The good news is that digital tools are letting kids hack their learning, communities, and world in all kinds of awesome new ways. The bad news is that these opportunities are not evenly distributed, and they may be accelerating inequalities between more and less affluent youth.
Expanding opportunity is a necessary but not sufficient condition for reducing inequality. This is the heart of the argument I made in my Ignite talk at the Digital Media and Learning conference in Chicago this past weekend.
To make the aforementioned good news better than just good news, to make it awesome news, we need to build the digital media and learning movement to be as inclusive as possible, perhaps even to be more than inclusive, to disproportionately benefit those learners who start life a step behind the privileged.
This is happening.
My favorite talk of the weekend was done by a fellow Igniter, Meryl Alper, who made an impassioned plea for Mixed-Ability Maker Spaces. This is a guaranteed multiple win. First, many people with disabilities need to hack their interface with the world, so including them in maker spaces will have distinctly great benefits for them (like the custom 3-d printed prosthetics that Alper describes). But then, when we design maker spaces for the margins we'll find that adaptations that support populations with various disabilities will end up serving all sorts of people.
Take, for example, squishy circuits, which was one of my favorite discoveries of the conference. These are recipes for "modeling dough" (such as PlayDoh) that include conductive and insulating recipes, which can be used to make circuits. Lots of people lack the dexterity to use soldering irons, like nearly everyone under the age of 8 and plenty of people with various kinds of disabilities. Maker spaces that are thinking creatively about how to incorporate these kinds of materials are opening possibilities for the disabled, the young, the elderly, as well as all kinds of people imagining crazy projects where dough might work better than wires.
Intentional inclusivity also means ensuring that interventions reach students from all different kinds of backgrounds. One of the most provocative talks of the weekend came from Karen Brennan, a new assistant professor at Harvard University and the architect of the ScratchEd community. Scratch is a visual programming language, where young people can program all kinds of things in a drag and drop editor.
Brennan described how part of her motivation for creating ScratchED emerged from the realization that many of the early adopters of Scratch were children whose parents were programmers and engineers. When Scratch was just distributed through a Web portal, the opportunities afforded by Scratch tended to benefit the already-advantaged. ScratchEd is an effort to engage and build community among educators, to try to reach more diverse audiences that can be found within school systems.
The interesting tension here is that what teachers and educators asked for was "training" on how to incorporate Scratch into the curriculum. And the whole philosophy of Scratch (emerging from Mitch Resnick's Lifelong Kindergarten Lab, itself a descendant of the ideas of Seymour Papert) doesn't align well with "training." Giving a 3-hour in-service with handouts and rubrics for grading Scratch projects fits uncomfortably with ethos of Scratch. So Karen has drawn insights from groups like EdCamp and tried to innovate with more open, flexible "Meetup"-style learning sessions, that mirror the kind of open, experiential learning environments that Scratch is designed for.
The most efficient way to scale Scratch usage in schools would be to create some kind of highly-structured, train-the-trainer model, with canned curriculum, scripted lesson plans and so forth. The part of me that wants Scratch-like experiences available to students from all backgrounds is interested in these kinds of ideas. But the Scratch-education promoted by those structured interventions might not be truly aligned to the Scratch ethos, so Brennan is navigating a pathway that's trying to scale community rather than scaling distribution. She's seeking models of expanding inclusivity through the school system, without adopting models that would overly compromise the pedagogical principles inherent in Scratch.
These tensions between maximizing awesomeness in creative learning environments and maximizing wide accessibility of those learning environments are real and daunting. But the awesome that is emerging from the Digital Media and Learning community is too great not to be available to everyone.
Special thanks to the organizers of the DML conference for putting on a great show, and thanks to the community for being warm, friendly, provocative, civically-minded, and caring about the welfare of young people.