Archive for the 'Education' Category

Is Making Learning? Considerations as education embraces the Maker Movement

Grinding New Lenses summer program at Depaul University.

Of late, folks in my corner of the educational world have been jazzed about the intersections of maker culture and education. I’m super excited too – and even pleasantly surprised. A couple of years ago the bigger trend in my world was about games and learning, and while that’s certainly not gone away, the prominence of the more open-ended, tinker-oriented maker work has had a serious surge lately.

Audrey Watters over at HackEducation called the Maker Movement one of the top ed-tech trends of 2012. The burgeoning ed-tech news aggregator EdSurge has managed a good deal of reporting on Maker and DIY learning amidst its usual grind of MOOC’s and Learning Management Systems. Mozilla has fully embraced the “making is learning” stance in positioning its Webmaker initiative, which I’ve written about before (and, full disclosure, contribute to on occasion). And my own lab here at Indiana University just last week publicly launched the Make-to-Learn initiative, a research focused collaboration including some fantastic organizations including MIT’s LifeLong Kindergarten Group, the National Writing Project, Instructables and the MacArthur Foundation, among others.

Clearly, making and learning is hot. And as with all things trendy, it’s easy for the core message to get lost amidst the hype. That’s why I want to (briefly) address a question any edu-hype-skeptic should be asking right now: Is making, in fact, learning? 

The short answer: yes, but it’s complicated. The longer answer is that the best maker-driven learning is never just about the making. It’s about all the things that happen around the making. That initial spark of curiosity, the investigation and early tinkering, the planning and research that follow, the inspirations and appropriations from other projects, the prototypes, the failures, the feedback, and, perhaps most importantly, the iterations upon iterations towards a better make. All of these acts are done in and contingent on well configured social contexts, in communities of practice and affinity spaces. This all goes back to core ideas of Constructionist learning theory and the foundational work of Seymor Papert. And it’s why I prefer talking about the Maker Movement as having strong lessons for learning, as opposed to just making, which can be construed as more solitary. Making in and of itself can sometimes involve the sorts of steps I described here, but not always. That’s why the answer is complicated. I’m willing to say that someone is always learning something when they’re making, but they learn best when it entails the sort of process, community and well configured structures of participation I describe above.

When I went to the Maker Faire last September, I wrote about how a revamped pinewood derby was set up in such a way that it embodied principles found in well designed learning environments. I talked about things like multi-generational engagement, clear contexts for using what’s being created, multiple avenues to success yet transparent and clearly defined standards. All of these things are about the interactions that are possible within a larger culture of making. Obviously, it’s the act of making that ties all of these interactions together, but the story around how the learning happens is always more complicated than the simplified idea that “making is learning”.

My sense is that so many of the folks taking up the making and learning mantle are nodding to all the things I’m saying here. These insights are obvious to anyone who thinks for more than a minute about what it means to be making in a way that might support robust learning via real world contexts. And the initiatives I’ve mentioned reflect this understanding. Mozilla is dedicated to creating a robust mentor community around Webmaker. The almost 25 thousand folks taking the MIT Media Lab’s Learning Creative Learning MOOC will be getting a healthy dose of Papert as they learn about maker-oriented learning environments. And reading Audrey Watters’ recent post on the case for a campus Makerspace tells me that she gets what this is all about too. I just want to make sure we keep the complexity, nuance, and real power of this pedagogical approach in mind as we start to build a movement around it. It would be such a shame if we watered down the real power of maker-driven learning.

Upgrading Afterschool: Common Sense Shifts in Expanded Learning for a Digital Age

Expanded Minds & Opportunities Image

This piece, co-authored with Michael Levine of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, appears in a book released today called Expanding Minds and Opportunities: Leveraging the Power of Afterschool and Summer Learning for Student Success, edited by Terry Peterson.  All of the articles in the volume are, wonderfully, available online here, and you can get a hard copy here.  A PDF of this article is available here, and you can check it out on the book site here.

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Michael H. Levine - Executive Director, Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Street Workshop

Rafi Santo - Graduate Research Assistant, Indiana University

 

Overview

The days when summer and afterschool learning programs that only offered “safe custodial care” were considered fine are thankfully behind us. Tectonic social changes—including demographic shifts that have placed most women with school-age children in the labor force, research breakthroughs in the learning sciences and in socio-emotional and brain development, and daunting national achievement worries—have all converged to place a major new emphasis on the quality of a child’s learning experiences throughout the typical school day, after school, weekends, and across the year, 
including summers.

Over the past decade the C. S. Mott Foundation, the Wallace Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and others have conducted groundbreaking programmatic and research initiatives to expand learning time after school and during the summer. These initiatives have defined “a new day for learning” (Herr-Stephenson, Rhoten, Perkel, & Sims, 2011; Time, Learning, and Afterschool Task Force, 2007). The recent convergence of scholarly research, program development efforts, and policy advocacy work have all pushed in the direction of a fresh “ecological” framework for learning that nests more responsibility in the nonschool hours. This “mind shift” has been helpfully characterized by scholars at the National Science Foundation’s Learning in Formal and Informal Environments (LIFE) Center as the “life-long, life-wide, and life-deep” approach to learning (Banks et al., 2007). Such a shift characterizes a natural progression in how we should think about learning in the 21st century.

It is now broadly understood that expanded learning programs can and must be much more than “graham crackers and basketball”—that is, they can play a critical role in young people’s lives. But what does a real mind shift look like? Currently, there exist dramatically different visions of the desired outcomes of expanded learning time programs. One vision is that afterschool and summer learning programs should be aligned with current education reform efforts—high-stakes testing, narrow accountability, and the Common Core State Standards that are directed at just two subjects. Another view—and the one we argue for here—is that expanded learning-time programs should exist as part of the larger ecology of a young person’s 21st century existence. This ecology is framed by the digital, interconnected world in which we all live and should, therefore, incorporate systemic links between what are now disparate venues of learning. Thus, we place great priority on youth participation and productivity in learning opportunities that burnish their civic and collaborative skills through the creative, evolving digital technologies so ubiquitous in the world.

