Interviews – DML Hub The Digital Media and Learning Research Hub Mon, 08 Aug 2016 23:16:13 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Exploring Alternative Visions in Assessing Informal Learning Environments Sun, 03 Nov 2013 21:55:16 +0000 http://78033768 Vera Michalchik is Director of Research on Informal Learning Environments in SRI International’s Center for Technology in Learning. For more than two decades, she has been researching the relationships and differences between in school and out of school learning. Michalchik is one of the key point people working on the Connected

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Vera Michalchik is Director of Research on Informal Learning Environments in SRI International’s Center for Technology in Learning. For more than two decades, she has been researching the relationships and differences between in school and out of school learning. Michalchik is one of the key point people working on the Connected Learning Research Network longitudinal survey, and she is highly involved in the next phase of digital media and learning work, creating an assessment clearinghouse that will bridge the gap between the research work and design work of the initiative. In the past three years, she has co-authored numerous reports and publications on assessment and evaluation including Naturalizing Assessment and Documenting and Assessing Learning in Informal and Media-Rich Environments. We spent a few moments with Michalchik picturing what assessment practices ought to look like in today’s networked world where learning is now less predictable and more diverse than ever.

How has the purpose of assessment changed over the last decade as learning starts to occur anytime, anywhere, without any control by learning professionals?

There are two countervailing forces out there right now. One is a real push to recognize the importance of informal learning environments. We have seen a sea change in recognizing that learning is “lifelong, life wide, and also life deep” – as it’s been coined. It’s not just lifelong and across spaces in one’s life, home, community etc., but there is also a depth of learning that occurs when you look beyond simply what happens in school and look at what people value most. As soon as you get into this new paradigm of thinking about when and where learning occurs and when and where learning is important, suddenly the old tools for assessment, which are really built around some fairly antiquated views and notions of learning, become rather at odds with and, in some ways, antithetical to learning.

Assessment, as it has been traditionally defined and practiced, has been about sequestering students apart from a situation of learning and resources that would allow them to apply those resources to a problem. The intent has been to isolate and identify stuff in the head that stands apart from the world, which is out of touch with the ways people are using technological resources to support their learning. 

A recognition of learning as lifelong, life wide, and life deep, stands in contrast to assessment techniques and tools that belong to a behaviorist paradigm of knowledge accrual. There is a movement among some who are involved in the informal or after-school space who feel we need to standardize ways to measure learning outcomes, while others fear this is another version of school encroaching on the out-of-school or after-school space. We are at risk of inverting the situation where we celebrate and recognize that there are so many possibilities for creating engaging, dynamic, and meaningful learning environments, but with pressure from funders and desire to prove there is learning happening, we end up with a push to standardize metrics and potentially create assessments that may not be that different from what we have seen in school. We risk becoming out of touch with the ethos of “not school” and might potentially undermine the diversity and the strengths of informal learning environments. 

How do you respond to these pressures to apply standardized measures to informal learning environments?

We need to be careful in our pursuit of coming up with common metrics and trying to apply those widely. One concern is about the diversity of learning experiences in learning environments. I’m paraphrasing Richard Feynman who said that the more that we have a monoculture of learning, the less chance we have of producing creative, innovative, capable thinkers. We really want diverse learning environments, and assessment is always the tail that wags the dog. People are beholden to systems of accountability, and what knowledge is valued and how that knowledge is valued really shows up in an assessment system. Besides reducing the diversity of learning environments by having common metrics, we short-change a natural process. This is what we mention in the Naturalizing Assessment article. People are darn good at assessing who knows what in a very intuitive way, and there is potentially a really good analysis to be had historically and otherwise, that knowing who knows how to do what, being able to determine this pretty quickly, and then being able to optimize human and other resources to accomplish a task at hand is an essential function of social interaction.

Can you give an example of an informal learning environment that effectively utilizes these new types of assessment? 

With some of these high-touch programs where there is tight mentorship and a lot of scaffolding of participants’ activities, there is a really nice continual monitoring of where kids are in the program. I think it would be possible to systematize a lot of the insights and intuitions that facilitators or mentors have in those situations so that you could readily say at what point the kid is engaged and “getting it,” this is usually what we see, and if we don’t see this, they are not getting enough support. Anything that is formative and closely tied to the actual experience and grounded in the learning experience is quite important and valuable, and there are programs that do that well such as the Computer Clubhouse.

And several teams have looked at learning outcomes in Computer Clubhouse activities – in relation to face-to-face activities, life outcomes, and the products members create. In general, there are more and more systematic studies of behavior and performance that are minimally disruptive to the informal activity but also allow for documentation of what kinds of participation occur and capacities get put to use in a learning environment, and also what types of choices follow from experience. Ethnography can be used to demonstrate how a type of learning environment or system works, what kinds of outcomes follow from participation. Video documentation, data mining methods of video archives, embedded assessment in learning games are some of the ways of looking for informal learning outcomes that can be more wide-reaching and scalable. 

Do you see digital badging as a valid type of assessment?

I have varied thoughts on badging. I am a little bit in the “I want to see” camp. The one thing you never want to do, and this is a critical finding from social psychology, is offer an incentive in situations where people might be inherently motivated to do something, because as soon as you offer an incentive, you suggest an incentive is needed. I worry about badges becoming an incentive where there is a deeper and more authentic, interest-based motivation or reason to participate available. This is my first concern. 

My second concern is that badging can be gamed like any assessment system, and this shouldn’t be about giving people who are going to game the system more chances do so. Badging at its heart should be about giving people a way to show the world something valuable they have done – this is the core piece – so they can demonstrate they have gotten something out of participating in an informal learning environment. This is essential, as is providing post hoc social recognition or appreciation. I totally understand the intent of creating an alternative and more nimble, specialized credentialing form, but how this actually plays out will be really powerful and helpful in certain environments and less so in others. We really need to wait to see how it plays out.

I was a Girl Scout leader for a long time. It’s such a closed system, with badges mattering for the pleasure and aesthetics of scouting but otherwise in relatively inconsequential ways – unless girls complete Silver or Gold Awards, which the larger community and college admissions officers pay attention to. I could see both the good and the bad in the microcosm of the badge system. It could be playful and fun, but it can also take away from what matters in context, and as far as reputation and certification go, I’d like to really see, empirically, whether badges do more for people than would learning how to write a resume or learning how to articulate what it is they have learned in a non-school environment. But that remains to be seen. 

What are your hopes for the future of assessment?

We need to start lobbying as parents and families of children in school. That’s really an important pressure point. I talk to parents so often, and when they mention an activity their child is doing outside of school, they tell me that their child is so happy and he/she is learning this or that, but then the conversation switches to school mode, and they start discussing how the child has to get this or that grade. They are of two minds. We have two competing paradigms right now – one is tenacious and longstanding, and the other is making inroads. A lot of this battle is a matter of rhetoric, social marketing, and being persistent in providing an alternative vision. 

As soon as we have this alternative vision that learning is not about knowledge accumulation and test performance, but about participating in activities that are well designed or that naturally provide a lot of opportunity to become better at something, we will start to shift the balance and start to create opportunities to value and honor things that haven’t been honored or valued in school very much. 

There are, of course, intransigent parts of the system, and there are policy issues that are enormous and complicated, but hopefully we can start to value the possibility of making school environments more like out-of-school environments in terms of the kinds of activities and the kinds of informal, interactional assessments that take place in those settings. In those settings, it’s much more about kids trying, maybe failing, and maybe succeeding, all the while engaging with the materials and each other and doing so in ways that show they are attending to the resources and the possibility for building skills in that environment that help them solve a problem, accomplish a goal, or succeed at a game. 

Do you have any story in particular that illustrates we’re beginning to move in a promising direction?

A science center in Texas had worked briefly with teachers and taught them how to make Scribble Bots. The teachers took the Scribble Bots back to their classrooms, and some time later, they administered their standardized tests. The test scores were basically the same as before they had used the Scribble Bots, except for one little peak. They dove in deeper to find out what it was, and it was a science question on circuitry. The students had all scored ridiculously high on the question. Teachers don’t want to teach for the test, but it’s true you learn the basics of circuitry when you use these types of devices. You’re never ever going to forget the basics of circuitry. In the world we’re living in right now there’s really no value in accumulating lots of knowledge, but instead there’s value in having a foundational sensibility and appreciation of a domain of activity and knowledge enough where you can leverage and capitalize on that foundation so you can do more, choose to do more, in the future. 

When kids hang out in a makerspace and use a Makey Makey or some other device, if nothing else, there is a physical and embodied experience that changes their relationship to an important aspect of scientific knowledge, which is the circuit. There are so many stories out there like this, stories that affirm learning is happening when people are creating technical systems, products, and artifacts, and this kind of learning can’t be ignored. We need to document and share it in ways that are true to the nature of the learning and are also convincing to the world at large.

Photo credit: Exploratorium

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Supporting Learning Innovation at a Local Level Sun, 06 Oct 2013 17:59:21 +0000 http://75820790 In 2001, Cathy Lewis Long and Matt Hannigan founded The Sprout Fund, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting projects that focus on fostering grassroots community innovation and increasing civic engagement. The Sprout Fund has a rich history of providing catalytic support for community projects, and it was this record

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In 2001, Cathy Lewis Long and Matt Hannigan founded The Sprout Fund, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting projects that focus on fostering grassroots community innovation and increasing civic engagement. The Sprout Fund has a rich history of providing catalytic support for community projects, and it was this record that brought the duo into the learning innovation space seven years later with the establishment of the Kids+Creativity Network. Just this past summer, Lewis Long and Hannigan helped launch the Pittsburgh Hive Learning Network, joining the cities of Chicago and New York in this expanding global network, which supports connected learning experiences that prepare teens and young adults for college, the workforce and civic participation. We sat down with the founders for a few moments to discuss how the Pittsburgh Hive is affording connected learning opportunities and how the Hive model might best be scaled in the years to come. 

The Hive Days of Summer marked the official unveiling of the Pittsburgh Hive to the city’s teen audience. Now that students are back in school, how do you continue to build off this momentum you’ve created?  

Lewis Long: This summer, we really hit the ground running by using “Days of Summer” as the launch pad to introduce Hive to the teens and tweens of the Pittsburgh region. We took the big tent approach, having an umbrella set of activities and branding them as “Hive Days of Summer,” and from a momentum perspective, if you take a look at the Remake Learning blog, you will notice a constant churn of opportunities, events, and projects are popping up. We don’t see its conclusion as end-of-summer blues; it’s a good launching pad that takes us into the school year. 

