Tracking “Interests” in Interest-Driven Learning Communities
February 19, 2014
PROJECTS: Leveling Up
Why the interest in interests?
Learning researchers have long posited that when animated by passion, learning can be rich, relevant and resilient (Hidi, 1990; Renninger, 2009). The connected learning model, building on part of this research, focuses on supports and mechanisms for building environments that connect the spheres of interests, peer culture, and academic life. Alignment between these spheres is echoed in the learner biographies from our case studies of online communities.
Our learner biographies showcase how young people’s affinities (e.g., bands and video games) crisscross with social norms and practices in the community (e.g., friend making, status gaining, recognition) and pave the way for social and academic outcomes (e.g., skill development and community belonging). Although we tend to conceptualize interests as individual, interviews with youth point to interests as both mediated by and productive of social relationships. For example, when talking about discovering new affinities, such as new crafting practices or fandoms, youth participants highlighted parents, relatives, and friends that introduced them to the topic. In talking about the drivers of continued interest, participants talked about the power of community and connection to friends. Paying attention to interests becomes important, as interests can facilitate sustained engagement in learning endeavors.
Across our study sites, in looking at ways participants get more into their community and develop expertise and stature in the community, interests and peer relationships intertwine and connect to mechanisms of feedback, support, and recognition, and the specific technologies at work. Thinking ecologically is useful here. An ecological perspective asks us to consider a variety of learning contexts, comprised of activities, resources, relationships, and interactions among these (cf. Barron, 2006). A focus on interactions between activities, resources, and relationships allows us to stay attuned to the moving parts of interest development without losing context. Consider the example of a young author who writes, publishes, and discusses fiction about her favorite pop stars on a mobile-device based site. Although she has been visiting different fan-related sites in connection to her love of the pop stars and their music, the social and technical features of this specific site facilitate a deeper kind of engagement in the space, including making friends on the site and writing in a new genre.
Story of One (Direction) Interested Learner
Maya, a 15 year-old writer from India, is both a Directioner and a Swiftie, meaning she is a fan of the musical act called One Direction (1D) and the singer Taylor Swift. In addition to listening to the music of the two, Maya is plugged into their active and participatory online fandoms. For her, this means she follows 1D, Swift, and other fans on social media sites, knows the words to every song, and sometimes engages in long debates about the meaning of those words on song lyric-sharing websites.
Last year, she discovered the fanfiction club on Wattpad.com and got into reading, writing, and circulating stories related to her fandom. Maya was initially attracted to Wattpad because it provided space to talk and learn about her favorite celebrities. She also liked that it was available on her phone. Maya uses her phone a lot because she has a three hour commute to and from school. But, she didn’t stick around Wattpad because of availability. In fact, she stayed because she was able to make friends with like-minded fans. Because Maya was unsure about her command of the English language, she was hesitant to write and publish her first fanfiction story. But, she learned that knowing formal writing conventions was not the only way to gain stature on Wattpad. In judging her writing, members of the community seemed to value her creativity, social status on the site, and nuanced fan knowledge. Interests and social practices worked in tandem as drivers of Maya’s deepening engagement on the site.
Her latest chapter book on Wattpad is more than 18 chapters in length, has more than a thousand “reads” and comments from fellow fans that urge her to “publish the next chapter soon.” In the fandom, Maya takes part in a repertoire of learning and socializing practices, simultaneously informed by her interest and facilitated by digital technologies in ways that epitomize connected learning. Specifically, she learns in a new kind of way, by leveraging new media, online forums, and new forms of reading and writing. Connectedly, she is engrossed in the community of readers, writers, “followers”, commenters, and fellow fans that are invested in those practices.
Although teenagers are often into one thing for a while and then switch to the next, Maya’s interest developed legs as she grew more engrossed in the writing community on Wattpad. Consistent with our case studies of youth involvement online, her interests interlocked with the social and technical affordances of the online community. Socioeconomic context mattered, as Maya’s parents sent her to an urban school far away from her home. Wattpad’s mobile interface enabled her participation in the 1D and Swiftie fanfiction communities. Maya’s initial interest in the pop stars and newfound interest in related story writing are drivers of her literate engagement in the community. Her level and investment in the community is also mediated by social practices on the site. Some of the practices that made an impression on Maya were built into the platform, like being able to comment and “follow” fans and some were impromptu, like fans from her country reaching out to her and other authors responding positively to her comments.
In tracking the discovery and cultivation of Maya’s interest, we can see the braiding of multiple contexts, including peer relationships, availability of technology, community culture, and fan-specific funds of knowledge. This more holistic view of the role of interests is what the ecological perspective affords us, as researchers and designers of learning experiences.
Barron, B. (2006). Interest and self-sustained learning as catalysts of development: A learning ecology perspective. Human Development, 49(4), 193-224.
Hidi, S. (1990). Interest and its contribution as a mental resource for learning.Review of Educational research, 60(4), 549-571.
Renninger, K. A. (2009). Interest and identity development in instruction: An inductive model. Educational Psychologist, 44(2), 105-118.