Connie Yowell on Digital Media and Learning, Then and Now


5.14.14 | Connie Yowell is director of education for US programs at the MacArthur Foundation. She oversees the $85 million program on digital media and learning.

This post concludes our series of conversations with thought leaders on digital media and learning, then and now. In conversation with journalist Heather Chaplin, leaders reflect on how the field of digital media and learning (DML) has changed over time, and where it’s headed.

Spotlight: Before you got involved with digital media and learning, you were a professor looking at issues of emerging identity and social context for youth. What got you interested in digital media? Was there an ah-ha moment?


Connie Yowell. Photo/ Ben Filio for The Sprout Fund.

Connie Yowell: You want the true story?

Yes! The true story for sure.

We had a board member at MacArthur named John Seely Brown. And he was fairly persistent in saying ‘Why don’t you guys think about looking over the horizon at how schools might need to be in the future?’ This was 2002, maybe 2003.

MacArthur was more involved in district reform then, I think.

Yes, we were looking at things not unlike Race to the Top—core things the Obama Administration was trying to put in place. And again, this was 2002 or 2003. Pre-Facebook. Pre-iPhone. I didn’t have a cell phone. So I said, ‘No, I care about social justice. I do not think that focusing on technology makes any difference.’

So what happened?

Jonathan Fanton, who was our president at the time, said ‘Fine, how about we put some meetings together.’ We had three separate convenings and by the end of them I was like, ‘This is absurd. I do not understand what this has to do with kids learning. I’m not interested.’ So then John said, “Why don’t you go have lunch with Will Wright.’

Did you know who Will Wright was?

No. I hadn’t even heard of SimCity. I didn’t play any games. But they reached out to Will and he agreed to get together. We sat down at this table in a café in Berkeley and Will said, “I don’t know why we’re meeting.’ And I said, ‘I don’t’ know why we’re meeting.’ And Will said, ‘Why don’t I tell you what I do.’ And then he went into this extraordinary description of how he designed games, and I thought I was talking to John Dewey. It was the most incredible conversation about learning I’d had in years.

When I was first covering video games, I would think ‘Why am I writing about this stuff?’ And then I spent time with Will, and I was like ‘Ohhhh. I see.’

Exactly. I came out of sociocultural learning, which claims that context matters and that the learner’s experience in the social context absolutely matters. In traditional education, we have no means for designing or developing learning experiences that take context into perspective, at least not in any scalable or sustainable way. But that’s what Will was describing.

Can you talk more about ‘context?’ I feel like you’re saying more than just ‘Oh, we should bring design methodologies into learning.’

The Holy Grail in learning and education is context. The problem is that education is focused on generic outcomes. And as soon as you shift to that conversation, you forget about context of the learner. You forget that learning is social, and about identity, and fundamentally connected to what the learner cares about. 

I saw a video of you talking recently. You said starting with outcomes and working backward was a big mistake. You said we should start thinking about the student and then design forward. What does that actually mean, and is that related to what you’re saying about context?

In education, we traditionally think about content. We think about content as the outcomes we’re striving for. Does a kid know X? That’s what all our tests measure, and that’s how we lose the kid.  We lose the kid to our focus on content—we talk more about STEM than we do about kids. 

So a shift from content to context.

One of the huge conceptual shifts came for me through a conversation with Katie Salen. I used to make her describe her design process until she was blue in the face. Finally, she just said, ‘Connie, content is just the context for participation. It’s not the outcome. It’s one of our design constraints. What we care about is kids’ engagement, the challenges they’re trying to solve, and how complex those problems are.’

Which takes us back to how games are good models for learning.

Games are about dropping kids into a problem space or giving them a challenge that they’re not capable of solving yet —and then providing them with the tools to figure it out. Will Wright told me, ‘I design a sandbox and then I put things in the sandbox for kids to trip over.’ Nobody talks about curriculum that way. People talk about scope and sequence and how to keep everybody on pace. People talk about kids learning content and then testing them on that content. People like Katie and Will are thinking about designing the context for participation. That’s the Holy Grail.  Its through participation that learning happens. 

Let’s go back a bit to the beginning. In 2006, when you announced the Digital Media and Learning (DML) initiative at the Museum of Natural History, were you already thinking about these things? Did you have specific goals you were hoping to achieve, or was it more open ended?

The MacArthur Foundation, and particularly my direct boss Julie Stasch, has been extraordinary in allowing us to launch a major initiative without having a predetermined set of outcomes. That’s unheard of. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, who was our chair when we started, is an important part of this. She’s an ethnographer. And she said, ‘We know something really important is going on right now, but we don’t know what it is. Let’s investigate.’

Right, because there’s so much change it’s hard to even know what’s going on.

In John Seely Brown’s language, we are in a historic moment where what’s constant is change. That means it’s not time to drive towards a set long-term outcome. Rather, in philanthropy, it’s really important to be really clear about the questions.

That’s interesting. Not looking for answers. Looking for the right questions.

I was just reading a book arguing that the most creative people and the best leaders are the people who are problem finders, not problem solvers. I think that’s been at the core of DML. It’s really not about identifying a silver bullet, but rather identifying what are the most important questions to be asking right now and then pursuing those as a community.