Hannigan: One thing that is important about our Hive Learning Network is that we have the active participation of many formal educators and school districts, which has given us a great leg up in terms of making sure that the connected learning work isn’t solely contained in out-of-school experiences. Of the ten projects we have supported thus far through the Hive Fund for Connected Learning, four are being led by school districts, which provides a really strong opportunity to build on the connected learning model. If you already have the academic payoff, you have a head start in building out the interests and other kinds of peer-mediated experiences that make the learning experience that much more potent and that much more connected. 

One example of this is a project called “This Day in Pittsburgh History,” which is being led by the Cornell School District. It is a $5,000 grant we made with students scripting, filming, and editing 180 documentaries on key dates in Pittsburgh history. The youth work with the Heinz History Center, taking field trips, exploring the archives, learning about history, and developing very short “This Day in History” video documentaries that will ultimately form an archive that will serve as an instructional tool for those at Cornell and others in the Pittsburgh region. It’s a great example of a project working with a strong informal partner like the History Center and being led by a really innovative instructor who is bringing the support of the Cornell District with him. The engagement of the districts is one reason why the Kids+Creativity Network has worked well, and it is something we can leverage for Pittsburgh’s Hive Learning Network.

Your latest endeavor, Remake Learning Digital Corps, is intended to “meet youth where they are.” How will Digital Corps achieve this goal?  

Lewis Long: We are really excited to be launching this program. Youth spend so much time out of school, so we looked at how we could we take the connected learning work that we are doing in the community through the Hive and meet kids where they are in out-of-school settings without bumping into two factors you hear about most often: the practitioners in these settings don’t have the professional development to teach digital literacy skills and they don’t have the necessary tools and resources. We thought about the idea of training people within the Network on tools for new literacies by curating a set of free, openly available, and low-cost learning tools. The Digital Corps model would allow, for example, a 6th grade math teacher who has extra time in her schedule and who is excited about these tools to be trained and deployed into out-of-school settings, meeting kids where they are in terms of where they are spending time. We also didn’t want to create a professional development gap with the practitioners who are working in those spaces. We saw it as a great way to advance learning and scaffold it in ways that are fun, while at the same time not expecting more from the educators who are working in those informal spaces than they are actually able to deliver. 

Hannigan: We want to inspire youth workers in those settings to see what is possible with today’s digital tools so that they too can bring these programs and activities directly into their work in the future, but not necessarily mandate that at the front end. We want to lead by example and create opportunities that people can plug into their programs. We are also hoping that it creates an interesting volunteer opportunity for our Network. Often, we find people who want to get involved in the work, but they aren’t learning innovators who are proposing new programs or activities. They are people concerned about Pittsburgh youth and learning, and they want to give some volunteer service. This is a great way of increasing our public impact and engagement with this work. 

How do you begin to meet the global demand for a Hive model – increasing its scale and impact – while preserving the program’s strengths?

Lewis Long: When we think about the potential for Hive, we begin to address this exact question: How are Hive Learning Networks completely local and authentic to the communities where they are operating, and then how do they get remixed to other communities? Part of this is the potential of global connections with hyper local experiences. What does that afford to practitioners and afford to teens themselves when you connect a teen from one Hive Learning Network through the global Hive to another teen? This is a theoretical frame that we are thinking about with our colleagues from the Mozilla Foundation as we begin to understand Hive’s strategy moving forward. There won’t necessarily be formal Hive Learning Networks established all across the globe, but we are beginning to see a big pop up of Hive activity, along what we are calling “Spectrum of Hivey-ness.” We are thinking about ways to create a more open source and hackable set of learning tools that people can use to enable connected learning experiences in their cities. Working with the youth that they are connected to make them part of a global movement without necessarily establishing the deep and connected network infrastructure that exists in cities like Pittsburgh, Chicago and New York. 

What do you see as the biggest obstacles for your success?

Hannigan: One major obstacle is determining how to take what has been largely a practitioner movement and actually breaking through into the public consciousness. A lot of our attention over the last six months has been on how we can contextualize this work and repackage it for a consumer audience to help build broader awareness of what is happening and to create a more pervasive set of stakeholders who are interested in seeing these type of things take shape. We have had a lot of success with some school districts, inspiring some really active teachers or administrators to remake learning in their districts in a way that is interesting, but we want to reach the parents who go to school board meetings to also advocate for these kinds of learning experiences. What it is going to take for this to happen? It will take a broader awareness among the public of what’s possible for learners, what a connected learning environment actually produces, and then tying it to outcomes. 

Are there other main focuses for the upcoming year? 

Lewis Long: As we begin to think in earnest about 2014 and beyond, it becomes a great opportunity to think about scaling the work. We have laid so much groundwork – we have worked as a very informal and organic network since 2007 through the leadership of The Grable Foundation and then in 2011 formalized our network by Sprout taking on the local stewardship. It is exciting to think about Pittsburgh as a petri dish to try new things. With relative ease you can get on a call with a school administrator or connect with the Children’s Museum to do some play testing, or put two practitioners together to think about what’s possible. For us, it’s about thinking about how to move this work forward in a way that can be a laboratory for all of the practitioners who are working in connected learning spaces.

Hannigan: Cathy is a Pittsburgh native, and I am a transplant. I came here for grad school, and Pittsburgh got its hooks into me. In my experience these last 13 years, Pittsburgh is a place, fundamentally, where people respect hard work. There is a real “show me, don’t tell me” attitude and that spirit of wanting to put things in practice and to see what is possible is very much alive in what we do. People who are ready to roll up their sleeves will find a variety of willing and exciting partners here who have the potential to take their national work and put it into a local context that is deep and interconnected. Those kinds of initiatives are highly supportive and successful when they come to Pittsburgh. As a community, we understand what’s necessary to see that kind of change really happen. 

How do the community programs you were a part of growing up compare to today’s youth programs that are more networked, social etc.?

Lewis Long: Thinking back on my adolescence, I definitely had early experiences of hanging out, messing around, and geeking out. I was practicing HOMAGO before I even knew about it! For me it was all about the neighborhood. I didn’t have a lot of formal lessons and I didn’t belong to many clubs. Instead most of my learning was informal, and I discovered my interests through my neighborhood surroundings.

Hannigan: In high school I participated in the YMCA’s Youth and Government program. It was a mock legislature program, which brought people together for one weekend at the Indiana state house. We sat in the chairs of the legislators and debated bills as we thought about the change we wanted to enact. When I think about the opportunities that are afforded by the technology and innovation around connected learning, I imagine that programs like these are no longer relegated to a single weekend of activity, but rather it is an ongoing dialogue among the youth and teens who care about these issues. Because of the connections that are afforded by social media and other technologies, the debates you might have on the state house floor can continue on Twitter and you can advocate for your ideas in the public realm. It is interesting for me to reflect on that process. Nowadays, the young people who are engaged in informal learning like that can have an even deeper experience than I had when I was involved. 

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Rethinking Mentorship, Learning Pathways in a Networked Age Sat, 07 Sep 2013 14:49:10 +0000 http://72772729 As founder of the Digital Youth Network, a digital literacy program for Chicago youth that incorporates both in-school and out-of-school settings and co-founder of YOUmedia, a 5,500-square-foot multimedia learning space for Chicago teens, Nichole Pinkard is well known in the digital media & learning community for work that encompasses both theory

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As founder of the Digital Youth Network, a digital literacy program for Chicago youth that incorporates both in-school and out-of-school settings and co-founder of YOUmedia, a 5,500-square-foot multimedia learning space for Chicago teens, Nichole Pinkard is well known in the digital media & learning community for work that encompasses both theory and practice. Pinkard is also the co-creator of Remix World, a social learning platform that connects youth’s learning opportunities in school, home, and in the community. She’s also serving as conference chair for the 2014 Digital Media and Learning Conference, which is themed “Connecting Practices” and will take place March 6-8, 2014, in Boston. We sat down for a few moments with Pinkard to learn more about the upcoming conference and to talk about how mentoring practices can best support today’s youth.

How is the increase of online and mobile access changing the nature of the mentor-mentee relationship?

We just spent the summer participating in the Chicago Summer of Learning where we provided more than 500 learning opportunities for youth, many of which were online-driven. Some of them were face-to-face as well, but for the majority, youth only had access to mentors in the online space. One of the big challenges for us particularly with our mentors was understanding the difference between providing face-to-face support, which is much more tangible but limits the amount of lives you can touch, versus trying to create other opportunities we might call ‘light versions’ of the same programming where mentors have the opportunity to reach a thousand kids or more. Part of it is technical. How do you articulate challenges and learning opportunities so kids can pick them up online but also make sure you have enough resources available so they can access them if they have questions? It’s a challenge if you are trying to turn a face-to-face experience into an online experience. The question is whether you should even start with the face-to-face or just start online from the beginning.

One of the projects we used this summer, Code HS, is an online tool that uses a specific platform to help kids develop programming skills, but the company provides online tutoring and mentoring if the students need it. This platform works because it was designed from the ground up to be an online system as opposed to taking a face-to-face program and trying to turn into an online program.

What are your hopes for mentorship in the digital age?

I grew up in Kansas City, which was small, and because of its size, there was easy access to mentoring opportunities. I don’t know if that is the same anymore. In today’s era, we have to think about how to use technology to make mentoring opportunities more accessible both to those who want to mentor and to youth who need mentors. We have to complexify our definition of mentorship so that it is not all about ‘big brother/little sister.’ How clear do we make the process that led to the creation of the artifact? There are ways to use technology to enable people to learn from each other even when they are not intentionally set up to have a close connection.

It is just as important to enable a long-tail form of mentoring. If I have an expertise in one small aspect of photography, then it is incredibly important for me to have the ability to use online tools to make that expertise available to others. In order to do this, we have to address this fear that kids shouldn’t be talking to adults online. There’s no reason why a kid couldn’t be a mentor to an adult and vice versa around a shared passion or interest. We have to figure out how to get rid of some of our expectations around who can connect to whom. We must ensure we have secure ways to make it happen, but we have to allow for short term mentoring connections. I might be your mentor for just the next 40 minutes. The question becomes, am I a teacher, a mentor, a role model, or an instructor? What do all of these terminologies really mean? What’s the assumption about them, and how is technology facilitating them? We can’t assume all mentoring opportunities will be lifetime connections.

You recently reimagined the role of the mentor in your summer project, Digital Divas. What did this entail?

