Studying Digital Inequity and Studying Digital Inequity IN SCHOOL

I’ve written on the subject of digital inequity in schools before, but for a few reasons, I find myself compelled to revisit the topic once again. Partly because of the recent events surrounding Ahmed Mohamed’s now famous arrest, but also because there seems to be a growing trend in education technology to focus on learning, equity, and digital media in non-formal, or afterschool settings. I’m a big fan of much of the awesome work coming out of this trend (the Cities of Learning project, and the Hive Learning Network are especially inspiring), but I sometimes find myself concerned that while we shift our focus on improving digital equity, we take our eyes off of the ball just enough to allow new innovations in learning and technology to overlook critical questions and issues related to diversity and social inequalities as they happen in school.

First off, what do we mean when we say “digital inequity”? Generally, the idea refers to differences in individuals’ access to digital technology and digital technology-based activities, or differences in the quality of individuals’ uses of digital technology and participation in digital technology-based activities. That covers a pretty wide spectrum of things, from simply having access to computers and the Internet, to being centrally involved in the production of digital tools, to making use of those tools for any number of civic or economic purposes. There is wide agreement that access to these tools and opportunities are unevenly distributed among America’s youth, but to date, most of the “solutions” being considered in education and the edtech industry relate to assimilating disadvantaged youth into certain areas of techno-/digital culture deemed most valuable for academic or economic growth.

Indeed, there’s a general level of agreement in our society that creative production skills, engineering or programming skills, and data analysis skills are the most important technology skills to acquire in this day and age – not just for individuals’ ability to contribute to our global economy, but to live as informed, critically-thinking participants in a politically evolving world. Schools, being an obvious target for interventions aimed at providing youth with opportunities to develop these skills, are notoriously glacial, however, when it comes to enacting or adopting large-scale changes such as the implementation of technology into curriculum and instruction. Why is that?

First, technology is expensive to acquire and maintain. This not only means that schools have to rely on outside donors or meet government-imposed standards to receive funding, but often times, must find ways to sustainably support existing technology infrastructures, in addition to building capacity, as the size and amount of data being transferred through wireless broadband continues to increase, and new technologies require ever-more equipment updates. Second, teaching staff and administration need, themselves, to have an adequate facility with, and support for using technology. This means time (and money) for ongoing professional development and lesson planning, in addition to supports that can motivate teachers to learn about and use technology for instruction. Third, schools already face the challenge of meeting a number of accountability measures, including standardized testing and teacher evaluation, to which funding and accreditation are often tied. The process of implementing technology initiatives on top of these challenges often only adds to the stress involved around test preparation and coordination. Not only does all of this make it difficult for schools to keep up with constantly changing technologies and the new skills that are required to use these technologies, it makes researching – by which I mean, in-depth, holistically, and with a sensitivity to myriad contextual factors – how youth develop technology skills in school a slow, and challenging process, as well.

Not surprisingly, funding institutions (and researchers along with them) are moving to more flexible and less-restrictive sites to examine how youth learn about and make valuable use of digital technologies. Promisingly, these efforts have paid huge dividends, not only in improving disadvantaged youths’ access to digital technologies, mentors, and authentic opportunities to engage in digitally-mediated cultural activities in their local communities, but in providing researchers with access to learning processes that aren’t addled with problems often found in schooling environments.

But although such programs may provide youth more autonomy over their learning and use of digital technologies than they would find in the classroom, the majority of these programs are voluntary. This means that despite their recent proliferation, many of these programs remain unused or un-accessed by large populations of children and teens – typically the very populations of youth that efforts to “narrow the divide” target. And it is precisely for this reason that schools are perhaps the most important sites in which to integrate the practices of making, media production, programming, gaming, etc. Given that in general, schooling is not voluntary, but mandatory, means that youth are, for better or worse, essentially captive there. And for this reason, as well, it makes sense for funding institutions and scholars to dive deeply into schools head-on, and focus on democratizing schooling, or studying the effects of institutionalized practices, such as testing and accountability, on students’ digital technology skills, rather than shifting focus (and money) to spaces in which the truly disenfranchised and marginalized are still largely underrepresented.

This is not to say that after-school and summer programs directed at improving disadvantaged youths’ access to digital media technologies and learning should in any way be diminished or funded less – if anything, recent work has shown that these programs are critical, necessary, and essential, and are currently picking up much of the slack that our schools leave behind when it comes to providing disadvantaged youth with access to digital technology and learning digital technology skills. Yet if anything, the recent OECD report (which suggest the implementation of technology into schools actually harms students’ academic performance – a troubling and perhaps misleading finding) is reason enough for researchers and large funding institutions to double their efforts to examine how social and cultural practices around schooling and digital technology create equitable, and inequitable, opportunities for all students to use modern technology for personal, community, and social improvement.


