SxSW, Part 2: Rheingold & Salen on how to play with social media

By Anne Collier

In addition to the panel mentioned in my previous post about Hope North and the one I participated in, “Reaching Teens on the Digital Streets,” here – in Part 2 – are some takeaways from featured speakers at South by Southwest (SxSW) last week (Part 1 is here):

* From Howard Rheingold, help in making social media work for you

Social media is overwhelming to a lot of us parents and educators. That’s partly because 1) it’s not the media we grew up with, 2) we may not be using it ourselves yet, and 3) so we may be finding it hard to distinguish between the negative hype in the news media (whose job it is, for example, to report air crashes not safe landings) and regular, everyday use of social media. Which makes it even harder to think how using social media can be productive or even enhance our well-being. That’s where the new book Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, by Howard Rheingold, comes in. Howard helped me deal with Twitter overload (I now love Twitter, as one of my learning power tools) when I heard him explain that we can treat its constant rapid flow the way someone uses a cup to dip into the flow of a stream of water – whenever thirsty. It’s a simple but supremely useful tip for media-overload management. Social media also needs to be played with, or messed around with, the way kids figure out various kinds of media; it’s not something you figure out for all time right up front. We need to learn to function well without a “manual.” Use of any single social media use is so individual that no manual would really help.

But there are ways to think about social media in general that can help us reach a certain comfort level with these media in which our children thrive. I went to Rheingold’s book talk at SxSW (here’s an audio recording), so I can tell his book will help parents and teachers understand the realities and benefits of our new collective environment and its tools. It’s simply what he himself has learned about “how to use social media intelligently, humanely, and mindfully.” [Here’s Rheingold’s 1-min. trailer about the book.]

* Katie Salen on making learning irresistible

Learning needs to be irresistible, said educator Katie Salen, executive director of the Institute of Play and founder of Quest to Learn, the US’s “first public school based on the principles of game design,” in her talk at SxSW. So since game designers know a lot about making experiences irresistible, including the learning that happens in their games, she spent the past year on a “listening tour,” interviewing game designers at Media Molecule, Valve, and Blizzard Entertainment. Here’s what she learned from them – “gaming principles that can be applied to education”:

“Don’t shoot the player while s/he’s learning”: Too much drama, too nerve-wracking or scary an environment makes it hard for participants to learn, in-world or in the “real world.” Students need space to think, look around, process, and reflect.

“Failure is a positive act of creativity.” Any practice – athletic, artistic, even social – involves repeatedly failing till one gets the experience or activity right. We need to “keep the challenge constant – so players are able to fail and try again.” It’s hard and it leads to something rewarding, Salen said. Game designer Jane McGonigal says this too. Her book Reality Is Broken has a whole chapter on “fun failure” and why it makes us happy. “When we’re playing a well-designed game, failure doesn’t disappoint us. It makes us happy in a very particular way; excited, interested, and most of all optimistic.” She later adds that “fun failure” even makes us more resilient (which keeps us more emotionally safe). The opposite is true too often in school, Salen says. School usually gives participants one chance to get something right and a failing grade works against practice, mastery, and creativity.

“Learning is social,” and problem-solving increasingly collaborative. Salen heard a Media Molecule designer explain how much players’ own interaction, often more than the design, adds to the experience. Players, like students, can bring ideas to the process that designers don’t even think of. Will Wright, designer of The Sims and Spore, says he designs communities, not games. “We need to design a classroom as a community in which the participants’ knowledge is valued and the exchange of their own expertise is valued,” Salen said. “Most challenges in school today only deal with individual problem-solving. Tests don’t reward collaborative problem-solving. Sharing is often seen as cheating,” while collaborating in cross-functional teams is what’s needed more and more in a complex world (so collaboration prepares them for the future).

How to design (teach) for community? Open up space for players to interact with one another, a space for which you’ve created 1) a need to know, 2) a need to share what they know, and 3) the infrastructure for that sharing. “Sharing should feel like a gift,” Salen said. [We can do this in families too!] Let players/students participate in the designing too. In participatory learning, like open-source code writing, the design keeps getting better.

A strong sense of community creates safety (more on that in this week’s feature on the subject).

Learning that empowers the learner helps make it irresistible. Mark Healey of LittleBigPlanet told Salen that, when you empower a player to do something, it’s “like a force flows through your veins like you can change the world around you.” When we can design learning experiences that feel like that, we’re making learning irresistible.

This is just a sampler of all that Katie said, so listen to her whole talk here. See also this video interview with Katie Salen on Learning with Games at Edutopia, and here’s a 2009 blog post of mine about the Quest to Learn school in New York City which she helped launch.

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