This summer, we took a group of middle school girls and tried to develop their ability to engage in STEM-related activities such as e-fashion and programming. We intentionally wanted to do it so that the mentors weren’t like myself in the way that I am a computer scientist, but people whom the girls could connect with on a personal level. We wanted to know if we could create enough support using online tools such as Code HS and the work Kylie Peppler has done in the e-fashion world so that a third-year college student who had the ability to create an affinity space but wasn’t someone who necessarily had the expertise and the knowledge to teach them how to code could use these resources to mentor these girls. Are the online tools sufficient enough so the mentors feel comfortable supporting the girls, but so they don’t have to be the ones teaching them to do everything? It is critical because when we move into new areas, particularly in digital media, we often want to place them in underrepresented communities, and the people who know the kids aren’t the people who have the technical skills in these areas, and the people who have the technical skills aren’t the ones who know the kids. How do you create a marriage so you are educating those who know the kids and also providing them the resources so they can create the spaces that kids want to be in and they can still develop the skill set?

For this particular program, we wanted to look closely at the programming because it is all done online. I really tried to not come in and teach it because that would have defeated the purpose. In Code HS, the girls moved through the system at different enough paces so that there were always girls who knew more than others. There is a peer-mentor aspect to it. We also created an end-of-summer goal that was predicated not just on individual success but on group success as well. If they wanted to get that goal of going to Great America, they had to make sure that enough girls progressed in ways that they needed to progress. It was interesting seeing middle school girls – majority of them African American – helping each other code and making sure each other understood the concepts. It’s definitely something we are going to continue pursuing in the future.

DML2014’s theme, “Connecting Practices,” marks a transitional focus from theory to educational practice. Is this a sign of changing times in the field?

One desire of DML is to really begin to bridge research and practice, and selecting me as chair of the conference is indicative of that desire because I sit at that very intersection. Everything I do from an intervention standpoint is informed by research, and the work I do informs research. The work I do is in fact research, but it is in a different form than the traditional academic paper trail.

We are now at that point where we can think about DML and connected learning becoming a movement. We now have on-the-ground applications so people can touch it and feel it, which means that we have to really move towards helping more people understand how to turn theory into practice. DML has always been about that intersection of people who are both interventionists and researchers. Because of traditional conference formats, the conferences might have been more research intensive in the past, but those who have attended in the past have been intervention-based people who are looking to be fed on the latest theory and where they can go next. It’s really important to keep that combination because if you just have practice without theory, you start to question what it is you are doing, and you also want to make sure theory is informed by practice.

How do these shifting connotations of mentorship you speak of factor into the conference theme?

Those of us who work in digital media – and DYN have been guilty of this –are in a space where we can show great examples of what kids have produced, but we don’t display the pathways beyond the one-year or three-month program a kid is engaged in. We have to start to understand the pathways and the longitudinal outcomes and impact of our work. How do we follow kids over a period of time, and how do we hand off kids to each other such that I shouldn’t have to feel I have to run a video program that expands six grade levels? Can’t I focus on what I know best and figure out what the natural handoffs are for other organizations either online or in the physical space to support the kids? We work with kids, and we think they are our kids until they graduate, but for the betterment of the kids, we have to think about the pathways.

We also have to recognize that kids have different onramps to those pathways, and we have to have multiple onramps to engage kids. If not, my big fear is that we will do all of this work, and the kids that are participating will be the kids who would have participated all along, and the kids who want to participate are sitting on the sideline. They want to participate, but they just don’t know how to get access. For me, it goes back to Annette Lareau’s work on unequal childhoods. From birth, some kids are taught how to access resources to help them explore their interests. Others aren’t taught that interests can be explored. They might have the same interest, but one kid knows how to find mentors and the other kid doesn’t access pathways that might be right in front of him/her. We really want to start to find these pathways that can enable all kids to connect.

Did you have any mentors growing up that have really inspired that work you’re doing now?

Kansas City was a mentoring community. Growing up, my father was a mentor in so many different ways. He was a football coach in the local community, and I would go to practice with him often and see him working with kids that weren’t his. I had a brother who wasn’t even on his football team. I think about all of the lives he touched.

I was in the third or fourth grade, and I really wanted to play soccer. I didn’t know what it was, and it was new to Kansas City, but I was into sports, and I wanted to play. He signed me up, and on the first day of practice there were no girls, and there were no kids of color, so I looked at him and said, “Well, I guess we can go home now.” He told me I was going to get out of the car and play soccer. I still vividly remember walking across that field feeling so out of place but knowing I couldn’t turn around and go back to the car. Once I got across that field, I started to enjoy the sport, and I played for several years. I was often the only girl, and the only African American on the field, but that experience was a turning point for me. I have never allowed being a woman or a minority to be a barrier for me in doing something. Had he allowed me to turn around, my life could be very different.

 Banner image credit: Aspen Institute,

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Games, Learning & Literacy in the 21st Century Mon, 05 Aug 2013 15:40:30 +0000 http://69900281 As the Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies at Arizona State University, James Paul Gee is one of the most respected academics in the field of education. Perhaps the most widely recognized scholar on games and learning, Gee’s book, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning

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As the Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies at Arizona State University, James Paul Gee is one of the most respected academics in the field of education. Perhaps the most widely recognized scholar on games and learning, Gee’s book, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, was the first of its kind to argue that good video games are designed to enhance learning through active learning principles supported by research in the Learning Sciences. Gee, who has written extensively on linguistics, psychology, and education, has recently shifted his attention to learning systems that recruit multiple types of digital media. His latest book, The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students Through Digital Learning explores “what it means to be smart and to be a fully awake participant in our high-risk global world in the twenty-first century.” Gee is also an advisor to the Working Examples community and Arizona State University’s Center for Games & Impact. We spent a few moments with Gee discussing the potential games and alternative research practices have in transforming today’s education model.

In the next decade, do you see video games being embraced in classrooms as practical learning tools, and how will the increased popularity of mobile technology among youth support this cause?

You can’t begin to answer questions around mobile and games until you have specified the learning system. This is the trouble with today because we talk about how we should use technology and how technology is going to reform schools or solve significant problems when we haven’t answered fundamental questions such as: How do we want people to learn? What do we want them to learn, and what should the outcomes be?

I was part of a movement decades ago called the new literacy studies, which was based on a counter intuitive claim that if you want to understand literacy, you shouldn’t start with literacy because literacy is always embedded in social practices. Different communities use literacy in different ways at different times. If you want to understand literacy, start with the social practices and then ask, how do they recruit written language? The same thing is true of digital media. All of these tools have things they are good at and not good at. Many video games are very good at creating motivation and creating engagement, but they are not good for covering a whole curriculum. If you want to understand augmented reality, mobile games, or technology, don’t start with the technology — start with the learning system. Then, once you have answered these fundamental questions, you can determine how and for what purposes you are going to use a specific tool within this learning system.

What do you see as the one thing that will most likely revolutionize education?

The thing that will revolutionize education, but not necessarily for good, is the iPad-like device. The reason for that is not that the devices are essentially extremely good, but it is because the states are mandating that they get their tests digitally on a tablet because it’s cheaper. But once you mandate that the curriculum come on an iPad-like device, it’s no longer text — it’s media. It is going to have images, video, and games. It’s multimedia. So all of a sudden, inadvertently and accidentally, you have demanded that we move from textbooks to multimedia. This opens up a wonderful opportunity for good in that we can customize and crowd source all kinds of simulations, games, graphs, and videos, and we can open source material, therefore getting rid of big publishers and fixed textbooks. It also has the potential for huge bad because it is possible that as we open up all of these niches for multimedia curriculum that can be based on problem solving and situated learning, big publishers will just monopolize that, and we will go back to more exciting skill and drill.

People will always think it’s mobile phones that are going to revolutionize everything, but I actually think as we see phones and other things all converge on pads, we will see that people will do digital curriculum through pads and not textbooks. That’s where we’ll actually be, and those who care about the future should push for two things: one is that this doesn’t monopolize in the hands of a few big publishers like text did; two is that we don’t just fixate on the technology all by itself, but really keep the focus on the learning and interaction among kids, which is facilitated by these different technologies.

What is your hope for Working Examples in terms of building an alternative to the current educational research model?

The basic principle behind Working Examples is very close to my heart. For eight years, I ran team meetings of top national scholars on assessment trying to get these diverse voices to move the field into a broader conception of learning and assessment. These were all very wonderful, smart people, but what I learned is that academics like to give their theory and copious examples of what they don’t like, but what they don’t do is give concrete examples of what they like that fits their theory. That’s fine if your entire job is to explain your theory to people who have already accepted it, but when you are talking to people who have different theories, each partner cannot understand the other theory unless he/she can get an example of how it applies in a place where it fits the theory. We are great at critiquing. For example, experts would talk about how little they liked No Child Left Behind, then they gave their theory, but when I asked for an example, they couldn’t give me one. How are we ever going to bring people together across disciplines, and how are academics going to have any impact if all they can do is talk theory and negativity?

I wanted to have a place where people could argue first through examples — here is my theory, and I will show you an example of it so you can not only understand it in concrete terms, but you can put up your example and you can either agree with me and provide an additional example, or you can disagree with me and provide a separate example. We can talk about it at a concrete level across disciplinary boundaries and invite non-academic into this discussion such as teachers and policy makers. In the end, we will come out not only with a better theory, but also with a practical, operational possibility of doing something. This is unique, and it could be transformative of academics.

One major problem in education game development is combining research and design with sustainable business models that can reach all youth, not just privileged youth. How are you and your colleagues addressing this issue?

Equity, at the education level, is not about people being in affinity spaces, but it is about people having what I call “value-added versions.” If you play a game, it may not necessarily be good for your future, but if you are modding the game and you are joining a complex critical discussion, then you can connect your interest to the world and to other skills

So the question of equity is, how do we give people these rich set of experiences at the highest value-added level where they become producers and not just consumers? Rich families already do this for their children very well, so how do we do it for all children? We can’t ignore their families, and we can’t ignore their early upbringings.

We are looking for the models by which we can sustain innovation that helps poor youth and doesn’t just make the rich richer. iCivics is doing this right now, and quite frankly we don’t know a lot of other models because we are learning this late, and we are learning it in an environment where the digital media sector is changing very rapidly. Start-ups go in and out as the technology and the models change. I can’t tell you how many start-ups have started with this intention, and then they find out that they have to change their product to be skill and drill so they can sell it to a school, or they make it spiffy and sell it only to rich kids. It is a problem, and we don’t know the answer.

