For Urban Kids, the City is a Campus for Learning

How four cities are using their home turf to connect more kids with learning opportunities and to document what they learn with digital badges.

[dropcap]O[/dropcap]n a recent Saturday in July, kids and their parents visited Dallas’ Love Field Airport to learn about aviation. The kids took tours of the airport, learned how security and baggage claim worked, met the fire crews and bomb squads, and played around with ticketing.

“These were kids who’d never been to an airport in their lives,” said Ed Meier, chief operating officer of the education nonprofit Big Thought. “We were introducing them to aviation.”

The month before, kids and their parents took over the new Continental Avenue Pedestrian Bridge—spanning West Dallas to downtown—to learn about art and science and hop on a bus converted into a multimedia studio on wheels.

These “turn-up” events were Big Thought’s way of introducing Dallas kids and their parents to Dallas City of Learning, a new initiative that’s part of the Cities of Learning movement from the John D. and Catherine MacArthur Foundation, the Digital Youth Network, and Badge Alliance. The initiative helps kids connect with the learning opportunities happening in their cities and earn digital badges for their efforts.

Cities of Learning started in Chicago last summer, when the mayor’s office contacted the MacArthur Foundation about ways to connect digital badging to existing summer programming. The MacArthur foundation went to the Mozilla Foundation, which had built the technical infrastructure for digital badging. Then Chicago’s Digital Youth Network created the blueprint to make the idea actually work.

Multimedia Bus, Dallas/ Photo: Graham White

“How do we make visible all the learning opportunities happening in a city 24-7 that kids are already doing?” Nichole Pinkard, founder of the Digital Youth Network, asked. “How do we recognize what kids are learning with badges? And how then do we help kids and their parents link to other learning opportunities they might not know about?”

When Chicago debuted Summers of Learning last year, 20,000 kids participated and 100,000 badges were awarded. (Summer of Learning has since changed its name to Cities of Learning). Then, Pinkard said, “it took on a life of its own.” Cities around the country started calling the Chicago mayor’s office to ask how they could do it. Fast forward to summer 2014, and Cities of Learning is happening in Los Angeles, Dallas, and Pittsburgh, with Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio, joining in the fall.

Khalif Ali is the program manager of the Badges for Learning project at the Sprout Fund in Pittsburgh. “What struck me about Cities of Learning,” Ali said, “is that all of these places are interested in creating cities as campuses, where learning can take place anytime anywhere.”

[one_third][blockquote]How do we make visible all the learning opportunities happening in a city 24-7? [/blockquote][/one_third][two_third_last]The idea of connected learning—which seeks to marry kids’ own interests with real-world learning opportunities both in and out of school—has been around for a while, but people like Ali are excited that Cities of Learning takes connected learning to the next level. The Digital Youth Network created a customizable website where cities can list all of its learning opportunities, whether through community centers, museums, or city park departments. Kids and parents can search by ZIP code or by interest, and the site makes recommendations. Google Maps pop up to show where programs are located, and boxes announce related programs. And all of it is tied to digital badges.[/two_third_last]

“It’s not so much about creating something new as recognizing the opportunities that already exist and making visible what kids are doing with badging,” Pinkard said.

Take Pittsburgh, for example. Plug “robotics” and “making” into the search box, and you’re led to Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s “Magic of Electronics” workshop, TechShop’s “21st Century Printmaking,” and Holy Family Academy’s “Build Your Own Desk Project.” On the Dallas site, “robotics” leads you to the Dallas Public Library’s junior robotics camps and “Basic Robotics: LEGO Mindstorms.”

And it’s not just that kids participate in the summer programs; it’s that they’re given badges to acknowledge what they’ve done. The idea is that the badge, thanks to the digital infrastructure, follows kids for life.

“It’s an online symbol that you have acquired a particular competency,” Ali explained. “And the metadata in the badges is verifiable because there might a be a link to a YouTube video of a you building a desk or facilitating a meeting. It’s a permanent record of what you’ve achieved.”

Young Naturalists

Young naturalist in Pittsburgh’s parks. Photo: Ben Filio

In other words, Ali said, the badges become “currency.”

This summer, Ali expects approximately 3,000 kids will participate in Pittsburgh.

Luis Mora is an administrative coordinator for the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Beyond the Bell, which runs after-school and summer programming. He was struck by the way Cities of Learning provides the back-end infrastructure but allows each city to make its own priorities. In Los Angeles, workforce development is important so the program offers badges that reward financial literacy, learning how to fill out job applications, creating résumés, and developing interviewing skills.

Mora was also intrigued by the online challenges Digital Youth Network created, which all cities can access. There’s “Lil’ Musician,” where kids use everyday objects to make musical instruments, an “App Inventor,” “Introduction to Animation,” and “Digital Video Apprentice.” College students back in Chicago from the Digital Youth Network assess the challenges.

For those piloting Cities of Learning, the big questions are how to reach low-income families that may not have easy access to the internet and whether high school teachers, universities, and employers will take badges seriously.

The question for Mora is one of traction.

“What actually happens with the badges?” he asked. “How portable will they really be? Will employers or universities really want this type of certification?”

As for the equity piece, Mora is creating drop-in centers at eight schools in low-income areas.

Students visiting Love Field in Dallas.

Students visiting Love Field in Dallas. Photo: Graham White

For Ed Meier of Big Thought in Dallas, the creation of “turn-up” events such as the one at Love Field are an attempt to introduce people to Dallas City of Learning and drive them to the website. “That’s what we’re struggling with now,” Meier said.

“How do we keep the kids engaged? How do we find more access points for them to get on computers, which they might not have at home?”

Next up for Meier is finding a way to bring Dallas City of Learning to kids’ mobile devices, because, according to the Pew Research Internet Project, 78 percent of teens have cell phones.

For Pinkard, the success of the program will depend on its ability to reach underprivileged kids.

“The fear I have is we provide this great system that ends up empowering parents who are already active to snap up the best opportunities for their kids,” Pinkard said. “We don’t want to create more barriers for the kids who need this the most. That’s how we’ll hold ourselves accountable—how do we nimbly move the program so it’s not just accessible but desirable to a wide range of kids?”

In the meantime, Pinkard said 25 cities from all over the world have been in touch and want to get involved.

For Ali in Pittsburgh, the goal is to have badging opportunities year-round. He’s looking to a day when school counselors scroll through a student’s badges and help students pursue their interests in a more personalized way.

“That’s the kind of connected learning we’re talking about,” he said.


 Heather Chaplin contributed to this story.

Published July 21, 2014