Informal learning leaps the walls of the classroom and shows up in libraries, parks, museums—wherever we are. With the recognition that Learning is Everywhere, the future of learning is finding safe spaces at the margins and in between the lines.
The flip side of storming the walls of the academy is opening up to the learning that goes on everywhere else. Increasingly, cities are being recognized as places where innovation happens at an intensified pace in an organic, distributed fashion. Cities themselves can be the most amazing teachers, giving new meaning to the words “street smarts.” There’s a hum of conversation going on amongst people from libraries, museums, hackerspaces, computer labs, bookmobiles, afterschool programs, community gardens, and other spaces for informal learning, who, thanks to the Internet, are increasingly seeing themselves as part of a global community.
“A lot of people perceive museums and libraries as “sacred spaces” where you get a crafted experience,” says Jess Klein of the New Youth City Learning Network, a community of such institutions in New York City convened and sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation, and now operated by Mozilla as part of the Hive Network. “More and more museums, libraries, and community organizations are trying to let people self-curate and self-educate. It’s about taking your learning into your own hands.”
Free from worries about tests and grades, supported by peers, following curiosity and passion, young people can hack, explore, and drive their own learning in such settings.
The outstanding questions: how to share best practices across networks that are nascent and informal, how to surface and make visible the value of this kind of learning, and how to set even more learning free.
Fred Mednick, the founder of Teachers without Borders, a nonprofit “global community of teachers who are working to enhance education and human welfare,” in 180 countries, was a visiting scholar at the Festival. He wrote afterwards:
I particularly loved the gathering of those interested in the future of the library and the ease with which the facilitators helped us tell and gather stories of libraries in several countries: libraries as book-mobiles on donkeys, libraries as community centers, libraries as information hubs. My jet lag downright evaporated when we collaborated on new designs that validated the need for accessibility, availability, affordability, and adaptability. It was electric, rather than electronic.
Question: What do you think of when you hear the world “library”?
Some cite the traditional role of libraries as “book warehouses,” where the librarian is responsible for checking out books and cataloguing the books. They’re now thought of as more of a knowledge center—a space where people from community can come and learn, create, and use resources. There were examples cited from around the world that the definition of libraries is changing.
Chicago: Goodreads API for teenagers to share what they’re reading, swap copies, or list books they don’t want anymore for their friends to pick up. “The library is not only related to books, it’s more about connection.”
Chile: Connecting family members during an earthquake—geographically long and narrow country, with a lot of cultural differences and many disconnected people. During earthquake, libraries were central part of community, where individuals were interested in reaching out and being a part of their community.
Rio: Building a library in the middle of the seven most violent favelas in Rio. Tiny, dingy houses between the sewage and DMV, no one goes there. What people do in poor communities is get wagons to collect books, bring it out in the street and kids and families will come out and read the books. Issues with language because it’s the only Portuguese country in Latin America. Kids can’t read English; only an informal use of English.
Berlin, Georgia: A library bus comes by every Tuesday.
Colombia: A library got a ARS Technica award for giving workshops to teach kids about blogging, online games, etc. It now has community of bloggers who are telling story about experiences in Medellin .A blog called Sector X allows people to publish their own stories, do workshops on graffitti, fashion shows, and things people are interested in.
826 Valencia, 826 National: Features a pirate store in San Francisco and a super-hero supply store in Brooklyn, NYC.
In the aftermath of “Learning, Freedom and the Web,” a team formed around a new project dubbed Hackasaurus.
“It started at the Festival with Atul (Mozilla’s Atul Varma), Jack (The New York Public Library’s Jack Martin) and Taylor (YouMedia’s Taylor Bayless) and from there the conversation grew more and more,” explains Jess Klein.
“Basically the idea is that the web isn’t just static—that it’s really a canvas that can be remixed and reviewed and reconstructed and re-envisioned. Not everybody really understands that, particularly kids. They see the web as something they search and where they’re actively being advertised to.”
Who: YouMedia (Taylor Bayless), New Youth City Learning Network (Jess Klein), Mozilla (Atul Varma), New York Public Library (Jack Martin), Mozilla (Ben Moskowitz), Indiana University (Rafi Santo), New York Public Library (Chris Shoemaker).