The Center For Games & Impact, mainly through Alan Gershenfeld and his team, tries to pioneer some sustainable gaming models, but this is a cutting-edge issue. iCivics is in all 50 states so it is certainly sustainable, but this is a genuine question for the future that needs to be funded and needs to be on the front burner.

Gamestar Mechanic, which was the first game project that MacArthur funded, is sustaining itself, but it is important to realize it takes a lot longer than you would think for a game to become sustainable. You can’t write off projects just because they didn’t become sustainable in just two or three years. My bet is that we are going to come up with newer models, and I hope we do, but people have to be willing to join in on the conversation.

You seem to have a genuine excitement for the topics you study. Where does it stem from?

Different academics have different personalities in terms of how they work. When I get into a new area, I get very excited, and I feel that I can write in a very compelling way about it because I don’t know enough about it to make it boring. I enjoy writing when I don’t know what I am talking about, and when I do know what I am talking about, I change areas. That’s not how everybody works.

Because of the weirdness of my schooling, I had never read any poetry until I got my first job in academics. I was a linguist, and I was at a college that needed to attract more students to linguistics. There were a lot of students in the humanities, so someone had the idea that we should teach a course in linguistics and literature. Even though I had never read any poetry, it was decided I would teach the class. I asked a friend, “Where do I start?” He directed me to a Norton’s Anthology of Poetry, and I sat down, read it, and was completely blown away by how great the material was. I am so glad that I found it by accident without somebody taking out the joy and the wonder of it. I don’t know if that would have happened with games, but I think it’s often a good thing for adults to come to something later in life that people already know because it not only challenges them as a learner, but it also allows them to see it as a child sees it and not as a student sees it.

Now ironically, at the age of 65, I have begun writing poetry. Soon I will have my first book of poems out. I would never have predicted that. But that’s just how our lives work. I do see connections between the things I have done, and I don’t think it is random, but when something floats up that just looks delicious to pursue, I will take the risk to pursue it, and every time I have taken the risk to pursue something in the moment, it has worked out really well for me.

Banner image credit: Timbuckteeth,

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Innovating Classrooms, Schools, and Teacher Learning Mon, 01 Jul 2013 13:58:01 +0000 http://68071814 As Digital Learning Coordinator for the Academy for Urban School Leadership, Jennie Magiera uses innovative technologies to construct relevant and engaging learning experiences for students across 25 Chicago Public Schools. Magiera specializes in 1-to-1-technology innovation and has documented success in increasing differentiation and improving assessment practices in AUSL classrooms. In

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As Digital Learning Coordinator for the Academy for Urban School Leadership, Jennie Magiera uses innovative technologies to construct relevant and engaging learning experiences for students across 25 Chicago Public Schools. Magiera specializes in 1-to-1-technology innovation and has documented success in increasing differentiation and improving assessment practices in AUSL classrooms. In 2012, Magiera, who is also a Google Certified Teacher and an Apple Distinguished Educator, was awarded Chicago Public Schools’ Tech Innovator of the Year award. This past May, Magiera was one of three educators chosen to speak with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the Reimagining Learning Summit in Washington D.C. about redefining schools through the effective use of digital technologies. We caught up with Magiera to discuss the power of digital technologies in transforming classrooms as well as the diverse professional learning communities that are emerging for educators in a participatory age.

You were once a bit of a tech skeptic. When did you have that “aha!” moment, which changed the way you viewed technology in the classroom?

It wasn’t that I was ever anti-technology. In my personal life, I liked technology. I had an iPhone, and I had my MacBook, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to understanding how to use technology in the classroom. At the time, I didn’t see how tech tools could fit into my classroom. I saw them as side dish to the main course of my understanding of how a good classroom should look and function. In 2010, I found out about a Chicago Public Schools grant for iPads. I only had three older computers in my classroom so I thought I should try to get newer technology that would work more effectively. I applied, got the grant, and thought, oh well, I’ll just use these as an extra way to help engage kids and to help automate my classroom. 

After about two or three months, I realized that was the completely wrong way to go about it. What I was doing wasn’t working. It wasn’t effective, and it wasn’t getting the job done. It wasn’t until I heard about the SAMR Model — Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, and Redefinition — that I realized I was just substituting what I had been doing before with technology, which wasn’t transformative at all. It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be to get into that modification and redefinition level of the model where I could truly transform learning for my kids, open new doors, and innovate ways to increase assessment effectiveness, differentiation, collaboration and creation opportunities for them. That’s when I realized — oh my gosh! — I have been thinking about it wrong all along. The reason I thought tech was a silly “side dish” was because it was my perception of how technology should be used, not the devices themselves.

There is a video circulating the Internet of one of your students describing how an iPad changed his life. Is there a back-story to this?

That was Kaleb. In his case, he was part of my tech leadership team. They were helping to review a new app for our classroom. He hated the app, and he used a less than appropriate word to describe it. However, instead of getting on him about that, we talked about his use of vocabulary to express his feelings, then discussed those feelings and why he was so frustrated. He wrote a blog post about how much he disliked the app, and I excerpted it on my own personal blog. Immediately the app developer, who must have had a Google alert out for himself, wrote me asking if he could meet with my students to get feedback on his app so he could improve it. So Kaleb video conferenced with the developer and used words that I didn’t think he knew — such as ‘infrastructure’ and ‘interface.’ At the end of the conversation, we didn’t think much of it, and moved on. Three months later, the developer wrote us back to let us know he had rereleased the app with all of Kaleb’s bug fixes. This made Kaleb feel like an app developer. Kalen felt powerful, and he felt like someone cared about what he said. That was new for him and a very exciting story for him to tell.

I could go on and on about how I have learned more and more about my students as human beings, as mathematicians, and as learners through the use of technology. I moved with my kids from one year to the next. One year I had iPads and the previous year I didn’t. Even though I had spent a whole year with them, I learned so much more about them during the year we had the iPads because they had so many different avenues of modalities to express themselves. That was really amazing for me, and I have seen so many teachers say the same when they brought transformative digital learning device in their classroom.

Often teachers talk about being isolated during their first years on the job. How can schools begin to create time and space for the type of collaboration you so often speak of?

When you start in the classroom, a lot of times it’s really about survival — how can you help your kids, teach your kids, and get through the year? If you’re in a great setting, then there’s a structure set in place for some sort of professional learning community that connects you with others. But that doesn’t always happen, and even when it does happen, that’s only one piece of the puzzle. There are so many advances now with virtual professional learning networks, online sites, and tools to connect you with other people. It’s not as hard as some people might think to jump on these networks or use these tools to further their knowledge, get support, get inspired, and refuel. The summer is a great time to decompress and relax and recharge your batteries. I wrote a recent EdWeek piece to help encourage people to try and take use of this opportunity while they have the bandwidth. 

In our AUSL network , we are developing a collaborative website in conjunction with The Teaching Channel called TchASUL, which helps our teachers collaborate with each other anytime and anywhere. It’s an online platform where they can share not only their thoughts and texts, but also video of their practice so they can coach each other virtually, unpack their practice, and think about what they are doing. It’s great to have that tool, but we also coach each other in person. We do collegial visits, and we also we have an open door policy. We don’t close our doors and seclude ourselves. AUSL runs many, many professional learning communities on all sorts of topics ranging from special education, mathematics, iPads to literacy, and we also try to connect teachers across our city and network through different events and online tools.

It’s really important in my career to always maintain connections and relationships. I value the mentors I have, and I try to be the best mentor possible for the people I am supporting. To improve student achievement in chronically underperforming schools, AUSL knows that teacher development and mentorship is essential. So in our Chicago Teacher Residency program, each preservice teacher is paired with a mentor. I was a mentor in that program for several years, and now I am the digital learning coordinator for that network. As such, it’s become very clear how important it is to not only have quality training and support in your preservice years, but also throughout your entire career as an educator.

Looking at the big picture, what’s a major source of concern when it comes to the future of education? Likewise, what’s a major source of optimism?

A huge obstacle I hear about from teachers as I visit districts across the country is getting leaders and decision makers to see the vision that a lot of us are talking about at the school level. I have seen it happen in a lot of districts where all of the leaders are on board and are speaking with a unified voice about innovation, and as a result, they are doing truly amazing things in their schools. But it isn’t always the case where the principal, the district leader, the IT people, and those in charge of purchasing are all on the same page. It’s not that they are wrong, but more that they don’t know or share the same vision. It’s not about convincing people, but more about getting everyone to hear the same message and to have the awareness of what is happening. It’s really difficult. It’s my full time job to know all of this material, and even I have a hard time keeping up. I can’t imagine how hard it would be for a principal or a district leader to keep track of all of the new things that are happening in the education space, not just in education technology, but the big picture as well.

In the places where this is happening, it is beautiful to see. There are tech leadership conferences all around the country that are making innovation and transformation the headlining topic so that the leaders, the policymakers, and the decision makers can become more informed and make these changes actionable. We have a lot of great examples here in Chicago of great leadership and knowledge around digital learning as well. I would love to see the change happen at all levels from the classroom level up to the district level, in every school, in every city – everywhere. It’s easier said than done, but it’s such an important challenge to tackle.

Digital tools have the potential to be “the great equalizer” in bridging the digital divide, but is it truly possible for educators to transform their classrooms without a sizeable technology budget?

It’s really about getting a clear philosophy in focus and not necessarily the tool itself. We try to remain device and platform agnostic as much as possible in our network. Instead of asking how we’re going to use an iPad, or a Chromebook, or a Google product, we first think about our goals as educators, which is to serve our students. We ask ourselves, how are we going to solve this or that problem of practice? We begin there, and then we look back at the SAMR model and we ask, are we using technology for technology’s sake, or are we using it because it is truly transformative?  Once you start with your challenge or problem of practice, you don’t always have to have one-to-one tablets for every child. Instead, we focus on trying to streamline assessment so as to find out more about what that child knows on a given day. Any way we can move across the continuum of measure in terms of improving, enhancing, or augmenting our ability to get at what children understand, that’s in the plus column.

It’s great if you have one-to-one devices, but there are a lot of free tools available for teachers as well. For example, there is a website, which allows teachers to print small codes that look similar to QR codes. If a student turns it vertically, it registers as an A; landscape as a B; upside down as a C etc. All the teacher has to have is one smartphone or web cam at the front of the class to take a picture of his/her class, and all of a sudden, he/she has completely assessed the students and gets real-time spreadsheets in the same way as if he/she had a really expensive assessment system in place or one-to-one devices.

