Inside the Computer Clubhouse (Part One of Three)

The Computer Clubhouse is a worldwide network of digital literacy programs in after-school settings. The first clubhouse program started in 1993 at the Boston Computer Museum, an outgrowth of the work being done at the MIT Media Lab by Mitchel Resnick and Natalie Rusk. By 2007, there were more than one hundred clubhouses world wide. I I have long admired the extraordinary impact of the Computer Clubhouse movement, having had the privilege to get to know Resnick and others associated with the project during my many years at MIT. Few other programs have had this kind of impact on learning all over this planet, getting countless young people more engaged with the worlds of programming and digital design through an open-ended, constructionist practice, which respects each learner's goals and interests. A new book, The Computer Clubhouse: Constructionism and Creativity in Youth Communities, pays tribute to the fifteen year plus history of the movement, sharing some of its key successes, and offering key insights into what has made the Clubhouses so successful. The highly readable book, addressed to educators of all kinds who want to make a difference in addressing the digital divide and the participation gap, was produced for the Teacher's College Press by some key veterans of the movement -- Yasmin B. Kafai, Kylie A. Peppler, and Robbin N. Chapman. I know this book is going to be of great interest to many of you who follow this blog because of your interest in new media literacies. The publisher was nice enough to arrange an interview with the editors for this blog and I will be sharing their perspectives over the next three installments. In this installment, they share something of the goals and history of the clubhouse movement. In future installments, we will dig deeper into its global impact and its governing pedagogical assumptions.

Kalfai's work will already be familiar to regular readers, since she participated in an interview I did a year or so back with the editors of Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming.

How would you describe the vision behind the Computer Clubhouse movement? What factors led to the creation of the first Computer Clubhouse?

YASMIN: It all started out in the Computer Museum. Yes, in the late 80's there was a museum with a walk-through computer in Boston (it has since then moved into the Museum of Science). Coincidentally it was right next to the Children's Museum with the mission to make information technology more accessible to the public. Many of the exhibits in the museum allowed visitors to take a closer look at the inner working of a computer and some even asked them to make things, like robots. Those turned out to be the really popular exhibits with kids; so popular that some kids would come back and sneak past admissions into the museum in order to play with the computers. Remember, computers at home or in school were rare in those days. This led Natalie Rusk, the education director at the computer museum, to talk with Mitchel Resnick and Stina Cooke to propose an after school space to which youth could come independent from the museum with a special focus on creating things with technology.

The idea was to provide access to the tools professionals actually used to make graphics, robots or games. There is a great paper titled "Access is not enough" that recounts this history in more detail as does a chapter in the book. What's important here is though that the focus was not just on giving access to computers but on promoting creative uses -- the very ones kids found so intriguing that they came back voluntarily (!) to the museum. All of this was a really bold proposal in the early 90's - that kids would actually be interested in designing technology, in making things. But we had ample evidence that indeed they were interested in challenging activities.

At the time, I was working in a local elementary school where hundreds of students were designing video games to learn about programming and mathematics and science and writing stories and advertisements. They were spending months on it. We knew that these kinds of creative activities with computers were popular with kids not just in school but also in museums and after school clubs.

ROBBIN: The vision of the Clubhouse can be described as a response to the need for space where equity, opportunity, and learning community membership become resources for young people. I often express this idea as the function, Clubhouse Vision = f{equity(learning, creativity) + opportunity(self-development, new areas for growth) + learning community(participation, citizenship)}

Can you define constructivism? How has this philosophy shaped the work of the computer clubhouses?

ROBBIN: Constructionism is project-based learning that occurs through the building and rebuilding of projects that you share with others. I view constructionism as an organic learning model because it grows in depth and breadth as it is expressed different local learning environments. This ability to adapt keeps the model regionally relevant and robust.

YASMIN: Seymour Papert who coined the term 'Constructionism' clearly distinguished it from 'Constructivism' that emphasizes the construction of knowledge by learners. Papert emphasized that indeed learners construct their own knowledge but they do so best by making things of social significance. In the end, you're constructing knowledge by constructing artifacts - be it a computer program, robot, or games - that represent your thinking. Equally important is the idea of 'social significance' that means that you do so with others and for others. I believe these two aspects, the artifacts and the social context, are what make constructionism a pedagogy of the 21st century. Today, we take it for granted that people socially interact and contribute via technology but twenty years ago this was a bold assertion.

Give us a sense of the scale of the Computer Clubhouse movement. What has allowed this project to achieve this level of scalability and sustainability?

KYLIE: Currently, the Computer Clubhouse Network is an international community of over 100 Computer Clubhouses located across 21 different countries around the world. The whole movement started with the opening of the Flagship Clubhouse in Boston in 1993 and grew with support from the Intel Foundation and several others to reach the point that it's at now. In my opinion, there are three crucial ingredients that led to the success of Computer Clubhouse movement.

First, the model establishes new Clubhouses within existing community organizations. This is helpful not just for management and advertisement in the local community, but also helps with long-term planning and additional funding support for the new Clubhouses. There are some challenges with this model of expansion, however. Primarily, local staff need training and support to adhere to the Clubhouse philosophy, which can be challenging for people coming from more traditional ways of thinking about informal learning spaces as "computer labs". Instead, Clubhouses are more like digital studios, and have a wide array of tools available for youth beyond just computers. Of course, there are other issues of coordinators gaining the technical expertise to run the Clubhouse but, as the coordinators will tell you, you can learn those skills on the job. Helping coordinators to uphold the ideals of the Clubhouse is an active central Network in Boston that provides ongoing support in the form of training for new Clubhouse staff, in-person visits from Network staff, and a cutting-edge intranet that connects all of the Clubhouses and coordinators.

The Clubhouse intranet provides a worldwide social network to share ideas, projects, host social events, and share insights on how to run a successful Clubhouse. Of course, what really sets Clubhouses apart is that these spaces are really youth-organized and run. At local Clubhouses, the youth run for executive offices and oftentimes take on leadership roles in the local community. If youth didn't find the Clubhouses to be engaging, the Network would cease to exist. Youth really drive the Clubhouses and return even after they graduate to help mentor future generations of members - another key sign of their commitment to the long-term success of these programs.

ROBBIN: The core principles of the Clubhouse model, with its grounding in the constructionist learning framework, are important because various mechanisms can be wrapped around the model to facilitate learning. In the case of the Clubhouse, digital technology is one layer. Other layers include local customs, materials, and modes of engagement. The model doesn't exist because of the technology; instead the technology is another material being used by the model. Because of this layering characteristic, the model is very adaptable to local needs and resources.

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.