Field Building: Digital Media and Learning

This summer I discussed field building with Ben Stokes. He works in the Digital Media and Learning program at the MacArthur Foundation. In this post, I will insert both what he shared with me and my additions and interpretations. He talked about how field building often incorporates existing threads, weaving them together. For example, games, cognitive science, learning theory, media, and the internet may all be existing pieces that unite around Digital Media and Learning. One approach Ben mentioned is building this field by working within privately owned and operated spaces such as My Space and Google. And that may reach audiences effectively, and yet there is more to be done.

Bridge-building offers a weaving opportunity that binds the threads together. Ben shared that one way to build bridges is convening people, and a foundation has the power to do that with ease. People want to be associated with or be beneficiaries of the foundation, so they want to attend gatherings sponsored by the foundation. So the foundation can support events selectively bringing people together with the call to collaboration face to face. Another opportunity is the written word. Ben pointed out that journals about the field create branding, messaging and a body of documentation for the field. In some sense, field building is about brand building. How do we get this brand adopted?

Building knowledge within the field creates a gravity, a magnetism for the field. Creating a knowledge network website offers a common repository, events related to the field, a directory of people, and access to articles about the field. There is also, according to Ben, a need to coordinate public discourse regarding the field. Using a communication team to assist with clear messaging that is consistent and creates a coherent field. Ben said they work with their grantees to use common languaging which helps bring the threads together from the many different existing threads/fields. If we are all talking about the same thing but we call it by different names, we can’t clearly recognize the convergence of thinking about that thing. And recognizing common ground and increasing visibility is critical to developing recognition of the emerging field.

Press coverage is also vital to developing visibility. And the message to the press needs to be consistent too. From all parties. If I google the field or a core idea of the field, there should be some degree of uniformity in what I find or the field lacks coherence.

Network weaving, a favorite topic of mine, also plays a significant role in field-building. Asking grantees who they would like to have involved, making connections between then, and rewarding introductions and collaborations helps weave the relationships within the field, naturally leading to greater cohesion of the ideas and practices. It also facilitates identity development of the field and its practitioners. As a foundation, Ben noted, there must be care around the power relationships of funder to grantee and potential grantees. Care must be taken to grow and emerge something that feels vital to participants and acts as more than a financial incentive. To grow the field is to open new eyes. Yes, the foundation selects who they think should be there, but it tries to do this based on the advice of the community itself through a range of advisory boards and outside reviewers. One benefit is that participants who attend can often open more “edgy” conversations without the power dynamics that restrict foundations’ public voices.

I asked how we would know if we are successful. Ben warns that we not pursue field-building as an inherent good, because all change has unintended consequences. Field building is a transformative process. Looking for metrics about whether it is going well, here are several observation techniques:

  • mapping the topical linking of websites (which happens visibly if we are all tagging and naming with common terms and definitions)
  • mapping the social networking of people (both through citations and social networking associations) and watching for the weaving of the network using social network analysis through time
  • listening to the network to see how they are thinking about the field and how they talk about themselves–looking for coherence of identity and language

Field building may be called by other names. Some influencing strings that inform it:

  • movement building
  • trends and tipping points
  • network theory
  • community of practice

Many thanks to Ben Stokes for the time and conversation. I am eager to see how the field of Digital Media and Learning flourishes.

I am conducting more research and continuing to reflect and write– so stay tuned for:

  • Foundations and the Role of Philanthropy in Field Building
  • A Whole New Mind of Field Building: Design, Play, Symphony, Narrative, Empathy, and Meaning in Network White Spaces
  • Persuading the Field: Applying Influence and Motivating Emergence
  • Field Building and Social Change: Tipping Points, Phase Transitions, and Global Crisis
  • Sticky Fields: Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, and Narrative

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