New Opportunities for Interest-Driven Arts Learning in a Digital Age

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New Opportunities for Interest-Driven Arts Learning in a Digital Age


The emergence of digital media in the past decade has enabled what is widely seen as a democratization of knowledge, a movement in which collective intelligence and quick access to information may supplement or even surpass the role of formal education. The ability to merge self-expression and mass communication has given youths who have grown up during this era of transformative technology new ways to create, learn and share—often without the assistance or direction of adults. Perhaps no area has been as influenced by these changes as the arts. With the appeal of music, visual and interactive media to youth culture, the arts have opened new paths to civic participation, learning, and entrepreneurship. Some examples:

'A Place to Express Yourself'

In 2004, 14-year-old Ashley Qualls took her interest in graphic design to the Internet to create, a source for MySpace graphics and Web design tutorials. She described the site as "a place to express yourself." In addition to layouts and other free graphics, now features a magazine with teen-authored articles and reviews. According to Google Analytics figures, Whateverlife attracts more than 7 million individuals and 60 million page views a month (Salter, 2007).

A Rookie's Industry Clout

Fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson surprised her parents when she asked their permission to appear in a New York Times Magazine story about the "Style Rookie," the website she had launched two years earlier, at age 11. "Rookie" now has more than 50,000 subscribers, and Tavi's commentary is widely recognized and respected within the fashion industry. She has collaborated with fashion artists around the world and has been featured in several leading fashion magazines.

From Video Games to Violin Lessons

Rhythmic video games such as Rock Band are changing the way young people learn foundational music concepts and notation (Peppler et al., 2011). Stepping into the shoes of the onscreen musicians motivates youths to learn the real skills that will enable them to play independently.

Asked why he had signed up for free violin lessons after playing Rock Band at an after-school club, an 11-year-old boy replied, "I want to learn guitar, and if I can do this (mimics the playing of a violin), then I can do this (mimics the playing of a guitar)" (Peppler et al., 2011, p. 1).


Youth rock band rehearsals are moving out of the garage and into cyberspace. Tw1tterBand, a group of 11 people who have never met in person but who share an interest in music and philanthropy, formed a band through the social media network, Twitter, and released singles and videos that have helped raise money for charitable organizations.

Challenges and Opportunities of Interest-Driven Arts Learning

The previous vignettes demonstrate what we will refer to in this report as "interest-driven" arts learning—a form of participation where youths research and learn about their creative passions and hobbies, connecting them to peers with the same interests who may extend beyond their immediate social circle. Often communities of interest-driven youths are widely distributed, connected by social networking platforms such as YouTube and Facebook. Because shifting technology trends move at a substantially faster rate than curricular changes, ethnographic research consistently shows that youths are gaining most of their knowledge and competencies in and through new media outside of schools (Hull & Schultz, 2002; Ito et al., 2010).The social aspect of this learning is paramount; scholars such as Rebecca Black (2008), David Buckingham (2003),Andrew Burn (2008), Julia Davis and Guy Merchant (2009), James Gee (2003, 2004), Henry Jenkins (2006), Marc Prensky (2006), Katie Salen (2008), and Constance Steinkuehler (2008) have described how online resources link individuals with similar interests (affinity groups, as James Gee would call them [2003]) and make possible modes of learning and communicating that differ from conventional schooling.

At the same time, learning theorists such as John Seely Brown and Richard Adler (2008) describe the resulting shift from a "push" approach of education, where schools push the learning of particular content, to a "pull" approach of social learning, where new technologies enable people to pull information when they want to solve particular problems at particular times. Moreover, this switch enables youths to move from "learning about" a particular subject to "learning to be" an active participant in the field (Seely Brown & Adler, 2008, p.18).Within the arts, this shift suggests a movement from pushing high art forms to one that pulls youths to participate in the arts through their interest-driven activities.

Changes are occurring not only to the tools and modes of arts participation, but also to artistic practices, processes, and products. As David Gauntlett (2011) suggests, people engage with the world and create connections with each other through making things. This is certainly true of interest-driven arts communities, where youths are creating work from diverse materials and sharing with a worldwide community. By highlighting the diversity and depth of young people's art making, we want to discuss the divide between teenagers' media consumption, production, and participation and their involvement in the arts. We also aim to showcase programs and movements that are successfully (re)engaging learners in the arts field as a whole.

Digital technologies have transformed how and what young people create. One of the most notable examples is the field of game design. To some scholars, video games present a new literacy that is as important as text in learning to read and write today. The field of games studies has been rapidly expanding since the mid-1990s to define what is learned from reading or playing games (Gee, 2004) as well as from writing or designing video games (Kafai, 1995; Salen & Zimmerman, 2003; Peppler & Kafai, 2010).We discuss examples like these later in this report to help readers from the arts and arts education fields understand how young people are using digital media to learn about and through the arts today.

