Students as Creative Producers

Travis Noakes, Laura Czerniewicz, Cheryl Brown.

University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa.

students, web2.0, creative production, connected learning.


This paper follows two South African Media Studies university students and their activities as producers of online content. It considers the online publication services they chose to express media-related academic and creative interests outside of formal curriculum requirements. Through peer guidance and using online search, both students were able to access educational resources and communities of expertise relevant to varied creative production interests. These relationships supported self-directed and interest-driven learning across academic, civic and career domains. Such cross-linkages are a unique feature of the pedagogical approach of ‘Connected Learning’ (Ito et al., 2013), which knits together three crucial contexts for learning: peer- supported, interest-powered and academically-oriented. It argues that learners flourish and achieve their potential when they can connect their interests and social engagement to academic studies, civic engagement, and career opportunity. This paper shows how the varied online publication services used by both students provided them with inter-connected and relevant extramural experiences.


This paper results from a phase of a research project that explored the access and use of digital technologies in the learning and everyday lives of South African university students. It focuses on the two students in terms of their activities as online producers of content, the respective services they chose; the trajectories and linkages of their career interests; and the types of online presences they created, maintained or discontinued into their third year at university. Using Connected Learning (CL) as a heuristic, it also considers how both cases show varying interconnectedness between the students’ curricular, interest-driven and socially-embedded, learning experiences.

Students as creative producers

In recent years there has been a massive growth in self-publishing on the internet which relies on ‘Web2.0’ technologies (O’Reilly, 2005). These support social networks that exhibit the characteristics of a rich-user experience, user-participation, dynamic content, one-to-one data, web standards compliance and scalability (Best, 2006). This enables a ‘read-write web’ whereby readers can easily become producers, replacing the broadcast nature of Web1.0 (Gilmor, 2004). These online services enable the user to: create a bounded profile linked to a social network of ‘friends’, groups and interests; subscribe to their updates; share text, image, video and audio content; provide feedback on other users’ content  through reviews and tagging content and data; controlling privacy settings; and sharing and linking to similar online services, at low or no cost (Cormode & Krishnamurthy, 2008). Many Web2.0-based, online services are ‘social networks’ that enable their users to create, share and show connections. Social networks are services that (1) allow individuals to construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system (boyd and Ellison, 2007). Contributing to the high uptake of these services is that they are “free”,with no direct financial costs to end-users.


These new forms of social media and technology afford new practices and can be viewed  as part of a broader set of social structures and cultural patterns (Ito et al., 2010). Ethnographic and other qualitative approaches used by researchers have surfaced, inter alia, organising descriptions around the foundational social practices of: ‘friendship’, ‘intimacy’, ‘family’, ‘gaming’, ‘creative production’ and ‘work’. Although evidence collected in the fourth phase of the ICT Access and Use (ICTAU, 2013) uncovered these practices amongst students, this paper focuses on their creative production.


Creative production research in the global North has explored the use of diverse media formats, such as: creative writing media (Willett, 2001 in the UK); digital publishing (Booth, 1999 in the UK); wikis, blogs and podcasts (Richardson, 2010, in the USA); games and media-rich computer programming (Wang and Chen, 2010 in Taiwan); alternate reality game authoring (Connolly, Stansfield, Hainey, 2011 in the EU); video production (Buckingham, Fisherkeller, Horst, 2003 in the UK); multimedia production projects (Tripp and Herr-Stephenson, 2009 in the USA) and music-making (Mahendran, 2007 in the USA).


