Thursday, November 12, 2009

Reflections From a Global Kids Youth Leader at the Breakthrough Learning Summit

Hi! This is Nafiza Akter, and I was one of the youth attending the Breakthrough Learning in a Digital Age Forum. This forum was put together, as far as my understanding goes, to look at how technology could be used and incorporated into the current educational system for the benefit of the students. The nine youth that attended, organized by Global Kids, all helped to incorporate actual youth voices into the forum since the entire event was based around how technology could be used in the educational system that we have been receiving and experiencing. The event was held at the Googleplex, which, as you can imagine, was more reason to why no one would want to miss an opportunity to attend this event.

Shonette and I arrive at the GooglePlex

The Breakthrough Learning Forum wasn't at all what I expected it to be. First of all, I was under the impression I would see Google—but I didn't even get a tour! It's so funny because I was in a couple of the buildings that were a part of Google, but I didn't really get to see it as an entirety (this was me being dramatic). However, I did get to see what their employees are like when they are just hanging out with one another, or hard at work—and I also got a chance to see Sergey Brin speak. Most importantly (I think for everyone who attended) we got to experience the snacks at Google—I say this because the entire mass of snacks laid out in the morning were just about poof—gone by around 4PM. Anyway, the most impressive thing at the Googleplex for me was the T-rex that was surrounded by flamingoes!

Shonette and I with the T-Rex!

I have to admit that I was impressed with Sergey Brin—not only because he sounded smart and was smart (I think it's relatively important to separate the two), but because he said something that was strikingly true. My generation has been labeled over and over as apathetic and lazy, but Sergey, in my opinion, said something that explained the mentality a bit better. I can't quote him exactly, but he said that many of us had this existential perspective on life, and he used the example of him seeing his goals as a child as "just over the hills" whereas many of us see our goals as over a massive mountains. There is definitely a feeling of "Yes, it's possible, but definitely not probable". I'm definitely one of these people, I'm not one to see myself as someone who is any more likely to become someone extraordinary than all the other 6 billion and whatnot people. However, I do think Global Kids does try to encourage the idea that anyone has just about unlimited potential, and can attain anything and everything that they set their mind to. I can't help but admire the self-confidence and motivation of many of the Global Kids youth leaders because when one of them says that they want to be the Secretary General of the United Nations—they really do mean it and truly believe that at the end of horizon awaits their dreams. It must be an extraordinary feeling that many of us miss out on because we feel constrained by what is realistic.

I must say because of this outlook on life we end up taking for granted a lot of the things we do get to have. We have so many resources that many children around the world don't get to have—first and foremost, we have the basics: food, water, clothing, and shelter. We definitely don't have the best educational system, but we have one that'll at least require us to get some form of an education. I can't speak to for everyone, but I have been blessed with some of the most wonderful teachers and educators, ones that have gone beyond what is expected of them for me. And, I can't imagine what this would sound like to a child in a "Third World" Country, we have people that will design and attend a forum on using and incorporating digital media into the educational system. We take all of this for granted, really, and how bewildering, if not outrageous, that must sound to some child that works all day and night, and prays of having some sort of filling meal sometime soon. It must be the most amazing experiences to see one of these children smile—to hear about their dreams, to see hope in their eyes after facing all the harsh realities that could possibly exist.

I bring this up because while I was at the Forum I remembered discussing with one of the attendees that I ran an event on Teen Second Life streaming Ishmael Beah, a former child soldier, speaking about his book (and I constantly forget all the things I've done with Global Kids, so I need to come up with a list). Ishmael Beah really has one of the most cheerful smiles that I have ever seen, and it really is amazing because he has been through so much and he can still stay so optimistic and happy. So although, understanding this, I still do not consider myself any more extraordinary than the next person, I must admit that I have been given so many extraordinary opportunities thanks to Global Kids. I say this on behalf of many of the teens that have worked with Global Kids because GK definitely puts effort into giving us opportunities that not many people get to have—and I am very grateful for that. It's funny because all the opportunities that have been presented to me are always so unexpected—I definitely didn't expect an email asking, "Hey, how do you feel about attending the Breakthrough Learning Forum at the Googleplex". It didn't really occur to me that getting the opportunity to go to this event was particularly exceptional until someone said that they would give up concert tickets to see their favorite band and put down everything that's going on in their lives just to have the opportunity to go to this event. So I'm very fortunate to have the opportunity to go, especially since I got to meet a lot of great adults as well as teens.

The Youth Team presents their skit about digital learning at the Forum

So of course, one of the main parts for the teens was the skit we worked on to invite the attendees to go to the Tech Playground to check out the different breakthrough learning technologies provided. The best part about this was first coming up with the skit, which actually did take some creative thinking. For those who missed it, the skit was about a bunch of teens attending a meeting of "Misunderstood Media Teens" and we all gathered together to talk about our grievances as far as adults not understanding how we use technology in our lives, and also talking about how organizations like Global Kids, Mouse, and BAVC encourage the use of different forms of digital media. Since we felt like many adults weren't listening to us, I found this application (iJim) that turned one of us into the games and learning scholar James Paul Gee. However, when one of us turned to James Gee, he realized that adults do care to listen to what younger people have to say. So we used the iTouch to time travel (using iTimeTravel) into the Breakthrough Learning Forum to ask everyone attending to join us at the Tech Playground [Disclaimer: please do not get your hopes up, technology has advanced, but not that much; therefore, these iTouch applications are not real]. I thought it was very cute, and it was fun because we got to do a lot of fake and exaggerated/amateur acting. Plus, it gave us a lot of time to interact with James Gee throughout the event, which was great because he really is an awesome character—and what I mean by that, you can only understand by meeting him. One of the things that James Gee said that I felt like I could most relate to was that we learn through failure. I definitely think it is very true—failing is a great way to learn. Especially in games, where there are really no consequences to failing and you simply play again and learn from the game itself and eventually create this formula that you use to get through the game if you choose to ever restart playing it.

