issues, Game Studies, Journal of Design History, Journal of Visual Culture, and Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture. Raiford’s most recent publication, Debugging Game History: A Critical Lexicon (MIT Press, 2016), is co-edited with Henry Lowood.

Samuel Tobin

Published Online: November 14, 2016
Full Text: HTML, PDF

Abstract: This argues for a focus on context and space in the study of mobile play. Platform Studies is examined as a worthy alternate method. The author reflects on the difficulties in studying quotidian and mobile play practices, presents some methodical solutions and assembles a review of helpful literature.

Key Words: Platform Studies, Nintendo, Mobile, Portable, Everyday Life, Method, Context, Space, Everyday Life

When Tom Apperley asked me to write something for this platform studies oriented issue of Digital Culture & Education I was at first a bit confused as I don’t think of myself as an expert on platform studies or a participant in platform studies’ debates. However, I had recently published Portable Play in Everyday Life: the Nintendo DS, a book about that mobile game system and its players. Why, then, do I resist calling my book, which is a study of a game system, a platform study? The question I want to address here is not how I managed to avoid or failed to perform a platform study, but rather what we might learn about games studies and platforms studies by looking at an alternate way to approach a system, an object, a thing with which people play.

Portable Play could have been a platform study, or rather someone could have written (indeed may yet write) a platform study of the Nintendo DS. Nick Montfort, one of the founders of the field and editors of the book series at MIT was generous with comments on an earlier version of the manuscript and it would be disingenuous for me to deny that I would’ve liked my book to be a part of the platform studies series.  But the reality is that my book would not have really fit the series.

To understand this gaming system and the ways it works (and doesn’t work) for these indifferent, occasional players I had to address the DS from multiple perspectives and at different registers. I focused less on the DS programs, texts and game spaces than on the ways in which the DS as object and system is talked about and imagined by its casual users. Portable Play in Everyday Life is consonant with platform studies’ focus on materiality and the affordances of things, and divergent in research methods, with its analysis of player discourse about the way the DS fits into everyday life.  While in the book I discuss the ways in which the DS functions technically, with its ARM7 and 9 processors and touch screens and proprietary Wi-Fi protocols, I do so in order to better understand how players, not game designers, understand this object.

I came to the Nintendo DS not as a player but as someone who started to notice it and objects like it (the Sony Vita but also older Game Boys and smart phones) on my daily subway commute and this perspective colored my research and eventual book. My study of the Nintendo DS grew not out of a desire to study video games or platforms, but rather a desire to study how people use devices to copy with the demands of everyday contemporary urban life, demands Walter Benjamin explored in the Arcades Project, which was a seminal text for my research. It was Benjamin’s ambivalent approach to his era’s media milieu that led in part to my decision to focus on how the Nintendo DS fits into the lives of people who use it while commuting, waiting, and killing time. I came to see the DS as a cousin of earlier media people used to cope with the demands of their day to day lives, like the paperback novels and newspapers discussed by Benjamin’s (1999) and the early cinema as discussed in Siegfried Kracauer’s “The Mass Ornament” (1927), as well as more recent media examined by mobile scholars like Mizuko Ito and her team (2009), and game studies’ precedents like David Sudnow’s study of his son’s arcade play (1983) and Erving Goffman’s (1961) discussion of prisoner’s play with balls and walls. These studies are connected to the studies of the politics and promises of the practices of everyday life, as exemplified in the work of Michel de Certeau (2002) and Henri Lefebvre (2002, 2008). I was concerned with issues of everyday life, but also of attention and distraction and this helped me develop a sociological and critical theoretical framework for my study. It is this sociological framework that, at least in part, differentiates my work from platform studies, even as I share many (material) concerns with it.

I had a research object (the DS) and a conceptual framework, but I ran into a significant problem finding a workable research method. People I approached would not agree to being interviewed for my ethnographic study of DS players. Potential informants with DS in hand whom I approached at a video game fan convention in Philadelphia explained to me that they weren’t interested in talking about their DS as it wasn’t something they were really that in to. They were at the convention because they were fans of other gaming systems; they were dismissive of the games that played on the DS while they waited for their turn at the consoles and real games.  Temporarily stymied, I went where we go whenever we are out of options: I went online.

It was on game forums where I found lots of people who wanted to talk about the DS. They weren’t fans, either, but they went to the DS forums to search for tips on what people might think would be a good game for a long flight, or how to clean the second screen, or to see if other people hated having to yell into the microphone when playing certain games.  I found people who talked about the DS but only in passing because then (this has changed some with the rise of the StreetPass function) the DS wasn’t something that people thought of as an important system; it was, for most of its players, beneath notice.  This unnoticeable and unremarkable quality was what made the DS and its users interesting to me. I was interested in the DS and its users not because the DS is an exceptional gaming platform or DS users exceptionally intense fans, but just the opposite, because the DS is a good enough device, on which to play games that are good enough to help people get through commuting and killing time in waiting rooms and other ordinary challenges of everyday life.

My approach worked well to highlight certain aspects of the system, including the affordances of the interface (an at the time novel touch screen) and a particular kind of mobility (informed by its size and ability to be closed and paused at once) and contingency based on how the DS fit into gaps in daily life and co-exists with other devices in player’s lives. My approach did not address many things we might want to know about the DS, from how players mod game carts, to the ways in which those carts were manufactured, and the way the code in them was written/compiled. I didn’t address these topics in part because they do not fall within my area of expertise, but primarily because such issues are not central to my project’s goal of understanding the ways the DS fits into people’s everyday lives. To understand this quality of fitting in we do need to understand the affordances and the limits of the DS from the perspective of users and their lives.  For me the most compelling point of Monfort and Bogost’s Racing the Beam is their emphasis on limits, and on understanding what a machine allows and, in turn, what people can do with it. Where Racing the Beam shows how the VCS’s “remarkable hardware design” restricted and demanded creative and in some cases odd programming and design decisions, I identified how the DS restricts and demands creative and odd playing and consumption practices (2009).

In my own DS play experiences and in the thousands of online comments and conversations which made up my corpus of data I found that these practices were based not on inherent qualities of the games available for the DS, but rather on the intersection of the properties of a given game or game genre with the context and space in which the game was going to be played. The player reviews and recommendations I found online used context as the key factor for determining a game’s value. Space informed player game choice, interface use (especially sound and touch screen) play style and attitude, almost every aspect of DS use. Because of this I made space the organizing principle of the book – the chapters are based not on game genres or, as in the case of Racing the Beam, on iconic game cartridges but rather on locations of play. This organizational difference between my study of the DS and Monfort and Bogosts’s of the VCS points to a larger split: theirs is a focus primarily (but not totally) on how and why people made these games the way that they did, whereas mine is about where and how people tend to play these games.  Monfort and Bogost do important historical work, showing how what might otherwise seem arbitrary (say the way an AT-AT was rendered on screen in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back) was in fact contingent, and in response to technical contexts and limitations. In contrast, I show how what we might think of as an arbitrary decision about what game to play where and when is also contingent, and dependent less on inherent game qualities than on suitability of games to be played in specific contexts.

My book is organized by locations, but you won’t learn much in Portable Play about the troubled kingdom of Hyrule or about where Professor Layton solves puzzles. My focus is not gamespace but playspace, which might be the couch, the bus stop, the bedroom, or even the toilet. I am not alone in this turning away from the screen. Raiford Guins’ “Intruder Alert! Intruder Alert!’ Video Games in Space” and others like it helped me appreciate the importance of investigating the spatial and temporal contexts of play.

I can name some texts that, along with Guins’ article, constitute a corpus of space and context oriented game work. This list shows some age, as these are just the texts I drew on for Portable Play.  Some of the authors I mention here might even disagree that they belong here.  I list them together because they share a conceptual angle that is also to some degree a methodological one, and one that points toward another way to study and think about game systems alongside and/or besides a platform approach. This list includes: Jesper Juul’s Casual Revolution, Tom Apperley’s Global Rhythms, Helen Cunningham’s “Mortal Kombat and Computer Games Girls,” James Newman’s “The Myth of the Ergodic Videogame” and Jussi Parikka and Jaakko Suominen’s “Victorian Snakes? Towards A Cultural History of Mobile Games and the Experience of Movement.” I also include such non-game focused works as Anna McCarthy’s Ambient Television: Visual Culture and Public Space, Larrisa Hjorth’s Mobile Media in the Asia Pacific: Gender and the Art of Being Mobile and Millennial Monsters by Anne Allison. This list is neither exhaustive nor equally weighted. Space is a complicated concept in these texts: scale ranges from the micro to the macro, from the spaces of the body, the gesture and the pose to globalization. Context is as important as space to this list, in that these studies examine temporal as well as social, political and economic factors.

When we pay attention to the spaces and contexts of play, our focus shifts away from what goes on within the screen, away from story, representation, levels, mechanics, heuristics, and graphics. To the degree that these issues remain in our study, they tend to be filtered through contextual issues.  For instance, in online discussions of play on the DS, time, pace and duration tend to trump mise-en-scène, narrative, or character. To make sense of such discussions requires expanding our notion of the core concerns of games studies and of the methods we use.  As I have argued recently in Analog Game Studies, there are benefits in decentering the game and the digital (2015). This has implications specifically for platform studies, one of which is that in addition to studying the structures beneath games we should also look at the structures beyond them.

Approaching a game system in different ways, with different (if at time related) tools and questions not only delivers different results but changes and redefines the definitions of a gaming platform and a gaming system. The goal of my project was to understand what the DS was for the people who played, owned, talked about, and enjoyed it. These uses were informed, but not determined, by those who commissioned, designed, engineered, produced, wrote code for, and promoted it. The processors, hardware, electronics and materials which make up the DS, to say nothing of its multitudinous carts and programs, are the things with which players make up their experiences with and understandings of that system. However, as I studied these experiences and understandings I found that the technical affordances of the system mattered and made sense only when that system is seen in the context of the lives into which that system is inserted. Mine was therefore a study not of what the platform afforded designers or how it limited programmers, but what the object allowed and asked of its users. This perspective comes from my sociological training and interest in better understanding the world and lives that accommodate, allow and even demand technological play practices afforded by assemblages like the Nintendo DS.  This perspective, method and framework determine what I can see, study, interpret and critique. For me the benefits of this approach out way its limits, indeed the limits are what shape the benefits, just as limits shaped the VCS and the DS. No one approach, no single set of questions or methods can be adequate for the study of an object. My book should not be the only thing written about the Nintendo DS, its games or its players.


Allison, A. (2006). Millennial Monsters. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Apperley, T. (2010). Gaming Rhythms: Play and Counterplay from the Situated to the Global. Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures.

Benjamin, W. (1999). The Arcades Project. Translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughline. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Cunningham, H. (1984). “Mortal Kombat and Computer Games Girls.” In Electronic Media and Technoculture. Edited by John Thornton Caldwell. Piscataway: Rutgers University Press.

De Certeau, M. (2002). The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Goffman, E. (1961). Encounters: Two Studies in the Sociology of Interaction. New York: Bobbs-Merrill.

Guins, R. (2004). Intruder Alert! Intruder Alert!’ Video Games in Space. Journal of Visual Culture, 3(2),195–211.

Hjorth, L. (2008). Mobile Media in the Asia Pacific: Gender and the Art of Being Mobile. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Ito, M, Diasuke, O., and Anderson, K. (2009). Portable Objects in Three Global Cities: The Personalization of Urban Places. In R. Ling.(ed). The Reconstruction of Space and Time: Mobile Communication Practices. New Brunswick: Transaction.

Juul, J. (2009). A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Kracauer, S. (2005). The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Lefebvre, H. (2002). Everyday Life in the Modern World. New York:Continuum.

Lefebvre, H. (2008). The Critique of Everyday Life. Translated by John Moore and Gregory Elliott. Special Edition. New York: Verso.

McCarthy, A. (2001). Ambient Television: Visual Culture and Public Space. Durham: Duke University Press.

Monfort, N. and Bogost, I. (2009). Racing the Beam. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Newman, J. (2002). The Myth of the Ergodic Videogame. Game Studies, 2(1)

Parikka, J. and Suominen, J. (2006). Victorian Snakes? Towards A Cultural History of Mobile Games and the Experience of Movement. Game Studies, 6(1)

Sudnow, D. (1983). Pilgrim in the Microworld. New York: Warner Books.

Tobin S. (2013). Portable play in everyday life: The Nintendo DS. London: Palgrave.

Tobin, S. (2015). Cocktail cabinbets: A critique of digital and ludic essentialism. Analog Game Studies, special issue: Analog players, analog space: Video gaming beyond the digital:

Biographical information

Samuel Tobin is an Assistant Professor of Communications Media and Game Design at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts who studies play, media and everyday life. He is the author of Portable Play in Everyday Life: The Nintendo DS (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.)


Robbie Fordyce & Tom Apperley

Special section published online: November 14, 2016
Full Text: HTML, PDF

This special section of Digital Culture & Education comprises a number of short pieces on the topic of platform studies. Platform studies is an interdisciplinary approach borne out of the intersection of computer science, design studies, and media studies, and finding substantial purchase in the analysis of digital games and culture. Furthermore, it is finding increased usage as a historic method for game and media studies, as the consoles and computers of yesteryear are being considered in a new light.

The history of platform studies in the humanities is short, but influential. Keating and Cambrosio, writing in 2003, open up the curious existence of something called a platform to the humanities. Both similar and different to the idea of a computer platform, the concept evoked a useful model for thinking on how technical systems operated. A platform, for Keating and Cambrosio was at least partly a mental map of infrastructure: at times a map of bureaucratic relations, at other times a map of circuitry. The model remains the concept that allows the human mind to grasp what is behind the screen, in the liminal space between interface and system.

Montford and Bogost’s 2009 book, Racing the Beam, opened up the concept of the platform as a research methodology for game and media studies. This work was the first in the ‘Platform Studies’ book series, and founded ‘platform studies’ as a method. The goal here is twofold – firstly, to create a research agenda which is capable of addressing and unpacking the games systems of yesteryear as discrete objects, creating an ontology of different devices. Secondly, the agenda shifts to an epistemological project. Once the gaming device has been identified it can then be unpacked, such that the changes in gaming and games development can be mapped over the decades. In doing this it is possible to see that a platform is rarely a discrete object, and is subject to changes, both subtle and severe, over its lifetime.

A year later, in 2010, Tarleton Gillespie would write “The politics of ‘platforms’” – an article that has since been well-cited within media studies. The piece points to the many investments that inform a platform, and Gillespie bridges out the concept of a platform from the technical and conceptual interstices between software and hardware. The platform, Gillespie attests, is not just a technical concept – that is, it is not solely for the programmer, the academic, or the analyst – it is also for the public and the politician. The platform is a discursively neutralising concept, which raises up the idea of empty, vacant ground, waiting to be populated (but never filled) by the fertile outputs of the modern prosumer. Gillespie’s approach draws in the platform as a political concept as well as a technical one. A platform both stakes an ideology through its technical interface while simultaneously avoiding any mention of politics.

Leorke, writing in Digital Culture & Education, maps out a number of constraints for platform studies. Leorke’s work, “Rebranding the platform: the limitations of ‘platform studies’” (2012) is one that takes account of the project of platform studies, as begun by Bogost and Montford. Specifically, Leorke locates the problem for the methodology in the fetishisation of platforms as a research object, specifically that the mold set out in Racing the Beam is so structured that nothing else in the series deviates from this approach. Such an observation identifies a potential theme that the emergent discipline of platform studies must be aware of: platform studies must retain a methodological approach that connects more broadly to media theory if it is to continue to have the purchase that allows it to make dynamic interventions.

In this special issue, the authors respond to ‘platform studies’ both to advance platform studies as a discipline, and to identify its limits.

By reference to the BBC Microcomputer, Alison Gazzard argues that platform studies needs to look ‘beyond the book’. Specifically, Gazzard would see platform studies move past the “nostalgic qualities they are so often defined and remembered by.” In doing this, one of the key approaches that she advocates is preservation of these platforms such the games and other media can still be played and operated on these machines. The implicit issue here is that the extinction, by whatever means, of a game platform would effectively lead to the subsequent loss of all manner of games. While the cartridges or floppy discs might remain, the platform which interprets and operates the code would no longer exist.

Casey O’Donnell argues for a greater technical understanding of platforms, particularly on the development side, so that platform studies is capable of discovering facts about the platform which exceed what the developers and producers already know. In particular, O’Donnell points to the important role that developer communities have played in terms of critiquing what we might call ‘platforms as a means of development’, and furthermore, noting how this critique is in turn taken up to recast the development systems for games consoles. In essence, O’Donnell addresses how the concept of a platform becomes open to debate, and thus opens space for critique to change the nature of a platform itself.

Raiford Guins engages closely with the work of Montford and Bogost, specifically within an educational paradigm. What Guins has drawn out of the exercise is an interrogative question constructed by students from the first year of teaching Racing the Beam: “what is the research value of a platform studies approach for the writing of game history?” Guins offers no solutions, because the question itself becomes a research question to guide future inquiry. If anything, Guins indicates that Racing the Beam has held an important role in fostering an inquiring mindset in students, particularly insofar as it pushes students into questioning both the social and the engineering aspects of videogames. The way that he challenges the platforms studies paradigm is novel. Rather than think ‘outside the box’ Guins suggests that the box (i.e. the console’s case, or housing) has a certain aesthetics that must be considered. What decisions and values have been considered in the process of the aesthetic construction of the gaming device in order for it to have seen the consumer uptake that allowed a device to have purchase on the history of videogaming.

Samuel Tobin points to the Nintendo DS as a case study of a broader interpretation to platform studies. Indeed, Tobin points to the difficulty in addressing a games platform that players claimed “wasn’t something they were really in to.” Players were reluctant to commit to interviews as informants, because they didn’t feel an enthusiasm for their form of play. Tobin, instead, shifts online to engage in an ethnography of play for the Nintendo DS, concluding that ‘space’ is a key determinant in the forms of play available to the platform. In claiming that his research into the Nintendo DS would “not have really fit the series” by Montfort and Bogost, Tobin is in fact expanding the research methods available for platform studies – something that Leorke considers necessary for the continued growth and development of the concept.


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

Leorke, D. (2012) Rebranding the platform: The limitations of ‘platform studies’. Digital Culture & Education, 4(3), 257-268.

Biographical information

Robbie Fordyce is a researcher on the Melbourne Network Society Institute project ‘the Domestic 3D Printing Initiative’, and a research assistant to the Australian Research Council project ‘Avatars and Identity’. His primary research interests are 3D printing, videogames, globalization and activism, often through the lens of post-autonomist Marxist thought. He has previously been published in ephemera, Games and Culture, and The Fibreculture Journal.


Tom Apperley is an ethnographer that specializes in researching digital media technologies. His previous writing has covered broadband policy, digital games, digital literacies and pedagogies, mobile media, and social inclusion. Tom is a Senior Lecturer at UNSW Australia (the University of New South Wales) and is a Visiting Fellow at the Research Unit in Public Cultures at the University of Melbourne. Tom’s more recent work has appeared in the journals Digital Creativity, Games and Culture, and The Fibreculture Journal. He is a chief investigator on an Australian Research Council funded Discovery Project (DP) that examines the contemporary and historic significance of videogame avatars.


The editors of the special section would like to thanks Dale Leorke for his contribution to its organization.

Casey O’Donnell

Published Online: November 14, 2016
Full Text: HTML, PDF

Leonie Rowan, Geraldine Townend & Catherine Beavis with Lynda Kelly & Jeffrey Fletcher

Published Online: July 28, 2016
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Abstract: Digital games feature prominently in discussions concerning the ways museums might reimagine themselves—and best serve their audiences—in an increasingly digital age. Questions are increasingly asked about the opportunities various games might provide to foster historical imagination, and, in this process, contribute to the curation, construction and dissemination of knowledge: goals central to the work of modern museums. This paper reports on the experiences and perceptions of three groups of year 9 students (aged 14-15) as they engaged with one purpose built digital game—called The Voyage—at the Australian National Maritime Museum in 2015. The researchers sought students’ feedback on the strengths, weakness and possibilities associated with using games in museum contexts (rather than at home, or at school). In presenting students’ perspectives and their associated recommendations, the paper provides vital end-user input into considerations about how museums might maximize the potential of digital games, to enhance historical awareness and understanding, build links to formal curriculum, and strengthen partnerships between schools and museums.

Key Words: Digital games; historical imagination; learning; curriculum; museums


For well over a century now, the museum’s interconnected roles as an agent and place of learning have been recognized as central components of its work. In the late 1880s, for example, Goode emphasized the need for museums to function as both knowledge creators and knowledge disseminators, and as producers of learning (Kelly, 2010; Goode as cited in Kohlstedt, 1901/1991). In more recent times, the digital world has begun to change the face of the museum and, by extension the ways these joint imperatives—that is, the need to create and disseminate knowledge and, by extension enable learning—are enacted. This has opened up both challenges and opportunities that have been met in diverse ways in different contexts. Much of the debate around these issues reflects a growing understanding of the need for museums to be relevant to their audience…and thus to respond to their audiences’ expectations. ‘In a digital world,’ notes Greene (2014 n.p.), ‘it is the responsibility of museums to continue to describe and present their collections in a way that is useful and comprehensible via channels that are most relevant to our audiences’. Similar points are made about museums’ role as a site of learning, and the ways in which the educational dimensions of this role are (or should be) enacted with contemporary learners. An awareness of the exponential rise of connective technologies and online experiences has seen museums, like other institutions, increasingly explore the link between digital games and education: and how they might be used to contribute positively to the educational experiences of diverse learners in a range of ‘not school’ (Sefton-Green, 2013) educational environments. This includes closer consideration of the benefits that can, do or might flow from various forms of game-based learning (Facer, 2011; Kirriemuir & McFarlane, 2004; Perrotta, 2013) and the ways contexts impact upon what games do and/or become in various sites of play.

Underlying many debates about the potential use of games in museums and, indeed other non-school educational contexts, is a set of questions and assumptions about the extent to which it is actually possible to capitalize upon games’ widely cited ability to engage, motivate, (obsess?!?) so very many young people within and beyond schools. The growing interest in the educational uses of ‘serious play’ (de Castell & Jenson, 2003) reflects the recognition that contemporary youth spend much of their time navigating on-line worlds, and/or actively playing diverse kinds of digital games, as well as an acknowledgement of the increasingly blurred boundaries between formal and informal learning. Rather than there being sharp divisions between various formal or informal educational locations, learning is now widely understood as ‘situated intricately and intimately in a matrix of ‘transactions’: experiences, life trajectories, voluntary and involuntary learning contexts, affective frames and social groupings that make up experience across our life-worlds’ (Estad & Sefton-Green, 2015, p. 1). Orientations or dispositions towards learning, and prior learning experiences flow between contexts, with expectations developed in one context lapping across into others.

But while there is increasing experimentation with digital play in many settings including museums, relatively little is known about how students respond to these educationally motivated opportunities for different kinds of play based experiences, particularly when they occur neither at home, nor at school: but in the school-like environment offered by excursions into a museum space. This is important information to know. Studies based in formal school settings have shown that students’ responses to digital games in formal educational contexts (such as schools) cannot be taken for granted (Bourgonjon, 2010; Perrotta, 2013; Rowan, 2016: in press). Contrary to a commonly circulated opinion, students are not automatically engaged, motivated or inspired by digital games or virtual play spaces, any more than they are automatically disengaged or demotivated by more familiar, materially based experiences. For museums to make best use of digital games and the ways they are utilized, much can be gained through paying attention to students’ beliefs about how gaming initiatives can/should/might be used to achieve various educational goals within settings that both are, and are not, ‘like school’. This is the focus of this paper.

The Research Background: The Voyage at the Australian National Maritime Museum

To explore the ways in which students experience games in the museum context—a context which is both similar to, and different from, regular school day—a team of researchers located at the Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM) and Griffith University set out to investigate the responses of three groups of secondary schools students, aged 14-15 (and in year 9), to the educational game, The Voyage, played during a school visit to the museum. The Voyage was purpose built for use by the ANMM and clearly articulates with its overall work as a museum centred on maritime experiences (Roar Films, 2015). The game explores the life of convicts on board transport ships to Australia in the 19th century. Acting as the commanders/surgeon-superintendents of a convict ship, students make decisions about such things as which ship to sail (considering issues of size, speed, and weaponry); what provisions to put on board and how to manage the convicts and treat their various illnesses. The overall aim for the game player is to arrive in Australia with as many convicts as possible alive and well. It also includes a range of mini-games during which players try to complete certain activities in a timed challenge: such as hanging out washing and catching rats.

The game is part of a suite of activities and resources that form part of the museum’s educational program – ‘curriculum focused museum programs that synthesise game-playing with onsite experiences including exhibitions, hands-on artefacts, dramatisations, role play, vessels like HMB Endeavour, research and investigation tasks and augmented reality experiences’ (Beavis et al., 2014, p. 6; Fletcher, 2014). The Voyage articulates directly with the Australian Curriculum for history (Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority, 2015) but also relates to other curriculum areas including literacy, numeracy, science hospitality etc. and cross curriculum capabilities such as critical and creative thinking, personal and social capability, ethical understanding and intercultural understanding (Beavis et al., 2014; Fletcher, 2014).

In this paper we focus specifically on students’ beliefs and views about the value of including digital games in the museum. Key questions concerned:

  • The reasons for, and value of, using digital games in museums
  • The impact of game use upon learning
  • The impact of game experience upon historical imagination
  • Ways in which games can best be incorporated with other museum experiences
  • Issues for museum educators to consider in their use of games

From here, the paper is divided into four sections. The first provides more background to the design of the research project by briefly reviewing key issues and questions in related literature that shaped both the development and conduct of the study. The second provides an overview of the research process itself, and describes the data sets that were generated. The third presents a thematic analysis of the students’ responses to their experience playing The Voyage and draws upon different forms of data visualization strategies to communicate this analysis. The paper concludes with the students’ recommendations, and a discussion of implications that arise from this research for those working with young people in museums and other not-school educational settings.

Background to the study: literature informing the research

Games in the museum

In their review of the use of digital media in afterschool programs, libraries and museums, Herr-Stephenson, Rhoten, Perkel & Sims distinguish between three dominant approaches to the use of digital media and technology in museums: as content, as outreach, and as a hook (2011, p. 43). Digital games arguably flourish as all three. The Voyage initiative—including the focus, design and introduction of the game into the museum—reflects interdisciplinary conversations relating to the potential relationship between digital innovations, game play, young people, education, history and the contemporary museums. Museums have traditionally been places where young people learn about history via exposure to (and sometimes interaction with) the material objects on display. In contemporary times however, museums are in transition to new roles and new formations. Audiences and expectations too have changed. As young peoples’ worlds are increasingly characterized by immersion in digital culture and the online experience, the development of ‘digital dispositions’ (Rowan & Bigum, 2012) toward learning increasingly comes into play. As we and others have noted elsewhere, ‘the dual imperatives of digital technologies for the museum, the digitization and web archiving of material objects and collections, and the transformed nature and expectations of twenty first century learners means that the ways museums once worked are undergoing a process of rapid change’ (Beavis et al., 2014, p. 2). In this context it is not surprising that museums—in common with both schools and other not-school educators—are investigating the potential of games to help museums reach their educational and outreach goals. This, of course, is a major and developing area of scholarship.

Games, engagement, learning

The past decade has given rise to a wide range of powerful portrayals of games as ‘learning machines’ that have, by virtue of their common structures and designs, an inbuilt educational potential which is just waiting to be harnessed by those who work closely with generations of students variously (often problematically) portrayed as ‘generation y’, ‘clickeratti’ and ‘thumb people’. It has been argued that games have the capacity to foster deep learning (Gee, 2009) and the development of a range of twenty first century skills (play, performance, distributed cognition, collective intelligence, judgement and the like, (Jenkins, 2009). This potential is often connected to the idea that learning through games based learning environments may be ‘richer’ than traditional schooling models (Jenson, de Castell, Thumlert, & Muehrer) and that gaming, specifically online multiplayer games, can generate ‘accidental learning or learning through doing’ (Greene, 2014). These and related discussions have influenced not only a commonly optimistic uptake of digital games in various school contexts, but also a growing number of investigations relating to the ways in which games might be used in other, non-school settings: such as galleries, libraries and museums.

Student/audience/visitor understandings of and responses to games

Within Museum Studies specifically and Games Studies more broadly, the ways in which visitors/students/players make sense of and respond to their gaming experiences is a topic of considerable interest. Fine-grained analyses of what actually happens when digital games are brought into formal educational contexts have increasingly highlighted a number of important points. One of these is that there are, of course, many different types of digital games, and not all games that are used in education are valued in the same way, or for the same reasons, by students or their teachers or caregivers. Thus, adding a game into a learning environment is not a simple matter of ‘anything goes’: choices need to be carefully thought out and based upon previous research about how, and why, students engage with particular games. This leads to a further, closely related point. Not even the most popular or most engaging digital games function as automatic or magical educational machines that guarantee learning wherever they are found. The effectiveness of games in supporting learning of particular kinds is not a given. While boundaries such as those between ‘school’, ‘like-school’, ‘not-school’ and ‘home’ are blurred and permeable, it is nonetheless the case that the ways in which games are used and the context in which they are located significantly shape the ways they are seen and engaged with, and consequently, how they do (or do not) shape the acquisition of disciplinary knowledge and learning. We need to know more about the ways in which students respond to different types of games, in different educational contexts, for different discipline or subject areas. This includes the need to more about differences between playing an ‘educational’ game at home, at school, or in ‘intermediary spaces for learning’ (Herr-Stephenson, 2011), such as the museum.

Research into how students make sense of games in museum contexts also articulates with growing interest in how online cultural and digital citizenship in an intensely contemporaneous and global world, impacts upon young people’s relationships to, and interest in, country-specific histories and historical perspectives. In Australia, the new national curriculum includes History as a core subject, on the basis that ‘[a]n awareness of history is an essential characteristic of any society, and historical knowledge is fundamental to understanding ourselves and others’ (Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority, 2013). In a time when the study of history may seem unimportant, print-based and dry, schools and museums are faced with complex questions about how to support young people to develop deep-seated understandings of history, an informed and reflective engagement with the past, and critical perspectives on the ways in which present and future societies have been and might be shaped by history.

Brought together, these interrelated strands of literature clearly indicate the value of ongoing analysis of ‘what happens when…’ games (and particular types of games) are used in various ways within various non-school (but perhaps like-school) contexts. The next section of this paper therefore provides an overview of how research investigating students’ reactions to the experience of playing The Voyage in a museum context was designed and conducted.

Research design

In 2014 and 2015 three groups of year 9 students from two Australian high schools (48 students in all, aged approximately 14-15,) were observed during their visit to the Australian National Maritime Museum, as they played The Voyage. For one group this game play took place before a tour of the ANMM replica of The Endeavour. For the other groups, the game was played before a tour of various museum displays and artifacts.

After playing the game students completed short, paper based surveys (collecting a mixture of likert scale and free text responses) and focus group interviews and discussions, at the museum (groups 2 and 3) or back at school (group 1). The subject matter with which The Voyage deals – the convict voyages to Australia in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century – appears twice in the Australian curriculum in year 5 and again in year 9. Students visiting the museum for this study had for the most part, studied this topic previously, at a lesser level of complexity.

The comments and conclusions presented here are thus drawn from two sets of data:

  • A short paper survey (composed of questions that were based upon a review of the literature, and previous research projects identifying common beliefs about games).
  • Focus group discussions with 3 x groups of 5-9 students. Group 1 students came from an all-girl school in Year 10 at the time of the focus group, but were in Year 9 when they attended the Museum. Group 2 and 3 students were Year 9 at the time of interview, were interviewed on site, and comprised a mix of both male and female students from a co-educational school.

These were complemented by researchers’ use of a simple observation schedule designed to record on instances of ‘on task’ and ‘off task’ behavior; verbal and non-verbal indicators of engagement and enjoyment; instances of collaboration; problems experienced with technology; and overall tone, tenor and content of the students’ conversations and interactions. This observational data is not included in detail within this paper. Nevertheless it provided the research team with important contextual information about the tacit and emotional/affective dimensions of students’ interactions with material and immaterial elements in their engagement with each other, with exhibits and with the game. This context shaped the ways we coded the data and, as well, the issues which we identified as significant and consistent across the three groups.

