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international conference april 27-29, 2007 mit

Learning through Remixing

Saturday, April 28, 2007
Bartos Theater
Media Lab

Historically, engineers learned by taking machines apart and putting them back together again. Can young people also learn how culture works by sampling and remixing the materials of their culture? Might this ability to appropriate and transform valued cultural materials be recognized as an important new kind of cultural competency, what some people are calling the new media literacies? How might we meaningfully incorporate this fascination with mash-ups into our pedagogical practices and what values should we place on the kinds of new content which young people produce by working on and working over existing cultural materials? In this program, we will showcase a range of contemporary projects that embrace a hands-on approach to contemporary and classical media materials as a means of getting young people to think critically about their own roles as future media producers and consumers.


Erik Blankinship is a co-founder of Media Modifications, a new start-up whose mission is to expose and enhance the structure of media to make its full learning and creative potential accessible to all. He has many years of experience working with children as an inventor of educational technologies and activities and as a researcher studying the potential of digital media for teaching and learning literature, history, mathematics, and game design. While an undergrad at the University of Maryland, College Park he was a recipient of the Jim Henson Award for Projects Related to Puppetry. email

Juan Devis is a new media producer at KCET/PBS Los Angeles in charge of all original web content including Web Stories, KCETs multimedia webzine. He is currently working with the USC School of Cinematic Arts and the Institute for Multimedia Literacy to develop a serious game based on Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. Devis was recently awarded a writer's fellowship at ABC/Disney for his original screenplay Welcome to Tijuana which is scheduled for production early in 2008. Devis is president of the board of Freewaves, a non-profit media arts organization. email

Renee Hobbs is associate professor of communication and education at Temple University where she directs the Media Education Lab. She has worked extensively with state departments of education in Maryland and Texas, and her new book Reading the Media: Media Literacy in High School English (2007) provides empirical evidence to document how media literacy improves adolescents' reading comprehension skills. email

Ricardo Pitts-Wiley has been the artistic director of Mixed Magic Theatre for over 20 years. I that role, he has written/ produced/ directed a number of productions including From the Bard to the Bounce: A Hip-Hop Shakespeare Experience, Kwanzaa Song, The Great Battle for the Air, About Me and the Adventure (with Community Prep and the Rhode Island School for the Deaf) and four Annual Black History Month Celebrations at Portsmouth Abbey. Pitts-Wiley was resident artist at Brown University Summer High School in 2001.

Alice J. Robison is a postdoctoral fellow in the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT where she is a consultant for several new media initiatives including New Media Literacies and advises several student-run organizations devoted to the study of videogames and interactive media including the Harvard Interactive Media Group and the MIT Videogame Theorists. email


Henry Jenkins
is co-director of Comparative Media Studies and the Peter de Florez Professor of Humanities at MIT. He is the author and/or editor of several books on various aspects of media and popular culture including Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide and is the author of the blog Confessions of an ACA/Fan. email


By Greg Peverill-Conti

[This is an edited summary, not a verbatim transcript.]

Moderator Henry Jenkins began by pointing out that there had been discussions throughout the conference of the historical antecedents of the topics at hand.  In terms of using remixing as a tool for learning, he cited Lev Kuleshov – who started what may have been the first film studies program in the early days of the Soviet Union – asking his students to re-edit Birth of a Nation and Intolerance and also pointed to the use of commonplace books in the 19th century as an example of collected/appropriated content.

The purpose of this session is to share information on a number of current projects dedicated to promoting learning through remixing content. Jenkins pointed out that engineers learn how machines work by taking things apart and putting them back together. Can the same be done with culture? The people and projects represented on this panel demonstrate that it might.

Erik Blankinship

Erik Blankinship started things off by discussing his current company, Media Modifications, which develops tools for exposing and enhancing the structure of media in order to make its full creative and learning potential accessible to all. This is a theme he promises to return to throughout the course of his comments and demonstration.