The Youth Team from Global Kids, BAVC and MOUSE with James Paul Gee

One of the presenters that really stuck out to me was Mimi Ito because she talked about how young people took their interests in digital media and completely expanded their knowledge and skills off of it. She talked about someone who was interested in Anime Music Videos, who became inspired by a video created by a fellow fan and decided to then go onto creating his own. After that he really got into the editing, and encouraged his friends to do the same—and I guess this stood out to me because I felt I could most relate to it. I do love AMV's and some of them are really wonderfully made. Plus, they are a great way to promote different animations that capture your own interest. In addition, I really like filmmaking and editing, which is why I was a part of the Virtual Video Project with Global Kids. I thought this was probably one of the best presentations as far as finding the correlation between the interests of youth with different forms of digital media. Another presentation I found interesting was by Connie Yowell from the MacArthur Foundation, when she made a comparison between a classroom "back in the day" to a modern day classroom. It was hilariously and unfortunately true. Even though technology has progressed so much, the classroom still just has a board and a bunch of chairs and tables. Maybe with the exception that we now have some dry-eraser boards instead of chalk boards. It seems that we are so busy spending and dedicating most of our national budget to the military that we forgot that the school system should eventually change (you know, perhaps improve). But I thought this was a very provoking comparison to present to the attendees.

Shonette and I playing in the SmallLab

As a true Global Kid's alum, my favorite technology presented at the Tech Playground was the game from SmallLab, which was being demoed by David Birchfield (although Dana and I were the ones playing it for the longest duration of time), on water conservation. The idea of the game was to spin this robot until it released water from the reserves, which we would then have to lead to the houses. The houses would then release waste water, which we would have to lead back to the machine for recycling. Sounds simple, but it gets harder around level 6, trust me. I really liked that it was an interactive game, and it appealed to really all ages. Plus, it promoted the idea of water conservation, which is a really important thing for children to understand because water is not as much of an unlimited resource as we would like to think and there are many people out there today that do not get access to clean water. My only suggestion was that a factor be added to the game where there are houses or people that actually "steal" the clean water away—only to reflect the idea that there are many people in America that have obnoxiously huge lawns that are overly watered, especially in areas where water is limited. So I thought it would be a funny (but realistic) concept to add to it. Also, if the platform where the game is played could be made bigger, it would be great because kids are growing bigger and bigger (some of them are taller than me by 5th grade, if not 3rd) so the larger the platform is, the more it promotes exercise—and the less likely it is that your shadow will interfere as much in the game. Technologies presented at the Forum. Plus, it's wonderful to fight for water conservation and against child obesity all at the same time!

Overall, I thought attending this event was a great experience and I can't thank Global Kids enough for taking me. The only sad part of the entire thing was that we got Lava Lamps that we couldn't bring back to New York City due to airport restrictions on carry-on luggage. But hey, physical things can't compensate for experience and knowledge—but experience and knowledge can definitely compensate for any physical item. The experiences we came back with definitely outweigh the "stuff" we came back with, since stuff will eventually get thrown out or lost, but the experiences contribute to who we are and have/will become. I did meet a lot of inspirational people, and I really hope that everyone continues to work hard to incorporate technology into the educational system because it is very necessary in order for future generations to have access to better education. All parents hope that their children will accomplish more than they could, and have a better life in general—so it is only ideal that we all work hard to ensure that the educational system improves, not just for "our children" but for all children. Maybe we can all take a moment actually care for the children and not just declare that something must be done to improve their lives, and the children to come. Maybe if a political figure paid a dollar for every time they mentioned "the children" and didn't care to act upon his or her words, we could have a better educational system. Fact of the matter is, if you haven't done anything yet, and a classroom back in the day still looks the same as a modern day classroom, it is a very good time to start doing something—and that's what the entire forum was based upon.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Teacher is the Key

By Esther Wojcicki
Chair of the Board, Creative Commons, Journalism/English Teacher, Palo Alto High School

Here is a pretty shocking statistic.

More than 40% of teachers today are disheartened and disappointed in their jobs according to a study just released by Learning Points Associates. It is hard to be an inspirational, caring teacher if you don't want to be there.

The study showed that seven in 10 teachers cited testing as major drawback and 61 percent also cited lack of support from administrators and nearly 75% cited "discipline and behavior issues" in the classroom.

This is a very challenging situation for policy makers because the solution to the education crisis in our country is the teacher. Last week Michelle Obama wrote an article in US News and World Report that was entitled "Teachers are Key to a Successful Economy." I couldn't agree more.

The Gates Foundation also came to the same conclusion after spending years focusing on small schools. They are now focusing on teacher effectiveness.