Data analysis involved 2 phases. In phase 1, all student responses to the written questionnaires were converted into rates of response and percentages to be represented graphically. This produced graphs relating to student beliefs about the game, about what had been learned, and about games and museums more generally. In phase 2, focus group interview transcripts were analysed using two complementary tools: three level thematic coding—open, axial and selective (Strauss, 1998)—and thematic coding by the software program, Leximancer. Leximancer is an automated system for the content analysis of text. It generates a concept map of emergent themes linked to the prevalence and co-occurrence of key words and concepts, and the relationships between them (Smith, 2006; Townend, 2015). The Leximancer analysis—and the visuals it produced—helped confirm themes identified in the three-level coding analysis.

In what follows, we present first, student feedback about their specific gaming experience with The Voyage and the ways in which they related this to the value of gaming in museums more broadly. This analysis focuses on issues commonly linked to arguments for the use of games in schools: engagement, enjoyment, and learning of information/skills/concepts/facts. From there, the analysis focuses on what might be considered ‘bigger picture’ or more complicated issues relevant to future planning of museum educators; teachers and game designers. These include student perspectives on the way the games and game play informed (or not) their understandings of history, of the convict experience, and of museums more broadly. Underpinning all of the analysis is the recognition that as research participants and researchers themselves, students have valuable roles to play in shaping the ways educational settings and museums specifically engage with technology into the future, and about the ways in which games might best be used in both school and non-school settings to promote learnings of this kind.

Analysis Part 1: Student perspectives on The Voyage, digital games and museums

Four key foci emerged from the first phase of thematic analysis. These emphasised the link between games and:

  • Fun and engagement (theme 1)
  • Learning and knowledge (theme 2)
  • Historical imagination and/or empathy (theme 3)

Theme 1: Games, fun and engagement

Selective coding across the data for this theme identified the following recurring points made by students in all three groups:

  • Engagement with the game – interesting, fun, interactive, entertaining
  • Length of game
  • Engagement with technology
  • Notion of ownership in game
  • Engagement with history/key issues
  • Historical empathy and imagination
  • Use of technology to develop historical imagination (transcending cultural/historical situatedness)
  • Immersion
  • Co-creation and Creativity
  • Discovery and interaction
  • Opportunities to socialise
  • Preferences for museums using technology and gaming

Survey responses showed students to be enthusiastic about The Voyage, seeing it as interesting and enjoyable. Responses were affirmative of the potential for games more generally to be used effectively for educational purposes in museums.

Screen Shot 2016-07-28 at 6.05.48 PM

Figure 1.  Responses to questions About the Game: The Voyage

These sentiments were strongly echoed in the focus groups. Games could be used ‘to make things more interesting’, ‘to engage people more’, ‘to make the topic more interesting’, because they were ‘interactive’ and ‘so they have got people involved in the history of something’. One student compared his experience of learning about this topic through the game and his prior experience of doing so without it:

I did it in year four. The method used was just sit in front of PowerPoint and try and take notes. I don’t know, but I retained just as much information from that game than I did from six hours of sitting in front of a PowerPoint learning information…. if the goal is to retain the information and to want to learn, then yes it was reached.

Another (highly articulate) student noted the close relationship between the game and the ability of schools and museums to cater for the diverse needs of the student cohort: Games could ‘combine audio, visual and kinaesthetic learning in a way that helps children, especially younger children who aren’t too interested in reading big blocks of text, to better absorb the information.’

Theme 2: Games, learning and knowledge:

Selective coding here encompassed forms of learning and the learning of historical knowledge, concepts and facts. Students noted (and appreciated) that games allow for:

  • Engagement with history/key issues
  • Epistemic knowledge of the past – essay writing, assistive
  • Co-creation and Creativity
  • Discovery and interaction
  • Knowledge creation and dissemination
  • Notion of ‘what is history’ – facts vs. empathy (and understanding?)
  • Knowledge and understanding of content (enhancement)
  • Challenging content
  • Collaboration

Students’ beliefs about the skills and knowledge they believed The Voyage was ‘good at teaching’, are shown in Figure 2. Numbers represent percentages of agreement.

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Figure 2.  What was The Voyage good at teaching

Responses correspond to items listed in the survey that were reflective of forms of learning linked to games in much of the games-based learning literature. Of particular note in student answers is that 80% or more students believed the game was ‘good at’ teaching important ideas, solving problems and supporting learning through trial and error. The most contested response was related to the item ‘working with others’ with fewer than 50% agreeing with the statement, and almost 40% disagreeing. This outcome may have been due to the variation within the groups in terms of how the game was actually played. Students generally played the game on their own devices however some students were sharing a console during the game and others were working alone.

In relation to historical facts and knowledge, students expressed a range of opinions regarding the potential for games to help teach historical facts and ‘deliver’ the curriculum in a new way. The data relating to this issue is slightly more complex – an important reminder of the need to always acknowledge the broader context within which game play takes place before drawing conclusions about what work with games can/cannot achieve.

In both the survey and the focus groups students were asked to reflect upon ‘What I have learnt’. One question on the survey asked students to state whether they agreed, were unsure, or disagreed that The Voyage ‘contains important historical information that was relevant to my high school education’. Students were equally divided between agreeing and unsure/disagreeing. Comments need to be read in relation to where they were up to in their schooling at the time. As outlined above, the students in Cohort 1 who played these games in 2014 were in the final stages of year 9 and visited the museum in December of that year. In the following year, students in Cohorts 2 and 3 were also in year 9, and played the game half way through the year. They had all previously studied the topic that is the focus of the game: transportation and convict life. Many students agreed that The Voyage contained important historical information, but noted that they had already covered this particular topic on multiple occasions during their primary schooling. As a result they were happy to recommend that the game be used in schools (and noted its educational benefits as outlined above), but suggested that it would be more suited to primary school students. This impacted upon their overall evaluation of the historical knowledge taught through the game. As one student commented:

I think that if we were learning about convicts and transportation for the first time in primary school it would be useful – but having studied it for 4 years in a row it seems like the same information. [It] would be great at first. In fact we studied it first in Year 3.

This point was also made when students were responding to the question ‘would you recommend the game to other students and teachers?’ While the response was definitely ‘yes’, they offered the following caveat:I would recommend it to Primary teachers, as in high school the kids would get bored as it does not feel like you are getting there until the end.’

Implicit in these comments is the close alignment students recognised between the game and content of their official school curriculum. Some noted that they had, in fact, learnt new material and that the game introduced them to new topics relating to planning for the voyage; the illnesses of the convicts; and details about the ships themselves: ‘Dysentery – I now know what it is and had no idea before’, ‘facts about the ship – how fast it traveled – 9 knots – how many people were on each ship – the soldiers and crew and convicts and what was required to keep them alive’ as well as more ironic ‘facts’ pertaining to the playing of the game: ‘Not to fill the entire hold with Rum!’

Students also identified the relevance of aspects of the game to other curriculum disciplinary areas including Human Society and Environment, Geography; Mathematics and Commercial/financial studies. With respect to History, almost 90% of the students believed that games similar to The Voyage should be used by museums in relation to other topics. Suggestions included the Australian gold rushes, world wars and ancient history, with games providing a fresh perspective. In the words of one student ‘the Greeks in Athens versus Sparta would work really well because you want the lifestyle. [And] you can also look at the wars without going—all that kind of looks like my dad’.

They argued that the use of games to explore particular aspects of a historical period—rather than an entire large event—had great potential benefit. As one girl put it, ‘if you’re going to look at a huge event, that’s sort of maybe difficult to put into one game, sort of like a specific lifestyle or a really certain event, like you’re looking at [the navy], that would be good for a game.’

Theme 3: Games, historical imagination and empathy

Selective coding across the data for this theme identified the following potential benefits from working with games:

  • Immersion in learning
  • Opportunities for co-creation and creativity
  • Discovery and interaction
  • Engagement with history/key issues

At a general level, as Figure 3 indicates, over three-quarters of students who completed the survey agreed that The Voyage enhanced their imagination about what it was like to be part of these early convict fleets. They were less in agreement about whether playing games in the museum altered how they felt about museums. Fewer than 50% agreed that ‘playing The Voyage has made me think differently about museums’ and 80% ‘would visit a museum again even if there were no games involved’. This suggests that for these students at least, that far from altering their sense of the museum, they did not see games as anomalous or out of place, and that they felt also that museums in and of themselves were worth visiting.

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Figure 3.  The use of games in museums.

Core arguments in the literature for the contribution games and gameplay might make to the development of historical imagination and empathy link to the specific qualities and affordances of games and gameplay (Elliott & Kapell, 2013). Interactivity, the subject positioning of the player, the player’s agentic power and the capacity to determine or intervene in the game narrative; competition, action and mini-games and the lavish immersive pleasures of the world portrayed, all contribute to position players experientially to develop insights and empathy playing as first/second and third person participants in the games world.

Complementing the broad brushstroke agreement/disagreement survey answers convey are the focus group comments, which provide a more nuanced account of the development of historical understandings, imagination and empathy and playing the game, and are linked to game affordances and qualities and the expectations they have of games. In response to the question ‘Has the game helped you imagine what it would be like to be on a boat like the First Fleet?’ comments included ‘not really’; ‘I don’t know’, and ‘maybe’, with the ‘maybe’ linking back to the known strengths of games and gaming qualities – in this instance, the role of the player and the design of the game:

Maybe – I would probably would have died of dysentery. I still felt like I was [coming] from an outside perspective and I was not emotionally involved– but if we had been playing as a first person or had been given a character then it is likely you could connect and empathise more.

On the other hand, for some students, while less strongly interpolated into the game than first person role-play might allow, playing as the captain/surgeon meant they felt a strong sense of responsibility to their passengers, where wrong choices resulted in convicts dying: ‘I felt responsible. Every time I made a bad decision I started again – so I only got to the first green cross in the game. Not very far in.’

Another group felt the game did help them imagine life on the convict ships, but did so less at the level of atmosphere and more at the level of ideas: ‘it just gives you the general idea…you don’t really get the atmosphere but you get some of the main ideas.’ This is an interesting inversion of claims sometimes made about ‘educational’ games: that they provide atmospheric verisimilitude but are factually or conceptually weak.

There was some considerable cross over between students’ perspectives on imagination, and understanding of convict experiences, and the idea of empathy. Some students felt that the game impacted upon their ability to relate to the convict experience. The varied nature of these responses is indicated below:

Qu:              Has the game helped you imagine what it would like on a boat like the First Fleet convicts? Did it help you imagine what it would be like?

Multiple:        Yes.

Qu:              What about you guys, do you remember anything about it much? No? Do you remember much about it?

Student 1: Yes, it shows the perspective of people on the boat at that time, dealing with disease, rats and things like that.

Student 2:      Yes – I think it was good that we could oversee the whole thing rather than just from the point of view of the convict

Student 3:      It sort of showed what made them happy or sad but not just from the convict but from somebody from the outside

Another student noted that it allowed her to ‘see through the people at the time’s perspective’; while one final comment indicates an appreciation that historical imagination can develop over time:

Student:         if you were to play the game in primary school and then you were to revisit the topic in high school, you’d have a better foundation which would help you just do better in history I guess, and appreciate history.

Qu:              So going into the role as needing to stop the ships and all of that helped that – trigger that imagination, yes?

Student:         Yeah.

To summarise, therefore, the survey and focus group data both suggest that students saw the relevance of game play to museums; enjoyed the opportunity to play the game; recognised the clear potential for the game to impact positively upon knowledge of the history curriculum; and saw some potential for the game to impact, as well, upon imagination and empathy. Significantly, students also offered advice about how educators and museums could improve or perhaps maximise these potential outcomes: this is explored in relation to theme 4, and the discussion that follows.

Analysis Part 2: Students as experts: recommendations for the museum regarding The Voyage, digital games and museums

The data explored thus far provides information about the ways in which students make sense of their gaming experience and their belief that games have a valuable role to play in the museums of the present and the future. We turn now to the final theme to emerge from our reading of the data.

Theme 4: desirable game features and recommendations re game use and game hardware

Theme 4 concerned students’ recommendations about desirable game features and game hardware to facilitate game play in museums. In this area, particularly, students spoke not simply as informed consumers of these technologies, but as well informed, and powerful advocates for particular kinds of gaming uses. They speak about games and game technologies in general, and about their experiences specific to this game.

Selective coding across the data for this theme identified the following recurring topics about which students spoke in detail:

  • Length of game
  • Engagement with technology
  • Glitches, lags, Wi-Fi, running of the game (hardware rather than content)
  • Game well organised and easy to navigate
  • Platforms suggested for gaming in museums
  • Preferences for museums using technology and gaming

First, students offered a large amount of advice about how to improve the gaming experience of future plays: advice that related to issues such as Wi-Fi and bandwidth. Clearly this is not directly related to the game design, but definitely indicates the kind of environment within which game play is most likely to be enjoyed. One student commented: There were some problems with lagging and freezing and some buttons stuck – it happened so many times for me.’ For another, ‘There were many Wi-Fi issues – so need the bandwidth for them all to take part. This impacted upon the way the game was played as many students were not willing to watch the introductory video because it took ‘too long’ to load.

Students also had firm views about the most desirable platforms for this particular kind of game. Figure 4 illustrates the responses showing that iPads were the most popular. This reflects survey and focus group feedback about the benefits of touch screen technology (tablets, smart phones), and ‘anything that does not glitch’. This feedback is echoed through the observations of students, and the group discussions. Students working without a mouse, or on a very small screen (such as a smart phone) found it much more challenging to complete some of the tasks within the game.

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Figure 4.  Suggested platforms for The Voyage

Students suggested a range of design features that could improve the game and the learning it supports, including the provision of instructions as the game progresses; ‘checkpoints’ and auto-saving, as well as the allocation of sufficient time to allow the game to be played through to the end. They argued powerfully for ‘the need for checkpoints that allow a game to be re-started without players having to return to the beginning’, noting that ‘it would be good to go back to a checkpoint if you all die, instead of the very beginning.’

This issue of checkpoints was seen as particularly important for younger audiences. As one student commented:

Me and my partner had an issue with where we tried – we had some trouble, we made a wrong turn so we were like, can we go back? We clicked the back button at the top of the Internet Explorer thing and it took the entire game back to the beginning. I know that if two 15 year olds can make that mistake, then 20 six year olds can do it too.

The amount of time it appeared to take in order to complete the game was also a common theme. Indeed, across the 45 minutes of game play undertaken by the three groups the researchers did not find a single student who completed the journey. Students made the following comments: ‘I think the game takes a long time to complete.’ ‘Nobody got to the end but we got to the middle of the Indian Ocean. We would all be interested to know how the game finishes.’ On a related point, some made points about the need to adjust their playing strategy to allow the game to be completed: ‘If it was – the whole point was to get them to Australia, it would have taken a very long time to – at the rate of that boat, it was taking a very long time – having to fast-forward it, to make sense of it.’

Some students also noted that their experience might have been enhanced if they were able to see more clearly the consequences that followed from various choices they made. Throughout the game students had to choose their boat; captain; convicts; supplies; direction of travel and also how to treat various convicts when they became ill. Each of these decisions impacts upon the survival of the convicts, and their arrival in Australia – the successful completion of the game. The fact that students did not finish all parts of the game may have limited their ability to recognize this link, as suggested by the following exchange:

Student 1:      Well I had at the end 20 people sick and 5 people dead and nothing happened.

Qu:              Didn’t they die? Isn’t that a consequence? (Attending teacher, Focus Group 3) (Group laughter)

Student 1:       Well they just said ‘this person is dead’ and then nothing. I would have liked to have seen something a bit more realistic in the consequences. Maybe the game ended.

Qu:              Well there was one group up here where they did all die and the game ended

Student 2:      They got angry after a day…

Student 3:      Yes but suddenly they were all dead and the game just stopped.

Student advice was not, however, confined to these familiar ‘gen y’ funds of knowledge. Rather they put forward multiple recommendations about how the game could best be integrated into a visit to the museum and connected to the Australian history curriculum in meaningful and effective ways. These insights are significant not only because of their immediate relevance to analysis of this gaming experience, but also in terms of the way they highlight the importance of actively seeking student/audience feedback. This recognition is based upon an understanding that students can be simultaneously positioned as consumer and producers of knowledge (relating to games and museums): if their views and insights are actively sought and carefully curated.

This level of expertise is seen in diverse ways. For example, students offered a range of suggestions concerning the kinds of topics that would be suitable for other games in museums, as mentioned earlier. Figure 5 indicates their main suggestions:

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Figure 5.  Suggestions for other game topics

War was the most comment student suggestion. However, student comments show that these suggestions were not for ‘first/third person shooter type’ games but rather, political, decision-making games ‘I think politics pre-WW1 would be good – but how to avoid the war!’ Included in the war games recommendations were specific historical subjects such as the Opium Wars, the Cold War as well as large military campaigns. This, of course, is a common theme within many different kinds of games but it is obviously possible that students are not exposed to some of these resources. Of note was that many of the focus group suggestions for other game topics were similar to the individual surveys and reflected topics that had been studied at school. One girl also noted that some topics would not be suitable for gaming: ‘You can’t have a holocaust [app].’ Similarly insightful was the comment from another participant who noted that gaming might be more suited to in depth study of a specific event, rather than to an overall historical period: ‘If you’re going to look at a huge event, that’s sort of maybe difficult to put into one game, sort of like a specific lifestyle or a really certain event, like you’re looking at [the navy], that would be good for a game.’

Perhaps most significantly, given literature which continues to investigate the role that context plays in gaming experiences—students made valuable suggestions about pedagogical issues relating to games in museums, pointing in particular to the link between where and when a game is played and kinds of learning that are supported. They agreed, for the most part, that playing the game in the context of the museum, rather than the classroom, had the potential to re-shape how they looked at and interacted with the museum displays and artefacts. While they had mixed advice on whether to play the game before or after a shipboard experience (specifically exploring the replica of the The Endeavour nearby), the value of combining the virtual with the material was clear. One group offered the following set of comments:

  • I would play the game then go on the ship as it would make more sense and you could re-enact the game.
  • I would go to the ship then play the game – then you have a better understanding and could play the game better and make better decisions.
  • Could you go on the ship before and after the game? I mean you could go on first and learn about how it all worked – it would help with the context of sailing etc. with the game.
  • I think the game is a better introductory – it helps you start learning, then go onto the ship.
  • I think it would be better to go on a ship first – you could see how it was controlled and give you a better idea of what you are doing – this gives you a better idea of the scale

Another group was more emphatic in their advice, highlighting the value of being on The Endeavour prior to playing the game:

Student:   The boat gave us a background to the game. We did it first so – and with the guide who told us stuff about the game

What they ate and how they ate and all that sort of stuff.

Q:           Okay, put it in perspective. So when you saw them, you knew how low the ceilings were and how small the bunks were and – okay, so…)

Student:   The big barrels of food.

Student:   How they prioritised the food. In terms of food versus medicine, they had the bottles of ointment and stuff and how important they were. In terms of keeping people healthy, which was more important, to keep them full, fed, or keeping them from getting illnesses.

On a related point, students also highlighted the potential value of diverse forms of museum/school collaboration; particularly collaborations that would allow them to springboard from the game into ongoing exploration of the topic via engagement with museum artefacts and through use of other strategies such as role-play. For example, one student noted the value of making explicit links between the game and the museum exhibits: ‘Make real sort of – what do you call them? Real…artefacts and things like that [linked] to the game so you can be like, “oh, that’s from there, that’s from over there”’. Another recommended linking the game to various roles: ‘the game could be turned into a role-play—you are issued with a role such as captain or convict or nurse. Then if somebody had a sickness and you could step into that role and treat them or be them.’ These comments, and those made earlier, are consistent with findings from other studies about the key themes identified when young people’s voices are heard – ‘the importance of real objects’, ‘the use of creation, creativity and pretence’ (Dockett, Main, & Kelly, 2011), and the importance of participation e.g. as a personal persona or avatar in case study simulations or scenarios (Hawkey, 2004).

To summarise, across the various focus groups students made insightful comments about both the challenges and opportunities associated with gaming, but they also expressed the clear belief that the opportunities were worth pursuing. Across their recommendations and feedback students were united in their beliefs that games have a role to play in museum and similar contexts. It might even be argued—as one boy did—that museums are expected to make use of things such as games in order to get ‘more modern’. As shown earlier, in Figure 4, some students already have a positive relationship with museums and don’t need any ‘new’ experience to encourage them to visit. However, in a parallel point to that made earlier about the lack of surprise many students felt about the presence of games in the museum, for others, playing the game had indeed changed how they thought about museums; and impacted positively upon their desire to visit museums again in the future.


We conclude this paper with three points.

The first relates to the tensions and paradoxes inherent in working with digital games in any ‘formal’ context. Games are quintessentially composed of play, and arguably privilege ludology over narrative, where ‘ludology, like the games it studies, is not about story and discourse at all but about actions and events’ (Oxford Dictionary, 2016). The narrative-ludology debate (Frasca, 2003) and the consequences of this dichotomy, is nowhere more visible than in the research reported upon here. Tensions entailed in history games by their very nature lie at the heart of the student responses. Their comments reflect the related but finally quite divergent aims of history-based videogames. It has been argued that there is ‘a conflict between the rules of the game and the rules of history: history is designed with the goal of knowledge, understanding and enlightenment in mind; videogames are designed to be won or lost, but their ludic nature – the playing – is the key’ (Elliott & Kapell, 2013, p. 6).

Elliot & Kappell highlight three elements that are entailed in the shaping of historical narratives: the selection of facts, (‘which concedes we are limited not only by those facts selected by the historian but also by which facts are available in the first place, which ones are known and which ones are assumed’); ‘the assemblage of those selected facts to form a narrative’ and ‘the shopper, the “we” that present, select and assemble the history in the first place’ (Elliott & Kapell, 2013, pp. 6-7). Taken together these elements highlight the fact that any understandings of history ‘made’ available through games-based learning tend to be imaginatively and impressionistically powerful, rather than tightly argued in the way that more traditional documentary, ‘factual’ representations of histories might be. Thus, as part of a suite of resources within a museum’s educational program—in this instance as a game that complements the physical experiences linked to exploration of the life-size replica of The EndeavourThe Voyage, and games like it, clearly have an important role to play in terms of bringing to life not just history (as it is constructed in school) but also in supporting young people’s imaginative engagement with historical perspectives and past times.

Our second point concerns the value of museums continuing to work with digital games. We argue here that games have an important role to play in supporting the efforts of contemporary museums to capitalize upon new levels of connectivity and digital literacy in order to achieve three core goals introduced above: knowledge curation, knowledge dissemination, and support of/for learning. This small scale research study has demonstrated not only the potential of games to support the development of historical knowledge (and thus to support the formal objectives of schooling) but also the value of actively seeking the insights that visitors can provide about gaming experiences. Through research, museums acquire the specific, and fine-grained knowledge, about what happens when games are used in museum contexts for diverse students, and can use this to shape current and future practices related to the ‘gamification’ of museums.

This point leads directly to our third and final point: the importance of recognizing what student researchers have to say when analyzing what happens when games are brought into educational settings. In their study, ‘Consulting young children: Experiences from a museum’ Dockett, Main and Kelly (2011) identify such attention as a key feature of impactful, relevant audience centred research when describing the young people who participated in one of their research projects: underpinning the project was a commitment to recognizing young children as ‘competent social actors, with the right to be consulted on matters that are important to them’ (Dockett et al., 2011, p. 13). Not only do we profoundly agree; as our research shows also, listening to the voice of experts – to young people as players and researchers with differing degrees of technological expectations, saviness and expertise, provides what is too often a missing piece of the puzzle: informed feedback from those for whom all this is designed in the first place. Listening to the students in this research provides excellent advice on the next steps that might be taken: both literally in regards to the development and deployment of games such as The Voyage, but also metaphorically as our explorations of the opportunities linked to digital game play continue: in what are still, for many, turbulent, unknown, and unpredictable waters.


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Biographical information

Leonie Rowan is an Associate Professor in the School of Education and Professional Studies at Griffith University. Her research interests relate to the social context of schooling, educational technologies, transformative pedagogies (including the potential of games-based learning), teacher education and pedagogies for higher education. Within these contexts she has a particular commitment to exploring issues relating to gender and student diversity.


Dr Geraldine Townend is a Research Fellow and has over a decade of experience in the field of gifted education. Her research interests are in the field of gifted education, particularly in the area of twice exceptionality, identification and support of students and the development of positive academic self-concept.  Geraldine completed her PhD at Griffith University in Queensland and is now at the Griffith Institute of Educational Research.

Catherine Beavis is Professor of Education at Griffith University, Australia. She researches in the areas of English and Literature Education, and on digital culture, young people and new media. Her research has a particular focus on digital games and young people’s engagement with them, the changing nature of text, and the implications of young people’s experience of online worlds for literacy, pedagogy and curriculum. Recent publications include Digital Games: Literacy in Action (with Joanne O’Mara & Lisa McNeice), and Literacy in 3d: An Integrated perspective in theory and practice (with Bill Green).

Dr Lynda Kelly is the Head of Learning at the Australian National Maritime Museum, responsible for all visitor programs and visitor engagement throughout the museum’s physical and digital environments. Previous to this she was Manager of Online, Editing and Audience Research at the Australian Museum responsible for developing and evaluating the Museum’s digital content and programs. She has been working in the research, evaluation and visitor research fields since 1994 and in the museum industry since 1987 and has extensive knowledge of new media and digital technologies.

Jeffrey Fletcher is a Senior Education Officer at the Australian National Maritime Museum. He has been an educator for thirty years. He worked as a secondary English/History teacher, Education Coordinator at Sydney Tower, and is currently the museum’s Senior Education Officer. Jeff is passionate about the multi-faceted area of museum learning, working on a number of Indigenous education and youth facilitation projects.


This project was funded by a Griffith University Industry Collaboration Grant in partnership with the Australian National Maritime Museum. The project was titled Gamifying the museum: History, imagination and videogames. Chief investigators were Catherine Beavis (Griffith University), Leonie Rowan (Griffith University) and Lynda Kelly (ANMM) who worked also with Geraldine Townend. We acknowledge, with thanks, the contribution made by the ANMM to the project and we thank the teachers and students who participated in the research and the research assistants who supported the project particularly Rachel Perry.

Antonios Liapis, Georgios N. Yannakakis, Constantine Alexopoulos & Phil Lopes

Published Online: July 12, 2016
Full Text: HTML, PDF

Abstract: This article discusses the impact of artificially intelligent computers to the process of design, play and educational activities. A computational process which has the necessary intelligence and creativity to take a proactive role in such activities can not only support human creativity but also foster it and prompt lateral thinking. The argument is made both from the perspective of human creativity, where the computational input is treated as an external stimulus which triggers re-framing of humans’ routines and mental associations, but also from the perspective of computational creativity where human input and initiative constrains the search space of the algorithm, enabling it to focus on specific possible solutions to a problem rather than globally search for the optimal. The article reviews four mixed-initiative tools (for design and educational play) based on how they contribute to human-machine co-creativity. These paradigms serve different purposes, afford different human interaction methods and incorporate different computationally creative processes. Assessing how co-creativity is facilitated on a per-paradigm basis strengthens the theoretical argument and provides an initial seed for future work in the burgeoning domain of mixed-initiative interaction.

Keywords: Computational creativity, human-computer interaction, computer-aided design, digital games, lateral thinking


For over a decade, the use of digital computers (in the form of personal computers, smartphones, tablets, smart TVs, etc.) has become ubiquitous and indispensable for not only business people but also young adults, children, and the elderly. Digital technology offers diverse benefits to the lives of many; within formal and informal education, technology-enhanced learning encompasses digital systems which directly support learning activities, often existing online (Browne, Hewitt, Jenkins, & Walker, 2008). Given that creativity is increasingly being considered as an explicit educational objective within formal education (Sawyer, 2006), (Cachia, Ferrari, Kearney, Punie, & Van, 2009), it is imperative that the role of the computer in fostering human creativity is investigated. Digital technologies have demonstrated their capabilities in facilitating users to express their creativity (e.g. with intuitive photo editors) and to share it (e.g. via e-mail clients or social media). Instead, this article focuses on mixed-initiative computational tools which exhibit their own type of intelligence and creativity, and investigates how interaction with such tools influences the creativity both of the human user and of the computer.

Despite the lack of a concrete definition (Novick & Sutton, 1997), mixed-initiative interaction in this article refers to a computer and a human user both proactively contributing to the solution of a problem. In tasks involving computer-aided design, mixed-initiative interaction assumes a proactive computational initiative which is capable of a modicum of creativity in itself. However, mixed-initiative design does not necessitate an equal contribution from both the human and the computer. Drawing parallels between mixed-initiative interaction and conversation (Novick & Sutton, 1997), Novick and Sutton identify three types of initiative: task initiative (deciding the topic), speaker initiative (deciding when each actor takes a turn), and outcome initiative (deciding when the problem is solved). With this type of initiative in mind, it is common for mixed-initiative tools (including the ones studied in this article) to allow the human user to take the task initiative, and usually the outcome initiative; most often, mixed-initiative tools take the role of an interlocutor, taking turns with the user in ‘asking’ or ‘responding’ to requests regarding the task and its outcome.

This article argues that interaction with a proactive computational initiative which is capable of its own creativity can foster the creativity of the human user. The mixed-initiative co-creativity (MI-CC) which emerges from this human-computer interaction cannot be ascribed either to the human or to the computer alone, and surpasses both contributors’ original intentions. The human user is inspired by computational input, with optional suggestions or explicit changes to human creations acting as the stimulus for lateral thinking on the part of the designer. This process will be linked to theories of human creativity as well as computational creativity, with the focus on how human-computer interaction can affect and enhance both. This article is built upon the theoretical foundation of Yannakakis et al. (2014) which introduced the concept of mixed-initiative co-creativity. In this paper however, we largely extend previous work by investigating the potential of collaborative human and computational creativity and by exposing a number of case studies which realize different degrees of initiative and different ways that human (and computational) creativity can be fostered.

The article lays down the theoretical frameworks under which human and computational creativity is approached, linking them to the concept of mixed-initiative co-creativity. The theoretical argument for MI-CC is strengthened by four instances of design tools and games which incorporate algorithms in different proactive roles. The article concludes with a discussion on the possible extensions of the MI-CC paradigms shown in the presented MI-CC instances.

Human Creativity

The topic of creativity has always fascinated humanity at large, which has led to creativity theories formed around different academic fields and perspectives, such as philosophy (Wittgenstein, 2010), neuroscience (Damasio, 2001) or psychology (Sternberg, 1999). Several types of creative processes have been identified in the literature: examples include everyday, social (little-c) creativity (Jeffrey & Craft, 2001), (Craft, 2002), passive and active creativity (Beaney, 2005), exploratory, combinatorial and transformational creativity (Boden M. A., 2003). Investigating how mixed-initiative co-creativity occurs can therefore be pursued via several different lenses and theoretical frameworks. Due to the very nature of the mixed-initiative tools examined in this article (which focus on computational suggestions as stimuli to human creativity), creativity will be regarded primarily from the perspectives of lateral thinking (De Bono, Lateral thinking: Creativity step by step, 2010) and creative emotive reasoning (Scaltsas & Alexopoulos, 2013).

Lateral Thinking

In mixed-initiative interaction, a proactive computational initiative is aligned with the general principles of lateral thinking (De Bono, Lateral thinking: Creativity step by step, 2010) and creative emotive reasoning (Scaltsas & Alexopoulos, 2013), the latter being an instance and specialization of the former. Lateral thinking (De Bono, Lateral thinking: Creativity step by step, 2010) is the process of solving seemingly unsolvable problems or tackling non-trivial tasks through an indirect, non-linear, creative approach. According to De Bono, lateral thinking skills can be taught. MI-CC realizes the very nature of lateral thinking which, as a creativity process, is boosted through (increasingly) constrained spaces of solutions (De Bono, Lateral thinking: Creativity step by step, 2010). Co-creation with computational creators of visual art and design (including game level design) encapsulates the very core principles of diagrammatic reasoning as human creativity, and especially lateral thinking creativity, is often associated with construction and the principles of customization (De Bono, Lateral thinking: Creativity step by step, 2010).

