Avoiding the “Creepy Treehouse” When Using Technology to Connect Learning Ecologies

Photo by AlmostJaded, licensed under Creative Commons by-nc-nd

In going through a series of readings this week on the topic of games and learning, I found myself looking at the model for technology and learning that I’ve been working on in a new way, and asking a new question, namely: if we create technologies that connect the various nodes in a young person’s learning ecology (online communities, libraries, school, pop culture, etc.), how do we avoid the phenomenon of the “creepy treehouse”, whereby youth avoid participating in a given space or using a given technology because of its affiliation with institutional structures and adult cultures?

I’ll say more soon about this “creepy treehouse” phenomenon and how I’m thinking about it in terms of my model, but first it’s important to acknowledge the ways that I’m seeing various technologies already doing work to connect youth learning ecologies. For those that haven’t gone through some of my past posts on the subject, one of the things that I’m very interested in is a system that personalizes youth learning via creating automated and social recommendations (like Amazon and Yelp, respectively) that allow youth to follow their interests and connect the various places in their life that they learn (more on that here, if you’re interested). While reading about Quest Atlantis this week, a educational game that I’ve known about for quite a while as it was developed and housed in the very Learning Sciences department that I study in, I remembered that there are many existing projects already out there that do work to connect these nodes in youth learning lives, though not necessarily in the way that the particular project I’ve been thinking about does.

In a paper on Quest Atlantis (Barab et al. 2005), the designers reference this idea of connecting different learning nodes, if not explicitly. One way that the game is framed is as a space where education, entertainment and social commitment are intertwined to create a compelling learning experience. In terms of the learning ecology that I visualize in my model, this is doing work to connect formal school (the “learning” part of the triad where Quest Atlantis is mostly used,) to online affinity spaces and popular culture (“entertainment”) and civic and community action (“social commitment”). They reference some of the issues I talk about in my model in terms of popular culture’s success in engaging young people but failure to effectively leverage this success for learning purposes (p. 90). They also claim that the game’s connections to real world issues “are frequently as motivating to children as are the entertainment aspects of the project” (p. 98). Clearly, a lot of thought went into considering the various places that youth learn and engage in terms of the design of this project.

One other project that aims to do some linking of learning nodes that I’ll mention briefly is called RemixWorld, which comes out of a Chicago project called Digital Youth Network (DYN). DYN is a youth development program that trains youth in various forms of new media production via both in and out of school programs. An innovative project in and of itself, DYN does good work to integrate media production into the core content of schools, leveraging skills developed in afterschool hours within the classroom to create richer learning experiences. RemixWorld, though, does unique work to link the out of school lives with time spent in school and afterschool DYN related programs. A private social network where youth post their media creations, the space serves as a bridge between many of the interests that youth have outside of school, such as anime, video games and hip hop, to a program that recognizes and validates these practices in more intentional learning contexts.

Acknowledging that there are numerous projects that aim to weave together the learning lives of young people, we come back to the question of how to avoid the “creepy treehouse” effect. First, a couple of words on what I’m talking about here. One definition of “creepy treehouse” (among many variations) is:

Any institutionally-created, operated, or controlled environment in which participants are lured in either by mimicking pre-existing open or naturally formed environments, or by force, through a system of punishments or rewards.

It can also refer to practices of educators requiring students to friend them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter, resulting in an institutional encroachment on friendship driven spaces. More often though, the educational technologists using the term are referring to created online environments that are meant to be reminiscent of things that “digital natives” love, such as “the social media”. Online learning management systems with personal profiles, “friend feeds” and a variety of other features often find themselves guilty of evoking the “creepy treehouse” effect. Students know that these spaces still represent the often conservative priorities of the educational institutions that house them, and many use them as minimally as possible. This often has both to do with who’s controlling the technology as well as the fact that the spaces it aims to create are inauthentic.

So what to do? Not all technologies that promote learning fit the profile of the usual suspects accused of being “creepy treehouse” (Blackboard tends to get a lot of flack in this regard, and I have to say they’re not going to get any sympathy from me), but ones that aim to connect to places where youth learn outside of school certainly might be at greater risk since they are interested in many parts of youth lives often considered off-limits to adults, such as hobbies, pop culture, and other interest driven activities.

In terms the technology driven personalization/recommendation system (which needs a much snappier name), I’m thinking about a couple of things. For one, something like this can’t be affiliated with an existing formal learning institution, period. To begin with, most of these institutions have their own internal logic and agendas that would likely corrupt such a system, but moreover being actively affiliated with institutional educational is a great way to lose credibility with a young audience. More importantly, the system would be an example of technology that’s both for youth as well as by youth, with youth actively involved in it’s design and development. I’ve seen in earlier work that when youth are actually involved in creating a space or technology, they implicitly have greater ownership over it and don’t see it as “other”. Finally, I think that in and of itself, a technology like this naturally avoids falling into the “creepy treehouse” trap mostly because it’s not aiming to be a space where youth are meant to spend significant amounts of time – it’s meant to connect them to the spaces where they actually want to do that. Think of it this way – the time I spend on the social recommendation site Yelp itself is minimal compared to the time I spend eating at the restaurants it recommends. What I’m envisioning is less a learning destination in and of itself, but rather the connective tissue that links other legitimate learning environments, and thus would (hopefully) avoid the taint of the “creepy treehouse”.

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2 Responses to “Avoiding the “Creepy Treehouse” When Using Technology to Connect Learning Ecologies”


  1. 1 Bud Hunt October 26, 2011 at 10:50 pm

    You hit the point I’d make near the end when you mention connective tissue. If point A is okay, and point B is okay, then the connection between the two should allow for the facilitation of “okayedness” between the two.

    Of course, then, now I’m thinking about roads and how so many robbers would lie in wait for a traveler to come along and they’d rob them blind and beat them senseless. So perhaps the roads between safe spaces aren’t necessarily all that uncreepy. Nuts.

    Useful post. Thank you.

    • 2 Rafi Santo October 26, 2011 at 11:03 pm

      Thanks so much Bud. It’s a very good point – think about how creepy Facebook has become, and it’s “just connecting” things that we like, right? This comes back to values in design. What are the tools really about, and what agenda do they serve? As the old saying goes, if you’re not paying, then you’re the product. It would be my top priority to make sure a system like the one I’ve been talking about could never operate on that logic.


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Hi there.

Rafi in thailand, smiling

If you're reading this, then you've reached the web log of Rafi Santo. This is my little slice of the internet where I can share my passion (or whatever) with the world.

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