Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy

FALL 2015

engaging with online content

“People of all ages and backgrounds are learning and practicing valuable skills in these online communities. They are engaging in real inquiry and real learning, and they are having fun, too.”


By Rebekah Snyder
engagin with online content

Jolie Matthews spends a lot of time on the Internet. The SESP assistant professor is researching discussion forums, blogs, YouTube and other online platforms to examine how the Internet and digital technologies are changing the ways we acquire and disseminate information.

“Online communities and the ways we use social media, especially around popular culture, are giving rise to informal learning networks,” says Matthews. “I’m interested in how the practices in these networks are both similar and different from practices in more formal learning environments.” She focuses on the Internet’s relationship to learning in the humanities and arts, particularly around history, literacy and creativity, as well as how social media affects artist and audience dynamics.

Fan websites for television shows such as The Tudors and Game of Thrones allow for exploration of historical consciousness in popular culture—that is, how we collectively and individually understand the past. “These platforms can help us understand how audiences interpret and judge media representations of figures and events, as well as how they apply varying moral standards to what they read or see.” Matthews is especially intrigued by the ways that fans use historical arguments and morality to interpret controversial situations in fantastical pasts that never were, and how depictions of real-life historical figures shift over time in popular consciousness.


Fans consume and produce media related to their interests in numerous ways—watching and making YouTube videos, creating Pinterest boards and Tumblr blogs, reading and writing fan fiction, or commenting on discussion forums or in the response section of articles. They engage in these activities in online environments in which participants of multiple ages, races, cultures and nationalities gather.

“You have 13-year-olds interacting with 20-somethings and 60-somethings. What does that mean for the nature of expertise?” asks Matthews. “A high school or college student interested in history may be drawn to a website, while an older adult may have grown up hating history yet now comes to the same site as a fan, reawakening an interest in the past.” This sometimes makes for an environment where a younger “expert” may mentor the older novice.

One’s standing in an online community is not necessarily dictated by age or a member’s background, but rather by the length of time and level of participation in the online space. However, Matthews does find that an individual’s background can come into play in certain ways. “Life experiences, such as travel, religion, exposure to educational systems, ethnicity, marriage and having children, or being a child of divorce— all of this can influence how members interpret information, as well as what insights they are able to share with others.” This contributes to a rich and diverse learning space.

Matthews has also found that many participants, at every age, think differently about learning in the online environment versus learning in the classroom. Participants often draw a distinction between doing informal research on, say, the Wars of the Roses—a time period that is one inspiration for Game of Thrones—and studying history in the classroom. “Young people may complain about schoolwork, even though they are pursuing methods of inquiry in their fan activities that parallel the disciplinary skills we want them to acquire in history,” says Matthews. “They see it as ‘This is my fan stuff, my friends, my community, but at school I’m required to do this work.’” Interestingly, she finds a similar sentiment expressed by older participants. “Some adults commented that they hated history in school and see their current practices as fan activities that can lead to learning, but it’s still something apart from school history.”

Educators sometimes seem to draw too much distinction between learning through social media and learning in the classroom. “If teachers aren’t familiar with the subject matter, spaces and practices around popular media, they might think students are just having fun online, not realizing that their students can actually be making sophisticated arguments that you can only understand if you are familiar with the media, fan community and digital space,” says Matthews. “I’d like to be able to bridge informal and formal conceptions of what kind of learning occurs in these two environments for both fans and educators.”


One of the greatest opportunities around online learning—the sheer volume of information that is so readily accessible—is also one of its greatest challenges. “Our access to information is faster, broader and deeper than ever before, but how do we make sense of it all? How do we judge and parse through the quality of the information when search engines literally shape what we see?” asks Matthews.

The ease with which learners can access information today does not necessarily mean we are more informed. “We are all bombarded with so many search results. How do you learn to sift through those results to determine levels of accuracy and biases?” she asks. “The same is true in approaching media representations of issues and people. You really need to develop a critical eye toward both. My work may focus on specific subjects, but it also speaks to learning more broadly. Where does our information come from? What sources should we trust, and why?”

Despite growing up in a technology-rich environment, young people are not necessarily more capable than adults at filtering through the wealth of content available at the swipe of a smartphone screen, according to Matthew. “Young people are savvier in some ways because they’ve grown up with the Internet and these technologies, but they often assume that because they use technology all the time, they know what to do.” However, the realities are nuanced, as savvy and expertise can vary greatly even within age groups. Young people may be aware that they must “check” their online information, but how they actually do so can be problematic.


One advantage of online learning communities is the existence of multiple points of entry. “Participants can come in with whatever they know, and they don’t feel uncomfortable asking a ‘silly question’ about fashion or armor and weapons, or making a video about relationships among royal families.” This comfort comes from the space being first and foremost for fans, where learning is not an explicitly stated goal or requirement. “However,” says Matthews, “learning and participating often become an expression of being a good fan.”

Looking to the future of this emerging field, Matthews considers how her findings can improve both the formal and informal learning environments. For example, how might we learn from fan sites to teach history more effectively? “There’s a perception that history is memorizing names, dates and facts, but history isn’t just ‘what happened,’” she says. “History is a construction, an inquiry process that can be very exciting, but we don’t usually teach what historians really do until college or sometimes even graduate school.”

Increasingly, education reformers want to bring disciplinary skills to students earlier, and Matthews hopes to contribute to this reform by highlighting how media and fan activities might play a role. “People of all ages and backgrounds are learning and practicing valuable skills in these online communities. They are engaging in real inquiry and real learning, and they are having fun, too.” Ultimately, doesn’t this represent what educators hope learners will be able to do—whether learning in school or out?