In contrast with this abundance of research, while general studies in South Africa have described the use of technologies by students (Thinyane, 2010. Czerniewicz and Brown, 2010.) and the prevalence of their social media use (SA Student Social Media Report, 2009), there is little research into the creative production of students. This may reflect the constraints that many face in exercising personal agency and overcoming challenges to accessing and using appropriate technological-, content- and contextual resources (Czerniewicz and Brown, 2005). Learners, in particular, face  great resourcing challenges and many are limited to making media production experiments in free public access venues, such as municipal libraries, or costly cyber cafes (Walton and Donner, 2012). A few studies have covered creative production of students or learners with these formats; blogging (Cronje, 2012), wikis (Rowe, 2012), video editing and production (Deacon, Morrison, Stadler. 2005), filming and editing with smartphones (Hassreiter, Walton, Marsden. 2011), Visual Arts e-portfolio design (Noakes, 2012.) and music-making (Haupt, 2012.) There is a research gap in the local literature concerning the creative production by students of online writing presences, podcasts, games and multimedia projects. This is interesting in a context where there is high growth in the use of social networks. Mxit, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google Plus being the largest, platform-neutral, social networks in SA (Vermeulen, 2012).  

The Connected Learning Framework

During the analysis phase, it became clear that these two case studies reveal high levels of resonance with CL, specifically in terms of students being able pursue their interests with the support of online peers and linking their activities across academic, civic and/or career domains. The CL Framework (Ito et al., 2013) is of interest to researchers seeking a way of understanding and describing the linkages between the formal and the informal, between curricular and extracurricular activities and across the academic and the personal spaces in the lives of students. CL differentiates itself from other educational approaches in its explicit focus on learning that is linked across the settings of ‘school’, ‘home’, ‘peer’, and ‘popular culture’. A key contribution is its attention to the creation of social, cultural, and technological foci that enable young people to link, integrate, and translate their interests across academic, civic, and career-relevant domains.  CL posits that through linking these different spheres of learning—’peer culture’, ‘interests’ and ‘academic subjects’— interest-driven and meaningful learning can be better supported in ways that take advantage of the democratizing potential of digital networks and online resources.


The CL Framework indicators (Ito et al., 2013) knits together three ‘contexts for learning’ (peer supported, interest powered and academically oriented). The ‘core properties’ of a CL experience is that it is production-centered, there is a shared purpose and it is openly-networked. The ‘design principles’ that inform the intentional connecting of learning environments are that everyone can participate, learning happens by doing, challenge is constant and everything is interconnected. Finally, ‘online services amplify opportunities for CL’, through fostering engagement and self-expression, increasing accessibility to knowledge and learning experiences, expanding social supports for interests and expanding diversity and building capacity.


The rationale of CL for focusing on younger people is that they are forming interests and social identities, developing an orientation to learning and making decisions leading to certain job or career opportunities (Ito et al, 2013).

The study

This paper uses an holistic, multiple case study method (Yin, 2008) to explore the extramural, online publication services used by the two students for creative production. It illustrates how students creative production activities included indicators of CL, and shows the blurring or not blurring of boundaries between formal and informal practices and the academic and the personal (Czerniewicz and Brown, 2010).


The fourth phase of an International Development Research Centre (IDRC)-funded project used a ‘digital ethnography’ approach to explore the digital practices of 23 first-year students across four universities in SA. Locally based researchers gathered a range of data from each subject including video interviews, focus group discussion; video diaries of participants ICT use and Facebook observations. This evidence was transcribed and collated into the qualitative research software, NVivo 9, for analysis based on four coding matrices guided by the research framework. The multiple strategies used to collect this evidence revealed student activities in context and provided a more nuanced description of the role of technologies for study and leisure purposes in student life, as reflected in the case study for a rural student, (Czerniewicz and Brown, 2012a) and ‘digital strangers’ (Czerniewicz and Brown, 2012b).


Data concerning the students extramural use of online publication services for creative production is presented along with additional questions posed to investigate synergies with CL. Both students were given the opportunity to read and review this article which was refined based on their subsequent feedback, as recommended for trustworthiness and validity by Yin (2008).

The cases

Whilst all of the students in the study used social networks to support friendships, the two cases highlighted here were unusual in that as first year Media Studies students’ they were using online sites to pursue extramural creative production: the online writing platforms ‘Fanstory’ and ‘Wattpad’ for poetry and a personal journal; the micro-blogging service, ‘Twitter’ for tweets and amplification, and the video services, ‘YouTube’ and ‘Vimeo’ for sharing video creations.