Research shows that the past decade’s focus on accountability and high-stakes testing is leading to a more intensive emphasis on reaching all children, but it is inadvertently resulting in a curriculum for many low-income children that is narrower, fragmented, and oriented towards “direct instruction” instead of student-driven inquiry (Au, 2007). The Common Core, while arguably a strong baseline for student learning in the United States, are rightfully being criticized for a weak emphasis on 21st century competencies like creativity, collaboration, and communication (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2010), as well as for a narrow focus on only reading and math.

A New Vision for Learning

Expanding learning-time programs that focus with all good intentions on remediation and tutoring, but that extend traditional school structures into afterschool time, may experience weak attendance and missed opportunities because these efforts are too often disconnected from the rich learning lives of today’s youth. The Kaiser Family Foundation’s “Generation M” research and the qualitative work of Mimi Ito and colleagues (2009) document the explosion of interest in digital technologies that allow youth not only to “media multitask,” but also to explore, create, and share knowledge around their personal interests and across many knowledge domains. We believe that these experiences can be significantly leveraged and augmented in expanded learning-time environments.

We advocate another vision for out-of-school-time organizations—one that positions young people as creators, makers, and innovators. Our vision will allow youth to go deep into 21st century learning by focusing on knowledge productionwith the technologies pervasive in our world. Youth are increasingly doing incredible things through their engagement with digital media. For example, in online multiplayer games, they are collaborating with sometimes hundreds of people around the world to tackle complex challenges in the form of dragons to be slain. In fan communities, they write and rewrite favorite books like Harry Potter, extending plotlines and creating alternate endings, all the while engaging in rigorous feedback and revision processes that English teachers would admire.

Key Principles for Program Design

There are several outstanding models of innovation in the expanded learning-time domain that suggest a set of key principles to guide afterschool and summer learning leaders in designing new, digitally savvy, and integrated learning environments. The principles offered below are based on an examination of three exemplary innovators in expanded learning time: the YouMedia network, spearheaded by the Chicago Public Library; Global Kids, an afterschool leadership organization based in New York City; and the Computer Clubhouse network, which was developed originally by the MIT Media Lab and now includes approximately 100 community centers in over 20 countries (Kafai, Peppler, & Chapman, 2009).

  1. Provide technological infrastructure that supports media design and production. Providing access to technology is essential, of course, but this should be seen only as a first step. Programs should ensure that access to the Internet is relatively unrestricted, that files and programs can be downloaded, and that youth have ways to save personal work and access it using any computer. These elements are all essential to creating a space in which design and production activities with media can promote robust learning. Additionally, program developers should ensure that production-and design-oriented software and hardware are available. At the Computer Clubhouse, and in over 3,000 “Club Tech” centers operated by the Boys and Girls Clubs, software is available that supports computer programming, game design, graphic design, and audio and video production; moreover, hardware, such as video cameras, sound recording equipment, and digital cameras, can be checked out at some centers.
  2. Create a culture of sharing meaningful media creations. Some of the most important learning outcomes associated with digital media are tied to creating, sharing, and getting feedback from peers on projects that youth care about. This can happen through gallery showings, performances, screenings, “critique” sessions, and the creation of localized online spaces in which youth can review and comment on each others’ work. In 2009, Global Kids co-founded Emoti-Con, the annual New York City youth media and technology festival that brings together hundreds of youth from across the city to exhibit their digital creations in a public forum, get critiques from both peers as well as professionals, and connect with a larger community of media creators. These kinds of meaningful contexts for sharing work encourage youth to go deep and develop expertise through iteratively improving their projects.
  3. Provide skilled mentors to support and respond to youth interests. Adults, as always, have important roles to play in afterschool and summer learning programs. In connected, expanded learning programs, adults often provide mentoring around technology use and promote good citizenship practices associated with new media use and production. At YouMedia, skilled artists serve as mentors, leading workshops on specialized topics and helping youth organize projects around emerging interests. These highly skilled adults provide youth with role models and powerful images of engagement in expert practice and mastery of fundamental skills needed to do well in school and in life.
  4. Create mixed-age spaces. One of the key aspects of 21st century learning environments is that they feature participants of many ages that have a range of experiences, backgrounds, and areas of expertise. Schools typically maintain the increasingly outmoded practice of grouping children by age, while most other successful learning environments leverage the strengths of mixed-age populations. At the Computer Clubhouse, groups diverse in age and experience ensure that participants can sometimes be learners and sometimes be leaders, with reciprocal benefits accruing on both ends of those relationships.
  5. Design spaces to build relationships! Peer relationships matter most in effective expanded learning communities. Youth will rarely persist in an activity or remain a member of an organization if they do not form strong relationships to peers or mentors. YouMedia’s model incorporates both unstructured time for developing such relationships, as well as a conducive physical space in which youth can hang out, socialize, and develop bonds.

Recommendations for Extended Learning Practice and Policy in Afterschool and Summer Programs

In a digital age in which technology is a central part of kids’ lives, leaders in the expanded learning-time movement need to embrace a “mind shift” so that the United States can make dramatic progress by building a system of expanded digital learning, one based on pragmatic changes that acknowledge the ways learning is happening in the 21st century. In the next 5 years we recommend the following priority areas for expanding learning investments:

  1. Modernize places in every community. With the goal of creating a new expanded digital learning road map in every community, each of the nation’s 21st Century Community Learning Centers should undertake its own “digital learning inventory” to determine what is currently being done to advance digital learning in local afterschool and summer programs. These inventories should identify the funds that are currently available, the barriers to using new resources for digital learning in these programs, and the capacity of local partners to contribute tools that are needed for technology-based innovations.
  2. Create professional learning communities. Youth-serving professionals are too often behind the curve when it comes to understanding the capacities of new media for learning. They should look to models of new online professional communities that are forming across key professional associations and networks, such as the National Writing Project (NWP), Consortium of School Networking (CoSN), and city-based affiliations like the Hive Learning Networks. The expanded learning community should take up the challenge of creating a digitally savvy mentors corps to identify a cadre of capable leaders who can train and support youth-serving professionals, based on a blueprint for teachers offered by Levine and Gee (2011).
  3. Build capacity and awareness. A cadre of pioneering expanded learning organizations has already begun program development work around anytime, anywhere learning, including Think Together in California, the Digital Youth Network in Chicago, the Digital On-Ramps initiative in Philadelphia, the Kids and Creativity Coalition in Pittsburgh, and numerous others mentioned throughout this article. They are updating or creating new program materials and projects on digital media and expanded learning themes. We should support these leaders with research and development funds to document successes and failures, invite them to national conferences to share these, and use their models as the focus of the advocacy work of state afterschool networks to expand quality programs for a digital age.