As a long time teacher at Palo Alto High in Palo Alto, CA and someone who has seen multiple education fads come and go, I think thought leaders have finally come to the right focus -- the teacher is the key. No matter what books are provided, no matter what curriculum is required ... the key is how the teacher feels about what she is teaching and how she treats her students.

I am sure everyone can remember a teacher they liked, but they can also remember a teacher they disliked because the teacher seemed to dislike students. Students know when a teacher doesn't want to be there; they know it just by being in the classroom. It's not fun. At one point these teachers probably liked students and teaching, but they now somehow feel trapped in a job that no longer provides the same pleasures it once did. These teachers actually don't dislike students; they dislike what they are required to do-- teach to a test, like NCLB tests, year after year and work with ineffective administrators.

Over the past eight years teachers nationwide have been teaching to the NCLB test which is why many of them are disheartened and burned out.

No matter what policy makers dictate, when a teacher closes the door and is the classroom alone with the students, he/she is in charge. If the teacher is well-trained, then the students will learn more. If the teacher is happy to be there, then the students will be more content in the classroom. The teacher sets the tone; the teacher provides the activities; the teacher plans the day. Happy students work harder. Happy teachers teach more effectively and that is what we need---effective teachers.

It sounds like an old adage, but what we need to do as a nation is to support teachers in the classroom and modify the NCLB Act which is now up for Congressional renewal. Supporting teachers is key to our success as a nation. Support means supporting increases in teachers salaries, respecting the role of teachers in society, donating money to foundations that support teachers, volunteering to work in the classroom, and modifying the NCLB Act to so that teachers are not motivated to teach to the test.

This post is the first of a series by Ms. Wojcicki published in the Huffington Post.

Using Alternative Assessment Models to Empower Youth-directed Learning

Barry Joseph

Online Leadership Director
Global Kids, Inc.

Tashawna is a high school senior in Brooklyn, NY. In the morning she leaves home for school listening to her MP3s, texting her friends about meeting up after school at Global Kids, where she participates in a theater program, or FIERCE, the community center for LGBT youth. On the weekend she'll go to church and, on any given day, visit MySpace and Facebook as often as she can. While she misses television and movies, she says she just can't find the time.

This describes what we can call Tashawna's distributed learning network, the most important places in her life where learning occurs. Not just at home, school and church but also through digital media, like MP3s, SMS and social networks, and at youth-serving institutions, like Global Kids and FIERCE. Some are places that require her presence, like school, while others are opt-in, like MySpace. But the learning she gathers across the nodes in her network are preparing her to succeed in the classrooms, workplaces, and civic arenas of the 21st Century.

And Tashawna is not alone. In part due to the changes in education, in part due to the affects of digital media, youth have a wide array of options for learning knowledge and developing skills. But how many youth feel in charge of their networks, or are even aware they exist as an interconnected whole? How do they learn to synthesize what they learn and communicate it to future employers and college admission staff who won't learn of their strengths on most school transcripts?

Global Kids, an afterschool program in New York City that supports youth like Tashawna to be global citizens and community leaders, has begun to explore just these questions. More specifically, we are increasingly asking the following: What do youth need to understand and strategically navigate their distributed learning networks? And how can youth-serving institutions support youth to document the associated learning that address 21st Century Skills that so often go unrecorded?

We are far from alone, however, in raising these concerns. For example, a number of recent initiatives supported by the MacArthur Foundation (from whom we too receive funds) are concerned with the distributed nature of learning experienced by today's young people and the challenge for both youth and learning institutions to integrate and assess it. While digital media has been a disruptive force supporting the fragmentation of learning environments it yet remains a potential source for coordinating and synthesizing the experience.

One approach to empowering youth to be more in charge of their learning and make more sense of their distributed learning network is to focus on youth's existing assets through both digital tools and offline activities to help them see the contours of their networks, understand their role as they traverse their learning nodes, and enhance their abilities to make connections amongst them. The following describes artifacts from three approaches Global Kids has undertaken to further explore these important issues.

Distributed Learning Maps

I was able above to describe Tashawna's distributed learning network because she showed it to me, on paper. It looked like this:


Actually, this was her second drawing. She didn't like her first because she was concerned it wasn't original. The first one looked like this:


When I first viewed these I paid attention to how she chose to group certain nodes. I noticed the distinctions between informal learning institutions and the formal, between portable digital media and online.

Of course, Tashawna doesn't walk around with a drawing of her learning network. I don't think she'd even thought about all the places she learns before I'd asked her to draw these pictures. But when I did it was easy for her to list on a sheet of paper places like home and school. I had to push her, however, to list all of her portable media devices, web sites and after school programs. She wasn't used to thinking about them all as sites of learning. After each one I asked her what she learned from that node:

Me: What do you learn from texting on you cellphone?
Tashawna: How to spell bad! (laughs)
Me: What else?
Tashawna: How to use technology more effectively to communicate.

At the end of the process, as a representative of one of her learning nodes, I was left with a broader understanding of Tashawna's network, of the resources she brings into our program, and where her learning with us might affect other sites of learning. From Tashawna's perspective, I hope she began to think, perhaps for the first time, about herself as a participant within her network, as the final source creating meaning by synthesizing the collected learning, and as the one ultimately responsible for learning how to best design and navigate her network, now and in the future.

