Tag Archives: digital learning

What’s it take to go from ‘Rec Center’ to ‘Tech Center’?

As the National Week of Making comes to a close, there’s equal measure of excitement and motivation going around. Excitement for the potential of the maker movement to empower a new generation of creative and capable builders, inventors, and tinkerers ready to overcome today’s most pressing challenges and re-energize the economy. Motivation to determine exactly how such a diffuse and decentralized movement can achieve that lofty vision in a way that is accessible and equitable to all.

A few weeks ago, more than 50 educators and municipal leaders from more than a dozen cities across the country met in Washington, DC to take the first steps toward making hands-on, technology-enhanced learning opportunities not just something that a few children experience at occasional events, but something that cities and towns invest in and support as part of the public, municipal infrastructure.

The idea goes like this: many cities maintain community recreation centers in parks, public housing buildings, libraries, or other neighborhood-based sites and with the right mix of human capital and equipment, many of these recreation centers could be activated anew as makerspaces and tech labs—in other words, going from ‘Rec Center’ to ‘Tech Center.’

Andrew Coy

The meeting was convened by Andrew Coy, Senior Advisor for Making at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Andrew’s experience as the former Executive Director of Digital Harbor Foundation, a nonprofit that led a Rec2Tech conversion project in Baltimore, inspired him to explore opportunities to build a model for similar projects communities across the country, especially in under-resourced communities and communities of color.

Participating cities came from across the U.S., from Philadelphia in the East and St. Louis in the Midwest, to New Orleans in the South and Palo Alto in the West. The size of the cities ranged from major metropolitan centers like Chicago and Los Angeles to small towns like Ithaca, NY and Wenatchee, WA.

Pittsburgh’s Remake Learning Network was there, represented by staff from the Heinz Endowments, Pittsburgh City Parks, the Maker’s Place, the Remake Learning Council, and The Sprout Fund. The network is working to deepen the impact of local educators and youth workers to provide more young people with hands-on learning experiences that are engaging to their interests and relevant to their future success. The Rec2Tech model is one of several approaches network members are exploring to expand access and equity.

Models to Consider

Two guest speakers shared insights from their experience working to expand access to innovative learning opportunities in partnership with municipal and community spaces.

Shawn Grimes, Executive Director of Digital Harbor Foundation, recalled the history of risk taking, sweat equity, and practical problem solving that went in to the launch of their Rec2Tech conversion in Baltimore. First opened in 2013, Digital Harbor’s Tech Center emerged from a collaboration between Baltimore City Recreation & Parks, Baltimore City Public Schools, and Digital Harbor. Today, they serve 1,300 youth per year with an average engagement of some 40 hours through year-round progressive programs.

Dr. Nichole Pinkard

Dr. Nichole Pinkard, founder of Digital Youth Network, grounded the discussion in the critical issue of equitable access and the changing meaning of literacy in today’s world.

“If a society’s definition of what it means to be literate is tied to the technological innovations of the time,” said Dr. Pinkard, “Then today’s technologies have created a world where computational thinking and making are becoming essential literacies for all.”

To Dr. Pinkard, the Rec2Tech concept has the potential to answer both the equity question and the literacy question: it embeds technology and talent in the communities that children call home and it exposes them to new modes of thinking and the future rewards they can lead to.

Exploring Critical Issues

During the afternoon session, The Sprout Fund led a facilitated discussion about four critical issues related to municipal makerspaces:

  1. Establishing partnerships and collaborations that can support Rec2Tech conversions
  2. Creating high-quality youth programming that is engaging and relevant
  3. Building work readiness skills relevant to careers in high-demand sectors
  4. Identifying best practices regarding space design and technology

Key findings from this discussion will guide ongoing conversations among the emerging national community of practice about municipal makerspaces. You can read the Key Findings and contribute your own thoughts on Medium.

 A Rec2Tech Framework for Pittsburgh

In Pittsburgh, the Remake Learning Network is committed to expanding equitable access to powerful experiences related to making and digital learning.