Musings from AERA 2015

The American Educational Research Association (AERA) annual meeting is a massive event. This year’s conference took place in downtown Chicago, and as usual, clustered around a number of hotels within a relatively small radius. This means that there is always a high density of education researchers (some 15,000 attendees, from the rumors I heard) in a small area. There’s a lot of flux between sessions and bumping into colleagues, and of course, an impossibly large conference program to navigate, with over 2,600 sessions according to AERA’s website. The sessions span nearly every conceivable area of education research, from policy to informal learning, assessment to advanced learning technologies, with most centered towards this year’s conference theme, “Toward Justice: Culture, Language, and Heritage in Education Research and Praxis.” The conference also serves a number of other purposes besides being a venue for presentations and panel discussions. Receptions, working meetings, and special interest gatherings are another huge part of the AERA experience, adding to the already exhausting five-day, 8am-6pm schedule of programs. All of this makes, in what in my opinion, for one of my favorite times of year. I get to interface with colleagues from across the globe, with whom I’d never have a chance to meet or reconnect with otherwise. I get to take part in conversations with experts in my field, talk about future research directions and challenges to existing ones. It can be overwhelming in the moment (intellectually and physically!), but at the end of the day, I find AERA incredibly satisfying and rejuvenating – inspiring, really.

But there’s something I find indescribable about what happens when all of these people get together to talk about education and learning. Something about the proximity of ideas, theorists, practitioners, and thinkers all converging in a single space (sometimes in a single symposium) can make for some incredible insights into, and reflections about, education and learning, and it is in these moments that I find a lot of my own interests in education come to life. Like most attendees, I tend to only go to sessions that pertain to my own research areas (STEM education, equity, instructional technologies, and the learning sciences, in my case). This year, I found myself engaged in a number of really great discussions around issues of diversity, youth empowerment, affect, and the power of emotional and social connection in learning. The underlying theme connecting these discussions seemed to revolve around a serious commitment to reflecting on who benefits from our current education system (K-12 as well as higher ed), and what we as educators and researchers can do to create opportunities for individuals who come from disenfranchised, disadvantaged, marginalized, and “othered” communities to participate in meaningful learning activities, forge their own pathways to success, and disrupt the privileged spaces of our institutions. Rather than recount my notes from each of these sessions, I decided that I will highlight a few key papers and discussions that addressed these issues in some really forward thinking ways. Consider this a “playlist” of my favorite tracks from AERA 2015 (the last one is a shameless plug to a poster session I was lucky to be a part of!). My thanks go out to all the presenters for sharing this incredible work. I already cannot wait for next year.

Symposium: Learning as Transformation: Examining How Youth Author New Learning Pathways/Ecologies in Science, Engineering, and Technology (Friday 4/17 – 4:05pm – 5:35pm)

Description: This symposium brings together a set of papers focused on science, engineering & technology learning across formal and informal ecologies and over time, with a particular focus on “learning as transformation.” We use the metaphor of “learning as transformation” to focus our conceptual and empirical attention on how youth are constantly re-authoring and re-purposing their identities and practices as they author pathways into/through science/engineering /technology and engage more deeply in problems that matter most to them. Drawing from socio-cultural perspectives on learning and critical orientations to equity and justice, the papers in this session examine the multiple forms learning as transformation takes for youth as well as understanding the tools and strategies that support this movement and transformation.


Youth Pathways in Becoming Community Engineering Experts – Angela Calabrese Barton, Michigan State University; Daniel Birmingham, Loyola University Chicago

Expansive Meanings and Makings in ArtScience – Ann Rosebery, TERC; Beth M. Warren, Cheche Konnen Center, TERC; Megan Bang, University of Washington

Youth Participatory Action Research and Learning as Transformation – Takumi C Sato, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University; Que’Ann Williams, ProjectERASE; Charda’e Alexander, projectERASE; Daco’Ria Evans, projectERASE; Chris McAbee, project ERASE; Stephen McAbee, projectERASE

From Half-Pipe to Full-fillment: Leveraging Interest-Driven Identities as a Strategy for Technology Learning – Dixie Ching, New York University; Rafi Santo, Indiana University – Bloomington; Tal Bar-Zemer, City Lore; Jessica Forsyth, Harold Hunter Foundation; Christopher Hoadley, New York University

What Matters? Instances of Science and Engineering Learning Among Students Living in Native American Communities in Idaho and Washington – Sameer Honwad, University of New Hampshire; Anne L. Kern, University of Idaho; Melinda Howard, University of Idaho; Fritz Fielder, University of Idaho; Laura Anne Laumatia, Coeur d’Alene Tribe of Indians; Christine Meyer, Coeur d’Alene Tribe of Indians; Nora Numkena, Spokane Tribe of Indians

Conspiring to Create Community Labs: How Program and Relationship Shaped Practices Between Youth and Educators – Angela N. Booker, University of California – San Diego; Kindra F. Montgomery-Block, University of California – Davis; Bel Reyes, University of California – Davis


Invited speaker session: How People Learn II: The Science and Practice of Learning. Symposium and Discussion Forum on a New National Research Council Study (Thursday 4/16 – 2:15pm – 3:45pm)

Description: In 1999 the National Research Council first published the report, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School, which served as a catalyst for new interdisciplinary research and as a programmatic map for agencies and organizations (e.g., National Science Foundation, private foundations) supporting education research and practice. How People Learn II will update and extend the original report by critically reviewing research that has emerged in the past decade and a half on learning and learning contexts across the lifespan. How People Learn II will focus particular attention on research and research approaches with the greatest potential to influence policy and practice and on cultural differences and similarities in learning. In this open forum symposium, commentators—including members of the NRC committee that produced the original report—will reflect on what has changed or become more apparent since the publication of HPL. Commentators will also look ahead by sharing their aspirations for the next generation of HPL and their ideas about what it should address. Members of the audience will be invited to join the discussion and share their comments. This forum will offer a [rare] and important opportunity for community engagement prior to the launch of an NRC study.