What: Digital literacy through tinkering and messing around with the online spaces kids already hang out in. “X-ray Goggles software,” local workshops, and an online community for kids will allow youth to play with the web and HTML like Lego.
Why: Create a generation of webmakers. Make it easy for millions of youth to learn about, explore, and redesign the web. Help digital natives see the web as something they actively make and shape (like Lego or magic ink). Instead of something they just passively consume (like TV).
Hold a Hack Jam for Teens
Getting young people excited about opening up the web and messing around inside builds valuable skills. Plus it’s the best way to ensure that the web stays open– and it’s fun!
Who: Many facilitators, many youth.
Time: 1 afternoon minimum, 2 day maximum.
Materials: Venue, computers with Internet access, yummy snacks, permission slips.
1. Decide the topic of the jam: HTML re-mixing, game design, music production, video.
2. Invite youth and facilitators who have experience in the field and/or with kids and work with them in advance to develop a game plan or curriculum for the day of the jam.
3. The goal of every jam is to make something. Set expectations for outcomes: user testing and project development (for example, of Hackasaurus), or building new projects (like an Arduino robot).
4. Let teens work together in teams, and throughout the jam encourage them to take on specific roles on their project (i.e., visual designer, coder, project manager, documentarian).
5. Have the youth present what they did, encouraging conversation about process and techniques!
Jack Martin is a radical librarian. He’s been working in the library since his mom made him volunteer there at age 13. Today, he’s assistant director for public programs and lifelong learning at The New York Public Library. He also teaches future librarians at Pratt about 21st century learning and social media, and he’s focused on the kind of learning that goes on outside of school.
How did you get involved with the Mozilla universe?
I first got involved through the New York Public Library’s relationship with the New Youth City Learning Network, sponsored by MacArthur Foundation. The idea is to pull together cultural and educational institutions and organizations around the city to provide kids with a seamless learning experience, to create learning pathways.
The MacArthur Foundation sent me to Chicago to meet with Mark Surman, and we had a really exciting day of brainstorming to find out what kind of open source cool tool Mozilla could create that could be used in libraries and new media centers across the country to support kids hanging out, messing round, and geeking out online. [This became Hackasaurus, above]. And the Festival is the second phase of that.
So what do libraries have to do with the future of learning?
Public libraries have always been a place where kids can discover themselves—artistically, educationally, technologically, and inspirationally. So I think we’re a natural fit for this new 21st century learning. We just have to figure out where we can learn from analog and take it to the online environment.
Learning has changed in the 21st century and social media plays a really big role, and I’m very interested in finding out everything from baby steps to big picture ideas on how libraries and other public organizations can support that, whether on the local hacker level, or a widespread system that spreads across a whole infrastructure.
Can you give some examples from your experience with the New Youth City Learning Network?
Sure. We’ve recently finished a 10-week project with an organization called . They explored social and global issues using social media. They made online comics about social issues, interactive Google maps, and even built some serious video games.
Traditional public libraries’ primary focus has been on crafting and games and things that are book-related. I think there’s been a fear in some libraries that these intense levels of learning after school might be off-putting for kids, but by blending the technology and gaming and social media, we’re discovering that kids are interested in engaging with serious content.
How old were the kids?
8th grade and up.
Cool! So lots of times informal learning doesn’t get the same respect or centrality as the kind of learning that goes on in school. How can that be changed? How can we make this kind of learning more visible?
Kids are already learning after school—there are studies out there that show they’re online, finding interests from peer circles and becoming experts and reaching mentors. So all that we really need to do is for libraries and schools and other like-minded agencies to realize how they can be a part of that learning, which is already happening.
“Local learning” was a unique track at “Learning, Freedom and the Web.” It was the strongest attempt (if not completely successful) to connect the Festival with its setting in the heart of historic Barcelona, skateboarders zooming by in the graffittied square between the MACBA (Contemporary Art Museum) and the FAD (Art and Design Foundation). It was the one place where actual young people interacted with the festival programming, field-testing a lot of the theories that were floating around about the best way to engage people in learning that is alive, awake, and aware of its surroundings.
