Connected learning. Digital badges. Youth culture. Networked society. 21st-century skills. Welcome to the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub. Located at the systemwide University of California Humanities Research Institute and hosted at UC Irvine, the DML Hub promotes activities that share a common vision: to reimagine learning for the digital age.
A grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation launched the DML Hub in 2009 under the leadership of two eminent scholars, executive director David Theo Goldberg, Ph.D., and research director Mizuko (Mimi) Ito, Ph.D. With continued support from the MacArthur Foundation, the DML Hub has grown into a vibrant intellectual center that is both national and international in scope. The latest MacArthur grant, a gift of $4.5 million awarded June 2014, funded the DML Hub for another three years so that it can continue to oversee innovative research projects, an annual conference and professional development for junior scholars, as well as related websites, blogs, publications and initiatives.
Goldberg also oversees a series of annual international DML competitions, separately funded and run under the auspices of the UC Humanities Research Institute in affiliation with the DML Hub. The last competition focused on “Badges for Lifelong Learning,” and the current competition, “The Trust Challenge,” invites applicants to develop innovative digital projects and tools – such as apps, badge systems and educational content – that foster trusted learning environments online for youth and college students. The Trust Challenge is run in conjunction with a new report by the Aspen Institute Task Force on Learning and the Internet.
Collaborative and interdisciplinary, the DML Hub supports a range of timely activities designed to enrich the lives of young people. The Connected Learning Research Network (CLRN) and the MacArthur Research Network on Youth and Participatory Politics (YPP) play pivotal roles. According to Connie Yowell, Ph.D., director of education at the MacArthur Foundation, “These networks are redefining how we understand learning and democratic participation in the 21st century. They have provided the evidence base for a new approach to learning, called Connected Learning.”
As the head of MacArthur’s $150 million Digital Media and Learning initiative, Yowell has championed the efforts of the DML Hub and provided indispensable support. She has also been a driving force behind the nationwide Connected Learning movement that the Foundation has advanced with its forward-looking philanthropy.
Digital media are changing the way young people learn, and MacArthur is using the tools of the digital age to spearhead an educational movement empowered by Connected Learning. In partnership with the Foundation, the DML Hub is helping to shape this new paradigm, and humanities scholars are playing an important role.
“The digital revolution has transformed how we live and think, what we do, how we work and play and how we govern ourselves,” Goldberg said. “We live very differently than we did prior to the digital age. The humanities are key to helping us understand these transformations.”
Also director of the UC Humanities Research Institute, as well as a professor of comparative literature, anthropology and criminology, law and society at UC Irvine, Goldberg appreciates the value of innovative collaborations that bridge disciplinary gaps. This sensibility informs the approaches that he and his colleagues take at the DML Hub.
“The technology fields deliver the cool technology,” he said. “The humanities stop to think about the implications for human life in the context of the history of human beings.”
Goldberg and his colleagues have already shown that the implications for learning and education are profound. New models of education, they’ve argued, clearly are in order. They’ve dedicated themselves to this cause at the DML Hub, where interdisciplinary teams of scholars and practitioners have developed a theory of Connected Learning for a networked society.
This new model of education integrates three core values: equity, full participation and social connection. In an ideal world where Connected Learning flourishes, all young people, regardless of socioeconomic status, feel empowered to acquire knowledge and develop expertise in something they feel passionate about. As actively engaged, productive members of their communities, they discover that learning can be meaningful when coupled with valued social relationships and shared practices. Interest-powered, peer-supported and academically oriented, Connected Learning taps into the power of digital media to effect educational reform.
This vision propels Goldberg and his colleagues forward. It also inspires the parents, educators, students and civic leaders who have joined the Connected Learning movement that MacArthur catalyzed with its bold grantmaking.
Yowell captured the spirit of this movement during a podcast for the Connected Learning Alliance: “It’s about creating engaged learning with pathways to real outcomes that are relevant both to the learner and to society. … I think we’re at a really powerful moment as long as we’re asking the right questions and engaging together.”