Heidi A. Schweingruber, National Research Council

Sujeeta Bhatt, National Research Council

Barbara Rogoff, University of California – Santa Cruz

James W. Pellegrino, University of Illinois at Chicago

Penelope L. Peterson, Northwestern University

Carol D. Lee, Northwestern University

William R. Penuel, University of Colorado – Boulder


Structured poster session: New Tools, New Voices: Innovations in Understanding and Analyzing Life-Wide Ecologies for Youth Interest-Driven Learning (Saturday 4/18 – 2:45pm – 4:15pm)

Description: The presentations in this interactive poster session represent diverse perspectives on understanding and analyzing the supportive, life-wide ecologies necessary to help youth from a diverse range of backgrounds and ages develop strong interest-based identities and agentic stances toward learning. This session also presents new perspectives and methods for investigation, including engaging youth as research partners and exploring the utility of different ways of collecting and visualizing data and the implications of that for future research in this area.


Chairs: Kylie A. Peppler, Indiana University – Bloomington and Christopher Hoadley, New York University

1. Developing Pathways During Adolescence: Intersecting Identities, Interests, and Literacies – June Ahn, University of Maryland – College Park

2. Pathways to Consequential Learning and “Science That Matters” – Daniel Birmingham, Loyola University Chicago; Angela Calabrese Barton, Michigan State University

3. Youth Voices on the Sponsorship of Literacy in an Emerging Participatory Culture in a School Setting – Ashley Cartun, University of Colorado – Boulder; William R. Penuel, University of Colorado – Boulder

4. Google Mapping the “Last Mile”: Youths’ Spatial Analysis of Interest-Driven Opportunities – Josie Chang-Order, University of Colorado – Boulder; Michael D. Harris, Colorado University – Boulder; Ben R. Kirshner, University of Colorado

5. Mapping the Social Learning Ecology of Support Around Adolescent Youth’s Interest-Driven Pursuits – Dixie Ching, New York University; Rafi Santo, Indiana University – Bloomington; Christopher Hoadley, New York University; Kylie A. Peppler, Indiana University – Bloomington

6. How Youths’ Experiences of Connected Learning Cluster: Results From a Longitudinal Survey Study – Nathan Dadey, University of Colorado – Boulder

7. Youth Voice in Mentoring – Tene Gray, Digital Youth Network

8. Engaging Youth Ethnographers: A Critical Analysis of the Promise and Challenges of Youth Participatory Research – Michael D. Harris, Colorado University – Boulder; Josie Chang-Order, University of Colorado – Boulder; Ben R. Kirshner, University of Colorado

9. Designing a Community-Based Student Interest–Focused Sustainability Science Curriculum – Sameer Honwad, University of New Hampshire; Marlena Koper, University of New Hampshire; Eleanor Diane Abrams, University of New Hampshire; Michael J. Middleton, University of Massachusetts – Boston

10. Designing a Pathway to Support Teen Engagement in Writing – Sybil Madison-Boyd, Digital Youth Network; Jennifer Steele, Digital Youth Network

11. Pathways and Network Effect: Understanding Social Ecologies of Connected Learning – Timothy Podkul, SRI International; Denise Sauerteig, SRI International

12. Challenges in Organizing Opportunities for Young People to Become Creative Civic Producers – Adam J. York, University of Colorado – Boulder

Discussant: Kimberley Gomez, University of California – Los Angeles


Structured poster session: Decentering Dominant Discourses and Reimagining Privileged Spaces in STEM Education (Sunday 4/19 – 8:15am-9:45am)


We argue for the need to decenter dominant discourses and reimagine privileged spaces in STEM education. We draw from a variety of approaches that consider human action and development within social, cultural, and historical contexts, including: cultural-historical activity theory, theories of situated learning, ethnomethodology, participatory action research, Critical Race Theory, and feminist theories. Our work privileges and supports the ways community members are working to disrupt standardized and hegemonic practices and creates new possibilities for how STEM education can be organized. We hope to further the conversation about how research can be brought to bear on STEM education and how this work can and should support equity and justice in the field.