As announced during the National Week of Making kick off last Friday, the City of Pittsburgh and The Sprout Fund, together with partners from the Remake Learning Network, are working to develop a community-informed plan for Rec2Tech along with site-specific curriculum and demonstration programming for kids at multiple recreation centers across the city. While these efforts are just getting underway, they signal what is possible when educators, youth-serving nonprofits, and municipal leaders come together to make deep investments in community assets for learning.

Teaching Digital Citizenship

The internet: It’s filled with video-based Algebra tutorials, games for language learners, and university-generated advice on how to succeed in college. But it can also be a very dark place, fraught with trolls, misinformation, and temptations to overshare.

The internet can be an especially risky place for kids and teens, who are prone to making impulsive decisions because of their age. “Adolescents are more oriented to the present, so they are less likely than adults to be thinking about the future consequences of what they’re saying,” Laurence Steinberg, psychology professor at Temple University, told the New York Times in an article on teens and the criminal justice system.

It doesn’t help that the internet allows people to do things instantaneously and often anonymously. Case in point: “Why Kids Sext,” an illuminating piece by the Atlantic’s Hanna Rosin. “Surveys on sexting have found pretty consistently that among kids in their upper teens, about a third have sexted,” she wrote. Sending a nude picture to a boyfriend might seem harmless in the moment, but that picture could easily end up somewhere far more public.

What happens on the internet tends to stick around for a while—and that’s a lot to handle for people who’ve spent fewer than two decades on Earth. The implications extend to everything—from finding credible information, to understanding digital copyright, to forging relationships with peers.

In late October, the national nonprofit Common Sense Media led the second annual Digital Citizenship Week to raise awareness about these thorny issues. The goal was to get students to pause, step away from their screens, and think critically about their engagement with the digital world. The week is part of Connected Educator Month, which encourages educators to make full use of online spaces.

As the stories above illustrate, though, digital citizenship is too complex and too important for only a week in the spotlight. Common Sense Media’s K−12 digital literacy and citizenship curriculum has downloadable lesson materials and resources for engaging families and caregivers. Jennifer Ehehalt, Pittsburgh regional manager for Common Sense Media, is working with Pittsburgh schools to make full use of these resources. One example for middle school students: “Scams and Schemes,” a lesson that addresses identity theft and ways to prevent it.

Along with the curriculum, Common Sense Media has a wealth of other resources on digital citizenship. Digital Passport, a suite of interactive and collaborative games, teaches third- through fifth-grade users the fundamentals of digital literacy. Digital Glossary translates internet slang, covering classics like “selfie” along with newer terms like “sub-tweeting” (the Twitter equivalent of talking about someone behind his or her back). There’s even an animated video—complete with rapping—on the dangers of oversharing.

The Common Sense Media blog reported that in Grand Island, Nebraska, elementary school classes came up with digital citizenship slogans and used them to decorate their doors and walls. If you believe ten-year-olds don’t need to consider that kind of stuff, think again: A 2011 self-report survey of nearly 21,000 Massachusetts students found that 39 percent of fifth-graders own cell phones. On the other side of the country, many Los Angeles Unified School District teachers pledged to teach five lessons on digital citizenship in the course of the week. The lessons covered subjects like privacy, password creation, and digital footprints.

In the Pittsburgh area, schools have begun addressing digital citizenship year-round with their own curricula. Earlier this year, Mars Area Middle School in Butler County launched a series of 21st-century digital citizenship courses. They zero-in on three main topics: safety, cyberbullying, and social networking.

“You get wrapped up in the conversation and, next thing you know, you say something you shouldn’t have,” Patrick Scott, one of the school’s computer teachers, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “It’s hard in email for the recipient to realize you are joking or sarcastic.”

Both teachers and caregivers can also show younger kids episodes of “Ruff Ruffman: Humble Media Genius,” PBS KIDS’ new animated broadband series on media and technology. The title character, a bespectacled dog, guides viewers through topics like web search and photo sharing in a relatable, entertaining way.

We’re not losing our digital citizenship anytime soon. That means we’ll continue to have unfathomable amounts of information at our fingertips. It also means we need to keep thinking about how to use that citizenship wisely.