If one starts with a black screen, you have the space to create a screenplay and ultimately a film or video.  In the case of his demonstration, the video was a clip from Star Trek the Next Generation. On the left-hand side of the screen the video of the scene appeared, on the right side, the text of the script.  Blankenship was able to drag and drop sections of the script which in turn reordered the words and action in the video. He described it as being similar to magnetic poetry, exposing the structure of the media and allowing it to be rearranged and reloaded.

He next demonstrated how this type of remixing and restructuring could be used to create new content.  In this case, he created a countdown by selecting and connecting numbers used by Star Trek characters in many different episodes.  Giving fans access to the structure of media – as in this case – can be a lot of fun.

This project led developers to begin further work around the idea of adaptations. In the case of the Star Trek countdown, he was able to adapt the Star Trek content to tell the simple story conveyed through the numbers in an interesting and original way.  At this point he announced, a soon-to-launched Web site that will provide access to tools for media adaptation.

He used tools to demonstrate on how people can expose the structure of media to create new adaptations.

The first example was from The Fellowship of the Ring and it started with two representations of the same content in text and video side-by-side. This allows for the comparison of the two forms to understand what is happening in each.  Across the top of the screen, two time lines – one for the movie and the other for the book – appeared and were connected where the two formats shared content. He described this capability as a new type of closed captioning that allows additional detail from either media to be used to enhance the other.  As a scene played on the video, the text related to the screen from the book was highlighted, illustrating those parts of the book used in developing the film.

The second example used Romeo and Juliet.  Two different films were used – the Franco Zeffirelli-directed version from 1968 and the 1996 version starring Leonardo DiCaprio.  In each case, the connections to the source text were shown at the top of the screen.  This allowed one to see how the different film versions had adapted the same text differently, choosing to emphasize or ignore sections of the story. This exposure of the underlying structure creates opportunities for students to study and consider the thinking and context behind the final content.

A final, fun element of the process that Blankinship demonstrated was the ability to cast a remixed version of the film by using and combining performers from each of the versions at hand.

Juan Devis

He was followed by Juan Devis who spoke about his experience in 2002-03 developing a video game with students at Belmont High School in Los Angeles. Ninety-five percent of the students were from Central America and Mexico and the goal was to create a game based on life in their home countries to help illustrate their history.  It was a good idea, but there were two problems: first, the students were involved in the conceptualization of the game but not in its development or production, and, secondly, they were living here in the US and were making a game about Latin America.

These problems led to the decision to do another project, a game about the neighborhoods they live in that they would be able to create and code themselves. Pac-Man was chosen as the basis of the game because it was familiar and essentially non-violent. It could serve as a simple template for the students to remix their neighborhoods.

Devis demonstrated one version of the game called El Imigrante.  In this remix of Pac-Man, a Mexican character moves through LA, picks up trash and tries to get a green card while avoiding the Minute Men.  Each of these games (and there were several) became portraits of the students' neighborhoods.

These games addressed the first of the problems – limited student involvement. Now Devis is working on a project to deal with the second – presenting American civics and history in an interesting and meaningful way. The project is build around Huckleberry Finn, which initially seemed like a great idea, but one that had a lot of problems that he hadn't anticipated. Issues of bondage and slavery and language that, as a foreigner himself, Devis hadn't considered.

They went back to the original novel and broke it apart – a process that is currently ongoing.  As he and the students are reading the novel, they are creating a “side script” to reimagine it in 21st century L.A. For example, instead of the Mississippi River they are using the L.A. River, etc.

While he is still planning on creating the game, he's come to realize that there are a lot of issues around race and class that young people here in the U.S. just don't understand.  Before making a game out of this content, the tools for understanding the issues needed to be applied – which is what led to the creation of the side script and the discussions that followed.

Renee Hobbs

Renee Hobbs started by discussing the importance of media literacy as a way for young people to understand the underlying nature of the media.  Remixing, she believes, is a tool that can deepen our appreciation of the constructedness of media messages.  As a media literacy educator, this understanding needs to be a core element of the community.

