Archive for the 'Participatory Culture' Category



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”.

Learning Technology for Youth, Learning Technology By Youth

In synthesizing my recent ideas around a model for technology and learning, I realized that I’d been limiting my conceptions of what role youth should play within a broader learning ecology. I’d placed them, both physically and theoretically, at the center of the layout of the model. I wanted to convey my priority around keeping the model centered directly on the learner. To some degree, this was also meant as a subtle shot across the bow of traditional educational approaches and, to be honest, most educational technology, which are generally more oriented towards administrators, teachers and the larger accountability systems that surround them and thus reflect priorities other than the learning experience of the young person. But in writing up my ideas about the role of a larger technology system that aims to personalize and link up the various nodes in a youth’s learning ecology so that they can better pursue their interests, I fell into a common trap: I didn’t include youth in the role of co-designers of such a system.

I’ve updated my model here to include this role (click on the “Young Person” node to see the addition). I also added in a snazzy back button (woo!).

I was inspired by readings I’d done about other educational technologies, notably two projects that came out of the University of Maryland Human Computer Interaction Lab (HCIL). The first was the StoryRoom project, which aims to create physical objects that youth can program without a computer interface in order to tell embodied stories (totally cool in my opinion). The second was on designing intergenerational mobile storytelling apps for the iOS platform [pdf here]. In both of the projects, I noticed that youth were not positioned as playtesters or as part of focus groups, but rather as designers themselves. On further digging into the lab’s work, it’s clear that they’ve had a priority around involving youth in the design of new technologies for over ten years, creating what they refer to as “an intergenerational, interdisciplinary design team”. Incredible. But not, however, without precedent.

In a not-entirely-former life, I worked at a great organization called Global Kids that regularly approached educational work from the perspective that kids should be in decision making positions. Youth ran workshops for their peers on global issues, co-developed highly successful educational games, designed and ran our annual conference, and even had positions on the organization’s board of directors. This is an approach grounded in the youth development movement, which was a reaction to “deficit thinking” approaches that viewed young people, especially those coming from under-privileged and marginalized communities, as “at-risk” problems waiting to happen. Consider what terms like “dropout prevention” and “keeping kids off the streets” say about those young people. Youth Development assumes strengths, and gives opportunities to display those strengths by creating opportunities and situations in which they take on real power and responsibility. For instance, being designers of technologies they’d ultimately use.

And while this approach is vital, it’s by no means uncomplicated. As a colleague of mine mentioned today, most of the time youth involvement is an afterthought, done in a perfunctory way. I had this experience bringing youth to conferences that “wanted to have youth voices” but rarely considered what this would look like. On numerous occasions while I was still at Global Kids I wrote about how having youth as equal partners at the table and as collaborators on projects is not as easy as it sounds. There are limits to youth time, understanding and interest in relation to any given project, and for it to be a fruitful process for all parties, especially in a design process, it makes a lot of sense to invest resources into an infrastructure that provides youth with experiences and context that will allow them to contribute in meaningful ways. It sounds like the UMD lab has done just this, and so I applaud them and would look to their model as I consider how youth can play the role of co-designers in my own work.

A Model not for Technology in Education, but for Technology & Learning

For a while now I’ve been kicking around a hodgepodge of ideas about technology and its relationship to learning and education. Having worked in related fields for over five years now and gone to grad school to study more about this subject, I guess these are good questions to regularly ponder. Until  now though, I haven’t had a good opportunity to formalize these thoughts. As an assignment for the course “Computational Technologies in Educational Ecosystems“, we were tasked to create a model of our vision for technology in educational contexts, a really fantastic project that we’ll be refining over the course of the semester and that I’ll periodically post publicly about here on the old blog.

I decided to push the edges of the assignment somewhat, and rather than create a model for technology in educational contexts, I created a model for technology and learning writ large in the lives of youth. I’d be lying if I said the ideas here are all my own – for the most part, they’re a synthesis of ideas coming from emerging bodies of research and from colleagues I’ve worked with and been inspired by within the budding field of “Digital Media & Learning“, which in some respects positions itself as distinct from educational technology.