Does it take more time? Yes. Is there more room for user error? Of course. But there are lots of different ways to “skin the cat” — if you will — as long as you have the philosophy in mind about starting with the problem of practice and trying to transform learning, and you understand that technology is a platform or a tool to do that and not just a shiny screen or an engagement trick. Like I always say, it’s not about the device. It’s how you use it.

To get up-to-date information about Magiera’s future projects, follow her on Twitter at @MsMagiera

Banner image credit: Courtesy of Jennie Magiera &

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Blending Digital Media, Badging, and Museum-Based Learning Mon, 03 Jun 2013 15:19:09 +0000 http://66602392 In October 2012, Barry Joseph became the Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives, at the American Museum of Natural History. In his new position, he explores the overlap between digital media and museum-based learning and how the mixture of the two can help young people learn science. We sat

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In October 2012, Barry Joseph became the Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives, at the American Museum of Natural History. In his new position, he explores the overlap between digital media and museum-based learning and how the mixture of the two can help young people learn science. We sat down with Joseph for a few moments to talk about how his work at the Museum is supporting young people in pursuing their passions through the creation of engaging and relevant learning experiences.

You came to the Museum after a dozen years innovating digital youth media programs. How have you combined that with informal science learning?

One of the things that attracted me to working at the Museum was its recent exploration in using virtual worlds to teach topics like marine life during the Cretaceous period, or the disappearance of the Neanderthals. In both programs, youth are essentially creating digital dioramas — populating them with their own 3D creations — to explore science concepts. At the same time, tools of science are put into the hands of youth, like when they build and project their own astronomical investigations using the same datasets and astrovisualization programs we use to create our public space shows in the planetarium. So now that I am here, my understanding of digital youth media has expanded to include tools of science, and I have shifted my focus to think about how they can be used to teach youth science practices and concepts, at times even contributing to authentic science research. For example, last January we worked with Museum scientists to teach youth how to use Morphobank, a global cloud-based tool used by researchers sharing datasets pertaining to Morphology (one way to study the evolutionary relationships amongst animals).

In what way is AMNH combining specific learning objectives with play in informal learning settings?

There are a number of things we notice when it comes to the question of game-based learning and what it affords us as a museum for new opportunities to expand our current educational programs and to connect with youth. It’s almost like an equation. The Museum knows science, youth know games, and games are increasingly being viewed as a way to teach science content and practices. When we put them all together, we’re combining the science expertise of the Museum, youth’s interest in games and games’ potential to teach science. In other words, the Museum + youth + games = 21st Century Science Learning. From a practical standpoint, there are so many things you can do with games from playing games like Plague, Inc. or Bone Wars with science content, critiquing science games that misuse science content, such as the role evolution plays in Pokemon, to participating in game-building activities, to offerings games that can be experienced in a blended way, both onsite and at home through mobile.

For example, last January we developed a new program that brought scientific content from our special exhibit, Our Global Kitchen, into a gaming environment. Partnering with TeacherGaming, we offered youth a modified version of MineCraft in which youth could explore, in an embodied way that games afford, the food production, processing and distribution system.

In your blog, you cite the National STEM Video Game Challenge as being a very nice model for what connected learning could look like. Can you say more about this?

An event like the National STEM Game Design Challenge not only speaks to what youth care about in terms of playing and designing games, but it also puts youth in the forefront by having them facilitate a majority of the NYC-based workshops. Yes, we were at an adult institution, but it was the young people who were teaching other youth the skills they needed to apply. When we ask what role museums like ours can play in the lives of young people, or about the role games can play, we can find an answer within the academic sphere of the connected learning model, which is really about the crucial role adults can play in helping youth see beyond the horizon of today. So on one hand, the youth taught their peers the basics of game design while we taught them how to recognize a system in nature that can be incorporated into a game mechanic.

One of the opportunities we have as a museum is to help young people realize that the digital media that is ubiquitous in their lives, which they might be using to keep connected with their friends or pursue areas of entertainment, can also be areas for informal science learning. The connected learning framework appreciates the role that a museum like ours can play by providing pedagogical experiences that are gaining currency as part of the learning required to be successful in the 21st century.

With all of the different opportunities for youth to learn, how do you help them navigate their way through these experiences?

Informed by our earlier prototypes that go back to 2010 through funding by the Hive Learning Network, we are now developing a more robust badging system. We anticipate it will help the thousands of young people across our dozens of programs connect the dots between skills developed and knowledge gained in one program and how they can be further pursued through different pathways within our education pipeline. One of the things that makes badges so exciting, and disruptive in such a rich way, is that they tend to make things that are traditionally invisible, visible. If a teen who completes a program is interested in authentic science practices, maybe her next step is to participate in a program, where she can work with a scientist. Or maybe she cared more about the content area and wants to learn more about paleontology. Or maybe it was the artistic side that excited her and she can take a new program that focuses on the development of her creativity. A really robust badging system should be able to provide such a “just-in-time” scaffolding to guide her along her emergent learning trajectory.

The point of a badging system, however, isn’t just to offer trajectories; it also plays a role in validating their experiences. Badges help young people value the skills they are learning in our programs so they can develop the language to talk about what they’ve learned. When we tested our badging system in our Foodcraft program last January, the youth were able to talk about the connections experienced between a fun video game and an educational museum exhibit and how the two could support each other to create a deeply engaged learning experience in ways they weren’t able to express before entering the program.

How does maker culture fit into the mission of a natural history museum?

When we think about maker culture in the Museum, we recognize that there is a new interest in understanding how making can be both playing and learning. This is nothing new for science centers, and it’s why we see the close relationship between places like the New York Hall of Science and the annual Maker Faire, which they host. Experiential learning is what science centers are all about. But I work in a Natural History museum, which has a very different history. We are very much about our collections and the research behind them. The Museum is built on the work of more than 200 scientists who are doing research in the field and are bringing in tens of thousands of new specimens every year. It’s those objects and the science that comes about from studying those objects that forms our exhibits and shapes our education programs. Maker culture in that context is a little more challenging to think about because we are about studying and observing the natural world, not recreating experiences which related to it. We want young people to understand how to extract DNA from a strawberry or analyze a swab from their cheek to understand how DNA works, so making something, for us, has to align with specific science practices and concepts.

How do you build educational programs that support the development of these science skills?

In the context above, digital fabrication seems to offer us a really strong fit, more so than e-textiles or robotics. Digital fabrication is useful for us because the first step is learning how to see. It starts by learning how to look at what you just captured on your camera or phone and manipulating it, studying it in the 3D space, and trying to perfect it. You get to understand something very well by using your eyes. Those are skillsets that align very well with scientific practices.  It allows us to take that final step within the digital fabrication process and print something – something you might otherwise be unable to actually see or touch, such as a nebula or bacteria, or something too fragile or sensitive like a dinosaur bone, and putting it in a form that you can actually hold in your hand.

Digital fabrication creates all sorts of interesting new pathways for informal science and for us to connect with youth. This summer, AMNH is offering a program called Capturing Dinosaurs where youth will have the opportunity to go into our bone rooms and make 3D models of our dinosaur bones. Did you know less than .01 percent of our dinosaur collection is on the museum floor? The rest of them are in rooms that few people get to see, but these youth in the summer program will get to go behind the scenes and see them, albeit for a very short time, just long enough to take digital captures. Once they capture them, they have to work with their captures for the rest of the program. Through this process, they will learn how scientists make decisions about what bones belong to which dinosaurs and how the bones relate to each other.

Once something is in a digital form, it might have value for others as well. Teachers might want to print out these models of dinosaur bones, which they couldn’t even see if they brought their students to the Museum, but now these youth can produce a form of digital media that can have an educational value for others. The Museum has always had a relationship with local teachers that goes back almost 150 years. Digital fabrication could create new pathways for the Museum to connect to teachers not just in New York but also around the country and around the world, by scaling out access to our collections — not the original physical collections — but replicas, which they can engage with both online and offline.

You grew up going to AMNH as a kid. Now, as an adult, it’s part of your everyday life. How does that feel?

I can’t believe I work at this museum. When I was a little kid, nothing could excite me more than going to the gems and minerals hall with my sister and rolling around the architecture of that space. It was great for sliding on. As a teenager, I came to the planetarium to see the lazer light shows. Then, in my 20’s, I would design my own games for my birthdays. I would have my friends get together, and we would do scavenger hunts by picking objects in the Museum and coming up with questions about them and breaking off into teams to find them. And in my 30’s I had my own kids and delight in supporting them to develop their own deep interest in the Museum (and, incidentally, coming up with their own crazy name for it, that became the name of my blog Moosha Moosha Mooshme.) So clearly, I have always had a lifelong relationship with the Museum, one which has grown as I have, and to work here now and to be able to participate in its growth into the 21st century, and specifically into the digital learning age, is a humbling experience. I feel deeply privileged to be able to bring my nearly 20 years working in new media and education into this community, and the museum community at large, to learn more about what has already been achieved in this space, and to collaborate with literally hundreds of remarkable people as we each make our contributions towards building the foundation of the Museum’s future, for both our children and the generations that follow.

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Fostering Open Learning Grounded in Co-Creation, Peer-to-Peer Support Sun, 05 May 2013 12:08:23 +0000 http://64594945 Philipp Schmidt is widely recognized as a leading thinker and advocate for open learning and for helping to jumpstart the open education movement in the early 2000s. He co-authored the Cape Town Open Education Declaration in 2007 and co-founded Peer-to-Peer University (P2PU), an online open learning community, two years later.

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Philipp Schmidt is widely recognized as a leading thinker and advocate for open learning and for helping to jumpstart the open education movement in the early 2000s. He co-authored the Cape Town Open Education Declaration in 2007 and co-founded Peer-to-Peer University (P2PU), an online open learning community, two years later. Schmidt is currently based at the MIT Media lab as a Director’s Fellow In-Residence, working with Mitch Resnick and Joi Ito to pinpoint innovative opportunities for online learning. This past semester, the MIT Media Lab and P2PU teamed up to to offer MIT’s Learning Creative Learning course to online participants in a massive experimental format, which dives into new ways of teaching and running online courses that are more engaging and create opportunities for more people to participate. We spent a few moments with Philipp to talk about this new approach to online learning and to learn more about open learning’s potential in transforming the way we think about education in the 21st century. 

What are some characteristics of an open learning community?