Vince is a 21 year-old, third year student in UCT’s Humanities Faculty. He stays in a university residence and is technologically well-resourced. He owns a Blackberry and a laptop. He has a long history of ICT use, having owned his first mobile phone when he was twelve. However, he did not have any formal exposure to ICT and was not interested in the opportunity to take secondary school courses in IT.


Vince demonstrates high levels of personal agency in his ICT use for creative production. He originally presented himself as a songwriter and poet in 2011. Since doing practical film work at UCT, he has changed his self-presentation online. He now describes himself as a ‘Filmmaker, director and scriptwriter’ on Twitter and Google Plus. He has also moved to predominantly using film-related online services.

The move Vince made from extramural writing to focussing on academic and career- orientated film activities, reflects CL indicators in being interest-powered and linking academically-orientated, peer-supported and career-related contexts.


In his first-year, both the social networking and online writing platform presences of Vince reflected his interests in songwriting. Regarding his Facebook status updates, he said, ‘I don't write like those stupid personal statuses, where like you are having a cup of tea with your best friend. No. If I find something which is quite insightful or profound or interesting, then I will put it up and see how people react to it.’ This suited his interest as a songwriter, who sings for a band. He finds it interesting to, ‘see how how people react to stuff that I write’ (Int1, 2011, R16) and values the reactions of his social media peers. This links to the CL indicators for fostering engagement and expanding social support for interests.


Vince often used online search to find writing competitions in 2011, ‘... often I feel like writing, so I'll randomly just try to find a writing competition. Because I'm always, either I'm writing songs or I'm writing poems, or something of the sort. Um, ja. So what do I do?’ (Int2, 2011, R14). He registered on Fanstory for free and used it for submitting poetry before choosing to subscribe to the service at $30 a year, to ‘get like tonnes of reviews. You have to pay for it, but it is really cool.’ (Int2, 2011, R13). He enjoyed having his work reviewed. Some reviewers were unusual in sharing personal details. For example in response to a poem Vince wrote for his Dad’s Birthday, an American mother wrote; ‘My three sons are just a little younger than you and would dearly love to think of their father this way, because they are fine young men, like you they do love him, even though he doesn't know they exist, only as showpieces when they do well. Always value your relationship with your Dad.’ Intensely personal reviews and a close online friendship he had made contributed to Vince’s belief that, ‘it really is an online community.’ Participation in this online community also assisted him to be more receptive to criticism, ‘I was extremely defensive of my poetry when I joined the site and gradually learned to calm down more and try to better understand and consider the reviewers criticisms before I launched into a diatribe.’ (email, 07/02/2012).


Vince took advantage of the engagement and feedback from his Fanstory peers to become more accepting of constructive criticism and more considerate in delivering his. Vince also reviewed the work of other Fanstory writers, but had to refine an approach that was initially too honest and critical, ‘... after a while of, um, seeing other people's reviews and stuff, I realised that actually, no, this site is more like, it is to help people to get better at writing. So, it's not really that objective, it's kind of like, give each other nice ratings and prop each other up, thing. So, it's less harsh than I understood and it is more of an online community, like people are friendly. And it is nice as you are sharing something intimate.’ (Int2, 2011, R32). Vince could participate in several first year media production projects, including script- and article writing. However, he perceived the scope for feedback on his unofficial interests to be limited. He said that there were ‘no opportunities for feedback on my creative writing, including poetry’ (email, 07/02/2012).


Vince also uses social networks to engage his immediate acquaintances with his civic thoughts; ‘I often feel a bit preachy and stand on my social network soapbox to voice my qualms - sometimes I get a good response’ (email, 07/02/2012). He believes this is probably more akin to exerting ‘online peer pressure’, than participating in the civil domain.


