“Spreadable Media” — How its Relevant to Education

The media industries understand that culture is becoming more participatory, that the rules are being rewritten and relationships between producers and audiences are in flux.” (page 35)


I recently read “Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture”.  Its focus (not surprisingly) is social media; how people consume and engage with content via various channels of social media and its effects on business, entertainment and other sectors. It addresses how meaning and value are created from content that is spread; ‘spread’ meaning sharing of content not just between people, but within communities. Content, the authors suggest, is shaped even manipulated throughout the spreading process.

It’s a dense read. The lead author Henry Jenkins, Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts and Education at USC, wrote the book with two digital strategists, Ford and Green. The book aims to “build understanding and conversation among three groups of readers: media scholars, communication professionals, and citizens who actively produce and share media content”. I’d say that there is quite a bit to discuss and not just for those involved in media studies. It’s applicable to education, more so given that social media platforms are used with greater frequency by students and instructors to connect with, consume and create education content.

Several of the book’s sub themes address topics educators and institutions are wrestling with, particularly those offering any form of online education. For instance engagement topic of chapter three—The Value of Media Engagement explores engagement from the perspective of market value, recently a topic of discussion among MOOC providers (Dodd, 2014). Building on the engagement theme, chapter four What Constitutes Meaningful Participation explores the changing relationship between producers and consumers, another parallel to education, as more students seek to be actively involved in a course’s content development—to co-create with instructors and other students. Both chapters offer insight into the issues in context of education, even though authors draw upon examples primarily from the business and entertainment sectors—the applicability is hard to miss.

One discussion in chapter three addresses the behavior known as ‘lurking’, a topic of concern when it comes to MOOCs and online courses. Lurkers are students that typically don’t participate or contribute to asynchronous discussion forums, or engage in a real-time video conferencing sessions or other chat venues, yet are reading and/or watching—they are consuming content. Lurking is viewed negatively, or at least as a challenging behaviour by course instructors. More so in courses that require students to participate for course credit. Lurking in connectivist MOOCs (cMOOCs) also doesn’t go over well, particularly with other MOOC students (Milligan, Littlejohn & Margaryan, 2013). Jenkins, Ford & Green attempt to reframe lurking behaviour. They discuss barriers to online participation and suggest there might be opportunity to scaffold learning, or at scale least levels of participation (p. 158).

The authors portray “lurkers” (the bane of online communities where the vast majority of members who only consume others’ information without contributing any of their own) as only learning and biding their time until they too understand the rules and start to participate. In Chapter 5 they even describe what makes materials sharable. This will help me to completely rethink the development of content rather than just to focus on why community members are either engaged or not.”  T. Sales, Amazon Reviewer of “Spreadable Media”

Startling Parallel: Audience Fragmentation
Authors discuss engagement specific to television audiences, yet the similarity between television consumers and participants in education (particularly those engaging in open learning) is strong.  Beginning on page 116 the authors address the challenges the media industry is facing due to audiences consuming content across multiple channels e.g television, mobile devices, or DVRs. This behaviour, according to the authors, fragments the audience, an audience that traditionally consumed content via one channel—television. The audience has since splintered in response, and the result?— people consuming the same content on a variety channels creating smaller audiences. This fragmentation makes it difficult for providers to gauge the value of the different audience groups—to establish an appropriate pricing model.

Note the similarities to the education sector. Education, at one time used two distribution channels for content, 1) the instructor in a physical location delivering content to student, and 2) the textbook. It’s no longer the case. Today education content has numerous distribution channels, for example open education resources (OER) via the web, MOOC providers, textbook companies, closed, fee-based education platforms, Khan Academy and the likes. These channels suggest a fragmentation of the education sector—similar to what’s happening the media industry. It’s not surprising that MOOC providers are finding it a challenge to settle on a viable business model.

Even among those who understand that developing business models around such engagement is key, there has been little consensus on how, or even which, measures of engagement are valuable or how to agree on a model… (p. 116).

Closing Thoughts 
“Spreadable Media” puts forth several relevant and thought-provoking concepts specific to our digital culture. The book on the surface seems more applicable to business decision makers, marketers and media scholars given the numerous references to marketing and entertainment examples, however, the parallels to education though subtle are striking making it a worthwhile and interesting read.