Remixing also helps illustrate the plasticity of meaning and how it can so easily be altered.  This works because remixing allows us to see and appreciate the functions and structure as they are expressed in the content.  In the past Hobbs had worked on developing curricula and materials for teachers but not for reaching kids directly.

To do this, Hobbs and her group have created My Pop Studio to help girls between 10 and 12 understand media literacy.  It was launched in July, 2006 with funding from the Office for Women's Health (part of DHSS).  The site includes 15 games and a number of discussion forums and is used by 10,000 and 20,000 people per month. 

There is a TV Studio that provides drag-and-drop editing tools. In the Music Studio kids can create their own pop star to get a sense of all of the choices involved in constructing popular music.  In the Magazine Studio they can turn themselves into celebrities, constructing a celebrity identity to help understand image, celebrity culture and body ideals.  In the Online Studio girls can experiment to understand how their social relationships are impacted by their online life.

The goal was to combine the key elements of media literacy (building skills around creative production and authorship, as well as analysis skills) by exploring themes like celebrity culture and music and how these are being used to form and understand identity.

To illustrate her points, Hobbs demonstrated Pop Star Producer.  It begins by asking visitors to select a value message in order to consider how values play into decisions about music and image.  Next they choose a musical genre, lyrics and an image/style for their character.  When done, the avatar performs the music and other visitors rate the performance and try to determine the intended value message.  It was an interested demo and exposed – to a degree – how music functions.   This section also has a feature that shows how music is used to sell products by using it to convey ideals and associations.

As girls use My Pop Studio, the can begin to understand how meaning changes as a result of context.  It also helps them to understand the essential “constructedness” of all representational forms.  These aren't things that kids just understand so it's important for them to have an opportunity to learn.

Ricardo Pitts-Wiley

Ricardo Pitts-Wiley spoke next on his work with the Mixed Magic Theater based in Pawtucket, R.I.

Pitts-Wiley is currently working on Moby-Dick and wasn't sure how this project fits in with the others. This is because what he is doing is less about remixing than getting people into the mix. 

One of the challenges in working with material like Moby-Dick was to do it in a way that would be interesting to young people while preserving the integrity of the novel.  His goal was not to deconstruct the novel but to keep it whole. Times change, people change, but Moby-Dick remains constant.

The white whale is Ahab's nemesis, but it isn't something young people identify with; but the pursuit – and the idea of tracking and vengeance is something they very much understand.  In this interpretation, Moby-Dick is transformed from the white whale into the white thing – cocaine, the seas into a city and the Pequod into a subway.

Within this new context, Pitts-Wiley took his group back into the novel to find the words and themes they would need to address.  Although the setting had been shifted into their time, they still needed to tell Melville's story.

The first time he did this project was at the Rhode Island Training School, a reform school.  The participants were all bright people and he explained to them that they were going to be doing Moby-Dick as cocaine – but that they would have to read the novel and then choose a character that they identified with and redefine it for the new context.  One example of this recontextualization was Queequeg as a pimp.  Why a pimp?  Because Queequeg is colorful, exciting, dangerous, he deals in human flesh and he's loyal.  However the kids choose to redefine their characters, Pitts-Wiley forced them to defend their choice using the novel.

People often ask him why he uses Moby-Dick as the basis for this project. It is, he said, because it is all there. All of the characters are there, the history is there, the culture is there so there is no need to invent any of them. It is also great and challenging literature.

Pitts-Wiley chose to complicate his task in producing Moby-Dick by doing two versions simultaneously – one with young people and the other with older members of the community.  Part of this decision was based on his belief that young people are taught things that are important but that are not demonstrated as being important in the community.

Part of his goal is to create a community around a shared language; and for him, having many members of the community read Moby-Dick helps to create that common language and deeper community. It offers opportunities for engagement between different people; but only if everyone shares the experience of reading the novel.

The idea of community building aside, Pitts-Wiley still needed to tell the story.  As the two companies – the young one and the older one – worked on their productions, they began to teach and learn from one another.  Not just about the novel, but about community and the impact of culture on community.  Throughout the production, familiar cultural elements – music, fashion, authority figures – are used to convey the meaning of Melville's work.

