This interview with me is part of a series of conversations with thought leaders on digital media and learning, conducted by journalist Heather Chaplin, reflecting on how the field of digital media and learning (DML) has changed over time, and where it’s headed. I am reposting it below. It addressed both my current role at the American Museum of Natural History and my previous role at Global Kids, Inc.
Global Kids got one of the first DML grants. What were you doing at that time that was different from other work in the field?
The earlier grants had been primarily for academic research. So kids were the subjects of research. But Connie Yowell at MacArthur understood it was important to have kids involved as participatory members as well. What that might look like evolved over time.
That’s interesting. What do you mean exactly by subjects versus participants?
An example is Howard Gardner’s group at Harvard, Project Zero—they were doing early work around ethics in the digital age. They would come down from Boston and meet with Global Kids youth leaders in New York, sharing their findings and getting feedback. So the young people were a resource for them.
Some of the work you did in the virtual world of Second Life also brought young people and academics together.
Yes, in Second Life we brought in Henry Jenkins dressed in a Dumbledore outfit that youth created for him. And all these kids were in Second Life dressed in their favorite Harry Potter characters. Henry was there to talk about the Harry Potter Alliance and the political aspects of fan culture. But first we’d have five minutes or so dancing to Wizard Rock music and then we’d sit back and down and talk. The whole thing—dancing to the music, being surrounded by sets that the young people had made, the costumes they’d made—it was the embodiment of what Henry was talking about in his research and writing.
Second Life was really an important part of your work in those days, wasn’t it?
Once we had an avatar-building contest and the potential winners were presented to James Paul Gee to judge. But rather than just come in with a JPG avatar, he only used the avatars he was judging. He’d move from being a chicken to an alien and so forth, all the while holding forth on his experience at that very moment, embodying those avatars, and what it means to be in an embodied play space—not using that language of course, but expressing those ideas. It was remarkable.
All that sounds like fun. What would you say the point was?
We were using digital tools to engage youth within their own play space and connect them with these incredible thinkers. Seeing them learn through these interactions was tremendously exciting.
Tell me a moment when you began to think DML ideas might really take hold.
At the Guggenheim in September 2011 at the HASTAC competition event. I remember thinking, “Badges are going to be what tips the DML initiative in the public consciousness.” It was seeing the different interests coming together—the federal government, the business community, educators, academics. I’d never seen a DML idea pull people together so fast.
Why do you think it’s happening so fast?
Part of what a foundation does is fund people to start working in a certain direction with the idea, I presume, that then they can pull back and it will live on its own. I saw the badges movement begin to emerge there, expanding beyond MacArthur and a handful of academics, and now it has its own momentum.
Everyone is gaga over badges. What’s the big deal?
I wasn’t interested in badges in and of themselves. But, rather, the new frame of reference badges gives us for thinking about how to redefine learning in a digital age. Badges allow us to consider the paradigm shift required to bring learning into the 21st century.
Haven’t there been efforts to do that before?
Sure. I’ve seen attempts made over the years in a number of ways—in game space learning, in thinking about virtual worlds. But badges look like the thing everyone is going to rally around, at least for now. It’s the low-hanging fruit that people can buy into, and, through network effects, support each other and have it expand.
Are you saying that if there’s one thing to come out of all this that will really spread, it’s going to be badges?
I don’t think it will ever be one thing. Things will always change. We don’t talk so much about virtual worlds now, but virtual worlds haven’t gone away. They’ve just become absorbed into a larger toolkit of how we think about digital learning. Whether in ten years it’s badges or just a different way of thinking about credentialing. Who knows? We don’t know what it will be called, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is the paradigm shift that’s associated with it—one that recognizes the importance of empowering youth to take charge of their own learning through, in part, a mechanism for sharing what they know to others in a validated way.
What else besides badges?
Hives. For twenty-five years, MacArthur was involved in education reform, but then they saw the learning happening outside of school and in all sorts of new ways. They didn’t want to abandon schools but to reposition schools as part of a larger learning ecology. That was the conceptual frame for many years, but it became practical and real through the creation of the Hive New York, called at the time first Wakatta and then the New Youth City Learning Network. That was the embodiment of this idea.
And that’s gotten some momentum now too.
The process of building a community around what we now refer to as connected learning has been tremendously exciting. Chicago showed that this idea had legs. Then Pittsburgh, and now Toronto. San Francisco is coming I hear, and Athens. The speed at which it’s growing tells me it’s hit a tipping point.
The American Museum of Natural History was an early part of Hive, wasn’t it?
Yes, it was one of the founders. And when the original RFP for Hive New York went out, the museum was one of the first three partners to receive funds. What’s so interesting is that Hive is helping us recognize that our peer community, our community of practice, is much broader than we might have originally thought. We’re starting to see a fluid transfer between these different institutions like museums, libraries and afterschool groups. We’re all connected. We’re all part of a larger framework of helping youth move through a broad and diverse learning ecology.
Tell me one way your thinking has changed since the DML initiative started?
The creation of DML was a response to failures in the school reform movement. It wasn’t spoken but there was a sense that teachers in schools—the way they were teaching—were squelching youth’s passion for learning and especially self-directed learning. So a lot of focus at the beginning was on self-motivated youth. In the early years there were some great examples of young people whom we focused on who could code online or build their own company—but that’s far from the norm.
Right. That seems something people are beginning to acknowledge.
In the beginning days of Hive, many of us felt somewhat alienated from much of the DML language because we saw that adults had a really positive role to play. In fact, a crucial role. There’s been an evolution over time—a shift away from an anti-educator tendency. Now we have a more nuanced understanding in the connected learning framework of the role adults play in learning. The next horizon is to identify in more detail what that is. As mentors, yes, but what else? We who work directly with youth in out-of-school programs have some answers, but these are just now starting to filter into the framework.
What else has you interested right now?
The whole Maker question. Mozilla has made a tremendous efforts in the last year to get more deeply embedded in DML, and they bring a tremendous amount to the table. Their influence over this whole thing is going to be profound, although it can’t be measured yet. In a science museum, bringing in Maker culture is easy. You can have people play with concepts by building things. But in collections and object-oriented spaces like the American Museum of Natural History, it’s not as clear. Understanding what Maker culture brings to the DML initiative is part of what we’ll learn in the next year or two. We’ll soon be seeing what works and what spreads.