Digital Literacy Transcript

Even if Tashawna could fully articulate the learning she receives outside of the standard school curriculum, how can she communicate it to others, in a capacity more formal than a college essay? Last year, we worked with Henry Jenkins' Project New Media Literacies to create something which might do just that: a Digital Literacy Transcript.

Henry Jenkins has identified and described the core literacies afforded by new media tools that are essential for full participation in our new digital age, such as Simulation, Negotiation, and Multitasking. Last year, Global Kids developed and implemented a curriculum that used social media to sharpen their literacies while assisting youth to understand how to think about them.

Below is Tashawna's transcript by the end of the school year:

Tashawna's Digital Literacy Transcript

The Transcript turns each literacy into a triangle-shaped badge. Each corner represents a different relationship with the literacy: I can recognize it, I can talk about it, and I can do it. At the beginning of our program each youth's Transcript was blank. Over the course of the program youth watched their Transcript grow as badges were earned through completing social media projects in the program while also submitting existing work (fan fiction, podcasts, etc.) that demonstrated evidence of their existing competencies. For example, you might note that Tashawna completed her "negotiation" badge, was working on her "networking" badge, and never began "performance."

The Transcript served as both a feedback mechanism to motivate and guide learning and an alternative transcript to show colleges or prospective employers about abilities which would otherwise go unrecognized.

Digital Literacy Portfolio

How could a college or potential employer viewing Tashawna's Digital Literacy Transcript know that she actually learned the referenced skills? And for those new to the terms - which, to be frank, are most of us - what could she do to make these concepts clear and concrete? Enter the Digital Media Portfolio.

Each Portfolio is personally curated by youth like Tashawna to offer an audio and visual tour of their social media productions that highlights the literacies developed through each social media project. This stands in contrast to the Digital Transcript, which is official and controlled by Global Kids.

Below is Tashawna's:

Global Kids is new to these three approaches - Distributed Learning Maps, Digital Literacy Transcripts and Digital Literacy Portfolios - but this year will expand them in a variety of contexts. The new MacArthur Foundation-funded Edge Project will allow us, as part of a broader initiative, to bring the Learning Maps into civic and cultural institutions that use digital media for learning. Meanwhile, the Transcripts and Portofolios will be rolled out in Winter 2010 within the New York City Public Library. Over the course of the next two years we will be documenting this work and sharing our findings with the broader community.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Breakthrough Learning from the Outside In: Four Policies to Accelerate Innovation in the Classroom

Victor V. Vuchic

Program Officer, Open Educational Resources
The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

Often when we think about innovation, we focus on lots of low cost rapid prototypes and bottoms up design driven approaches. You don’t often hear much about how policy could stoke innovation. Usually, people think of policy as stifling innovation. I actually think there are opportunities to shift policies that could significantly promote innovation. Here are a few areas of opportunity on the near term horizon:

Textbook Adoption to Resource Adoption

Most states have incredibly archaic and restrictive textbook adoption policies. The sad irony is that these adoption cycles are being lengthened from seven to nine years in many states, when the rate of change and innovation in the world is dramatically increasing (imagine what an 8 year old textbook on science and technology looks like today). Shifting these processes to include digital resources is critical. This not only allows us to begin to move from paper based textbooks to new digital environments, but it can also serve as a distribution channel. Much of the feedback we get from teachers is that searching for educational materials online leads to a mediocre mixed bag of results. The state can play a role similar to what they do with textbooks in evaluating digital resources, aligning them to standards and providing at least a baseline for rich media materials for all teachers for all state standards. With the support of the CK-12 Foundation, Virginia and California adopted open-source digital textbooks over the last year.

Smarter Filters

One enormous problem that is stifling innovation and doesn’t get much attention is the internet filters that schools use. While there is a clear need to have some control over where kids go on the internet, the current filters are blocking a huge amount of the Internet and create a significant barrier for teachers to do anything innovative with the web. I recently did a classroom observation at a low income public school in the Bay Area, and the teacher complained that he couldn’t even get to UC Berkeley’s site to get his materials from his Masters degree program. Also, when I used to work with students and told them that they are doing a video project that would be on YouTube, their enthusiasm and engagement jumped 10 fold. On the other hand, when I later explained that YouTube was blocked and we’d use a different lesser known site, they lost interest. Brand is very important to kids and can be a huge motivator. We need to invest in better filtering tools and figure out how we can leverage the digital spaces kids love inside the classroom. The evidence is clear that using the Internet can act as a powerful tool for engaging students, especially the ones that are most at risk of dropping out. We need better school policies on internet filtering that don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Common Core Standards

States adopting a common core of higher level standards will help provide some coherence to the education system across the country. This will stoke innovation in two ways: first, it will immediately and dramatically increase the market size for entrepreneurs in the field of K-12 education and in turn help them attract more investment. Today, someone starting a company in education has to develop and worry about 50 different states, each with their own standards. This fragmentation puts a significant cost and burden for small innovative startups. Second, unifying under some common standards will make it more likely that innovations in one state will transfer more easily to other states. This should also stoke more collaboration between states, which again will increase the transfer of innovations.

