This post, an excerpt from a longer piece, summarizes themes and cases from early fieldwork I conducted on the Hive NYC Learning Network. If you’re interested in reading more, you can download the full pre-publication draft of this research: Both R&D and Retail: Hive NYC as Infrastructure for Learning Innovation.
Starting back in March 2012, I began ethnographic fieldwork looking at the Hive NYC Learning Network, a group of New York City-based informal educational organizations. The network, now with forty members, includes everything from large cultural institutions like the New York Public Library and the Museum of Modern Art to small community-based outfits like The Point or Citylore. The common thread is that all of the organizations are interested in figuring out what learning can look like in the tech-enabled, openly networked 21st century, and how, through coordinated activity, youths’ learning experiences might include more opportunities to pursue their interests.
The network is interesting to me for a lot of reasons, but the one aspect that immediately grabbed my attention concerns what happens when all of these organizations start to interact. Do they share ideas? Do practices spread from one organization to another? Does the network operate as a sort of lab, where new ideas and technologies are born? How do ideas from the broader Digital Media and Learning field (from which the Hive NYC network emerged) get taken up, appropriated, and remixed in the network? Basically, I’m interested in questions relating to innovation – how ideas, practices and technologies that are perceived new in a given context (Rogers, 1983) get ideated, iterated, and circulated within what I see as a dynamic network of organizations.
In this post I want to share both a case of how I saw the network operating as what I call an infrastructure for innovation and why I think focusing on questions relating to innovation processes is important. Mark Surman of Mozilla put it beautifully when I spoke to him about his aspirations for Hive NYC – he hoped the network could operate as “both R&D and retail”, a place where innovations can both be developed and spread. In keeping with the ethnographic tradition of giving primacy to the perspectives of those invested in the context under study, I used Mark’s words in the title of the longer paper.
Hack Jams & Pop Ups – “Particle Accelerators” of Innovation
One of the events I had the opportunity to check out over the summer of 2012 was called the “Hive NYC Summer Code Party” – one of a genre of events that have variably been called Hack Jams, Pop-Ups and Learning Parties (for simplicity’s sake, I’ll just refer to them as Pop-Ups). I give a more blow by blow description of the event in the paper, but I’ll just focus here on the basics of Pop-Ups and how I think they’re significant as regular parts of the Hive NYC’s innovation infrastructure.
Pop-Ups are one or multiday public educational events where different Hive NYC member organizations set up stations and run activities over the course of a day (see map). Chris Lawrence, the director of Hive NYC, described them as “free-flowing, interest-driven festivals where people and organizations highlight and share their tools, projects and ideas, with a diverse audience.” Participants run from families to groups of teens to educational professionals to Hive NYC members themselves. In general, Pop-Ups are less workshop (structured events where everyone does the same thing for the same amount of time) and more festival (casual events where the experience of each person will differ based on how they decide to spend their time). At the Summer Code Party, for example, there was a station where you could engage in self led game design activities, one where you could take existing videos and remix them by adding in annotations and live web content like maps and twitter streams, and a station where you could learn to set up and customize a blog, to name a few.
One of the reasons I focus on these events is that I, and network members, see them as characterized by various ideas and practices around learning that are central to the Hive. Barry Joseph, my old boss at Global Kids (now at the Museum of Natural History) once referred to Pop-ups as “a distillation of the Hive”. He said further “When I think of a distillation of the Hive, and pop-ups, I think about particle accelerators, in which interesting things slam together at fast speeds, for a VERY VERY short amount of time, release lots of energy and new particles.” This sort of particle accelerator analogy speaks to the ways these events have a creative energy that supports innovations to develop, spread and change, and this is very much what I saw at the Code Party.
This idea of “Pop-Up as distillation of Hive” could be looked at in a couple of ways. From the perspective of youth experience, the ideas and practices Pop-ups characterize include production-centered pedagogies, interest-driven learning, multi-generational engagement, youth leadership, public sharing of personal creations, and use of technologies to create engaging and authentic learning experiences. From the perspective of Hive NYC members, these events model both the kind of youth pedagogies I just mentioned as well as how organizations should engage as members of the Hive – these events help put into focus the collaborative, participatory, and, notably, experimental spirit of Hive NYC as a professional network. Pop-up events are opportunities for participating members to bring experimental pedagogies and technologies to the table in a collaborative effort to serve youth.
As part of an innovation infrastructure, these events serve at least two important functions. The first concerns how members use these events to develop and spread their own learning innovations, and the second has to do with the ways the events serve to circulate innovation to network members, in the forms of norms around pedagogical practices and what it means to participate in the network from a professional standpoint.
