Monday, March 10, 2014

Make Things Do Stuff

Digital Learning with Young People in the United Kingdom

[Adapted from a panel talk I gave at DML 2014 on March 7, 2014 in Boston, MA.]

There’s a lot of exciting digital making happening in the United Kingdom, so I want to share the story of Make Things Do Stuff, a network and website of maker-focused organizations -- including Mozilla -- that promote digital learning among young people in the UK.

First, let’s set the scene.
In January 2011, Nesta -- an Innovation Foundation in the UK -- published the “Next Gen.” report, co-authored by Sir Ian Livingstone and Alex Hope. Livingstone was part of the team that supported and distributed games such as Dungeons & Dragons, and most famously Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. The authors found at that time that the UK video games sector brought in over £2 billion in sales, and was larger than both the film and music industries. Between 2006 and 2008 the visual effects sector -- encompassing both film and video games -- grew at 16.8% with most of its talent being local. Just after 2008, however, the industry quickly began losing its local talent to overseas competition, and was forced to source overseas talent of its own to keep sales high.

The over-arching conclusion of the report was that the education system failed to fill the skills gap in the industry. Next Gen. looked at how this problem could be tackled, and gave two major recommendations:
  • Put Computer Science on the national curriculum.
  • Have GCSE (Graduate Certificate of Secondary Education) in all schools.
=> Quick Explanation: Unlike in many countries where high school graduates receive one certificate for satisfactory completion of course work -- a diploma or GED -- in the UK students between 14 and 16 years of age take GCSE exams in each subject -- some compulsory, and some elective.

Stemming from Next Gen. came 2 years of consultation between education specialists, technology experts, and government policy advisers to build a computer science curriculum. The view taken is that coding/programming is an essential skill to join the job force. Thus, starting in Key Stage 1 students aged 5-7 will be introduced to algorithms and logical reasoning. With each successive Key Stage, students will build up their knowledge and skills base, and by the end of the Key Stage 4 (age 14-16) they will be able to code in at least 2 languages, and have the creative and technical abilities for more sophisticated study in CS or a professional career. The curriculum goes into full effect this September.

Learning through making
At the same time, yearly spending on digital education in schools reached into the hundreds of millions, and yet real transformation in learning and teaching remained elusive. Could it be that interactive whiteboards and one-to-one tablet schemes aren’t the final solution?  So Nesta teamed up with London Knowledge Lab and Learning Sciences Research Institute to see how teachers and learners could be more engaged in the design and use of learning technologies. After researching 8 types of learning with technology, they largely concluded that learning through making is one of the more effective strategies. (Decoding Learning: The Proof, Promise, and Potential of Digital Education.)

With solid research in hand, Nesta, Nominet Trust (a funder for socially-minded tech solutions), and Mozilla (a socially-minded engineering organization) banded together to create Make Things Do Stuff. This relationship works not only because we have robust research, funding and tools, but also because we all recognize the importance of bringing together other organizations in the making space, and know that the collaborative effort is greater than the sum of its parts.

With over 40 organizations in our network, we have great depth and representation across a lot of disciplines. Our partners include everyone from small after-school coding clubs and DIY digital making haberdasheries to large tech event planners and government supporters like the Cabinet Office.

But the best part of Make Things Do Stuff is the Youth Editorial team, a group of 25 super talented young makers with interests ranging from programming apps that tackle social issues to musicians with great YouTube followings.  Some speak at youth conferences as evangelists, putting a relatable face on the movement, while others run hackathons in local communities. This stellar team creates content for the website – by young people for young people – and invites others like them to make things and share their stories.

Of course it isn’t all smooth sailing. With so many stakeholders pulling in the same direction, it’s tough to make sure everyone feels visible and that their values are prioritized. As the educational Events Manager helping wrangle everyone, my three main pain-points are:

Audience: We work with organizations, not schools, so a lot of young people we see are already highly motivated to learn through making. While it’s great that we’re reaching them through their passions and building on them, I wonder about the young people we’re not reaching. To mitigate this, we try to attend a variety of events – everything from the nationwide Big Bang Fair with 65,000 young people getting their digital hands dirty over 4 days, to small-scale workshops where 25 school children made robots out of plastic cups, remixed our Keep Calm And…Thimble make, and created circuits out of play-dough at an event hosted by the new Children’s Museum at MozLDN. (Some fun remixes: Live long and Prosper, Freak Out and Throw Stuff, Eat Sleep Rave Repeat.)

“Brand Soup”: Although all of the organizations are under the banner of Make Things Do Stuff, we also have responsibilities to our individual organizations to increase visibility and brand recognition. When we’re at events sometimes all you see is a bunch of logos on a sign, and I wonder, what are we really promoting?  To make sure we don’t get lost in the politics of brand soup, we bring it all back to our shared mission and message: we’re here to help everyone move beyond digital consumption to digital creation. We focus on the young people and remember that we’re here for them, not the other way around. And suddenly, it’s clear skies ahead.

Gathering Data: Again, because we’re not partnered with schools it can be difficult to measure the effect our efforts have on the overall learning environment. Moreover, it’s near impossible to come up with a universal definition of effect; are we measuring national test outcomes? Are we looking at job-readiness skills? This one continues to be a challenge, but as the maker landscape changes, I look forward to seeing solutions surface.

Despite our difficulties with data, I’m happy to share that we reached 100,000+ young people over 3 months last summer – our first summer – thanks to our collaborative efforts. Make Things Do Stuff will also continue to change and grow as new technologies enter the field, and as young people find new ways to use old technologies. It’s an exciting time to be in this space, and I hope you’ll become a part of our ever-evolving story.