Jul 06 2010

Tech steward meet tech mentor

(Cross-posted from my Learning Alliances blog.)

Recently I finished a remarkably useful book: Mizuko Ito, et al. Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning With New Media (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2009). It has some common ancestry with ours, since the first authors of both Hanging Out and Digital Habitats were at the Institute for Research on Learning in the 1980’s. There are many overlapping frameworks and insights. Hanging Out has pushed my thinking by setting the idea of technology stewardship in a larger context of the book’s themes of friendship, intimacy, families, gaming, creative production, and work. In writing this review, I’m liberally quoting from it since the entire book is online. (All the page references in this post are to that book.) I’ve made up this diagram to help bridge between some of the ideas in the two books.

Hanging Out uses “genres of participation” with new media as a way of describing everyday learning and media engagement. The primary distinction that the authors make is between “friendship-driven and interest-driven genres of participation, which correspond to different genres of youth culture, social network structure, and modes of learning.” (p. 15) “Participation” is an alternative to an internalization or consumption perspective. It has the advantage in not assuming that kids are passive, mere audiences to media or educational content. “Hanging out” refers to friendships and social interactions that are oriented to local networks. “Messing around” refers to exploring, playing, cruising around, “finding stuff” – intermediate between the other two categories. “Geeking out” is participation that’s more oriented toward expertise, delving in a particular topic or technology. “Transitioning between hanging out, messing around, and geeking out represents certain trajectories of participation that young people can navigate, where their modes of learning and their social networks and focus begin to shift.” (p. 17)

Megan Finn was the lead author in the section that discusses the “techne-mentor” in depth (on pp. 59-60). A couple long quotes describes the techne-mentor concept:

“In conceptualizing the media and information ecologies in the lives of University of California at Berkeley freshmen, classical adoption and diffusion models (e.g., Rogers [1962; 2003]) proved inadequate. Rather than being characterized by a few individuals who diffuse knowledge to others in a somewhat linear fashion, many students’ pattern of technology adoption signaled situations in which various people were at times influential in different, ever-evolving social networks. The term “techne-mentor” is used to help to describe this pattern of information and knowledge diffusion…. Techne-mentor refers to a role that someone plays in aiding an individual or group with adopting or supporting some aspect of technology use in a specific context, but being a techne-mentor is not a permanent role.

“In the Freshquest study we found many cases of techne-mentors. The kind of roles they played varied from case to case and situation to situation. On one hand, the techne-mentor may simply make someone aware of a technology. On the other hand, he or she may play an integral role in demonstrating the technology practice or even installing the technology and ensuring its status as operational. Sometimes students we interviewed had one primary techne-mentor in their lives, but in turn the students would take on the role when they passed this information on to other groups. In fact, it is this constant flow of information about technology among a student’s multitude of social networks that accounts for the fluidity of the role of techne-mentor. In all these socially situated contexts, techne-mentors were an integral part of informal learning and teaching about technology and technology practices.”

Techne-mentors show up in all the genres of participation but their role is probably more visible at the geeking out end of the spectrum. That is, as technology becomes a more central concern, learning and talking about technology also becomes more central and so does mentoring. It’s really important that the way Hanging Out uses the concept, kids are involved both in being mentored and mentoring others.

A “tech steward” is a specific kind of techne-mentor, working on behalf of a community, mentoring and being mentored in the context of that community. A technology steward is influenced by their social context. In geeky communities such as the Ubuntu community that Andreas Lloyd studied, everyone is concerned with technology in one way or another, although some people are more influential than others. In thinking about the “hanging out” end of the spectrum it occurs to me that the job of technology stewards is partly to make technology disappear. People really want to be hanging out with each other, talking about hawks in Central Park or milking cows in Portugal. The more intuitive and habitual a community’s technology infrastructure becomes, the more authentic and direct the experience of being in the community.

As we wrote Digital Habitats and began focusing on technology stewards who we encountered in different communities, we were struck by the fact that they came from many different backgrounds. That as far as their role was concerned, they were not “trained” in any conventional sense. Looping back to Hanging Out, that makes a lot of sense:

Sociocultural approaches to learning have recognized that kids gain most of their knowledge and competencies in contexts that do not involve formal instruction. A growing body of ethnographic work documents how learning happens in informal settings, as a side effect of everyday life and social activity, rather than in an explicit instructional agenda.” (p. 21)

That’s a very polite way of saying that school is, in some important respects, irrelevant. It applies to kids as well as to grown-up technology stewards.

“One of the key innovations of situated learning theory was to posit that learning was an act of social participation in communities of practice (Lave and Wenger 1991). By shifting the focus away from the individual and to the broader network of social relationships, situated learning theory suggests that the relationships of knowledge sharing, mentoring, and monitoring within social groups become key sites of analytic interest. In this formulation, people learn in all contexts of activity, not because they are internalizing knowledge, culture, and expertise as isolated individuals, but because they are part of shared cultural systems and are engaged in collective social action.“ (p. 14)

Learning to learn about technology (in particular) from this point of view is a fundamental skill that results from hanging out, messing around, and geeking out. To me this suggests that people who learn about technology in school are cheated because they miss out on some fundamental hanging out experiences. In this sense, the “digital divide” between older people who have been subject to training and younger people who came by their knowledge more socially may be more of a “learning divide.” That makes a lot of classroom instruction about technology irrelevant.

