Remixing as a Classroom Strategy

Behind the Research

7.7.10 | When it comes to innovations in education, Doug Sery, an acquisitions editor at MIT Press in the new media, game studies and design group, has a simple request: “more remix technologies.”

“[Remixing teaches] systems thinking; connecting ideas, information and experience, as well as collaboration,” Sery says. “In the 21st-century economy, those are the skills you will need to survive.”

But what is remixing and how does it apply to learning?

Remixing first gained widespread attention in the hip-hop world. Taking a cue from Jamaican dance music, artists such as Grandmaster Flash would incorporate recordings by other artists directly into their work. This ranged from short clips (Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” for the Beastie Boys) to re-imagining entire songs, as Run DMC did with Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way.” 

Today, in the ever-expanding world of what can be done with a laptop, the definition of remixing has expanded to include not only music, but also software, film, games and any other media. (High school students in Chicago’s afterschool YOUMedia program share their remixes here.)

“It was taking songs, splicing them together and making different creations,” says Sery. “Now people are using different media to try and get across their ideas.”

And now, remixing is finding its way into the classroom as a way of fostering students’ creativity and helping them learn and express their ideas. It also doesn’t hurt that the medium is second nature to today’s students.

“It’s still very early, but the deep immersion of so many people with video games leads me to believe that this is a good time in history for [remixing in the classroom] to be a success,” Sery says. “These kids are growing up digitally. These are the environments they are comfortable with.”

But Is It Plagiarism?

Yet, just as people questioned the remixing of songs, some have questioned whether remixing in the classroom is a means of creative expression or just laziness or a lack of inventiveness—or even plagiarism. (See “Theft or Tribute? Copyright Butts Heads With Online Habits” for a more in-depth discussion of copyright issues.)

It is a question that reminds Darrell Johnson, a teacher at Carter G. Woodson Charter high school in Chicago, of an experience he had in film school several years ago, when a fellow student in a writing class refused to share a script she’d written because she didn’t want anyone to steal her “original” idea.

“You’ll need to get over that because there are no original ideas,” Johnson recalled the professor saying, before launching into a deconstruction of how “Star Wars” was really nothing more than a remake of the classic Western, complete with bad guys in black hats and heroes in white. 

“George Lucas completely flipped the Western and remixed it,” says Johnson, whose students use remixing as both a learning tool and a means of creative expression.

Teaching 21st-Century Skills

In Johnson’s classroom, remixing forces students to take a critical look at source material and then apply it in ways that prove a thesis or illustrate a point. The students carefully determine whether music, video, text, software or whatever else they are remixing fits the requirements of an assignment, and then they figure out how it can be used to make it their own.

This past spring, Johnson’s students used the HBO Documentary “The Black List” as the jumping-off point for their own project. The original documentary featured straightforward videos in which Al Sharpton, Chris Rock and others spoke directly to the camera about the cultural taint attached to the word “black.” Johnson’s students remixed the concept, using the same format and thematic model, but from their own perspectives about life as a black teen in Chicago.

“They got different perspectives and put them together, taking the existing piece and remixing it from their point of view,” Johnson says. “They made it their own.”

Much as students have always been taught not to pass off the work of others as their own, Johnson’s students spend considerable time learning what makes a remix original work—and what makes it plagiarism.

“During the past two years, we’ve gotten really serious about [understanding] digital plagiarism. We watch lots of news clips and documentaries, where they don’t use more than 30 seconds [of unoriginal work] and they give credit and say where it came from,” Johnson says. “It really is the same format as written narrative. You need a bibliography.”

According to Johnson, working together on group projects that use digital media and remixing also helps student learn how to work as a team, in ways that will serve them well in corporations and jobs that are no longer organized as top-down hierarchies, but as “flat” organizations that depend on collaboration for success.

In remixing, Johnson’s students are learning how important it is to work as a team, but also to break down the tasks and roles required to complete the assignment. They also learn how to coordinate with one another to be both efficient and effective. This means that not everyone needs to do every job.

On one occasion, Johnson learned how well the process was working when he saw a student sitting back, watching his collaborators do their jobs. When Johnson asked why he wasn’t doing anything, the student replied, “I wrote the script.”

“They hit me back with my own words,” Johnson says. “It worked.”

The student understood his role, had done his job, and was now letting others do theirs.

These types of projects and the abilities they help create, Johnson says, are consistent with the way teachers must teach subjects such as social studies in the new millennium.  It’s no longer important to memorize the capital of Montana or the name of the 33rd president. Google can do that. Instead, using technology in general, and remixing in particular, is a way of meeting students where they are—the classic pedagogy rule.

Challenges Ahead

As remixing is incorporated into more educational programs, Sery, the MIT Press editor, also foresees substantial challenges to its effective use.

“Remixing can be a very good learning tool,” says Sery. “But, I think it’s going to be difficult to implement. The technology is going to change quickly, which will make it more difficult to keep a linear curricula with new games, machines and technology.”

For those who still believe that remixing is nothing more than stealing the work of others, Johnson has another story. In this one he explained to some students how “Romeo and Juliet” was the basis for nearly every romance committed to page or screen.

“It’s the original conflict in any love story: You love a girl whose dad doesn’t like you. Every good fight scene in any love story is based on ‘Romeo and Juliet,’” he told them.

But with remixing, students and writers can take that story line as a jumping off point to jumble the characters, ideas and other components of a romance.

“It’s what you do with it,” Johnson says. “That’s what becomes genius.”

Top photo courtesy of the Digital Youth Network/ Mike Hawkins.


mit press, youmedia


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