It is particularly interesting to note that a century ago, right here in Barcelona, the “Escuela Moderna” (Modern School) was founded by free-thinker Francesc Ferrer i Guàrdia. The school’s stated goal was to “educate the working class in a rational, secular and non-coercive setting” and is, at the present, a main milestone in the critical pedagogy ideas and in the history of education.
Several local organizations collaborated to bring local learning to the festival and to follow up, most notably with the “OpenRaval” project, to leverage the Raval—a diverse, historic, artistic and sometimes notorious district—as a kind of open classroom.
“The local learning incubator focuses on the possibilities that the urban environment can bring to learning. We all have similar interests in youth or citizens learning and teaching each other, and working around smaller devices when they are not in the classroom,” says Enric Senabre Hidalgo, the coordinator of projects at CitiLab-Cornellà (http://citilab.eu), a “citizens’ lab” or “experimental center for active diffusion of technological culture” in Barcelona. Activities include Arduino, Scratch animation, music editing, Legos, video, and more. He helped coordinate the local learning incubator at the Festival. Youth participants came from TEB, a center that encourages young people to develop digital skills that play to their passions.
The New Youth City Learning Network is a group of museums, libraries, and afterschool programs working together to create learning opportunities for middle and high school-aged kids in New York City around a set of integrated projects and programs that focus primarily on design, citizen science, civic engagement, urban ecology, and sustainability. It’s based on the notion that kids are motivated by their own interests and encouraged by their peer groups to try new things and explore the world around them. We’re sort of taking that literally by developing opportunities for 'structured autonomy’ by using the city as the context for learning—city streets as game board, for example.
I am personally a big believer in the idea: If we can understand, expand, and control the means to author and create, we can do just about anything. The web is really just a playground for exploration and learning, if you look at it this way. Even cooler since the web is a network, once you learn one small part of it you’re always going to be connected to many more parts as well. The connections are endless!
“I’m particularly interested in using the web in physical contexts to add a layer of meaning to the world around us. So we also need open tools for mobile web to really bring the notion of an OPEN Internet of Things to its fullest potential.”
Like the Open Web, we consider the city to be a sparking point for acquiring significant knowledge, but also a platform for gathering and sharing what has been learned or is understood. The urban environment is a playground for discovering places and people, often aided by the use of digital tools, but also for teaching in a distributed way using public spaces as platforms or stages.
The intersection between being a digital citizen and an urban learner provides a wide path for exploring, thinking, and showing one’s views about sustainability, conflict, context, aesthetics, and feelings. Via the screens of mobile devices or computers, in particular, urban streets can be discovered by learners in an entirely new way: as being full of data that is waiting for meaning.
The vision of the OpenRaval Classroom was a free, autonomous learning zone for sharing, testing, and showing how digital and open web resources—already much a part of youth culture—can be powerful tools for reshaping society and creating knowledge. As an experimental space, it had its first instantiation on November 6, 2010, in the heart of Barcelona’s Raval neighborhood.”
1. To turn the Raval area into a distributed, digital learning lab that facilitates the remixing of local projects and people from different initiatives and institutions and produces new synergies, new plans and new processes.
2. To give local young people ideas, tools and freedom to act on their learning interests, decide on their own terms about what they want to learn, and interact with others about their lives and environment.
Aquest matí, encara que amb una cara d’adormits impresionant…, ens hem trobat un grup de 18 joves del TEB amb moltes ganes d’anar a participar als tallers que organitzàven al FAD. A l’arribar, ens hem separat en 3 grups:
• Un grup, està fent un aparatet que fa música!!
• Un altre, està fent un videoclip amb un croma (la tela verda aquesta que amb una màgia que no sabem, fa aparèixer darrera teu un escenari com una platja o el que es vulgui).
• El tercer grup, ha marxat a fer unes proves d’una gimkana digital.
This morning, though with sleepy faces ... we amazingly encountered a group of 18 youth from TEB eager to go participate in workshops organized at the FAD. Upon arrival, we separated into 3 groups:
• One group is making a machine that makes music!
• Another is making a video with a chroma (greenscreen--with a magic we don’t understand, behind you can appear a beach scene or whatever you want).