I share here I call a Youth Technology Learning Ecology, made up of a variety of “learning nodes” that youth interact with and which I believe can form better interconnections with one another in the future for the benefit of young people. What I’m really interested in is what digital culture and technology can offer us in terms of both inspiration for redesigning the learning systems that society has available for young people, as well as practical tools and practices that allow us to do that. I offer some initial thoughts on what a redesign of these systems might include.

To check out the interactive model, click the image below, which will take you to the Scratch website where you can interact with it. For best effect, I recommend enabling full screen.

I realize that right now not everything is totally clear in the model (it assumes some prior knowledge and some terms could use definition) and over the course of the semester I hope to refine it to clarify all of what I intend to be conveyed through it. In the process, I’m sure that the model itself will shift and evolve.

One of the big ideas in the model that I’d like to address is that of looking to “Interest Driven Affinity Spaces” (a fancy name for the places that kids geek out, online or off) as inspiration for reforming other learning contexts. I’ll start by referring to some of the readings that we did for the course this week, which offer some nice perspective on how people generally think about technology and education. In his classic book from way back in 1986, Larry Cuban shares an important insight about the ways that technology fads come and go in schools. The point is well taken. In looking to affinity spaces for inspiration though, I want to be clear that the model is not really advocating the integration of technology, even done thoughtfully, as one of many “passing fads” in schools, but rather for the rethinking of what counts as learning and what pedagogical practice and larger school cultures look like.

What’s hard to convey is that a shift to thinking about learning ecologies also implies a shift in our theory of learning, and both of those imply that schools need to be organizing themselves in much different ways. To engage in this reorganization, I believe that we can take a lot of inspiration from these affinity spaces that might considered “technology in the wild” (online communities, massively multiplayer games, fan sites, blog networks and many others) and what they do well, something scholars like Jim Gee and Mimi Ito have looked at in their work. The big idea about these spaces is that they provide youth with meaningful contexts and communities that not only keep them engaged and speak to their interests, but also are built around the development and learning of extremely complex practices and processes, have authentic and just in time feedback and assessment mechanisms as well as clear standards about what counts as “good work”. Schools rarely embody these qualities. This isn’t to say that we need for school to integrate these affinity spaces and their associated technologies, but rather to look at these spaces to see what makes them powerful learning environments and aim to bring those principles and characteristics into more formal educational settings. More importantly, I believe that we can not only shift the practices of any one setting, like school, but also the larger learning ecologies of which they are a part as well.

In his book, Cuban also makes a big assumption that anyone interested in technology and education is one way or another always going to point to technology’s ability to make content delivery more efficient. To me, this is off for a couple of reasons. First, it assumes that anyone interested in technology has an “accumulation of decontextualized bits of information” vision of what learning is, as opposed to one that uses participation in meaningful activities to foster dispositions, practices and processes that young people can tap in the future. Second, the ways that I think about “efficiency” deal mostly with reformulating pedagogy so that it’s actually effective by actively connecting to the other nodes in a child’s learning ecology. This is the second big point I’m aiming to get across in the model. Affinity Spaces are good to look to for inspiration, but there’s a huge opportunity to be tapped in aligning all of these various nodes a youth’s learning ecology so that they’re working together for the sake of that young person. This is where my (extremely underdeveloped) idea of a technology driven personalization system that accomplished this function comes from, an idea which I hope to develop more as the semester goes on. Importantly though, it represents a reframe of technology from being a “teacher’s helper” (or worse, their replacement), a view that starts not with the priorities of the formal educational system, which has consistently proven that it only values the transmission of decontextualized bits of information, but rather one that starts with the ways that youth are currently using technology in their everyday lives to further their own learning (though they rarely see it in these terms) and aims to connects these to all the other parts of a young person’s life.