The random stimulus principle of lateral thinking (Beaney, 2005) relies on the introduction of a foreign conceptual element with the purpose of disrupting preconceived notions and habitual patterns of thought, by forcing the user to integrate and/or exploit the foreign element in the creation of an idea or the production of a solution. Randomness within lateral thinking is the main guarantor of foreignness and hence of stimulation of creativity (Beaney, 2005). According to creative emotive reasoning – which enriches the basic notions of lateral thinking with semantic, diagrammatic and emotive dimensions – the creative act is understood as an intervention that results in re-framing. Frames can be viewed as systems or established routes that divide the possibility space (e.g. the game design space) into bounded, meaning-bearing sub-areas. The disruption of an established routine is identified as a lateral path. More precisely a lateral path is a cognitive process that promotes deep exploration of a possibility space, whilst satisfying stated (or implicit) conditions, i.e. under constraints. On that basis, the random stimulus and the re-framing principles have one element in common: they are enablers of a change in the lateral path. The principles of re-framing and the random stimulus are embedded in the MI-CC paradigm as machine creativity offers heuristically-driven stimuli that are often altered through e.g. mutations within a genetic algorithm; that can, in turn, alter the user’s framing on a particular task/problem. An artificial mutation to a visual diagram, an image, or a game map, resembles the random stimulus that can act as a potentiator of creativity and cause an alteration of lateral thinking.

MI-CC and Diagrammatic Reasoning

Diagrammatic reasoning can be defined as reasoning via the use of visual representations; a cognitive process which is enabled during game level design, interaction design and visual art. These representations can include all forms of imagery incorporating visual features (object shape, size, color, spatial orientation etc.) (Cheng, Lowe, & Scaife, 2001). Literature suggests that complex information processing is benefited by the use of diagrams, due e.g. to the fact that information in diagrams is indexed by spatial location, thus preserving explicitly the geometric and topological relations of the problem’s elements (see e.g. (Larkin & Simon, 1987)). Diagrammatic reasoning is premised on the background knowledge of the relevant domain, as well as the specific nature of the diagram and its interconnections with the context within which one encounters it (Cheng, Lowe, & Scaife, 2001).

Diagrammatic Lateral Thinking (DLT) fuses the principles of diagrammatic reasoning and lateral thinking. Diagrammatic lateral thinking builds upon the extended mind theory (Clark, 1998): its core idea is that a diagram, through its use, serves as a vehicle of cognitive processes, embodying the various aspects of the problem. The user’s mind is extended onto the diagram and reasoning proceeds through structural (rather than semantic or syntactical) entailment. One therefore thinks through the diagram rather than its use as a simple image. According to DLT, the process of constructing a diagram (an image, a map, or a character) is more important that the final product (Vile & Polovina, 1998). Moreover, the possibilities one sees for constructing, altering or transforming a given diagram are part of one’s comprehension of the diagram itself; the functions of the diagram both on the semantic and pragmatic level are determined in part by these possibilities (Sloman, 2002).

MI-CC can not only be viewed as being closely related to lateral thinking but furthermore that it often constitutes a type of DLT: MI-CC occurring through diagrammatic representations (e.g. in game level design) offers diagrammatic alternative paths that satisfy a number of conditions. These define non-linear lateral paths within the creative (possibility) space as they promote deep exploration of the space of possibilities which is, in turn, a core lateral thinking characteristic. DLT within MI-CC does not necessarily embed transformational creativity processes as identified by Boden (Boden M. A., 2003). The majority of MI-CC instances presented in this article realize DLT, as co-creativity occurs mainly on the visual (diagrammatic) level. MI-CC expands the very notion of DLT as it dichotomizes diagrammatic lateral thinking into two main creativity dimensions: one that is based on analogical thinking from diagrams and images and one that works purely on the visual level through imagistic lateral thinking pathways (Scaltsas & Alexopoulos, 2013). Details on the nature and impact of analogical DLT and visual DLT in the computer’s suggestions during the design process are provided in the case study of the Sentient Sketchbook design tool.

Computational Creativity

Some of the fundamental questions within computational creativity research are “what does it mean to be creative?” and “does creativity emerge within the individual, the process, the product, or some combination of all three?”. The questions are as relevant to human as to machine creativity (Boden M. A., 2003), (Colton, 2008). Computational creativity, however, seeks creativity generated by, enhanced or fostered via algorithmic means.

Computational creativity literature suggests that value (or usefulness) and novelty are key elements characterizing a creative process (Boden M. A., 2003). An autonomous generative system is able to try out exhaustively many possible novel combinations of elements, often resulting in largely uninteresting outcomes or artifacts. For that very reason, computational creativity not only requires the generated artifacts to be novel, but also valuable. While other aspects of creativity have been discussed and proposed (such as surprise (Macedo & Cardoso, 2001)), novelty and value define the common denominators accepted by most theories within computational creativity. If the space of possibilities within MI-CC is constrained for both the machine and the human, the creative process is ultimately of value for both given the problem constraints set either by the human user or by an external observer (e.g. domain expert). Moreover, if the computer searches within a constrained space of possibilities for orthogonally possible solutions then the computer interacts with the human user by offering both useful and novel suggestions throughout the creative process (Boden M. A., 2003). The end outcome of MI-CC (both novel and useful) is ultimately a result of iterative co-creation. The autonomous creative system, in that case, finds novel ways to navigate a search space, by e.g. looking at orthogonal aspects of the human creative process; the computational discoveries from this search are suggested back to the human.

Computational creativity has been classified by (Boden M. A., 2003) in three types: combinatorial, exploratory and transformational. Combinatorial creativity revolves around the combination of different elements which is often trivially accomplished by a computer. Computers are also well suited for exploratory creativity, which involves traversing a well-defined search space. In contrast, transformational creativity requires the computer to ‘break the rules’ of that pre-existing conceptual space. Among the three types of computational creativity identified by Boden, MI-CC realizes mainly exploratory creativity. While it could potentially achieve transformational creativity, mere exploration of the solution space can often result in more creative outcomes than transformation (Bundy, 1994), (Pind, 1994). Pease et al. provide the example of an unusual but legal chess move as often being more creative than changing the rules of chess (Pease, Winterstein, & Colton, 2001). Ultimately, the borders between these types of creativity are unclear, as transformational creativity can also be viewed as exploration (Wiggins, 2006); the game asset generator of (Liapis, Martínez, Togelius, & and Yannakakis, 2013), for instance, blurs the edges between transformational and exploratory creativity.

According to (Bundy, 1994) an outcome is considered creative if the possibility space in which it lies is large (and complex) and if it is generated from a less explored area. MI-CC tools that generate solutions which satisfy certain constraints (e.g. constraints on playability for generated game content) capture the complexity expressed by Bundy. The harder it is to find a solution within a constrained search space, the more novel it is deemed (Bundy, 1994). The notion of complexity has also been expressed via a number of alternative computational metrics including rarity and impressiveness (Lehman & Stanley, Beyond open-endedness: Quantifying impressiveness, 2012) that can be considered in a MI-CC tool which involves diagrammatic aspects of creativity.

Realizing Mixed-Initiative Co-Creativity

The previous sections examined how the mixed-initiative interaction between a human user and a proactive computational creator can result in the co-creativity of the human-machine ‘symbiotes’ – to use a term coined by (Licklider, 1960). The impact of a computer-generated stimulus to human creativity, and the impact of human design constraints imposed on computationally creative processes is largely dependent on the type of software, its goals, its interface, and the degree and type of initiative from human and computer. Below are short descriptions of a set of four selected design tools and games which make use of mixed-initiative interaction. The way in which co-creativity can emerge is also discussed for each system. This article focuses on games and game-specific design tools, although the principles described herein can be transferred to other domains (such as industrial schematic design or image/video editors). Games have two key attributes which make them ideal paradigms for mixed-initiative co-creativity: a) as games encompass many different facets (including audio, visuals, game design, narrative, game levels), the task of game development requires extensive human creativity (Liapis, Yannakakis, & Togelius, 2014) and benefits from computer-aided tools such as Sentient Sketchbook and Sentient World, while b) most digital games – especially freeform creation games such as Iconoscope and 4Scribes – rely on their players’ imagination and have already shown considerable capacity in their use in classrooms (Pirius & Creel, 2010), (Watters, 2011).

Sentient Sketchbook

Sentient Sketchbook is a mixed-initiative tool for game level design (Liapis, Yannakakis, & Togelius, Sentient sketchbook: Computer-aided game level authoring, 2013). Via its user interface, the tool allows the user to draw game levels in the form of low-resolution, high-level map sketches. These map sketches are minimal abstractions of complete game levels, containing the absolutely necessary components for levels of this genre. The map sketches contain passable and impassable tiles (which allow and block movement respectively), as well as game-specific tiles such as weapon pickups for a first-person shooter level, player bases for a strategy game, or monsters and treasure for dungeon adventure games. The abstract map sketches can be automatically converted by the computer into high resolution, playable game levels (see Figure 1 for a strategy game level example). As the users draw on the abstract map sketch which contains only a handful of tiles, they can create complete game levels within minutes. The low effort of level design facilitated by Sentient Sketchbook enables novice users to create game levels without extensive experience, but also motivates experts and novices alike to attempt original, untried designs.

Screen Shot 2016-07-12 at 9.48.46 AMFigure 1: In Sentient Sketchbook, both initiatives contribute to creating the simple map sketch to the left, which however can be automatically converted to a detailed map on the right.

Screen Shot 2016-07-12 at 9.49.25 AMFigure 2: While the user draws the map sketch (left), multiple computational suggestions appear to the right. The user can select a suggestion at any time and replace their current sketch.

The role of the computational initiative in Sentient Sketchbook is three-fold. Firstly, the computer can automatically (and within seconds) convert the user’s map sketch into a fully detailed game level; this alleviates the users’ effort in managing the minutiae of the level’s design and allows them to focus on the creative, high-level ideas. Secondly, the computer is able to discern when map sketches are not playable, either because they do not contain vital tiles (such as a maze level without an exit tile), or because some parts of the level are inaccessible (such as a treasure which cannot be reached from the player’s starting location); the feedback from the computer allows users to correct their unplayable designs and ensures that even novices with no level design experience can create valuable results. Finally, the computer proactively contributes to the design process by creating suggestions for the human user to consider. These suggestions are map sketches, similar to what the human user is drawing, and they are generated by the computer and presented to the user in real-time, as the users are designing their own sketch (see Figure 2). At any time during the design process, the user can select a computer-generated suggestion, compare it to their current design, and replace their sketch with the suggestion. The suggestions are generated via evolutionary computation (De Jong, 2006), and take the user’s current map sketch as inspiration. This ensures that the computer-generated suggestions will have many structural and visual similarities with what the user is currently designing; the suggestions will thus not alienate the user, but will appear as improvements of their current sketch. All computer-generated suggestions presented to the user are ensured to be playable, as the computer can test its creations against the playability constraints it applies on user sketches. Beyond this ensured playability, half of the computer-generated suggestions are evolved towards maximizing certain game-specific qualities (Kimbrough, Koehler, Lu, & Wood, 2008) which are modeled into the program by expert designers: for example a suggestion for a strategy game level will attempt to improve the game balance between players, the area that each player base can control at the start of the game, and the distribution of strategic resources. Suggestions which improve a user’s sketch by maximizing some game-specific properties ensure that the computer’s contribution to the design process is valuable, and are particularly helpful to novices which may lack the expert knowledge imparted to the computer. The other half of the computer-generated suggestions are evolved towards visual novelty (Liapis, Yannakakis, & Togelius, 2013), creating suggestions which are as visually different (in terms of tile placement) as possible from each other but also from the user’s sketch. Suggestions which target visual novelty ensure that the computational input to the design process is novel to what the user is currently drawing, while also valuable since the generated sketches are ensured to be at least playable.

Sentient Sketchbook has been the first case study for mixed-initiative co-creativity (Yannakakis, Liapis, & Alexopoulos, 2014). On a theoretical level, computational suggestions in Sentient Sketchbook perform the role of stimuli which can lead to lateral thinking. Since the design of game levels (as realized by Sentient Sketchbook) relies strictly on their diagrammatic representation, the type of creativity incited by the computational initiative is diagrammatic lateral thinking. More specifically, suggestions evolved to improve game-specific qualities prompt analogical diagrammatic lateral thinking, as game-specific tiles are treated differently than others (for instance, player bases are far more important than impassable tiles in a strategy game, as they determine the players’ chances of winning). Suggestions evolved to create visually divergent suggestions from the user’s sketch prompt visual diagrammatic lateral thinking, as the algorithm is agnostic of game properties and the suggestions appeal to the users’ perception (instead of their level design experience). Beyond the effects of computational suggestions on human creativity, the algorithms used to generate them satisfy the requirements of computational creativity on valuable and novel output.

In order to evaluate the impact of the computational suggestions on the users’ creative process, a study of five expert designers using Sentient Sketchbook for creating a total of 24 game levels was conducted. The study, which is detailed in (Yannakakis, Liapis, & Alexopoulos, 2014), investigated the degree of use (i.e. how often users selected computational suggestions, and reasons for cases where suggestions were not desirable), the qualitative evaluation of the creation paths (i.e. what design frames the users prioritized during the design and how the computational suggestions affected those), the quantitative evaluation of the creation paths (i.e. how the maps’ appearance changed during users’ drawing phases and computational suggestion phases) and the evaluation of creativity by a human audience (i.e. which steps of the creation path were considered creative milestones by designers other than the original user of Sentient Sketchbook). Results indicate that while computer-generated suggestions are not used often (and in some creation paths not used at all), they can result in major changes in the map sketches’ appearance and often constitute creative milestones due to their ability to prompt diagrammatic lateral thinking (both in the tool’s active user and in an inactive audience). Figure 3 shows an example of a creative milestone from (Yannakakis, Liapis, & Alexopoulos, 2014), where the designer’s frame of reference (regarding the notion that symmetry on the visual level can ensure a fair gameplay between two competing players, whose bases are shown in white) is disrupted by the computational suggestion which was selected by the designer to replace their previous level. The computer-generated output breaks the visual patterns and introduces more imbalance (in the form of resource tiles in cyan closer to one player). Note, however, that much of the remaining level structure (such as the positions of white tiles) remains intact as the computer uses the designer’s map as a starting seed. While the user’s rationale for the level change is not known (as users were not asked to narrate their design process), 3 out of 4 audience members which evaluated this creation path identified the design step shown as a creative milestone.

Screen Shot 2016-07-12 at 9.51.54 AMFigure 3: An indicative creative milestone, tagged by 3 out of 4 audience members in the study detailed in (Yannakakis, Liapis, & Alexopoulos, 2014). The user chooses to break the symmetrical look of their designed level (left) in order to embrace the notion of a computer-generated ‘asymmetrical’ game level (right) which may be of interest to players of different playing skills.

Sentient World

Sentient World is a mixed-initiative tool for the task of designing gameworlds and more specifically their terrain (Liapis, Yannakakis, & Togelius, 2013). Terrain is important for large-scale Role-Playing Games, and can affect both the vegetation and climate but also civilization growth and types of goods produced in the region; however, Sentient World does not create terrain for a specific game and is decoupled by any game rules or playability constraints. The user begins drawing terrain in Sentient World on a very coarse map (i.e. nine tiles) and can only specify land or water tiles (see Figure 4). After drawing their low-level sketch, the user presses a “refine” button on the interface, at which point the computational initiative takes over and returns a higher-resolution version of the terrain, with nine times as many tiles and including details on hills, mountains and plains (see Figure 5). The user can select among the eight possible refined versions of their terrain, and edit it further if they wish. After this point, the computer can refine this further, creating an even larger map with details on shorelines, shallow seas, low hills etc.

The computational input of Sentient World in the creative process is not optional (contrary to the optional suggestions of Sentient Sketchbook) and takes the form of turn-taking speaker initiative (with the human user taking a turn editing the terrain and the computer taking a turn refining it). Unlike the suggestions of Sentient Sketchbook, moreover, the user and the computer have different tools at their disposal: the human user can only control the rough sketching process, while the computer can only control the refining process. The algorithms behind Sentient World combine novelty search (Lehman & Stanley, 2011), which creates visually divergent terrain from what the user has drawn, with backpropagation (Rumelhart, 1995), which attempts to fit the generated map to the lower-resolution user creation while extrapolating the higher-resolution terrain elevation details. The combination of these algorithms ensures an initial novel seed (which the user would find surprising) and then adapts it to become valuable by obeying some of the high-level user specifications.

Screen Shot 2016-07-12 at 9.52.41 AMFigure 4: Initially the user of Sentiet World paints (on 3 by 3 grid) a rough terrain sketch with water, land or blank tiles.

Screen Shot 2016-07-12 at 9.53.25 AMFigure 5: The computational initiative attempts to create higher-detail terrain (with mountains and hills) which conforms to the user’s sketch patterns.›

In terms of interaction between human and computational creativity, on the one hand computational creativity is stimulated by being constrained by the human rough terrain sketch, forcing it to both satisfy those constraints while also creating results which are not similar to each other. On the other hand, human creativity can be fostered by the computer-provided details to their rough sketch; having many alternative high-resolution terrain to choose from (as well as the option to edit them further), the generated terrain acts as a stimulus for visual diagrammatic lateral thinking (as it operates on the visual appearance of the terrain rather than any function it may serve in a game). Moreover, the human user can leave areas of their terrain sketch blank, letting the computer add details to those as it sees fit (without constraining its output). This allows the human user to control the degree and freedom of the computational initiative, balancing between human authorial control (by specifying all elements of the rough terrain) and almost freeform, serendipitous co-creativity (by leaving most tiles of the terrain blank).


Iconoscope is a creation game played on Android tablets, which revolves around the visual depiction of semantic concepts in a creative fashion (Liapis, Hoover, Yannakakis, Alexopoulos, & Dimaraki, 2015). The goal of the game is for players to create icons representing a concept (such as heritage or dominate) which they chose among three thematically or semantically linked concepts (e.g. lead, govern, dominate). The drawing interface (see Figure 6) allows only the use of simple shapes (e.g. circles, hearts, rhombi) and a few colors, constraining players to creatively combine them in meaningful ways but also abstract away from simply pictorial representations – which is enhanced by the semantically abstract concepts which must be represented. Iconoscope is played in a group of four or more players, with the winner of a game session determined by peer evaluation: each other player attempts to guess which of the three concepts the player’s icon represents. Iconoscope rewards high scores to icons which are ambiguous enough that the underlying concept is communicated to some but not all other players (i.e. some players guess the concept that the user chose to represent, and some others guess different concepts). The social component of observing each other’s creations and attempting to ‘trick’ the other players both influences the fun of gameplay and promotes community and shared values (Chappell, Craft, Rolfe, & Jobbins, 2012). The design of Iconoscope and its connection to both wise humanizing creativity and creative emotive thinking, is detailed in (Liapis, Hoover, Yannakakis, Alexopoulos, & Dimaraki, 2015).

Untitled6Figure 6: The drawing interface of Iconoscope

Untitled7Figure 7: Iconoscope Assistant providing novel alternatives to the user’s icon

Besides the interaction among players, which takes place before and after a game session, computational suggestions are provided to each player in real-time as they draw their icon. These computational suggestions are provided by assistants, each with their own portrait, name and ‘personality’ (i.e. objective when generating suggestions). Similar to Sentient Sketchbook, most assistants change the player’s currently drawn icon by moving, recoloring and changing its shapes, or adding new shapes. The five assistants of Iconoscope each has different algorithmic goals, such as showing past users’ icons (rather than computer-generated ones), generating random permutations of the user’s icon, targeting visual novelty from the user’s current icon, or trying to diverge or converge towards a ‘typical’ icon for this concept specified by an expert (e.g. a red heart for the love concept). Users can request for an assistant’s suggestions by selecting its portrait on the drawing interface, and can choose one of the assistant’s suggestions to replace their current icon and continue drawing from there (see Figure 7). While the collaborative activity of guessing which concept is represented by which icon after creation is a stimulus for collaborative creativity and shared values, the role of assistants and computational suggestions during creation acts as a stimulus for diagrammatic lateral thinking and prompts individual creativity.


4Scribes is a collaborative storytelling game played either digitally, on Android tablets, or as an analog game using special cards (Eladhari, Lopes, & Yannakakis, 2014). Both the digital and the analog version of 4Scribes is played with four players, using cards which contain an evocative illustration (serving as a diagrammatic stimulus) and a caption of a few words (usually one). Examples of cards from the digital game are shown in Figure 8. 4Scribes can be played fully collaboratively where players all decide on the story’s ending, or competitively where players try to steer the story towards a specific ending described in a special “myth” card. Players begin the game by drawing five story cards and an additional “myth” card which is used for concluding the story. Players take turns playing a card and connecting it to the story being told thus far (writing down how the story progresses as this card enters play). Story cards can be characters which can be introduced to the story, or scene elements (e.g. emotions, events or items). Players do not gain new cards during play: their initial draw determines the entirety of their story contribution, which allows them to plan ahead accordingly. Once each player has placed 5 cards onto the story (thus leaving their hand empty save for the “myth” card), they choose to conclude the story using their “myth” card as inspiration (in the case of collaborative storytelling) or by revealing the ending they had preplanned with their “myth” card (in the case of competitive storytelling). All players then vote on which ending was the most appropriate (thematically and dramatically), and the winner resolves the story by applying their ending to it.

Untitled8Figure 8: The 2nd player of 4Scribes contributing to the story. At the bottom you can see the remainder of the 2nd player’s hand (4 cards). The current assistant, who provided the players’ initial cards, is shown as a bookmark (top right)

Unlike Sentient Sketchbook and Iconoscope, the computational initiative in the case of 4Scribes does not contribute during play, while players put down story cards, but is used to determine each player’s starting cards. Similar to Iconoscope, one among four different assistants can be chosen at the start of the game for allocating the players’ cards: depending on which assistant is chosen, the cards may be chosen randomly (similar to a normal shuffle of the deck), chosen based on their semantic novelty (i.e. as different cards as possible among players), or based on their similarity or dissimilarity from an expert-defined ‘typical’ set of story cards. While most computational suggestions of Iconoscope rely on visual difference (as the game relies on diagrammatic representations of concepts), the storytelling goal of 4Scribes necessitates that the players’ potential card sets are evaluated semantically, i.e. on the semantic difference between the cards’ captions. The semantic difference in this case is based on the co-occurrence of the cards’ words in a large corpus of texts; the less often these words co-occur in the same text, the larger their semantic difference. Beyond the differences in how artifacts are evaluated (semantically instead of diagrammatically), the computational initiative of 4Scribes differs from that of Sentient Sketchbook and Iconoscope in that it specifies the affordances of the player’s game (by choosing which cards are in play, and which players control them). Thus the computer constrains to a degree the possible stories that may emerge, but does not monitor or intervene during the periods of human play. Mixed-initiative co-creativity is achieved by a computational task initiative, as the computer specifies the ‘topic’ (story) of the play session, relinquishing speaker initiative (which card will be played) to individual human players and outcome initiative (how the story will be concluded) to the collaborative human creativity fostered by the group discussion and voting process.


This article puts forth several arguments for the co-creativity potential of mixed-initiative interaction; the cases examined include both design tools for creative tasks (i.e. game level design) and game-based learning systems which incorporate a proactive, self-determining artificial intelligence. In this article, the potential of mixed-initiative interaction to foster human creativity is argued from the perspective of a computer-generated random stimulus which triggers the lateral thinking and re-framing of an individual human creator. Essentially, the creativity of the computer disrupts the idiosyncratic frame of an individual creator; this frame can be a certain routine for performing tasks, a lens through which the world is understood, or a pattern of associations between facts, emotions and actions. In order to understand (in the case of optional computer-generated suggestions as in Sentient Sketchbook and Iconoscope) or conform to (in the case of mandatory computational operations as in Sentient World and 4Scribes) the computational initiative, the user must adjust their visual patterns, design goals, or gameplay preferences. On the other hand, the human initiative influences computational creativity primarily by constraining the possible output of the generator. With a human providing (as is often the case) the task initiative, the search of the system for valuable and novel solutions is limited by the user’s specifications; thus, the exploratory creativity of the computer is bound by user intention. For instance, in Sentient Sketchbook the suggestions start with the user’s current map sketch as a seed: while possibly better game levels could have been generated from an empty canvas, the fact that the computer must attempt to improve a potentially ill-fitted human design increases its creative potential (in finding shortcuts to correct what the human user has done). In Sentient World, the computational creator attempts both to create novel solutions which surprise the human user (via novelty search) but it also attempts to retain the human-provided patterns of the rough terrain sketch (via back-propagation); this process exemplifies the way in which computational creativity is both inspired and constrained by the human user while simultaneously attempting to surprise both the user and itself by discovering unexpected areas of the search space which contain valuable creative outcomes.

In the systems used here as case studies of mixed-initiative co-creativity, the human initiative primarily interacts with the computational initiative by inspiring (or seeding) the computational search (e.g. with Iconoscope assistants creating permutations of the user’s icon), or by specifying features necessary in the final outcome (e.g. by explicitly fitting Sentient World generated terrain to conform to user-specified terrain patterns). However, constraining the possibility space of generators is not the only way in which human initiative can influence computational creativity in a mixed-initiative tool. In particular, the human user can either explicitly or implicitly specify how the computer should evaluate its output. To a degree, this is the case in Iconoscope and 4Scribes where the human user selects which computational assistant they prefer, thus explicitly choosing which heuristics will be used to evaluate the generated outcomes. More indirectly, human users could guide the computational initiative towards areas of the search space which they find (idiosyncratically) more desirable. Interactive evolution (Takagi, 2001) is an algorithm which allows users to evaluate the generated output; the computer performs evolutionary computation treating the user-preferred artifacts as the fittest, resulting in more and more artifacts which bear resemblance to those selected by users. Interactive evolution can be an inherently co-creative process, as the human user and the algorithm “cooperatively optimize target systems based on the mapping relation between physical and psychological spaces” (Takagi, 2001), i.e. the algorithm’s feature parameter space (physical) and the user’s preferences and intuition (psychological). Beyond the explicit selection of evaluation criteria (e.g. by selecting an assistant in 4Scribes) and iteratively selecting preferred content among those generated (in interactive evolution), a less direct and less fatiguing way of adapting computational creativity to human desires is through designer modeling (Liapis, Yannakakis, & Togelius, 2013). Designer modeling refers to algorithmic methods (such as machine learning) for automatically recognizing the goals, preferences or process of a human designer based on their interactions with a mixed-initiative design tool.  A designer model can therefore be useful for personalized, responsive computer-aided design tools; initial experiments of designer modeling with Sentient Sketchbook showed its potential at learning the user’s style from prolonged interactions as well as their current process based on their latest activities (Liapis, Yannakakis, & Togelius, 2014). The creativity of the computer can be more closely paired with (and more severely influenced by) the human user’s own creativity if the design process of the latter not only constrains where the computer should explore but also how (based on which criteria and goals). By using automated ways for the machine to learn user preferences, the human creator is not made aware of their preferences or cognitive associations (i.e. their frames), thus enhancing the re-framing potential of computational feedback which attempts to explicitly address these.

It should be noted that the majority of research in mixed-initiative interaction (e.g. the work of (Novick & Sutton, 1997)) assumed mixed-initiative interaction to take place between a single human user and a single computational process. Similarly, the case studies presented here largely follow this assumption. Sentient Sketchbook and Sentient World are standalone tools intended for a level designer working in isolation. 4Scribes and Iconoscope are multi-player games focusing more on collaboration (4Scribes) and competition (Iconoscope), and thus the computer must accommodate multiple users. In 4Scribes, the computational initiative must allocate cards to all players, taking into account the balance in each player’s cards (e.g. so that there is no player without a character card to play). Iconoscope does not directly account for opponents’ icons or concepts, but one of its assistants can present icons created by any player in the past as suggestions (accounting for the communal aesthetics of the Iconoscope player base). Communal and collaborative creativity (Chappell, 2008) are facilitated by the game design, but mostly targeting co-creativity between humans; the computer supports and motivates it (via e.g. starting card allocation and icon suggestions from a communal pool) but takes a less proactive role in those aspects. The role of the proactive computer in fostering co-creativity is more pronounced during periods where human users are pursuing individual creativity, e.g. during Sentient Sketchbook sessions or while they individually, secretly draw icons in Iconoscope. An argument can be made that computational creativity is more valuable during those tasks which involve individual creativity, acting as a human colleague would (Lubart T. , 2005); when multiple human creators work in a group (even as adversaries in a game), collaborative creativity will de facto emerge. However, there is fertile ground for research in computers which can inspire a group of designers, players or learners: initial ideas include a computer which observes each group member’s creative processes and pairs them with another group member with a conflicting frame (prompting re-framing during the collaboration between the two human users) or by providing conflicting goals or suggestions to each group member in order to encourage discussion and negotiation when human collaborators interact with each other. Beyond human creativity, the mixed-initiative co-creativity in cases where multiple computational processes are involved has not been investigated, but offers another interesting dimension for future research. Such collaborative computational creativity can emerge, for instance, when different systems used by (human) members of the same group are required to share information and co-ordinate for providing consistent suggestions to all group members (see Figure 9). The impact of this collaboration on computational creativity is likely to lead to transformational creativity as one computational process must change its objectives and preferences (i.e. “frames”) when under the influence of another computational process.


This article has argued for the potential of computationally creative processes to foster human creativity in systems incorporating mixed-initiative interaction. Lateral thinking can be triggered by the stimuli of proactive computational creators, either from computer-generated suggestions or from necessary feedback during a creative process. Human creativity also affects the computational processes, as the computer must adapt its objectives and search directions to accommodate the human initiative. Four examples shed light on how different design tools and games can incorporate computationally creative processes and how the goals, algorithms and user interaction modalities affect how mixed-initiative co-creativity occurs. Finally, important future research both from a philosophical and from a technical point of view was identified for strengthening the potential of mixed-initiative co-creativity and broadening it to facilitate a more diverse set of creative tasks and processes.

Screen Shot 2016-07-12 at 9.57.50 AM

Figure 9: An overview of the potential for mixed-initiative co-creativity, as realized by the different tools enumerated in the article, and as an ideal collaborative mixed-initiative co-creativity. The full figure shows an ideal co-creativity tool where a group of human users is assisted by proactive computational initiatives which also influence each other, either by sharing each of the human creators’ goals with each other or by coordinating the simultaneous generation of diverse stimuli for prompting lateral thinking. The current tools focus on smaller portions of this ideal interaction: in Sentient Sketchbook and Sentient World an individual human creator interacts with an individual computational creator (yellow frame), in 4Scribes one computational creator defines the possibilities of a group of human creators as a whole (blue frame), while in Iconoscope independent computational initiatives interact with human creators (one each) as the latter compete in a group.


The authors would like to acknowledge and thank Amy K. Hoover, Evangelia Dimaraki, Pavlos Koulouris and Kerry Chappell for assistance in the design and test of the Iconoscope game; Mirjam P Eladhari for the design of 4Scribes; Serious Games Interactive for the implementation of Iconoscope and 4Scribes. The authors would like to thank the participants of the user study of Sentient Sketchbook for their feedback. The research is supported, in part, by the FP7 ICT project C2Learn (project no:  318480).


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Biographical information

Antonios Liapis is a Lecturer at the Institute of Digital Games, University of Malta (UoM). He received his 5-year Diploma (2007) in Electrical and Computer Engineering from the National Technical University of Athens and the M.Sc. (2011) and Ph.D. (2014) in Information Technology from the IT University of Copenhagen. He does research on the crossroads of game design, artificial intelligence and computational creativity. More specifically, he explores the limits of computational input to the human-driven design process in computer-aided design tools. Beyond AI-assisted game design, his research pursuits revolve around procedural content generation, digital aesthetics, evolutionary computation, neuroevolution and constrained optimization. He has published over 40 international journal and conference papers in the aforementioned fields, and has won several awards. Moreover, he has led or participated in the design and development of several games of varying scope and for different target audiences, including two FP7 ICT projects.


Georgios N. Yannakakis is an Associate Professor at the Institute of Digital Games. His research interests lie at the crossroads of AI (computational intelligence, preference learning), affective computing (emotion detection, emotion annotation), advanced game technology (player experience modeling, procedural content generation, personalization) and human-computer interaction (multimodal interaction, psychophysiology, user modeling). He pursues research concepts such as user experience modeling and procedural content generation for the design of personalized interactive systems for entertainment, education, training and health. Prof. Yannakakis is one of the leading researchers within player affective modeling and adaptive content generation for games. He has pioneered the use of preference learning algorithms to create statistical models of player experience which drive the automatic generation of personalized game content. He has published over 170 journal and conference papers in the aforementioned fields. His work has been cited broadly and has appeared in Science Magazine and New Scientist among other venues.