If you take a moment and you think about an amazing learning moment in your life, my guess would be that that moment does not involve a standardized test, and it probably does not involve receiving a certificate or degree. It is likely to involve other people and is likely to involve you being interested in something, having to be challenged to achieve it, and then managing to achieve it. It’s likely to involve some type of safe space to fail where you could make multiple efforts and where you knew it was okay to take a risk.

Open source software communities are a great example for what these open learning environments look like. You could argue that more people have learned how to become software developers through participation in open source software communities than by attending universities.

Software is one prime example of how open learning communities can work on a massive scale. Over time more areas are going to start recognizing that this is a great way to learn. Digital media production or photography seem like good topics to try next. To become a successful journalist today, you don’t have to go to “J school.” You just have to write a lot, find people to help you get better, build up an audience, be willing to learn, and have some talent. Jonathan Worth from the UK has been running a huge, free and open photography course, years before people started talking about MOOCs. His ideas are exciting. He is trying to get people running similar courses in other countries to group together to form a global university program, which enables those who want to become photographers to participate in courses without having to enroll in a particular university. They do all of the same work and keep their portfolio, which provides evidence that they took these courses and displays the work they produced in the process.

If we begin with the current education system and then try to compare what open learning systems look like, it’s very easy to come to the conclusion that this will never be a valid alternative. But if we start with how we actually learn, how we like to learn, and how we learn the most important things in our lives, we will realize that it’s very similar to how these open learning communities are set up. It becomes much easier, then, to imagine them becoming an alternative for how more people will learn in the future because they support the things we value most.

What distinguishes the Learning Creative Learning course from a MOOC or typical online course?

The Learning Creative Learning course is designed to be much more activity driven. It’s not asking participants to read something and simply regurgitate it. Each week we provide participants with an interesting idea in education and some background information and really try to bring this idea to life through hands-on activities. Some of the activities are offline, some are done using online tools, and some have to be done with other people. The activities don’t typically involve simply answering questions or submitting an assignment. People are doing things that they are actually interested in and then reflecting on that experience. One week, participants were supposed to visit a community learning space and ask people their questions to try to understand how the space worked. We gave them enough pointers to get started, but we didn’t tell them exactly what they had to do. For the Scratch lesson, for example, we told them to create a Scratch project. Participants could create something based on their interests. They could get very elaborate or just do something small. We gave people a lot of freedom. We let people take it where they wanted to go and that seemed to draw in a really strong sense of community.

From the start, we made it clear that this was an experiment that we hoped to co-create with the participants. We have really iterated on the model every week. We have tried new things and played with different technologies, and because we invited people to be part of the experiment, they have been very gracious about it, when things didn’t go perfect. We all learned a huge deal as a result.

If you invite participants to put themselves out there and try new things, they are more likely to learn more than they would have otherwise because they feel as if they are a part of something. They feel like it truly is their course, rather than a course for them.

How do you turn a course like learning creative learning into an open learning community?

This is a big question we are looking to answer; what are we going to do with the community when the course ends? We want to provide a little more structure, but it’s clear we won’t be able to do a weekly seminar indefinitely. It’s a lot of work. We are thinking about ways to keep some of that going, but it introduces the question: what’s a course, and what’s a community? Two things are going to have to take place. First, we have to do things to keep that larger community engaged in a very low-touch way so it isn’t too much work on our end and so the community can drive the conversation. We also want to offer these courses almost as onramps into the community so that if a person wants to join this community, he or she can take this course and work at his or her own pace. The course is structured in a way that encourages group learning, but in the end, that person becomes part of this community and then the next cohort comes in. We have to figure out what exactly we are going to do with the group at that point. It’s something we are thinking about a lot, as our numbers get larger.

How does accreditation tie into these open learning communities?

Recognition of achievements is useful. You need to be able to represent to someone that you have done something. Ideally, that can be done through portfolios. Creating something is the best measure of what you have learned. Reviews can easily be added to portfolios. If I trust someone’s opinion in a particular area, I can ask him or her for a review of a particular person’s work. That might be more useful than a certificate or a degree.

The other important piece is feedback. As you go through the learning process, you want to get feedback that helps you improve. That feedback might come at specific moments or may be driven by your own experiences, and badges could be tied into that process. Badges are useful markers of community, and markers of community can be tied to learning outcomes.

I am a little bit weary of the potential of badges as credentials. I am less excited about that. There is a danger that we will end up in a system where on one side you again have some authority that issues some form of certification (which just happens to be badges instead of university degrees). And then on the other side you have the people who are learning. Those two groups are separate from each other. Consider for a moment a university degree in technology. Whether that’s in a form of a badge or a degree isn’t the most important component. The more important component is if the community involved comes away with less or more expertise, and if they give each other feedback and recognize each other’s achievements in ways that make sense for that community. If that’s the case, badges could play a very important role.

We have implemented a particular take on badges on our badges platform at, which is designed around project feedback. In this system, there is no way that a separate group would have authority to issue a badge to the people who are doing the work — those two are by design the same group — so our goal is to build badge models that incorporate this community type of learning.

How have your own experiences been shaped by this open approach to learning?

I feel very fortunate because I think of my work as part of a learning community. When I am trying to articulate my ideas, I send them to people I trust, and they give me feedback and help me refine them. For example, I have a call with David Theo Goldberg every couple of weeks where we talk about general ideas in the university. For me, that’s being part of an open community. I am not in a degree program, but he asks me questions just as much as I ask him questions, and he helps me come to terms with things that are relevant to my work. There is no separation between learner, student, and worker.

I also have a friend who is my mentor on bike repairs. I took a photo just this morning that I plan to send him because I was struggling with a particular piece of a repair. He will review it and tell me what I need to do.

We are all parts of lots and lots of open learning communities, but we might not think of them as open learning communities in the same way. But perhaps that is much better. You do things you want to do because it interests you, and in the process of discovering it, you get the help you need to do it. It’s a much better way of thinking about learning.

Banner image credit: hfordsa

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Linking Recognition, Certification & Accreditation to Anytime, Anywhere Learning Mon, 01 Apr 2013 14:13:14 +0000 http://62622817 As Senior Director of Learning and Badges at Mozilla Foundation, Erin Knight is leading the development of the organization’s Open Badges Infrastructure in an effort to provide adults and youth ages 13-17 with an alternative accreditation and credentialing system for learning. Knight and her team announced the launch of Open

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As Senior Director of Learning and Badges at Mozilla Foundation, Erin Knight is leading the development of the organization’s Open Badges Infrastructure in an effort to provide adults and youth ages 13-17 with an alternative accreditation and credentialing system for learning. Knight and her team announced the launch of Open Badges 1.0, a new online standard to recognize and verify learning, at last month’s 2013 Digital Media and Learning Conference in Chicago. Knight has also recently published a working paper in which she proposes an open, distributed system for badge validation. We spent a few moments with Knight to learn more about the platform’s potential to certify informal learning and what role badging can play in shaping the future of education.  

Open Badges 1.0 has been described as a “critical piece of the connected learning ecosystem.” How does badging fit into this model if the ecosystem itself is still evolving?

Open Badges enable you to connect different types of learning to each other. The whole point of connected learning by definition — by the name itself –- is to find a way to connect things. To do that, we need something that will carry that information across sectors. In the connected learning vision, I see badges as the connectors between different spheres. Badges play the role of a currency where learning can be captured, recognized, and then communicated across those lines.

There’s an even bigger opportunity here when thinking about a badge system at an umbrella level, so that, for example, all of the organizations in a city that are embracing connected learning have a standard to level-up to or align with. One of the new additions to the badge standards is a push for this standards alignment. This could be anything from traditional standards to competency frameworks to even web literacy standards. You can imagine building a learning standard that explicitly outlines the values of connected learning so all of the organizations that are participating have something to align to.

How can you be sure badging won’t just impose another adult top-down criteria of success for young people?

That’s one of the best things about Open Badges — it allows the learners to be in control.

I have heard this question a lot — don’t muck up interest-based learning. There are some pretty big assumptions there. The first is that kids really are discovering these learning experiences. I don’t know if it’s completely true that kids truly feel they have access to this stuff. The other assumption is that kids who are doing this type of learning realize it is real. We have seen so many stories of kids who are not doing well in school so they go to an afterschool program and become videographers and produce inspiring documentaries, yet they still feel like they are bad students. As a result, they end up dropping out or have self-esteem issues because they can’t connect the two. They don’t understand that their learning outside of school was actually legitimate and could have led to a job opportunity or could have demonstrated that they were capable of doing something. It’s a really big assumption to say that that’s not a problem.

When it comes to badges, learners are in control. If they are offered a badge they don’t want, they don’t have to accept it. They can choose to decide what is valuable and what is not valuable to them. In addition, not all badges need to be adult issued. There’s a lot of value in thinking about those social skills and peers skills. We are already seeing some badge systems where some of the adult scaffolding is present, but there is also an opportunity for youth to actually issue badges around what they care about to their friends. Some may say those badges aren’t valuable because they are not authority driven, but combined with some of the other robust assessment badges, they start to tell you a really cool story about youth.

What next steps need to be taken to ensure those who don’t have access to technology, and who are most in need of an alternative credential system, are not shut out from these opportunities?

The thing to keep in mind as we approach these challenges is that ultimately, Open Badges are about expanding access and opportunity. So it’s very important to us to make sure as many people as possible are able to participate.

If you look at platforms such as Coursera, you’ll notice a huge percentage of participants are from third world countries and rural areas. They have access to this type of learning, but they don’t have a way to connect it to jobs or to real opportunities. The first step is to build a recognition system on top of these open access platforms that are already touching these remote areas so we can open up more opportunities for people. This will help legitimize this learning and help make it more transferable. Next, we have to think about how to reach and support people who don’t have computers.

In Chicago, we have a variety of offline badges available so kids who don’t have access to computers, but who participate in city programs, can get offline badges and claim them digitally using the library. We know mobile is a big step in this equation. We are in talks to develop a set of mobile apps to support this. One would be a mobile app to accept and collect badges and another would be a way for organizations to issue badges through a smartphone. You can imagine everyone from the parks department having a smartphone, which they can easily issue badges from to the kids instead of having to hand them a card badge.

We are even going as far as exploring SMS badging. Seeing badges through your mobile device is one piece of it, and on a smartphone it’s relatively easy to do, but we want to take it further. Maybe there is a way to allow people to badge via SMS, accept via SMS, and transfer their badges via SMS. We want to leverage that. It’s definitely on our radar, and we would need to partner with somebody in order to get it done. This redefines and opens up learning completely, which is no small feat.