• The third group has come to do some testing of a digital gimkana.
Have a digital gymkhana
The name comes from a kind of autocross sport; this is more of a scavenger hunt that crosses back and forth between real-world and digital-world. See new things in your everyday urban environment that you had overlooked or never knew about!
Time: 4 hours.
Who: Many + 1 facilitator.
Materials: Cameras for each group; computer with Internet access.
1. Write 2 or 3 questions for each group of 3 or 4 people. The questions will send you to a particular place in the surrounding neighborhood: a street corner, historical plaque, sculpture, park bench, etc. The clues may be easy (visual details) or hard (historical events).
2. Each group must go out and find the object described in the question and take a photograph of it.
3. The groups return to base and upload their photographs to Wikipedia Commons.
4. Groups post comments on each others’ photographs, to see if they can find out more about each place and its history.
Check-out Roadtrip Nation
An attorney by trade, Carolina Botero got into the world of openness from the legal side of things. She’s the leader of Creative Commons in Colombia, works for a family foundation spreading technology in education, and is a recognized figure speaking for the adoption of open education all around the world.
So how did you get interested in learning, freedom, and the web?
For the past 20 years, my father and his friends have been working in educational software. As the Internet started to appear, institutions in the public sector needed help to find the right applications for our context. Many institutions have old computers, there’s not much connectivity. So we help them, saying, what do you have and how can you do that better?
What are the special issues facing the production and adoption of open educational content in countries like Colombia?
If you go looking for OER (open educational resources), you’ll find it from Europe and the U.S. One of the main axes of the OER movement is to produce content for others to reuse, and it assumes that the third world needs to take the content from the first world. But the truth is that in the third world we are producing a lot of content! It just doesn’t go out easily.
That’s the moment we are in right now. Teachers are starting to realize the problems and find out really how they can reuse content better on the Internet. This also faces many other problems—legal and language issues, for instance. Whether it’s Wikipedia or anything else you find on the Internet, English is mostly it.
Are you finding that people in Latin America are excited about open education?
The educational sector is very strong on the use of open licenses in Latin America, and most educators are really into the open idea. People basically feel connected to the idea of openness and sharing, but they don’t necessarily have the whole understanding of what openness means. That takes a little more time.
So tell me about some of the projects you’re working on now.
Many of the content in Spanish was made 10 years ago for diskettes or CD-ROMs, and the open content you’re finding now doesn’t run on the old computers. Teachers need to become very good on technical issues to be able to use it. We’d like to start a community where teachers and technical people can join to bring obsolete content to life.
Another project involving Creative Commons?
It’s tricky to understand how to use open content. So we put together a card game for teachers to understand compatibility of the licenses. I even went to Vietnam to the OCWC meeting this year, and played it with teachers from different parts of the world. We are also doing a DIY kit, so anybody can print out the cards and have the instructions to play.
Carolina, what led you into this field of freedom, learning and the web?
Precisely the philosophy I was talking about, the idea of sharing. I’ve never been the typical lawyer. I like to work with others—not just other lawyers but across disciplines, artists and teachers and journalists and everybody. We all know something, we can all put in something that makes an idea bigger. And sharing is a very positive world.
And what do you think learning is going to be like in the future?
I think that the learning process is changing. We used to go to school and learn what we needed. Boundaries are being erased by new technology, and that means that the school has to change, too. It cannot remain the way it has. Probably we have given too much importance to formal education up to now, and new technologies are bringing new opportunities for informal education and our own interest to have a part in the learning process.
Do you have an example?
I was attending a conference in Bogota and someone was talking about this project, SEBAL, in Uruguay. In the small towns in Uruguay, a few years ago a school on Sundays would be empty. People would be playing soccer or in church.
Now, it’s full on Sundays because it’s the place where the Wi-Fi is open. The kids go there with parents and grandparents to check on the Internet. And the school is alive on Sundays, even if there’s no formal education. Now the teacher is the student, because he is the one who knows how to work with the Internet. That’s what open ed is for me: I don’t need to wait for you who is the expert to teach me. I can try to do the effort to learn by myself.