Q&A: Learning by Design, A Conversation with Drew Davidson

 
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Photo/Joey Kennedy for Remake Learning.

6.18.13 | Drew Davidson is a professor, producer, and player of interactive media. He is the acting director of the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University, and the founding editor of ETC Press and its Well Played Series and Journal. Davidson helped lead a team of designers to create the Chicago Public Library’s YOUmedia, a digital space for teens that is now being replicated across the country.

This is part of a 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 has changed over time, and where it’s headed.

Spotlight: Think back six years. What were you working on?

Drew Davidson: I was working on the creation of the first phase of the YOUmedia space in Chicago. We were really doing a lot of brainstorming and working with the network of people around that idea and trying to make sure the space we created really supported the curriculum created by [Digital Youth Network’s] Nicole Pinkard.

Spotlight: Tell me a little bit more about your thinking at the time. How much work was already out there to support these ideas?

DD: Mimi Ito’s work was already out and we were getting a lot of support from MacArthur to consider how teens really use digital media in their lives. The question was, how can we create a space that supports the idea that teens should feel enabled and comfortable in their learning? We wanted teens to be able to go in there and find active technology that they could pass around and start doing the stuff they were into. So the space was designed with all that in mind. We wanted to tempt people to get involved by seeing what other people were doing. There was the “hang out” space with video game consoles and beanbag chairs, and there was another area with workstations where you could check email or do homework. And then further down was a space for more focused activities. We wanted it to be like a flow of experience.

Spotlight: What were some of the challenges you faced?

DD: Well one of the things was kind of funny. We were designing the hang out area, and we thought “well, they’ll probably want to eat,” but the library was like “well, there’s no food allowed in the building.” And we went back and forth and back and forth. It sounds trivial, but it’s because some of the teens on our design team were like, “if they can’t get food, they’ll leave.” So we worked it out and we were able have food in the hang out area. Little things like that make a big difference. 

Spotlight: What was the most surprising thing working on that project?

DD: A couple of things were surprising. It was immediately popular, more so than any one predicted I think. It became something that could be shown. MacArthur could be like “This is what we do.” Before, there were just a lot of white papers and websites. And there was a really exciting feeling at the space because it was the teens’ own, and they were really passionate about it. I remember one time walking around, and I looked over and there was a group of kids composing music on keyboards and violin, and then I looked another way and there were a couple of kids playing chess.  There were people playing video games and there were people brainstorming about a project. I just thought, “Wow, I wish there’d been something like this when I was a teen.” We hit capacity in a month when we’d thought it would take a year. And one of the things the library noticed was that the amount of books teens were checking out doubled.

Spotlight: So after the initial excitement of starting it up, how did your thinking change? What worked? What didn’t work?

DD: When we saw how great it was going, we thought “Let’s try and scale it up.” And we tried to do that real quickly—I think that backfired a bit. It turned out it was hard to articulate what exactly made it successful. Some of it was lightning in a bottle. It was in downtown Chicago, it was right off the L, and it’s a library so parents trust their kids are somewhere safe. When we started exploring other areas, a lot of these factors came up. We had to ask, “How do we define best practices?” And that took a lot longer than I think anyone would have initially imagined.

Spotlight: Scalability is such an important issue. How did you think those things through?

DD: We started by saying “What’s the key here? What’s fundamental?” We realized that if anything could be YOUmedia then YOUmedia was nothing. So we kept having to ask “What is it?” A lot of it is providing teens with a space that they feel is theirs. But it’s not the Boys Scouts of America or an afterschool club. I think an important part of it is the open curriculum. This goal of getting teens more involved across time.

Spotlight: What’s different in digital media and learning since you were working on that first YOUmedia space?

There’s this idea out there that you can solve everything by making a game, and I’m just growing more and more skeptical of that.

DD: What’s been hard is how popular it’s gotten. It’s getting too much press now. Now it’s so popular there’s almost a kind of heady, tech-utopia atmosphere around it all—particularly around games and learning. There’s this idea out there that you can solve everything by making a game, and I’m just growing more and more skeptical of that. I think games can do a lot, but we’re getting into problems with the expectations we’re setting.

Spotlight: Do you think it’s just that you’re sick of the hype? Or are you actually starting to see more failures and get worried?

DD: The hype has certainly increased. And I don’t think it’s hit its apex yet. Every time you turn around there’s another conference that’s focusing on games or some website claiming it’ll solve all your classroom problems. And there’s been a lot of funding in this area of things that haven’t actually been that successful. I find myself thinking “You know, it’s really hard to make a good game.” There have been so many failures—they don’t engage you, they’re not properly challenging, and they don’t teach you anything. It’s going to tarnish the whole field.

Spotlight: Have you seen anything you like lately?

DD: DragonBox teaches algebra but it basically tricks you into learning it. There are two sandboxes and you have to make sure all the dragons and eggs and monsters and things like that are balancing each other out. Basically you’re balancing equations but you don’t know it yet. And then, slowly, toward the end, it loses the veneer of monsters and dragons, and you’re balancing numbers. So the potential is there. We just have to live up to all the promises that have been made. 

Spotlight: Is there anyone out there who inspires you right now?

DD: I am passionately excited by Katie Salen’s work with Quest to Learn. It’s been very well thought through. That’s part of it, right? You have to think things through carefully and be systematic. I’m also curious about Glass Lab. They’re trying to partner up learning and assessment experts with game designers to create experiences that are formative in their assessment paradigm so that kids get feedback continually. I’m also really curious about Hive. I think they’ve had problems because it’s hard to get different parts of a city infrastructure to work together, but there’s a lot of potential there. I’ve heard Katie talk really eloquently about how kids live with learning ecologies and how they intersect and overlap. School is a big one but it’s not the only one. How do we make the most of how kids transfer from ecology to ecology?

Spotlight: What frustrates you?

DD: One thing that’s kind of heartbreaking is that it’s hard to experiment with kids in school. We say, “We’re going to try and make their learning more effective, more engaging,” and then all sorts of problems arise because teachers are overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated. You can’t just dump one more thing in their laps. And people would rather just fall back on what they know, even if they know it’s not working. I remember being at a meeting at the Department of Education and someone says, “Yeah, there’s schools we go to and we know the kids are going to fail.” And I’m like “If you know they’re going to fail why can’t we experiment and try to do something better?” As Jim Gee says, good game design is the epitome of good learning, whereas the current public school system is like the opposite of good learning.

Spotlight: So what needs to happen next?

DD: I’m excited by maker culture. When I was a kid I was curious about everything. And I think most kids are but then school just beats it out of you. I think maker culture really leverages curiosity—like how do you make a robot, or plant a garden, or make your own meal. It’s empowering. I think it’s going to be extremely interesting as that trickles in.

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