Howard Rheingold one of 17 winners of HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Competition
February 23rd, 2008

I am thrilled to be one of 17 winners of the Digital Media and Learning competition sponsored by HASTAC and the MacArthur Foundation. Here is what the sponsors say about the awards:

A mixed reality game for high school students in Los Angeles and Cairo to learn about the real-time impact of air pollution in their neighborhoods. A web application that aggregates news and nonprofit needs, where every news story is linked to real-world actions that users can take. A mobile musical laboratory that allows students to explore new ways of making music with laptops and local area networks. These are three of the 17 projects that will receive up to $238,000 in funding as part of the first ever Digital Media and Learning Competition funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and administered by HASTAC (the Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory). Selected from a pool of 1010 applications, the winning projects are expected to produce promising innovations in the use of digital media for formal and informal learning.

“The ubiquitous nature of digital media has profound implications for learning that we are only just beginning to understand,” said Jonathan Fanton, President of the MacArthur Foundation. “An open competition was an excellent way to inspire new ideas and collaborations, and the amazing number of applications we received speaks volumes about the untapped potential in the field of digital media and learning. The 17 winners represent the best thinking from many disciplines and professions working to harness the power of the web for learning, and we look forward to the insights they will provide.”

Here is the text of the application for my project:


I propose creating an online social media classroom, detailed syllabi for teaching participatory media theory and practice, and a series of instructional videos detailing how and why to use social media to learn about social media.

I’ve created and taught courses on Participatory Media and Collective Action (UC Berkeley), Digital Journalism (Stanford), and Virtual Community and Social Media (Stanford). I maintain a wiki of participatory media literacy education resources to supplement a chapter I wrote about participatory media as avenues to social engagement. I’ve created a Drupal-based group blog and chat room for my students and have produced the first five videos of a series about how and why to use social media; these episodes are published as a videoblog and serve as supportive material for the syllabi.

I plan to grow a comprehensive, integrated set of syllabi, online communication fora, knowledge repositories, and instructional video – a tutorial on creating online social media classrooms and what to teach in them; videos and wikis on how to produce and make use of blogs, wikis, RSS, podcasts, video, digital storytelling, citizen journalism, media-sharing services, social bookmarking, virtual communities, and online social networks. In addition, I will work with a programmer to add group discussion functionality to Drupal; together with a group blog, chat room, and wiki, truly effective asynchronous discussion media will comprise a free and open source social media online classroom. Together, the online classroom, syllabi, and videos constitute a free, self-documented, globally available social media curriculum.


Digital production tools and distribution networks have enabled people to mobilize new forms of collective action. Community production of knowledge (Wikipedia), culture (Youtube, Flickr, the blogosphere), tools (Free and Open Source Software), markets (eBay and Craigslist) education (Open Educational Resources), journalism (citizen journalism) and political organization (meetups, netroots activism, smart mobs) are early manifestations of social changes that could continue to bloom as participatory media literacies spread – or could fail to take root if those literacies are limited to elites.

Will today’s digital networks become tools of surveillance and control, or will they foster new literacies and enable new forms of collective action? Because I believe that the answer hinges upon whether enough people learn to use digital media for cultural, economic, and political production, I’ve been establishing resources for learning and teaching participatory media literacies.

Participatory media include (but aren’t limited to) blogs, wikis, RSS, tagging and social bookmarking, music-photo-video sharing, mashups, podcasts, digital storytelling, virtual communities, social network services, virtual environments, machinima, and videoblogs. These distinctly different media share three common, interrelated characteristics:

• Many-to-many media make it possible for every person connected to the network to broadcast as well as receive text, images, audio, video, software, data, discussions, transactions, computations, tags, or links to and from every other person. The asymmetry between broadcaster and audience that was dictated by the structure of pre-digital technologies has changed radically.

• Participatory media are social media whose power emerges from the active participation of many people. Value derives not just from the size of the audience, but from their power to link to each other, to form an public as well as a market.

• Social networks, when amplified by information and communication networks, enable broader, faster, and lower cost coordination of activities; participatory media can help coordinate action in the physical world on scales and at paces never before possible.

“Voice,” the unique style of personal expression that distinguishes one’s communications from those of others, can be called upon to help connect young people’s energetic involvement in identity-formation with their potential engagement with society as citizens. Moving from a private to a public voice can help students turn their self-expression into a form of public participation. Public voice is learnable, a matter of consciously engaging with an active public rather than broadcasting to a passive audience. It is an important part of what young people would benefit by learning, and it is also fundamental to democracy.

The public voice of individuals, aggregated and in dialogue with the voices of other individuals, is the building block of “public opinion.” When public opinion has the power and freedom to influence policy, it can be an essential instrument of democratic self-governance. Deliberation is only one important part of public discourse. Investigation, advocacy, criticism, debate, persuasion, and politicking are also important. With citizen journalist communities like Assignment Zero and citizen news critic communities like NewsTrust,, YouTube political debates, netroots bloggers, organizational Meetups, the tools for revitalizing democracy are widely available; what is needed at this crucial time is not just basic knowledge of how to use digital tools, but widespread knowledge of what these tools mean, as well.

By showing students how to use Web-based channels to inform publics, advocate positions, contest claims, and organize action around issues they care about, participatory media education could positively influence their civic behavior throughout their lives.

Today’s population of “digital natives” learned how to learn new kinds of software before they started high school, carry mobile phones, media players, game devices and laptop computers and know how to use them, and know the internet not as a transformative new technology but as a feature of the environment. These young citizens are both self-guided and in need of guidance: although a willingness to learn new media through point-and-click exploration might come naturally to today’s student cohort, there’s nothing innate about knowing how to apply their skills to the processes of civil society, scientific or scholarly innovation, or economic production.

Participatory media literacy is necessarily a hands-on enterprise, requiring active use of digital media by students; for this reason, my syllabi involve student use of multiple online media in their exploration of the syllabus texts, and my video blog instructs in the basic skills of participatory media production by way of a narrative examination of my own work routines. At the same time, knowledge of the skills needed to use digital tools is uninformed without a familiarity with the scientific discourse regarding community, collective action, social networks, the public sphere; hence the grounding of the syllabi in traditional texts from sociology, computer science, economics, and political science.

In order to give my students a private, easy-to-use, flexible environment for blogging, chatting and aggregating their social bookmarks, I’ve used the Drupal free and open source content management system. I want to document as videos and wikis the complete process of leasing an inexpensive server, installing and configuring Drupal, finding and installing modules to make a social media online classroom. The videos and online resources should enable any educator or student to create a social media online classroom and put it to use. I will need to contract some programming to add the important element of a message-board/forum – none of the existing Drupal forum modules allow for user-controlled subscription lists, keep track of what the user has read, or enable users to swiftly navigate through new discussion in subscribed threads.

Within less than a year, my expanded syllabi, resource wiki, social media online classroom and instructional videos should be ready to deploy widely by any student or educator with Web access. I need help with information graphics and animations, consultation with educational design technology specialists, graphic design and web design consultation, a programmer, and some of my own time to produce the videos and syllabi.

Fatal error: Call to undefined function sociable_html() in /home/permutype/ on line 36