Constantine Alexopoulos has worked as a research assistant for the University of Edinburgh since 2012, where he is involved in international projects. Currently he is working on C2Learn, an EU funded project. Previously he worked as a research fellow in argumentation for the project Archelogos, and its subsidiary programs: LogAnalysis and Elenchos. He also worked part time for a digital production company called DG Dimension, taking part in the organization and execution of multiple national and international exhibitions with cultural and historical themes. He holds an MA in Mental Philosophy from the University of Edinburgh, and his research interests include: argumentation and justification dynamic structures, philosophy of language, epistemology and ethics.

Phil Lopes has a B.Sc. and M.Sc. in Computer Science from the Faculty of Science of the University of Lisbon, where he focused on human interactive procedural music generation systems. Currently he is a PhD student at the Institute of Digital Games of the University of Malta, where he investigates computational creativity and procedural content generation methodologies at the interplay between audio and level design, and how audio can classified by the different kind of emotions they evoke in human players. Phil is currently working on the Sonancia system, which consists of procedurally generating and sonifying levels for the videogame horror genre.

Antonis Koukourikos, Pythagoras Karampiperis & Vangelis Karkaletsis

Published Online: July 1, 2016
Full Text: HTML, PDF

Abstract: The process of effectively applying techniques for fostering creativity in educational settings is – by nature – multifaceted and not straightforward, as it pertains to several fields such as cognitive theory and psychology. Furthermore, the quantification of the impact of different activities on creativity is a challenging and not yet thoroughly investigated task. In this paper, we present the process of applying the Semantic Lateral Thinking technique for fostering creativity in Creative Stories, a digital storytelling game, via the introduction of the appropriate stimuli in the game’s flow. Furthermore, we present a formalization for a person’s creativity as a derivative of his/her creations within the game, by transitioning from traditional computational creativity metrics over the produced stories to a space that adheres to the core principles of creativity as perceived by humans.

Keywords: Digital educational games, creativity metrics, semantic lateral thinking


Human creativity is a multifaceted, vague concept, combining undisclosed or paradoxical characteristics. As a general notion, creativity adheres to the ability to move beyond traditional and established patterns and associations, by transforming them to new ideas and concepts or using them in innovative, unprecedented contexts and settings (Zhu, Xu, & Khot, 2009). “Human-creativity is something of a mystery, not to say a paradox”, states Boden in her book The Creative Mind (Boden, 2004), when introducing us to the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of creativity. Apart from unveiling the mystery of human creativity, i.e. the ability to come up with ideas or artefacts that are new, surprising, and valuable, she also discusses how computers can help us understand it.

Along with such philosophical approaches, research results from neuroscience should also be considered in the process of revealing / understanding the human creative process. Such an example is the work of (Limb & Braun, 2008), who examine how the human mind perceives complex auditory stimuli e.g. music. In this case, they look at the brains of improvising musicians and study what parts of the brain are involved in the kind of deep creativity that happens when a musician is really in the groove. Their research has deep implications for the understanding of creativity of all kinds. In (Nachmanovitch, 1990), an improvisational violinist, computer artist and educator, in his book Free play states that creativity arises from bricolage, from working with whatever odd assortment of funny-shaped materials we have at hand, including our odd assortment of funny-shaped selves.

In the process of involving machines in the creative work, (Lubart, 2005) includes the case of Human-Computer cooperation during idea production and proposes a creative thinking strategy, which relies on random or semi-random search mechanisms to generate novel, unconventional ideas. The role of machines in this case is to implement random searches that challenge humans in the process of selecting/ generating new/ innovative ideas and perhaps turning them into creative products. In this context, the Semantic Lateral Thinking theory is particularly well-suited to establish the cooperative framework, by implementing automated components that adhere to the theory and applying them to a suitable educational medium, such as open-ended digital games. In this paper, we discuss on the core characteristics of the Semantic Lateral Thinking theory, describe its application in a digital storytelling educational game and present metrics that help us quantify the impact of the overall process on fostering the creativity of the participating players.

The paper is structured as follows: Section 2 discusses some of the techniques proposed by the Semantic Lateral Thinking theoretical framework for fostering creativity. Section 3 briefly presents the application of those Semantic Lateral Thinking techniques in storytelling activities via the usage of appropriate computational tools. Section 4 showcases Creative Stories, a storytelling game that incorporates tools for introducing these tools in a gamified environment. Section 5 presents the scoring mechanism incorporated in the Creative Stories game, intended on quantifying the perceived creativity within the game. We conclude and indicate our future steps in Section 6.

Semantic lateral thinking (SLT) techniques

The term Lateral Thinking was invented by (De Bono, Lateral Thinking; Creativity Step by Step, 1970). It adheres to the tendency of self-organizing systems, such as the human brain, to form and move across asymmetric patterns. Tools and processes supporting lateral thinking aim to assist that “lateral” movement, providing the means to escape from a local optimum in a thinking process towards a more global optimum.

Semantic Lateral Thinking (SLT) involves the use of different conceptual Po (De Bono, PO: A device for Successful Thinking) (DeBono, 1990), a tool or an operator meant to provoke and dislocate from habitual patterns and forms, as well as disassociate established connections. Several techniques can support SLT e.g. Random Stimulus, and/or Re-conceptualization.

The main principle of the Random Stimulus technique is the introduction of a foreign conceptual element with the purpose of disrupting preconceived notions and habitual patterns of thought. The human actor is thus enforced to integrate/ exploit the foreign element in the production of a solution/ idea, and bring together disparate domains.

Randomness is the main guarantor of foreignness and, hence, of stimulation of creativity. Foreignness in this context has two main dimensions: (a) It is important that the human actor feels that he/ she has to somehow integrate/ exploit an element which is introduced completely from without, whose introduction is in no way under his/ her control. In some ways an intruder has to be re-conceptualized as a friendly aid; and (b) the new element should, at least initially, be as unconnected as possible to the subject/ type/ structure of the problem. By doing so, we someway ensure that no unconscious/ unobserved pre-established analogies, preferences and connections creep in the selection of the stimulus. After the presentation of the problem, one is asked to use creatively in the reasoning process the random stimulus provided.

Re-conceptualization involves the use of already established solutions and ideas in new environments. One is encouraged to exploit the potential of familiarity in the production of novel ideas. The familiar features of the established solution/ idea will re-inscribe themselves on the unfamiliar environment or appear in a new light.

The core distinctive characteristics of the SLT theory –randomness, introduction of external stimuli and re-consideration of an idea in a new environment- constitute digital educational games as a highly relevant platform for implementing and testing the effectiveness of the theory on fostering human creativity. The rest of the paper presents the application of the aforementioned SLT techniques in a storytelling game, via the usage of relevant computational tools, and showcases the proposed foundation for measuring its effectiveness on the attempt to foster creativity.

Incorporating semantic lateral thinking in storytelling activities

In this section, we briefly present a set of computational tools that transparently support Semantic Lateral Thinking techniques. These tools are focused on textual information, that is, the provided elements are words or phrases that act as the random / external stimulus for the humans involved in the activity. The underlying semantics and contexts of these words, are to be analyzed and lead to alternate paths of thought, thus fostering out-of-the-box, creative thinking.

Thinking Seeds Generator

The Thinking Seeds Generator provides a textual stimulus, having a varying semantic distance from its input. The produced word, as it is semantically distant from the initial state, is meant to act as an initiative to think out-of-the-box, re-contextualize ideas or be led to examine other perspectives of a problem / situation.

The input of the Thinking Seeds Generator is a seed phrase and a difficulty degree, which denotes the semantic distance between the random words that will be returned and the initial phrase. In this context, the semantic distance of two terms is the number of edges in the WordNet (Fellbaum, 1998)  synset graph that must be traversed in order to reach to a synset starting from another- specific- synset.

The initial word to be used for the process is determined depending on the size of the textual input. When the input is a single word or a phrase up to three words, the input is processed as it is. In the case of larger texts, the service discovers the dominant terms within the text as follows:

  1. Stopwords are removed from the text;
  2. The remaining words are stemmed, and hashed with respect to their stem;
  3. The three (3) most frequent stems are considered as dominant and the words having these stems are considered the dominant words within the text;
  4. One of the dominant words is selected randomly as the seed to be used.

Following the process of determining the seed word, the service traverses the WordNet graph according to the following methodology:

  1. Retrieve the WordNet synsets to which the seed word belongs;
  2. Start from the synset containing the most words;
  3. Select the word in the selected synset that belongs to the most synsets;
  4. Repeat the first two steps for the selected word until the number of steps is equal to the set difficulty;
  5. Select all the words belonging to the last visited synset.
  6. Randomly pick one of the words belonging to this synset.


The Web Miner is used to provide a summary of web content that is related to an input text segment of variable size. The summary is expressed as a tag cloud structure, i.e. the service returns a set of dominant words found in the examined web content, along with their frequency of appearance.

The input of the service is a word or short phrase, and an indicator that specifies if the service should only handle content safe for children. The service invokes a Search Engine wrapper and retrieves the HTML content of the first 50 results returned by the search engine. The content is cleaned using the boilerpipe library (Boilerpipe, 2016)  in order to obtain the textual content of these pages. The stopwords present are removed and the remaining content is stemmed –using the Snowball stemmer (Snowball, 2016)  – and hashed in order to calculate the TF-IDF value for each distinct stem.

For each distinct stem, the most frequent form (with respect to its raw number of occurrences) is chosen to build a structure that encapsulates the {stem form, weighted frequency} pairs for the entire content.

Cloud of thoughts

The Cloud of Thoughts service provides a summary of a text segment, by examining the dominant words / short phrases found within the segment and returning them as a tag cloud structure. Its aim is to identify and present the major ideas present in the text, giving to the user a synopsis of others’ thoughts that can lead him / her to change thinking perspectives, guiding his thought in a different path.

The service is invoked with the text to be summarized as its input. After the removal of stopwords, it calculates the logarithmically scaled term frequency as shown above. Finally, a structure that encapsulates the {dominant stem form, term frequency} pairs is returned.

Competitive thinking spaces

The Competitive Thinking Spaces service relies on the premise that a text segment may contain different aspects / points of view and the user can focus on a specific one to proceed with a line of thought. Thus, the service analyses a text fragment and identifies different groupings of the concepts included in the fragment, returning them to the caller.

In order to determine the thinking spaces, the service operates on a text segment provided as input. It discards stopwords and then clusters the obtained word set. If the produced clusters exceed a specified number (e.g. 4), the service reduces the clusters to this number, using the distances between the clusters. It finally returns to the calling agent a structure that encapsulates the clusters and the words / phrases belonging to each cluster.

Assistive computational tools

The assistive computational tools do not fall in the aforementioned categories and are not directly used by Creative Stories. Rather, they are necessary for providing the functionality of the other Semantic Reasoning Computational tool. The assistive computational tools include:

  • The Search Engine Wrapper: it is used to obtain online information related to a subject defined by the tutor.
  • The Text Clustering Service: it uses Hierarchical clustering to create clusters of these terms that provide indications of the major themes of discussion around the specific topics

The Creative Stories game

This section provides an example on the usage of the described computational tools in the context of Creative Stories, a storytelling game that uses the various tools in a gamified environment. We first present the setup phase for a Creative Stories game session. We proceed to demonstrate the execution of a Creative Stories game session and present the usage of the computational tools within the game.

Creative Stories session setup

The teacher defines the groups that will participate in the Creative Stories game session. He/ She defines the number of groups that will participate in the game session.

The next step is to define the parameters of the actual game that will be used for the game session. The teacher defines the story’s theme, the range of difficulty for the input from the computational tools, and the way that the difficulty will progress during the game. Finally, the teacher can select the type of input from computational tools that will be used within the game. The Creative Input option will activate the Thinking Seed Generator and the Web Miner, while the Competitive Thinking Spaces option will activate the eponymous computational tool. In both game playing settings, the Cloud of Thought is used by the participating groups.

After the teacher has setup the described parameters, the game session can be activated and the students can enroll as members of their group and play the game.

Creative Stories conceptual design

After enrolling in the game session, the players are presented with a multi-panel environment from which they can provide their input, observe the activity of the other groups and get feedback from the computational tools. The central panel presents the story fragments created so far by the group (Group 2 in the example) and contains the input field for writing and submitting a new story fragment, along with an indication for the points that will be added for the specific fragment, as they are calculated by the relevant computational tool (analyzed in section 5 of the paper). In the right-side panel, the players can see the progress of the other teams participating in the game session, along with tag clouds that summarize the stories of the other groups and can be used as inspiration and guidance for progressing with the story. These tag clouds are created via the usage of the Cloud of Thoughts tool, called with each group’s story as input.

In the left-side panel, the players can observe their current score and use the input from the computational tools for obtaining input to be used within their story. There are two distinct modes of playing the game with respect to the type of automated input that is used, the Creative Input and Competitive Thinking Spaces modes. The next subsections briefly describe the characteristics of each mode.

Creative input. Figure 1 depicts a mock-up of the game screen in the case that the Creative Input option was selected by the teacher. In this mode, the tools used for providing input to the players are (a) the Thinking Seeds Generator and (b) the Web Miner. In (a) the players are called to use the word or phrase provided by the Thinking Seeds Generator in their story fragment. In (b), the players are called to use all the words included in the tag cloud produced by the Web Miner in the story fragment. Each group is free to modify the difficulty (semantic distance) of the provided input and retrieve a different set of thinking seeds and tag clouds by hitting the refresh button.

Competitive Thinking Spaces. Figure 2 showcases the game screen in the case that the Competitive Thinking Spaces mode is active. In this case, the game uses the Competitive Thinking Spaces tool to provide additional input to the players. The input for the tool is the accumulation of the story fragments produced so far by all the participating groups. The groups try to use every word within one thinking space in order to “conquer” the respective space. When this is accomplished, the particular space becomes unavailable for the remaining groups, which have to focus on a different space.

Creativity points awarding

As mentioned in section 4.2, during a Creative Stories session, the participating groups are rewarded with Creative Points, determined by their usage of input from the computational tools, as well as, usage of information from the activities of the other players. The Creative Points are defined as the product of the base Creativity Points returned by a Creativity Points Computation service and a modifier that depends on the usage of the aforementioned elements.

We use two distinct functions for calculating the Creative Points in Creative Stories, depending on the type of input selected for the specific Creative Stories session.

In the case that the Creative Input option is selected, the Creative Points are given by the following equation:

Screen Shot 2016-07-01 at 9.10.06 AM

In the equation, NT is the number of times the player used the Thinking Seeds Generator services, NW is the number of times the player used the Web Miner services, while NO denotes the number of words that the player used and appear on the tag cloud created from the other players’ stories. n is the number of words included in the tag cloud returned by the Web Miner.

In case the Competitive Thinking Spaces is used as the computational tool input for the game session the equation for the calculation of the assigned Creative Points is the following:

Screen Shot 2016-07-01 at 9.10.58 AM

where, NClusters is the number of clusters completed by the specific team, and No is the number of words that the team used from the tag clouds summarizing the stories of the other teams.


Figure 1: Playing Creative Stories in the creative input mode


Figure 2: Playing Creative Stories with competitive thinking spaces

Creative Stories gameplay

After the user logins to the game, he/she selects the mission that he/she will play and whether he/she will play in single player or multiplayer mode.

At the game initiation, the player is presented with a multi-panel interface where the core game is played. The central panel presents the story created so far by the player and the input field, where the player will write the next segment of his/her story. At the left-side panel, the player is reminded of the central theme of the mission, and he/she can see the time remaining until the completion of the session. Furthermore, he/she is presented with a summary of the content created by the other players participating in the session. In the single player mode, the particular field is de-activated.


Figure 3: Creative Stories interface layout

As the game progresses, the user proceeds to writing his/her story, trying to use the terms suggested by the wizard. The game is finished either when the time allotted has run out, or by user selection, by tapping the game clock.


Figure 4: Creative Stories mid-session screenshot

After the completion of the game, the players are presented with their performance in terms of the main axes of creativity as described in the present document.


Figure 5: Creative Stories’ creativity scores

Creative Stories is available as an Android application. It is available for all Android devices running Android 4.2 or newer and having a screen size of at least 7”. The Google Play Store link for the app is:

Modelling the principal components of human creativity

In order to properly evaluate the impact of the application of the aforementioned lateral thinking techniques – via their incorporation in gamified applications – in creativity, it is essential to devise and apply a conceptualization of creativity which will allow the monitoring and evaluation of the user’s creativity. Hence, it is important to construct a methodology for associating user in-game activity with a quantifiable creativity measure, so as to encourage him/her towards increasing that measure. Furthermore, it is important to assess that the used measure reflects the human perception for what actually constitutes creative activity and creative creation.

Within the field of Computational Creativity, significant effort has been devoted towards identifying variegating aspects of the creative process and constructing appropriate metrics for determining the degree that an artefact exhibits creativity with respect to these aspects. However, the formalization of a person’s creativity (i.e. a creativity user profile) as a derivative of such creations is not straightforward, as it requires a transition to a space reflecting the core principles of creativity as perceived by humans. This becomes a necessity in domains where personalization goes beyond timely and personalized knowledge provision, targeting the encouragement and fostering of creative thinking. Thus, it becomes essential to develop methodologies for modelling creativity to support personalization based on creativity aspects / characteristics of users. The present section describes a user modelling framework for formulating creativity user profiles based on an individual’s creations, by transitioning from traditional computational creativity metrics to a space that adheres to the principal components of human creativity. Furthermore, in this section we present the Creativity Profiling Server (CPS), a system implementing the aforementioned user modelling framework for computing and maintaining creativity profiles and showcases the results of experiments over storytelling educational activities.


The usage of computational methods for producing creative artefacts, as well as, unveiling the essence of human creativity and using computers understanding it, is the subject of extensive debate (Lubart, 2005). Additionally, the creativity of a person can be expressed qualitatively by taking into account its origin in psychometric or cognitive aspects of their thinking process (Boden, 2004). Research on this direction has deep implications for the understanding of creativity of all kinds. In any case, while machines can mimic human creativity, or provide the necessary stimuli for encouraging and promoting the production of creative ideas and artefacts, it is not straightforward to assess the exhibited creativity by using automated techniques. Rather, most efforts have been focused on analyzing creativity on different aspects and producing different metrics, based on the nature of the examined artefacts.

Hence, the core assumption for building a user’s creativity profile, is that his/her creativity is showcased by his/her creations, named Creativity Exhibits. These exhibits can follow different modalities, corresponding to the aforementioned reasoning patterns, e.g. texts, diagrams/pictures, actions etc.

The calculation of a creativity profile, constitutes the process of (a) measuring the creativity expressed by given creativity artifacts; (b) associating these measurements with dimensions of human creativity corresponding to the given dimension.

For achieving (a), we employ creativity metrics derived from computational creativity and formulate them in accordance to the characteristics of the examined exhibits. A number of different creativity metrics are proposed from the literature on computational creativity (Boden, 2004).

More specifically, Novelty reflects the deviation from existing knowledge/ experience and can be measured as a difference metric between what is already known and the given piece of content. Novelty is a generally accepted dimension of creativity within the area of computational creativity and an essential candidate for measuring elements of creativity within the human-created content when interacting with the machine. It has been used as a heuristic for driving the generation of novel artefacts in exploratory creativity known as novelty search, an approach to open-ended evolution in artificial life (Lehman & Stanley, Exploiting Open-Endedness to Solve Problems Through the Search for Novelty., 2008). Surprise is another essential characteristic which may be represented as the deviation from the expected (Macedo, 2004). The higher the deviation the higher the perceived surprise. Surprise offers a temporal dimension to unexpectedness (Maher, Brady, & Fisher, 2013). Likewise, impressive artefacts readily exhibit (ease of recognition) significant design effort and may be described via two heuristics, Rarity (rare combination of properties) and Recreational Effort (difficult to achieve) (Lehman & Stanley, Beyond Open-endedness: Quantifying Impressiveness, 2012). These four metrics will be used to construct the creativity profile of a human user, as expressed by the artefacts that this user has constructed alone or as a participating member of a group of users. In the case of Textual Exhibits, examples of such artefacts include a written story, a dialogue and any other textual creation.

In (Karampiperis, Koukourikos, & Panagopoulos, 2014) we present a formulization of the Computational Creativity Metrics for Novelty, Surprise, Rarity and Recreational Effort over textual artefacts, inspired by the observations and concepts presented by (Ritchie, 2007). In the present work, we use these text-based metrics for the core aspects of creativity and examine their conformance with the human perception of what constitutes a creative artefact. We proceed to identify the deviations between these two perspectives (computational metrics and human judgment) and propose a model for transforming the automatic measures to a space that more accurately reflects the human opinion. In this way, the constructed human creativity profiles can be used for providing personalized material / content that is suitable for a specific user or addresses his/her limitations regarding creativity.

The rest of this section is structured as follows: We proceed to examine the correlation of the proposed metrics with the human perception of creativity. Afterwards, we build on these observations to propose a transition model from computational metrics to a two-dimensional orthogonal space which aims to closely reflect the way human beings perceive creativity. We present the experiments for assessing the effectiveness of the proposed model towards this goal, describe the architecture and functionality of the Creativity Profiling Server, a system that incorporates the proposed model and report on the experiments for a preliminary evaluation of the system.

Correlation of computational creativity metrics with the human perception of creativity

As a first step towards understanding the adherence of the proposed metric formulization with the human perception for creativity, we organized and conducted an experimental session based on storytelling activities. The session aimed to provide a preliminary evaluation for the overall approach, in order to acquire sufficient evidence that could justify future conducting of experiments at a larger scale, with a statistically significant participation and with participants bearing characteristics that are more representative of the general population.

For the execution of the experiment, we employed forty (40) human participants, split in ten (10) teams of four (4) members each. All teams were asked to construct a story, on a specified premise, the survival of a village’s habitants under a ravaging snow storm. The stories were created incrementally, with twenty (20) fragments produced for each story.

Following the completion of the stories, the teams were organized in two groups, each consisting of five teams. Without any interaction between the groups, each team was called to rate the stories of the remaining four teams belonging to their group, using a rank-based 4-star scale (i.e. the best story received 4 stars, the second-best story received 3 stars etc.). In this way, we obtained a ranked list of the five stories in each group. The goal of our experiment was to determine if, using the ranked lists of one of the test groups and a formalized representation of the computational creativity metrics, we can identify their correlation and examine if the distribution of values for the metrics follow the pattern of human judgment. To this end, we define a constrained optimization problem over functions of the aforementioned metrics, which is described below.

Hence, the obtained results indicate that, while the proposed computational creativity metrics are correlated with the perception of humans for creativity, this correlation is not direct for all metrics. The following section discusses on the implications of these observations and details our approach for using the proposed metrics towards building a dimensional plane that more accurately reflects the human perspective for creativity.

Transferring computational creativity metrics to the human perspective

As stated, each textual artefact can be described by 4 computational creativity metrics, namely, Novelty, Surprise, Rarity and Recreational Effort. Following the formulation of the creativity metrics, therefore, the next hypothesis that was examined was the reduction of the dimensional space for representing creativity as expressed through creative artefacts, in an orthogonal space. In order to effectively conceptualize human creativity, orthogonality is a particularly desirable attribute of the conceptualization space to be used, since it allows the examination of independent variables when trying to analyse and influence / encourage certain creativity aspects. Hence, the first step towards identifying the adherence of the computational creativity metrics with the human perspective is to examine the orthogonality of the proposed metrics formulation. To this end, we ran an experiment for calculating the four basic computational creativity metrics on two datasets derived from distinct and distant domains, and determined whether the four metrics are orthogonal.

The first dataset comprised transcriptions of European Parliament Proceedings (Koehn, 2005). Given the formulation of computational creativity metrics described in (Karampiperis, Koukourikos, & Panagopoulos, 2014), we consider as a “story” the proceedings of a distinct Parliament session and as a fragment the speech of an individual MP within the examined session. The second dataset was derived from a literary work, Stories from Northern Myths, by E.K. Baker, available via the Project Gutenberg collection. In this case, the story is a book chapter and the story fragment is a paragraph within the chapter.

Table 1. Computational metrics correlation: Formal verbal transcriptions




R. Effort
















R. Effort





Table 2. Computational metrics correlation: Literary work




R. Effort
















R. Effort





In total, we examined 50 distinct parliament sessions from the EuroParl dataset and 40 chapters from the storybook. Based on the obtained results, we calculated the correlation between the four computational creativity metrics. Tables 1 and 2 provide the correlation values between the four metrics. It is evident that the computational creativity metrics by themselves are not orthogonal. In order to better approximate the human perception for creativity, we propose the following abstraction for modelling the examined aspects of creativity to a space more closely resembling human thinking:

  • Novelty is the perspective to be held as the one dimension of the dimensional space, as the conducted showed that it has a monotonic incremental relation with the perception of humans on what is creative. Furthermore, it is a generally accepted dimension of creativity (Ritchie, 2007).
  • Atypicality, that is, the tendency to deviate from the norm without actually breaking through. In other words, to what extend (without necessarily being novel) the artefact differs from the ordinary (thus being surprising, rare and difficult to construct)

We consider Atypicality as a combination of the Surprise, Rarity and Recreational Effort metrics, each bearing a different weight towards determining Atypicality. These two axes also provide a rough conceptualization of the two major qualitative aspects of creative work: whether the said work is visionary, i.e. it provides a groundbreaking approach on a given field; and whether it is constructive, i.e. it uses in a novel way established techniques and ideas in order to produce a high-quality artefact. As stated, Novelty has an analogous and close to monotonic association with the human judgment for creativity. Therefore, and in order to satisfy our requirement of orthogonality, we consider Novelty as the strictly defined dimension of our space and seek for the formulation of Atypicality that results to a dimension orthogonal to Novelty.

More specifically, let Atypicality of a text

Keith Stenning, Alexander Schmoelz, Heather Wren, Elias Stouraitis, Theodore Scaltsas, Konstantine Alexopoulos & Amelie Aichhorn

Published Online: July 1, 2016
Full Text: HTML, PDF

Abstract: We sketch a theory of creativity which centres on the framing of activity by repetitive thinking and action, and sees creativity as divergences from these routines which is thereby framed against them. Without a repetitive frame creativity is impossible. Mere repetition is not creative, even if new. Creativity disrupts a frame, purposefully. Socratic Dialogue is an ancient technique of engaging a student in a dialogue by asking non-leading questions, aimed at revealing to the student how much knowledge he or she already has on some topic: Socrates’ demonstration to the slave-boy (and the audience) that the boy already knows geometry (without any schooling) is the founding example. We aim to illustrate that internalising the Socratic kind of reflective self-questioning and co-questioning is intimately related to the view of creativity as the reframing of routine. Therefore, we have qualitatively analysed primary and secondary school pilots in Greece, Austria and the United Kingdom. The illustrations of facilitated Socratic Dialogues with children and young people have been derived from the analysis of 14 Socratic Dialogues involving a total number of 97 students. This paper outlines the Socratic Dialogue as a method of both researching and teaching creative thinking, and it reveals that the Socratic method dovetails with this conception of co-creativity. As a research method, Socratic Dialogue aims to elicit information concerning reasoning processes and shared experiences. As a teaching method, Socratic Dialogue aims to get students to internalise the public methodology of Socratic Dialogue, and to adopt it across the range of domains they meet. The students’ use of the internalised method towards enabling creative thinking is illustrated by the experiences of the teaching intervention teams in the C2Learn project, using games to provide occasions for co-creativity.

Keywords: Co-creativity, Socratic Dialogue, creative thinking, teaching method, research method


Everyone knows it when they see it, but everyone has a hard time specifying what they mean by it, and demonstrating that they can teach it to others. There are difficult questions about whether it constitutes, and can be taught as, a general capacity or skill, or whether only by teaching excellence in one domain or another. We set out from the view that it is at least possible to say some general things about creativity wherever it is found, and that this can be helpful to teachers who have the job of enabling creativity. In psychology, at least, there is a cycle of discussion that goes roughly as follows. There is something which we can call creativity. We can design tests of it, and we can teach it. This position is followed by a critique which says, sometimes after considerable research, that no, there is nothing that crosses all domains, and can be reliably distinguished from intelligence (or more generally perhaps achievement) by psychometric testing. Then the cycle starts over.

We find this debate rather sterile. Creativity is most prominent at the highest reaches of achievement in any domain. What we mean by achievement is not so easily distinguished from the exercise of creativity, however different the particular symptoms are in different endeavors. Whether there is some abstraction that fits all cases, or even transfers across all domains does not seem to be a good hook to get hung up on. Our question is closer to “Is there anything general that one can say about creativity which may prove useful to teachers across many domains?” We assume that even if the answer is, as we hope yes, then the way that teachers will have to incorporate it into their practice will differ wildly from domain to domain. And of course, teachers in each domain are the only ones who can adapt any useful general advice into their specific teaching practice.

This paper summarizes some of the thinking and experiences that came out of a research project on the role of gaming in teaching, and researching the teaching for creativity. One emphasis is on the gaming; another on the collaborative creativity of groups with a special focus on co-creative reframings; and a third on a theory of what creativity is and the problem of how to research whether teaching designed to provide occasions for co-creativity has succeeded, and if so how? Here our perspective chiefly from the theory/research team’s perspective, illustrated by the experiences of the team’s designing, applying and researching the teaching interventions. Contrary to other contributions in this issue, such as Schmoelz (2016) and Panagopoulos et al. (2016), we will have less to say about the gaming except at a rather general level.

So within our approach here, there are some points of particular emphasis. The theory will come in the next section, along with a proposal about Socratic Dialogue as a research method. A further emphasis is on the creativity of collaborating groups. Creativity in our culture is often conceptualised in individualistic terms (Guilford 1950, Rogers 1954, Maslow 1954, Engell 1981, Hutterer 1998, Gardner 1993) though this at least ignores some important aspects of creativity in collaboration (John-Steiner 2000, Chappell 2008), and the relation between creativity and culture more generally (Oral 2008.). Another emphasis is that because we are concerned with education, we are more concerned with levels of creativity which are achievable and achieved by a wide range of children, rather than only in high art or science: ‘Little c Creativity’ (Craft 2001) as it is sometimes known. A third point of emphasis is the role of emotion (Damasio 1999, Stenning 2002, Scaltsas 2016) and dialogue (Wegerif 2012) in creativity: often it is seen as a rather cerebral process (Dalgleish 2004).

In the next two sections, we introduce our theorizing on creativity and Socratic dialogue, and the research that grows from it. In the following section, we illustrate our approach and the specific gameplay scenarios. The findings are based on the analysis of 15 Socratic Dialogues involving a total number of 97 students.

Country Number of students Number of SDs
Greece 51 3
United Kingdom 24 5
Austria 22 7

Figure 1: Overview of implemented Socratic Dialogues, students and involved countries

Finally, the pupils and our experiences of our applications of this thinking will be further illustrated, and in the last section, we draw some tentative conclusions.


Our approach to creativity is through contrast with routine, because by definition, routine is opposed to the novel and creative. Creativity diverges from routine by disrupting routine and proceeding in ways that deviate from routine. Yet, routine is very important for creativity as the context against which creativity can be manifested. Without routine there is no creativity, even if creativity is divergent; for example, there is no creativity against a background of anarchy. Routine can characterise anything from daily actions, to any type of act that is repeated according to a pattern, towards achieving a goal. Divergence, though, which comes in all shapes and sizes, needs to satisfy certain criteria before it can generate creativity. Divergence can be quantitative or qualitative. Both quantitative and qualitative divergences must be significant enough for their impact to be noticed in society or the agent, before they can count as creativity; more than that, the result must have some positive value for the agent and/or the ‘audience’. Creativity is novel, where ‘novelty’ is not just a descriptive term of the new; it is an evaluative term, like creativity: the divergent thought needs to lead to some new idea that has value for the users, before it can be classified as creative. Merely forgetting to pair your socks may not cut it, nor will purely random acts generate creativity, unless their value depends on their randomness; for instance, the case of the ‘musical dice game’ which Nikolaus Simrock attributed to Mozart’s manuscript K. 516f, written in 1787; or the musical cryptogram of the Bach motif, where a succession of notes important or characteristic to a piece of music are based on a random sequence such as the letters of Bach’s last name. In such cases, the very point of the novelty is the randomness of throwing the dice to generate notes, or of the sequence of the name’s letters in setting the notes.

