Dissonant Futures: The Importance of Aligning Digital Media and Learning Environments with Future Orientation in Schools

November 26, 2012

PROJECTS: The Digital Edge



The Digital Edge is invested in situating digital media and learning strategies in social context, including exploring the factors that contribute to a student’s future orientation. In related blog posts, both Vivian Shaw and Alexander Cho explore this topic based on the Digital Edge team’s field work in an Austin-area high school.


Texas City High School is a crowded school on the “urban fringe” of Austin—not Austin’s affluent central core, and not a spic-and-span white-flight suburb, but in an in-between space that is populated by big-box store parking lots, ethnic supermarkets, and arterial road traffic jams. Its student body is “majority minority” and majority “economically disadvantaged” according to state metrics. It is also home to an intensive and internationally-recognized digital media production curriculum centered around video production which, along with a game design track, offers students both in-school and extracurricular peer learning environments with high-end production equipment and dedicated, enthusiastic faculty. There is a lot of hanging out and geeking out going on in these spaces, making it an emblematic, thriving learning environment that is focused around the production of digital media. We interviewed, observed and participated with many of the students in these environments for the span of the 2011-12 school year.

These endeavors are wildly successful in many ways. Students have worked collaboratively with students from other schools in the district to brainstorm, produce, and promote full-length feature films. One year, their efforts landed them a spot at a preeminent international film festival, which several students attended after a successful fundraising effort. Their digital media production endeavors have garnered local attention as well as professional development opportunities in the local media industry. They’ve presented their work at high-profile regional conferences in front of rooms full of media professionals and educators, they have won awards at Austin’s South by Southwest festival, and have found part-time work doing production for a show that is aired on a local Spanish-language TV affiliate. The opportunities to accumulate social, cultural and even financial capital as a result of these informal and peer-directed media production learning environments in such a short time is astounding, a testament to the power of these collaborative learning spaces and their dedicated faculty, who often leverage their personal industry connections and sacrifice copious amounts of time out of class for their students’ benefit. Many of the student participants in these programs have gone on to competitive four-year colleges or art and design schools.

However, as we kept up with our participants throughout the year and the following summer, we began to notice something disheartening: several of the most involved, committed, and talented youth from the digital media production space we observed began to shirk their other obligations in school, missing class and not turning in homework, abandoning plans to apply to four-year colleges, and expressing only vague plans to consider the local community college as a viable option for postsecondary education, which have not materialized. They are now frustrated, working low-wage retail jobs or having trouble finding any employment altogether. As we kept in touch with these graduated seniors, we wondered: Why did some of the most promising and talented students in these digital media production environments wind up without a lifeline after graduating? Shouldn’t their fantastic extra-curricular endeavors have made them desirable applicants for college or given them a professional toehold in Austin’s thriving creative economy? Why was college not viewed as an option?

Though the factors are many, over our time with these students, we noticed that some viewed their endeavors in this digital media production space as adjacent to or even in conflict with traditional curricular goals and orientation toward post-secondary opportunities. These students carried a palpable sense of uncertainty on their shoulders due in large part to lack of family financial resources and the absence of an intuitive postsecondary roadmap; often they were the first in their families to graduate from high school. Rather than understand how to leverage the different capitals they accrued through their media production work toward a clearly defined post-secondary goal, they invested their time and energy in these media production environments as if they were an alternative to the perceived luxury of long-term post-secondary education and deferred employment—even in outright opposition. In an interview at the beginning of the year, Sergio was already feeling this tension:

Sergio:  I plan on going to college, but it’s hard for me because we don’t have money.  I will also have to apply for financial aid, and the process of applying for college ties in with staying after school and doing work.  Staying after school and doing work is affecting my application toward college right now.

By the time he graduated in June, Sergio seemed adrift:

Q:  So how about college?  No more?

A:  Yes, I’m still trying to get into USC.  But I’m going to put that aside for now since I don’t have enough money right now.  I’m trying to just save up a little bit so I don’t have to take up too much of a huge student loan.

Q:  How about [Austin Community College]?

A:  I’m going to do that during the year.  So I’m going to go there and take my core classes.

Q:  When?

A:  I’m probably doing it in the spring.  I might do it in the fall, but I’m still not too sure.  ‘Cause you can still apply for fall but–

Q:  Oh, can you still do it?

A:  Yes.

Q:  So you didn’t apply for the fall yet?

A:  No.

Q:  [Antonio] told me that they make you apply.  Somebody made–

A:  They made him apply.  I wasn’t here that day ‘cause I was doing the film drop so I was out of school.

In this stark exchange, Sergio tells us he missed his school’s mandatory community college application day because of his work in his digital media production endeavors. It appears that no one intervened or offered a make-up opportunity for him—or, even if someone did, he still hasn’t taken the steps to apply. His lofty goal of going to USC’s cinema studies program could very well be achievable, given his remarkable talents. However, he appears to be losing momentum. 

Why this conflict? One possible clue is that these digital media production environments became synonymous with a discourse of productivity and a casual and perhaps unrealistic orientation toward immediate entry into industry for some students, especially those that didn’t come from a college-going tradition, who didn’t have the financial resources for post-secondary education, or who had misconceptions about the availability of grants and financial aid. In other words, though the peer-guided and interest-driven participatory learning environment itself was rich and rewarding, its framing contributed to a dissonance for some students—in the school’s expectations for student success (vocational schooling? Four-year college? Internships? Local industry?) as well as the students’ own understanding of success (the dream of becoming a filmmaker, the reality of gathering a college portfolio, the obligation to support one’s family). 

Despite their genuine enthusiasm and the commitment of their digital media teachers, these students could not capitalize on potential points of connection through which these programs could work in concert with the rest of the traditional curriculum to buoy them into viable post-secondary options, either in education, industry, or civic life. This is the tense space between the radical potential of participatory culture for learning and the on-the-ground, sometimes siloed deployment of these strategies in schools. It is the sharp edge of what Jenkins et al. have identified as the “participation gap”—not simply access to participatory technology and environments, not quality of access or expertise, but the ability to frame and mobilize these skills to their own advantage in the face of conflicting institutional expectations and a dearth of social and cultural capital. These students’ digital media practices were viewed as exceptional, tangential, and even sometimes conflicting with other expectations, revealing a starkly simple reality: Without a consistent message across the breadth of a student’s school experience emphasizing highly-scaffolded preparation for next steps, even the most successful participatory digital media learning environments may have minimal payoff for those students who do not already possess a well-supported post-secondary trajectory. 


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