Digital Corps Empowers Youth to Master the Digital Landscape

The Hilltop YMCA appears, from the outside, a regular office building, small and brown and clinging to the hills of Pittsburgh’s Knoxville neighborhood. Inside, however, the space booms with energy as children move between various programs held in the orange and green rooms atop the South Side Slopes. Since this YMCA site is a free meal distribution location, kids come in for lunch and snack, are intrigued by the flat screen televisions and gaming systems, and stick around for classes on cell-phone repair or robotics.

Tuesday afternoons, the older kids are learning programming and coding via the Remake Learning Digital Corps, a group of mobile digital learning mentors visiting out-of-school time (OST) learning sites throughout the city to bring digital literacy skills to tweens and teens.

The Corps, a program of The Sprout Fund, is one response to the reality that today’s youth spend up to 8 hours per day engaging in digital media, and a recognition of the important role programming, coding, and basic robotics play in education, the workforce, and life.


What is Digital Literacy?


Ani Martinez, Program Associate at The Sprout Fund / Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf

Ani Martinez / Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf

“Digital literacy” can encompass everything from word processing skills to online privacy to advanced lessons in coding. These skills are becoming increasingly essential for success in higher education and the workforce, and yet Remake Learning Digital Corps program manager Ani Martinez observes “there is a deficit of mentors or educators with digital literacy training, across the board from formal education to informal learning environments.”

The Internet abounds with pre-made curricula to teach and learn digital literacy skills. But, some of these teaching tools overload kids with options or else are very finicky–if someone misses a semicolon along the way, the entire program doesn’t work and users wind up frustrated. Martinez wanted the curriculum for the Digital Corps to provide a foundation in digital literacies so youth can then take their skills in whichever direction they chose. She says, “We want our classes to be studio classes, where students get an introduction to a skill and then immediately, in the same session, learn by doing,” so it became important to select course material that could quickly translate to hands-on project work.

In its first year, the Digital Corps offered a sampling of four digital tools:

Scratch is free, open-source programming software developed by the MIT Media Lab for 8-16 year olds to create and share interactive stories, animation, games, and more. This will help young people learn the basics of programming.

App Inventor is a free open-source software kit created by MIT Media Lab that enables learners to build apps for Android devices. App Inventor uses a framework of “building blocks” that can be assembled into apps and games that can be tested instantly on Android mobile devices or with a built in Android emulator.

Building from this, Thimble is a free Mozilla Webmaker application that allows learners to easily design their own web pages. So, youth will develop skills in html and CSS languages.

Hummingbird Robotics Kit

Hummingbird Robotics Kit

Finally, the Corps teaches Hummingbird, which is a no-experience-necessary robotics kit designed locally by folks with BirdBrain Technologies at CMU. Hummingbird provides the physical technology to let a computer interact in some way with the physical world. Users learn about circuits, light, and motion to create projects like kinetic sculpture or animatronics from craft supplies, and it’s compatible with many programs. Scratch is one of them! Which brings the workshops full circle.

In addition, the Digital Corps workshops emphasize troubleshooting and collaborative learning. Martinez says, “learning by doing is a great method to get students asking questions, learning to troubleshoot, and figuring things out together.” The workshops not only teach technical skills, but also foster 21st Century Skill-development, teaching kids how critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity are interconnected. Digital Corps students learn to ask questions (of each other and of instructors), use Google to find an answer, or delve into the network of Scratch projects created by others to find bugs in their own program. The Corps members also model collaboration by working in pairs or small teams to introduce the material.

Once mentors are accepted into the Digital Corps program, they enter a training program to help familiarize them with the digital tools, but more importantly allow the group at large to collaborate on best teaching practices so they can deliver more effective learning experiences and support positive youth development. The training sessions are hands-on, a model of the “learn by doing” style the Corps aims to present to the youth participants. Corps members are team-taught by people familiar with the tools–these leaders range from a teenaged Scratch expert to roboticist Tom Lauwers, who created the Hummingbird tool.

Meet the Digital Corps Members

Martinez recruited members from throughout the Greater Pittsburgh region. The members are paid for their time spent teaching with the Corps, and although their training is unpaid the program offers attractive professional development opportunities for folks interested in facilitating out-of-school learning opportunities. After receiving 85 applications from artists, librarians, technologies, formal educators, roboticists, and even teenagers, the program selected 50 people to receive training as Digital Corps members.