Ito, the MacArthur Foundation Chair in Digital Media and Learning and a UC Irvine professor in residence, keenly observes the transformations under way. She emphasizes the importance of leveraging new media technologies to strengthen connections between educational institutions and the Internet-centered youth world, where learning happens anywhere and anytime. As an ethnographer and cultural anthropologist, she focuses on how young people, mostly teens, use new media. She tries to decode their behavior in ways the adult world can understand.
One of the first grantees in the Macarthur Digital Media and Learning initiative ten years ago, Ito conducted an exploratory study of how young people were learning outside of school with new media: “A lot of findings came out of that, but one of the things that was very important was that young people were doing all this amazing learning with social media, with games, with interest communities online, but very few kids were connecting that learning to stuff that mattered more for the adult world. … There was a big generation gap between how young people and the older generation viewed the value of online learning.”
In terms that parents and educators could appreciate, Ito explained how kids benefit from using new media in their out-of-school lives: “They’re learning how to organize, to collaborate. They’re learning complex technical skills, but they tend not to see that as learning that can be connected to schools or civic engagement.”
Ito and her colleagues identified three common ways that youth deal with new media: hanging out (connecting with friends), messing around (exploring and tinkering), and geeking out (engaging in intense, expert-oriented activities). Commonly known as HOMAGO, these participatory genres have influenced the ways that educators and community leaders have designed digital media learning centers around the country. In 2009, for example, the Chicago Public Library created such a space in partnership with the Digital Youth Network, which specializes in digital production targeting nondominant youth.
“They built that lab on the genres of participation that came from our research,” Ito said. “Within months of opening, it was full of teenagers from around the city who were coming in, making music, making digital art, doing spoken word. The categories of our research were baked into the design of the space. After that, my colleagues and a team of researchers were on the ground there learning and observing from it, and that space in turn has been a really important generative site for us to develop our principles of Connected Learning, of what we think of as productive outcomes. It’s the very iterative design-to-practice-to-research kind of loop.”
With their evolving model of Connected Learning, Ito and her colleagues hope to broker shared intergenerational understanding while strengthening connections between the online practices of youth and programs that could help them improve their academic, professional and civic pursuits.
Ito has significantly advanced her mission while in residence at UCI: “The Hub has really been instrumental not only in helping me link my research to these amazing groups of practitioners who embrace shared values but also in building and nurturing a community and helping catalyze a broad movement toward educational reform that is progressive and equity-minded. That’s where my journey has gone, from doing the research to thinking through the implications of the research for educational practice to this broader effort that we’re engaged in now, which is to develop and spread and catalyze the broader movement or uptake of Connected Learning in different sites of practice in different communities.”
Other members of the DML team have worked with schools, libraries, museums and policymakers to build new alliances. In their own ways, they are all realizing a shared vision.
Students are poised to be the big winners. When all the forces align, they will master what the National Academies has identified as 21st-century skills and competencies: creativity, innovation, critical thinking, problem solving, decision making, communication, collaboration, information literacy, research and inquiry, media literacy, digital citizenship and more.
And to help young people show off their accomplishments, MacArthur and its partners are promoting the development of digital badges, alternative modes of assessment that identify and validate the skills that learners acquire in their expanded educational and professional networks. This push to validate new forms of credentialing influenced the theme of the fourth Digital Media & Learning Competition (2011-2013): “Badges for Lifelong Learning.”
When asked about the future of the DML Hub, Yowell said, “In the next three years, we expect the Hub to continue with this work, advancing the size and spread of the research network, nurturing the next generation of researchers in Connected Learning and assessments for games and badges, and building the evidence base for innovation and learning in the next decade.”
Thanks to the generous private support from MacArthur, UC Irvine faculty members will continue to build the Connected Learning movement and translate their findings into accessible practices for today’s youth.