Last week I spent two days at the Learning from Hollywood conference put on by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and held at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. The conference brought together approximately 200 experts from entertainment, academia, philanthropy, gaming, libraries, journalism and education to talk about how these sectors can collaborate to harness digital media in support of education. The eclectic mix of leaders in their fields made for a constant buzz – and my still-tired synapses. I attended representing ConnectEd: The California Center for College and Career and with much thanks to their friends at the Pearson Foundation for securing a somewhat last minute invitation. Here are a few of my takeways grouped by theme rather than chronology, though please note this post expresses my own opinions and experience not ConnectEd’s.
My five themes are:
- Respect Your Audience
- It’s the Participation, Stupid
- Parent Attitudes Matter
- Digital Media to What End?
- Cool Stuff to Check Out
In order to respect my audience’s time, I’m going to cover the first two in this post and put the other three in this follow-up post. Here we go.
Respect Your Audience
“Respect your audience” became a conference mantra we all could have chanted in unison by the end of our time together. We heard it over again and again from the most expert storytellers. Producer Marcy Karsey of The Cosby Show and Roseanne fame said, “The very very basic thing is respect the audience. It’s the first and most important thing.” Producer Don Hahn of Lion King and Beauty and the Beast fame said, “Trust the sophistication of the audience.” Producer Peter Gruber of The Color Purple, Rain Man and Batman fame said, “When you try to move folks, are you audience centric? Otherwise you have no chance.”
Several speakers and participants quickly applied that mantra to students as the audience. What does it look like to respect students as a sophisticated audience for digital media? As participant Thomas Riddle aka IndyInTheClass tweeted, his take away was “Always be audience-centered; translation for teachers: have a student-centered classroom.” For me it translated as a reminder that teaching young people isn’t that different than teaching adults. When designing learning for adults, it is accepted practice to remember and design for the reality that they bring their own stories, interests, and experiences to the learning. We tend to treat students as empty vessels when in fact we would be better off treating them with the same “respect” we do adults.
I found it interesting – and sometimes annoying – that the tone of the conversation sometimes seemed to jettison the “respect the audience” mantra when talking about education and educators. It was an undercurrent, one I’m familiar with, that implies that nothing good is already happening in education or that educators are somehow personally resistant to change and if they would all just see the light that I – as a philanthropist, entrepreneur, businessperson – can shed on the problem, they would just fix it.
So I was happy to spend a bit of time commiserating on that point with Virginia Edwards from Education Week and then listen as she masterfully moderated a panel discussion that surfaced that very issue explicitly and elicited spontaneous applause from the audience. “The demonization of education going on right now that isn’t helping this cause. We need to be constructive. It’s not helpful to keep diagnosing the problem. There are wonderful stories available to make the case that this kind of change is possible and good.”
I also appreciated when Michele Kydd Lee from Creative Artists Agency Foundation encouraged the audience to take time to understand the realities of public education today – something she’s learned as a parent. “What I learn as a parent is different than what I learn as funder. When they ask for money for X, it means they don’t have money for the janitor either. I encourage everyone to set foot in our own neighborhood public school.”
Especially with education, I have found that true partnership means BOTH parties are willing to take the time to understand and RESPECT the other’s reality and interests. A tone that should come out sounding like “How can I contribute to what you are already doing?” or “How can my different perspective from my field give you a different way of looking at your challenges and opportunities?” In other words, respect your audience.
It’s the Participation, Stupid
Participation – as in building a participatory culture – was the other mantra. While we talk a lot about equity of access to technology, the larger challenge and the more important goal is about all kids having opportunities to be participants and creators via digital media not simply passive consumers. Both Karen Cator, Director of the Office of Educational Technology at the US Department of Education, and Henry Jenkins, Professor of Communication, Journalism and Cinematic Arts at USC made this point in their panel discussion together. Jenkins used the example of how the Harry Potter series first inspired students to read and then moved on to inspire writing – in the form of fan fiction – and the huge potential for harnessing this type of compelling entertainment content to develop opportunities for students to participate and create and learn. (See a clip of Jenkins on this topic here.)
Students are not the only ones that need our help making sure they get the opportunity to participate and create via digital media. For example, I happen to know that teachers in my own school district cannot read or comment on this post…because WordPress is blocked on the District’s network.
So let me add my own example to illustrate the power of digital media for participating and creating our own learning experiences. I found the conference itself was not structured to support a “participatory culture.” Keynotes and panel discussions are a decidedly traditional and one-way form of knowledge transfer. And while speakers acknowledged the value of networking at such conferences, little beyond a designated Twitter hashtag and a very well-done program with bios and pics of the speakers was in place to support purposeful networking.
So I harnessed digital media – or more specifically social media – to create my own experience within the conference and my own avenues to participate. Prior to the conference, I searched online for speakers and followed all those who were on Twitter and created Twitter searches to listen and chat with those speaking and with anyone using the #cooneyforum hashtag. I also went back and reread the Conference Commando chapter of Keith Ferrazzi’s networking book, Never Eat Alone. I developed a list of people I wanted to meet and why. By the time I arrived at the conference Monday afternoon, I had already chatted via Twitter with several people and instantly recognized half the room and knew enough about them and what I could offer them to approach all the people I wanted to meet and have the conversation I wanted to have.
Now all of that was done in service of my ConnectEd mission as their representative. The true test of my ability to participate and create came from the assignment my 10-year-old daughter gave me. Before the conference, I told her that Kari Byron from the Discovery show Mythbusters would be speaking. When she stopped bouncing and shrieking, she wrote a gushing fan letter and insisted that I personally deliver it to Kari on Tuesday. What’s a mother to do? I said yes not knowing how I would manage to achieve this mission.
The first thing I did was to tweet about my mission and tag Kari Byron on Twitter on the off chance she would see it herself. At the end of Monday at the conference, as I was debriefing on Twitter, I realized that one of my Twitter friends was Laird Malamed from Activision who happened to be the person introducing Kari Byron on Day 2. I sent Laird a tweet telling him about the fan letter and asking if he could introduce me and if I could meet him in person the next day. He graciously agreed, we introduced ourselves to each other at breakfast, and he came to get me 15 minutes before he was to introduce Kari.
Kari was lovely and gracious. She had in fact seen my tweet and my daughter’s letter made her tear up. Laird, an amateur photographer as well, snapped a picture of me delivering the letter. Kari even mentioned my daughter in her talk when questions about being a role model for girls in science came up. Later that afternoon, I got an email from Kari addressed to my daughter.
Twitter + participation = SuperMom status (for about 72 hours – it wears off quickly).
I used Twitter to participate in the conference in a way that connected to my interests and gave me avenues to learn the things I wanted to learn and meet the people I wanted to meet.
It’s the participation, stupid.
(Ready for more? Learning from Hollywood Take 2: Role of Parents!)