What "open learning" looks like when it's for kids who need it most

It takes more than videos on the Internet to get kids engaged in learning to code, writes Mimi Ito.

We've heard a lot of talk these days about open educational resources and online courses and how these platforms can make high-quality learning available for all. The code.org campaign has been touting the potential of online courses to teach kids how to code. Khan Academy has been the darling of the tech industry because of its potential to disrupt existing models of educational content delivery. It turns out, though, that these offerings are mostly serving already wired, well off, and highly educated families. I've seen this dynamic again and again in my research on ed tech, where well-meaning tech folks are creating goodies theoretically accessible to everyone, but they end up giving more advantages to kids who are already well on their way to being digital elites.

When you're a kid whose main point of access to the net is your mom's smartphone, and your only broadband is at your school or library, it's tough to make it through a series of Kahn Academy videos or a Udacity course on your own to become an awesome coder. And, you probably don't have coder friends or much as far as school offerings in the digital arts or programming in these days of dwindling school budgets. It's no wonder we've seen declining numbers of non-Asian minorities and women in the tech sector, despite the corporate push for a more diverse workforce.

A group of educators (who I'm proud to be associated with) have set off to change this. This summer, the newly launched Connected Learning Alliance (CLA) has teamed up with the Scratch team at the MIT Media Lab and photographer Jonathan Worth to develop a set of summer programs in the digital arts, targeted at kids who wouldn't otherwise have access to this kind of summer learning. The class is being hosted by Pursuitery, where students can earn digital badges and take part in weekly contests for the next eight weeks.

This week, participants in Phonar Nation are out taking pictures that "flatten the world." In other words, they're using phones, iPods and other devices with cameras to shoot images close-up, with shutter blur and depth of field and they're freezing action, as they learn to become storytellers. This is one of five lessons with the ultimate goal of teaching students to communicate messages with their photographs. The best part of the class is that anyone can take it at any time. You don't even need to do the lessons in order.

Pursuitery also is offering a free coding class, Coding with Scratch. The online classes represent the best in open educational offerings in the digital arts. These programs demonstrate the commitment of the CLA to ensure that all young people have access to top-notch summer learning experiences where they are exploring interests, connecting with inspiring mentors, and gaining valuable skills and expertise.

The sessions have been running for several weeks now, and will repeat again later this month. Pursuitery's summer offerings are part of this year's Cities of Learning initiative. A number of cities nationwide are involved, offering myriad free courses. In Los Angeles, Pursuitery's courses — in addition to being offered online — are being taught at a couple of inner-city libraries, where kids are using the library computers and iPods to do the lessons. The library involvement has been crucial for CLA's mission — to reach all learners, regardless of their economic status. Everyone is invited to participate, whether they are connecting through libraries, schools, after-school clubs or in wired homes.

Los Angeles-based librarian Celia Avila describes the prior challenges she faced, offering coding programs to her kids: "We had similar classes taught by Whiz Girls using Code Pen, which led us to try Code Academy classes with some teens. The students who participated lost interest due to lack of an on-site instructor and lack of access to the technology at home." In her third week of Pursuitery sessions in Scratch and Phonar Nation, she has seen kids engaged and coming back, with new kids popping their head in the door to try out the program.

True "disruption" and access beyond the echo chamber of the digital elites requires more than creating sophisticated educational content and building high-end online learning platforms. We need to spend less effort escalating the tech and bandwidth intensiveness of these platforms and more on meeting diverse kids where they are in their local communities with the resources they have on hand.

-Mimi Ito

Promotional video created by 10-year-old Sophia Serrato

(Images: Photos by Luna Ito-Fisher, CC-BY: Siblings Angel Alonso, foreground, and Lupe Alonso, left, take part in a Coding with Scratch class at the Junipero Serra Branch Library in Los Angeles; Two Phonar Nation citizens, Shay and Deja Dumas, take part in a photography lesson using their mobile devices)

Published 6:55 am Mon, Jul 7, 2014

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