Future investments in local program capacity can be advanced by recruiting champions for expanded digital learning, including governors, mayors, businesses interests in economic development, as well as chief state school officers, state boards, school districts, and influential nonprofit partners. Policy leaders, in particular, can (1) support initiatives that expand broadband availability in all of the federally funded 21st Century Community Learning Centers and in state and locally-funded afterschool sites; (2) encourage robust experimentation with digital platforms that allow expanded learning organizations to collaborate, share practices, and connect experiences that kids are having at various expanded learning sites; and (3) support pilot experiments in up to 10% of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers that focus on integrating evolving technologies.

Over the next 5 years, major innovations in digital technologies and learning are not only possible, but almost inevitable. Investment in educational technologies by venture capital is at a 20-year high (Ash, 2012), and many cutting-edge community educators are fashioning ways to connect the learning happening on youth’s own time to what is happening in school and in out-of-school environments. Expanded learning time initiatives, including afterschool and summer programs, should help lead our nation out of its narrow educational mindset by promoting communities in which children and youth are positioned as “makers and creators,” based on what they are passionate about. By unlocking new opportunities for “modern” learning, we can drive a pragmatic mind shift that will generate great benefits for our nation.

For More Information

References

Au, W. (2007). High-stakes testing and curricular control: A qualitative metasynthesis. Educational Researcher36(5), 258-267.

Ash, K. (2012, February 1). K–12 marketplace sees major flow of venture capital. Education Week, 31(19).

Banks, J., Au, K., Ball, A., Bell, P., Gordon, E., Gutiérrez, K. D., . . . Zhou, M. (2007). Learning in and out of school in diverse environments. Retrieved from http://life-slc.org/docs/Banks_etal-LIFE-Diversity-Report.pdf

Herr-Stephenson, B., Rhoten, D., Perkel, D., & Sims, C. (2011). Digital media and technology in afterschool programs, libraries, and museums. Retrieved from mitpress.mit.edu/books/full_pdfs/Digital_Media_and_Technology_in_Afterschool_Programs.pdf

Ito, M., Baumer, S., Bittanti, M., Boyd, D., Cody, R., Herr-Stephenson, B., . . . Tripp, L. (2009). Hanging out, messing around, geeking out: Kids living and learning with new media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Kafai, Y. B., Peppler, K., & Chapman, R. (Eds.). (2009). The Computer Clubhouse: Creativity and constructionism in youth communities. New York, NY: Teachers 
College Press.

Levine, M., & Gee, J. (2011, September). The digital teachers corps: Closing America’s literacy gap(Policy Brief). Retrieved from Progressive Policy Institute website:http://www.progressivepolicy.org/2011/09/policy-brief-the-digital-teache…

Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2010). Statement from Ken Kay, President of P21, on the Common Core State Standards Initiative [Press Release]. Retrieved from http://www.p21.org/events-aamp-news/press-releases/918-statement-from-ke…

Time, Learning, and Afterschool Task Force. (2007). A new day for learning. Retrieved from http://www.newdayforlearning.org/docs/NDL_Jan07.pdf

Networked Innovation and Hive NYC: Pop-Ups as Particle Accelerators

Hive NYC Logo

This post, an excerpt from a longer piece, summarizes themes and cases from early fieldwork I conducted on the Hive NYC Learning Network. If you’re interested in reading more, you can download the full pre-publication draft of this research: Both R&D and Retail: Hive NYC as Infrastructure for Learning Innovation

Starting back in March 2012, I began ethnographic fieldwork looking at the Hive NYC Learning Network, a group of New York City-based informal educational organizations. The network, now with forty members, includes everything from large cultural institutions like the New York Public Library and the Museum of Modern Art to small community-based outfits like The Point or Citylore. The common thread is that all of the organizations are interested in figuring out what learning can look like in the tech-enabled, openly networked 21st century, and how, through coordinated activity, youths’ learning experiences might include more opportunities to pursue their interests.

The network is interesting to me for a lot of reasons, but the one aspect that immediately grabbed my attention concerns what happens when all of these organizations start to interact. Do they share ideas? Do practices spread from one organization to another? Does the network operate as a sort of lab, where new ideas and technologies are born? How do ideas from the broader Digital Media and Learning field (from which the Hive NYC network emerged) get taken up, appropriated, and remixed in the network? Basically, I’m interested in questions relating to innovation – how ideas, practices and technologies that are perceived as new in a given context (Rogers, 1983) get ideated, iterated, and circulated within what I see as a dynamic network of organizations.

In this post I want to share both a case of how I saw the network operating as what I call an infrastructure for innovation and why I think focusing on questions relating to innovation processes is important. Mark Surman of Mozilla put it beautifully when I spoke to him about his aspirations for Hive NYC – he hoped the network could operate as “both R&D and retail”, a place where innovations can both be developed and spread. In keeping with the ethnographic tradition of giving primacy to the perspectives of those invested in the context under study, I used Mark’s words in the title of the longer paper.

Hack Jams & Pop Ups  - “Particle Accelerators” of Innovation 

One of the events I had the opportunity to check out over the summer of 2012 was called the “Hive NYC Summer Code Party” – one of a genre of events that have variably been called Hack Jams, Pop-Ups and Learning Parties (for simplicity’s sake, I’ll just refer to them as Pop-Ups). I give a more blow by blow description of the event in the paper, but I’ll just focus here on the basics of Pop-Ups and how I think they’re significant as regular parts of the Hive NYC’s innovation infrastructure.