One member, Mike Elliot, works as a media engineer for an audiovisual company. With a master’s degree in audio education, he’s had a lot of experience writing tutorials and teaching these skills to learners of all ages. While he was familiar with programming and coding, he’d never taught these skills. When he saw the Digital Corps call for member applications, he felt drawn to the opportunity to hone his skills and work with young people.

Scratch training at Hilltop Computer Center / Photo: Norton Gusky

Classes at the Hilltop YMCA / Photo: Norton Gusky

Elliot now teaches Digital Corps workshops at the Hilltop Y, along with Greg Cala, an engineer with a software company focusing on industrial automation, and Marilyn Narey, who teaches at Duquesne University’s masters in education program.

The trio represents a blend of experience typical of the Digital Corps members placed in the various host sites. Cala and Elliot are experienced coders and programmers, while Narey has long been interested in educating educators, studying effective ways of learning in and outside of school.

Cala explains that the Digital Corps training sessions were so informative and the digital tools so useful that he has integrated Hummingbird into his work developing curriculum for industrial clients who come to him for instruction.

He says, “They’re going to be getting a better experience in class than they do currently with the standard curriculum. They’re not going to be building cardboard robots–these tools let our clients build automated control systems, measure pressures, analyze temperatures…they’ll be using this tool to affect overall manufacturing processes. This training has been amazing for me in my own work.”

Regular round-table sessions allow the Corps members to come together to discuss curriculum challenges, like how to plan workshops for the Hilltop Y, where one week might bring 30 students and the following has just a few teens show up.

Narey says, “We’re learning that the pre-built curriculum we studied is just a guide for us, that we have to figure out what the specific kids need at our host site.”

Corps members learn to work with both the young learners and the adults who facilitate the host site programming. Some hosts, like Hilltop Y director Nic Jaramillo, are well-versed in the tools the Digital Corps is presenting and can already help the teens throughout the week if they continue working on skills. Others are learning to use the digital tools for the first time.

Martinez says, “We want our Corps members to feel comfortable saying, ‘I don’t know, let’s figure it out together,’ both when they are learning and teaching.” Since problem-solving skills are a vital component of the program, Martinez encourages asking questions and collaborating with others (regardless of age or role) to find solutions.

Visiting Digital Corps Host Sites

The Digital Corps partnered with a group called Allegheny Partners for Out-of-School Time (APOST) to find potential sites to pilot the digital literacy workshops. Martinez sought sites that have forged lasting relationships with their community, had a certain level of infrastructure and equipment on site, and served an audience of tweens and teens.

Patrice Gerard / Photo: Ani Martinez

The Hilltop Y is one of 25 host sites throughout the city’s neighborhoods. Program Coordinator Patrice Gerard points out that the Knoxville community has limited parental involvement and neighborhood children have few options most summer days. Apart from some structured day camps or short-term programs, the kids had tended to loiter at Rite Aid.

As a technology center (no gym or basketball courts at this YMCA), the Hilltop site offers everything from Minecraft clubs to a program called RoboKids, focusing on Hummingbird. The Digital Corps workshops seemed a perfect complement to the site’s existing programming, where Jaramillo says their space also offers a lot of unstructured time for youth to use the equipment under supervision from a team of AmeriCorps volunteers.

At Jaramillo’s site, the Digital Corps workshops represent one sliver of a vast pie of tech-based course offerings. Gerard remarks that the local youth is already familiar with technology and “our core group of ‘students’ is beginning to expect technology programming to happen within our center, programs presented through a digital medium.”

Other host sites, like the Maker’s Place in Homewood, aim to teach youth to create tangible items. At these locations, the Digital Corps workshops offer makers the tools to develop, say, online stores to sell completed products, like the music the youth produce in the in-house recording studio, string art, or fashion products.

The host sites vary widely in their mission (they encompass community resources ranging from libraries to faith-based youth groups), the types of learners they attract, and even the regularity of their participants’ attendance. Thus, the Digital Corps members aim to tailor their workshop content to best meet the realities and needs of each site.