Our project was concerned with co-creative thought and dialogue, which is premised on divergence being judged against a goal. The assumption is that routine thought and dialogue for such problem situations has proven insufficient for delivering the resolution goal. Co-Creativity violates the goals established by routine, delivering goals that resolve the problem at hand. The C2Learn game 4scribes allows for various types of disruption of routine, each of which might results in a co-creative reframing of the problem at hand. The routine in question is the quest for a solution to a problem, following a well-trodden path. The disruption allows the user to reframe the problem in terms of the new components that the disruption introduces; e.g. if the problem is the marginalisation of the elderly in society, the disruption may be through the use of the idea/word ‘catalyst’, or a diagram of a bridge; these would e.g. lead to reframing the problem by thinking of the elderly sector of society taking a central role in society as external and neutral facilitators, lobbying for, or evaluating policy proposals in society. What was distinctive about our project’s approach is that we introduced a further reframing factor, in addition to the semantic or the diagrammatic factors. The new factor is based on changes in the emotional or value domains of society. In the example above, the suggestion would be that, against present routine, there is good reason to trust the elderly with lobbying for, or evaluation of policies, on the basis of their experience on the one hand, and relative career neutrality on the other. Thus, we explored co-creative reframings of problems, aimed at resolving them, through disruption of routine solution paths with semantic, diagrammatic, or emotive suggestions pertaining to the problem under investigation.

Socratic Dialogue

Socratic Dialogue seems closely suited to this conception of creativity. It is an attempt to turn the student’s focus onto what is already latent within – to enable self-understanding and shared understanding through providing ways into existing knowledge. It has a tendency to sound rather grand with its historical precedent, so perhaps it is best to start by defusing the grandeur.

We can use the example of The Snowman story experiment (Stenning & Michell 1985) to give a brief illustration of how a Socratic Dialogue would work. One can, for example, imagine asking the 5 year-old child, who produces that very moving account of the story, questions such as, “What was the Boy (or the Snowman) feeling at this point?” Or, “Why did the Snowman leave?”. When the child says “The boy is sad because the Snowman has to leave” one could follow up with “Why was that?”, or other lines of questioning revealing the child’s understanding. With an older student, even with the same material, one could ask more abstract questions “What is the author trying to achieve at this point? “and so on. These types of questions aim at making the child’s understanding explicit and reveal the ground upon which the subsequent categorisation will take place.

Another example was established by Miki Chi et al. (1989) as they observed an interesting difference between undergraduate students: some ask themselves lots of questions, especially when the cognitive going gets tough. Chi turned this observation into a highly insightful research program. She took textbook reading as her experimental situation, and got students to read aloud, and think aloud from textbooks. When they hit something that they did not understand (a fairly frequent happening if the student is in an appropriate level class) she observed that the some students would ask themselves questions about the conceptual difficulty they had encountered. Answering these questions appeared to play an important role in resolving the impasse. And if the student didn’t ask (themselves), then the student more often did not `get it’ – the insight into the difficulty. Some students didn’t ask themselves many questions. Even more impressively, Chi went on to show that students, who did not ask themselves questions could be turned into students, who asked themselves many questions, at least with respect to self-questioning in this context, by instructions to self-question, with demonstrable benefits to their learning more generally. This result gives some assurance that something about self-questioning actually plays a key role in the change in cognitive processes. Self-questioning by students is not merely a verbal habit that happens to correlate with learning effects.

Are Chi’s results a demonstration that Socratic Dialogue enables learning to be creative? Clearly not by themselves. Learning fairly mundane textbook knowledge may be ‘Little c Creativity’ (Craft 2001). For students changing their studying habits by beginning to ask themselves appropriate questions at suitable points, and thereby transforming their school grades, is surely a creative act. After all, for some students, this is already routine habit before Chi’s intervention. Part of our point is that creativity comes in many kinds of act, and that both creativity and Socratic Dialogue are mundane, even routine, phenomena for teachers, if not for the students who benefit. Chi’s results are paradigm examples of individual creativity – solitary study of a textbook. We adopted a particular interest in co-creativity – creativity that happens in and between us through collaborative and communal action. Co-creative groups engage in repetitive activities – routines – which frame their activities. Neither teaching nor learning would be possible without routine. And there are parts of learning (such as repetitive practice) which are not conspicuous in their frequency of producing creative acts. But groups do break routine frames in co-creative ways, and this cannot be reduced to the idea that individuals in groups exhibit solo creativity. In fact one might claim that all ‘individual creativity’ is achieved against the cultural framing of repetitive activities, and so is a case of co-creativity even when achieved while apparently `alone’. Another link between Socratic Dialogue and co-creativity is that the breaking of routine framings of activity invokes reflection. “What happened there?” Even Chi’s student, who accepts the teacher’s exhortation to ask themselves questions, cannot succeed by doing this in a mindless way. The activity may start that way, but to succeed the student must realise something of what is happening. Must realise the paradoxical implication that `they knew all along’ but on the other hand learned something from asking their own question, and answering it. “I can learn how to ask the best question.” Knowledge does not just get poured from an authority figure’s brain into the student’s. Knowledge can be co-constructed. Learning is an active process. The individual student is a group capable of a dialogue within the self. Two heads may be better than one. If they collaborate between themselves, they can do more than each component on its own creativity? This necessary reflective component of creative learning is a distinctive part of co-creativity. Routine is just what we don’t usually reflect on.

Some readers may find this all much too abstract. After all Socrates was a highly ‘irritating’ philosopher. But this complaint should be defused. It’s hard to write about non-verbal examples, but not so hard to enact them. Non-leading questions to one’s self may not need to be much more than a feeling of “Why on earth did I do that?” or “What does that mean?” or “Why’s that different?”, where the `that’s’ are not verbal at all. The process might be much harder to study, but there is no reason why a dancer or a visual artist cannot be engaged in self-questioning reflection, and be trained to go to lengths to avoid much verbalisation. This highlights the importance of feeling and emotion. Even the most cerebral example of successful self-questioning evokes emotion. Archimedes leaps naked from his bath and runs down the street shouting. Feelings motivate breaking routine: it’s an emotional business if we care at all about what we have created.

Our focus was on co-creativity and providing occasion for co-creativity through classroom activities and digital gaming. The gaming provides an interesting tension with this view of co-creativity. Games are famously repetitive. Playing paradigmatic computer games is what psychologists call a closed-loop activity. It is highly focused on a goal and is all about skill. Skill is something that has to be practiced – a routine. It is famously easier to get children to indulge in such skill learning than on reflective thinking about conceptual learning. Of course, the game-designers in C2Learn are not creating paradigmatic digital games, and are designing games that not only engender routine applications of skill, but also their creative disruption. Nevertheless, there is tension in that games themselves do not easily evoke reflection – they evoke `getting on with it’. This makes Socratic Dialogue a highly useful way of providing a reflective component for learning.

As a research method, Socratic Dialogue provided a situation in which `one can recognise co-creativity, even if it remains hard to define. It was clear to us and to the students how the process had functioned, and there was a remarkable agreement between students and researchers about which events had been important in the process. For a teacher who had the unenviable task of evaluating individual contributions to what was an evidently co-creative process, here at least was the kind of rich evidence needed: the student who had contributed a lot; the one who appeared to contribute almost nothing until the critical point where they made the decisive intervention; the student who had not really engaged. None of this would have been so well-evidenced from just seeing the group play the game and solve the problem. Seeing them reflect gave much greater assurance in judgments, particularly when you saw the participants make essentially congruent ones. We could not, by merely citing examples, be sure the effects of Socratic Dialogue are general. We could not tell whether the insights gained from the group dialogues would persist or transfer. We could not tell whether students have internalised self-questioning in the way that Chi’s textbook readers did. What we could say is that internalising this kind of reflective self-questioning and co-questioning is intimately related to the view of co-creativity as the collaborative and dialogic reframing of routine. And the remaining sections of the paper will provide evidence from the more sustained interventions.

Socratic dialogue as a teaching and research method

Socratic Dialogues invite the interlocutor to examine the underlying rules of repetition and justify them in view of the goal aimed at (Scaltsas 1990). Looking into the roots of rules forces one to compare and contrast their routine to similar, but not chosen alternatives. In this process, one is led to entertain groups of alternatives to their routine, which may point to possible promising outcomes for the problem at hand. Entertaining relevant alternatives is a heuristic method that is not conceptually taxing on the agent, but may expand the space of solutions to the problem at hand.

Socratic Dialogues as group dialogues have been implemented in some lower and higher secondary schools in Greece, Austria and the United Kingdom. The following illustrations of facilitated Socratic Dialogues with children and young people have been derived from qualitative analysis of 9 different gameplay scenarios and 15 Socratic Dialogues involving a total number of 97 students (see Fig 2.).

Gameplay Scenarios Location Age of Participants Number of students present in SD
Father’s Death Austria 14-15 5
Bionic Kid Austria 14-15 5
Suicide-Attempt Austria 14-15 4
Handicap Austria 14-15 4
Major of Vienna Austria 14-15 4
Shipwreck Greece 15-16 5
Farmers Tax Greece 10-11 24
Lost in the Mountains Greece 10-11 22
The Circus UK 10-11 24

Figure 2: Overview of gameplay scenarios, location and student details

Before groups of children engaged in Socratic Dialogue about what they had experienced, they participated in a gameplay session. In the gameplay session random stimuli were introduced by the children to create a story collaboratively. The main principle of the Random Stimulus technique is the introduction of a foreign conceptual element, acting as a disruptor, by forcing the participant to integrate the foreign element in the production of an idea, and bringing together disparate domains (Beaney 2005). After the gameplay session, the interviewer utilised open-ended questioning, in order to get a better understanding of the students’ reasoning processes and experiences as regards the particular gameplay session. Before starting a Socratic Dialogue with students, the interviewer was advised to identify a relatively small number of particularly interesting incidents in the preceding 4scribes gameplay session. These incidents aimed to help structure the dialogue and provide focus for both the interviewer and the students. It was expected that the dialogue will branch out to other parts of gameplay. The exact nature of the open-ended questioning heavily depended upon the particular gameplay experience. The open-ended questioning is meant to establish a dialogue between interviewer and students, to facilitate the transmission of critical information pertaining to the student’s thinking and experience. The interviewer’s aim is to gently keep the students focused on revealing how their thinking proceeded, both while the re-framings were made, and as the dialogue unfolds, and they get the chance to reflect and negotiate on the importance of their re-framings. It is particularly important to try to encourage the students to feel that their thinking is important and to express themselves.

Reframing through Socratic Dialogue

A first example from the pilots may serve to illustrate the useful way of providing reflective components for learning. A group of 12 year olds had played a game in which their task was to find a solution to the following problem: “You are shipwrecked and bobbing around in the sea. Fortunately the lifeboat has launched itself and a crew member has climbed aboard, and is pulling people from the sea. Unfortunately, there are places for only eight more people in the lifeboat, and there are nine people in the sea”. This problem invoked a most interesting emotional tone in the ensuing enthusiastic discussion. On the surface there was a rather jokey light-hearted attitude to the problem of getting rid of a surplus person. But there was also a strong undercurrent of what might even be called ‘horror’ at their own blithe repartee going on at the surface. This tone continued after the group had performed the task (the game-play session), and moved into a reflective Socratic Dialogue with one of the research staff `playing Socrates’. The students turned out to be extremely engaged in reflecting on the process they had just been through. They were adept at identifying where the crucial hinge-points in the problem solving dialogue had happened, and at noting that these were the ‘co-creative reframings’ that had determined the course of the outcome. They also reflected on the horrors that they had been `willing’ to commit in the cerebral solution of a numerical problem. They learned something about what might happen in such a ghastly situation, and the part that black humour plays, not just in a classroom mock-ups perhaps.

The interplay of humour to bear up against a horrific situation, strong engagement in reflective dialoguing and identification of crucial hinge-points can also be identified from a Socratic Dialogue that was facilitated subsequent to a gameplay session with the following problem at hand: “A girl was trying to commit suicide, but she survived and woke up in the hospital”. Contrary to the shipwreck problem of the former example, this problem was not given by the teacher, but developed by the students before the gameplay session. The students identified two turning points or, i.e., reframings of the story that were crucial to them. Particularly for two students, it appeared to be crucial that “a local celebrity showed up in the hospital to support the girl”. The other half of the group mentioned, that “the girl was able to leave the hospital after one week” as most important co-creative reframing that had altered their story substantially. An instance of this Socratic Group Dialogue, which has not been identified in the former example, was that students were negotiating a conflict on which co-creative reframing was more crucial to them. While two students were arguing for the very moment when the local celebrity entered the storyline, the other students were mentioning that the moment when the protagonist was saved by a successful surgery and recovered in only one week, was most important to them. After debating with each other they all came to the conclusion that the second moment was most important and interesting. This instance showed that, collaboratively, they picked the moment, which was about survival and recovery rather than the moment that was fun and exciting. They started to negotiate by posing ‘what if’ questions, such as “what if, she was your friend?“, “what if, she was your sister?“ and “what if, she was your aunt?“. After some had voiced that the girl is none of those, the final word was: “But she is still human”.

Dialogic reasoning using real-world examples

The students agreed that the ‘survival and recovery’ instance was the most crucial co-creative reframing and at the end of the Socratic Group Dialogue everyone voiced why they have finally chosen this reframing as most crucial. One mentioned that: the protagonist “reminded me of my grandma and of my grandpa. My grandpa died recently after being in the hospital for a long time”. Another student said that: “If she was my sister, I would be very happy if she could leave the hospital soon, because I love her much and would sit by her bed all the time”. After a pause, she added: “the same happened to my aunt”. Another student referred to what happened to her and said: “I had a surgery, once, and I was in the hospital for more than one week, for 2 months. My brother also came and he cheered me up”. This statement showed that students tended to elaborate their choice based on personal experiences that were closely related to the protagonist. The cause for choosing the latter instance as most important reframing might be understood as regards to personal awareness of experiences that closely related to the reframing of their choice. Three out of four students told personal stories about their grandfather, aunt and about themselves to support their collaborative choice for the ‘survival and recovery’ reframing. Students had been making connections between the protagonists’ role in their story and their personal experiences to back up their choice. In that way, the Socratic Group Dialogue provided an occasion for students to reason dialogically about the qualities and ‘weight’ of two reframings. The qualities that had been established were ‘fun’ and ‘recovery’; however ‘recovery’ had been chosen collaboratively as having more ‘weight’, and was finally agreed to as the most important co-creative reframing.

Ethical considerations through Socratic Dialogue

Another, but quite different, example occurred during a Socratic Dialogue with students who had to come up with their own story as well. Instead of focusing on hope and survival they decided to write a story about destruction, the end of the world and a tragic future that will become a reality if we, as human beings, continue to sit back instead of taking action. The beginning of their story was: ‘Plants and animals are suffering because roads are being built’. The students mentioned one reframing in the story and stated that its ending was the most important aspect in their opinion: one participant wanted the ‘whole universe to decay’ whilst the other group members thought this idea was ‘too dramatic’ and suggested that only the tree (being the narrator of their story) and the environment around it were being destroyed by humans saying that: ‘the earth dying doesn’t mean that everything else is dying as well’. Even though they were negotiating conflict through discussion and eventually decided to settle on a less intense ending, they still came up with the collaborative thought, ‘destruction due to progress’. They all agreed to this instance being the most crucial and interesting turning point or reframing of the story and were very engaged in reflecting about their personal opinions on the way society abuses progress: ‘Back in the day everything was normal and beautiful, before humans and technological progress had an impact on nature.’ One student elaborated during the Socratic Dialogue by saying that progress also leads to people feeling ‘less responsible’ because ‘we invent watches that tell us when to eat’ and ‘we come up with a lot of stuff no one needs’. Another participant mentioned the idea of a ‘perfect world’ which is conveyed to us through commercials every day giving a rather illusive picture of what makes people happy: ‘If you have this, you have a perfect family, if you have something else, you have an amazing job, if you have that, you get money.’ All of the group members were extremely critical about today’s society and felt strongly about trying to make a change in order for the world to become a better place. This led them to an unhappy ending because: ‘I really believe that an intense ending can have more impact (on society)’.

In this particular case, using Socratic Dialogue as a research method was crucial in order to understand why students decided on such a dramatic ending. Providing pupils with an opportunity to reflect on the gameplay gave an interesting insight into their thinking process prior to coming up with the collaborative choice of the ‘destruction due to progress’ reframing. Furthermore, it allowed them to elaborate on the different possible outcomes of the story. The Socratic Dialogue showed that the players thought a lot about the consequences of their ideas, as well as trying to use reframing in order to come up with a storyline which might lead to a change in society’s perspective.

Learning through Socratic Dialogue

Another two examples derived concerning History and Geography subjects highly illustrate students’ integration in a controversial situation in terms of their games’ collaborative outcomes and choices. A sixth grade class consisting of 24 students played two 4scribes games (basic version). At first, students followed the challenge as detailed below: ‘You are a farmer who has just paid the 10% tax on your crop. You feel wronged because the wheat that the tax collector withheld was more than your proper dues. You decide to seek audience with the Pasha and present your problem. The Pasha listens to you and…’ This challenge invoked a historical era in which Greeks were under Ottoman rule, making students able to develop an empathy experience. The challenge triggered students’ imagination to create fiction rather than history-oriented stories. A reflective Socratic Dialogue emerged from students’ thoughts about how random cards operated during the game playing and developed controversial arguments in terms of their outcomes. At the beginning, teacher focused on the kind of cards and students’ interpretations during the creation of their stories. A boy argued: ‘the word “tsaros” did not help us to complete our story just because it changed our notion of challenge’. Some students strongly believed that they got out of the historical context and they made a story which belonged to another period but they soon understood their misunderstanding and turned the story to the appropriate historical context. The teacher insisted on their references in terms of how they understood the challenge in relation to the historical context. They underlined their difficulty in understanding how people in another historical time reacted. On the other hand, students argued their fully understanding of the historical context but their stories were more fiction oriented. That happened due to their misunderstanding of the historical context and not reframing the routine of the given historical context. Discussion among all students gave them the notion to understand the meaning of the historical context and how they could operate the random cards inside this context. A girl said: ‘I have never imagined that I could write a story in terms of a farmer of Ottoman Empire’ and a boy concluded: ‘it was the first time we write collaboratively in this subject in order to learn more about a historical era. We created a story without the book developing our imagination’. Students intervened in this challenge by creating stories which reframe the given and closed, as they believe, historical context.

Expression through Socratic Dialogue

During the second game play, students facilitated with the following problem: ‘You and your scout team are lost in a mountain and you try to find the way to go back. What are you doing?’ Teacher asked students in terms of the random cards and how these helped them or not in the intervention of this challenge. Students identified two points of view in terms of their return. The first one was a more easy way of going back, and the second one more crucial. Reading students’ outcomes, a very interesting debate emerged. A girl criticized: ‘This story has not any coherence’ and a boy pointed out: ‘your vocabulary was so curious!’ Actually, the team answered: ‘it is impossible to write a story with such cards!’ On the other hand, students who followed a crucial return underlined: ‘we had characters that did not help us to complete the story in another way’. Students negotiated their outcomes and they concluded with a story which seemed to have coherence and be rationally oriented, based on their every-day standards’. This challenge made students feel uncomfortable due to an open-ended context. They could not easily imagine ‘what if?’ happenings so as to return back. This was a challenge which triggered students’ thinking but they argued how difficult was to follow the random cards even if this word was “forest” just because they lost control from their rational frame. A boy said: ‘these words indicate only one way of thinking. We cannot freely move during the story’. This activity made students to negotiate more seriously the notion of “what if?” as well as to make clear in their mind why a simple word could confuse them, losing their control. Some students felt uncomfortable with this reframing in geography scenario.

Continuing co-creativity through Socratic Dialogue

Socratic Dialogue was used to discuss the story and how cards were used for the construction of it and was instrumental in revealing students’ creative thinking. The direction of the questioning was used differently in two separate pilots and was able to provide an overall picture of what occurred both during story development and in the way the game was played. In both pilots the students were asked to construct the story around a dilemma of whether to save the animals or save their parents’ jobs in the circus using 4Scribes. The scenario provided was that the circus was cruel to the animals but the players’ parents worked there so would lose their jobs if the circus was closed down.

In the first pilot the questioning was directed towards how the cards were used for the construction of the story. Students were also asked for an overall view of what happened in the story. The reflective discussion which took place during the Socratic Dialogue allowed the students to think about the overall theme of the story. When one student was asked what the story was about he stated that “ours was more about death” and that “everyone wanted to kill everyone off”. The same student later identified where this didn’t occur however, and actually expressed surprise “her birds were put on show but they didn’t kill anyone”, it is interesting here that the student referred to then questioned whether she should have been killing someone “was I supposed to kill someone? This suggests that although the student made choices during the game, her confidence in her decisions were undermined by the dominant speaker in the Socratic Dialogue, thus demonstrating an element of loss of control. As the Socratic Dialogue continued it revealed another contradiction to the student’s belief that ‘everyone was killing everyone off’ when another student said that she used her card to “bring everyone back to life”. Although there was no discussion between the students about the contradictions that occurred during the Socratic Dialogue, it is interesting that the reflections showed how differently the students interpreted what had happened in the story. In another example the Socratic Dialogue allowed one student to completely reframe what occurred in the original story to enable it to fit better with the dilemma. This was done in such an unusual way that it demonstrated a high level of intervention and reframing. The student in question was describing his card and how he used it, he used the ‘quest’ to go back in time to get a quest from God to help to “destroy the circus and the people making it”. When asked why he brought in God another student gave him the suggestion that it was because he was powerful so he answered “because he was most powerful and pulled the Devil out”, he then went on to say that “God could allow him to summon in the Devil to protect the circus and not trying to get the animals” and that “the Devil helped him with God’s task of destroying the circus so the animals weren’t endangered”. This example shows the student really thinking about the representations of God and the Devil and shows his thought process to arrive at the conclusion he needed to protect the animals. First he says that God is going to destroy the circus and the people making it, showing God as bad, then he describes the Devil as good by saying God summoned him to protect the circus, finally he brings it to the conclusion that he could use the badness of the Devil to help with God’s good task of protecting the circus. Here, the Socratic Dialogue was instrumental in allowing the intervention and reframing of the goodness and badness of God and the Devil was used to ensure that the student tackled the dilemma without hurting the animals.

In the second pilot questioning was directed towards why students used their cards in the story construction and how they thought their choices affected gameplay. One player thought the cards helped them to be more imaginative when she said: “The different words made you think about something else”. However, the Socratic Dialogue also helped the players to make further connections about the story even after the game had ended. For example one player thought deeper about the choices of using different types of cards during gameplay and that using the characters to build the story and leaving objects to end the story was the best way to play it. She thought that the story would not have worked otherwise “You can do anything with the character, you can fit it in easily with the story”. In another example one player thought that her card [fallen] would not have worked if another student had not made his character fly, and the player who made his character fly thought that he wouldn’t have been able to do that without the magic he had been given (through the cards). Here, the boy was made to fly in order to reframe the story to bring it back towards the theme, demonstrating the many aspects of the thought processes of these students. In both cases here, the Socratic Dialogue allowed the players to think deeper about the connection of the other parts of the story to their choices and used intervention and reframing in order to think about how and why these were made. Players also analysed how the game was played: “it was better [to go last] because you could kind of end the story the way you liked it, but then it was harder because you had to incorporate all of the other ones [cards]. Another player recognised that “you have to read the cards in front and think about what they talked about” and that “You can make the story how you like”.


The examples showed that the Socratic Dialogue allowed the players to think about other possibilities and how their choices had encouraged co-creative reframing of their experiences. It also showed that different questioning techniques can allow the students to think about many more aspects of the gameplay. When questions were used which were directed towards how cards were used in relation to the story, students seemed to interpret the story differently, show deeper thinking and continue to co-creatively reframe to fit with the theme whilst thinking about ethical choices of the students. On the other hand, when questioning was directed towards why cards were used and how the choices affected storyline, it allowed the students to reflect on the deeper connections within the story and demonstrated students’ understanding of the rules and that they have consequences. Subsequently, both examples show that co-creativity is still occurring after gameplay through the use of Socratic Dialogue and that different questioning can further enable this progress.

Furthermore, Socratic Dialogue operated as a teaching method. In the history subject, Socratic Dialogue operated more as a teaching procedure because the discussion focused on students’ misunderstanding the historical context and thus their attempts to come back to it. In addition to the previous mention, students developed their possibilities on how their stories would be completed. In the geography subject, students evaluated their outcomes and they argued for their choices and how random cards reframed their thinking from the first thinking to their final decisions. Random cards enabled students to think differently and overcome their routine thinking.


In conclusion the analysis of the Socratic Dialogues illustrated how differently students interpreted what had happened in the story during the gameplay and how they continued to reflect on their choices when intervention and reframing occurred during the dialogue after the gameplay. This seemed to lead to ongoing changes in the dialogic and cognitive processes of the students on a number of occasions, for example: the occurrence of the theme of death during the Socratic Dialogue prompted a student to question whether the choices she made were originally meaningful, and another student interchanged the concept of God and the Devil a number of times during his reflection to make it fit in with his original choices. In this way the Socratic Dialogue was instrumental in ensuring the cognitive process and the dialogic experience did not stop when the gameplay had ended, which could suggest that intervention and reframing could be a continuous process.

The implications of Socratic Dialogue as reflecting on and continuing of the process and experience of intervention and co-creative reframing are twofold for investigating the value of Socratic Dialogues as a teaching and as a research practice.

First, using Socratic Dialogue in classrooms might provide occasion for identifying, pinpointing differences in quality and weight of co-creative reframings, and dialogically reasoning on prioritisation of reframings based on their quality and weight. Here, further questions arise: Who is identifying the reframing? Is it the child actively engaging in the Socratic Dialogic experience? If yes, how did the children identify the reframing and how did they decide on differences and prioritisation? What is it about Socratic Dialogue that helps the child identify reframings? What role do the questions posed in the Socratic Dialogue play? One instance, in which the children were identifying two different reframings: “a local celebrity showed up in the hospital to support the girl” and “the girl was able to leave the hospital after one week” illustrates how children use the Socratic Dialogue experience to pose questions to themselves. Posing questions to themselves and, therefore, taking the control from the interlocutor and ‘owning’ the dialogic experience have been shown crucial to deciding on differences and prioritisation of reframing. In this instance, they started to negotiate by posing ‘what if?’ questions, such as “what if she was your friend?“, “what if she was your sister?“ and “what if she was your aunt?”. Thereby, the children came to the conclusion that the reframing: “the girl was able to leave the hospital after one week” was the most important one. In that case, the Socratic Dialogue helped to identify and diagnose the preceding gameplay experience and decided on differences and prioritisation of reframings by opening a dialogic space for the children to pose questions to themselves, and, therefore, internalising the Socratic kind of reflective self-questioning and co-questioning.

Second, Socratic Dialogues might provide occasion for children to go back to the story, reframe it in a reflective manner and further develop it. Here, it is less diagnostic for deciding which co-creative reframing was more crucial, while further development of the story by additional reframings becomes crucial. Students’ reaction when hearing others’ stories made them understand what they wrote during their gameplay and reframe their outcomes. A team argued that the random words did not help them to make a story such as the others ones, and wondered whether if they changed cards perhaps their story could be more appropriate. This operated as a stimulus that enabled the teacher to use it as a reflection to what further could be written with these cards. Some other students responded to this question also; it made them capable of understanding that they can make stories using any words. This made students reflect again on their outcomes, and the teacher could create a non-hierarchical pedagogical environment in which teachers’ questions and students’ self-questions encourage the learning progress.

The twofold conclusion of this study is that Socratic dialoguing as teaching and research practice can pertain to the reasons and justifications of what is being discussed. This leads to further understanding both, for the teacher/researcher and the children. It also opens possibilities of finding more solutions, creatively, because reflection is a type of exploration of the network within which a problem arises. Still, the difference between Socratic Dialogues as occasions for retrospective diagnosing of reframings and clearer understanding of the story as developed earlier in the gameplay, by contrast to Socratic Dialogues as occasions for co-creative reframing and further development of the story keeps being an elusive difference. Of course, this realization triggers future questions, such as: From which epistemological perspective would this elusive difference be judged problematic in using Socratic Dialogues as research method? Are there any epistemological perspectives that would see the integration of this diffusion as meaningful for research? This is food for further thought and study.


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Biographical statements

Keith Stenning (Dr.) researches the cognitive science of reasoning. His central interest is in using the semantics of discourse processing as a basis for the psychology of reasoning. Recently he has studied logical, non-probabilistic approaches, combined with experimental analysis of common sense causal reasoning and decision. Two books are `Seeing Reason’ (2002, OUP), about the relation between diagrammatic and linguistic representations in learning to reason; and Cognitive Science and Human Reasoning (with Michiel van Lambalgen) (2008, MIT) about insights gained from applying a logic of interpretation in the psychology of reasoning. He is Professor Emeritus at the School of Informatics at the University of Edinburgh, Foreign Fellow of the Royal Dutch National Academy, and Distinguished Fellow of the Cognitive Science Society. For the last four years he has been a Mercator Gastprofessor in the DFG priority program “New Frameworks of Rationality”. It is a pleasant surprise how closely related is creativity.


Alexander Schmoelz (MA. BA.) has a PhD position with the Institute of Education at University of Vienna (Austria) and holds a MA in Political Science as well as a BA in Media and Communication Studies. His research activities involve higher education development, teacher education and school studies with a special focus on co-creativity, pedagogy & digital media. He has published numerous articles, functioned as chair of various conferences and is reviewer for a number of academic journals. Since 2008, he has been managing national and European projects (COMENIUS, ERASMUS, FP7) on technology-enhanced learning as a consultant for the Federal Ministry of Education and Gender Equality in Austria.


Heather Wren (BSc (Hons), PGCE, MEd) is a researcher, lecturer and tutor in Higher Education. Her main interests are creative education with technology which usually focuses on inclusion and includes digital games. She has worked with excluded students and students with learning differences in a teaching capacity where she has also conducted some of her research into creative learning, engagement and equality. She will be starting her PhD shortly which will focus on WHC and digital game production for inclusive education.


Elias Stouraitis (MA) is is currently a PhD Student in Didactic of History at the Faculty of Historical survey, history didactics and new technologies, Department of History, Ionian University in Greece. He completed his undergraduate studies in History and Archaeology at the University of Athens in Greece and undertook a Master Degree in Modern Greek History at the University of Athens. He teaches History at private education in Greece and he is a researcher at R&D Department of Ellinogermaniki Agogi. He has been awarded a grant from the Japanese Nippon Foundation SYLFF (Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship Fund) and an award by Common Ground Community ‘The Learner’. His main research interests are: History Education, Historiography, Memory, Creativity, Identity and Historical Consciousness, Design of Educational Software for History and teaching/ learning history with Digital Technology.


Theodore Scaltsas (Dr.) holds a Chair of Philosophy in the Philosophy Department of Edinburgh University. His current research is on the theory of creative lateral thinking; and on emotions in decision making. He is also developing a theory of Duoist Creative Thinking based on Yijing metaphysical principles of Chinese thought. He leads and participates in research projects for the development of methods for teaching creative lateral thinking in schools. He studied philosophy and mathematics at Duke (B.S.), and at Brandeis (M.A.) and metaphysics for his doctoral work at Oxford (D.Phil.) He directs Project Archelogos, a research project for the creation of an argument-base, using a new methodology for the analysis into arguments of Plato’s and Aristotle’s philosophical texts.


Konstantine Alexopoulos (MA) is a philosopher who freelances on cultural projects. He has especial experience in ancient Greek cultural projects. He further works on educational uses of computer gaming, particularly for creative thinking. He attained his MA in Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh.