Pop-Ups are one or multiday public educational events where different Hive NYC member organizations set up stations and run activities over the course of a day (see map). Chris Lawrence, the director of Hive NYC, described them as “free-flowing, interest-driven festivals where people and organizations highlight and share their tools, projects and ideas, with a diverse audience.” Participants run from families to groups of teens to educational professionals to Hive NYC members themselves. In general, Pop-Ups are less workshop (structured events where everyone does the same thing for the same amount of time) and more festival (casual events where the experience of each person will differ based on how they decide to spend their time). At the Summer Code Party, for example, there was a station where you could engage in self led game design activities, one where you could take existing videos and remix them by adding in annotations and live web content like maps and twitter streams, and a station where you could learn to set up and customize a blog, to name a few.

Screen shot 2013-01-26 at 7.35.58 PM

One of the reasons I focus on these events is that I, and network members, see them as characterized by various ideas and practices around learning that are central to the Hive. Barry Joseph, my old boss at Global Kids (now at the Museum of Natural History) once referred to Pop-ups as “a distillation of the Hive”. He said further “When I think of a distillation of the Hive, and pop-ups, I think about particle accelerators, in which interesting things slam together at fast speeds, for a VERY VERY short amount of time, release lots of energy and new particles.” This sort of particle accelerator analogy speaks to the ways these events have a creative energy that supports innovations to develop, spread and change, and this is very much what I saw at the Code Party.

This idea of “Pop-Up as distillation of Hive” could be looked at in a couple of ways. From the perspective of youth experience, the ideas and practices Pop-ups characterize include production-centered pedagogies, interest-driven learning, multi-generational engagement, youth leadership, public sharing of personal creations, and use of technologies to create engaging and authentic learning experiences. From the perspective of Hive NYC members, these events model both the kind of youth pedagogies I just mentioned as well as how organizations should engage as members of the Hive – these events help put into focus the collaborative, participatory, and, notably, experimental spirit of Hive NYC as a professional network. Pop-up events are opportunities for participating members to bring experimental pedagogies and technologies to the table in a collaborative effort to serve youth.

As part of an innovation infrastructure, these events serve at least two important functions. The first concerns how members use these events to develop and spread their own learning innovations, and the second has to do with the ways the events serve to circulate innovation to network members, in the forms of norms around pedagogical practices and what it means to participate in the network from a professional standpoint.

A Test bed for learning innovation

One of the key infrastructural functions of Pop-ups is to serve as a space where organizations can develop, test, and refine innovations, in this case, both early stage digital learning tools and new learning activities. At the Summer Code Party event, Jess Klein, a friend and colleague at Mozilla, was running a station where kids were playing with the beta-version of a new tool called Thimble that teaches HTML and webmaking. This was pretty representative of the way that the Mozilla software team has engaged with these events – youth have opportunities to learn with emerging tools, and the software development teams have opportunities to see how well their pedagogical software and approaches are working and use that as the basis of an iterative design process. Another member organization, The Institute of Play, was similarly testing a series of game design activities called Gamekit (just released publicly last week in beta form) and was also paradigmatic of how member organizations use these events as places to refine their tools and practices, often running “mini” versions of approaches that are either used within the context of more extended educational projects such as camps or afterschool programs or are part of broader public initiatives.

Spreading Hive NYC ideas and practices

A less obvious way that Pop-ups serve to circulate innovations is by creating a context in which member organizations themselves, along with other interested parties, learn what it is that the Hive NYC network “is about” in terms of valued norms and practices. Anthropologically-oriented learning scientists might characterize network as a community of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991), with a shared set of evolving ideas and activities that are central to the community, and with modes of engaging “newcomers” through interaction with “oldtimers” in order to expose them to these ideas and practices. Popups act as a conduit for spreading certain ideas and practices central to Hive NYC, be they pedagogical (e.g., interest-driven learning) or professional (e.g., experimentation and collaboration).

I observed that many network members at the Summer Code Party were simply there “soaking it in”, or engaging in “legitimate peripheral participation”, as Lave and Wenger (1991) would call it. Leah Gilliam, one of the facilitators of Hive NYC, shared with me that she saw these events and the experience of participating in producing them as key moments when new members of Hive NYC “get it” – that is, when core ideas of both the ethos and practices of the Hive NYC network are made transparent through participation for network members. The medium of the event is the message to members about what it means to do Hive-like work.

In some cases, these events act as very concrete opportunities for members to develop capacity around and adopting technologies that embody certain values central to Hive NYC. For example, one consistent form of valued practice that I observed in the Hive NYC was that of promoting youth voice in public, and often online, contexts. During the code party, an employee from member organization The Point used resources from a station run by Tumblr employees to build a youth blog for her organization, expanding her repertoire of ways to use new media to promote public youth voice in an openly networked fashion. Other cases were more abstract, with Hive members simply observing, coming to understand some of the ethos and practices valued in the network. In these ways, pop-ups and their ilk act as contexts for circulation and spread of innovations to and from network members.

An Infrastructure for Learning Innovation

I share this case (and the others in the paper) not to claim that Hive NYC is definitively an infrastructure for innovation, but rather that it has the capacity to operate as one. More broadly though, I hope that talking about it can help to spark a larger conversation about the importance of innovation infrastructures in education.

The notion that the Hive NYC Learning Network could be a test-bed of innovations, ones that might be circulated both within the network itself as well as within the broader field of Digital Media and Learning, is one that goes back to some of the earliest conversations in the network. But to me the promise of an infrastructure for learning innovations is something that goes beyond the network itself, one with major implications for how we think about the endeavor of designing learning as a society.

The field of education tends to take a “silver bullet” approach to the process of advancing its work. Various camps stake out particular visions of how to solve the “problem” of education, pushing their often ideological ball forward and aiming to convince all others that, if only we fully put their vision of reform fully into place, all would be well in the (educational) world. Look around a little and you’ll see these everywhere. Vouchers. Educational Technology. Charter Schools. Universal standards. 21st Century Skills. Each is often touted by their proponents as “the” solution.  The education historian Diane Ravitch calls this the “Big Idea”, and notes that none of these sorts of grand plans have ever left education particularly better off.

