A New Culture of Learning: Implications of Digital Culture for Communities of Faith

By Hess, Mary | Communication Research Trends, September 2013 | Go to article overview

A New Culture of Learning: Implications of Digital Culture for Communities of Faith


Hess, Mary, Communication Research Trends


"A new culture of learning"--a bold title for an essay of this sort, but one borrowed from the title of a book published by two luminaries who work in the field of learning more generally, Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown (2011). Yet I think this title aptly captures what we can see all around us, if we look closely, and thus I feel free to borrow it. There are shifts underway in how learning happens in the 21st century. We, as educators working in Catholic communities, in a globalized world, need to be attentive to those shifts if we want to design learning experiences that are effective and constructive in that midst of that shift.

This essay will begin by laying out the elements of this new culture of learning, drawing heavily on the work of those researchers connected with the MacArthur Foundation's "new digital literacies" projects, and which Thomas and Brown so well summarize, particularly Mizuko (2009) and Jenkins (2006). The overall project is accessible via the web at http://tinyurl.com/3vw6xn. I will then contextualize that work more fully in Catholic contexts and make a few tentative proposals for our continued development.

Before I go any further, I need to be clear about my own situatedness. I am a Roman Catholic layperson who teaches in an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America [ELCA] seminary in the United States. Each of those labels already narrows and constrains the lenses I bring to bear on this situation. At the same time, I have been working in the fields of media education and religious education for more than 20 years, and during that time have traveled to multiple contexts around the world learning from people who are studying the intersections of media, religion, and digital cultures. From that point of view I hope to offer useful "hooks" into the relevant literatures and a frame for considering how these shifts that are being identified might emerge in other contexts and teaching environments. Please understand that what I offer here is meant to stimulate discussion and experimentation, and is not intended to be definitive.

What is this "new culture of learning" we hear about? It is crucial to the argument that Thomas and Seely Brown are making to grasp that learning happens not simply on an explicit or intentional level, but also at the level of the implicit, or incidental, and even ultimately, the null, or taboo, levels. They begin their observations by using the metaphors of the information network, and the petri dish. That is, they point to the potentially limitless nature of the current information environment and argue that in order to support learning in such a space educators must design appropriately bounded spaces. Here the metaphor of the petri dish is particularly evocative because it speaks to the deliberately constructed nature of a biological culture, which necessitates creating an environment upon which the specific organism one hopes to grow depends for development; and the challenge of keeping such an environment, such a "culture," appropriately rich and yet clearly bounded.

As Thomas and Brown point out, this culture is not about:

   unchecked access to information and unbridled
   passion, however. Left to their own devices,
   there is no telling what students will do. If you
   give them a resource like the Internet and ask
   them to follow their passion, they will probably
   meander around finding bits and pieces of information
   that move them from topic to topic--and
   produce a very haphazard result. (p. 81)

As Thomas and Brown--and frankly, most other people who are attending to the challenges of teaching and learning with digital tools--note, we can no longer work in this environment, we can not adequately create such "petri dishes" if our approaches are teaching-based; instead they must be learning-based. The distinction Thomas and Brown make is increasingly common not only in the worlds of digital learning, online and distributed technologies, and so on, but also deep within a variety of accrediting organizations and other institutions dedicated to assessing and supporting learning. …

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