Finally, another one of our readings validates this idea of looking to interest driven digital affinity spaces to inspire more effective pedagogy. Roschelle et al. (2000) [pdf] point out a number of processes that effective classroom technologies foster – active construction of knowledge, participation in groups, frequent feedback and connections to real world contexts. It is in fact just these kinds of processes that are at the heart of the kinds of deep learning activities that many youth are engaged in out of school through digitally mediated affinity spaces. The authors even reference these spaces, in the form of (now antiquated) electronic bulletin boards that dominated the early internet. Its heartening to see that in 2000, which is fairly early on in our current shift to a digital culture, there were already researchers that had identified practices technology can foster to provide more effective learning experiences.

I know that as it currently stands this is an incomplete model, and some things might be unclear, so feel more than welcome to leave a comment with any questions or thoughts and I’ll do my best to address them. And of course any critical feedback is definitely helpful on this first draft.

Moving on, and why working at Global Kids was the best job I ever had.

In January 2006, I began my job at Global Kids. I was the second full time staff member working in what’s called our Online Leadership Program, trying to figure out what value new media could add to our mission of youth development and empowerment around global issues. During one of my interviews for the job, I asked Barry Joseph, director of GK’s online programs, where he saw the program in five years. He replied quickly and unapologetically, stating that it wasn’t really possible to know, that the world of new media was developing so quickly and in so many different directions that it would be too hard to predict what would prove to have potential in terms of our mission.

It’s almost five years later now, and I’ve had an incredible opportunity here at Global Kids to explore so many of those unknown possibilities that Barry was alluding to as he hired me; using social networks for social impact, training youth to conduct peer education in virtual worlds, teaching social issue game design and creating new afterschool programs around DIY media production. After doing so much meaningful work, I’ve decided that it’s time that I moved on and took my next steps outside of the nurturing professional environment that this organization has provided for me over the years.

I’ve always said to myself that I would only leave my job under a couple of conditions: either I’d stopped being able to contribute something meaningful and unique the organization, or I’d stopped learning and growing myself. I’m thankful that neither of those is actually the case now, though our learning culture here at Global Kids is, in a very positive sense, a big contributor to why I’m leaving.

In my work here, I was not only challenged to constantly learn new things to be effective, but was also almost immediately thrown into larger national and international conversations happening about learning, youth culture, civic engagement and new media. At the end of the day after writing curriculum, running youth programs, or conducting professional trainings, I’d find myself riding home on the subway reading white papers and books about situated learning in video games, the future of Internet, or how civic life is changing online. And so after spending years at Global Kids collaborating with researchers in these areas, I’ve decided to spend some time stepping back from solely being a practitioner to engage in research myself.

In the Fall, I’ll begin work towards a PhD in Learning Sciences at Indiana University, where I plan to study how the rich informal learning that youth are engaging in through online participatory cultures can shed light on how more formal learning institutions like afterschool programs, libraries, museums and schools are designed as learning spaces. As a society, we’re on the cusp of revolutionary changes in the ways young people learn, and I hope to do my part through my research to help learning institutions not just keep pace but wholly change their practices to ensure that we’re creating the conditions in today’s youth for a more just and equitable society tomorrow.

I know that I can’t do justice here to all the things that I’ve loved about working at Global Kids. I feel like I’ve accomplished and contributed a lot here, working on more projects than I can count with more organizations that I can think of. I’ve worked both in the schools here in New York as well as through online communities like Second Life where I’ve run programs with youth that have inspired and humbled me, individuals that made me wish that I’d had such dedication to the broader world when I was in high school. I’ve moved certain areas of our work forward because of the freedom that I’ve been given to do so, and gained valuable skills through the diversity of initiatives we engage in. Most importantly, the work that I did here as I showed up day after day kept me passionate and dedicated, and know that there were important lessons we were learning as we engaged in often uncharted waters.

None of the work that I’ve done would be possible without an incredible team of colleagues and friends that I’ve had to the opportunity to work with at Global Kids. I’ve learned more than I could have imagined from the bright and committed people that this organization attracts, and I want to say thank you to all of you. A special shout out, of course, goes to Barry Joseph, my boss and de facto mentor for my tenure here. Barry’s sense of playfulness and adventure combined with an energy to create and accomplish have made the culture of our team singular, and he’s taught me more than anyone else about what it means to be a professional.