Nancy Ares, University of Rochester

1. I Come Because I Make Toys: Unpacking Refugee Youths’ Critical Science Agency in a Community-Based After-School Science Club – Edna Tan, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

2. Contested Legitimacy: Filiation Work in the Sorting Out of Engineering Students – Kevin O’Connor, University of Colorado – Boulder; Frederick Peck, University of Colorado – Boulder; Julie Cafarella, University of Colorado – Boulder

3. “Looking Through the Kids’ Perspectives Made Me Change”: Teacher Learning From Youth Narratives – Daniel Birmingham, Loyola University Chicago

4. Nondominant Students’ Struggle for Legitimate Participation in a Laptop Classroom – Nicholas C. Wilson, Stanford University

5. Belonging, Staying, Making It Better: Students Create Space for Their Conceptualization of Community – Ashley Seidel Potvin, University of Colorado – Boulder; Rebecca G Kaplan, University of Colorado – Boulder

6. How Does the College of Engineering Make Student Accounts Consequential? – Julie Cafarella, University of Colorado – Boulder

7. Acknowledging Counternarratives and Diverse Visions of Communities as Beehives, Family Quilts, and Rubik’s Cubes in Educational Engineering – Cecilia Angelica Valenzuela, University of Colorado – Boulder

8. Defining Gender in Engineering: Redefining Nondominant Discourses of Women in Engineering – Joanna R. Weidler-Lewis, University of Colorado – Boulder

Discussant: Megan Bang, University of Washington

Some Thoughts on the Development of a DBR Argumentative Grammar

DML Commons Design Research DOCC

This week’s introduction to design based research (DBR) hosted by Rafi Santo and Dixie Ching has kicked my brain gears into a real grind mode. Last night, I jumped into a Twitter chat about the challenges of coalescing an “argumentative grammar” for DBR, but I still have a lot of  questions about what such a grammar could look like, and its role in studying and reforming education (and education research). As the DBR community struggles to define this grammar, here are some of my thoughts/concerns:
  1. Since DBR often (always?) involves a process of cooperation between researchers and practitioners (teachers, school admins, other stakeholders) designing interventions, there is a need for a common language that both researchers and practitioners understand and can use to converge on shared goals, interpret events, and augment/alter the design of an intervention as needed. I’ve found that in my work with practitioners (and as one myself), the theories and evidence that help structure…

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A new representation of CHAT?

CHATting about Triangles and Representations

This week I’ve been organizing a poster presentation on the use of Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) as a lens for thinking about privilege, power, and legitimate participation in high school science. Even though the theory has its detractors, many (Anthony & Clark, 2011Roth & Lee, 2007; Trust, 2015Yamagata-Lynch, 2007;)(including myself) have found CHAT to be particularly useful for considering systemic problems (or “tensions” as they’re commonly referred) that (1) inhibit the accomplishment of certain goals (e.g., successful implementation of a one-to-one laptop program) within a social organization (e.g., a school), and (2) end up advantaging certain points of view, ways of behaving, or cultural backgrounds over others. Obviously, any theory or tool that can be used to help researchers, scholars, or practitioners understand problems of practice, especially when they relate to issues of equity, is a good thing to have, but I’ve found that I often have a hard time getting started with a CHAT because the concept of “activity” is a slippery one to define.

Technically, “activity” refers to any kind of goal-motivated behavior. This is different, however, from what we might call a “task” because, as it’s been theorized, an activity, unlike a task, takes place with a social context. And context matters. Consider the task of getting dressed. This task has a very different meaning depending on when and where it’s done – telling someone that you got dressed in your own room in the morning might earn you a totally different reaction from telling them that you got dressed in a stranger’s house or a public place in broad daylight. It’s the context that makes this task seem common and mundane, or strange and embarrassing. (Really, in a way, this means that all tasks are activities, because when is a task not contextualized? But I digress…)

“Context” is also a slippery term, because it can include pretty much anything. Socioculturalists might say that context is made up of everything that exists in a place in the moment, as well as everything that led up to that stuff being there for that moment – the history of the physical objects, the cultural values that give those objects meaning, the arrangement of objects and people in the setting… each of these things matters in how one decides to use a tool and for what purpose, as well as how one’s behavior gets interpreted.

All of these nebulous characteristics of the activity context intersect and interact with each other, and together, they make up the activity “system.” Without getting to deep into the theory of it all, one of the advantages of CHAT is that it gives us a way to divvy these characteristics into six categories: subjects (the individual or group performing the task), the object (the goal of doing the task), mediating artifacts (the tools that are used to achieve the goal), rules (normative or expected ways of doing the task), community (the large social arrangement/organization in which the task is being performed), and the division of labor (the roles of the people/groups within the larger social organization for accomplishing the task). Now, I don’t know about you, but at this point, my head starts to swim with all of these terms and trying to figure out who is doing what and why and with whomever and with what tools and where did those tools come from, anyway? This is when I take out a pen and paper and start trying to draw things that can help me visualize what my brain is trying to keep track of. Luckily, CHAT has this canonical representation that it seems pretty much everyone who talks about activity theory uses, and it looks like this:

CHAT triangle

Cultural Historical Activity Theory

Look at all those triangles! What’s lovely about this representation is that it gives the impression that everything here is interconnected. And that’s the point. Don’t you just love it when simple graphics can convey complex ideas? Yay CHAT. Go team!