In contrast to such silver bullet approaches to educational reform, the notion of infrastructures for learning innovation implies that changing our educational practices will (and should) be an ongoing process – one informed by shifts in youth interests, changes in community needs, breakthroughs in our understandings of learning, and identification of new literacies essential for an information age. An infrastructure for learning innovation provides the support to create (or tweak) new ideas and solutions, a way to field test, and a way to show them off others in case they’d like to take them up and use them in their pedagogical practice, and, crucially, allow innovations to be tested in real life contexts as opposed to sequestered laboratories with controlled conditions we don’t find in the wild.

It’s not that the “silver bullets” that I mention above aren’t useful at all; the problem is that we think the solution to education will come in the form of one “silver bullet.” We need many silver bullets for the myriad of issues out there, and a way to understand these innovations not as static entities that either work or don’t work, but as ones that must be tested, adapted and recontextualized based on circumstance.

Infrastructural support for innovation has been a longstanding feature in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields, with institutions like Xerox PARC and Bell Labs seeding new ideas and technologies that are now regular features of daily life. Indeed, much of the criticism of the education system in the US centers on how little pedagogical practice has evolved over the last century, and this is partly due to the fact that there is little infrastructure that assumes new modes of learning will need to be developed beyond what can currently be envisioned. In looking to understand Hive NYC’s capacity as an infrastructure for learning innovation, I’m interested in seeing if it might contribute to a broader conversation I think we should be having about a vision of education work that assumes that any given approach will eventually become outdated. Perhaps education needs to embrace something the Buddha realized over 2,500 years ago – things are impermanent, and we should live accordingly.

Understanding Participation in Webmaker: Practices and Identities Spanning Communities

mozilla-webmaker_logo-only_RGB1

I’ve been variably involved with Mozilla’s Webmaker project since it started in 2010 (before it was even called that). I had the privilege to go to the first Drumbeat festival in Barcelona, and helped with some of the early prototyping around Hackasaurus, mostly contributing ideas about what sorts of web literacies (particularly, hacker literacies) the tool could promote. A lot of the time I’ve just been lurking, but lurking in the sort of way that someone with anthropological tendencies might. Lots of watching and listening to see what’s happening in the space and to understand how it’s evolving.

In one of my Fall courses though (I’m in a doctoral program in the learning sciences), I had the chance to formalize some of this lurking into some (brief) online fieldwork. Since the Webmaker team and community are going through some start of the year navel gazing (in its distinctive “less yak, more hack” Mozilla style of doing so) and planning particularly on the theme of how mentors engage in the community, I figured I’d share a small analysis I did of some of the early participation by mentors that may be useful to the conversation.

A bit of context about where this analysis came from. I was taking a great course with Dr. Sean Duncan, who recently joined the faculty of our Learning Sciences department here at Indiana University and specializes in learning in informal, digital spaces, particularly games. The course, naturally, was geared towards these themes. Titled “Learning in Participatory Cultures”, it was oriented towards understanding informal online spaces using a couple of established theoretical frameworks: Henry Jenkins’ Participatory Culture, Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger’s Communities of Practice, and James Paul Gee’s Affinity Spaces.

For an early assignment, all the students had to choose an online community they’d look at and analyze. I chose Webmaker, as it’s a community I care about and had already done some thinking on. I share the a pdf of the analysis here, and will give a couple of qualifications, and then a tl;dr version of what I saw and its implications.

Qualifications: First, this was written for an audience that had no idea what Webmaker (or even Mozilla) even was, so there’s a bit of context in there to lead up. Second, it was written for an academic course, particularly a theory one, so was written in aca-language. I use terms like “identity”, “mediation”, “contested” and “constituent practices”. Apologies. But, my sense is that it’s actually fairly readable to most folks that have an interest in Webmaker and/or online communities, but I’m of course open to feedback on that front. Third, it’s a little longer than a typical blog post at four pages (plus appendix), which is why I share it in PDF form. Consider yourself qualified.

Ok, enough pretext, here’s the PDF:

Understanding Participation in Webmaker: Practices and Identities Spanning Communities

The tl;dr version: the mentors that volunteer and participate in Webmaker come from a variety of communities and backgrounds. Looking at specific examples, I show how commitments to a number of different communities including the broader Mozilla volunteer space, the free/open source (FOSS) community and software development writ large play a central role in the way that some mentors understand and forge connections to Webmaker. These pre-existing commitments play out in their participation in Webmaker and ultimately shape what the initiative looks like. Bottom line: in thinking about the future of Webmaker, we can’t ignore the past and present identities of those that make up the movement, and how those identities shape the movement.

As always, happy to hear thoughts and feedback.

Maker Faire 2012: Nerdy Derby as Inspirational Pedagogy

This past weekend I had the privilege of going to the World Maker Faire with my fellow colleagues from the Creativity Labs at Indiana University. Our lab is engaged in a number of efforts to envision intersections of the DIY and Maker sub-cultures and contemporary education, thinking about how these communities that have a strong focus on hands-on problem-solving, collaboration, arts and STEM might help us move teaching and learning forward.

The New York faire, held at the Hall of Science in Queens (a place I have fond memories of visiting as a kid), is in many ways chaotic and carnival-esque – dozens of tents dot the landscape of the museum grounds displaying everything from handmade robots that play basketball to PVC pipes configured to shoot marshmallows across a room. All manner of high and low tech can be found – 3D printers, woodcutting machines, sewing and embroidery stations, even a super-sized thumb-wresting apparatus. You can see some of the fun through the photos I took and at the Maker Faire site.


Nerdy Derby
Rather than talking about the whole fair from an educational standpoint, I want to focus one great example of how we can be inspired by the Maker movement: the Nerdy Derby. The Nerdy Derby is a reboot on the classic Pinewood Derby where people (usually kids) create handmade model cars and race them on wooden tracks. You can check out a neat little video of the derby below to get a sense of the experience.

The Nerdy Derby had a lot of features that I think we should include when we create well designed learning experiences for kids. I want to briefly take you through what I saw happening there from the perspective of good education and good learning.