Through interest-driven arts production, youths engage in a continuum of practices ranging from non-artistic to highly valued arts. Research has documented these emerging creative communities, but mostly on the media production side. Fewer scholars have investigated whether and how youths intentionally engage in the arts. What we know about arts learning within the discipline comes to us from high-quality classrooms that emphasize the visual arts (Hetland et al., 2007). Seeking to extend what we know about creative digital cultures beyond schools, we offer a new framework for exploring interest-driven arts learning.

The significance of this work is twofold. First, we seek to draw attention to the contributions that young people are making in the arts, accomplishments that could spur changes in industry, culture, and public policy. Because these interest-driven initiatives fall outside the traditional scope of arts education, there is a tendency to dismiss their importance and neglect opportunities to link young people's interest in digital technology to learning other subjects and becoming innovators instead of just consumers of media.

Second, technology has the potential to open doors to young people who have historically been left behind in education. Access is the key. In the United States, schools and afterschool programs have traditionally played a prominent role in the cultural transmission of arts learning. However, standards-based education reform has markedly affected the availability of arts education for most public school youth. This is particularly true in low-income school communities, which often adopt remedial curricula in the pursuit of higher standardized test scores. Visual and performing arts programs in low-income schools are hit particularly hard (Parsad & Spiegelman, 2012), despite research that suggests that disadvantaged students benefit especially from high-quality arts education (Catterall, Dumais & Hampden-Thompson, 2012). Given tremendous budget pressures that states and school districts expect to face in the next few years, arts education nationwide is likely to incur further cuts before this trend is reversed.

A Doorway In

Although conventional schooling presents diminishing opportunities for arts learning for many youths, the landscape of informal, interest-driven learning is strikingly different. The out-of-school hours are dominated by self-directed activities of teens that are rooted in everyday forms of creativity (Ito et al., 2010; Knobel & Lankshear, 2010; Gauntlett, 2012).Teenagers are avid consumers of the arts and media, especially those that incorporate new technologies, as evidenced by the proliferation of music uploads/downloads on mainstream sites like iTunes or personal Web pages, social networks like MySpace or Facebook, or from ever-increasing consumption of movies, video games and Web applications. The Kaiser Family Foundation report, Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-year-olds, shows that the appeal is universal among high-school-aged youths, regardless of race or class (Rideout, Foehr, & Roberts, 2010).

At the same time, the lines between consumers and producers are being blurred, what scholars refer to as the new participatory culture (Jenkins et al., 2009). The extent to which youths can move fluidly between consuming and producing media is a byproduct of widely available creative tools and platforms that enable them to experiment with technology that was previously the exclusive domain of professionals (Buckingham, 2003).Young people are creating a diverse amount of media, including podcasts (Soep & Chávez, 2010), digital photos (Merchant, 2010; Potter, 2010), music videos (Knobel, Lankshear & Lewis, 2010), original music compositions, and animation (Luckman & Potanin, 2010; Thomas & Tufano, 2010), and some studies suggest that nearly two-thirds of teens are creating content (Lenhart & Madden, 2007).This type of media production, while not inherently rooted in the arts, denotes a "creative turn" (Sefton-Green et al., 2011) in our uses of new technologies.

We should note here that art is being used to describe two very different philosophical viewpoints. Art with a capital A usually refers to those genres and works at the center of formal arts curricula, embodiments of highly valued creative practices, pedagogies and movements transmitted culturally between generations. Art with a lower-case a, on the other hand, includes modes of expression that, while meaningful to its creator, can fall outside of the aesthetic perimeter of formal institutions.

We envision an ecology of creative production that would integrate non-arts media production (such as posting photos to a website), art with a lower-case a (such as making a music video) and Art with a capital A (such as fine arts subjects offered in schools). We believe that knowledge from one sphere can inform or motivate decisions in another, giving us a way to start measuring and encouraging participation in the arts. In our opinion, it is far less important to define art than to figure out how we can use interest in media production to create a "doorway in" (Wiggins, 2009) to arts learning. Additionally, we see opportunities to show more youths how to become creators of their own media and art while also learning how to be critical and active participants in an artistic society.

Out-of-school, interest-driven settings are actually well suited to the types of long-term, project-based production and participation that we value in the arts. Part of our investigation includes measuring the success of digital grassroots movements, online communities and the like to engage youths in art. Addressing enduring issues of equity, particularly for marginalized youths, is especially important. Scholars such as Henry Jenkins (Jenkins et al., 2009) and Mark Warschauer (Warschauer & Matuchniak, 2010) argue that equity is not just about access to digital tools and technology but also about opportunities to experience a variety of digital platforms and see their potential. See the appendices of this report for a comprehensive review of communities, apps, and online platforms to support interest-driven arts learning.

Scope of the Review

This review is based on a seemingly simple premise: New technologies are offering unprecedented opportunities for youths to create and participate in the visual, performing and new media arts through computer applications, video game consoles, mobile phones, and online communities across a variety of informal settings. It is imperative that we research the influence and potential impact of these tools and resources to:

  • help us understand and validate a range of arts learning experiences
  • help us theorize about and conceptualize learning in the arts during the out-of-school hours
  • suggest strategies for how we might support and sustain interest-driven arts learning in a digital age.

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