Amelie Aichhorn (MA) holds a Master Degree in Psychology with a focus on Clinical and Educational Psychology. Her research deals with personality types among prospective teachers and differences in personality features between teacher training students and the general population. Furthermore, she explored how personality traits impact self-evaluation of acquired knowledge. Her main research focus is on classroom management and teacher education as well as creative learning. Recently, she worked with the Department of Psychosomatic Medicine at the Charité in Berlin and as a Consultant for the Austrian Federal Ministry for Education and Gender Equality. Her consultancy involved research activities within the FP7-EU-Project “C2Learn”. Her main responsibilities included working with the participating students as well as collecting and evaluating qualitative and quantitative data to gain greater insight in the spectrum of creativity and digital games.


Theodore Scaltsas

Published Online: June 28, 2016
Full Text: HTML, PDF

Abstract: BrainMining is a theory of creative thinking that shows how we should exploit the mind’s spontaneous natural disposition to use old solutions to address new problems – our Anchoring Cognitive Bias.  BrainMining develops a simple and straightforward method to transform recalcitrant problems into types of problems which we have solved before, and then apply an old type of solution to them.  The transformation makes the thinking lateral by matching up disparate types of problem and solution.  It emphasises the role of emotive judgements that the agent makes, when she discerns whether a change of the values or the emotions and feelings in a situation, which would expand the space of solutions available for the problem at hand, would be acceptable or appropriate in the situation.  A lateral solution for an intractable problem is thus spontaneously brainmined from the agent’s old solutions, to solve a transformed version of the intractable problem, possibly involving changes in the value system or the emotional profile of the situation, which the agent judges, emotively, will be acceptable, and even appropriate in the circumstances.

Keywords: BrainMining; creative thinking; lateral thinking; emotive thinking; cognitive bias; anchoring bias; emotions; feelings; Kahneman; Tversky; Ariely.

Received accounts of creative thinking

Someone with no mathematical background asks me, what is mathematical thinking, and how does one do mathematics? I answer confidently that mathematical thinking is thinking analytically, and one does it by applying their analytical thinking to problems about quantities and shapes. Have I informed her about what mathematics is and have I instructed her how to do it? I have not, and yet, what I said is relevant and completely true. In fact, I could even claim that it is a universal feature of mathematical skills that it is an application of analytical thinking, thereby claiming to have centred on the very essence of this mental activity. Yet, where my explanation fails is in being too general a description of the phenomenon to be informative in a useful way. By contrast, showing and explaining the arithmetical operations, the axioms and the proofs of theorems of the mathematical disciplines puts one in a good position to understand what mathematics is and how to do it.

This is the problem we face with accounts of creative thinking. We give advice such as use your imagination; reframe; interrupt your reasoning; cooperate, and such, describing truly what happens when we think creatively, but not illuminating one as to what creative thinking is and how to do it. In fact, we do all these things on a daily basis, namely, using our imagination, reframing each time something does not go according to schedule or plan, become interrupted in endlessly many ways just as we are thinking about an issue, and cooperate with colleagues, friends and family; and yet, these activities do not generate creative thoughts. In what follows, I will examine representative accounts of creative thinking to show where they are wanting, and then offer a theory of creative thinking that aims to be more informative than hitherto accounts about the method of thinking creatively.

One account I would like to discuss is the Honing Theory of Creativity developed by Gabora and Saab (2011:3506). There are different features of Gabora’s account I would like to comment on. The Honing Theory describes creativity as an interaction between one’s creative thought, e.g. solution to some problem, and her overall worldview. It is a question of fit of the novel with the existing, which inevitably results in the need to restructure one’s worldview and organise it so as to accommodate the change. In so doing, Gabora says, one is engaging in a holistic conception of the creative act, not only seeing its impact in the problem’s context, but also becoming aware of any consequences this change might have beyond the context in the world. This is a useful approach for the evaluation of creative acts, which is usually ignored in view of the utility and some times urgency for a local solution. But with respect to creative thinking, this is only telling us that it involves restructuring of thought. Since reframing is generally recognised as a feature of creativity, I do not see how this explanation of creativity offers us a new intuition into its nature. As I understand it, the Honing Theory of Creativity is primarily a prudential approach to the use of creativity.

A second feature of Gabora’s account of creativity is her explanation of the role of memory neurons in creative thinking. It is widely known that creativity involves an interplay between convergent thinking and divergent thinking. The distinction was introduced by Paul Guildford (1967). Convergent thinking is used when there is a corpus of knowledge and a method by which we can extract the correct answer from it to a problem or a question. The uniqueness of the solution or answer is what characterises convergent thinking. By contrast, divergent thinking is an exploration of possibilities as solutions to a given challenge, which occur to one through possibly various methods of thinking. Gabora (2011:3509) uses this type of distinction, naming the two types of thinking analytic and associative, where analytic thinking is mainly rule-based, while associative thinking is an exploration of unusual correlations. She stresses that creative thinking involves the dynamic interplay between the two types of thinking in the search for a solution to a problem. She then reports findings in neuroscience according to which a certain type of neuron assembles in the brain when associative thinking takes place, which she sees as the seat of insights, but not when analytic thinking occurs (2011:3507).  On its basis she suggests the following strategy for creativity: associative insight occurs when the corresponding neurons assemble in the brain during thinking about a problem. She then explains that associative type of connections between different contexts exploit features of situations which creative thinkers store in their memories. She brings all these together by correlating neuronal activity of that type with the interplay between analytic and associative thinking:

Knowing that creativity is associated with both conceptual fluidity on the one hand, and focus or control on the other, puts us in a good position to posit an underlying mechanism: the capacity to spontaneously and subconsciously adjust the spikiness of the activation function in response to the situation. Each successive instant of thought activates recruitment of more or fewer neuronal cliques … (Gabora 2002:6-7)

My concern in reviewing Gabora’s position here has been to point out that the creativity mechanism she describes is a correlation of brain neuron activity to creative thinking, rather than a mechanism of thinking that can be taught to students of creativity.[i] With respect to the latter, Gabora’s account, as we saw, is the dynamic interplay of analytic and associative thinking, according to the situation at hand. As such, it is, again, a very generic description of creative thinking which cannot instruct students how to set about thinking creatively towards problem solving.[ii]

In a Lecture on creativity, Gabora points out that creative thinking involves the consideration of alternative possibilities (2011:3507). She uses the notion of quantum superposition to explain the concept of possibility. I wish to take issue with this explanation on two counts. The first is that the notion of possibility is by far the common sense notion that we all have an understanding of and intuitions about. By contrast, we do not have a common sense conception of superposition, so as to resort to it to help us understand possibility and through it, creativity.  The second concern is that possibility is not like superposition, unless with David Lewis (1969) one is a modal realist about possible worlds. Superposed states are not potentialities, but are considered to be real by physicists; Schrodinger’s (1935) cat is both alive and dead! But even if it isn’t really both, its state of affairs will not help us understand possibility.

I will examine a second account of creativity, which offers a model of creative thinking. This is Seelig’s ‘Innovation Engine’, which she presents in her work InGenius: A crash course on creativity (2012:496-500).  This model is characteristic of the way discussion develops in accounts of creative thinking. Seelig describes the various factors that are involved whenever one engages in problem solving, such as her attitude towards the situation she is facing; her knowledge in that domain; her imaginative flair; all of which interact with the factors in her environment, such as her habitat, the culture she is embedded in, and naturally her resources. The interplay of all these factors can generate creative ideas that solve the problem at hand. Similarly, Sean Kelly developed an account of creativity as the overlap of knowledge, of motivation and of creative thinking skills.  What these and similar accounts of creativity, which develop descriptions along such lines, tell us is undeniable. But being undeniable does not make it explanatory of the process of creative thinking. It only describes the context in which problems arise and creative solutions occur, when they do.

In what follows, I will put my promissory claims and criticisms to the test, by undertaking to offer an explanation of the way creative thoughts are generated.


I will start the presentation of BrainMining with a terminological point. I understand the term ‘creative’ to mean something new, of an novel type, and desirable; whereas ‘lateral’ is all these, but also where the novel type is not just new but surprising, too; it has been called thinking ‘out of the box’.  A creative solution need not be lateral; thus, I can paint my bicycle a new colour, which is neither creative nor lateral; or paint it creatively with a colour that merges well with the environment; or I can get a neon-frame for my bicycle which would qualify as lateral. As I will use the terms, the difference between creative and lateral thinking is a matter of degree of novelty of type of solution, from untypical, all the way to surprising. The theory I develop here unfolds around two mental capacities of ours: cognitive biases we suffer from; and our emotional intelligence. The cognitive psychologist Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize in Behavioural Economics (2002), has shown in his work with Tversky (1974:1128) that we suffer from cognitive biases. I aim to show that this is in fact our mechanism for creative solutions, in that a particular cognitive bias, the anchoring bias, is a key step in the way creative solutions arise. The creativity method I propose shows how we can optimise the conditions under which this bias, which for our purposes we can call the ‘creativity bias’, kicks in to propose solutions. In most cases of intractable problems we face, our emotional intelligence also enters into the equation, to increase the space of possibilities of lateral solutions for the problem at hand.

What we are interested in, here, is to understand the thought mechanism of finding lateral solutions; to formulate the theory and the principles governing such a thought mechanism; and to then apply them to educational and training settings for training young people in finding creative solutions in business, managerial, and social problems. I will begin the presentation of my account with the role of cognitive biases in generating lateral solutions, and then come to an explanation of the role of emotions in thinking, generally, and in particular, the role of emotions in creating lateral, divergent thinking.

Generating the lateral from the familiar

‘Beware of Greeks bearing Gifts’!  The reason for this grim warning goes back all the way to Odysseus.  He thought up the Trojan Horse scheme, which won the Greeks the Trojan war.  His idea was a paradigm of lateral creative thinking, from conception to implementation.

An insight into understanding the pattern for how one reaches a creative solution such as Odysseus’ is to be found, very surprisingly, in the evolutionary role of sleep for humans throughout the history of the species.  Deirdre Barrett (2010), psychiatry professor at the Harvard Medical School, has shown that dreams have evolved to be particularly good at allowing us to work out puzzles. She says ‘dreams and REM sleep have probably further evolved to be useful for really as many of the things that our thinking is useful for. It’s just extra thinking time, so potentially any problem can get solved during it … it’s thinking time in the state that’s very visual and looser in associations’. Not only is REM thinking time in our sleep looser in associations, but as we all know first-hand, it is also not limited by physical law or social convention in finding solutions.

Then how can dreams offer us solutions to the problems we face? I suggest that it is their loose associations and freedom from rules that give rise to ‘out of the box’ solutions in dreams, which, invariably, do not comply by the principles of rationality.  What dreams achieve for us is that their looseness and freedom from rules result in transforming the problems we face into different problems.  This generates a new version of the problem-case, and hence, new possibilities of ways out of the new problem.  This is the gift dreams offer us: they transform our problem into a different problem, thereby opening up new solution spaces to explore. For instance, Kekulé dreamt of an image of a snake eating its own tail, which gave Kekulé the breakthrough of a cyclical structure for the benzene molecule, which had been an intractable problem for him and his colleagues (Rothermich, 1992).

We can better understand the way that we use dreams to solve our problems in light of the cognitive bias theory of Daniel Kahneman, for which he received the Nobel Prize in 2002.  What Kahneman and Tversky (1974:1128-1130)[iii] discovered and showed through their experiments is that we tend to view new problems in terms of old problems, and apply the solutions of the old problems to the new problems. We do this because the old solutions are the most ‘cognitively available’ to us .  Kahneman and Tversky saw this as an impediment of our rational thinking and decision making, as it indeed it was in the contexts of their investigation. But my claim is that for creative thinking, old solutions are an advantage in problem solving, because they constitute a solution-depot that is available to the agent to consult, adapt, and reemploy.  The history of innovation in social evolution, just as in biological evolution, is a step by step re-application of old solutions to generate new ones.  An aquatic animal goes to land and gradually develops legs, generating a thoroughly novel species of life, through the employment of an old solution to a new problem. Even Einstein’s Special Relativity theory, which was not simply an innovation in physics but a major paradigm shift, nevertheless, re-employed Henri Poincaré’s previously formulated ‘relativity principle’ (Darrigol, 2005:9).

If, then, our minds are so wired as to inexorably tend to utilise old solutions to solve new problems, instead of treating this as an impediment of mismatching old solutions to unconnected problems, and instead of trying in vain to change our hard-wiring, we can:

Learn how to change the new problems to fit old solutions.

This is the key to the cognitive dimension of the creative lateral thinking theory developed here.

We shall view the agent’s old solutions to problems as a ‘treasure chest’ of suggestions available to her in addressing new problem situations. Let us then address the conceptual gap between a current new problem one is facing and old solutions, which is what makes the new problem hard to solve, if not intractable.  Bridging this conceptual gap is the challenge that our theory of creative thinking faces, in order to facilitate and expedite the possibility to utilise an old solution for the new problem. It is just such a bridge that dreams forge, when addressing our new problems, a bridge between a new puzzling situation and old solutions of the agent, e.g. the structure of the carbon atoms puzzling the scientist’s mind, and visualising a snake wrapping itself into a circle.  Yet, dreams can build such bridges with greater ease than we can, when deliberating over new problems, exactly because dreams solve the new problem in an ‘altered world’ which they generate, which transforms the problem, making it suitable to be solved by the old solution.  Kekulé did not dream of carbon links; he dreamt of a snake wrapping itself into a circle. In retrospect, we see that he thought of the carbon linkage problem in the form of a snake, which then suggested the closed circular structure of the benzene molecule. This transformation of the problem is the key to the creative thinking methodology I follow here, namely, transforming the problem at hand and using an old solution for this new version of it.  Odysseus could not solve the problem of how to overpower the Trojan fortifications that had resisted Greek attacks for a decade and sack Troy; instead, Odysseus transformed the resistance problem, turning it into a problem of how to deceive the Trojans – an area of expertise of his – and used an old type of solution in store – a pretence-gift – to solve the problem of sacking Troy.  When Apple wanted to compete in the desktop and laptop market, whereas everyone else was producing faster and stronger computers to increase their sales, Apple decided to bring fashion into computer design. Making a product fashionable to sell more is not new; it is an old solution. Applying this to the dry and practical domain of computers was new, and so boosted Apple’s sales.

The creative thinking methodology I am proposing consists in the step by step transformation of a new intractable problem, generating a family of new versions of the problem.  The aim is to construct a transformed version of the problem which will trigger brainmining in the agent’s own resources reaching old solutions. How do we do this; what is the step by step transformation process?  Let us try to learn from our dreams how to do this?  Dreams reverse the rules of reality, and notoriously, thy do so arbitrarily.  We cannot reverse the rules of reality arbitrarily, but what we can do is alter, within limits, the type of problem the new problem is and then look for a solution.  The method by which we can change a new problem is reversal of the factors blocking a solution.  Starting with the problem-case, the agent considers the factors which block normal solutions in the situation.  For example, the bravery of the Trojans is a major blocking component of the problem Odysseus was trying to solve, as was the successful fortification of the city, etc.  Having identifies the factors, the agent proceeds to mentally reverse each one.  This transforms the problem step by step, one factor at a time. Thus Odysseus reversed the rebuffing behaviour of the Trojans and considered circumstances in which the Trojans would not rebuff the Greeks.  Each reversal of a factor of the problemtransforms the problem into a different type of problem.  The Greeks cannot overpower the Trojans, but they can deceive them.  Transforming the problem changes of the type of solution of the problem – this is the aim of the methodology, to change the intractable problem into a type of problem that requires different kinds of solutions. Each transformation is liable to trigger old solutions in the mind of the agent.  The step by step transformation of the problem into different types of problem is bound to reach a type of problem that falls within the area of skilfulness of the agent, where old solutions abound.  One of them might be feasible, and indeed unusual, lateral, as a type of solution for such a problem.

But there is a further dimension of problem solving that facilitates the possibility of creative lateral solutions.  We shall examine this dimension of possibilities in what follows and how it combines with the brainmining dimension into one process of problem solving.  Predictions the agent can make about emotional situations and reactions in the social context of the problem she is facing will reveal to her ways out of the problem which will enrich the space of solutions.  When Odysseus transformed the problem of overpowering the Trojans on the Walls of Troy into a problem of deceiving them – an old solution for Odysseus – he still had to use his judgement as to which deception plan could work on the Trojans: he judged that the Trojans were proud of themselves as soldiers and predicted that the Trojan Horse would be accepted by the Trojans as a sign of the Greeks’ respect for Trojan bravery.  This was his call.  Odysseus succeeded only because he predicted correctly the Trojans’ emotive response to such a Greek offering.  Similarly, Apple Inc. predicted correctly the buyers’ emotive response to dressing computers in high fashion, rather than simply making them more powerful. As we shall see, emotive judgements are central to finding lateral solutions to most problems in the personal and social contexts.

Emotive judgements for lateral thinking

Values, emotions, and feelings confine what is acceptable behaviour in social and personal contexts. Yet values, emotions and feelings evolve and change. Their change alters the possibilities of solving problems at hand, by making the unacceptable acceptable, and vice versa. Emotive judgements judge exactly this – the possibility of changing the values, emotions, and feelings in the problematic context.  Odysseus turned the attack-problem into a deception-problem, and judged emotively that the Trojans would be deceived by the Greek token of respect.  This judgement led him to the solution.

Let us cumulatively outline the steps of Odysseus’ emotive lateral thinking creativity, which led to the plan for the sack of Troy.  After a ten year siege, the Greeks were giving up on taking over Troy.  Odysseus tried to think creatively for a solution to the problem.  He identified the factors blocking solutions, such as the Trojans being strong enough to rebuff all Greek attacks; there being no covert passageway to bypass the Trojans and enter the city; there being no way to blockade and starve the city to surrender; not being able to bribe the Trojans, etc.  Odysseus proceeded to reverse each of these factors so as to generate a family of transformations of the problem.  Some of these transformations did not look promising; but when he got to reversing that the Trojans rebuff the Greeks at the city walls, he reversed it, considering what conditions would change the Trojan behaviour; what if the Trojans did not resist the Greeks at the walls?  Deceit popped up as a possibility, and from that point on, the problem was altered from a problem of attacking the soldiers to a problem of deceiving the soldiers, for which Odysseus had a host of old solutions from his cunning past.  At that point, the choice of a solution depended on Odysseus’ ability to judge and predict Trojan emotive reactions to possible deception schemes, which he did successfully. So, through systematic transformation of the problem by reversal of blocking factors, Odysseus converted the problem into one that triggered an old solution, which he explored guided by his emotive judgement to reach a possible solution to their impossible problem.

Creative lateral solutions require a mechanism of non-linear thinking which involves judgements about emotional states and feelings.  Antonio Damasio (1994), a neuroscientist and philosopher, argued for the primacy of feelings and the dependence of concepts on feelings. He discovered in his experiments that people’s decision making is effectively guided by their feelings rather than by rationality. Emotions seem to have always been the guide to decision making for actions. Damasio traces the primacy of emotion back to before organisms were formed – the era of macromolecules. Keith Stenning used Damasio’s insights in interpreting Wittgenstein’s remarks on the meaning of words. Starting from Damasio’s experimental findings, supplemented by a large volume of further experimental cognitive research that followed, Stenning (2002; 2010) developed a theory of emotions as implementations of rational choice theory and reasoning.

The key conception in Stenning’s theory (2002:217-219) is that emotions ground abstract thinkingConceptual classification is guided by similarity in emotional reactions to situations.  Stenning illustrates his theory with Wittgenstein’s insight into the concept of ‘game’. Wittgenstein showed that we cannot define the concept ‘game’, because there are no common characteristics shared between all the activities we call ‘games’.  Wittgenstein developed a semantic theory of the meaning of a term as a family of concepts which explain the linguistic behaviour of the term.  Each concept in a family stands for a set of criteria determining a type of application of the term. And the family stands for the meaning of the term.

The key conception in Stenning’s new theory is that the way the world impacts on us emotionally grounds the way we comprehend the world around us; emotions ground abstract thinking. Conceptual classification is guided by similarity in emotional reactions to situations.  More generally, the way the world impacts on us emotionally grounds the way we comprehend the world around us.  We classify things, activities, relations in our environment on the basis of the feelings generated in us from infancy in our interaction with our environment.  It is emotions that operate as ground of analogy, of similarity, and of comparison.  The concepts we use to classify and order our representations of what there is around us have affective foundations; on the basis of Damasio’s results, such affective foundations predate, evolutionarily, the creation of language, and have guided our behaviour towards others, and in cooperative or adversarial situations in our environment.

If emotions are at the foundation of conceptual classification, is there here an insight about the mechanism of reasoning that can lead to an understanding of non-linear thinking?  I claim that there is, namely, our emotional reactions are part of the content of reasoning, rather than external to our process of reasoning. Let me offer an illustrative example of this in one of the most celebrated instances of creative, lateral thinking in history:

Alexander the Great untying the Gordian Knot.

The challenge of the Gordian Knot was just to untie it – a puzzle of legendary difficulty.  Alexander tried to untie it, and failing to do so, he drew his sword and cut the Knot.  Did Alexander solve the Gordian Puzzle?  In a sense, no, he did not, since he did not untie it.  But the world has accepted his action as a creative resolution to the puzzle, and has celebrated Alexander for his creativity in the face of adversity. Why?

It is because Alexander’s action feels like a solution to the puzzle – he defeated the puzzle by unravelling the Knot once and for all.  It is this feeling of ours that led Alexander to take this bold step and put an end to the legend that was challenging his reputation.  He found this original and creative solution, being directed by how he perceived this situation would affect us emotionally.

Alexander made a second order emotive judgement.  In a first order judgement, an agent judges how a situation impacts on her.  In a second order judgement, an agent judges how a situation impacts emotionally on another. In the present example, Alexander judged that we would classify what Alexander did as an ‘untying of the Knot’, because we would ‘see’ his action as the resolution of the puzzle.  What Alexander did is not an ‘untying’; but we readily see it as such, because, we feel that Alexander ‘defeated’ the puzzle, as expected – his action impacts on us as an untying of the Knot.  What Alexander judged in his second order emotive judgement is that people felt such a high expectation of his being able to resolve a puzzle, which nobody else could resolve, that he felt that anything he did towards putting an end to the puzzle would be ‘seen’ by us as its resolution.

Utility of the theory

It would be useful to contrast the account of lateral thinking offered here to the standard accounts of creativity that are based on interrupting our thought process to generate divergent thinking.  For example, De Bono’s method aims for reframing by interrupting one’s thinking with a casual concept (image, word); then it invites the agent to find a relation between that concept and the problem case, thereby hopefully generating a reframed version of the problem that may suggest a solution.  I say ‘hopefully’, because rethinking the problem from the point of view of an accidental comparison need not lead to a new version of the problem or suggest a solution.  There is no experimentally established causal link between interruption and reframing.  Furthermore, the comparison is highly labour intensive for the agent.  The agent exerts great effort in order to find something common between the casual concept and the problem case, requiring sophisticated powers of abstraction (e.g. use “tangerine” to interrupt thinking about inflation).  Additionally, once this labour has been expended, there is only one new version of the problem that is generated.  This may yield a suggestion for a solution, or not.  One needs another casual word and further difficult abstraction work, for a second reframing to be generated, and so forth.

By contrast, the brainmining creative thinking methodology developed in this paper generates a new transformation of the problem in each reversal step, without being labour intensive, and without requiring sophisticated powers of abstraction.  Furthermore, it has the advantage of enabling the agent to substitute the original problem with a new problem, which may be easier for the agent to resolve, given her expertise.

Brainmining also has consequences for the business world.  In particular it recommends a particular type of sensitivity in hiring for positions where creative thinking is desirable.  The theory shows that creatives exploit theirsolution-bases.  An employer who wants to hire creatives should aim for candidates who have a rich database of solutions in their experience section.  This need not be first-hand experience, but a conceptual repertory of solutions a various types which one may acquire from private, public life, literature, sports, and other types of activity. Well populated solution-bases, from a rich experiential background, would add to a candidate’s promise for an ability to think creatively. Well-designed interviews can tap into such solution-bases in the candidates.  If employees are, further, trained in brainmining, they will know how to reach and exploit these solutions when they face recalcitrant problems a work – a skill that their school, or company can teach them.  The additional advantage, for lateral thinking, of aptitude in emotional intelligence is different, and much more difficult to evidence.

Teaching emotional intelligence

In brainmining, when the reversal of the problematic factors in a situation triggers old solutions in the agent, the range of solutions can be expanded if the agent can judge the emotional and value profile of the problematic situation and predict acceptability of a solution violating them or changing them.  Learning how to discern the emotional profile of situations and how to manage it greatly increases the space of surprising, lateral solutions in dead-end problematic situations. The traditional educational attitude toward reason and emotion does not promote awareness of judgements about one’s own or others’ emotional dispositions when trying to find solutions to hard problems.  The recognitions of the creative role of emotive judgements in lateral thinking and problem solving is bound to change this educational policy.

How can we teach students how to make second order emotive judgements?  Making such a judgement requires that one is able to predict another’s response to a new value (moral, social, personal value). Who can make such predictions?  Who can teach others to make them?  And who can teach children to make them?  I will present here a survey of major theoretical theses one might attempt to use for this task, and pinpoint shortcomings, before arguing for an alternative theory.

One important predictive theory in the social domain is Game Theory (Dixit 1993). This is mainly a decision making theory which aims to find rational ways of cooperation and conflict resolution in one’s pursuit of their interests.  Game theory is developed in mathematical and logical models, and pertains to one’s ability to decide best action even when one does not know how the others (adversaries) might act.  The possible moves are prescribed, and only the others’ decisions for actions are to be predicted within the same prescriptions.  Creativity with respect to augmenting the possibility of solution does not enter Game Theory.  It is therefore not appropriate for our present pursuit of lateral thinking through second order emotive judging.

A second widely used theory of social predictions is Prospect Theory (Wakker, 2010). It is a theory about behavioural economics, exploring how people choose and decide action in view of known probabilities of the outcome.  It is a study of the biases people have towards phenomenal risk.  It studies mainly the deeply rooted preferences of people which they cannot change, even if they are aware of them.  Although it is useful to know about such deep rooted dispositions, one can always assume that they operate in all circumstances for everyone, since they are evolutionarily preferences that are very hard to overcome. Knowing about them is useful but would not give one an edge in a difficult to solve problem, because they are universal in human psychology.

But the study of behaviour in the economic domain, and of our biases, has given rise to a theory known as Affective Forecasting (Schwartz and Sommers, 2013).  This is the study of predictions of one’s future emotional states.  It is in particular the study of our ability to forecast our own future states, and secondarily the future states of others, in a variety of future circumstances.  I describe in what follows the Good Judgement Project and show that their method is empirical search for talented predictors, the super-forecasters, rather than a theory from which a teaching method could be derived.  But their project delivers good methodological advice as to how to enhance forecasting outcomes.

Affective Forecasting raises the question of empathy, which led to the neuroscientific discovery and understanding of mirror neurons and their role in empathetic feelings.  Empathy is the ability to understand or feel what another person is experiencing.  It is not what we are looking for here, since we only need prediction of emotional reactions, for lateral thinking, not understanding or feeling another’s predicted emotional reaction. But it is a first step.  Empathy is related to one’s Emotional Intelligence, which is one’s ability to recognise their own emotions and others’ affective states.  But emotional intelligence is not a theory about prediction of emotional states, but only a study of what types of people have the capacity to make such emotive discernments and predictions.  The theory does not study how to make predictions of possible responses to emotional or value changes in an environment.  (For the relation of emotions to values, see also Jesse Prinz (2006) on emotions and moral judgment.)

We need to take stock.  Predicting emotions of others on the occasion of changing values is very hard.  For example, how would people respond to giving criminals the right to vote (which might be critical for winning an election)?  But it is already very much in demand for business social problems, and it will become more so in the future.  Even simpler affective forecasting is highly sought out professionally.  So although we cannot master the topic and produce ‘masters’ of this kind of prediction, we ought to at least try.  We saw above that empathy comes close to the ability to make emotive predictions.  Can empathy be taught? A clue as to how can be found in the therapy of people who lack emotional intelligence, autistic people.  Autism is being treated with new therapies which are being devised. The key element in autistic therapy is teaching autistic people empathy skills.

Teaching students empathy skills would be a significant step towards enabling them to make second order emotive judgements about others’ emotions.  An important training method for such skills is games with role playing.  Improving this skill would be a crucial step towards counterfactual second order emotive judgements about what others would feel, if they faced a new value. The latter would be the key to unlocking new possibilities for creatively solving impenetrable predicaments.

A hint for the teacher of creative thinking

Finding a creative lateral solution is, and is considered difficult.  Surprisingly, thinking of a problem that requires a creative solution is also very difficult, because the problematic situation needs to be a dead-end one, though not impossible. But teachers have to produce such problems for the students, if they are to train them in creative thinking. The difficulty with describing an intractable problem is that the description should be complete enough to blockall the ‘obvious’ solutions to the problem, though, without making it impossible to solve.  Describing a situation that blocks all solutions one can entertain right-off is very difficult because the ‘obvious’ solutions are continuous with the creative ones.  How does one describe the situation so as to block just the ‘obvious’ solutions in the description, but not the creative ones?  How do we determine the cut-off point in the description?

This is the problem that any teacher faces, who tries to find dead-end circumstances, even in such courses as history, which on the face of it lends itself to providing human predicaments.  The difficulty is that almost invariably, predicaments we find in history courses are severely under-described; they are presented as predicaments rather than being shown to be such through their descriptions.  For example, in the case of the death of Lord Byron in Mesolongi, one could readily wonder whether it was avoidable.  For instance, could he not see that death would be inevitable, if he stayed in a small city under siege?  Would it not have made more sense to have escaped before the siege happened, and used his international prestige to solicit help for Mesolongi from the English, or other philhellenic nations or groups?  Even if help could not be summoned in time, would he not have been more helpful to Mesolongi being on the outside, campaigning for them, rather than sacrificing his life for them with them? Etc. Such questions are appropriate for understanding whether Byron could have saved his life or served his purpose better.

But history books do not describe this or any other predicament with such completeness that makes it obvious that it is a dead-end situation. Therefore, although we accept the historical incidents as predicaments, we do not reallysee, but only accept, that other solutions were not viable.  This does not recommend these situations for testing our creative lateral thinking capabilities.  And if history courses are not suitable as creative thinking training grounds, what courses would be suitable?

In such situations as Byron’s, we do not know that alternative solutions were not viable.  But knowing what was not viable is essential for working out what would be possible in the circumstances. This is because creative solutions are just beyond the pale of the viable, but within the range of the possible.  This borderline between the two, the viable and the possible in historical predicaments, is not given to the teachers or to the students of history books.

The problem specifically is that history courses under-describe historical predicaments, which therefore do not lend themselves as candidates of recalcitrant problems for creative solutions.  In order to overcome this problem, so as to enable and direct teachers how to generate dead-end problem cases to train the students (on the basis of the material in history, or geography courses, etc.) I make the following suggestion.  As pointed out, the range from the viable to the creative is continuous.  Let us exploit this, to help teachers set creative thinking problems for the students gradually from the course material.

The key for the methodology for designing hard problems to solve is the following.  The teacher will give the students a case such as the Lord Byron predicament.  The students will be asked to provide alternative solutions to the historical incidents in the predicament case.  Inevitably, the students’ alternatives will be partly based on historical fact, and partly on speculation (as in my examples above), since the historical fact is under described in their books.  The teacher address the under-description problem by asking students, every time the students propose a plausible alternative solution to the historical predicament, to then block that option, and add the new ruling to the description of the historical predicament.  Thus, in the example above, Lord Byron would not have had the option of galvanising English interest by escaping before the siege and campaigning in England; and he would not have had the option of campaigning for philhellenic interest for the battle in Mesolongi, etc.  In that way, courses of action are increasingly blocked in the description of the predicament of Lord Byron, and the predicament gradually becomes more fully described, more difficult to resolve, intractable.[iv]

Each subsequent attempt to find ways forward in Byron’s situation will progressively cross the viable option barrier.  It will thus require the students to brainmine for creatively solutions, employing the emotive lateral thinking methodology, for the increasingly harder predicament. Thus, the generation of an intractable problem for the students’ lateral-thinking-practice will not be the task of the teacher; it will be only initiated by the teacher, to be built up by the students, step by step as they come up with solutions which they then block. The generation of the problem thereby becomes part of the creative thinking exercise for the students.