So that’s all good and awesome, until you start trying to think about what constitutes an activity. Where did the activity begin? Where did it end? Depending on the grain size of the activity, the various nodes might look completely different. This is very problematic when trying to consider complex activities like implementing a curricular intervention or a district-wide technology initiative. Each of these long term activities is made up of possibly infinite, but meaningful, activities (Lisa Yamagata-Lynch wrote a fantastic piece that addresses these same dilemmas).

In my dissertation, I used CHAT to look at the different ways in which students used technology in a one-to-one laptop classroom, and early on in my analysis, I found myself drowning in a pile of papers with little triangles sketched on them. My problem is that I was trying to figure out how to capture the essence of an activity when it wasn’t explicitly demarcated for me. An activity could be as long as a subject unit, or as brief as recording a single phrase of text from a lecture slide. It was up to me to decide how each of these activities were significant, and which ones related to my research questions. It’s part of that subjective research experience that gives us qualitative researchers limited street cred among our quantitative, objectivist, and positivist colleagues. But that’s another story all together…

Okay, we’re still not done. I said something earlier about CHAT being useful for looking at systemic problems or “tensions.” Let’s get back to that now.

So, the idea is that once we’ve charted all of the constituent “nodes” of the CHAT triangle for a given activity, we can go about examining how elements of these nodes interact with each other in ways that either help the subject achieve the goals of the activity, or inhibit it. For instance, let’s say you (subject) want to use the Internet (mediating artifact) to help you look up the score of a basketball game (object), but you don’t have access to the Internet. We might represent that as a tension between the mediating artifact (Internet) and object (looking up a basketball score). Or let’s say you’re a teacher (subject) and you want to learn about a new software tool (mediating artifact) that you might think would be particularly helpful for a certain lesson you are trying to teach (object), but there’s no one at your school, like a technology integration specialist, who can help you learn about or implement that software into your lesson planning (division of labor). We could represent that as a tension between the division of labor and object of the triangle. To my knowledge, there isn’t a single convention that is used to represent tensions on the CHAT triangle, but some common examples include placing an “x” or lightning bolts along the side of the triangle where the tension exists.

Now, these are relatively simple examples of tensions, so you might already be thinking, “What about more complex problems, such as a tension between rules and division of labor? Or tensions that emerge between interacting activity systems? How can we represent these?” That’s a good question, and it’s where I find myself now. The problem I am having at the moment is coming up with a way that gives credence to how the various elements of activity systems mediate each other, but also provides an elegant way of showing how a tension impacts the object of activity, as well as introduces the concept of “legitimate participation” (Lave & Wenger famously coined the term “legitimate peripheral participation” to describe how individuals are inducted into communities of practice) I feel like much of what has been done to date to represent complex tensions doesn’t adequately (or at least cleanly) show these in, say, the way a line graph can show how the amount of something increases and decreases over time. In preserving the sticky image of triangles, what I’ve been playing with is something like this:

A new representation of CHAT?

A new representation of CHAT?

What this does for me, is highlight the centrality of issues around “legitimacy” in activities, as something that is influenced (or even governed by?) the relationship of one’s participation to the privileged norms of behavior (rules), roles (division of labor), and use of tools (mediating artifacts) of a social group (community). I’m not convinced that this does any better job of achieving that than the standard CHAT triangle. But if anyone out there has any ideas, I’m all ears (and triangles)!

A Response to Godsey’s “Deconstructing the K-12 Teacher”

“Future School” by Jean Marc Cote

The Atlantic published an article by Michael Godsey this morning entitled “The Deconstruction of the K-12 Teacher” – a real pot-stirrer for those of us who find ourselves trying to square how all of this data-driven driven, venture-capital-funded, business of edtech startups fits into the ramshackle behemoth of government-mandated curriculum, publicly demonized unions, and enduring inequity that is the education system. The article discusses the changing nature of teaching in a brave new world of flipped classrooms, personalized-learning apps, and high-quality instructional resources that are being shared (and sold) online for anyone. The problem with all this technology and access, it seems, is that it “marginalize[s] the teacher’s expertise.” Godsey predicts that in the next 10 to 20 years (some colleagues of his suggest it’s more like half of that, or 5 to 10 years), the quality of and access to educational tools and resources online will be so high that it will essentially eradicate the need for a teaching profession as we know it today. If Godsey’s prediction is correct (which I don’t think it is), I see two incredible tragedies resulting from this “brave new world” as he calls it. First, it would mean the loss of what many consider to be one of the most humanizing and noble occupations in our society. And second, it would mean that decades of reform efforts would have failed miserably in destabilizing our oft-criticized “factory model” of education. The former would be a tragedy for obvious reasons. The latter, however, is more complicated today, precisely for the points Godsey addresses.