Seat time to Learning time

Today most states focus funding on time spent in school (average daily attendance). Shifting the focus from seat time to learning time could open up an entire new space for innovative, and perhaps more effective, learning environments. The state of California recently decreased its minimum annual school days requirement by five days to help accommodate the recent budget cuts. (In practice, most school districts are choosing to make other cuts rather than cutting school days, but they are now allowed to cut days.) This is a particularly troubling policy change given the strong evidence that time in school is directly correlated with academic success. But, by shifting the focus from seat time to learning time, districts in California could choose to have five self-learn days spaced throughout the year where students would spend the days learning outside the school or in a lab on online courses or digital media learning environments that have proven learning outcomes. This could help deal with the budget cuts while not losing out on critical learning time. One could also imagine that teachers could leverage digital resources in new ways that help reach the kids where they are and when they want it rather than in just a specific 45 minute period in the classroom.

Overall, there is a lot of innovation going on in education, but unfortunately very little of it is making its way into the public education system. I believe with a handful of tweaks and shifts in policy, we can open up and create pockets of space to allow the system to begin to absorb and integrate these innovations. At a recent meeting of the National Association of State Boards of Education I was pleasantly surprised with how forward thinking the group was and to see that policies are starting to shift in states to become more digital friendly. Let’s hope that this continues and begins to open up the system and allow a lot of the great work happening outside to have impact on the inside.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Promise of Games in The Public Interest

By Suzanne Seggerman
President, Co-Founder, Games for Change

Games can be used for A LOT of purposes - well beyond entertainment. And as they are a young medium, they are not often envisioned beyond their current contexts; we are all still just getting used to them. Some people though have caught on early, and are using games in almost everything they do. Here's a list I excerpted from an email I received earlier this year outlining just some of the ways this one contractor/developer is using games: (Do read through it - it will surprise you.)

Core Values, Leadership, Lessons Learned, Communication, Ethics, Drug Abuse Prevention, Alcohol Abuse Prevention, Personnel Readiness, Teamwork, Coaching and Counseling, Time Delegation, Organizational Skills, Contingency Contracting, Personal Advancement, Suicide Prevention, PTSD, Psychological Health, Adaptability, Sexual Harassment, Ethical Leadership, Family Responsibility, Cross Cultural Communications, Reasoning Under Fire, Deployment Preparation, Equipment Readiness and Maintenance, Command and Control, Support Operations, Command Supply Discipline, Development of Junior Officers, Value and Limitations of Doctrine, Force Protection, Explosive Ordnance Disposal, Wounded Warrior Transition, Anti-terrorism, Surveillance Detection,

If you read through the end of the list, you will probably be able to guess who this developer is making games for - the military. So why is the military using games for so much of what they do? Because they can. Because they have the foresight - and the means - to use this incredible technology to address all sorts of challenges they face.

So why not us? Why don't we who work in the public interest sector - the educators, NGOs, philanthropists - use games this extensively? Some of the challenges we face are just as important as those of the military - Educating our children. Raising awareness about public health concerns. Addressing poverty - These all stack up quite robustly alongside protecting our country. Yet, we are WAY behind. The public interest sector is often the last to adopt new technologies. We need to understand and use these new tools as much as they do.

So what do we do about it?

First we need a more informed public discourse about the medium. Games are not the enemy; they are not the corrupting forces of evil they are painted in most mainstream (and congressional) portraits of them. Parents, the media and our representatives in Washington need to understand games in a much broader context. Games can and should be used for a wide variety of public interest causes.

We need public funds as well. We need a dedicated resource pool for expanding the uses of digital media to address and engage the public in the core issues facing our country: poverty, educational disparities, healthcare issues, lots more. Games for Change is calling on a number of thought leaders, including the Cooney Center, to join with us to think through what we need to harness the incredible power of games and digital media to address some of the core issues our country faces. If the military gets it, why shouldn't we?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Technology and Family Literacy

By Emily Kirkpatrick and Sharon Darling

National Center for Family LiteracyAdd Image

We’re excited to participate in the Cooney Center’s upcoming Forum. Families of all socio-economic classes are using technology in their daily lives. The National Center for Family Literacy (NCFL) is on a quest to crack the code on helping families—particularly families struggling with low literacy skills—use technology to further education and their well-being. Parents and children must be equally adept at using technology if we are to realize its full potential for learning.

The opportunity to draw upon the nation’s brightest minds in education and technology to further these goals is one that can’t be missed. For us, it’s about exploring the rapid advancements possible to drive literacy-building activities into the hands and minds of children and families with lightening speed.

In the past, literacy was about reading and comprehending the written word. Reading a book and talking about it. Access to information in linear ways: libraries, newspapers and the like. Today literacy encompasses much more and children are exposed to information very quickly. We must find and deploy new advances quickly if we are to retain our competitive edge. And we must ensure parents are aligned to support these advancements in the home and with supervision to maximize the opportunity and provide a safe environment with technology.

A recent MIT study concluded that technology closes the gap between students’ individual skills and background differences. NCFL has capitalized on this potential by furthering approaches that capture the motivation of at-risk families to use technology to drive learning. If we can harness their interest in technology to achieve educational progress, amazing things can happen.