Damian, a 10-year-old who frequents the Hilltop Y, loves animation. “You can check out a bunch of my creations on YouTube,” he says. He’s spent the summer learning more about Hummingbird and jumps to enroll in classes to enhance those skills.

Working with Plants vs Zombies for Hour of Code

Damian starts his summer session with the Digital Corps working on an activity called “Hour of Code“–a game using Angry Birds characters to teach the basics of drag and drop programming. The activity is self-directed, so the Corps members can both gauge each student’s base knowledge and supervise multiple youth working at their own pace.

By having each student complete the Hour of Code, Corps members make sure even drop-in students are familiar with terminology and basic skills before moving on to more complex lessons. Damian is among the younger students the Corps has taught this spring–the initial vision for the program was to work with youth aged 12 to 18.

Like many kids visiting the Hilltop Y, Damian is responsible for his younger sibling, who is upstairs engaged in a card game with AmeriCorps volunteers. In between levels of coding, he pauses to go check on his sister. He comes back to the workshop just as the students are working as a group to write a code loop that will direct Elliot to walk from the sofa to the doorway. “If path ahead, move forward. Else, turn right,” shout the students as Damian enters the room. “Turn right!” Damian and his much-younger sibling could potentially become a bump in the path for the program.

Jaramillo says, “We’ve overlapped our staff with Corps members in an effort to carry on their programming throughout the week. Our staff are trained innovative facilitators, so we try to model adaptability for our youth.” He says he’s seen Elliot, Narey, and Cala adapt their teaching style to connect with the Hilltop youth as the program has progressed.

Understanding the Impact

As the name implies, the Remake Learning Digital Corps program would like to remake the process of learning digital literacy. Helping to do this is Tom Akiva, a professor of Psychology in Education at the University of Pittsburgh. He’s been conducting an empirical study of the Digital Corps for publication in the journal After School Matters.

Tom Akiva

Tom Akiva

Akiva is interested in what factors enable the corps members to deliver the information in the OST environments, as well as how the teens and tweens are experiencing the workshops.

For the pilot year, Akiva found some interesting, if a bit surprising, results. For one, members like Elliot and Cala are the minority among the corps. The majority of the Corps members identify as youth workers or educators instead of technologists. Martinez says the eagerness of these educators “to expand their expertise into digital learning points to the great need for this sort of programming in OST.”

Rather than struggle with how to deliver content to youth, the Corps members have instead wrestled with curriculum challenges, like how to handle drop-in students or the wide age range of participants at the Hilltop Y.

Akiva observes the round-table discussions attended by the Corps at large, where they debate and collaborate to find solutions to these challenges. He notes that the atmosphere during the sessions is friendly, saying “I’ve seen Ani [Martinez] create a comfortable and productive experience that carries over into the classroom and workshops the Corps members go on to teach,” he says.

In order to remake the learning process, the Corps discusses the ways lessons are being delivered in Digital Corps workshops. Akiva has noticed a tension between offering structured, how-to lessons about the digital tools versus presenting open-ended projects as a way for students to learn. The Digital Corps is designed to engage students in ways traditional school environments cannot, but at the same time wants to effectively deliver the information so the students can build their digital literacy.

A Digital Corps training session with Ani Martinez

Digital Corps training session / Photo: Ben Filio

“They are debating ideas education science has looked at for years,” says Akiva. “Will ‘discovery-based learning’ work in this context? The idea of the project is to remake learning, to shake up teaching. It’s interesting to watch them debating methods to provide small amounts of structure that support kids in their learning.”

As a new experience for all involved, these sessions help everyone strike a balance between program needs and member backgrounds as they get to know each other as a community of digital learners and educators.

As the program wraps up its first year of programming, Digital Corps members are eager to apply what’s come up in the roundtable discussions and surveys. “Our data can help to tell the story of what works well for the Digital Corps here in Pittsburgh,” says Akiva, “and hopefully we will learn things we can apply to both future sessions of this program and eventual implementations in other cities.”

Akiva has observed the youth participants very quickly engage in the material, eager to delve deeper. One day at the Carrick library, he saw a 13-year-old boy come late, catch up very quickly programming an LED traffic light, and progress to creating an automated robot of his own design: a giraffe whose eyes lit up and neck moved side to side. Far from loitering at Rite Aid, this student was enhancing his digital literacy while building his problem-solving skills as he worked out how to bring his imagined giraffe to fruition.