One thing we know about educational technology, from Khan Academy to xMOOCs, is that they are very good at delivering content. And I think Godsey’s assumption is somewhat on point about this – in most of my experience as an academic technology specialist, it seems that technology integration, from elementary school to university, by-and-large revolves around helping teachers curate online resources and information for their students. And this is what he seems to think is the primary force at work in the “deconstruction” of teaching. Because there is so much high-quality material available online, why should schools pay teachers to do anything other than organize content, when they can pay a single expert to develop the materials? In the classroom, Godsey suggests, teaching will eventually be reduced to “facilitating the educational plans of massive organizations”, with the best content developers being whisked away to the private sector for presumably higher salaries than those of less expert classroom “facilitators.”
The reason why I don’t think this prediction will come true is because it presumes a fundamental driving force of education will continue to be the acquisition of content, and that a model of education based on knowledge acquisition will somehow improve learning outcomes across the board, eliminate longstanding social inequities in schools, make college more accessible for poor or disenfranchised populations of students, and all the while, reduce the cost of educating a growing population of children with individual learning needs. Such a model of education would not be sustainable, and I optimistically believe that, just as the hype around xMOOCs (which arguably, was also driven by an ideology of knowledge acquisition) has so swiftly quieted, it would quickly expose the limitations of a system built around the mere delivery of content. It would also mean reversing a growing trend and interest in theories of informal learning (such as Youth and Participatory Politics), connected learning, maker spaces, and learning as practice (such as the Next Generation Science Standards). As Godsey implores, we need local experts to organize these learning experiences for youth, not just hand over content resources. In fact, if anything, I predict that K-12 teaching will begin to resemble emerging changes in libraries, museums, and other informal settings – that is, knowing how to take advantage of digital resources to create meaningful experiences that engage youth in learning that is more holistic than simply sitting in front of a screen all day. I don’t think that the Internet will ever reduce the need for teachers. If anything, it is showing us that we need more teachers who can scaffold students into the new roles that are being created by digital education tools, can help students understand what it means to take up authority over their own learning, and can inspire students to become experts in their own domains of interest. I have yet to see anyone in Silicon Valley create an app for that.

Assignments and Accountability

I’ve just been reading Howard Rheingold‘s case study on the Connected Learning website on Jim Groom’s “DS106” course, and was inspired to write down a couple of ideas. Coincidentally, one of the central elements to the success of the DS106 course (and Connected Courses in general) seems to be blogging – or maybe simply writing. Or maybe even more simply, producing materials/texts/ideas to share with the world – regardless if anyone is going to read it. I was particularly inspired to write down these thoughts when I got to Rheingold’s section on the “Assignment Bank” – a repository of various assignment types from which students could select to “[model] their learning for others.” What I found interesting about this wasn’t just that Groom had handed over logistic (and epistemic?) authority over to his students by letting them come up with their own assignments (and assignment genres), but the purpose of so doing was to encourage students to be accountable to their own learning, as well as to the larger learning community (i.e., the course). In my own teaching and research experience at the K-12 level, and perhaps even more so in higher ed, assignments seem to take on a weird role that straddles 1) the maintenance of a tradition of rigor (sometimes for rigor’s sake), and 2) getting more stuff “into the heads” of individuals (this is, presumably, important in formal educational contexts because of limited class periods – or in other words, limited access to “instruction”). But in the context of DS106, assignments seem at least to have a different, and arguably more impactful purpose. Assignments are meant to draw upon relevant themes and the production of digital artifacts, and additionally, to serve as content/material for exploring the ideas and concepts that are central to the course. It’s kind of meta, but it’s also an insanely awesome feedback loop, where the topics of the course are explored through student-produced artifacts. The success of the course as a learning experience is therefore dependent on the participation of those taking the course. In other words, the students are accountable for making the course what it is, and what it can be.

Stepping back a bit, it seems to me that one huge advantage of this is that the purpose of the assignment is to create and maintain two levels of accountability. Assignments that are interest-driven in this way are a vehicle for encouraging students (maybe we should just call them “participants”?) to be accountable for their own learning (i.e., they learn by participating in the creation of a digital artifact), as well as to be accountable to the knowledge community – their digital artifacts are, in a way, levers for collective knowledge construction. They support the group’s learning discourse. This seems particularly difficult to do in learning settings where all the decision making regarding assignments, assessments, and activities lie with a privileged authoritarian or institution. Just some thoughts…

APIs as Learning Tools?

I’ve had some interest for a while now in studying APIs as learning tools. What I think is particularly interesting about APIs is the connections that are possible with APIs to span so many fields of interest and knowledge: computer science, data mining, visualization (i.e., data presentation and information design), the natural science, the social sciences… I’m sure the possibilities are pretty infinite, really. APIs are interesting in themselves because they provide a lever for accessing and doing something else with data sets – so using APIs are, in a way, inherently inquiry tools. APIs also let you gather data, filter it, and repackage it in a way that is either personally meaningful/useful, or in a way that may be useful for someone else, so the potential for API-based projects to connect to real-world issues is huge, especially with regards to Internet literacy and privacy. I’m really curious how much work has been done around this in schools – K12 or higher ed – and what kind of success people are having in using APIs to encourage what might be called a “developer’s mindset.” These are all just initial thoughts right now, but I’m hoping to begin some work on this soon.