  1. The Derby railsA Clear Context of Application - kids working on their derby cars in one part of the tent knew exactly why they were working on what they were working on. They could see, right across the tent, the real world space of the three competition rails where their work would be applied and judged. The problem they were trying to solve was made transparent by the design of the space.
  2. Multi-generational Creation and Collaboration – adults and kids worked together to tinker, hack and refine their derby car models. When kids got stuck, parents and folks running the derby were there to help out and assist in problem solving.
  3. Multiple Avenues to Success, but Clear Standards derby cars took many forms, and no one was there telling kids that their cars needed to look a certain way. Lots of different types of material resources were provided in the environment that let kids try out different approaches. At the same time, the kids couldn’t create just anything – the problem space they were in meant that there were standards for what would work and what wouldn’t. The design of the track, for example, made two wheeled vehicles impossible to race.
  4. Derby test railSafe Contexts for Testing – before kids moved their derby cars to the big leagues on the main rail, they were able to try out their models on test rails to see how they worked. Nobody expected that their cars would be perfect in this environment, and kids weren’t afraid to fail – after all, that’s what the test rails were for.
  5. Performance as Feedback - when derby cars were finally completed and they were ready to race one another, the context of application itself provided feedback – kids got to see how well their cars performed in relation to others. I even heard people making some hypothesis after a race about why a car performed in a certain way, information that could be used to change car designs.
  6. Opportunities for Iteration - after their cars were raced and they got that performance feedback, they could go back to the workspace to iterate on their designs, tweak them based on what they saw, and try them out again.

For me, one of the things that made this such a powerful learning environment is that all the feedback loops were tight – kids were able to see what they were going for, what counted as good participation, what resources were available. They were able to create based on this consequential information, test and refine, put their creations out there, learn from the experience and iterate all within this self-contained experience. Compare that to our current models of education – kids rarely understand why they’re working on something, their work so often has no actual application to even a fictional problem space, stakes are incredibly high and so testing and iteration are discouraged, and feedback is more often about telling kids how they did after long times scales (think tests) rather than being ongoing and on-demand while they’re involved in their work (like the test-rails in the derby).

This is only a small example of how the Make movement might inspire better pedagogy, but its clear contrast to what current classrooms look like is a testament to just how much room we have for improvement.

Thoughts on the Purpose of Education

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I recently had a great time chatting with Doug Belshaw, a colleague over in the UK, about the purpose of education. Among many other roles (including recently joining the Mozilla Learning team), Doug is the co-kickstarter of the purpos/ed project which aims to create a broader conversation around what the purpose of education is. This, in my opinion, is a fantastic project – so much of the discussion in the education world has baked in assumptions about what the purpose of education is, and too often these assumptions go unexamined. We can only do well by bringing them to the surface and engaging in robust debate around them.

Check out the post over on the purpos/ed, or listen to the interview below. I’d love to hear your own thoughts on what you think the purpose of education is, or should be.


Hacker Literacies Ignite Talk @ DML2012

This past year at the annual Digital Media and Learning conference, I gave an ignite talk (15 slides, 20 seconds each) about hacker literacies, an idea I’ve been kicking around for a while that deals with approaches to technology that understand it as inherently malleable, changeable… hackable (in a good way). But I won’t go on too long – you can just watch the video!

If you’re interested in the idea, I have some good news: I have a book chapter on hacker literacies coming out in an edited volume called Critical Digital Literacies as Social Praxis: Intersections and Challenges, published by Peter Lang in their book series New Literaces & Digital EpistemologiesI also have an empirical study on hacker literacies that looks at how they played out during user responses to Facebook privacy changes in 2010 that was accepted to a journal this morning (and is also exciting since it’s my first solo authored peer-reviewed study that’s been accepted to a journal!). So, if you like the ideas in this video, watch this space. : )

“Reform” vs “Change”: Papert Reflects on the Education System, Technology and Culture

I just came across this wonderful little excerpt on The Daily Papert that I want to share. In it, constructionist learning theorist Seymour Papert reflects on his reading of the book Tinkering Towards Utopia, which describes the ways that the educational system has been amazingly resilient in the face of attempts at centralized, planned reform for over a century.

“My first reaction to Tinkering Towards Utopia was adversarial. I am convinced that education will undergo the kind of megachange that came in the wake of technological and scientific developments in areas such as medicine. Yet as Koschmann pointed out in the introduction to this section, although Tyack and Cuban present their work as analysis of the past, “the implication is plain that the prospects for any technology, … leading to radical change in our educational institutions appear quite bleak” (Koschmann & Kolodner, this issue, p. 399). One of us, it seemed at first sight, has to be wrong.

Only at first sight. Working on this review brought me the intellectual bonus of a better understanding of my own position by making explicit a simple distinction that has long lurked unformulated in the shadows of my intuitions: “Reform” and “change” are not synonymous. Tyack and Cuban clinched my belief that the prospects really are indeed bleak for deep change coming from deliberate attempts to impose a specific new form on education. However, some changes, arguably the most important ones in social cultural spheres, come about by evolution rather than by deliberate design — by what I am inspired by Dan Dennett (1994) to call “Darwinian design.” (2) For example, the concept of learning disability entered School in a manner more akin to the way that memes invade cultures than to the conduct of an education reform movement; institutionalization from above followed the cultural movement.

Examples closer to my focus here are to be found in the unintended effects on the classroom of the presence of computers in homes. The title of an article by Cuban (1992), “Computers Meet Classroom: Classroom Wins,” refers to School’s defense mechanisms against reform being brought into the classroom by computers. School exerts less influence on what children do with home computers, and as the number of these reaches significant levels, we are beginning to observe changes in the relationship between teachers and students brought about not by a reform, but by the fact that the students have acquired a new kind of sophistication — not only about computers but also about ways to learn and methods of research (Papert, 1996a).

