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TILE-SIG Feature: Learning in Online Affinity Spaces

 | Jan 11, 2013

by Jen Scott Curwood

Jen Scott CurwoodLearning is increasingly global, social, and multimodal. In school, students may use digital tools, including Prezi, Animoto, VoiceThread, and Glogster to engage in collaborative learning and to communicate their content knowledge. More than that, students’ learning may partially or fully take place in online environments. Consequently, I think we need to ask: What does learning look like in a digital age? What motivates young people to learn? What spaces and tools support critical thinking and collaborative learning?

To explore these questions, I draw on the concept of affinity spaces. According to James Paul Gee, these physical, virtual, and blended spaces facilitate informal learning where both newcomers and masters interact around a shared endeavor. Affinity spaces are spread across multiple sites, and can include in-person meeting spaces as well as online websites and social networking tools. In a recent article, Jayne C. Lammers, Alecia Marie Magnifico, and I updated this concept to further define nine key features of affinity spaces:

  1. A common endeavor is primary.
  2. Participation is self-directed, multi-faceted, and dynamic.
  3. Portals are often multimodal.
  4. Affinity spaces provide a passionate, public audience for content.
  5. Socializing plays an important role in affinity space participation.
  6. Leadership roles vary within and among portals.
  7. Knowledge is distributed across the entire affinity space.
  8. Many portals place a high value on cataloguing and documenting content and practices.
  9. Affinity spaces encompass a variety of media-specific and social networking portals.
We argue that learning within affinity spaces is primarily self-directed and interest-driven. Moreover, there are multiple ways that people can participate within the space and explore their passion, whether it’s knitting, running, or traveling.

In my research, I’ve spent the past two years looking at how affinity spaces support young adults’ engagement with literature. As a former high school English teacher, I firmly believe that it’s important for youth to find a book (or an author or a genre) that speaks to them. I don’t want today’s students to equate literature with study guides and vocabulary quizzes. Rather, I want them to read something that changes how they think, how they feel, and how they see the world around them.

Through my research on The Hunger Games, I’ve talked to young adults around the world who love having choice in how, when, and why they respond to literature. Out of school, on their own time, these fans have read The Hunger Games trilogy and are avidly participating in the affinity space. What does this kind of learning look like?

  • Through fan fiction, fans explore missing scenes and alternative points of view. To do this, they need to closely analyze the mentor text, understand characterization, and use dialogue as an important part of the plot. features over 28,000 examples of Hunger Games fan fic.
  • Through fan art, they can consider the characters, settings, and events. There are countless examples of Hunger Games fan art, including on DeviantArt and the maps of Panem.
  • Through videos, they can storyboard, re-enact pivotal moments in the plot, and share on YouTube.
  • Through games, they can closely analyze the text in order to authentically portray a character and engage in role plays, like The Hunger Games RPG.
  • Through music, students can write lyrics, compose songs, and share them on Panem Radio.
In many ways, affinity spaces challenged traditional assumptions about the design of learning environments as well as the purpose of digital tools in content area learning. More than anything, I think affinity spaces offer us an idea of what learning truly looks like in a global world.


Gee, J. P. (2004). Situated language and learning: A critique of traditional schooling. New York: Routledge.

Lammers, J.C., Curwood, J.S., & Magnifico, A.M. (2012). Toward an affinity space methodology: Considerations for literacy research. English Teaching: Practice and Critique, 11(2), 44-58.

Jen Scott Curwood is a lecturer at the University of Sydney in Australia. Her website and blog are at

This article is part of a series from the International Reading Association Technology in Literacy Education Special Interest Group (TILE-SIG).

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