He then discussed the importance of keeping people moving into the future – but not at the expense of older literature. Moby-Dick is the first of three projects. The next one will be Frankenstein followed by Uncle Tom's Cabin. The big goal of this program is to change the literary landscape of the community over the next 10 years and to bring young people not only into the technical age, but also into the literary age.

Alice Robison

Alice Robison then gave a presentation about her work on the New Media Literacies project at CMS.

The new media literacy framework borrows and builds upon some of new media studies' cutting-edge therories of cognition.  All of this has been slowly developing over the last 10-15 years as new theories of literacy, ones that go beyond functional models, have come about.  The new theories focus more on the process by which people create meaning and include ideas like:

  • Multimodial literacy
  • Multilteracy framework
  • Collective intelligence
  • Problem-based learning
  • Situated and distributed cognition
  • Peripheral participation

At the heart of all of this is the question, where does meaning come from?  Much of the way new literacy has been taught has been based on a consumerist model – to view an image and to understand what it is trying to communicate – similar to what Hobbs's work [described above] attempts to do.

This approach is now expanding to include the participant when thinking about the creation of  meaning by considering what happens in the space between the individual as the consumer of a message and the writer or producer of a message. Robison isn't interested in the making of meaning but more in what happens in the space between the production and consumption of meaning.

The role of context is something that she finds to be very important when discussing the issues of media literacy. As part of the New Media Literacy project they have identified a number of what she refers to as “exemplar videos,” and at this point Robison showed a number of them. 

These videos are designed to provide a framework for understanding media literacy. The intention is that educators will access these videos to use with their students in a variety of environments.  Robison sees value in the way that these videos expose the process of media making to people unfamiliar with the way in which new media works.

Before involving the audience, Jenkins asked the panelists to reflect on one another's projects.

Pitts-Wiley described being interested and looking forward to the Huckleberry Finn project and in the problems Devis and his team are encountering along the way. He prefers problems to solutions because the solution is the end of something while solving a problem is a fascinating process. 

Devis said that one of the problems they are facing with Huckleberry Finn is the character of Jim because you never get his perspective, only hints of it. For example, what is Jim doing while Huck is in the house of the rich white family? Working with students to imagine a chapter describing this is an opportunity for Devis.

Blankinship echoed the idea that problems create opportunities for kids to learn. He explained that one of the things he had not been able to demonstrate was the ability for kids to share and link content they are creating and voiced the hope that he would be able to work with Devis and Pitts-Wiley in the future.

One concern that Pitts-Wiley has with the media is its function in separating people. People who are media savvy or rich or well-read are in one community. Technology provides a means to expose more people to literature and arts and knowledge, but people need to believe that this belongs to them and that they are just as capable of creating these works as anyone.


Question: If you're mixing live people's content – people who worked hard for their money – how do you justify remixing them?

Blankinship: “Don't be fooled by the rocks that I got,” [quoting a song by Jennifer Lopez,] “I'm still, I'm still Jenny from the block.”

[Audience Laughter]

Robison: This is a moral argument that doesn't resonate with my students; they feel that the incremental income lost as a result of their remixing pales in comparison to the amount spent to prevent them from remixing.

Devis: Thinking about Salsa music in the 1970, many of the artists came from the same communities and borrowed from the same pools of ethnic and religious sources for content, but it was the way they remixed the content that created something new and propelled the music forward. I think the only difference between then and now is that the tools are different.

Robison: Technology allows people to think that ownership of material is something we have a right to; but before recording technology existed, the notion that something was owned was different.

Pitts-Wiley: I am concerned that remixing can sometimes be a shortcut. It's about making decisions and understanding how much is at one’s disposal. One of the things that makes Moby-Dick such a challenging read is that you need to keep going to the footnotes to understand the references and allusions Melville makes throughout the novel.

Blankinship: People need to be able to trace the relationships to understand the source of borrowed content. 

