The Power of Ideas

At our Summer retreat at work, each of the staff on our team were asked to briefly share one lesson we took away from our work in the past year, and for me, I didn’t have to think hard. I’ve been struck, again and again over the course of this year, by the power that an idea can have to make an impact. I know, it’s trite, and perhaps even fairly obvious, but to me I can’t say that I was able to fully understand what this term meant until had experiential knowledge of it in my own work. I’ll share a couple of examples.

At a staff meeting early in the year, perhaps September, my colleague Tabitha mentioned something that was bothering her. She said that she loved how we did these interesting issue-based digital media production programs with teens, but felt that they were missing out on being exposed to other teens doing similar things. They were in isolation, without community or a sense of being part of a larger movement of youth production and participation using new media.

Later in the year, in January, we had a really productive introductory meeting with MOUSE, a national youth development organization that focuses on technical computer skills. Amongst many other things we talked about was an idea they put forth about having some of their students and some of our students get together at the end of the year to share their work. Everyone was interested; we all had the same need for our students.

Then, as we launched our Playing 4 Keeps serious game design program in a number of sites with the New York Public Library system, we realized that we’d want to have a culminating event where the students at each of the sites could present their game designs.

Finally, at the annual MacArthur grantee meeting in February, we connected with the Social Science Research Council, who was working with Parsons to facilitate intensive design sessions, called Charettes, to create youth learning environments, and was intent on having a youth Charette as part of that process.

After some initial emails and a lot of large conference calls, we had a partnership between Global Kids, MOUSE, New York Public Libraries, SSRC, Parsons and the Boys and Girls Club and created what’s now been dubbed Emoti-Con, the New York City Digital Youth Media Festival, also known as (o.o) for short. (See videos from the event here). It featured youth from a variety of programs across this city sharing and commenting on each others’ media creations, a game design challenge from the P4K sites, a youth design charette and a professional fair where the youth met with people in various pro-social and technology fields. All that, from a comment in a staff meeting. Powerful.

The second example I’ll share was an idea born in early 2008 that struck me like a bolt of lightening. I had been looking at our various afterschool programs and their structure, and thinking about some of the aspects inherent to all of our digital programs up to that point. In our work with game design in Playing 4 Keeps and machinima in the Virtual Video Project, we focused on a single medium and a long term year long design and production project. While these design aspects have huge advantages in terms of developing intensive skills, impressive media projects and a clear narrative for the program, there are also challenges with retention, production schedules, and having enough time to get as much issue based learning in as we might like. The thought I had, which I wrote up in a couple of pages for an internal memo, was to create something like this:

A comprehensive media arts afterschool program in which students learn to express themselves via a variety of media (photo, video, blog, comic, music, podcast, map mashups, games, etc) about the global issues important to them while at the same time explicitly developing their new media literacies (appropriation, networking, distributed cognition and judgment as primary) and addressing the ethical questions of what it means to be growing up digital (authorship and ownership, credibility, identity and participation as being primary).

The basics tenets of the program were to move from one medium to many, from one long term project to many short term projects, from implicit skill development to explicit skill development, and to leverage the existing curriculum development work happening at MIT’s Project New Media Literacies and Harvard’s GoodPlay project. The idea was well received, but largely set aside for lack of resources.

Then, in August 2008, we were contacted by Project New Media Literacies, with whom we already had a strong relationship, to see if we’d be interested in becoming a pilot site to test out prototypes of their Learning Library and the curriculum on developing these new literacies that they’d developed. Immediately we had a potential model in mind, and with some internal resource juggling, over the course of the past year we were able to develop Media Masters, a program that brought together new media literacy development with media production around global issues, and is almost perfectly described by the paragraph above. Moving forward, the work we did in the program to think about how social media can be leveraged for youth development around global issues is already deeply informing our programming and future projects, all that, from an idea that bubbled up and was nothing more than words on a page a year prior.

So, going into this new year at work, and in life, I’ve decided to pay close attention to ideas, to not write things off, to listen to that random thought that seems pie in the sky, and see where things might go from there.

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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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