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Summary – Wesch???s ???A Portal to Media Literacy??? (June 09)

January 20, 2010


Wesch, M. (2008, July 10). YouTube ??? A Portal to Media Literacy. YouTube. Retrieved January 12, 2010, from

duration: 1:06:11

Presented by Dr. Michael Wesch at the University of Manitoba June 17th 2008.

My summary of the presentation

Where are we now in education?

Wesch surveyed students in a typical lecture hall about how many liked coming to class ??? @50% answered in the positive. Therefore by deduction ??? one might think that this number reflects a comparable number who simply do not like to learn. Yet when asked ???how many do not like to learn??? ??? no student hands went up.

He went on to survey students about their participation rates and discovered a pattern ??? that many students are opting to question the relevance of their studies. Common response amongst some educators to this is that ???some students are just not cut out for school???.. (learning). A retort to that reveals a telling question from students ??? tell me ???what are we learning???? and ???how is it significant????

Wesch points to the design of ???learning spaces??? or ???instruction??? to see what message this is delivering to students. To illustrate, he reviews the design of a traditional lecture space.
What is the message of (a) typical lecture room sending to students?

* to learn is to acquire information (i.e. the design of a typical lecture room is set up for broadcasting information ??? one to many)
* information is scarce and hard to find (the rationale for a lecture room ??? is it is ???the??? place to listen to one expert speak to a privileged many)
* trust authority for information (thus the one expert speaking ???is??? the authority on the subject being spoken to)
* the information delivered is authorized and beyond discussion (witness the fixed chairs in a typical lecture room and how they are oriented. Typically these are anchored in lined up rows and each chair is focused on the front of the room where the one expert speaks. By design student discussion is being discouraged)

Wesch asserts that these ???built in??? expectations of the lecture hall can spill into the classroom. The same patterns of ???acquiring information???, ???trusting the authority??? of the expert, and finding information there that is scarce or hard to find otherwise are reinforced. As a result, students understand learning as simply the acquisition of rare bits of information and then regurgitation of that same information – to only see education as grade focused. The perspective also manifests itself in the type of student questions raised such as ???what do we need to know for the test???? This appears to be echoing ???the crisis of significance??? that his sampling of students presented via the survey
Where are we (should we be) heading in education now?

But something major has caused a change. What???s changed?
Technology …

It now enables students to rethink the classroom and learning. Memorization is still important but.. this old paradigm of seeing learning as simply acquisition and regurgitation of information is now being directly challenged and more and more by the students themselves.

Note that because of the increasing availability of new technologies, students are acquiring information easily. They no longer find information hard to find (Students can ???Google??? it often in the same lecture hall and at the same time as an ???expert??? is speaking). Most information is now found in digital form .. not in books (.01% of it is in books ??? source?). As a result, authority can be more easily challenged (i.e. the doctor / patient relationship ??? patients are now coming to the doctor armed with information). Authorized information still exists but the process of how it became ???authorized??? is now much more transparent. Discussions can be seen and followed to see the evolution of opinions, positions, policies (i.e information in Wikipedia). If it isn???t made transparent, we now are seeing growing expectations that it should be made more transparent.

New demands are being put on all of us.. not just students. Before information was hierarchically organized, in the hands of experts, managed by institutions (libraries, publishers) and difficult to access. Today, we have access to tremendous amounts of information. We???ve tried to organize it by putting things in files / folders yet that has proven to be too great a challenge. The new possibilities brought about through ???social networking??? tools that allow us to collectively organize and share information are proving to be beneficial in realizing what we depended on experts to do for us before. Yet they also demand a rethink about what information really is.

To note just how much information we have access to, Wesch makes a comparison with television. Founded in 1948, television is now 60 years old and over that time, it???s been calculated that 1.5 million hours of broadcasting have been produced. In comparison, Youtube produced more hours of broadcasting that that in just the last 6 mths (source?). That content was not controlled, not professionally produced, and almost 88% of it was new / original content. The difference? People are NOW producing information; information that rivals experts (no more following along). Wesch refers to Kevin Kelly???s quote ???nobody is as smart as everybody???. In effect, experts are being challenged ??? collective intelligence ??? i.e. Wikipedia is providing evidence of this ??? an more than adequate rival to the lonely expert. Trusting authority for good information is being challenged. Authorized information is NOW open to discussion .. or expected to be open. Information is NOW easy to find .. but difficult to target / sort. Yet collectively ???we??? have discovered ways to address that as the need presented itself ??? through ???tagging???. Information can NOW find us too.

For example, Web 1.0 sites or webpages are typically all texts. Even these can be made more interactive, more collectively reviewed using tools such as ???diigo???. Anyone can highlight, add comments and add tags on a page then share them with others. Those same highlights, comments and tags can be ???pushed??? to each of us through a social network .. and even tech tools (i.e. aggregators) such as Netvibes, Pageflake, or Google reader. Through RSS, information ???can find us??? .. rather than us searching for it.

To learn is no longer simply acquiring information. It now means to challenge, create, share information.. and in turn to create personal and ???meaningful connections???.

How can we create meaningful connections, create ???significance???? (new learning)

Wesch goes to some length to review what the word ???meaning??? really means? He presents two definitions of ???meaning???