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Biographical information

Theodore Scaltsas[v] holds the Chair of Ancient Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. In recent years he has turned to the theory of creative thinking and the educational methods that can teach it at school, at university and in business. He is interested in understanding what problem solving is, and how concepts, emotions and values play their roles in it.  He believes, with Aristotle, that analytic thinking is not purely conceptual, but emotive and evaluative deliberation as well.  His theory of lateral thinking combines analysis, emotional intelligence, and valuative intelligence, towards problem solving.


[1] Dedicated to the memory of Professor Anna Craft, collaborator in Co-Creativity.

[i] Gabora (2010:2): ‘Specifically, this article connects brain research to creativity by positing that the shift to an associative mode of thought conducive to creative insight is accomplished by recruiting neurds: neural cliques that respond to abstract or atypical aspects of a particular problem or situation. Because memory is distributed and content-addressable, this fosters the forging of creative connections to potentially relevant items previously encoded in these neurds.’

[ii] For instance, Gabora (2010) says: ‘Thus it is proposed that creative thought involves neither randomness, nor search through a space of predefined alternatives, but emerges naturally through the recruitment of neurds. It is suggested this occurs when there is a need to resolve conceptual gaps in ones’ internal model of the world, and resolution involves context-driven actualization of the potentiality afforded by its fine-grained associative structure’.

[iii] Also, Tversky, A., and Kahneman, D. (1981).

[iv] After creative solutions are proposed, it might be interesting and useful for the students to investigate whether their proposed alternatives in the classroom were historically viable in the circumstances in question, by carrying out further historical research on it.

[v] Part of the research for this work was made possible through the EU FP7-ICT project C2Learn, 318480.

Martha Hoff

Published Online: June 15, 2016
Full Text: HTML, PDF

Abstract: Digital spaces are populated by youth who navigate, consume, create, and distribute information through their participation as designers, contributors, respondents, and distributors. A key prerequisite to collaboration, participation and distributed knowledge is trust. The literature informs us that the creation of trust involves several variables: the individual, their experiences, familiarity, and the environment (online, offline, context). Little is known about how low SES youth navigate within and across on- and offline spaces.  This paper draws on sociological theories of generalized trust to examine the impact that trust/distrust had on the digital space engagement of six, low income, urban youth, 16-18 years of age, who self-identified as active users of mobile technology. Participants were observed, interviewed, kept journals, and had remote monitoring software installed on their devices. The importance of trust as a precursor to active engagement in online spaces was evident across the data set. This paper argues that trust as a continuum (high-low) develops in relation to one’s experiences and varies with context/environment. Secondly I suggest that distrust is a separate and distinct construct from trust. These bifurcations of trust have different implications for the engagement and collaborative practices in both on- and offline spaces.

Keywords: trust, distrust, adolescence, digital media, collaborative, participatory behaviours, mobile technology


Meet Da’von, Cris, Rian, Leigh, Shan, and Niesha. These six urban high school students, on a typical day, can be spotted with their mobile phones either in their hand or on their body (pocket, backpack, or purse). In school they can be seen checking their phones in the halls, between classes, or on their way up the stairs before school, and on the sidewalk as they wait for the bus home. They smile, laugh, sing, share, engage, stop midstride, ponder, sigh, and interact with those in their immediate space and on their mobile devices. Where do they go, whom do they seek, and how do they choose to engage with those who are available but not physically present? American teens, aged 13-18 have adopted the smartphone as their digital tool of choice with 88% owning or having access to either a cell phone or smartphone (Lenhart & Page, 2015). Recent studies by Pew Research found that 90% of those teens exchange text messages with a typical rate of 30 texts received per day. Free texting apps such as Kik, Pinger, and WhatsApp have made texting more readily accessible and are most likely to used by African-American (47%) and Hispanic (46%) youth compared with 24% of white teens (Lenhart & Page, 2015). In terms of Internet access 92% of teens go online daily with 56% going online several times a day (Lenhart & Page, 2015). It is well documented that teens are enthusiastic users of social media and current findings suggest that 89% of all teens report using at least one social media site with 71% reporting the use of two or more (Lenhart & Page, 2015).  Seventy-seven per cent of urban youth use Facebook compared to 67% of suburban teens (Lenhart & Page, 2015).  Quantitative data such as this can inform on where and how frequently they seek out these spaces, but what does their interaction look like and why some places and not others? Does this technology with its easy access to others, known either in person or in online communities, impact whom they trust with their thoughts, ideas, and emotions?

In this article I explore how issues of trust have influenced one group of young peoples’ interaction and engagement within and across online places and spaces. I report on findings from an analysis of six youth, ages 16-18 who engaged daily in at least one digital space via mobile technology. Participants were interviewed, observed, maintained journals and had remote monitoring software installed on their mobile devices. The findings reported here represent one key theme that emerged from a study that sought to better understand the impact of mobile technology on literacy practices of low socio-economic status urban youth. In the discussion section I address the importance of acknowledging and better understanding the impact that trust and distrust have on engagement and in particular online collaboration and participation.

Theoretical Framework

Trust is a complex phenomenon around which there are many definitions and theories. There is no common understanding of what trust means and the concept has not been clearly defined within and across disciplines (Brownlie & Howson, 2005; Schoorman, Mayer, & Davis, 2007). Trust plays a critical role in the sharing of information as it is seemingly based on an implicit set of beliefs that others will behave in a dependable manner and not take advantage of the individual or situation (Hsu, Lu, Yen, & Chang, 2007).  A central problem in building trust is in the initial information about the intentions or behaviours of others.  In this regard trust refers to the attitudes, disposition or beliefs that we have about others whom we hope will be trustworthy. Trustworthiness refers to a property, personality trait, or characteristic of an individual whom we may trust (Cook, 2009). Trustworthiness is a precursor to trust. Trust is a critical component in the sharing of information/knowledge and the concept of trust in social relations within diverse societies becomes more complex and more difficult to define as we move from face-to-face to online spaces. Online/virtual communities are implicitly designed to motivate individuals to engage. But Ridings, Gefen, and Arinze (2002) suggest that in these spaces member identity is invisible and communities do not/cannot guarantee that others will behave as they might be expected to. Hence, trust becomes a “crucial factor to sustain the continuity of the virtual community” (Hsu et al., 2007, p. 154). However, trust is not only critical for sustainability but is imperative, at a foundational level, for individuals to be open and willing to enter into an unknown space.

Conceptualizing trust

Trust functions as a way to reduce complexity within societies and is a social construct that is the result of communication within and between social systems. Trust helps to simplify our decisions to act (Luhmann, 1979; Pearson, Mont, & Crane, 2005) and influences our expectations about another’s motives/actions with respect to oneself and affects behaviours in interdependent situations (Messick & Kramer, 2001; Rutte, & Messick, 1995).

To theorize trust, I turn to work in sociology that aims to understand how trust facilitates cooperative behaviour within societies. Here trust is defined as an expectation that arises “within a community of regular, honest, and cooperative behaviour, based on commonly shared norms, on the part of the members of that community” (Fukuyama, 1995, p. 2). Glanville and Paxton (2007) adopt a social learning perspective of trust, which suggests that people “extrapolate from localized experiences to produce estimates of generalized trust…[developing] different levels of trust across different domains of interaction” (p. 232). Their data suggest that trust generalizes from social interactions and that network density (localized domains such as family and friends) is positively associated with trusting of unknown individuals (Glanville & Paxton, 2007). Trust can be affected by changes in the social environment and is not pre-determined by past socialization or innate characteristics. Experiences throughout life influence the level and scope of trust an individual has. Glanville, Anderson, and Paxton (2013) found that informal, close, and/or context-specific social interactions enhance one’s estimate of the general trustworthiness of other persons, but they do not address how generalized trust transitions into online perspectives. I posit that in addition to access and passion, a more basic human condition, trust, may be a less visible but highly critical prerequisite for seeking out and engaging with others online.

Types of trust: Generalized and Particular. Particular trust functions in small face-to-face communities where people know each other and interact closely. In this type of trust social controls are strong (Gambetta, 1988). General trust occurs in association with unfamiliar others and is a critical component in the functioning of complex societies that involve numerous daily interactions with unfamiliar others (Delhey, Newton, & Welzel, 2011). Encounters with persons who do not share one’s social demographic characteristics could be particularly important in gauging how much people do trust in general (Nepal, Sherchan, & Paris, 2012). General trust refers to an individual’s default expectations about the trustworthiness of others in the absence of a specific context (Yamagishi & Yamagishi, 1994). General trust is viewed as a rough accumulation of attitudes and beliefs in multiple contexts, developed over time through experiences, and extends beyond face-to-face bounded interactions and personalized settings.

Trust plays an important role in cooperative behaviours and practices. Stolle (2002) found that individuals who highly trust not only engage in mutually beneficial relations more frequently but they are also more socially active and engaged.  Social connections, both formal and informal, are thought to contribute and/or encourage the development of generalized trust (Glanville, Anderson, & Paxton, 2013; Glanville & Paxton, 2007). “Without trust in place, members may not wish to share their knowledge or experience with other community members due to the fear of their information and identities being misused” (Nepal, Sherchan, & Paris, 2012, p. 245). Despite its imprecise nature general trust is consistently and strongly correlated with a variety of other cooperative and trusting behaviours.

From a strategic sense trust is premised on the calculation of future cooperation. Strategic trust, from an interpersonal perspective, is warranted when it is accepted that the gain from placing one’s self at risk to another is positive (Stolle, 2002). The decision to take that risk implies the presence of trust. Mathy, Kerr, and Haydin (2003) add that an individual trusts when one has adequate reason to believe that it will be in the other person’s best interest to be trustworthy. In this strategic perspective two scenarios are known and for which the level of trust is defined: (1) the person is known and trust is determined by previous experiences with that individual (2) person is not known, and trust is generalized from their experience with others (Mathy, Kerr, & Haydin, 2003). Decremer, Snyder, and Dewitte (2001) suggest that trust is not a single point but a continuum. In looking at high and low trust they found that low trustors do not have initial positive expectations that others will reciprocate collaborative behaviours and require additional motive to increase their willingness to be vulnerable to others. High trustors have had positive experiences and believe that their own interests will not be harmed by the uncooperative behaviours of others (Decremer, Snyder, & Dewitte, 2001). This suggests that positive experiences, support and scaffolding can be used to move one’s level of trust from low to high.

Identity/group based trust is premised on the conception that individuals, to some degree, are defined by various categories/groups. Stolle (2002) and Tajfel and Turner (1979) suggest that people trust those they feel closest to, whom they believe to be similar, and with whom they are familiar. A causal mechanism is at work in this regard in that people trust those with whom they share and recognize a common group identity (Messick & Kramer, 2001).  This in-group trust can evolve into a depersonalized trust that is solely based on membership (Brewer, 1981).  Social categorization enhances perceived similarities amongst members within a bounded category. This in turn enhances the consensus and understanding that others perceive/understand/practice things in similar ways. For trust to develop within and across groups, boundaries defining the group must be clear and salient.

Trust and virtual communities. In online spaces trust is conflated with related terms such as credibility, security, surety, and reliability and this has led to a surplus of complex conceptual models at the expense of clarity in the use of the term trust (Chesire, Antin, Churchill, & Cook, 2010).  For online communities to function/survive there is a need for trust to exist between members/participants, suggesting that solid boundaries of trust are needed (Feng, Lazar, & Preece, 2004). Chesire et al. (2010) suggest that there is a clear link between general dispositions to trust others in interpersonal interactions and to trust interactions with web-based information systems at the positive end of the online engagement spectrum. They also found that the experience of one or more adverse events online was significantly associated with a decrease in trust in websites in general. Chai and Kim (2010) posit that in online environments trust in the Internet as well as others is an initial condition for users to engage in trusting relationships in which they transfer and exchange information.  Trust is generally discussed as one of the most critical and positive influential factors in online users decisions to share information (Hsu et al., 2007; Kim, Ferrin, & Rao, 2007). Chai and Kim’s study of what makes bloggers share information confirmed that trust was a considerable antecedent to sharing knowledge. In online communities each participant has the ability to evaluate the quality of content before accepting the information and engaging. Trust plays a role in successful social interaction for content sharing and dissemination in social media-sharing communities (Kim & Ahmad, 2013).

In understanding trust it is imperative that we consider what the object of the trust is. In doing so I limit the scope of this article and focus on how trust is used by individuals to make those initial and sustained participative forays into online places and spaces. In this regard I do not look at how trust develops towards a specific transactional or informational website nor do I attempt to address trust relationships in regards to the use of specific technology(ies). In attempting to better understand the divergent experiences of the participants in this study, this paper looks at how generalized and interpersonal trust contribute to the participants’ unique online experiences. Figure 1 illustrates how the literature, as briefly discussed within this section, informs us that that the creation of trust involves a variety of variables. The degree of trust, whether it be high trust, low trust, or distrust influences an individual’s behaviour as well as where and how they chose to communicate and interact.

Screen Shot 2016-06-15 at 5.03.44 PM

Figure 1. Variables in the creation of trust

Digital Practices

Mobile technology, easy access, the evolving Internet, and online spaces have given rise to practices associated with knowledge, production, communication, and self-representation that are increasingly more social, participatory, and collaborative (Ito et al., 2010; Jenkins, Clinton, Puroshatma, Robson, & Weigel, 2009). Additionally, knowledge is more easily and readily distributed and dispersed (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006, 2011).  The logic behind this new ethos is that with more readers reading and editing, content will improve through exposure to a greater number of perspectives. The end result being content that will be better, more user friendly, reliable, and accountable (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006, 2011). A significant body of literature addresses how digital spaces are largely populated by youth who push the boundaries of communication and representation; they navigate, consume, and also help create these spaces through their participation as designers, contributors, and respondents (Alvermann, 2002; Black, 2009a, 2009b; boyd, 2008; Ito et al., 2010; Steinkuehler, 2010). Gee’s (2009, 2015) work in affinity spaces highlights this collaborative and participatory mindset in which individuals are drawn into a specifically designed space (physical or virtual) that is constructed for the sole purpose of affiliating with others who seek to share, gain, and/or distribute knowledge without requiring community membership: a collaborative intelligence.  Engagement in such spaces requires participation, and Jenkins (2006, 2009) identifies five characteristics inherent in these participatory cultures: low barrier to expression, strong support for sharing work/knowledge, informal mentorship, feeling socially connected, and a belief that contributions matter.  Additionally, Ito and her colleagues (2010) add that both friendship-driven and interest-driven genres of participation encourage youth to hang out, mess around, and geek out in digital media practices. The key prerequisites underlying this mindset of collaboration, participation, and distributed knowledge is trust.  However, to enter into those practices, an individual must trust not only the space but also those within the space. Understanding how and why youth chose to engage/not engage in on- and offline spaces can enlighten and support educators’ use of online spaces and digital technology in more effective and relevant ways for the students within their classrooms (Green, 2003). Additionally, this understanding can enhance and strengthen those after-school and community based programs that exist to connect marginalized youth (e.g. Austin, Ehrlich, Puckett, & Singleton, 2011) and foster technical expertise (e.g. Kafai & Fields, 2013). Understanding and acknowledging how the construct of trust informs the informal ways in which individuals gain access to new texts and practices in their everyday lives can lead to insights into the effective skills and strategies that learners use and that can be built upon in formal instructional settings (Perry, 2012).

Current Study

The collective body of literature suggests that to engage with others, whether in an online or face-to-face space requires a degree of trust. Trust is the main attribute in the formation of relationships, promoting effective knowledge creation, and sharing of personal networks. In the online environment individuals must navigate trust in the Internet as well as in others as an initial condition to participate in trusting relationships in which information is transferred, shared, created, and distributed (Czerwinski, 2002). When trust relationships are established individuals are more willing to participate in cooperative actions. Little is known about how youth, particularly low SES urban youth, navigate their movement between online interactions between those they know in a face-to-face environment to those who are only known online.  To address this gap in the literature I sought to address the following research question: How does the construct of trust influence how youth engage, participate and collaborate online spaces?


This case study drew upon a connective ethnography methodology and sought to understand the digital practices of low socio-economic youth residing in the north eastern United States as they engaged with mobile communication technologies. Access to students at North High School constituted a convenience sample that was subsequently narrowed by a specific criterion: possession and daily engagement with mobile technology. Mobile technology was defined as mobile phones, smart phones, laptop computers, and tablets. Participants were six youth, 16 -18 years of age, who attended an urban high school, and self-identified as regular users of mobile technology. The sample comprised 2 females and 4 males: two participants were Hispanic, three were African-American, and one was White. These demographics are representative of the North High School population.  In Phase 1 all six participants partook in three interviews; the initial interview explored their personal experiences with mobile technology and online spaces. The second and third interviews were conducted during a two-week period in which participants were observed and had remote monitoring software (WebWatcher®) installed on their mobile phones/laptops. Additionally participants were asked to maintain journals for a two-week period.  At the conclusion of each two-week period, the remote monitoring software was removed from each participant’s device. In Phase 2 a focus group was conducted with 10 students. Table 1 highlights the extent of the data collection. While 5 themes[i] (Hoff, 2014) were originally identified, only the role of trust/distrust and its influence on engagement with and participation in online communities will be discussed in this paper.

Table 1. Extent and volume of data collection

Data Type Volume
Interview transcripts 15- 40 minute interviews
Observations 30 school days
Field notes 40 entries
Journals 6 journals (48 entries)
Text messages 5563
Facebook interactions 1248 postings/2593 searches
Internet searches



7111 (112 sites)


36 segments

Data Analysis

Qualitative content analysis focuses on the characteristics of language as communication with attention to the content or contextual meaning of the text (Hsieh & Shannon, 2005). Two general types of qualitative content analysis, conventional and summative were utilized (Hsieh & Shannon, 2005). Conventional qualitative content analysis examines data that is the product of open-ended data collection techniques aimed at detail and depth (Forman & Damschroder, 2008) and then seeks to classify large amounts of data into an efficient number of categories through the systematic classification process of coding and identifying themes or patterns (Hsieh & Shannon, 2005). Inference validity is ensured through a systematic coding process (Forman & Damschroder, 2008).

The summative approach to qualitative content analysis was specifically used with the WebWatcher data. Data analysis began with searches for occurrences of words such as Google, YouTube, World Star Hip Hop, or images such as emoticons.  This approach is an unobtrusive and unbiased way to study the phenomenon of interest (Forman & Damschroder, 2008; Hsieh & Shannon, 2005). While this approach seems quantitative in the early stages its goal is to explore the usage of the words/indicators in an inductive manner and as such fits into a qualitative analysis approach (Forman & Damschroder, 2008).


While the data collected via WebWatcher suggests that these participants were active in their use of social networking sites, search engines, and websites, comments such as “I don’t conversate with people I don’t know” (Niesha), “I never joined an online group or shared idea or writing or music…I’m not that kind of person” (Focus group), and “I just watch” (Cris), suggest that something deeper impacted their engagement and participation.  These participants owned the technology, found ways to work around access (free text messaging, free wifi, free apps), and a wide range of interests, but the data indicates that something else impacted where they went as well as the manner in which they engaged. Participants engaged in solitary endeavours, sought out information but purposefully did not engage with others not known to them in the physical world.

Social Networking

WebWatcher data revealed that participants preferred Facebook as their social network site, representing 31.2% of their Internet searches and 99.6% of their Social Network Sites visits (Hoff, 2014). Participants stated that while they did not post daily to their network (Table 2) they were accessing the social network site. “I don’t really post that much on Facebook…I just like to look at other people’s statuses. I might post…but it’s not very much,” was a sentiment voiced by Shan but corroborated by all other participants (Hoff, 2014). Members of the focus group confirmed that they were “on” Facebook but they were not posting on Facebook. “I’m like on Facebook for like three hours. I’m on it just to check to see what others are doin” (Focus group). This supports the pattern of looking (2593 searches) as opposed to posting (1248) as is indicated in Table 1.

Whom they interacted with and what they posted was related to the degree to which they felt the others could be trusted to not misinterpret nor use their posts in a negative manner.

A: I like lookin at other people’s pictures. On Facebook I go through other people’s pictures…ones I know… you can look at other peoples pictures but you can’t write to them…You can’t write to nobody on there…There is no privacy…

B: People say stuff…change what you mean…can’t trust nobody (Focus group)

None of the participants accepted a friend request if they had not actually interacted with the individual.  “I only contact people I know, people I met…I just don’t really conversate with people that I don’t know. It’s nice to meet new people but…at the same time…you have to be safe” (Niesha).   Niesha’s decision to discontinue her Facebook account after the study was premised on “too much drama”. That decision reflected her belief that drama was rampant on all networking sites, not just Facebook: “Facebook drama follows it to Twitter drama…Twitter drama follows it to Facebook drama” (Niesha). After twice having her Facebook page hacked by friends, Leigh chose to further limit her Friends, “I only use it to communicate with my cousins or my aunts…or like someone that is very close to me…people I trust.” Focus group members affirmed this practice of meeting people in-person first, then deciding whether or not to add them as a Facebook friend.

Table 2. Facebook posting

Posting Shan Leigh Cris Rian Niesha Da’von
Posts/day 0-1 0-5 0-5 0-1 0-1 0-2

While they checked on their Facebook pages several times a day, posting of statuses, comments, photos, and links was not a daily practice (Table 2). These youth expressed concern over who their audiences were and how they were received or were seen as fitting into the discourse (Hoff, 2014). Niesha found that something as simple and innocent as ‘liking’ something on another Friend’s wall could be misinterpreted, citing even if you “put up another’s picture and another boy might Like it…and then people say ooohhh…he Liked it…and then go tell my boyfriend.” Trust, the ability to put something out there without fear, did not exist for these participants. One focus group member stated “I take pictures here and there but I don’t really put em up on Facebook cuz I know that Facebook is the website that whatever you put up on there everybody can see it and make comments and I’m cautious on what I put on there.” Experiences, whether their own or those close to them had informed their Facebook practices; they were suspicious and wary of others intentions. Without trust in others, their interest in posting, participating, and collaborating was limited: they were not willing to depend on or become vulnerable to the intentions of others.

Text messaging

Participants’ password-protected mobile phones were deemed to be a safe, secure, and private device. Privacy was important and valued. By not sharing sensitive or highly personal materials they controlled and reduced the level of potential drama or problems that could arise if materials were shared or distributed to others.

Through texting, participating youth sought to connect within a small group in which they felt comfortable in expressing a wide variety of thoughts and ideas. In general, of the over 5000 text messages studied, participants sent the majority of their texts to only a few individuals (one to four) (Table 3). Individuals in romantic relationships sent the majority of texts to partners as evidenced through Shan (8 – 166 messages) and Niesha’s (1 – 57 messages) relationships. On average, Rian sent considerably more text messages (1 ‑ 183 messages) than the other participants.  As student counsel president and being actively engaged in school clubs, Rian used texting to arrange and confirm meetings and activities beyond those within his inner circle of friends and family. These messages dealt with facts and arrangements, nothing personal.

Table 3. Text messaging activity

Rian Cris Niesha Leigh Da’von Shan
# Text messaging contacts 20 12 12 6 4 2
# Contacts texted regularly

Messages sent/day (mean)

Messages received/day (mean)


1 – 183  (48.9)

0 – 131 (42.3)


0 – 30 (6.36)

1 – 37 (7.36)


5 – 57 (20.44)

4 – 105 (31.56)


0 – 20 (9.07)

1 – 18 (8.13)


0 – 17 (8.27)

1 – 20 (6.14)


8 – 166


7 – 178 (79.33)

Text messaging as a practice was a more bound and intimate form of communication for participants than Facebook. Intimate communications occurred “when someone is close to me” (Leigh), between close friends, when there was a history of maintaining private and confidential information (Da’von, Focus group).   “I try to keep in touch with them…people I know or people I’ve met. I don’t just talk to random people that I don’t know cuz they could be doing something that I’m not aware of and then get caught up in it”  (Shan). Those whom they texted represented the most trusted, or intimate group of friends.

Connections made through text messaging covered a range of topics: greetings, check-ins, hanging out, relationships, and sexual banter/teasing among a small group of contacts. While some text messages were brief and superfluous others dealt with emotional struggles.

“If you need to talk I’m here for you” (Rian)

“Why is my live so lonely? Seems like everybody I love or get close to leaves me. Who cares about the quiet girl back here?”  (Leigh)

“I attempted something so awful, I not even comfortable sayin it…just know I failed at it “(Cris)

“You don’t know what it’s like to be betrayed by EVERYBODY” (Shan)

While participants spoke about the level of drama on Facebook and how that impacted their use and interaction with that medium, participants voiced no such experience with texting. They suggested that text messaging was a good medium for interpersonal messages because it allowed one to reflect while composing as well as responding to messages (Focus group). While acknowledging the possibility of sharing screens with an unintended audience all participants confirmed that messages constructed for a particular audience were private. They implicitly trusted their inner circle of contacts.

It was only in the texting space, within that small bounded group, that feelings, emotions, and detailed thoughts were expressed. Feeling of love, loneliness, frustration, joy, and caring were found across the data set. Text messaging was not just about finding out where someone was or what they were doing at that point in time, it provided both a place and space to “talk” about issues of great importance to them. In online social networks their engagement was framed by perceived drama, worry, fear, concern, deception, and distrust. Texting was the place where participants held an expectation that the content provided was generally and consistently reliable and of high quality. They were aware of the potential risk in misinterpretation and uncontrolled sharing, but the risk was seen as low; they trusted the others would not intentionally harm them.

Online communities

Searching for new information online starts at the level of a search engine and then transitions to specific sites once the user verifies that the specific site has the right feel, useful information, and type of interaction that is of interest to the user (forum, blog, online sharing…).  Google was the second most accessed online space after Facebook and the most widely used of the search engines, representing 85.63% of all search engine traffic (Table 4). Google was the place participants initiated their searches: “I don’t go to any special websites…Google is my best friend” (Focus group). Shan suggested that he “always turns to Google…it can answer any question.” The ease of use, and the seemingly endless ability to answer any question made Google the reliable, go-to search engine. Participants accessed Google an average of 13 times each day and the focus group confirmed that when they have a question, they “go to Google.”

Table 4. Volume of online searches

Order Website Total searches 2587 1130 586
              World Star 368

                    Internet searches have the potential to bring the information seeker closer to knowledge that might not otherwise be accessible within his/her physical space and community.  Shan and Cris wanted to hear and learn from first person accounts, yet were reluctant to engage with those they did not know, preferring to “just watch” the conversation or flow of information online (Shan). Google and YouTube were often used in tandem to support learning. Shan had an interest in cars, especially affordable ones that he could be work on, which led him to search for information regarding windshield wiper replacements: “I just wanted to learn how to do it, to see if I could do it. It was somewhat helpful” (Shan). Whether it was learning how to tie a bowtie (Rian), tying moccasins (Shan), creating a website (Cris), doing hair and nails (Niesha), video editing (Cris), or more directly self-improvement focused such as Cris’s inquiries about fitness or Leigh’s desire to learn how to do better flip turns, all sought out Google and YouTube as informational starting points. They sought out information, read, watched, evaluated, added to their own knowledge, and then moved on, silently: a non-public participation. “The other day I was searching fitness tips and so I’ll go to where people blogged about their different experiences…but I won’t really contribute to the conversation but I kinda… You know…just watch it…and see what other people have to say” (Cris). While a few participants reported accessing DIY-related sites (such as Fanfiction) they tended to look around but not interact or participate in any discussion. Repeatedly, the youth in this study stated they “never post anything” (Rian); “I’m not that type of person…” (Niesha); and “I just watch” (Cris).  The youth in this study did not seek to actively engage in or collaborate with online communities to discuss new ideas, gain knowledge/understanding, or distribute their work/thoughts.

                    Cognizance of various online knowledge communities or spaces was not the issue, as all participants reported knowing of online interest-based communities. Rian seconded this by saying, “I’ve never posted anything I’ve written or anything like that…um…I have taken a look at some websites…and things like that…things that my friends are on…but I’ve never myself gone on to post anything.” Da’von, who enjoyed writing poetry and stories, was aware of and had visited fanfiction sites (FIM FIC) and had read others’ work but had neither posted comments nor his own work stating, “I don’t post my work.” While participants liked to visit interest-based sites, visits were about observing, not exposing themselves to others they did not know: “ I just don’t conversate with people that I don’t know”. Non-public participation[ii] outside their physical realm was a common trend; engagement in online communities was not something they saw as part of their practice: “I never joined an online group to share ideas or writing or music with. I am not that kind of person”; “it’s not interesting to me” (Focus group). These youth were interested in knowing, they sought information on their own, they shared it with friends they knew but they did not seek to actively engage in or collaborate in either friendship or interest-based pursuits beyond those of their immediate physical community.

                    Cris voiced and demonstrated an interest in establishing a YouTube channel highlighting school events and happenings: “What I’m trying to evolve it into is I wanted to be something like a place where people go…like…things happen in Dwight…and more importantly at North” (Cris). He understood from his personal experience with YouTube that to attract visitors to the site, he needed visually pleasing, informative video segments. Cris thought he “could set up a website in a couple of seconds” but quickly realized “I don’t have an understanding of how it works.” When he experienced difficulty advancing his concept, Cris did not seek online for advice or assistance, he sought to find “somebody I really know…”, someone that he could “trust”. When asked how he would go about finding information on how to edit and improve his videos, Cris replied, “I haven’t really talked to people online about how I would do it…I Googled it.” When no such individual was found among friends, interest in the website idea diminished. While Cris visited other YouTube channels hosting similar material, he chose to not seek information and clarification from those sites because they represented the unknown to him and that was a boundary he, like other participants, repeatedly chose not to cross. Anonymity was not seen as an assurance against their wariness and suspicion about the intent of others.

                    Trust, for these participants, was critical for collaborative interaction. Without a known physical presence they chose to not trust and thus declined to engage with others online even when engagement could have been beneficial to the development of their own personal interests and desires. Engagement and interaction within this group of urban youth was heavily premised on trust and while their interactions may have moved to online spaces they were initiated and developed in a physical space first.


                    Trust was a theme within the lives of these youth and was observed throughout the entire data set. Trust was a major factor in participants’ use of social network sites, and as a result of lack of trust, they limited their engagements. Even though they were able to limit their Friends on Facebook, they did not place much trust in what was said, how things were stated, and how things were interpreted. While Niesha and Leigh experienced what they referred to as “too much drama” on Facebook, male participants had not personally experienced such things but were aware that some friends had experienced problems. Trust directly impacted who participants chose to hang out with, thus impacting their engagement within friendship-based genres.

                    Issues of trust also impacted the ways in which these youth engaged in online spaces. Ito et al. (2010) described interest-based participatory genres of messing around and geeking out and suggested that the key to participation includes access to technology, high-speed Internet, time, space, autonomy, and desire. The sheer volume of participants’ searches demonstrated desire, interest, motivation, and self-directed learning. While they actively and frequently sought information from the Internet, it was their style of engagement that provided a new perspective. There is a significant body of research that documents how youth actively engage with others in online spaces, seeking out others and communities based on shared interests (Black, 2009a, 2009b; Chandler-Olcott & Mahar, 2003; Gee, 2009; Jacobs, 2008; Steinkuehler, 2010). Participants in this study engaged in solitary endeavours, seeking information but purposefully not engaging with others not previously known in the physical world: “I just don’t conversate with people that I don’t know” (Niesha); “I never joined an online group or shared ideas or writing or music… am not that kind of person” (Focus group); “I just watch” (Cris); “can’t trust nobody” (Focus group). Participants’ hesitancy and inability to trust those unknown and outside their community and culture created a barrier that effectively restricted their ability to move forward in the development of their interests and desires.

                    Ito et al. (2010) suggest that lurking or silent participation, to read but not participate in the discussion, even when anonymous, is a common practice. Participants concurred with Ito et al. and Nonnecke and Preece (2003) that reading or observing what transpires within online interest-based communities was sufficient engagement (Focus group). Participants’ no-posting philosophy however was not premised on shyness or feelings of having nothing to offer, as suggested by Nonnecke et al. (2004). The issue was founded on their sense of community and trust. The culture within this group of urban youth was heavily premised on trust, engagement, and interaction with known individuals, known in a physical, not an online space. Interactions may have moved to online spaces but were formulated and developed in a physical space first. Friendship, whether as an informal acquaintance or more personalized friendship, was for these participants a precursor to interactions facilitated by their mobile technology.