Working with the Cooney Center, NCFL is embarking on a new frontier for families in this country. We look forward to the dialogue at the Forum and, even more, marveling at our progress of the past 20 years—just as many do today regarding the power of Sesame Street in using television to support education.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Digital Connectors Will Build Today's Communities and Tomorrow's Leaders

By David L. Cohen

Executive Vice President, Comcast Corporation

We are strong believers in investing in stronger communities, and we’re in the midst of one of our most exciting community investment initiatives ever. Building on our partnership with One Economy, we recently launched the Comcast Digital Connectors program, an innovative initiative that teaches young people digital literacy skills and how to use broadband technologies to benefit their communities.

As America evolves into a truly digital nation, we think we have a responsibility to help ensure that all citizens of all backgrounds can use broadband to achieve their full potential. Helping more Americans learn the benefits of broadband (“digital literacy”) and getting more Americans to use it (“broadband adoption”) will make our communities and our nation stronger.

The Comcast Digital Connectors program integrates all of our core community investment priorities in one great opportunity. It promotes community service, expands digital literacy, and builds tomorrow’s leaders in many of the diverse communities we serve.

By the end of 2010, the Comcast Digital Connectors program will operate in at least 22 cities across America. In communities like Washington, DC, Philadelphia, Morgantown, WV, Dearborn, MI and Hanford, CA, groups of young people – aged 14 to 21 – from diverse, low-income backgrounds will be trained in digital literacy in both after-school and summertime training programs. Participants will team up with other Digital Connectors two to three times per week at their local school, community center or affordable housing development to work on what they have learned. Additionally, Comcast Digital Connectors will volunteer their time at a variety of locations (schools, churches, senior centers, etc.) to help promote digital literacy more broadly in their communities. Comcast employees across the country will have the opportunity to interact with Comcast Digital Connectors by serving as mentors and lending their leadership and expertise to local programs. And Digital Connectors across the nation will become part of an online social network where they will share their experiences and learn from each other.

This new program will take One Economy’s original Digital Connectors program to the next level. To date, nearly 3,000 young people have participated in Digital Connectors programs and have contributed more than 56,000 hours of community service. The One Economy-Comcast partnership aims to double the number of young people engaged in the program and the hours of service they provide their communities.

Expanding digital literacy and promoting broadband adoption are two critical national goals. As President Obama has said, “Here in the country that invented the Internet, every child should have the chance to get online.” In partnership with One Economy, we hope to bring many thousands more Americans into the digital age.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The outer spaces of learning

Colleen Macklin, Parsons The New School for Design

In the recent Star Trek movie by J.J. Abrams we get to see what a 23rd century Vulcan school was like for young Spock. Hundreds of crater-like pods, with 360-degree projection systems, allow individual students to navigate through an encyclopedic array of topics fully described through visualizations and sound. These images, as science fiction images often do, illuminate more about our present anxieties and desires than they do about possible futures. Star Trek fan and media theorist Henry Jenkins points out these conflicting visions in his blog, "Confessions of an Aca/Fan":

"In some ways, this is the future which many educators fear -- one where they have been displaced by the machine. In other ways, it is the future we hope for - one where there are no limits placed on the potentials of individual learners to advance."

As an interaction designer I can’t help but be fascinated by the design characteristics of these learning pods, particularly as a learning space and experience. Spatially, the pods enable a 360-degree view of virtual content, placing the student in the center of a whirl of information, visualized in formulas and images. Experientially, the intelligence (presumably artificial) that runs the displays also has a voice - quizzing the student on a wide array of subjects, from geometry to ethics. The effect is a high tech quiz or spelling bee, knowledge containable in a question and short answer. And in a reverse of the exploratory pleasures of the Internet, students merely provide the answers to questions asked by the computer – they don’t ask questions of their own. Perhaps we are glimpsing a Vulcan standardized test? While the delivery is individualized, as Jenkins points out, it’s also asocial, physically inactive (there’s no “learning by doing”), and if we take away the special effects, no more advanced than some of the drill-based learning methods we use today.

From the tricorder to the holodeck, Star Trek has, since its introduction in the 60s, had a tremendous influence on technology designers. Wah Ming Chang's communicator designs for the original TV series inspired Martin Cooper's mobile phone design research. Will the images of the 23rd century Vulcan school influence future school design? In terms of a spatial and experiential approach to learning, I actually think there are more interesting examples present now, in the 21st century. I’ll mention two of them, and why, from the perspective of interaction design, they promote not only cool new technologies and “special effects”, but also breakthroughs in the design of learning.

In SMALLab (Situated Multimedia Art Learning Lab), a mixed-reality learning environment developed by ASU’s David Birchfield, students also inhabit a projected world where diverse subjects can switch as quickly as the speed of light. However, this is where the similarity between SMALLab and Star Trek’s vision ends. Instead of surrounding us at eye-level, the projections for SMALLab are on the floor. The fact that images are beneath you immediately activates the space. Like the lines chalked on the sidewalk forming a hopscotch court, SMALLab beckons for ACTION. We want to step, run, jump, and crawl on the interactive images beneath us. And the space also encourages this – it uses playful interaction to illuminate how systems work – from concrete poetry to physics. By using our bodies, SMALLab engages our minds in making sense of these systems. In addition, it is a social space. SMALLab has a multi-user interface promoting collaboration and team problem solving. Students learn by coordinating their actions, helping each other, and making sense of how the systems underlying knowledge about a subject actually behave and respond.

