Inside the Computer Clubhouse (Part Three of Three)

Would it be possible to do what the Computer Clubhouses do in the context of more formalized educational structures? Why or why not?

YASMIN: We have many examples of schools that adopt the premise of self-directed work for students who with assistance of teachers and other peers dig deeply into projects rather than to follow textbooks. Schools and classrooms like these think about themselves as communities of learners rather than as a collection of individuals. Examples are the recently opened “Quest to Learn” school in New York City; here in Philadelphia, I know of the Science Leadership Academy.

But to become a school like this requires some fundamental changes in how we organize learning in general, what the roles of students and teachers are, and what the role of technology is – how it’s being used for research, exchange and production. The Computer Clubhouse also reconceptualized the role of the coordinator. We conducted many interviews with coordinators, community organizers and network administrators to get a better sense on what a job description for clubhouse coordinator would be like – part social worker, youth support, art teacher, mentor – it’s not a traditional role when you’re there to support youth in creative endeavors. I think the same would apply to teachers, principals, and administrators who want to adopt the principles of the Computer Clubhouse model in their schools.

You write, “The Computer Clubhouse is not a computer lab.” Explain the difference.

YASMIN: Actually Gail Breslow, the director of the Computer Clubhouse Network made this statement in an interview that we conducted with her. The picture that people have of a computer lab is one with rows of computers facing walls and students not interacting with each other as they’re running programs. The picture of a Computer Clubhouse is very different: computers in clusters so that youth can talk to the person right next to them and see what they’re doing and a green table in the middle with no computers on it that serves as play and meeting space.

ROBBIN: Computer labs provide an invaluable service by making digital technologies available to its clients. These labs, however, are not designed to generate a learning community and to respond to needs and situations outside of the use of computer equipment and computer resources. The Clubhouse provides access to digital technology, but that is just the beginning. In fact, the Clubhouse is primarily a learning community, both for learning to use technology for creative expression and becoming a lifelong learner.

You place a strong emphasis on helping young people to learn how to program. What do you see as the value of programming, as opposed to other kinds of digital skills, such as networking or storytelling?

KYLIE: It’s not really an either/or proposition. Certainly, social networking and digital storytelling are important skills in the 21st Century. Learning to computer program is really about learning the language of the computer. Now, I’m an artist and not a programmer by trade, so it’s probably surprising that I would see the value in learning to program. By championing programming as a critical skill for today’s youth, I’m not advocating for a generation of hackers insomuch as I’m seeing programming as a key step in moving youth from consumers to producers, and learning to program provides transparency into how software and computers operate and give youth some degree of control over their interactions with the computer. Casey Reas and others have called this “software literacy” because at the heart of using the computer as a creative medium is learning how to manipulate it and to create your own software in a sense. You really don’t need to look far to see how people are taking up this type of literacy on a widespread scale–The iPhone app phenomenon is one example where everyday people are creating their own apps. This is also catching on in youth communities. It’s not as hard to do as it might seem–As the book illuminates, the field has produced several shortcut tools (see for example Scratch or Processing) that allow youth (and adults alike) to use programming concepts in a way that is more user-friendly to novices. As evidenced by burgeoning online communities of tween/teen game designers, animators and digital artists, learning to code creatively is becoming to today’s generation what learning to read and write was to those growing up in the 20th Century. Furthermore, media projects (like the Scratch projects described in the book) emphasize graphic, music and video — media at the core of youths’ technology interests and thus provide new opportunities to broaden participation of under-represented groups in the design and invention of new technologies.

ROBBIN: Programming constructs can be viewed as another instance of Papert’s “gears.” In Papert’s case, his play with gears gave him insight into more powerful mathematical ideas of differentials, etc. Programming can give learners insights into more powerful ideas such as convergence, iteration, etc. However, I disagree with the phrasing of your question, as it presupposes storytelling is not as important an activity at the Clubhouse as programming. Storytelling, or more specifically, being able to tell a good story, is important whether you’re a researcher telling the story of your data or a Clubhouse member telling the story of your learning. Storytelling embodies many powerful ideas, including non-determinism. Storytelling also engages learners in various modes of critical reflection.

You write that when the Clubhouses started in 1993, 70 percent of your visitors had never used a mouse before. How have the users of the Clubhouses changed over this time and what shifts have you needed to make to keep pace with the nature of your learners?

ROBBIN: Members come into the Clubhouse with a greater familiarity and comfort with computer technologies. There are regional variances, of course. As a result, members can dive right in to using the equipment. At the Clubhouse, it is important that mentors support the members starting “where they are” along the user spectrum. What is unique about the Clubhouse experience is members are challenged to create and be expressive with rather than just use technology. If a member wants to play computer games, she must first create a computer game to play.