“It was so neat,” Akiva says, “to watch this middle-schooler get an opportunity to be creative, to be a kid in the context of this technology.”

Given a solid foundation in these digital tools, Digital Corps learners seem well equipped to impact the future of our city. Automated cardboard animals today can provide the foundation for untold innovation tomorrow.

Making Connections Between Creativity and Digital Literacy

“I’m going to need to find a lot of cheetah-print fabric for the sleeves,” says 10 year old Amya, as she reviews her sketch of an outfit she’s designing. She points out how she’s reusing old jeans to make the bodice and combining dark and light materials for the pants.

Every Friday after school, Amya attends the Maker’s Place, learning skills to produce items she could sell, even as a young student. The group has begun work producing a fashion show using reclaimed denim. The students will complete everything from clothing design to model choreography. As the session begins, instructor Jomari Peterson reminds the students that they’re learning to “take control of your own destiny and change the world.”

This week, Amya isn’t thinking about the world. She’s thinking simultaneously about ripping seams from a pair of wide-leg pants and how she can use Hummingbird to direct the models who will wear her designs in the Blues-themed fashion show.

The Maker’s Place is also a site for the Remake Learning Digital Corps, so the tweens and teens learn digital literacy skills ranging from coding to robotics. The previous week students learned about Hummingbird, a basic robotics program. Amya says, “I was using my mouse to move these bars on the screen, change the colors, and it was controlling lights. I thought right away about how we could use this in the show.”

Making at the Homewood Maker's PlaceAmya seems fascinated by the connections she sees between her new digital literacy skills and physical products she’s producing in the Maker’s Place. After learning HTML and working with Thimble, she was able to customize her online portfolio of work, changing up colors and adding background music to her website.

While she prefers to sketch her designs by hand, she’s been able to upload them to her portfolio for easy access. “Plus, it’s easier to use the computer to adjust sizing and modify patterns,” she says.

Each week, the Homewood-based students begin their out-of-school learning with an “Info-make” session—basically a boardroom discussion where each student briefs the group on what he or she has been doing and reviews material learned the previous week. The Digital Corps emphasizes collaborative learning, problem solving, and “learning-by-doing,” so the lessons pair beautifully with the projects these students produce in the Maker’s Place. When people seem reluctant to speak up, Jomari reminds them, “This is not a lecture hall. If we don’t talk, we can’t move forward.”

While the students eat pizza and bananas, they start to address concerns about their work. One asks, “how can we move forward if we don’t even have a date for the fashion show?” Others are clearly anxious to dive in to the bags of material scattered around the space, and a handful of new students are learning to navigate Pinterest for design inspiration.

Amya sits quietly to the side. The youngest student in this out of school learning site, she formed a bond with an older teen, Micah. The two have worked together through the coursework, reminding each other to “close the sandwich” when coding in HTML.

Even though Amya doesn’t currently see a future for herself in the field of computer science, she is reaping the benefits of her newfound literacy in the digital landscape. Finding the links between Digital Corps lessons and other hobbies helps her expand her creativity in both realms.

As her scissors move through the denim fabric, it’s hard to say where her mind might turn next.

How Technology is Moving Arts Education Beyond the Classroom

When you think about youth arts education, traditional images of high school art classrooms might come to mind: textbooks, sketchbooks, acrylic paints. But not in Pittsburgh. Artists and educators, like those from Pittsburgh Filmmakers, are using digital technologies to help reimagine arts education and make it more participatory.

“We’re using film to engage teens in critical thinking and to let them explore a more tangible form of science and art,” said Pittsburgh Filmmaker mentor Marie Mashyna. She and her colleagues work with organizers from the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts to teach youth how to hand-process Super 8 film and shoot their own movies, all within the walls of the Carnegie Library. They’ve been teaching filmmaking workshops for teens this summer through The Labs @ CLP, a digital space for teens at the library.

The classes rely on a number of digital tools, and emphasize the relationship between technology and art. “Learning about film helps them understand the current digital world more,” Mashyna said in a recent blog post about the project.

