Supporting Learning Innovation at a Local Level

A Few Moments with Cathy Lewis Long and Matt Hannigan

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.