With the evolution-reform distinction in mind, I found myself reading Tinkering Towards Utopia more sympathetically. I could now appreciate the elucidation of mechanisms by which the system systematically frustrates reform without feeling obliged to defend my own intellectual commitments. In fact, I could learn from it — the shift from a stance of reform to a stance of evolution does not exclude active intervention, but the role of the change agent becomes less like the architect or builder and more like the plant- or animal breeder whose interventions take the form of influencing processes that have their own dynamic. Tinkering Towards Utopia is a gold mine of insights into the dynamic of School’s defense mechanisms.

Nevertheless, a sense of residual discomfort lasted until I managed to formulate yet another respect in which Tinkering Towards Utopia says less than I first thought: The mechanisms described in it are concomitants rather than causes of the stability of School. Making this distinction will lead me to suggest that Tyack and Cuban are blinded to a deeper layer of explanation by a theoretical stance that looks deeply into the sociological processes at play in education while treating as a black box the actual content of what is being taught and (supposedly) learned.”

Papert, S. (1995). “Why School Reform is Impossible.” The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 6(4), pp. 417-427.

This is a wonderful little reflection for many of us that share Papert’s sentiments around the potentials of technology; to empower young people, to help shift towards pedagogical approaches that position young people as creators and knowledgable actors, to make learning built on tinkering and experimentation as opposed to skill and drill. Often I find myself worrying about how to best effect change in a complicated system – Papert’s words here remind me that my own hopes are buttressed by larger cultural shifts around how technology is currently being used. People, young and old, are engaging in a democratization of cultural, social and political life through media in ways that would scarcely be recognized even a couple of decades ago . In other words, culture is at our backs here. Instead of having to think of ourselves as change-makers in the form of “architects” or “builders”, as Papert says, we can contribute to  these larger cultural forces that are already unfolding, nudging them in fruitful directions. A good reminder for those of us that sometimes feel the weight of the world on our shoulders.

Confessions of an informal learner who’s learning in school

I have a confession to make. I’m learning. In school. No joke. I frame this as a confession because I’m someone who’s generally pretty hard on institutionalized education, and especially schools, and now I might have to go and revisit my stance a bit.

First, some background. I’m not one of those people that looks back on their school experiences, even those in higher ed, and feels like I was inspired, or particularly well equipped, to scale new intellectual, personal or professional heights. There are some small exceptions of course and probably some very positive aggregate effects, but looking back there are no teachers that really stand out as changing my trajectory, no courses that shook the foundations of what I thought my place was in the world. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t have any “bad” experiences in school beyond feeling like high school sucked on a social level (but hey, who didn’t have that experience?), but I when I look at the other places that I’ve really learned in my life, it doesn’t really stack up in comparison.

When I think about the kind of learning in my life that was foundational and life changing on the intellectual, personal and professional level, I look outside of school. I look to life experiences of the informal variety. As I look back on my adult life, three places in particular strike me as the ones where I’ve learned the most: my meditation practice, my time living abroad in India, and my time working at the youth development organization Global Kids. And as I reflect on these experiences, I can see why I’m in a situation here in graduate school where I’m learning – in each of these areas I can see some quality that I’m now finding in my current experience.

I starting meditating when I was about 18. For me this has been part of a spiritual journey that I won’t go deeply into here (feel free to explore some other writings if you’re curious), but one that I will say has been meaningful and important for my development as a (at least somewhat) reflective, mindful and conscientious adult. This development has been grounded in the exploration of a practice; a continual refinement and commitment to a particular technique that has stayed with me through most of my adult life, evolving with me. Directly engaging in a practice, learning from others about how they practice, paying close attention to the contours of this particular practice, and, importantly, persistently applying the practice in new contexts and integrating new insights into it has unquestionably been one of the deepest (and at ten years, most ongoing) learning experiences I’ve had in my life.

I lived in India twice over the course of about two years, the first time more related to some of the interests I just mentioned, the second more related to my professional life (again, if curious, you can read the old blog I kept while living in Bombay). Beyond the particulars of first the study abroad program and then the NGO-based fellowship that I participated in, the big learning experience for me here was about cultural immersion. One of the unique things about living abroad is that it makes visible the taken for granted mechanisms of culture by exposing you to mechanisms wholly different from your own. In immersing myself in the drastically different culture of India, I came to see more clearly the contours of my own culture back home in the US. More generally, I learned how to experience and interpret the world through the lens of culture and see the critical role it plays in the learning process – how a given culture both structures our lives but also provides the basis for our own agency.

As my first extended professional experience, my time working at Global Kids has so many things that I can say about it in terms of my own learning to be a professional (and I have, if you’re again curious), but I’ll limit myself here. What I’d really like to focus on in terms of that experience is my immersion in work and a field that I feel passionately about. I came to Global Kids coming off of my second trip to India, with a deep commitment to working on issues related to human rights, though not really knowing very much about that area as a field. And Global Kids was an interesting place in terms of that – it isn’t a classic human rights organization like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch. It’s a youth development organization that does education about human rights, and works with teens to foster their own identities as global citizens. Even more than that, my place within the organization, in it’s Online Leadership Program, put me in a position where I was exploring the question of how youth can be civically engaged through the lens of new media. This led me to become deeply engaged in the emerging field of Digital Media & Learning, and over the course of my time at Global Kids I became more immersed in that space through work on collaborative projects, presentation at conferences and development of a network of colleagues whose worked I respected. In this experience I came to understand what an impact working in a field that I’m passionate about has one my own learning, motivation and development.

Circling back – here I am in graduate school, and looking around me, I see practices, I see culture, and I see a field that I’m passionate about. And I see how these three components are intertwined in a way that supports my learning. I’m developing a set of distinct practices related to the investigation of questions of learning – they involve the application of theory, utilization of research methodologies, and development of analytic and argumentation techniques all used to produce new knowledge about the world. I’m surrounded by a productive culture that’s supportive of my development – one that’s inquisitive, innovative, experimental and rigorous in the ways that it engages with the questions it cares about. And I’m able to work on the things that I’m passionate about through the work I do in my courses, through the work I do in my lab, and through the interactions I have with the community around me.

