Today's youth are born into a media saturated environment vastly different from that experienced by even quite recent generations. Since David Buckingham pointed it out over a decade ago, young children's unprecedented access to digital technologies and media has only intensified. Media have indeed become surrogate pedagogues in the lives of some young people who may encounter a parent's smartphone or tablet long before they begin formal schooling.
But not all students are being immersed in digital literacies and skills that are the hallmark of '21st century learning', and what they seem to be learning from their immersion might not actually qualify as learning at all. The reality, especially for girls and socio-economically disadvantaged youth, is that contemporary media learning, however 'participatory' will not accomplish Canada's public educational goals for the its 21st century digital citizenry .
This study takes as its first principle that a critical digital literacy aimed at 'producer-like' understandings is to technology skills in the 21st century what writing was to reading in the 12th century. The misleading presumption that youth are already at home on the leading edge of technology obscures education's greatest challenges: 1) that we are not providing all learners with opportunities to contribute to a global 'knowledge economy' driven by digital technologies; and 2) that giving students consumer-grade 'skills' to make every day uses of a range of digital tools might be sufficient to prepare learners to meet demands of a global educational marketplace, but efficiently consuming digital media is not sufficient for the development of critical abilities to design, develop and implement digital multimodal tools and methods.
The purpose of this study is first to document and analyze the demographic distribution of digital skills across a diversified sample of students, and to track those patterns over time, identifying and analyzing project impacts on student learning; and secondly, using a model of digital literacies that explicitly encompasses both critical and computational fluency, to implement with participants from grades 7-9, a digital game design and evaluation program as a curriculum for building critical digital literacies, and to research its design, process and impacts. Calling for a critical engagement both receptive and productive, game design, unlike gameplay on its own, is a transdisciplinary activity that depends upon and develops competencies both artistic and scientific, rendering the educational significance and use of participatory game design an ideally serviceable vehicle for this study. This proposal addresses the expectation that students are being immersed in digital literacies and skills that are the hallmark of '21st century learning', where in reality, and especially in relation to girls and socio-economically disadvantaged youth, that is far from the case. Our purpose is to document, and to develop a model to remediate, the persisting 'digital barriers' for Canadian youth, both on the margins and in the mainstream, to full participation in a globalized and digitized economy, studying ways of intervening in that divide by engaging students in a technical and artistic activity and RE-FUSES both disciplinary and digital divides.