Designing for the Margins Where They Stand: In the Margins

As many teachers know, despite great attempts at innovating curriculum or instructional practice, some students still find themselves on the outside, either without interest, investment, or opportunities among their peers to participate in any range of learning activities. Unfortunately, many of these students fall into the same demographics that recent research in the areas of social justice, digital education inequities, and interest-based learning have tried to target: low socioeconomic, ethnic minority, non-native English speaking, or otherwise disenfranchised youth. Despite great efforts on the part of our teachers, these students simply tend to live in the margins of education. This has added to an already increasing call to reform our practices in ways that support student interest and engagement, oftentimes in opposition to standardized assessment and other canonical aspects of schooling.

There have been a number of great studies and articles coming out this past year on interest-based learning and adaptive curriculum – some of which has come from scholars whose work focuses on, and has even influenced, the Next Generation Science Standards that many states in this country are now trying to adopt. A number of scholars have even taken their work outside of the classroom and into the homes of nondominant and disadvantaged youth to study what kinds of personal learning supports (digital media tools, social connections or “brokers,” and opportunities for participation in communities of practice) might exist that can promote informal learning opportunities for students who might have little access to such opportunities in the classroom. By examining how youth participate in such informal learning activities outside of school, there is hope that we may be able to adapt existing classroom practices and structures to afford learning opportunities for youth that promote not just content or skills acquisition, but personal empowerment, autonomy, critical thinking, and community activism – possibilities that many agree exist in far too few of the learning experiences of today’s disadvantaged youth.

Indeed, a great achievement of this recent work has been to expose the dearth in access disenfranchised youth have to such learning opportunities. In many areas, this work has had the effect of prompting schools to adopt more student-centered instructional practices, inquiry- and project-based learning activities, and digital media tools. As such, there has been a narrowing effect in two chief areas of what was once called the “digital divide”: access to digital technologies, and access to learning opportunities in which those technologies might be used to promote agency and empowerment. Yet, a major difficulty of scholarship in this area, as I see it, is that a large amount of research has focused on settings in which youth willingly, or voluntarily, participate in such informal learning practices and communities on their own; after-school and community outreach programs, interest-based online communities, or other arenas in which youth participate in what might be called “productive.” For each student, however, who goes home or to the library after school to engage in Minecraft community forums or produce their own digital media, there are many students who simply do not, either because of other personal responsibilities (such as family care or employment), disruptive home lives, or lack of interest. For this reason, it makes sense to examine the roles that formal environments and institutional structures might play in how and why these youth in the margins either do or do not take up opportunities to engage in student-centered, as well as interest-, inquiry-, and project-based learning activities.

This past June, I presented some research findings on this topic at the International Conference of the Learning Sciences in Boulder. Specifically, my research focused on forms of student resistance to these activities. The group I studied had access to digital media and digital media tools through a one-to-one laptop program, and a progressive, knowledgeable teacher with over 15 years of technology integration experience. In spite of his efforts to introduce open-ended, student-centered, and inquiry-based learning activities to the class, a number of focal students in my study simply did not participate in these activities, or equally disappointing for the teacher, “satisficed” their work, doing the minimal amount necessary to receive a non-failing grade. While we consider the importance of student engagement in informal learning communities and practice, I therefore think it is critical that we examine the structural supports and social mobility of youth in these environments, specifically, “in the margins.” Schooling represents a particular, heavily enculturated structure to which many disenfranchised youth have negative orientations. Beyond promoting instructional practices that foreground student interest and access to resources, I believe it is imperative that we similarly interrogate the social configurations of interest-based learning environments, and how those configurations might inform the structure of schooling. Particularly in how youth see themselves within those configurations, in relation to their peers, to authority, and to institutional structures. This will be a long, difficult process, but it is nonetheless one that I believe is worthy of significantly more attention than it is currently being paid by large grant funding institutions and ed tech start ups.

A colleague of mine once highlighted how we might start thinking about how to ameliorate these problems, tweeting, “Much of edtech creates more access. The affluent have more capacity (financial, technical, social) to use that access, leading to inequity.” In response, I asked, “What can schools do to eliminate this inequity?” His reply: “Design for the margins.” Taking this cue, I think it will be increasingly important to consider what learning looks like in the margins, and what structures produce and reify the existence of those margins – especially in the face of advances in instruction and access to resources. Otherwise, we risk oversimplifying the longstanding inequities that persist today as solvable through high tech tools and money. If twenty years of the “digital divide” have taught us anything, its that the more things change, the more things stay the same. It’s time we begin to focus on the “sameness” part of that maxim, rather than on the “changes” that appear forever on the horizon. Perhaps we can get some venture capital to invest in that, for a change.

Makey Makey, Take 2

This is the second post in a series about the use of the Makey Makey for faculty professional development in technology, design, and creativity.