Like SMALLab, Mannahatta: The Game (M:TG), a prototype developed by PETLab at Parsons, takes students out of a typical learning environment – in this case, onto the streets of New York City. A collaboration with Dr. Eric Sanderson’s Mannahatta Project at the Wildlife Conservation Society, M:TG uses geographically tagged data about the ecosystems present on Manhattan island prior to colonization in 1609 to create a game of exploration and discovery. Currently available for the iPhone platform, the game requires that players traverse the city in order to uncover and link ecosystem elements, rebuilding the webs that once existed, city block by city block. Using the iPhone as a kind of detector, players are notified when a needed species (mountain lion, poplar tree) or eco-link (“food for”, “shelter for”) is available nearby. M:TG is a game, but it is also a platform for experimenting with how augmented reality and geo-spatial databases can be brought together to form a situated space for learning. In other words, M:TG takes learning out of the classroom and into the world.

These two examples are pilot environments and prototypes. They aren’t yet common, and the implications of these spaces are still being discovered. Both share the element of play, collaboration and creativity as a strategy for activating learning. These environments clearly diverge from current classroom norms – and they also go a step beyond their science fiction counterparts – by designing playful and rich spaces and experiences as integral to 21st century learning.

SMALLab is one of the two dozen innovations that will be showcased at the Technology Playground demo space at the Breakthrough Learning in a Digital Age Forum on October 28.


Henry Jenkins, “Five Ways to Start a Conversation About the New Star Trek Film”. (blog post, May 12, 2009, accessed 9/28/09).

SMALLab, see: and

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

+1 Learner: How personal learning networks can transform individual teacher practice

By Lucy Gray

Education Technology Specialist
Center for Elementary Mathematics and Science Education
University of Chicag

Imagine a learning community for educators, a place where teachers can connect to the world. Teachers can pose questions and receive just in time help and advice from virtual colleagues. Links to interesting web sites are exchanged. Practitioners connect with researchers at universities. Up to the minute news is disseminated and absorbed. Multimedia is viewed and critiqued by audiences beyond the walls of a single school.

Such a community isn't that far fetched. In fact,
many do exist on the Internet today, thanks to the powerful digital technologies of the information age. Educators are also creating their own customized personalized learning networks using a variety of tools. To the detriment of their students, millions of educators worldwide are missing out because they don't embrace new media, haven't realized its potential, or are simply denied access to the Internet's riches for various reasons. How can we help teachers foster breakthrough learning? How do we guide teachers through a process that empowers them to take ownership of their own professional development and deepen their impact on their classrooms? Encouraging teachers to develop their own personal learning networks can be one part of the solution.

I can pinpoint two pivotal experiences that mark the start of my own personal learning network journey. The first came in 2005 when a fellow
Apple Distinguished Educator introduced a term completely foreign to me: RSS or Real Simple Syndication. Because of RSS, I started following news sources and weblogs of experts, even venturing into blogging myself as a method of recording my professional ideas and resources. Information efficiently arrived in my newsreader; no longer did I have to chase it down by visiting individual sites.

A second defining moment happened a year later while on vacation. I was sitting in a Paris hotel room, uploading photos from my laptop computer to Flickr, a photo sharing site. I unexpectedly received an instant message from Portland, Oregon principal Tim Lauer. I had met Tim two years prior at a workshop he led at the National Educational Computing Conference . Tim indicated in his IM that he had noticed that I was in Paris as he saw my very recently uploaded photos on Flickr. In fact, he had just visited Paris himself and had wanted to visit a historic paint store, but had missed the opportunity. He sent me a link to an NPR piece on the Sennelier shop, and asked me to find it and take pictures if I had the chance. Fortuitously, the shop was only two blocks away from my hotel. I trotted over took a few pictures and emailed them to Tim. Thus, began our collegial friendship which continues on. Not only did I glean a bit about the rich history of this paint shop that day, but perhaps more importantly, I realized that communication, resource sharing and collegiality could extend way beyond my classroom walls in Chicago. I was no longer limited by traditional means.

Since then, I've continued to explore both informal and formal networked professional development opportunities. I've always been curious about getting ideas from those with different experiences and perspectives. My arsenal of learning tools has grown to include Web 2.0 applications such as Delicious and Diigo for sharing bookmarks, Google Docs for sharing and storing documents online, and Twitter for connecting to people from many education related fields.

Social networks also have supported my professional development. Facebook keeps me current with the work of organizations such as Edutopia, PBS Teachers, and Curriki . I often refer to Classroom 2.0, a web site developed using the Ning platform, when looking for concrete examples of technology infused projects, and for when I have questions related to educational technology. Inspired by the success of this site, I even created my own Ning on the topic of global education, bringing together educators interested in global projects.

Online meeting spaces are currently intriguing me. One network that has proven to be invaluable is EdTechTalk, a collaborative web casting community. Educators volunteer to host weekly live online interviews with a wide variety of guests. Listeners participate via a back channel chat room, asking questions, suggesting resources, and sharing experiences. All sessions are recorded and archived in a podcast format for those unable to attend. I am also interested in the delivery of online professional development and have recently started using a meeting tool called Elluminate while participating in webinars run by Steve Hargadon and sponsored by several entities at the Future of Education.