* ???semantic??? meaning = to learn a ???thing???, is not to learn what it is (see it in isolation) but to understand it in the context of how it relates to other words, concepts, ideas that surround it, that connect to it
* ???personal??? meaning = a person finds meaning and significance not just in seeing ???who they are??? but in understanding how they relate, connect and contrast with other people (social interaction)

The two are inseparable to learning

???Students learn what they care about, from people they care about and who, they know care about them???

– Barbara Harrell Carson

Creating ???significant learning???

So how do we create ???significance???? Wesch suggests that we need to provide 3 things

1. find a broader narrative to provide relevance and context for learning (semantic meaning) . What???s the big picture that a student can relate to, that they understand already .. that they can put new information into a context significant to them
2. create a learning environment that values the student (addresses their personal meaning), leverage what they already know (invite them to share their understand, experience of an idea, to test it with others)
3. realize 1 and 2 and to do so we need to leverage the existing media environment to help connect students in ways that would be far too difficult to do in a conventional sense (to invite them to share ideas, connect ideas with one another)

In effect, it sounds to me like Wesch is suggesting a Constructivist approach to learning here. Inviting students to construct meaning based on projecting their understanding of things through their contacts, experiences and sharing that understanding with others to have them tested, challenged and validated.

On the 3rd point, all of this tech is so new.. it???s actually new to both students and instructors. No one really knows how to use them for realizing something interesting and new. Therefore we can???t assume that because students appear to be ???media literate??? that they really are. Note too that new ways of relating to each other .. are constantly emerging . nothing is constant (i.e. last year.. Twitter .. this year? ..) and so the process of reviewing how to connect and be connected to support ???significant learning??? will continue to go on.


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  1. Joel Bloch permalink

    Sorry, maybe I shouldn’t write late at night. My point was that I don’t find the dichotomy between the students’ desire to learn and what goes on in the classroom that convincing. Of course, if you ask someone, they will say they want to learn. Wesch seems to want to blame any breakdown in learning on the way the learning system is designed – that it is not using the technology tools or literacies the students are bringing to the classroom. I’m just saying that there needs to be some evaluation of these literacies – that they can’t simply be justified on the basis of that they are what the students are bringing. That’s not Wesch’s job, but teachers have to do it. I was just looking at some videos on YouTube that were a multimedia version of an assignment my 11-year old had in class. Did the YouTube videos provide a deeper understanding of the material than the more conventional approach my daughter’s teacher used. I don’t know and until I do, I don’t want to jump on the Wesch bandwagon about the nature of literacy in the classroom.

  2. Vance Stevens permalink

    It’s nice to read this comprehensive review and Joel’s response here. My reaction is that the whole concept of learning has changed from a need to absorb facts to a need to connect with others and with tools online that will lead students to facts when those facts are needed. That’s what the new rat race is all about, who can bring the most relevant facts to bear the fastest. Actually Wesch himself has addressed this in a reading we should have included here, but that Ning followers might interesting, Wesch’s idea of becoming less knowledgeable and more knowledge-able: <a href="; target="_blank"></a&gt;

  3. Jim Buckingham permalink

    Joel, my understanding of Wesch is different. I don’t believe that he claims no one wants to learn. In fact, in the survey mentioned in the presentation, he found 100% of the students saying the opposite – that they "did" want to learn .. just that 50% didn’t want to come to class. Though I have to question who in their right mind would ever put up their hand against learning when it’s been drilled into everyone at a very young age and in almost every society that we "need" to learn. It’s also clear that culturally we can’t be accepted as "citizens" without the indoctrination that comes with education, nor "succeed" and realize all of the "nice trappings" of society without it.<br><br>What I think he’s drawing our attention to is the need to make "learning" active, engaging.. and most important "relevant" or "significant". THAT is not likely new. I remember asking myself the same questions when I was a kid in school. Part of that problem "can" be realized today through the use of "social networking" tools and in a way that would have been next to impossible in the past. As you point out, we’ve been down this road before with technology – where its seen as something of a "messiah" for addressing cultural ills (as well as causing some too!). I can recall studying how TV was seen as the low cost "messiah" for mass delivery of education .. and thus had to be introduced in the classroom. Yet.. it didn’t take long for another stampede to emerge that made it pretty clear that too much TV wasn’t good for "us" either.<br><br>These "social networking" tools invite active engagement in any topic area by students. .. but you’re right too. We need to take a critical look towards these "new" tools and I think Begum’s "lenses" allow us to "focus" on a given tool and how it works within an instructional environment to arrive at a much more comprehensive and critical review of it.

  4. Joel Bloch permalink

    I’ve always found Wesch’s claim that nobody doesn’t want to learn problematic. What else is someone going to say? Wesch is a cultural anthropologist; his job to lay out the nature of the culture he is studying without judgement. However, as teachers we have to make decisions as to what literacies to focus on in the classroom, unless you want to withdraw and let the students decide. There’s a moment in one of his films where a student raises a sign that says that her generation has to solve problems that they didn’t cause. As a 60-year old parent, my response was "get a life." This has been going on since Adam and Eve messed up. This may seem a small point but it is important for me to understand that not all multiple literacies are created equal and that sometimes, as teachers, we need to push back against the dominant trends that Wesch has identified. I was a digital native with a technology they called "television." As I learned later, there was a debate about whether, given the amount of television us natives were watching, television was an important literacy that needed to be introduced into classroom. I think we need to take a similar critical view towards each of the literacies that are constantly emerging.

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