So what were your questions back in 2006?

We’ve been working with the edge from the very beginning. The edge is more visible to the center than it’s ever been.

How (if at all) are young people changing in the way they learn, socialize, and civically engage because of digital media?  That was our core question.  And we were open to finding out that things might not be changing. 

You’ve mentioned the importance of ethnography a couple of times. How does that fit into all this?

In this time of big data, ethnography and qualitative work are needed to develop new paradigms. Traditional work in education and learning is not funding this kind of work. But we need to because otherwise we can’t understand how people are participating with these new tools and what the social practices are. That’s how we’ll develop new paradigms for learning. Right now, in the education and learning space, we sorely lack new paradigms.

One of your first grants in 2006 was for ethnographic work.

We started with three big grants. The grant to Mimi Ito and Peter Lyman was to do the ethnography so we could really begin to understand how young people were participating with digital media. The second grant was to Henry Jenkins to help us with a conceptual frame around participatory learning and media. Then the third went to Nichole Pinkard and her Digital Youth Network team to actually do work on the ground with kids here in Chicago—she started an afterschool program working with low-income, African American kids. We didn’t want to just be working with white, middle-class kids who were already digital savvy.

So, if you started with one central question, what would you say is the one central answer you’ve found—if answer is even the right word?

A huge ah-ha shift has been beginning to frame the paradigm around connected learning.

Okay, in all these interviews I ask people about connected learning. Everyone says something different. And I find that I still can’t quite describe it. Tell me, what are we talking about when we talk about connected learning?

Here’s my definition: At the end of the day, we want to create more pathways for more young people to have opportunities for success. That can mean in academics, in a career, or in community engagement. We have found the best way to do this is to bring together the three spheres of kids’ lives they care about the most. We bring together their social world and the thing they want to get better at, and then connect those two with something that has a payoff in the real world. When we bring those three spheres together, we have what we call connected learning. 

So social, plus interest, plus real-world meaning.

We have found that bringing those three spheres together helps kids learn both traditional skills and what’s commonly known as 21st century skills, in ways that hugely engaging and relevant for the learner.  All the things that educators now care about—grit, persistent, time on task—all happen. 

Walk me through what this looks like on a concrete level.

Let’s say you have a kid who’s interested in writing, or music. First, there needs to be a space—physical or virtual—where that youth has the opportunity to pursue her interest with peers. And by peers, I don’t mean people of the same age. I mean people with shared interest. So the ‘space’ could be an online forum, a library, or a school. It’s somewhere kids have peers with whom to talk and get better at the thing in which they’re interested.  They also have an opportunity to interact and learn from those more expert than they—a mentor, teacher, professional in the domain of interest—to scaffold or guide them to the next level of expertise.  They have the materials and tools available to them to support their knowledge and skill development—could be text-based, videos, digital tools, any number of things. 

Okay, and then how does real-world meaning play out?

The activities can’t just go down a rabbit hole. There have to be opportunities for sharing what they’re making or producing. It could be through a social platform where they get feedback from people more expert than themselves. There also must be opportunities for recognition. Recognition can come in the form of advancement at school, or through badges, performance, or through an internship. It could be something that looks good on a resume or it could be civically related and they end up writing an op-ed or having a conversation with a community group that leads to some change in their community.

Is connected learning applicable to higher education?

Absolutely. Yes. We ought not to be separating out a theory of learning that’s only for kids or only for adolescents. It’s a broad continuum and the theory may have nuances, but it doesn’t change. 

Why is it such a challenge to connect the three spheres?

They’re hugely fragmented—and that’s because we’re still mostly using 19th-century models and operating in a world of silos. And this is true for kids and adults. Schools don’t allow kids to pursue their interests, so friendships and peer groups get siphoned off into social instead of being connected. Often when people get better at something, they have to choose to leave their peer group behind.  Interests might get siphoned off to afterschool programs. 

Can you talk a little about the ecosystem you’re building for connected learning?

Yes, we need to build demonstrations of where these three worlds come together. We’re focusing on YOUmedia and Quest to Learn, but we also need to build hybrids. It is such a heavy lift in our current world to bring all three spheres together. The other part of the work is to build connectors so that all three things don’t have to happen at the same place. Can we build connectors so that kids and adults can more easily see the bridges that connect these three spheres? That’s where our work on mentors and badges comes in.

How so exactly?

We see our work on badges as the start of an infrastructure to connect different kinds of programs and opportunities to each other. And the mentors are important too, because they often shepherd kids into the kinds of experiences where they make the connections themselves.

If you started off in 2006 not knowing where you were going, and then the big ah-ha moment was connected learning, where are you in the process of bringing this idea to fruition?

It’s really important that we have extraordinary humility in our work and not press for traditional notions of spread and scale until we’ve really built out this connected learning vision. We need to have a robust sense, grounded in research, about the direction we want to go in.  Based on having been in philanthropy for 14 years and in education forever, I’ve seen too many innovations scaled before they were ready and it having unintended consequences for students, especially low-income kids.

How can scale not be important?