                    The findings from this study offer insight into the role of trust in seeking out and engaging with others online. All participants expressed concern regarding interaction with unknown others in online spaces and communities. Trust was not implicit and their willingness to trust was premised on their personal experiences, familiarity and the environment (Figure 1). These findings align with previous research that trust is important in fostering relationships and collaborative exploits (Chang & Fang, 2013). “The key to ongoing social experience is producing trust” (Glanville, Anderson, & Paxton, 2013). It is trust within a community that creates an environment in which people are inspired to share their thoughts, opinions, and experiences in an open and honest way (Nepal, Sherchan, & Paris, 2012). Repeatedly, participants addressed the critical importance that knowing someone, face-to-face, and developing a level of trust were critical for them to engage with those individuals in online spaces.  In the absence of trust, participants’ behaviours were limited to not entering into, communicating or engaging with others in online spaces, even when they had a vested interested in the knowledge and experience that were accessible within that community or space.  In some scenarios where trust was low, they would watch but not engage. The reasons given for such behaviours included not trusting those they didn’t know, unwillingness to “conversate” with those unknown to them in a physical sense, or sharing in a group where they knew no one. Yamagishi refers to this as “default expectations of people’s trustworthiness” (2011, p. 28). I propose that trust as a continuum, from high to low, develops in direct relation to one’s prior experiences and can and does vary with the environment. Secondly, I support the concept put forth by (Chang & Fang, 2013; Kim & Ahmad, 2013) that distrust is a distinct and separate construct with a significantly stronger emotional aspect. Low trust and distrust, bifurcations of trust, have different implications for the engagement and collaborative processes in both on and offline spaces.

                    The underlying concept of friendship and/or connecting with others, particularly in online spaces, is that friendship is transitive. We often assume that another’s friends can be ours as well based purely on association, which is an underlying principle of social networks. While that may be true for many, there are individuals to whom this trust by association does not work. Without some level of trust in place, members/individuals are not likely to share their knowledge or experience within participatory cultures due to their fear that their information and identity may be misused (Nepal, Sherchan, & Paris, 2013). And while online communities can work towards developing trusting communities where individuals can feel safe, those who have a low level of trust may be willing to try; those who distrust will not, the risk for them is too great.  Cris in his desire to develop and construct a website to host videos and information to distribute within his community could not take that leap of asking unknown others for help with video production and website development. The wariness of what others might say about him or his work, possible misdirection, and poor information were sufficient reasons to distrust, mitigating any potential risk. Decremer, Snyder, and Dewitte (2001) suggest that low trustors have low expectations that others will reciprocate cooperative behaviour and need additional motive to engage such as social pressure. Sociologists see trust as cooperative conduct and distrust as non-cooperative conduct (Decremer, Snyder, & Dewitte, 2001) but I am arguing that trust (high or low) and distrust are different constructs that can and do impact collaborative behaviour differently, and in particular how and where one chooses to engage in online spaces. By bifurcating these terms I am suggesting that trust and distrust are different constructs: improving trust does not eliminate distrust. If trust is a reflection of one’s general willingness to depend on or become vulnerable to others then distrust is an unwillingness to depend on or become vulnerable.  Chang and Fang (2013) put forth that online trust is a positive expectation characterized by reliance, confidence, and assurance. They describe distrust as negative expectations characterized by suspicion, wariness and fear.  These later elements are evident in participants’ narratives as they consistently talk about the need to be careful who they communicate and interact with, both online and in-person. They are guarded in how much they are willing to expose of themselves based not only their own experiences but those closest to them as well. Wariness and lack of trust have a direct impact regarding whom individuals engage with, where they engage, the manner in which they engage, and the language and channels used to interact with others.


                    Limitations of this study include the small convenience sample and time spent with each participant. One week was spent observing participant’s daily existence, coupled with two weeks of remotely monitoring their mobile technology-based activities. These are relatively short time periods in the context of a student’s life and there is the potential that participants knowingly modified behaviours and use of technologies. An accounting for this was incorporated into the study’s design by including and incorporating remote monitoring (WebWatcher), which allowed participants to be monitored without the researcher’s physical presence. In addition to this method, multiple interviews, member checks, and journaling were incorporated to more accurately reflect participants’ experiences. The inclusion of a focus group served to ensure the study’s data and its subsequent interpretation were reflective of participants’ experiences at this particular point in time.


                    In online participatory spaces trust in the Internet as well as others is an initial condition for users to participate in trusting relationships in which they consume and distribute information (Czerwinski, 2002; Hsu et al., 2007).  There is clear evidence that when trust relationships are established, people in those relationships are more willing to participate in cooperative interactions. This speaks to a trust continuum in which one’s level of trust and subsequent interaction can move along that continuum.  But when a boundary exists that prohibits the individual from entering into a space because they cannot and do not trust those within it; their behaviour then is fundamentally different. The data suggests that more exposure does not move them into a trusting position.  The emotions that are limiting their engagement are specific to both the individual and the particular space and are not likely to be affected by positive statements from others. Distrust is subjective and based on direct experience (Kim & Ahmad, 2013).  McKnight and Chervany (2001) argue that distrust is based on different emotions than trust. Distrust represents strong negative feelings and insecurity about a user’s motivation, intention, and behaviour; the user is not willing to expose him/her self to or depend on others with any sense of confidence.  This is in stark contrast with trust, which they suggest is constructed from a safe, secure, and comfortable feeling, and a general willingness to depend on others.

                    People attempt to understand the world around them through a variety of ways, including personal experience, their social connections, and inferences made on the basis of real and imagined features of physical spaces. Trust and distrust, as evidenced by Shan, Cris, Leigh, Rian, Niesha, and Da’von, are constructs that are clearly impacted and determined by experience and one’s interpretation and processing of events and experiences within their lives and community. Their experiences directly impacted their ability to engage, participate, collaborate, and disperse knowledge. When distrust is present, this new ethos is undermined. Deeper insight regarding the role that generalized trust potentially plays in whether youth continue their digital media pursuits beyond dabbling in an initial interest, or “hanging out” (Ito et al., 2010), could inform the design and implementation of digital media production programs both in school and out, and lead to more participation, collaboration, “messing around” and “geeking out” amongst youth. Understanding why and where an individual’s trust/distrust is situated is important to understanding how and why they choose to engage in online spaces.


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                    Biographical information

                    Martha Hoff is Adjunct Professor at the Warner School of Education, University of Rochester. Her research explores the intersections of youth, literacy, digital literacies, mobile technology, and multimodalities. She has a particular interest in how personal experiences as well as interests impact and influence how today’s youth select and use digital tools to make sense of their lives.


                    [i] (1) Technology choices, (2) creation of meaning, (3) communication hierarchy, (4) impact of trust (5) tinkering bounded by technology, distrust, and non-public participation

                    [ii] Participatory behaviour that does not involve the public expression of a person’s opinion (Andrews & Nonnecke, 2003), at times referred to as ‘lurking’ (Ito et al., 2010), may also be known as vicarious learning (Cox, McKendree, Tobin, & Lees, 1999).

                    Ksenia A. Korobkova & Matthew Rafalow

                    Published Online: May 4, 2016
                    Full Text: HTML, PDF

                    Abstract: This article argues that the set of skills and strategies associated with managing digital publics online represent an emergent literacy practice of importance to literacy researchers and educators. Drawing on two case studies of online communities popular with contemporary youth to learn, play, and socialize, we articulate how youth participants strategically negotiate multiple audiences online with varying levels of publicity in order to achieve learning outcomes. In one case, players of a popular production-centered video game share their content in ways that garner the specific kind of audience and feedback they need for their projects. In another, members of an online fan fiction community analyze and negotiate expectations of their audience in order to craft media that garners attention and sustains readership. Both examples identify how skills centered on navigating and managing publics – that is, multiple audiences that are permeable across a wider public online – constitute a recognizable and important “new literacy” in digitally mediated learning environments. We situate our empirical studies in sociocultural theories of learning and historicize the work in contemporary digital cultures and the general move from the writer-reader relationship to writer-audience relationships to more complex relationships within digital publics.  The article ends with considerations for literacy researchers, policymakers, and practitioners interested in technology-mediated practices of today’s youth.

                    Keywords: new media, literacies, interest-driven communities, publics, online production, youth studies


                    Researchers and practitioners alike have interrogated the role of technology in living, working, and learning in the 21st century. Increasingly, scholars call attention to the kinds of skills and artifacts technologically-mediated environments offer to participants. With the aid of digital technologies, learners pursue new pathways of participation, writing, and collaboration (Thomas & Brown, 2011). Researchers document how youth develop valuable literacies as they create and remix multimedia texts in blogs, wikis, and social networks in online communities (Black, 2006; Lankshear & Knobel, 2006). In turn, those working on reimagining schooling in the 21st century have thought about ways that learning environments might harness the potential of digital technologies in helping youth access new opportunities for learning. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills explicitly calls for educators to think about new aptitudes linked to digital communication, on-demand access to information, and collaboration across networks (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2006). Questions arise about what it means to effectively communicate and collaborate in an increasingly networked world.

                    Studies show that youth in online communities or affinity spaces are highly aware of their audiences, real or imagined (Berkenkotter, 1981; boyd, 2006), and pay close attention to how they represent themselves and their work. Less is known about how youth themselves narrate and navigate their position across multiple audiences in participatory online settings. In the context of an ethnographic multi-sited study of youth-driven production practices in online communities, we documented the multiple ways that youth manage, negotiate, and interact with audiences. Drawing from this work, this paper provides a detailed portrait of how young people situate their work in complex digital environments. We ask: what does it mean for young content producers to work with not one, but many digital publics as part and parcel of content production? How do they talk about audiences in relation to their identity, status, and group membership? What effects does dealing with multiple real, cognitively constructed, and networked audiences have on their sense of self as composers and their production practices? And, relatedly, how might this work inform our thinking about adeptness, literacy, and sociality in new media? In sum, we find that learners develop key skills pertinent to learning in the 21st century: the ability to strategically navigate audiences across digital publics in order to construct a meaningful socialization and learning experience.

                    Study Context

                    This research took place in the context of a larger study on the socializing and learning dynamics of interest-driven online groups that support academically relevant knowledge seeking and expertise development (Ito et al., 2010).

                    As part of this bigger project, we looked into two different online communities. They were similar in that both were youth-led, digitally-mediated, and interest-fueled that enabled self-initiated production of new media. They differed in the kinds of media they produced and in the kinds of passions that fueled their projects. The first case study focused on an online story-sharing community centered on sharing Fan Fiction stories about a popular boyband named One Direction. Another case study examined a video game online community in which members designed and critiqued new levels for a game called LittleBigPlanet 2 (Media Molecule, 2011). Both studies highlight how informal, technology-mediated learning environments, as compared with most school contexts, often encourage self-sponsored learning activities. The cases focus on young people participating in new media composition practices and dealing with various online publics, albeit in very different contexts.

                    LittleBigPlanet 2 (Media Molecule, 2011), also known as LBP2, is a puzzle-platformer video game that was released in January 2011 for the Playstation 3, and Sackboy Planet is a companion community of LBP2 players where they interact and share the levels they produce within the game (Sony Interactive Entertainment, LLC, 2016). After its release the game was purchased widely, particularly within the United States and the United Kingdom. A key facet of the game is its digital tools that enable players to produce their own levels, art, soundtracks, and animations. Players use these tools and develop skills in creativity and problem solving, and are provided opportunities to create levels with others and share them to the community at large. The game gives players a side-scrolling video game experience that is productively coupled with activities designed to teach players to create their own levels. Sackboy Planet is a popular online community centered on an interest in LBP2, and it was the focus for this project.

                    Wattpad (WP Technologies, 2016), as both an app and a web site, is a popular place for young writers and readers to congregate. In addition to being a writing platform, Wattpad invites graphics, book covers, and forum discussions of all things related to writing. The site includes a writing platform as well as a way to publish, share, discuss, and improve one’s writing. Although Wattpad attracts users from all parts of the world, stories in the English language are the most prominent, and Young Adult and Fan Fiction genres are most popular, since the robust majority of the site is of adolescent age.

                    The comparison between the production practices and the way members discussed their participation and production seemed fruitful because members of both online communities were engaged in making and sharing new kinds of media artifacts — game levels on the one hand, and Fan Fiction books on the other. Composition practice was directly linked to participating and being recognized as a part of the particular community. Production in both cases was driven by the fan community and enabled by new technology. The products in both cases were multimodal (made up of print texts, videos, and audio) and intertextual (involved references to other texts, narratives, and objects related to the fandom). Moreover, internal mechanisms of reputation management, recognition, and boundary work between the experts and the novices were tightly bound up with the practices of composition and circulation of products. Members of both communities talked about what it takes to talk the talk and walk the walk in order to be seen as adept in their craft, authentic in their fandom, and valuable to the community. In the interviews, “making” stories and levels was narrated as “making for” different groups and purposes. Members talked about producing content for different groups, adapting their language and tool use to effectively speak to the particular group. For example, in the course of a day, a One Direction fan was able to share a moving image she made on Wattpad and Tumblr (a microblogging site), because those are networks for fans, and think about but ultimately reject the decision to share the same product on Facebook, because her parents might be able to see it. The longer version of the gif was shared on Wattpad with a caption to index her amassing video editing skills and the shorter version of the .gif file was circulated on Tumblr with a caption that made the product seem like an inside joke. For the members, producing and circulating content was also about managing diverse audiences — groups the producer was also part of and thus more aptly called “publics.”

                    Conceptual Framework and Related Literature

                    This study draws from several connected literatures: the sociocultural study of literacy, with a focus on research on new literacies (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006), and multimedia (Jewitt & Kress, 2003). Researchers and theories of “new literacies” posit that digital technologies enable the production of new kinds of texts and, in turn, new possibilities of interaction and meaning-making. This way of looking at literacies draws from sociocultural approaches to learning and literacies that see engagement with texts as more than coding and encoding words on the page, but also involving values, identities, group membership, and power dynamics (Gee, 2007). In recent decades, scholars working in the way of recognizing literacies as plural, context-embedded and fundamentally social practices have turned their attention to practices and texts made possible by new media technologies, such as social networking, modern gaming practices, and participation in online communities (Black, 2006; Lankshear & Knobel, 2006). Work in this vein sees social participation with new media, such as gaming, as involving new kinds of reading, writing, and relating practices: as a literacy in itself.

                    Researchers of new literacies consider playing digital games and participating in related online spaces, such as message boards, to be consequential literacy practices. Researchers such as Gee (2003), Jenkins, Clinton, Purushatma, Robison, and Weigel (2006), Lankshear and Knobel (2006) bring attention to ways in which online and media-rich activities function in specific semiotic domains, calling on detailed knowledge and developed know-how. New technologies usher in new affordances, of which new skillsets and literacies are but few.

                    The Internet raises the visibility of fan production. Private activities can be transferred into a public arena – online fan communities where massive audiences provide motive and encouragement for creative work. Moreover, the interactive affordance of fan web sites mean that a fan could go beyond her individual ability and benefit from others’ reactions, critiques and knowledge (Black, 2008). Research on digital writing, socializing, and production has recently moved away from thinking about authors composing for audiences and toward thinking about authors composing as part of participating in groups, social forms, and digital publics. Coined by boyd (2010), “networked publics” describe participation in public culture that is supported by technologies. The term refers to both the “space” created through networked technologies and the “collective” born out of the connection of the people, technologies, and practices within that space (boyd, 2010). Because of proliferating new ways to connect to each other online, we have an abundance of networked publics to address and engage with daily. But we still know little about how learners navigate networked publics as part of their informal literacy enterprise. Moreover, although some literacy research have focused on meaning-making and collective-forming practices in online spaces, especially in studies interested in fandoms and affinity spaces, they hone in on one particular website and public. In this article, we propose that to fully understand the rich literacy practices of young people afforded by digital technology, it is necessary to conceptualize socialization and learning across various sites, spaces, and spaces.

                    Working within the traditions of conceptualizing literacy as a social practice, and in a polemic with studies of new media as enabling new types of literacies, our comparative project focuses on how youth negotiate different online publics as an integral part of production and participation in interest-driven online communities.

                    Research Questions

                    • How do young people navigate digital publics and associated varied audiences to effectively engage in socially-supported creative production?
                    • What features of digital publics enable young people to engage in navigation practices as a means of supporting creative production?


                    The two case studies utilized mixed methods to delve into a particular community, members of which were connected to each other in two ways: (1) with an online forum and other media and (2) through a common interest. Using content analysis, ethnographic observations, surveys, and interviews, we explored the dynamics related to learning, literacy, production, reputation, and audience management.

                    The LittleBigPlanet2 case research design focused on observation and interviews with members of Sackboy Planet, one of the largest online player communities (Media Molecule, 2011). We obtained data through two means: observation in Sackboy Planet forums, and interviews with Sackboy Planet community members. Observation in Sackboy Planet’s online forums was conducted during a nine-month period in which we visited the websites several times a week and observed interaction in the forums and the forum chatrooms. Observations, including quotes or excerpts from dialogue on the website, were recorded in field notes compiled the same day of observation. We began by interviewing the creator of Sackboy Planet, as well as the publicly identified moderators of the community. With the permission of the site’s creator, we posted an open call for interviewees, noting that we sought to speak with players both new and more experienced with the community and with LBP2 (Media Molecule, 2011). We ultimately draw from interviews with 24 community members who vary by age, race-ethnicity, gender, and geographic location. Interview questions were informed by observations in the forum. The questions were used to conduct semi-structured interviews, allowing us to probe for emergent themes, as members clarified questions that had emerged from our observations.

                    We also investigated the One Direction fan community on Wattpad (WP Technologies, 2016), a mobile-based story sharing community, over a nine-month period.  In-depth interviews were conducted with 25 participants, the protocols for which were semi-structured and designed to elicit discussion regarding the participants’ experiences with Fan Fiction production, critique and comment structures on the website, involvement in fan communities, school experiences, home and family environments, and the relationships between those contexts. From those interviews, we followed up on topics, organizations, and websites mentioned by the participants, such as social networking groups, school clubs, videos, and jokes that were important to them and circulated in their respective fan communities. These follow-ups are meant to give a more holistic picture of fan writing and media production practices, literate histories, and involvement in Fan Fiction communities.

                    Artifacts created by study participants are also analyzed, focusing on media objects such as the stories posted by participants, forum postings, book covers, trailers, gif files, and participants’ profiles. Background surveys, interviews, and objects created by participants were studied across and alongside each other in order to look for differences and similarities in the experiences of study participants.

                    Although interactions on both field sites are available to the public, we took steps to ensure the anonymity of those we interviewed and observed to minimize any potential risks for study participants. Our recruitment and observation strategy were not perfect means by which to reach all participants of a community, as it would be incredibly difficult to individually gain consent for passive observation on platforms where thousands of people interact. However, our research design maximized community awareness of the study through the aid of community leaders to develop and share public notices of research activity that allowed community members to both the researchers and the institutional review board any questions about the project. Identifiers from all excerpts are anonymized, and no names (including usernames) were used. Additionally, we obscured any excerpts from observed activity online (while maintaining the meaning of the quotes) in order to reduce searchability and minimize the risk of participants being identified.

                    We use content and discourse analysis techniques (Miles & Huberman, 1994; Gee, 2007) to analyze a variety of interviews, forums, and media artifacts we collected. Thematic, iterative coding (Saldaña, 2009 was used to code the multimodal dataset. We took several passes at the data – to see the kinds of recurring topics that emerge and to identify the themes in the data and how they related to each other.    We used analytical software Dedoose to derive overarching thematic categories that emerge with regularity across the data sources. Using the software helped us generate codes to represent given characteristics of studied contexts such as available technologies, symbolic and material resources, supports and barriers to participation, and recognition management systems within those communities. Moments of code switching or lengthy explanations of how one would produce something differently for one space or another became coded as “navigating.”

                    Case and Cross-case Data

                    Imagining Digital Publics for Playful Production

                    Through the advent of computer-mediated technologies, much of what has previously been labeled as “private” becomes “public.” Although hardly resembling a townhall meeting of a small town, social media technology such as Facebook and Twitter are often analyzed under the heuristic term “publics” as both a group of people and a communicative space. However, what happens in affinity spaces inspired by specific passions or interests? Moreover, what happens when the interested individual or learner becomes invested in more than one digital public? These questions animated selection of data from the larger project in order to understand strategic maneuvering users undertook when navigating different publics. To contrast different types of interest, levels of involvement, and affinity space architectures, we interviewed members of two very different interest-different communities, albeit the shared passion for playful production.

                    Navigating Publics for Feedback on Sackboy Planet

                    A central means of participating in each of these online communities is sharing created products and circulating them among members of the platform. Participants on Sackboy Planet share their levels in development on the community forums for feedback from other participants to improve their design skills, to promote their work, and to join level creation contests that have awards. Sackboy Planet is a digital public where these learning artifacts are shared. But like in other online contexts, attention is a scarce commodity. Due to the very high volume of content and ways to interact with others in the community, Sackboy Planet participants have to sift through many posts, blogs, and chat logs to suss out which game levels are worthwhile to review. While some scholars tend to argue that attention scarcity is necessarily “bad” because of its effect of obscuring people (see DiMaggio & Hargittai, 2004), on Sackboy Planet such a phenomenon creates opportunities for learning. Attention scarcity denies some youth the ability to share their work for advice, but designers can also be strategic as they navigate the Sackboy Planet public to draw out the type of attention they need to grow as budding game designers.

                    One example of this phenomenon can be observed in a post by a community member named Sacklad. His post, which was in a very visible area of the forum allocated for feedback on level design, was among a few of the most popular posts in that section. His post, however, was not fully in accordance with the rules of this section of the forum. Forum administrators leave notes, or sticky posts, where they set these rules and decree them to others in the forum. Forum discussions would be unwieldy and make it difficult for participants to find the types of content they are looking for if it were not for these rules. A full one-third of the one hundred and fifty pages of responses to Sacklad’s post was about topic-appropriate discussion of level ideas and recruitment for other level designers, but then Sacklad stopped requesting new ideas and teammates. Instead, he used the remaining one hundred pages to share updates about his game and encourage readers to follow his project until it debuted. Some forum participants became annoyed that the thread drifted from the original topic and broke some of the forum rules, and they asked that the discussion be moved into a private group away from this public post. However, Sacklad believed that keeping it in public was valuable:


                    I said that because I want the rest of Sackboy Planet to know that this project is still in development…and by the way, this is the most visited thread on the site…I want everyone to know

                    In order to promote his own work, Sacklad navigated not only the existing rules of the community that restrict off-topic dialogue but also the digital publics of the Sackboy Planet. In doing, he created an approach that operated much like the use of a megaphone in a crowded room: he accrued a considerable level of attention towards his work despite the fact that the forums were saturated with others’ posts about levels they created.

                    Sometimes community participants shared their levels in development in less public settings, and they used different communication mediums and privacy settings to achieve the audiences they desired. For example, Luchadoro created a blog post announcing his project and called for feedback:

                    I need a group of testers to play my level, identify bugs or problems with the game, and submit these errors to me. If you are interested I will send you a private message containing a highly secret code needed to access and play the level. Then you can find some friends (three, for the most fun!), play the level a lot and share any problems with me!

                    Blog posts are in a less public area of the website, and while viewable to the public they are much less visible than the forums. Additionally, Luchadoro used privacy settings within the level design to require a code or password to be able to view his designs. I asked why he used blogging and passwords rather than a post in the forums:

                    I wanted to make sure [the level] was bug-proof and that everything worked smoothly. And I also wanted to award players with a preview of the level. I wanted feedback. That was my main goal.

                    By using blogs and passwords, Luchadoro was able to reach out for feedback while also not sharing a level creation that had a lot of problems in its design. I asked him if he would have garnered the same kind of feedback if he asked for help in the much more public areas of the forums. For Luchadoro, using blog posts and privacy settings allowed him to obtain his desired audience:

                    I would have gotten feedback I think. But for one thing the level could have had a lot of bugs. And for another it’s much easier to get feedback if you actually ask people for feedback. It’s way more likely to get detailed, very informative feedback. Actually I got a message for two full pages of feedback, so it was worth it. After about six testers I turned everyone down.

                    By using blogs, a quasi-public space on Sackboy Planet, to share his levels in development, and privacy settings to restrict project visibility, Luchadoro navigated the community’s online publics to reach the type of audience he needed. Implicit is Luchadoro’s preconception that there are multiple ways of imagining audiences on Sackboy Planet. Moreover, he reached for this particular audience because he was not at a stage where he wanted the project to be fully public – it had design problems and needed more work. While the website does have specific areas for level sharing and feedback, those areas are highly visible to the broad public. Luchadoro used blogs and passwords to innovatively tackle online publics and obtain an environment for level creation and learning best suited for his own needs.

                    But in addition to these opportunities, learners also face challenges to get constructive feedback as a consequence of how others wrestle with attention scarce nature of the Sackboy Planet public. As part of the design of the game and the online community, players can “heart” or “like” a level or artifact that they think is well produced. These hearts are used cumulatively as metrics of success that elevate certain artifacts to the top of well-publicized lists. During interviews, participants report that others will try to “game the system” in ways that unfairly provide attention to some levels over others. One way participants achieve this is by asking for “hearts for hearts.” Jimbob explains:

                    Someone was asking for hearts for hearts and that’s not allowed on the site…Sackboy Planet looks down on that because you’re not really giving feedback to the creator, it’s like you are just promoting your level without really playing it…sometimes they don’t play so it’s not really fair, that’s why the forum doesn’t like it. (Jimbob, 2013)

                    Community participants look poorly on participants who bypass the slow process of level reviewing through instead asking for hearts from others for hearts in exchange. “Hearts for hearts” is one way that users game the metrics system and evade attention scarcity on the forums by boosting project visibility. Attention scarcity can therefore create barriers to participation by making it more difficult for participants, especially new participants, to engage with others in the community around their work.

                    While attention scarcity can create barriers by minimizing opportunities for participation, it also generates new avenues for participants to generate the kind of publicity they need for their own learning and development. During our fieldwork in Sackboy Planet, we observed how participants shared their level designs with others for different purposes. Usually, levels in development are posted on the Sackboy Planet forums for feedback to improve their skills and designs, to promote their projects, and participate in contests. But players would also share their content elsewhere on the website to strategically garner the kind of attention they wanted for their projects.

                    Content Management for Publics among Wattpad Directioners

                    Self-described fans of the boyband One Direction or Directioners — although dissimilar to LBP2 level producers in interests and demographics — follow similar patterns of thinking about making and sharing in their community. Directioners on a story- and picture- sharing website called often compose Fan Fiction stories, book covers and animated picture files in connection to the band. They talk about the complicated design-oriented thinking implicated in the making and circulating such objects across various fan networks they are involved with. In relation to composing gifs (looping animation image files with no sound), Directioners speak of inspired by what they see on Tumblr and other social networking sites and once they make the product, sharing it selectively and differentially among those networks. In .gif production, Directioners take clips from the band’s interviews, videos, and confessionals and turn them into short loops, often adding words and captions or transposing other images to get the desired effect, whether it be humor or innuendo.

                    Making a picture of a .gif that is highly successful involves many moving pieces: researching the oeuvre of the boyband and their more niche taped appearances, figuring out the audience’s likes and dislikes, familiarizing myself with the web-based gif-making software or Photoshop, the attention and detail-orientation required to getting the time stamps exactly right when clipping video, and so on.

                    During the data collection period, we noticed that it was not possible to account for the full range of these fans’ literate repertoires without staying attuned to different audiences for whom these cultural producers were performing. Participants shifted discourses and channeled different sets of skills when dealing with different publics. For example, when dealing with fellow fans on Tumblr, the author might put on their knowledgeable fan hat, while when writing for fan fiction writers and readers on Wattpad, she might tap into her literary knowhow. Following the thread of their interest, participants cycled through different technologies, environments, and digital publics.

                    One adolescent participant, 15 year-old Nessa, narrates the challenges she faced in learning the craft of making .GIF files. She has been writing Fan Fiction or fiction based on popular media objects for quite some time on various websites but has lately ventured to the “Multimedia Designs” forum on the website, as she was getting interested in making graphics, covers, and trailers for her stories (mostly about “the boys” as she affectionately calls the band). This forum was targeted for users to help other user improve their design and media collage skills. In the “Designs” forum, she was able to get feedback on the story cover illustrations she was making and help with her Photoshop skills. As time went on, she asked for less hands-on help from her fellow forum posters (e.g., collaborating on the same illustration and having them “shop” a piece of the picture) and asked for more indirect, general feedback.

                    Once she got the hang of the .gif art formation, Nessa began to post the animated images on her fan Tumblr blog account. After getting help with transposing words onto the images onto the forum, she began to practice the art of aphoristic writing. She explains, “I wasn’t very funny at first… Not a lot of people followed me.” This has changed, since Nessa’s creation have about a hundred thousand followers on her original Tumblr blog and as many on Twitter. The main mechanism responsible for this increased popularity is audience awareness. Nessa knows what her audiences are into – what jokes are en vogue, what’s going on with the band, which songs are being played on the radio. She crowdsources content from her story-sharing website account to get some of this information. She also beta tests various prototypes of her .gif files on the Wattpad forums in order to gauge whether her new meme will stick. She often keeps more literary jokes for the story-sharing website and more mundane content for her fan blog.

                    Cross-case analysis

                    Recent scholarship on new literacies argues that digital technologies, and particularly games, offer avenues for youth to learn important skills by invoking a number of important modalities. Yet, this work does not well consider key features of online learning environments, namely, their relationship to online publics, in developing theoretical platforms for learning with new media. Although educators have long seen learning as situated within a particular audience or set of audiences, online environments like those explored in the present cases are linked to multiple audiences that have permeable boundaries. In other words, youth must learn skills needed to navigate multiple audiences within a broader public online.

                    Our cases show the challenges and possibilities for literacy development centered on navigating and managing online publics. On Sackboy Planet, LBP2 players wrestle with a phenomenon called attention scarcity — their level designs are one of thousands shared in the community. In some cases, players find ways to promote their own content by gaining notoriety by bending forum rules to generate lots of comments on their level-in-development. In other examples, players strategically select the specific avenues to share their level designs, such as on harder-to-find blogs rather than very public forums, to get detailed feedback from select players. Both examples show how youth strategically workshop their designs across different levels of public space online in order to improve their craft. One Direction fan fiction writers probe the expectations of their community in order to craft media that can be shared while sustaining peer interest. For example, some writers share ideas with select members of intended audiences to “test the waters” before publishing more widely.

                    Comparison of the two contexts yields several insights about the prowess of internet publics to drive transmedial negotiation and mediation. The features that empowered this kind of participation were the same in both cases. In LBP2, attention scarcity, passion, and reputation management lead to the engagement of different publics in publishing new levels. On Wattpad, scaffolding on the site, rules and norms of participation, and the availability of different audiences for different needs allowed the engagement of different publics in publishing artifacts connected to the users’ favorite band. Sociotechnical designs of both interest-driven communities drove navigator engagement in both sites, as youth played with multiple publics as part and parcel of their crafting practice. Recruiting and sustaining peer interest in a topic that they care about was an important catalyst to make and publish media, in both cases. The main navigation strategy in the gaming community was delimiting audience to reduce risk and to amplify voice. By contrast, the main navigation strategy on the story-sharing app was experimenting with and shifting content to appeal to multiple different audiences.


                    The cross-case analysis presented here illustrates how participants of two interest-driven online communities navigate multiple publics online for learning. These youth strategically create and share their work across different tiers of publicity to achieve the kinds of feedback and recognition they needed for their own purposes and at their particular stage of work. These empirical cases thus build on our existing notions of literacy practices by showing the value of navigating publics online for learning. These examples also expand our thinking about the relationship between creator and audience to a reality where youth come to see their work as existing within more fluid relationship between collective creation and reception among others online.

                    On Sackboy Planet, youth shared their work in different parts of the forums to garner feedback from different audiences within the community public. In some cases, learners used privacy settings to share their designs-in-progress with select people who they knew would give in-depth feedback. In other examples, participants shared their designs in parts of the forum that cast wide audience nets – like using a megaphone – in order to generate interest and publicity. These strategies reflect conditions of online publics that are critical for understanding twenty-first century literacies. Audiences online are variable in their size and reach and also provide different types of feedback that have implications for how learners and their learning artifacts are received within the broader community. Participa