*Serious* informal learning: Major online-youth study

Just picture it: Young people sharing their ideas and productions (videos, poems, commentaries, tunes, podcasts), getting nearly immediate feedback from friends near and far. With quick, always available feedback, they can continuously tweak their compositions and thinking. Doing this authentic, literally peer-reviewed, kind of learning is not only exciting and inspiring to a student, artist, and/or thinker, it can also accelerate the development of a person's body of work at a very young age, preparing that person for a profession in a concentrated, enriching way that's unprecedented for youth.

This is actually what's happening on the social Web – in MySpace, YouTube, Bebo, Facebook, and so many specialty sites and services on the Web, as well as with mobile phones and other connected devices. It's called "self-directed, peer-based learning," and it's part of what's being described in "Living and Learning with New Media," a three-year study by the MacArthur Foundation-funded Digital Youth Project.

Parents may appreciate insights from the report into the two approaches youth have to using the social Web: friendship-driven and interest-driven (neither approach necessarily ruling out the other in any one person's online experience, however). Friendship-driven, the more generalized form of teen social networking, focuses on socializing with their friends in Real Life (adults not particularly welcome and – if not invited – largely ignored). Interest-driven social-Web users are more focused in their socializing or collaboration. They may have moved on from "messing around" to "geeking out": "Messing around is an open-ended activity that involves tinkering and exploration that is only loosely goal-directed. Often this can transition to more 'serious' engagement in which a young person is trying to perfect a creative work or become a knowledge expert in the genre of geeking out. It is important to recognize, however, that this more exploratory mode of messing around is an important space of experimental forms of learning that open up new possibilities." Learning that's informal, experimental, yes, but also substantive, focused, authentic.

Tech educators I know will find support in this finding: "Participation in the digital age means more than being able to access 'serious' online information and culture. Youth could benefit from educators being more open to forms of experimentation and social exploration that are generally not characteristic of educational institutions" more intent on filtering the Web at school. [Educators will not want to miss what the report says about "the growing divide between in-school and out-of-school learning" by today's highly skilled information hunter-gatherers," as MIT professor Henry Jenkins describes young Internet users in his book Convergence Culture.]

Related links

* "Teenagers’ Internet Socializing Not a Bad Thing" in the New York Times
* "Online time is good for teens" in the BBC
* "Teenagers learn important social, technical skills online: study" from Agence France-Presse
* "Internet socialising is good for teens" in India-based IT Examiner
* "Kids gain valuable skills from time online" in the San Francisco Chronicle
* …and more than 100 other news reports around the world.


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