As I described in my last post, the first incarnation of my Makey Makey project, was a relatively inelegant “instrument” I hacked together using some fruit, kitchen utensils, and a Google Coder project. I left the project out in our faculty lounge for a few days, in the hopes of garnering some interest in attending our first “play day” coming up next month. The project seemed somewhat of a success, since I observed several instances of tones, laughter, and what I interpreted as “contemplative silence” emanating from the lounge while the project was up. A few folks even emailed me either thanks or excited exclamations of “that’s cool!” Thus, at least in terms of garnering attention from my colleagues, the Makey Makey project was turning some heads, and encouraging some play. The project seemed also to inspire a little bit curiosity with regards to electrical circuitry, mostly around how people did not get “shocked” when holding the electrical leads. Some people also began experimenting with different conductive materials, swapping out spoons to pencils or other fruit.

For Phase 2, I decided to up the sophistication of the project, creating a conductive “board” to replace the dangling fruit and wires, and rather than using simple tones on the C major scale, to embed some free loops from GarageBand. The browser I’d be using to display the project is Google Chrome, which can read and play .mp3 files. This created a minor obstacle, because GarageBand loops come in a completely different file format. To work around this, I added each loop to a separate GarageBand project, and then exported each project in .mp3 format. Problem solved. I then found some copyright-free images online (thanks Wikipedia!) to match the GarageBand loops I used. After a couple of more tweaks to the user interface, I had a web page that looked like this:


For the board, I used the underside of a printer paper box, aluminum foil, scotch tape, and an exacto knife to carve out and affix some conductive “pads.” For each of the five pads, I used a wide strip of foil, stretching from the bottom of each pad to the top of the “board,” where I could easily attach the leads from the Makey Makey. For the ground lead, I made an aluminum foil strip at the bottom of the board.



I then uploaded the site to the computer in the faculty lounge, and left a little flier of instructions, with a small plug for our “play day” in June. Fingers crossed that this iteration will pick up where the last one left off…


First Stab with the Makey Makey

So I’ve had a Makey Makey sitting on my desk for a few months, and until last week, I hadn’t even opened the box. After seeing a video of the Makey Makey’s creator Jay Silver on TED back in the winter, I felt inspired and compelled to get one. But as they so often do, work and life get in the way of things, especially creativity. And so the Makey Makey sat on my desk, all but forgotten, until a couple of weeks ago, when my colleagues and I decided to schedule our first technology professional development workshop devoted entirely to “play.”

Rather than simply send out the all-too-commonly unread mass email announcement, or post fliers above the copier machines, we decided to advertise our workshop with whimsical crafts, making use of the same tools we wanted to bring with us to the workshop. Finally, I had a reason to unpackage my Makey Makey, and start playing with the very serious intent of doing “work.”

The Makey Makey is a very simple device, reminiscent of the original Nintendo Entertainment System game controller, but with sharper edges, more holes, and exposed electronic components on the back.

Image  Image


It runs off of USB power, and acts as a sort of modified “keyboard” (without any obvious keys). In fact, it would be like having a keyboard for your computer that only consisted of the four arrow keys and a space bar. The sixth input on the Makey Makey functions like a left mouse click. Super simple. The Makey Makey comes with seven colored alligator-clip leads, which you use to create connections between the designated buttons (keys) on the Makey Makey and other conductive objects (spoons, fruit, coins, aluminum foil, etc.). There are also six “ground” input/output connections on the Makey Makey. The “ground” connections serve to complete the circuits you’ll end up constructing to control the buttons (keys) on the Makey Makey. By building these mini circuits, you can control your computer’s interface, such as scrolling up, down, left, or right, entering spaces between text, or clicking on objects. In the video above, Jay Silver shows some examples of this being used to create things like pianos and drums on the computer, but of course, with just a little bit of imagination (and a little bit of computer programming experience), the Makey Makey can do much more.

To advertise for our workshop, I decided to make my own five-key “piano” with the Makey Makey, and the process was made MUCH easier by using some HTML5, Javascript, and some help from Google Coder. The Google Coder site lists a bunch of easy-to-hard web-based projects that are specifically directed towards use with the Raspberry Pi, but are easily adapted for regular computer use. I chose to use their “Music Boxes” project for my Makey Makey for its simple interface and use of HTML5, which I have some experience with.



HTML5 is great in that it lets you use media “tags” in your HTML code, rather than fussing with overly complicated syntax or plug-ins like Shockwave. To make a long story short, the Music Boxes project provides you with some basic HTML code and instructions to help create the site picture above, and associate various musical tones (which come with the Music Boxes project download) to the individual colored boxes. The result is that when you click on a box, the browser plays a tone. With a mouse, this means you can play one tone at a time.

Using a combination of HTML and Javascript, however, you can associate the various tone files with keyboard keys, turning your QWERTY keyboard into a virtual synthesizer. Enter the Makey Makey. Using the five Makey Makey buttons (keys), I was able to take the Google Coder Music Box code and write my own little program and create a real-life “synthesizer” that my colleagues and I could play together in our faculty lounge. Here are some images of the result. Not an elegant first stab, I’ll admit, but I have plans in the works for the next iteration already!