Beware of any technology steward who tells you that they learned how to do it in school.

13 responses so far

13 Responses to “Tech steward meet tech mentor”

  1. As I read your entry, and came across this excerpt, “A “tech steward” is a specific kind of techne-mentor, working on behalf of a community, mentoring and being mentored in the context of that community,” I knew that our technology training program was a living, breathing Digital Habitat. I completed an Action Research project for my coursework at Full Sail University and the topic was exactly what you described. I will continue to seek more information, so please, if you have something enlightening to share, feel free to pass it my way. I would love an opportunity to elaborate with you further so please feel free to send me an email at any time. Great article, and I will definitely be purchasing the book and sharing it with my colleagues and students! Thank you again!

    Christina Carboni

    • Hi, Christina, Please do let us know what you think of the book and how you’ve put it to work. We need more people to share examples of how it worked for them. We intentionally wrote the book as a beginning of a conversation!

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    Tech steward meet tech mentor [link to post] #km #kmers

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  3. […] peer-to-peer initiative. But cutbacks have made it difficult to continue supporting this kind of technology mentoring initiative. Of course businesses seeking to recruit GenY talent, brands that aim for youth culture […]

  4. […] talk in September I have also had time to further reflect on the innovative work of Paul Lowe as a ‘technology steward’, in developing his MA in Photojournalism, and Thomas Cochrane’s use of the PAH Continuum to help […]

  5. Janelle Short says:

    Some of the most interesting people I have worked with were young adults working in technology. They also happen to be the most technically diversified people I have ever met. And, yes, they were all bootstrap “tech stewards”.

    As a contract PM, I constantly review job descriptions. I have noticed over the years that job descriptions have become very tight in the sense they are looking for degreed individuals and as years pass the type and level are also refined. I am seeing degree requirements for the most entry level positions.

    I believe we (industry) cheat ourselves out of wonderful opportunities such as creatively and we loose the opportunity to enhance our own knowledge base by restricting our resource pool.

    • I wonder if there’s a corresponding challenge on the applicant side, Janelle. For example, are there ways to be more precise about the skills and diversity of accomplishments of tech stewards? It seems to me that all the (over-)emphasis on educational credentials is because of inflated claims. But how do we communicate clearly and precisely when so much rides on the statements that we make?

      Arguing it on the other side, people who learn only in school or through fully-scripted training tend to have a lot less depth and flexibility in their knowledge. Recently I was interacting with a bunch of baby-boomers who obviously expected to be trained in any software they were expected to use on the job. That was such a different attitude from the (often, but not always) younger people I meet who are constantly updating their working knowledge of technology (and everything else).

  6. Heath Runyon says:

    I have to agree. It seems the education requirement pendulum has definitely swung heavily to the side of strong educational backgrounds but I think it’s a reaction to the growing pool of a technologically capable work force. It seems we’re at an extreme end of the swing right now in that some job postings I’ve seen require masters degrees and beyond for entry level positions.

    I also agree with your assumed position for the “street smarts” candidates, John, but I also feel that we (industry) will eventually find a middle ground between tech savvy journeymen and book savvy theorists. The shift will come again as companies learn that they must have access to both types of knowledge, performers with real life problem solving experience and technology managers/administrators who can conceptualize, plan and grow their ideas. I believe that both are available and the combination of skills will be a more important evaluation factor than years of experience or degree status alone.

  7. Monica K says:

    I agree. Our recourses pool is becoming more and more restrictive as technology enables capable users exponentially, and for the same jobs. It will be interesting to see how the work force changes over the next several years and there are jobs that we will be applying for that we never thought would exist. Technology is changing the way we do business and the way we live. The requirements are higher now then they were five years ago. I also agree that a combination of skills are even more valuable than education and experience alone.

  8. One question that Monica, Janelle and Heath haven’t mentioned is what companies can do to keep the learning fresh and vital. It’s one thing to ask for credentials and skills at the beginning of a career, but what about in a year or two, as technology changes so steadily?

  9. Sean Smith says:

    I used to consider myself as “geeked out”, but now I would say I am more “messing around”. I just haven’t kept up with every new technology that’s being used now. As I get older I find myself caring less that I keep up. Is this very common? I have also noticed that when I previously lived near the city I had all of the latest gadgets and learned what I could. As I moved farther away it became less important and I’m satisfied just trying to keep up. I realized this after I read “as technology becomes a more central concern, learning and talking about technology also becomes more central and so does mentoring.” I just don’t interact with technology driven people as much as I used to.

    • So the other side of the process is when people ask you for help with tools, Sean. How is that going? Do you find yourself mentoring others much? Maybe your more focused on another kind of network or community, like management or gardening or something. I think one effort I’ve made is to try to take technology off of the pedestal — to show people how it’s like many other things that we learn through our regular interactions. And therefore that we also teach others that way, too.

  10. […] between his institutional requirements and the networks of his professional practice, perhaps as a tech-mentor, Paul has sought to share his approach with us. Like Thomas Cochrane, he was enthused to share his […]

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