Vince has contributed poetry to and an article to a friend’s Varsity Vibes website in 2011. He believes his online writing work has given him, ‘confidence in my creative writing and encouraged me to indulge (often to my detriment) in poetic descriptions within my discursive essays (especially in English Literature).’ (email, 07/02/2012). This reflects a CL indicator in building capacity


During 2012, his entire online footprint changed from one that which ‘reflects the identity of a confused but inspired and enthusiastic song writer (in which I would try to emulate the rebellious voice and philosophies of my namesake - Bob Dylan - in little lyric status updates) to one that reflects the calmer, but no less confused, identity of an aspiring film maker (in which I would offer my thoughts on movies I love and my activities).’ (email, 07/02/2012). Vince now highlights his career ambition through describing himself as a ‘Film maker/ Director/ Screenwriter’ on his Twitter, Google Plus and LinkedIn accounts. He further describes himself as co-owner of a film-making business. He has created a YouTube video channel and a Vimeo account, both of which feature videos he has worked on at University and privately. He has also published a documentary pitch presentation to Prezi.


He believes these presences support his ability to network and develop a career in film: He describes his online presences as a ‘better way for people to get to know me and what I have to say’, helping him to develop social support in a film-industry that ‘seems to boil down to the old axiom that "it's not what you know, it's who you know" and what better way for people to get to know me and what I have to say than my online writing (including Facebook, Youtube and Twitter). Not to mention my ability to connect with the people that I need to know through these social networking sites. In no way am I saying that I think my "online writing presence" is of a good quality but rather that it gives me the opportunity to have a voice.’ (email, 07/02/2012)


These presences reflect the CL ‘design principle’ indicator ‘everything is interconnected’. Using these varied service contexts gives Vince the opportunity to develop mastery of specialist practices. His online presences have enabled him to connect with important people and organisations, like the Ghetto Film School of LA (GFS). The GFS is an arts programme that primarily assists learners in the US with developing story- and film-making skills and organises a MasterClass for international students via Google Plus’ Hangouts. In 2012 Vince entered a GFS competition and used it to produce an expertly crafted and visually arresting video which was chosen to be showcased at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013 and consequently sponsored his attendance. This is arguably an indicator of CL expanding diversity and building capacity in facilitating the participation of a previously peripheral Global South student into an American event.




Odette (22) is a third year, BA in Film and Media student. She did not own a laptop in first-year, but could access social networks via her Samsung smartphone. She prefers to view the internet on the computer screen and accesses it mainly on campus; in the library or computer labs. She also occasionally accessed the internet on her boyfriend’s laptop, using her or her sister’s mobile phone as a modem.


Odette is very cautious about sharing her creative writing online. This lead to her example featuring CL indicators for an interested powered activity, journal writing, that had some potential to foster her interest through social support. Although she could publish other personal projects, she voiced two concerns that limited the type and extent of her publication; initially she was concerned that her fiction would be critiqued by online viewers, then she also became concerned about copyright. While she stated that she could write emails to herself to protect her copyright, she believes that the safest for her is to, ‘be professional with my projects and not place them on Wattpad (an online writing platform supporting a community of aspiring writers.)’ (Int1, 2011, R5). This distinction is also reflected in her use of a business and private email address; she created a Gmail account specifically for contacting publishers and businesses, while using a Hotmail account for her private correspondence. This shows a careful control of her online identity.


Odette did decide to create an account under the Wattpad online writing platform. She chose to write to it under a pseudonym and publishes an autobiographical journal to Wattpad. She prefers using this to a physical journal, as the digital one is under a pseudonym, so it ‘cannot be linked to her’ (Int1, 2011, R5). She originally used to write her journal in ‘actual books’ and she was not completely herself as she knew someone might find it. As it is under a different name online, she believes it is highly unlikely that someone will find it. As a result, she is more at peace using a medium where she feels she can share her ‘deepest and darkest secrets’. (Int1, 2011, R12).


From a CL perspective this supports limited engagement, however the publication of her journal to Wattpad still provides a forum for her self-expression. There is also potential for connection with peers online around the common interest of journal-writing. Most of the work she does on Wattpad is on her journal. Although she does not use it for feedback, she does ‘feel that someone is there’. She also believes that people would not typically want to give an author feedback on their journal. She remarked that ‘No one has really commented, although they can’.