I know that this work will go on in unexpected ways in the coming years, and looking on from the outside will certainly be tough. I wish Global Kids so much luck and know that by continuing to work in solidarity with our youth you all will continue to have lasting impact.

Delfest, Participatory Culture, and Life as Data

Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
-Rilke

Photo from Magic Hat BreweryI spent this past weekend with a great group of friends in the Cumberland Water Gap, a rural area in Western Maryland where we were attending a Bluegrass music festival called Delfest. I’ve never actually been to a music festival of any sort (crazy it’s taken me this long!), so I didn’t have a lot of expectations coming into the weekend save having a good time and spending time outdoors.

The festival, in short, rocked, totally going beyond the pretty basic things I’d hoped for. It was pure summertime goodness; we saw great music, camped out at the foot of a mountain, went tubing down a river that looped around the grounds, made friends with strangers, and lost our sense of time for two days. (The answer to “What time is it?” was invariably: “it’s Del o’clock.”, or, every so often “ten to Del.”, and occasionally, “half past Del.”) And so a big part of being there was just about enjoying myself – getting some space from an increasingly busy, stressful and packed upcoming month, spending time with friends, soaking in the good vibes and remembering the spontaneity and adventure that can come with arriving in an open space with no real plans.

At the same time, the budding learning scientist in me was having a whole other experience of the festival. As someone planning on studying the learning that happens in informal environments, those outside of school and not traditionally thought of as ‘educational’, I was also viewing the event as part of what media scholar Henry Jenkins would call a Participatory Culture, and as what learning theorist Jim Gee calls a Semiotic Domain with an associated Affinity Space. All pretty high concepts for sure, each with their own useful nuances, but in the most basic sense I was seeing an open community of people dedicated to a particular idea or practice, in this case Bluegrass music, come together to do their thing, share and learn from each other (though likely not framing it as such) and in doing so define and redefine what that space means both in terms of its core practices as well as its broader culture and associated quirks.

Photo from Magic Hat BreweryI saw amateurs working with experts – small jam circles of musicians with varied levels of talent playing around campfires with assorted string instruments where anybody could come and join in, contributing whatever they could even if it was just singing along or playing some simple chords, along with main-stage shows featuring artists recognized as being at the top of their trade, setting a (perhaps contested) standard for what good practice looks like in the community.

I saw plenty of things not immediately related to the musical practice itself but that emerged around it; the throwing of small, soft glowsticks amongst a concert-going crowd, each landing and then getting hurled up into the air again, fans dancing with wanton abandon in varied styles, substance use and perhaps abuse, and a do-it-yourself camping culture where people constructed elaborate tents, fires and meals. These are the sorts of things that give nuance, character and attitude to these kinds of informal spaces, and are an expression of the underlying values of the community – each points to a certain ethos or narrative endemic to the larger whole.

I noted various demographic groups as they became visible; low income local white folks from Appalachia that I’d associate with NASCAR and country music, “hippy” types in tie-die and dreadlocks, young professionals from DC, New York and other metropolitan areas, often working in politics, journalism or education (forgive the heuristics here) – as well as noticing those that were absent. I counted about 15 people of color and no one that was easily identifiable to me as queer while I was there out of what was easily over a thousand people.

And I reflected on what it meant for me to be doing pretty much all of this observation and analysis automatically, remembering a line that references Rilke from a great short piece by Mark Federman called The Tao of Thesis [pdf], about how one engages in thesis-level work:

“You will view the world and your entire existence through research-coloured glasses. The thesis process becomes less an effort to find answers, and more a vehicle through which you can live your question.”

My time at Delfest is interesting because it is one of several experiences that I’ve had as I near the beginning of my doctoral work where I started to consistently notice the world as data parsed by a particular lens, and it’s prompting me to wonder what it will be like to put on these glasses full time when I enter graduate school – what’s gained, what’s lost, and what the edges are to look out for when doing this strange exercise while still trying to live an integral life, one viewed through many lenses and that acknowledges the limitations of a singular viewpoint. I’m excited to find out.


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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