What processes have you built into the Computer Clubhouses to insure that participants reflect on their own practices and share what they have learned with others?

ROBBIN: At the Flagship Clubhouse, members use software called, Pearls of Wisdom, to share their meta-learning and creative experiences around their project development. There are also project showcases and presentations that take place at the Clubhouse. Additionally, the Clubhouse-2-College/Clubhouse-2-Career program provides opportunities for members to reflect on how their Clubhouse learning can leads to job and education opportunities beyond the Clubhouse itself.

How have you been able to tap the international network of Clubhouses to help foster greater global consciousness in your participants?

KYLIE: One experience that really stands out in my mind is the Teen Summit in Boston in 2006. I attended this summit along with several of the youth from the Youth Opportunities Unlimited, Inc. Computer Clubhouse in South Los Angeles. To give you a bit of background, the Computer Clubhouse Network hosts a teen summit every couple of years. Every Clubhouse is able to send a couple of their top members (15 years and older) to the event as well as one or two members of their staff to help with supervision. The youth come from across the globe and speak a variety of languages. Keep in mind that Clubhouses are mostly located in very low-income areas by design, so this is the first time that most of the youth have been outside of their city, let alone on a plane to another country or state. The youth coming from the Los Angeles Clubhouse really blossomed as a result of this experience and met youth from South America and elsewhere. Like with most similar experiences for teens, the intense amount of time spent together day and night forge deep bonds that were made deeper as they engaged in meaningful collaborative work during the workshops. Participating youth signed up for a range of workshops to explore new types of software and project ideas, including video workshops where they learned interview and editing techniques, Adobe Photoshop workshops, robotics labs, social network analyses labs and the list goes on and on. All of the youth participated in multiple workshops and were also able to visit local college campuses, museums, and stay in campus dorms. Some of the groups made videos about their darkest fears or learned new programming skills to put the latest Chris Brown dance video together. When the youth returned to Los Angeles, you could see their horizons had expanded and they worked hard to remain in contact with their new friends. The book highlights many other examples, including how a traveling puppet named Cosmo, which was based on the Flat Stanley books, moved between Clubhouses worldwide, bringing together youth from all over the world to create a collective narrative about the puppet’s journeys in each country. Youth’s stories were well documented on the intranet and new chapters (as well as Cosmo’s arrival) were much anticipated by the youth. Additionally, in countries like Israel, there are Clubhouses in the Israeli and Palestinian areas of the country, which are geographically close to one another. Coordinators use creative projects to bring youth together and foster cross-cultural tolerance in meaningful ways through creating musical compositions or fostering meaningful dialogues among participants.

Yasmin Kafai, professor of learning sciences at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, has led several NSF-funded research projects that have studied and evaluated youth’s learning of programming as designers of interactive games, simulations and media arts in school and afterschool programs. She has pioneered research on games and learning since the early 90’s and more recently on tween’s participation in virtual worlds, which is now supported by a grant from the MacArthur Foundation. She has also been influential in several national policy efforts among them “Tech-Savvy: Educating Girls in the Computer Age” (AAUW, 2000). Currently, she is a member of the steering committee for the National Academies’ workshop series on “Computational Thinking for Everyone”. Kafai is a recipient of an Early Career Award from the National Science Foundation, a postdoctoral fellowship from the National Academy of Education, and the Rosenfield Prize for Community Partnership in 2007.

Kylie Peppler is an Assistant Professor in the Learning Sciences Program at Indiana University, Bloomington. As a visual and new media artist by training, Peppler engages in research that focuses on the intersection of the arts, media literacy, and new technologies. A Dissertation-Year Fellowship from the Spencer Foundation as well as a UC Presidential Postdoctoral Fellowship has supported her work in these areas. Her research interests center on the media arts practices of urban, rural, and (dis)abled youth in order to better understand and support literacy, learning, and the arts in the 21st Century. Peppler is also currently a co-PI, on two recent grants from the National Science Foundation to study creativity in youth online communities focused on creative production.

Dr. Robbin Chapman is currently the Manager of Diversity Recruitment for the MIT School of Architecture and Planning and Special Assistant to the Vice-Provost for Faculty Equity. She is responsible for strategic leadership and development of Institute-wide faculty development programs and graduate student recruitment initiatives. She is PI on a Department of Education grant project that is underway in schools in the Birmingham, Alabama public school system.