Can Digital Hollywood Support Education & Innovation?

by Meryl Alper
November 2, 2010

This post originally appeared in New Media Literacies on October, 25, 2010.

I recently attended Digital Hollywood, a digital media trade conference in Los Angeles for executives in the film, television, computer, music, and telecommunications fields. As a Ph.D. student in Communication at USC Annenberg, I attended four panels relevant to my research interests in children and media. These panels were organized around the following themes: immersive touchscreen media, mobile apps, crossmedia content reinvention, and one specifically on children in the digital space (of which the Cooney Center’s Ann My Thai and PBS Kids’ Sara DeWitt were panelists).

There was a wide range of conversation topics between the different panels, far too many for a single blog post. However, my main purpose in attending was to hone in on this question: In what ways can we meaningfully leverage the technological innovation driven by profit in Hollywood into creating deep-learning digital experiences in informal and formal education for children?

My single day at the conference (Me: “Sorry, I’d attend your panel on Tuesday morning but I have stats class at 9AM.”) brought up some evocative questions, as well as some perennial frustrations. I would divide my takeaways into three categories: opportunities, obstacles, and those issues for which an in-depth discussion was unfortunately missing.

Opportunities

Teaching “R&D”: Numerous panelists emphasized the importance of research and development (R&D). There are a number of skills that programmers and developers practice during this process that could apply to education (e.g., putting things in beta, trial-and-error in usability testing). How can we translate this “digital sandbox” (a phrase the grown-ups in attendance were fond of) into informal and formal learning opportunities? What if we gave children the time to stop along the course of their personal innovations to spend ample time with that which is endlessly frustrating? As a society, are we rushing children too much or are we providing them with the freedom and flexibility to fail early and fail often? Failure can be valuable, not just in debugging a video game set for mass market release, but in developing creativity and resilience in school and beyond.Augmented reality and touchscreen with texture: A couple panelists richly described features we can expect from handheld electronic devices in the coming years. The digital world opens even wider when we consider the potential for augmented reality in educational iPad apps or the potential for haptic devices with the ability to simulate texture (as opposed to the glossy smoothness of a tablet). Imagine the uses for occupational therapy, for feeling the strings and vibrations of a virtual harpsichord, or for pop-up e-books. How can these features exist in tandem with and supplement their “real-life” counterparts?

Obstacles

“The living room”: A number of panelists, particularly those in the home entertainment market, spoke on length and broadly about “the living room” as a multimedia hub. The industry is quite openly interested in creating multi-screen experiences, so that someone can start watching a movie or playing a game on the TV in their living room, for example, and continue the same experience when they move to a different compatible device in a different place. A few panelists emphasized that this advance is a few years away from being the norm, and that right now, the multi-screen landscape is a “a playground with no kids playing in it yet.” There are opportunities and obstacles in this development. How can this anytime/anywhere/anyplace innovation promote intergenerational media experiences around education? On the other hand, will families have to work harder now to find their own balance between mediated and unmediated family interaction in the living room?

iBooks store interface: The real time searches people are experiencing, and are now coming to expect, are not being translated in the iBooks store interface. For example, one panelist, a digital distribution marketing executive, mentioned frustration about the lack of a comic book or graphic novel category in the iBooks storefront. Does this imply that comic books aren’t as worthy as other forms of literature? Besides the economic significance, what parameters defining “literacy” are being constructed from the top down?

Missing Conversations

A nuanced discussion of children’s media habits: Far too many panelists spoke in broad generalizations about children, especially about how “different” they are from prior generations. These observations were mainly based on anecdotal evidence about the panelists’ own children (a skewed sample at best), as opposed to research. For example, one panelist in the children’s media space talked quite absolutely about the child audience being “like locusts – moving from field to field” until they’ve exhausted all available content, and that like locusts, children will move on in hordes without new content. It seems to be a problematic chicken vs. egg dichotomy to say the least. Is that truly the way that children inherently “are” or are they treated as such in order to drive the profit margin? What about children who will eagerly watch the exact same DVD or single episode of a TV show over and over? How much about what digital Hollywood “knows” about children is based on developmental psychology?

Content creation: As I suppose is par the course for a conference focused on turning people’s digital navigation into revenue streams, the conversation in all of the panels I attended was completely dominated by content consumption, with far less of an emphasis on content creation, even counting YouTube and Twitter. (Ironically, for a “Digital Hollywood” conference, there was very little backchannel Tweeting going on using the conference hashtag.) Even when talking about content in the kids’ digital space, when the dialogue did focus on children’s content creation, the initial focus was on the harmful content children create (e.g. mean Formspring posts, cyberbullying) as opposed to the potential for learning through creating in a digital context.

Diversity: While living in Los Angeles and toggling through different hats – academic, researcher, developer, and content creator – I’ve come to realize that “Hollywood” means a whole lot of different things conceptually to different people. Similarly, when discussing “digital Hollywood,” I could conceivably refer to the day laborers of USC’ Mobile Voices project, just as I could be talking about the largely Caucasian and male attendees of this conference. I hope that in the years to come, as we support future generations’ digital learning, there is a greater plurality of perspectives among the gatekeepers of Hollywood.

What do you think are the opportunities and obstacles for meaningfully leveraging Hollywood’s technological innovations for deep-learning digital experiences? What is missing from the conversation at large?

Meryl Alper is a Ph.D. student in Communication at USC Annenberg and Research Assistant for Project New Media Literacies with Prof. Henry Jenkins. Prior to graduate school, she was an intern in the domestic educational research group at Sesame Workshop, as well as Research Manager for Nick Jr.