Creating an online identity is a critical part of youth development. Are there any workarounds to current privacy restrictions so that youth under 13 could have access to the Mozilla backpack?

We want to protect children but also support lifelong learning, so for us, it presents an interesting question. We talk about lifelong learning all of the time in the digital media and learning community and at Mozilla. Lifelong learning should not have to start at age 13, but its not as easy as that — there are also responsibilities and regulations that come into play once you start working with data that belongs to kids under 13.

Providers can still issue badges to youth under the age of 13, but they can’t push those badges beyond their own organization. As a kid, for example, I can go to Club Penguin or and have meaningful experiences and earn badges; I just can’t take them with me outside of that community. And that’s OK. It’s not holding back these kids from having meaningful learning experiences, but it’s not helping them connect and take their experiences further. In thinking about this from the backpack perspective, it’s really about creating an identity for kids online that can extend across a lot of different sites. No one has done it yet because there are a lot of liabilities, but we recognize how important it is.

One of the things we are building for the city of Chicago is a separate backpack for kids who are under 13. It is tied to a parent’s email, and it has no sharing features. I can’t publish badges through public URLs, and I can’t post them on Facebook. I can only collect them. The benefit is I can collect them and get badges across multiple learning issuers, and I keep them for an extended period of time. They can also translate back to school. We are using Chicago as a lab so we can see how this works with the intention of doing it in a larger capacity for the broader ecosystem. The goal is for issuers to push badges for kids under 13 to a very specific set of backpacks, which would then allow youth to graduate to the open sharable backpacks. It doesn’t currently work this way because every issued badge is tied to an email address. In order for us to do this in a big way, we have to solve this piece so that there’s some way for youth to roll all of those badges earned prior to age 13 into their new Mozilla backpacks.

Of the more than 600 organizations using Open Badges, are there any that are currently tying badge issuing to in-school environments?

The Providence Afterschool Alliance (PASA) does a lot with out-of-school curricula and incorporates digital badges into those courses. The organization just recently announced that some of the high schools and community colleges in its area were accepting those badges as credit, which is a really big deal. To me, that’s a huge success because it legitimizes the learning that is taking place in the afterschool context, but also, the fact that these schools are accepting it makes a big statement about both the types of learning that can take place outside of school and also how badges can translate and recognize that.

Purdue University has launched a university-wide system recognizing extra curricular activities that wouldn’t necessarily show up on a student’s transcript such as school clubs, volunteering etc. They also have a tool that allows professors to create badges within their own departments as a way to balance grades with a more granular recognition of learning. The ultimate goal is that if two people receive the same degree, but have a very different learning path underneath the degree, that information is exposed and shared.

Were alternative settings and learning pathways a part of your life growing up?

Growing up, I was always the A student. I just wanted to do well, and I measured that by whatever measurement I was told mattered. I didn’t consciously think about it, but I certainly didn’t want to try different paths because I wanted to do what I had to do in order to get recognized. 

I have an 18-month-old baby, and I see the wonder of learning in his eyes. I want him to keep that forever. I want that back myself! I want us to really have an opportunity to create interest-driven and customized learning pathways and to be able to explore the things we care about and have them count for us across our lifetime.

While studying the benefits of technology, specifically social media, in the classroom, I started grappling with this concept of assessment. How do you start to recognize social behaviors when grades are your only assessment tool? I wanted something more flexible and more innovative that would open up learning in a very real way. That’s why I was attracted to badges. They’re cheap, and they’re sizable. It’s the first thing I have ever seen that is flexible enough to have a chance to open up learning. I believe in it, but it’s way bigger than me. We have this opportunity in front of us to make a big impact, and I can’t wait to see where it can go.

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Broadening Pedagogical Practices in a Participatory Culture Mon, 04 Mar 2013 17:17:47 +0000 http://58508963 Over the last three decades, Henry Jenkins, Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism and Cinematic Arts at USC, has distinguished himself as a scholar of new media and participatory culture studies. Already this year, Jenkins has released two books on participatory culture, Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked

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Over the last three decades, Henry Jenkins, Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism and Cinematic Arts at USC, has distinguished himself as a scholar of new media and participatory culture studies. Already this year, Jenkins has released two books on participatory culture, Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture and Reading in a Participatory Culture: Remixing Moby-Dick in the English Classroom. Flows of Reading is a complementary online offering to the latter print book, designed to inspire teachers and students to think about reading texts in more participatory ways. Jenkins also serves as principal investigator of Media Activism Participatory Politics (MAPP), a project of the MacArthur Network on Youth and Participatory Politics (YPP), and is a plenary panelist at this month’s DML conference. We spent a few moments with Jenkins to see how the definition of participatory culture has evolved since his first white paper on the subject was published in 2006.

You write in Spreadable Media, “As people push DIY media making as the be-all and end-all of participatory culture, they risk reducing other kinds of participation.” Are we putting too much pressure on youth to be creators?

There has been a lot of discussion lately about youth finding voice. Some people are starting to argue that we are stressing voice too much, and not stressing listening and engagement enough. If we are going to build an environment where young people’s voices are taken seriously, we also have to build an environment where young people are actively listening and responding to what each person is creating. Building upon the original MacArthur white paper, Project New Media Literacies has laid out the four C’s — connect, create, collaborate, and circulate —  which are integral parts of the overall cycle of participatory culture. Collectively, they describe an ongoing process of creative expression and communication that can be embedded effectively in both in-school and out-of-school settings.

Focusing on circulation and the choices that go along with circulation — what the book calls appraisal –- places a new emphasis on those close-reading skills that teachers have traditionally wanted to promote in the classroom. How do we evaluate the quality of information or cultural expression? What is meaningful to pass along? Both individually and collectively, we impact the agenda of the society by what media we choose to pass along and what media we create. We have to take ownership of the information we pass along within our community so that we are not guilty of spreading misinformation, conspiracy theories,  or slander. These choices are really fundamental and are directly tied to media literacy.

Can you give an example of a teacher welcoming participatory practices into his/her classroom in a meaningful way?

For our newly released book, Reading in a Participatory Culture: Remixing Moby-Dick in the Classroom, we took the ideas from the MacArthur white paper and translated it into a curriculum, which we tested in six different schools around the U.S. We tested the curriculum in a variety of contexts — public and private schools, both wealthy and low-income. As a result, we got a lot of powerful stories of what can happen when this stuff is done well.

There was a school in Indiana that had banned Wikipedia altogether, not simply because the teachers were suspicious of the quality of information on Wikipedia, but also because some of the students had done bad things on Wikipedia using school computers. The school principal was anxious about the accountability of that. But we were able to open up a space for one class to use Wikipedia in relation to teaching Herman Melville, and the young people were encouraged to try to update the Wikipedia entry on Moby-Dick based on the things they were learning. This being Wikipedia, there’s a robust vetting process of all of the information that is posted, so they got a certain amount of pushback from other Wikipedians. They had to figure out how to actively defend the choices they were making. In the process, they learned a tremendous amount about what research is. Research is not simply facts in a book, but it is an ongoing dialogue between people who bring different kinds of information and different criteria together. We saw that as a huge success in terms of bringing participatory culture into the classroom.

What led you to the story of Moby-Dick in particular?

It started because I met a remarkable man, African American playwright and educator Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, who was working with incarcerated youth and getting them to read Moby-Dick. He asked them to reimagine who these characters would be in the 21st century. Through a collaborative process, a story emerged that was not focused on the whaling trade, but on the drug trade. It’s the story of a charismatic female gang leader bent on vengeance for personal injury, and vengeance comes at the expense of dealing drugs and making money for the group. Her crew struggles to figure out how far they should follow her into the mouth of Hell and into acts of gang violence given their own priorities.

This is an essential dilemma that spoke very powerfully to these incarcerated youth. These youth were applying the same skills to this literary text, the great American novel, as a fan fiction writer would apply to Harry Potter or any other media franchise. These are kids who read well below their grade level, and they were able to read this very difficult novel that many of us abandoned in high school because it was too hard.

At the heart of this project is the idea of remixing — learning to think critically about text by creatively reworking its core materials. As we are teaching educators about what remix means, we are also helping young people think about historic models of authorship in a new way. Reading in a networked world means reading with a mouse in one hand and a book in the other so that you can connect your reading and forms of participation in very real ways. We want youth to see the classics not as dead texts, but as living texts that contemporary writers can reimagine and young people can imagine differently by asking fundamental questions and creating new stories. This approach to remix nevertheless requires enormous respect for the original work. It also requires close reading skills, research skills, and attention to the cultural context the work comes out of.

Does the connected learning model have the potential to be the missing puzzle piece linking participatory culture to youth civic engagement?

The connected learning model helps us understand how informal participation in our recreational lives, such as pursuing interests online, can be scaffolded by mentorship at each learning stage — outside school, after school, and inside school. All of those constituencies allow youth to connect the kinds of skills that are being acquired in school to their personal interests in a way that allows them to navigate those spaces better.

What we have noticed about effective peer-based learning initiatives outside of school in gaming communities and fan communities is that they are places where adults and youth often work side-by-side without a hierarchy. Instead, their common interests and mutual contributions shape their interactions with each other. If we look at the fan fiction world, there are young people who are mentors for older people because they have particular skills and knowledge, but they are also learning from those older people things about their own experiences, which is really helpful for them not only in writing fan fiction, but in all issues in their lives. Those become spaces of mutual mentorship.

Those relationships change fundamentally as mentorship gets pulled into a school setting where teachers have to maintain discipline. What results is a clear separation between teacher and student. Some of the work PLAY has been doing has been to try to think about how we create an environment of co-learning inside the classroom, which is participatory and has a more informal set of relationships between adults and youth around shared interests that is essential for youth to help shape what takes place inside the classroom.

How are groups such as the Harry Potter Alliance and Dream Activists changing the current civic narrative?

Part of what we discovered in our MAPP research is that many of the young people involved in these kinds of activist groups were culturally active in some way but not politically active. Their strength was in making things — clothes, videos, mash-up memes, or fan stories. They started to play around with these activities, but they didn’t see themselves as especially political. A lot of that has to do with language of traditional politics. It’s hard to find an entry point into politics if you aren’t one of the student government kids.

What these organizations have done is conducted politics in a different language to help young people find these points of entries and learn about these issues in powerful new ways. Nerdfighters are telling kids to join in “fighting against world suck.” That’s not the language they are hearing from government officials on a Sunday morning news show. This is the language that speaks peer-to-peer among youth who might know already how to do things online but don’t know how to do things civically online.

