PLAY! (Participatory Learning and You!)
The central goal for Project New Media Literacies (Project NML) is identifying and creating educational practices that will prepare teachers and students to become full and active participants in the new digital culture. The Common Core Standards define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, but not how teachers should teach. Following Horst and colleagues (Horst, Herr-Stephenson, & Robinson, in press), NML’s program PLAY! uses the concept of ecology to describe the “characteristics of an overall technical, social, cultural, and place–based system, in which the components are not decomposable or separable” (p.26). Student daily practices are situated within their learning ecologies and hence are dynamically interrelated to their existing conditions, infrastructures of place, and technologies. Although the classroom and interaction among teachers and learners is at the center of this ecology, adults’ and youths’ worlds are co-constituted, suggesting that school, after-school, home, and online places are all organic parts of the ecosystem.

Through integration of the new media literacies into the classroom, both teachers and students alike will gain the ability to make and reflect upon media and in the process, acquire important skills in teamwork, leadership, problem solving, collaboration, brainstorming, communications, and creating projects. Designing and implementing a participatory learning environment fosters:

  • Heightened motivation and new forms of engagement through meaningful play and experimentation
  • Learning that feels relevant to students' identities and interests
  • Opportunities for creating and solving problems using a variety media, tools and practices
  • Co-configured expertise where educators and students pool their skills and knowledge and share in the tasks of teaching and learning
  • An integrated learning system where connections between home, school, community and world are enabled and encouraged

PLAY!’s overarching question is, “How can we integrate the tools, insights, and skills of a participatory culture (as defined in the NML white paper) into the public education system in the United States?” However, as we see this program as a form of intervention, our goal is to not come in with an already formulated research plan with a set of pre-determined questions without being on the ground and listening to participants’ needs in order to include them in the process.

With past NML research, we have had success in integrating the new media literacies into core subjects taught during the school year. NML's teachers’ strategy guides are the product of new possibilities that group action has shifted the focus on literacy development from being primarily about individual achievement to being more about community involvement and the ability to exist and thrive in increasingly public and distributed activity systems. In line with this shift, our vision for how to support the literacy needs of today’s youth focuses on figuring out ways to bring more collaborative and collective meaning-making practices into the formal classroom.

Currently, educators make distinctions between “formal” and “informal” learning. Lying outside these boundaries are the spontaneous, interest-driven activities young people pursue during their free time. These activities are fueled by a passion and an excitement that any teacher would love to see in the classroom. Young people learn negotiation skills as they move between communities with differing social norms, for instance; they learn to voice their opinion and also to listen to others as they participate in discussions focused on arriving at a mutually agreed-upon framing of an issue to be displayed on the main page content of Wikipedia. Students’ interest-driven practices can illuminate and inform what is taught in both formal and informal contexts, and classroom content can help learners apply new knowledge to their own interest-driven experiences.

Describing how learning and pedagogy must change in this new cultural and multimedia context, the New London Group (2000) argues that “literacy pedagogy now must account for the burgeoning variety of text forms associated with information and multimedia technologies.” (p. 9). Indeed, they describe how “the proliferation of communications channels and media supports” sets up a need for “creating the learning conditions for full social participation” (p.9). The media-literacy movement has effectively taken the lead in this regard by teaching students to analyze the media they consume and to view themselves as both consumers and producers of media. However, this learning often is relegated to electives or to after-school programs rather than being integrated across curricula. The new media literacies allow us to think in new ways about the processes of learning, because they reflect a shift from a top-down model of learning to one that invokes all voices and all manners of thinking and creating new knowledge.


Funded by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Digital Media and Learning Hub, our research group, Participatory Learning and You (PLAY!), released in late 2012 / early 2013 new studies to explore the power of digital media in education.  Please browse the below articles for more information.

Shall We Play?-- Shall We Play? is written by Erin Reilly, Henry Jenkins, Laurel Felt and Vanessa Vartabedian. It represents a revisiting of Henry Jenkins' original MacArthur white paper, Confronting the Challenges of a Participatory Culture, and lays out what we see as core principles for participatory learning. It includes some core reflections on what has happened in the Digital Media and Learning movement over the past six years as we have sought to bring a more participatory spirit to those institutions and practices that most directly touch young people’s lives.

PLAY!  -- PLAY (Participatory Learning and YOU!) is authored by Erin Reilly, Vanessa Vartabedian, Laurel Felt, and Henry Jenkins. It is an exploration of insights gained from our year-long work with elementary and secondary teachers from the Los Angeles Unified School District as they sought to develop a more participatory environment in their classroom.

Designing with Teachers -- Edited by Erin Reilly and Ioana Literat, this publication represents the collaboration of a working group composed of “a mixture of researchers, teachers and school administrators from a variety of disciplines, schools, and states,” who wanted to better understand how we might best prepare educators in order to incorporate “participatory learning” models into their classroom practices.

Project Lead