The Pittsburgh Filmmakers’ collaboration is just one example of how educators are working to make the arts a part of students’ everyday lives while incorporating technology into the process. At a time when arts education is often the most expendable aspect of a curriculum for schools facing financial crisis and budget cuts, more and more educators and policy makers are realizing its importance.

A new report by Indiana University researcher Kylie Peppler finds that despite cuts in arts education programs in schools, a strikingly different landscape exists among arts education programs that take place outside of school, where technology is effectively used to engage students’ artistic creativity. “What makes this landscape pos­sible is an eagerness to explore that springs from youths’ own creative passions—what we call ‘interest-driven arts learning’—combined with the power of digital technology,” Peppler wrote in the report.

Arts & Bots

Arts & Bots/ Carnegie Mellon University

The study took a look at the technology-based arts learning in small communities, using case studies and examples from across the country. Take participatory digital games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero, for example. Peppler cited a 2010 study that found extended play in such music-themed action games, which require players to press buttons in a sequence dictated along with a soundtrack, positively correlated with the assessment of youths’ traditional music abilities. “Stepping into the shoes of the onscreen musicians motivates youths to learn the real skills that will enable them to play independently,” Peppler wrote.

She asked one 11-year-old boy why he chose to sign up for violin lessons after playing Rock Band at an afterschool club and he responded, “I want to learn guitar, and if I can do this (mimics the playing of a violin), then I can do this (mimics the playing of a guitar).”

The report also said that new technologies have made it easier for youth to collaborate, share, and publish their work, providing more pathways for them to engage with the arts and their peers. While Facebook and Twitter are obvious examples, Peppler also cited Remix Learning, a customizable, cloud-based social learning network that can be implemented in schools and afterschool programs.

The platform, developed out of Chicago’s Digital Youth Network, allows users to post graphic designs, games, and videos, as well as exchange ideas and critique their peers’ work. Online mentors trained and paid for through the Digital Youth Network encourage young people to post their work. Mentors then model that behavior by posting their own creative endeavors and moderating online discussions and competitions. An incentive system awards youth for continuous and effective participation.

Peppler’s research ultimately advocated for the integration of this technology-based, interest-driven excitement into formal learning environments. “In the perfect landscape, we see better coordination between schools and non-traditional forms because there is so much untapped potential,” said Peppler in a recent Education Week blog post. “So many kids are exploring art on their own, and schools will hopefully find a way to support that learning.”

Peppler does not give specifics on how to integrate these interest-driven arts communities into schools.  But here in Pittsburgh, educators are figuring this out.

With support from the Allegheny Intermediate Unit [AIU], schools in the region are marrying arts with science, technology, engineering, and math (STEAM). New projects are cropping up at area schools like the library at Elizabeth Forward High School outside of Pittsburgh, where students perform and record original compositions. At the Crafton Elementary STEAM studio, students are encouraged to take charge of their own learning by doing everything from building K’NEX Ferris wheels and roller coasters to controlling robotic devices using computer software.

Pittsburgh Glass Center

Pittsburgh Glass Center

The region’s new Hive Learning Network aims to create a more seamless ecosystem of learning opportunities for kids, including opportunities to work on arts-based projects both in and outside school.

At Avonworth High School in Pittsburgh, students will work with professional artists at five local institutions: The Andy Warhol Museum, Carnegie Museum of Art, Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh Glass Center, and Toonseum of Pittsburgh. The students will team up to learn more about the art world and blog about the experience.

“Often, kids who are interested in the arts might not know what their career options are,” Avonworth studio art teacher Kerri Villani told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. “I want the students to learn how to be the curator, not just the artist. I want them to see what else they can do inside the museum.”

New Laws Are Needed to Help Cyber-Truants

For some students, online learning can be the key to educational success. With targeted plans that work at the student’s pace, one-on-one attention from instructors, and a safe haven from in-school bullying and disputes, some families are calling digital education a saving grace. Unfortunately, not all students who choose online schooling make the grade. Last year, a higher percentage of students dropped out of online schools than of brick and mortar institutions. Minnesota’s cyber schools are working to do something about it.