A Test bed for learning innovations
One of the key infrastructural functions of Pop-ups is to serve as a space where organizations can develop, test, and refine innovations, in this case, both early stage digital learning tools and new learning activities. At the Summer Code Party event, Jess Klein, a friend and colleague at Mozilla, was running a station where kids were playing with the beta-version of a new tool called Thimble that teaches HTML and webmaking. This was pretty representative of the way that the Mozilla software team has engaged with these events – youth have opportunities to learn with emerging tools, and the software development teams have opportunities to see how well their pedagogical software and approaches are working and use that as the basis of an iterative design process. Another member organization, The Institute of Play, was similarly testing a series of game design activities called Gamekit (just released publicly last week in beta form) and was also paradigmatic of how member organizations use these events as places to refine their tools and practices, often running “mini” versions of approaches that are either used within the context of more extended educational projects such as camps or afterschool programs or are part of broader public initiatives.
Spreading Hive NYC ideas and practices
A less obvious way that Pop-ups serve to circulate innovations is by creating a context in which member organizations themselves, along with other interested parties, learn what it is that the Hive NYC network “is about” in terms of valued norms and practices. Anthropologically-oriented learning scientists might characterize network as a community of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991), with a shared set of evolving ideas and activities that are central to the community, and with modes of engaging “newcomers” through interaction with “oldtimers” in order to expose them to these ideas and practices. Popups act as a conduit for spreading certain ideas and practices central to Hive NYC, be they pedagogical (e.g., interest-driven learning) or professional (e.g., experimentation and collaboration).
I observed that many network members at the Summer Code Party were simply there “soaking it in”, or engaging in “legitimate peripheral participation”, as Lave and Wenger (1991) would call it. Leah Gilliam, one of the facilitators of Hive NYC, shared with me that she saw these events and the experience of participating in producing them as key moments when new members of Hive NYC “get it” – that is, when core ideas of both the ethos and practices of the Hive NYC network are made transparent through participation for network members. The medium of the event is the message to members about what it means to do Hive-like work.
In some cases, these events act as very concrete opportunities for members to develop capacity around and adopting technologies that embody certain values central to Hive NYC. For example, one consistent form of valued practice that I observed in the Hive NYC was that of promoting youth voice in public, and often online, contexts. During the code party, an employee from member organization The Point used resources from a station run by Tumblr employees to build a youth blog for her organization, expanding her repertoire of ways to use new media to promote public youth voice in an openly networked fashion. Other cases were more abstract, with Hive members simply observing, coming to understand some of the ethos and practices valued in the network. In these ways, pop-ups and their ilk act as contexts for circulation and spread of innovations to and from network members.
An Infrastructure for Learning Innovation
I share this case (and the others in the paper) not to claim that Hive NYC is definitively an infrastructure for innovation, but rather that it has the capacity to operate as one. More broadly though, I hope that talking about it can help to spark a larger conversation about the importance of innovation infrastructures in education.
The notion that the Hive NYC Learning Network could be a test-bed of innovations, ones that might be circulated both within the network itself as well as within the broader field of Digital Media and Learning, is one that goes back to some of the earliest conversations in the network. But to me the promise of an infrastructure for learning innovations is something that goes beyond the network itself, one with major implications for how we think about the endeavor of designing learning as a society.
The field of education tends to take a “silver bullet” approach to the process of advancing its work. Various camps stake out particular visions of how to solve the “problem” of education, pushing their often ideological ball forward and aiming to convince all others that, if only we fully put their vision of reform fully into place, all would be well in the (educational) world. Look around a little and you’ll see these everywhere. Vouchers. Educational Technology. Charter Schools. Universal standards. 21st Century Skills. Each is often touted by their proponents as “the” solution. The education historian Diane Ravitch calls this the “Big Idea”, and notes that none of these sorts of grand plans have ever left education particularly better off.
In contrast to such silver bullet approaches to educational reform, the notion of infrastructures for learning innovation implies that changing our educational practices will (and should) be an ongoing process – one informed by shifts in youth interests, changes in community needs, breakthroughs in our understandings of learning, and identification of new literacies essential for an information age. An infrastructure for learning innovation provides the support to create (or tweak) new ideas and solutions, a way to field test, and a way to show them off others in case they’d like to take them up and use them in their pedagogical practice, and, crucially, allow innovations to be tested in real life contexts as opposed to sequestered laboratories with controlled conditions we don’t find in the wild.
It’s not that the “silver bullets” that I mention above aren’t useful at all; the problem is that we think the solution to education will come in the form of one “silver bullet.” We need many silver bullets for the myriad of issues out there, and a way to understand these innovations not as static entities that either work or don’t work, but as ones that must be tested, adapted and recontextualized based on circumstance.
Infrastructural support for innovation has been a longstanding feature in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields, with institutions like Xerox PARC and Bell Labs seeding new ideas and technologies that are now regular features of daily life. Indeed, much of the criticism of the education system in the US centers on how little pedagogical practice has evolved over the last century, and this is partly due to the fact that there is little infrastructure that assumes new modes of learning will need to be developed beyond what can currently be envisioned. In looking to understand Hive NYC’s capacity as an infrastructure for learning innovation, I’m interested in seeing if it might contribute to a broader conversation I think we should be having about a vision of education work that assumes that any given approach will eventually become outdated. Perhaps education needs to embrace something the Buddha realized over 2,500 years ago – things are impermanent, and we should live accordingly.