Many of these groups have training sessions to help young people figure out how to tell their stories more effectively, how to mobilize their personal experiences or stories that matter to them in ways that connect to real world issues, which hopefully move other people towards action. These are things that can be translated more broadly into the classroom. The more we teach the skills through the classroom, the more effectively young people are going to be in engaging in participatory politics.

How has your own experience growing up as a fan influenced the work you do?

I’ve been a fan for a long as I can remember. It informed the way I thought about what reading is. Fans are incredibly gifted readers. They are highly motivated, read with a passion for the material, and are socially connected. To read as a fan is to be part of a community of readers. Often, when I write about communities of readers, I recall the community of Star Trek fans, which I was part of as a kid, or I think about the fellowship that grew up in my neighborhood around monsters movies and magazines – we watched the films, we built monster models, we play acted in the backyard, we drew pictures, we practiced make-up and costume design, and we imagined making Super 8 movies together.

We were active consumers of these stories and strongly connected with developing a sense of mastery over them, but also saw them as a resource that we could recreate in our everyday lives. One of the great things of Famous Monsters of Filmland for me was it actively encouraged us to appropriate and perform these characters. They had guides for costuming, for amateur filmmaking, for model building. For me as a kid, this was a model of an active, creative, social form of reading that has inspired almost everything else I have done ever since. Being a fan shapes not only the essays and books I write within the Fan Studies paradigm, but also informs my ideas about participatory pedagogy because I have seen so many powerful examples of creative and active reading in fan cultures through the years.

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Blending High- and Low-Tech Worlds with a Maker-Driven Agenda Mon, 11 Feb 2013 10:36:02 +0000 http://58508938 Over the past year, the maker movement has gained traction in the digital media and learning community thanks in part to Kylie Peppler, Assistant Professor of Learning Sciences at Indiana University, who is spearheading the DML Hub’s Make-to-Learn initiative with Creativity Labs. As part of the initiative, Peppler is leading

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Over the past year, the maker movement has gained traction in the digital media and learning community thanks in part to Kylie Peppler, Assistant Professor of Learning Sciences at Indiana University, who is spearheading the DML Hub’s Make-to-Learn initiative with Creativity Labs. As part of the initiative, Peppler is leading the Make-to-Learn Youth Contest, an eight-week challenge for youth makers hosted on, and the Make-to-Learn Symposium on March 13, 2013, the day before the Digital Media and Learning Conference in Chicago. Through these activities, Peppler and her colleagues hope to advance an ongoing conversation at the intersection of educational research and DIY culture. We sat down with Peppler to learn more about how arts education is progressing in the 21st century and what role maker culture will play in the structuring of future in-school environments.

What is it about the maker movement that appeals to a mass audience?

It kind of has that grassroots movement to it that we were all hoping for with so many other educational initiatives, and that’s what really fascinates me. It has this universality with parents, with aunts and uncles, with grandparents, and with friends. There is a dad who helps his kids in the shop. There is an uncle who helps them modify cars and an aunt who shows them how to crochet. These traditions have survived within families. Then there is this return to the knitting and the woodshop. It’s starting to be something that we can talk about across the economic spectrum and across different cultures.

There is a group in Detroit that’s doing bicycle repairs and another group in LA that converts cars to low riders. Making starts to be a reflection of those communities. There is a social identity about it within your particular form of making and yet you’re accepted in this larger community — this umbrella of Make — which is super cool. Teachers and educational organizations are beginning to see the power of this too because of how compelling it is to be able to pull even the most marginalized learners into the experience of schooling. In our work with MacArthur, for example, we talked with a lot of students from Chicago public schools who came from marginalized and disenfranchised communities. They all had Make stories.

With making, you can see the complexity of thought that goes into it. There’s something about having an artifact at the end. You are able to communicate without a standardized test score that you have learned something along the way. It really taps into the American ethos of innovation and entrepreneurship.
Do you have specific goals in mind for the Make-to-Learn Youth Contest?

This call serves multiple purposes, but the main purpose is just to illustrate that youth are makers. We want to get youth perspective on a question that a lot of adults are interested in right now. We want to bring in more of an ethnographic take by having the youth tell us directly what it is they are learning as opposed to getting insight from researchers about what they are learning. To find this out, we have posed four guiding questions to youth:

1) What did you make?
2) How did you make it?
3) Where did you make it?
4) What did you learn?

Across these questions, our goal is to better understand the story of what youth made and how it works. We’re trying to highlight learning in all the forms it can take. Ideally, youth can come to make connections between their learning experiences in the process of answering these questions. It is really refreshing to return to the youth themselves and ask them to articulate these insights and help us think about where future research can go. 

A lot of the projects have very rich stories. There is a boy from Sierra Leone who created his own radio network. There is really deep meaning behind what it is he made. There was another boy who has autism who made an electronic dog bowl for his dog because his family kept forgetting to feed the dog on a strict schedule. These are very personally meaningful objects, so often times there is a story to be told, not just in the beauty of the work, but in terms of how they were drawn to creating the piece

What are some of the learning outcomes of combining high- and low-tech materials?

[[{“type”:”media”,”view_mode”:”media_large”,”fid”:”9887″,”attributes”:{“alt”:””,”class”:”media-image media-image-left”,”height”:”314″,”style”:”float: left; margin: 0 15px 0 0;”,”width”:”470″}}]]Most DIY projects are a mix of high- and low-tech materials, as people are building things from scratch instead of manipulating something pre-fabricated. This really brings makers face-to-face with the base components of how something works and, as such, it offers an opportunity to explore the notion of visibility and invisibility in design. You can think about the iPad, for example. We all love it, but we don’t really know what it looks like behind the scenes, or at most, very few people do. I’ve done a lot of work with e-textiles—garments and fabrics embedded with electronic circuits—and they are so interesting because they make all of those electronic components very visible and very tactile. 

You might have had an experience in grade school where you learned about circuits by using traditional kits, which include aluminum foil, a light bulb, and a battery. You used the foil to connect the battery and the light bulb together, and the light bulb comes on. This is the typical introduction to circuits in science education. It doesn’t take long to have a really successful outcome. You get your light bulb to come on, and you move on. We count that as a hands-on experience, but we know that a lot of people have a basic misunderstanding about how electronics work.

In our work with e-textiles, there is that careful sewing of the circuits. Instead of using wire and tin foil, you are actually sewing those connections down. You’re thinking about the polarity of your LED. The direction of flow and electricity in your circuit is something you’ve never had to think about before. If a kid is putting that together, a lot of our early work in this area has shown us that youth are walking away with a stronger understanding of circuits than even some of our novice engineers and our graduate students. And those are very technical fields.

When you hear the phrase “arts education in the 21st century”, what do you envision?

In my vision, technology plays a central role, and digital media become something that we start to think about as a medium of expression. By designing with new media, technology ceases to be something static and immutable, but rather it’s something that we are constantly shaping and forming. The technologies that I have worked with are really good examples of that. [[{“type”:”media”,”view_mode”:”media_large”,”fid”:”9888″,”attributes”:{“alt”:””,”class”:”media-image media-image-right”,”height”:”314″,”style”:”float: right;”,”width”:”470″}}]]Scratch allows kids — on a deep level — to create their own games and apps rather than always having to experience something that has been conceptualized by another designer. This begins to change the nature of the relationship between the child and the computer and the child and the digital artifact. Another tool that we see as a staple of arts education is the Arduino. With the LilyPad Arduino, we think about interactive physical media and integrating into our clothing and how we can make something smart and responsive. I’m not saying I want anything else to fade away, but we need to really teach children today about how to use these sort of new mediums and modes of expression towards their art making and their personal design process. And I argue that the arts class is the best place to introduce this way of thinking because it positions technology as something to create with, not just learn about.

How can we attach maker culture to in-school learning?

[[{“type”:”media”,”view_mode”:”media_large”,”fid”:”9886″,”attributes”:{“alt”:””,”class”:”media-image media-image-left”,”height”:”314″,”style”:”float: left; margin: 0 15px 0 0;”,”width”:”470″}}]]My colleagues and I have a three-book series coming out this year that addresses this exact issue. The series is designed for educators in both the formal and informal environment, and it encompasses all of the practices we have been learning across new media and media arts platforms — video games, Scratch, e-textiles — and brings them into educational spaces. We have been working with the National Writing Project and teachers across the country to test and refine this curriculum. The purpose of this series is to not only to get youth thinking about design, but also to get them to see the world as a set of interconnected systems. It is a very wonderful curriculum, and it has been designed with teachers every step of the way. It might sound high-level, but it is actually very approachable.

The work the kids are producing is also amazing — everything from solar-powered backpacks to digital stories about systemic issues in their community to video game design. It really positions youth to play, and it’s our way to infuse that into education culture, making the central learning principles of the Quest schools in New York and Chicago accessible to everyone.

Since we started working with teachers, we have become very in-tune with what needs to happen in these in-school spaces. The books offer opportunities for reflection and also have a strong writing and science emphasis to them. Teachers need these connections so they can gain approval from their principals or administrations for the curriculum. They need to know how to get started, and they need to know what projects are suitable for their classrooms. We are also developing models of professional development. We are working with a couple of schools to use these volumes as a way to transform the school, and after a 30-minute introduction to Scratch, the teachers are off and using it. It doesn’t take long. I am amazed, actually. We tend to be so scared of technology. We think we are going to have to spend months or even years getting people up to speed. But when we change the relationship between teacher and student, and we realize that we are all designing together, we can give teachers the resources to feel comfortable using these technologies in their classrooms.

How does someone with your background — a classically trained artist — find herself working with these new technologies?

It was a formative experience actually. I had an instructor in one of my college art classes, who one day was reviewing the figurative work I was doing. He was just looking at it with disdain. He basically told us that technology is a reflection of the 21st century, and if we weren’t using it in our work, we shouldn’t expect to see our pieces in the museum tomorrow. I was taken aback and was a bit insulted, but I took it on as a challenge. My professor probably thought I wasn’t listening, but it turns out, I was! I told myself, if I am going to conquer this, I need to take my sculpture work and move it towards this media arts trajectory. Many folks in the industry talked about how they hired artists because of how they thought about programming not as a very technical activity, but as an expressive one towards a purpose. That’s the vision I have for computer science education and arts education. It’s really that merger of highly technical and highly artistic sensibilities.

Image credit: Courtesy of Kylie Peppler

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