She has also used Wattpad to put up a story that she did not plan on publishing, as she had taken its idea and changed it into a script. She did upload a second draft of one of her fantasy novels, but under a different pseudonym, and entered a poem into a Wattpad competition.


Although Wattpad affords social network functionality, Odette has not made friends on the service. She only has one friend on it, who does not know it is a presence by Odette. She believes that the service is far more popular in USA, where it is like a ‘group of friends’. By contrast, she does not really communicate with other users, unless they tell her that her work is really good. ‘Wattpad is less communication than expressing yourself. People like to be appreciated; if people like your work that's cool. Having your work online also looks cool.’ (Int1, 2011, R10).


Odette does not feature her creative production work on other sites. However she does use publically searchable FB and Pinterest accounts to share her interests: Her FB account reflects a Manga imagery interest under an image album ‘Today I feel’, which includes over 200 appropriated cartoon images. Odette also uses Pinterest under her surname and a nickname to share visual imagery that inspires her as a self-described ‘Writer. Artist. Thought experiment.’ under categories that include ‘faces’, ‘honestly’ and ‘art’.


An online search reveals that Odette has also largely separated her extramural creative production interests and her career-related, film-related acting and modelling presences. Her LinkedIn profile describes her as currently at ‘L'Agence TKN Models’ agency, and she is listed as a model online under her first name, although she is searchable with her full name via Google.


Odette did not bridge her academic and career-related interests. There is minimal overlap between her presences for; friendship (FB), inspiration (Pinterest), creative production (Wattpad) and work activities (LinkedIn and actor/modelling). Nor did Odette want to receive critical feedback on her writing. Both her copyright and feedback concerns contributed to her example having fewer indicators for CL than Vince. Interestingly though, hers is arguably the most nuanced and carefully managed online footprint of the two. Due to copyright concerns, she chose not to create a presence as an aspirant writer. This contrasts to the approach of Vince, who assumes his copyright will be respected, ‘The thing is have not checked it (copyright) out. I have been just like ‘Wow - writing site!’, BAM! throw it on there. And because there are so many people, I assume that copyright means you get to keep your own work. Especially, because you can actually sell your work through the site.’ (Int2, 2011, R37).


Odette has also been consistent in continuing to use the creative presence she created. By contrast, Vince has switched and stopped using services as his interests changed: Vince switched his online presences from poetry and songwriting to film direction and script-writing.

Concluding discussion 

This paper makes a small contribution to closing a gap in the literature concerning South African students and their extramural creative production with varied online services. By exploring how the students used different services to express their creative interests, the researchers have revealed the presence of many indicators for Connected Learning. As an approach to learning and design, research on the CL framework originally centered on secondary school learners in the U.S. and Great Britain. This paper reveals that a CL framework is also relevant for the extramural, online creative production activities of university students elsewhere in the world.


Both student examples featured the core properties of the CL framework in taking advantage of openly networked, online publication services to produce presences that fostered self-expression. Their extramural use of these new media services also expanded the potential social support for their extramural or co-curricular interests with online peers. Through this, the students could experience learning experiences and build their capabilities.


Their examples also demonstrated the design principles of CL, even though they were student-led: the well-resourced students learnt through doing, faced continual challenges and could connect different domains. The extent of this varied by student; Vince had socially- embedded, interest-driven, educational experiences across varied domains. Odette had legitimate copyright and feedback concerns that resulted in a more nuanced use of online presences, although fewer indicators were present.


Further, these case studies suggest that interest-powered, online creative production can have important benefits for students: feedback from online peers helped students to improve their creative skills and helped build their confidence; by serving as a space for students to reflect on, and define, their interests, the students experienced personal growth; and in using online publication services to bridge academic, civic and career domains, the students had opportunities to reflect on their roles within, and across, these domains.



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