We’re less interested in traditional notions of spread and scale, because those imply you have something you want to spread out to everybody. Instead, we’re thinking about how you build an ecosystem that enables everybody to participate. It’s not about replication and fidelity. It’s about adoption, adaptation and reinvention. It’s about people joining us, remixing, and redesigning. It’s about people who are already doing solid work moving out of their silos and making things interoperable for kids. How do we do that in a way that is viable and sustainable over time? What are the indicators that we’re having success?

And this is where you are now?

That’s where we are now. We’re not trying to scale just through institutions, but rather we’re trying to engage networks. We’re trying to think about the networks we want to foster for both youth and adults.

Both Mark Surman and John Seely Brown, when I interviewed them, spoke about the strategic decision to inspire change from the edge—with the idea that the middle will follow. Is that what you’re talking about here?

We’ve been working with the edge from the very beginning. The edge is more visible to the center than it’s ever been. In formal education, there’s constant turnover of leadership and policies. There’s churn. The changes in behavior that actually stick happen within professional networks. That’s where teacher identity is. That’s where the meaningful stuff happens. This shift toward networks is a much more 21st-century approach.

I’ve heard two camps in these interviews. One, “blow up the formal education system; it doesn’t work and it never will.” The other is, “wait a minute, we can’t forget about formal education; too many kids spend too many hours in it.” What do you think? Do you believe that the work you’re doing will eventually cause the formal education system to change?

We have never believed in blowing up schools or ignoring schools. Innovation requires failing fast, failing often, and failing cheaply. Schools are high-stakes places. You cannot fail fast, or often, or cheaply when other people’s children are at stake and when teachers’ salaries are tied to assessment and accountability.

That’s why you haven’t focused on schools?

We don’t think the kind of innovations that are necessary for a real paradigm shift can happen in a high-stakes, high-accountability environment that regresses to the mean and that is locked into a 19th-century paradigm.

So how do schools fit in?

We think learning in the 21st century is going to happen in a network and that schools are one node on that network. They shouldn’t necessarily have the kind of primacy they have now. They are absolutely important, teachers are absolutely critical but they are not the only place where learning happens.  The bigger question is how do we support learning across an ecosystem, that includes schools but is not limited to schools. 

In some ways, that point about learning happening in lots of different places seems so obvious. Where does this idea come from in the first place that schools equal learning?

For whatever reasons in the last 50 to 75 years, we have narrowed our definition of education to what happens within a school building. That was never the intent of the founding fathers creating the educational system. Their idea was that education would happen at school, at home, at church, and at libraries, among other places. It was always supposed to be a connected environment. Narrowing learning to only taking place in school buildings is a 20th-century phenomenon.

I’ve asked everyone I’ve interviewed what he or she worries about the most moving forward. Almost everyone says equity.

One of the things we know, from research, is that middle-class and upper-income families do an extraordinary job of sharing procedural knowledge and pathways into networks of opportunity with their kids. Networks and pathways for career and academic success.  It’s the low-income kids and the immigrant kids for whom those pathways and networks are often invisible. This renders low-income and immigrant kids at a huge disadvantage.

How exactly does connected learning address that?

Part of what connected learning is about is building those pathways and making connections or pathways as transparent as possible and as readily available to all kids as possible. We think the key to equity is building more pathways for career, academic,  community success with adult supports available to all kids.

Do you think this is realistic?

We actually think it’s doable. I know we have tons of financial constraints, but we actually believe building that kind of system is very possible.

So what’s this international work you’ve been doing lately?

Virtual Exchange is our effort to connect youth from one country to youth from another country using digital media. It’s not uncommon when you talk to kids, particularly adolescents, that they say they’re interested in making their local communities better. They also say they understand they live in a global context. The irony of this digital work is kids don’t actually have ways of connecting with the global community. We don’t often have the time nor the resources to do it for large numbers of kids in schools.


We’ve been in terrific conversations with the State Department, and groups such as Global Nomads, iEarn, The New York Academy of Sciences, and others, to understand how we can connect kids in Chicago, LA, and New York to kids in other cities around the world who may be trying to solve similar problems locally. We hope to bring them together to talk about what it means to try and solve their local problems—from water demand to safety issues—in a global context. At the same time, they can begin to build empathy by seeing the ways they’re similar and the ways they’re different.

I’ve asked everyone else. I’ll ask you. What worries you moving forward?

The current laws on privacy. Policymakers and advocates have the potential, given their current direction, to shut down the opportunities to connect. There’s a serious misunderstanding that conflates commercial use of data with the need to make data connect for learning.  So we see a push to make COPPA laws more stringent or efforts to erase data that in the end may have the unintended consequence of making it impossible to connect learning across learning environments and will certainly slow innovation in learning.  These advocates come from a fear-based approach rather than a deeper understanding of new paradigms for learning that fit the 21st-century and embrace both the need for innovation and the need for safety.   

Anything else I should have asked you?

I think the MacArthur leadership—its Board and Julie Stasch—have been exceptional in allowing this initiative to be generative and iterative in the way it has moved, and really being willing to take risks. At the end of the day, I just want to thank them for their incredible leadership.

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