The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation on Oct. 19 announced plans to donate $50 million to study the impact of digital media on student learning.

Officials said the five-year project will fund research and innovations designed to explore the impact of digital media on youth culture and to investigate how a myriad of new-media technologies, from video games to social networking web sites, can be used to help students learn.

The news was announced just days after a leading U.S. science group issued a report calling for the federal government to spend millions of dollars on developing video-game applications for schools (see related story).

In an age when 83 percent of young people between the ages of eight and 18 play video games regularly, and nearly three-quarters communicate using instant messaging, MacArthur President Jonathan Fanton said his organization’s investment should go a long way in helping educators answer the questions necessary to harness that potential.

“This is the first generation to grow up digital–coming of age in a world where computers, the internet, video games, and cell phones are common, and where expressing themselves through these tools is the norm,” Fanton said. “Given how present these technologies are in their lives, do young people act, think, and learn differently today? And, what are the implications for education and for society?”

Beginning in 2007, MacArthur says, it will donate $2 million a year toward research projects intended to explore the influence and impact of digital media on today’s youth.

It also will fund the creation of a new online portal: Organizers say the web site will serve as a central hub where educators and other stakeholders can access information about digital learning, share their opinions on its potential for schools, and interact with guest bloggers assigned to follow the program’s progress.

To stimulate the national conversation around digital learning, the foundation plans to publish six books, both online and in print, meant to examine leading research in the field. Topics reportedly will include credibility, innovative uses and unexpected outcomes, civic engagement, the ecology of games, race and ethnicity, and identity and digital media.

From an educator’s perspective, teachers also might be interested in a series of papers written by MIT Professor Henry Jenkins. In his first installment, Jenkins describes digital learning in the youth culture and addresses its potential benefits and educational implications.

The MacArthur Foundation is no stranger to the study of digital learning. In recent years, the organization has funded a variety of projects exploring the connection between digital media and learning. Some initiatives and projects slated to benefit as part of this latest grant include:

•Researchers at the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Southern California are engaged in a study exploring technology’s influence on students’ social networks and peer groups, their family life, how they play, and how they look for information.

•The Academic Advanced Distributed Learning Co-Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is using MacArthur funds to develop “Game Designer,” a software application for young people. The program, which challenges students to create interactive video games, integrates lessons about ethical judgment, aesthetic design, systemic thinking, and collaborative problem solving.

•MIT’s Jenkins currently is using MacArthur funds to perform further research on media literacy, exploring ways to teach it in the classroom and through after-school activities. The aim of the MIT project reportedly is to help young people learn how to filter, judge, synthesize, and use information available on the internet and from other sources, the organization said. An additional grant to Professor Howard Gardner at Harvard University supports research on young people’s ethical use of digital media.

•Global Kids, a nonprofit youth development organization based in New York City, has organized online discussions and plans to run a written essay competition for kids in which they describe their everyday use of digital media.

•The University of Chicago is using a MacArthur grant to expand after-school media literacy programs in Chicago.

•And the Illinois Institute of Technology reportedly is working to develop new designs for schools and libraries with the help of MacArthur funds.


MacArthur Foundation