One of the reasons for increased truancy in online schools is the fact that student activity is more difficult to monitor. “It is very easy to become truant online,” Stacy Bender, dean of students at Minnesota Virtual High School recently told Education Week. “Unmotivated students can just stop logging in and then lie about it to their parents and within two weeks, they are truant.”

Local laws only worsen the problem, as they haven’t been updated to account for online attendance. Most states define a habitual truant as a student with a exorbitant amount of unexcused absences. Given the growth of online classes and other programs following non-traditional schedules, truancy laws may need to catch up with the times.

The answer to solving the online truancy problem could come from revising existing laws. Obviously, educators and officials can’t monitor learning from home in the same way that they monitor in-school learning. Assessing time spent with digital learning is doubly difficult as students learn at different paces, making a process based on simply tracking hours insufficient. Bender and other online educators in Minnesota are currently at work on a mathematical algorithm that, if put into use, could properly identify students who are in danger of dropping out. The next step is signing that algorithm into law so that cyber truants can be properly identified and helped. The process will take some time, but educators are hopeful that the results could mean higher graduation rates for cyber students everywhere.

In the meantime, the biggest determining factor will be parent and teacher involvement. Parents should be even more attentive of their children’s online work. Unless they’re actively involved in their child’s learning process, parents might believe everything is fine, when in reality their child is slowly slipping through the cracks.

We’d like to hear from cyber-schooling parents: How do you ensure your child stays on track?


12 Libraries and Museums to Receive Digital Learning Labs

The Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and the MacArthur Foundation recently announced the winners of a national competition that will create 12 digital learning centers for kids and teens. The winners include eight libraries and four museums. The cost of the program totals $1.2 million in grants. It’s a big investment and an even more exciting venture.

If you follow the Spark blog, you’re probably already familiar with YOUmedia — a digital media center for teens in the heart of Chicago. We profiled this center in the past and showed you the impact it has had on students in the area. YOUmedia and the work being done by cultural anthrologist Mimi Ito are changing the way researchers and educators look at the way children learn. The success of the YOUmedia center and President Obama’s Educate to Innovate campaign are the two driving forces behind this competition. The presidential campaign is aimed at placing American students at the forefront of science and math learning. YOUmedia has proven that one of the best ways to do this is to create a digital environment where students feel involved, in control, and inspired to create something new.

When the competition began, there were 98 applicants from 32 states. These candidates were whittled down to 12 winners. The locations for the 12 new learning labs include: San Francisco, CA; Thornton, CO; Columbia, MD; St. Paul, MN; Kansas City, MO; New York, NY; Columbus, OH; Portland, OR; Allentown, PA; Philadelphia, PA; Nashville, TN; Houston, TX.

Each location will receive funding to create a digital learning space for kids and teens. Overseeing the projects, the Urban Libraries Council (ULC) and the Association of Science-Technology Centers will ensure that centers use best practices to meld traditional and technological learning in a way that equips students with STEM skills and a positive learning environment.

Susan Hildreth, Director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, explained why the competition placed its focus on libraries and museums in an article on the MacArthur Foundation’s website.

“Libraries and museums are part of re-envisioning learning in the 21st century,” says Hildreth, “they are trusted community institutions where teens can follow their passions and imagine exciting futures.”

By immersing teens in digital technology, students are more likely to take an active role in learning. Robert Gallucci, President of the MacArthur Foundation, explained why digital learning and libraries and museums make the perfect combination for spurring innovation and involvement in teens:

“Digital media are profoundly influencing young people’s lives, their behavior, their civic participation, and where and how they learn. These innovative new teen labs are designed to provide young people with engaging and diverse opportunities for learning and exploration beyond the classroom. The nation’s libraries and museums play an important role in leveling the playing field by providing greater access to learning experiences that equip our young people with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in the 21st Century.”

With so many of our nation’s libraries and museums facing budget cut-backs and funding difficulties, it’s exciting to see a new program actively investing in the welfare of these essential institutions. The face of learning is changing, and we need more innovative ideas like this if we’re to recapture the attention of 21st century learners.

The addition of 12 digital media learning centers across the country is definitely a start. We can’t wait to see the the impact these centers will have not only on the students they serve, but on the way we understand and value learning as a whole.