Expanding Our Imaginations Together: The Festival of Learning 2013 | MIT Center for Civic Media
At the Center for Civic Media and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Nathan designs and researches civic technologies for cooperation across diversity. At the Berkman Center, he applies data analysis and design to the topics of peer-based social technologies, civic engagement, journalism, gender diversity, and creative learning.
Nathan's current projects include large scale research on community building online. In the summer of 2015, Nathan will be a PhD intern at the Microsoft Research Social Media Collective. A full project list is at natematias.com.
Nathan regularly liveblogs talks and events. He also publishes data journalism with the Guardian Datablog and PBS IdeaLab. He coordinated the Media Lab Festival of Learning in 2012 and 2013.
Before MIT, Nathan completed an MA in English literature at the University of Cambridge, where he was a Davies Jackson scholar. In earlier years, he was Riddick Scholar and Hugh Cannon Memorial Scholar at the American Institute of Parliamentarians. He won the Ted Nelson award at ACM Hypertext 2005 with a work of tangible scholarly hypermedia. He facilitated #1book140, The Atlantic's Twitter book club from 2012-2014, and was an intern at Microsoft Research Fuse Labs in the summer of 2013.
Expanding Our Imaginations Together: The Festival of Learning 2013
Learning always requires us to expand the boundaries of our imagination, for individuals and organisations alike. Although innovators often reach for creative disruption, we can also expand our capability to learn through the positive power of inspiration and cooperation.
My own capacity for inspiration was reset this week at the Festival of Learning, a creative gathering for everyone in the MIT Media Lab, Comparative Media Studies, and Arts, Culture, and Technology. (I'm on the organising team)
About the Festival of Learning
At the Festival of Learning, students, staff and faculty throughout the building join together for two days of learning, teaching, and creativity. Formal sessions included Android programming, starting fire, knitting, how to DJ, self-promotion, 3D design, and board game invention (full list here). Informal stations included a large pile of socks, patternblock laptop stickers, and large foam LEGOs:
Peer Inspiration Through Creativity
The Festival of Learning is inspired by one of the only rituals in our community, something which every Media Lab student experiences in their first week. We ask new students to write one thing on the board to teach each other. Students then pair up, form groups, and spend the next day teaching and learning together. By starting out with peer learning, we come to appreciate each others' passions and abilities more personally, beyond job descriptions, the title of our research group or the nature of our most recent project.
The Festival of Learning also taught me about learning itself. One of the main features of this year's festival was a large collection of bright socks, glitter glue, yarn, thread, studs, rhinestones, and LEGOs. The sock station was almost entirely unstructured. Participants picked up socks, sat around the table as long as they liked, and shared a photo on the clothesline of their finished creation.
Across both days, I was fascinated to see the continuously evolving way that people were inspired by each other's sock creations. New paradigms of sock creativity emerged in waves as the community developed, tested, and shared techniques for puppets, sculptures, clothing, and animatronic figures. No one here has a PhD in socks, nobody has funding for the future of sock-making, and that's a good thing. Without that pressure, we imagined new possibilities, took risks, and tried them out. Because they're so simple and versatile, socks became a beautiful expression of the creative progress that a community can achieve by learning, sharing, and creating together.
I also loved the Festival of Learning's personalised, patternblock-inspired laptop stickers. Patternblocks are a kit of coloured blocks which can be re-arranged to create a large variety of shapes. At the Festival, we offered vinyl stickers in the shape of patternblocks. After prototyping their personalised sticker in physical patternblocks, participants could create that pattern on their laptops. I made a dinosaur with Eric Rosenbaum:
Documentation was a huge success this year-- a party rather than a necessary evil. Event organisers often see documentation as a way to share and record what happens, for those who aren't present. It's often painful to sort all the media and convince participants to share their creations. We flipped drudgery into fun by bringing documentation back into the physical space.
This year, we wanted to harness the power of sharing to inspire creative learning within the event itself. Michelle Chung and I set up an iPad with a printer and invited participants to photograph their creations, print out the photos, and hang them on a clothesline. The photos were fun, and they also conveyed incredibly valuable information. Participants who were inspired by Rebecca's sock ducks or David's animatronic sockpuppet could easily see who made them. The photos became a catalyst for compliments and requets for help, even if they didn't know each others' names.
We're still assembling more formal documentation, which will be published at fol2013.media.mit.edu, using the peer festival management software that Sayamindu designed for the Festival of Learning.
We owe a huge thanks to this year's festival organizing team, as well as the MIT Media Lab Student Committee, the Office of the Dean of Graduate Students, and Media Arts and Sciences, who underwrote it. MIT Police and the Cambridge Fire Department also braved the elements to help keep our fire-based innovation session safe. Thanks everyone!