I share all of this because I’m surprised. I’m surprised at the ways that I’m developing and learning in a formal education context and how different it feels from all of my other encounters with the formal educational system. I’m sharing my own experience as a learning scientist who’s researching informal learning spaces and technologies because he believes in their potential to help inspire new educational innovations, but finding, suddenly and surprisingly, that it’s wholly possible to have a robust learning experience in formal learning context that contains all the markers of the most effective informal learning I’ve experienced. The irony is not lost on me here.

In one sense the implications of this realization feel daunting – how can I look to my own positive experience with school and integrate that into my work as someone looking to transform education? Is it even possible to have a learning experience like this in an educational space that currently looks so drastically different, with classrooms that are increasingly under pressure from standardized tests, schools that look increasingly like prisons, and students who haven’t been encouraged to pursue their passions? In another sense, this insight it feels validating and empowering – it is possible to have a schooling experience that’s personally meaningful and robust in terms of learning. And I’ll just have to do the work to figure out what it means for my work as someone dedicated to good learning for all youth.

Wait, why should classrooms care about participatory culture again?

Because participatory cultures are more authentic! Because they’re more democratic! Because kids love the internetz! No. No. No.

In fact, I’m going to go all out and say that classrooms may not have all that many reasons to care about participatory culture and the current form it takes in so many online spaces like fanfiction communities, massively multiplayer games and our favorite online, collaboratively edited encyclopedia. Henry Jenkins, who reminds us that they predated the internet (omg!), defines participatory cultures as spaces with low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing creations with others, informal mentorship, social connection and personally meaningful participation (see Jenkins et al. 2006 for more on this). Sound like great places, right? Like we should want classrooms to look more like them, right? And you might be saying to yourself right now “But Rafi, you’ve been talking for months about the importance of interest driven affinity spaces (a variant on participatory cultures via Jim Gee) for weeks when you’ve talked about your model for technology and learning!” Guilty as charged. I did, and will continue to, talk about these spaces as important. For learning though, not necessarily for the classroom. At least not yet.

I make two big points (among others) about the importance of participatory cultures in my model. One is that we should be figuring out ways to configure the many and varied places that youth learn in ways that get more youth get involved in participatory cultures. My reasons for this are many and varied, not least of which being that research shows that deep participation in these spaces can serve as gateways into increased civic engagement, but I’ll save these for another post since it’s a much bigger topic. But the other point I make, the one I want to take up and interrogate/revise a bit here, is that formal learning institutions such as K12 schools and Higher Education should look to participatory cultures for inspiration in terms of creating better models for learning. I should have chosen my words more carefully, and reading for class this week reminded me why. It’s because many of the tools and practices associated with participatory culture run into some interesting walls when we try to bring them into the classroom.

In an insightful, if somewhat dense, article titled “Web 2.0: Inherent tensions and evident challenges for education“, researcher Nina Dohn outlines just some of the many tensions involved in bring Web 2.0 practices into the classroom. Web 2.0, of course, is closely related to participatory culture, though as Jenkins notes, Web 2.0 is a business model more than anything else, and participatory culture focuses much more on the unique and valued practices that are mediated by these models and technological designs. Dohn makes sure to focus on practices rather than tools, which is for our purposes close enough. But I digress.

Dohn does a great job of articulating well intentioned desires of educators (herself included)  to foster Web 2.0 practices, specifically through wikis, in higher ed classrooms, but were confounded by the existing norms, expectations and structural pressures of these spaces. I’ll share an example. In a participatory culture, posting a summary of a public presentation to the internet is good practice; information about the presentation is now available to more than just the people present when it was being given, there’s a persistent and searchable record, etc. In a classroom aiming to utilize web 2.0 practices though, doing this when the public presentation was made in class by peers who did all the work to structure the knowledge and the summary post to a wiki was done for a participation requirement, well, it’s not exactly the same thing, is it? Likewise, when making edits to other people’s wiki entries becomes part of your grade, students can (and did!) come up with schemes to leave small spelling errors in their posts so that their peers have low hanging fruit to work with, and they can then reciprocate.

What Dohn really points to well is that bringing the tools, and maybe some of the practices, of Web 2.0 into classrooms doesn’t mean that you’re bringing in a participatory culture. Larger institutional requirements around individually oriented assessment, challenges to making participation personally meaningful and intrinsically motivated, and perhaps most of all, student expectations about what it means to participate well in classroom contexts serve to easily complicate and derail efforts to create participatory cultures in classrooms. In my opinion, culture is something that has to emerge organically in some ways, and also needs a bigger pasture than a semester long course. One class swimming upstream within a larger institutional river made of molasses is not surprisingly going to encounter some resistance. To me, this is why the grain size for the initial recommendation I made about participatory culture inspiring better models for formal education perhaps should have been specified as ‘larger than the classroom’. Not that the classroom isn’t relevant, it of course is, but creating a larger institutional context that supports a paradigm shift in how we value participation and think about learning becomes critical to letting participatory classrooms succeed, and in enabling other, yet-to-be-created, forms of learning groups and structures to emerge within formal education.

Really, the same could be said about the model of technology and learning that I’ve been envisioning in general. The shift in focus that stems from the challenges in just intervening on the classroom level to consider the broader school culture to me is much like my decision to not focus my model specifically on any one of the spaces where youth learn, whether it be in schools, in online communities, in afterschool spaces or libraries or even from TV. Rather, I argue that all of these contexts need to be taken out of isolation from one another in order that they can be re-conceptualized as nodes within a broader youth learning ecology. To me, all of these areas need to support and participate in a cultural shift in terms of what their relationships with youth people are, and how they envision they role in creating a culture of lifelong and lifewide learning for all.

**Disclaimer** I want to make absolutely clear my support for the many amazing, inspirational, tireless teachers out there in their canoes, some swimming upstream in seas of institutional molasses, others in free flowing rivers that they helped to make more fluid by creating cultural change from within. I don’t want this post in any way to diminish the work that you’re doing. I’m more articulating what I believe will be necessary in order for a broader cultural shift to occur that will make it so you guys don’t need to row quite as hard.


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.

Research. Meditation. Learning theory. Spirituality. Activism. Cooking. New Media. Pedagogy. Photography. It's all fair game, and will likely coalesce into some unholy mixture thereof. But hey, that's the integral life.

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