Note that none of the tools I've mentioned thus far costs me a cent. More importantly, I can engage with tools and content when my schedule allows. I choose to develop professionally using the tools that matter to me because I believe that educators must continue to evolve and refine their work. I must practice what I preach.

To demonstrate the power of a personal learning network, I recently used Twitter to post a link to a survey for my online colleagues on the potential of digital technologies to transform teaching and learning. If you're not quite convinced on these potential transformational effects, take a look at the stories submitted from over 60 educators around the world. Change is indeed happening; we just need to get more educators on board. Our next step in this area should be to contemplate how to effectively help educators to customize their own professional development on a large scale.

Here is the
survey I created using a form in Google Docs and here are the results. (Also, check out this word cloud based on survey responses.) One comment in particular sums this up for me. In an excerpt of a survey comment, Keith Hamon of Macon, Georgia writes:

"Technology has enabled global networks which have put me at the center of my learning. This is one of the neat tricks of the shift from hierarchical structures to network structures. As a student in an old-school hierarchy, I was at the bottom of the food chain with all the other students, with teachers a bit higher up, and then department chairs, deans, and so on...but in a personal learning network, I am at the center...This gives me great power to pursue the learning that is important to me, to create my own educational program. I am my own universe - ity. But here's the real magic: so is everyone else. In a network, we are all in the center, all empowered to work the network—adding value and taking value—to meet our goals."

Now, if we can do this for ourselves, imagine how we can do this for our students.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Write a Story On a Phone? Are you Kidding?

By Ben Bederson

Associate Professor, Computer Science Dept. & Human-Computer Interaction Lab
Co-director, International Children’s Digital Library
University of Maryland

Creativity continues to be an essential skill in the emerging creative economy. Since scientific and technological creativity are tightly intertwined with cultural and artistic creativity, developing tools for creative expression can help all members of society. Thus, ensuring open access to creativity-enabling technology is crucial for supporting social equality in the creative economy. With the global proliferation of mobile devices regularly breaking boundaries, we (the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at UMD) are especially interested in considering what mobile creative authoring tools might look like.

Numerous applications on the desktop to support creative expression. But going mobile is a different beast. It is both harder and easier. Harder because you have to figure out how to make it possible for children to learn and use a rich set of features on a small device. Easier because there is the potential to integrate the phone’s essential mobility – adding easy support for taking pictures, recording sounds, drawing pictures and of course, writing text. And there is the potential of supporting all of this within the context of ideas encountered in daily life.

Unfortunately, existing mobile applications lack the kind of content manipulation flexibility found on the desktop. So is it possible to build a tool to support children’s creative expression on a phone? And is it even a good idea? Perhaps we should be aiming for more expressive “canvases”, not more constrained ones. Smaller, more constrained tools might simply encourage a more limited style of expression, and teach that simplistic creations are a sufficient goal.

But history shows that adding more modes of expression very rarely eliminates the old ones. Instead, there are just more. TV didn’t eliminate Radio. Audio books didn’t eliminate paper books. And the Internet didn’t eliminate writing.

Instead, aiming to support children’s creativity with the tools they are already using is an established way to get their attention. Let’s make all the tools we can. Get kids excited in every modality. And be sure to teach that there is a range of valid expression – both large and rich as well as small and simple.

A year ago, we built an iPhone reader for our International Children’s Digital Library. And as a second effort at supporting this vision, we just created a (free) iPhone app to support children’s storytelling. Search for “StoryKit” in the iPhone app store, give it a try, and decide for yourself if kids should be writing stories on phones.

We also need to think about not only the “what” but also the “how” and “where”. Which technologies do we target, and where will these be used? There is some room for this kind of tool in the classroom, but I think that their biggest usage will be in informal settings. Sure, most nine year olds don’t have iPhones (yet). But many of them stand on line, sit in the car, or wait at a doctor’s office with their parent who does have one. Parents are already handing out their devices to kill time, so their kids can watch videos and play games. So, let’s increase the set of offerings. Just as parents can choose to stock good food in their house, they can choose to stock good apps on their phone. The next time their kid picks up their phone, there can be a range of fun, social, and educational activities for them to do. So, how can we get there?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Taking Down the Digital Divide in Schools

By John Merrow

Education Correspondent, NewsHour with Jim Lehrer

I vividly remember a physician friend of mine, Dr. Karen Hein, saying that, for AIDS, asthma and other health problems, geography was destiny. She meant that poverty and the problems associated with it were key determinants of health. Poor people got the short end of the stick: less access to preventive care, more diseases, and fewer resources to help them recover.

Now a new report sponsored by the Knight Foundation suggests that geography is also destiny for our democracy. The just-released report, “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age,” suggests that we now have what it calls ‘second class information citizenship.’

Many of us suffer from information overload, but some communities—geography again–have a very different problem: not enough information and insufficient skills to separate the wheat from the chaff.

In an era when many of us are embracing Twitter, Facebook and other ‘virtual communities,’ we may think that walls are breaking down everywhere, but this report tells us that real (geographic) communities matter more than virtual ones. Technology itself is inherently democratic—a computer doesn’t know (or care) whether you are rich or poor; able-bodied or not; black, white or brown—but access to technology is a different kettle of fish. Who has access to technology is crucial—and access often comes down to geography.

[READ the full post here]