Question: For the black community, the borrowing of content without compensation has been a disaster; as African-American scholars, we are rarely invited to be a part of the mix, part of the discussion, in situations like this and it hurts.  We have ideas and experiences and perspectives that can contribute a lot. 

Pitts-Wiley: I wish that I'd brought the kids I am working with to MiT5 because the lack of black faces in the audience tonight is unsettling and shows the degree to which black scholars and intellectuals are left out of the mix. Six months ago, I had not heard of the concept of media literacy; now I recognize among many of my students the ones with great potential to contribute. I hope that their contribution will be recognized and welcomed.

Devis: The irony is that the people of color are left with the content and serve as the content police; everyone else can have fun and play with the tools and the content but we have to go back to the texts to find out what they really mean. 

Robison: I agree but it is because of things like Jamaican reggae and remixing that kids in the suburbs are opening themselves up to ideas they never knew about including a lot of black and Latin music.

Pitts-Wiley: Young people, and particularly those of color, need to beware of becoming the dominant culture. Once a group becomes dominant it is a signal that they have stopped creating. It is the oppressed and the poor who are forced to create their own content. There has to be a way to balance the creative culture with the dominant culture to move everyone forward.

Hobbs: For the past 20 years, we have been working to dismantle the boundaries between elite culture and popular culture, to flatten the hierarchies that place Moby-Dick and Romeo and Juliet at the top and LL Cool J and Brittany [Spears] at the bottom. One of the things that is exciting about this panel is the concept of remixing that includes the interface between elite and popular culture.  What's interesting about this and what makes it relevant to the idea of media literacy is that in our community teachers have been fired for introducing popular culture into the classroom. 

There are risks to teachers, particularly at the elementary and secondary levels, of exploring issues of celebrity culture and the transgressive nature of popular culture. This has created an interesting paradox: in order to teach media literacy, educators have to work with high-culture sources in order to satisfy the various gatekeepers of the classroom. But once they are in, teachers are able to show the interface between high and pop culture. The risk is that pop culture can become the hook to entice students to get back to the good stuff.  This is dangerous because it reinforces the sense of hierarchy when the real goal is for people to think about cultural forms in much broader ways.

Question (from Second Life):
How, while trying to honor the diversity and multicultural nature of potential sources, does one choose source material?

Pitts-Wiley: One of the things I look for when making choices is its ability to support organic participation, and I find that in Moby-Dick and many of the works of Shakespeare. Works that don't allow this organic participation just don't work. Frankenstein, the next work we’ll be doing, doesn't care if you are black or white or Latino -- it is a story about the monsters that we create.

Devis: In terms of Huckleberry Finn, there is so much within the novel that we can discuss. At one level, it is the story of a foster child who runs away; the novel includes four different languages (all English but each distinct); within the novel Tom Sawyer takes other works and remixes and retells them to his friends. These are all experiences that translate easily for the kids I am working with.

Robison: What is fantastic about each of these projects is that they are contextualizing the learning experience for students. Pop culture comes with context; it's much harder to take canonical literature from other centuries and other languages and put it into a context that is relevant to students.

Question (from Second Life): Regarding community participation, how do you [directed at Pitts-Wiley] convince people to participate?

Pitts-Wiley: Sometimes you need to get into people's faces and get them excited. These ideas are things that people already know.  Ninety nine percent of the time, if you say “Moby-Dick,” people will say, "Oh, that whale thing" and you are in. But then you have to make it important to them. Not important to them as a group, but important to them as individuals.

Blankinship: What these various projects are doing is making abstract ideas accessible and allowing young people to engage with them in more meaningful ways. It isn't just about sampling but interpreting and making something new that is powerful and important.

Pitts-Wiley: And the fact that the community is involved in the creation is also important. When people see that their friends and family and neighbors are in a play, they come down to see it. When they do, we have found a new way to engage them.


New Media Literacies (slideshow, scroll down for transcript), Alice J. Robison


An audio recording of Learning through Remixing is now available.

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A podcast of Learning through Remixing is now available from Comparative Media Studies.


A webcast of Learning through Remixing is available.