Inside the Computer Clubhouse (Part Two of Three)

What do you see as the biggest impact the Computer Clubhouse movement has made on our current pedagogies around new media?

ROBBIN: When I think of pedagogies and new media one thought is that new media can serve as a powerful amplifier of human sociality, in this case around learning. Such new media pedagogies should catalyze, facilitate, and propagate individual and collective learning and teaching experiences. The Clubhouse has been a test bed for exploring how learners and mentors can engage learning from each other through digital media. One outcome has been how members and mentors come to view digital media as a material for expressing their ideas about learning and their community.

The MacArthur Foundation will be hosting an upcoming conference on Diversifying Participation. What lessons might we take from the Computer Clubhouses about how to support diversity in access and engagement with digital media?

KYLIE: The Clubhouse definitely serves as a great model for successful scale-up across diverse contexts, including across racial, gender, religious and national boundaries. One of the programs that the Network has adopted to foster diversity within the Clubhouses is “Girls Day”. Girls Day sets aside particular times and days where the Clubhouse is an all-girls site, where girls can feel comfortable learning new skills and trying out new projects in a safe space. As a result, the Computer Clubhouse Network has historically appealed equally to both boys and girls, which is uncommon in technology-rich settings.

It also seems to me that Clubhouse’s emphasis on creative production allows for both local adaptability and the ability to make something personally meaningful. The tools that are available at the Clubhouse sites have been chosen precisely because they allow youth to design their own projects and give them flexibility in the process. For example, at the LA Clubhouse site, a popular activity was to manipulate digital pictures of expensive cars, inserting a picture of yourself next to “your” ride. A young bi-racial African-American and Latino youth named Dwight extended this practice by creating a culture of “Low Rida” interactive Scratch projects. A Low Rida (or lowrider) is a customized car associated principally with the Mexican American community that first emerged amongst migrant workers during World War II. Lowrider art is now an established art form where youth draw or depict lowriders and is featured in magazines, like Lowrider magazine, along with pictures of customized cars, political reports, and advertisements for parts and accessories. In one of Dwight’s first projects, “Low Low,” the viewer controls the hydraulics on two cars using arrow and letter keys. Dwight’s contribution to the Clubhouse was to expand the genres of work in Scratch and incorporate new genres that are inclusive of his social practices. This resonated with others in the Clubhouse community, eventually drawing in several first-time users of Scratch who may have not otherwise engaged in this type of creative production. Low Ridas represent a conscientious and literate practice that stands in opposition to the pressure to assimilate into the American mainstream culture. In sum, the Clubhouse’s emphasis on design and tools for design seems to facilitate the ability to adapt to local contexts more so than, say, games that are by nature more embedded in the culture that produced them.

Early in the book, you describe your goal as to “inspire youth to think about themselves as competent, creative, and critical learners and citizens.” Break that down for us.

ROBBIN: Clubhouse member self-identification as critical thinkers is a product of their experiences in deep learning activities such as debugging, critical reflection, etc., and their exchanges with others learners in the Clubhouse. There are many ways to practice these skills, whether utilizing software (Pearls of Wisdom, for example), hardware (robotics, Legos, etc.), and people (working on team projects, exchanging ideas with other leaders, reacting to project feedback from other learners, etc.).

While the Clubhouse supports young people pursuing their own interests and projects, you also see adults as playing a strong role in the process. You describe these adults as “mentors” and not “teachers.” How do you characterize the distinction?

KYLIE: While there is considerable overlap, the distinction is important with regard to two factors: the nature of afterschool learning environments and support for the constructionist philosophy of the Clubhouse. On the first point, when we think of the role of a “teacher”, we’re envisioning the type of direct instruction that is common in schools. While direct instruction has merit, there are numerous characteristics of afterschool learning spaces that don’t look like those of your typical classroom–youth moving freely between activities in the Clubhouse, sporadic attendance, and the often irregular times that parents drop in to pick up their kids are a few of these factors. As a result, using a direct instruction model for projects that youth work on for a few days or weeks doesn’t really work. The second, and perhaps more important, factor in this distinction between our view of a “teacher” and a “mentor” is the role of a mentor as a muse, someone who supports the kids on self-directed projects, even if the mentor has very little expertise in the area. Being a mentor extends way beyond helping members to debug their projects; it’s about social networking and connecting youth with resources outside the Clubhouse; it’s about listening, advice giving and supporting; and it’s about co-creating with the youth. Some of the times that were most exciting for me at the Clubhouse in South LA were the times when neither of us (the member or me) knew the answer to a given problem. At one point, I was working with a youth that wanted to make a side-scrolling video game using Scratch. I had absolutely no idea how we were going to do this! We each came up with several ideas – none of them really worked, but he seemed to build some confidence in the fact that I didn’t know what I was doing either and I was getting a Ph.D. at UCLA at the time. That evening he continued to work after I left. The next day, he was soooo excited to show me the solution that he had come up with – one that neither of us had originally thought of. You could see it in his eyes that he was beaming with pride and shortly thereafter he told me that he wanted to be a professional game designer. These types of experiences made me realize that you really don’t need to know how to do everything in order for kids to discover new things. Being open to exploring the materials alongside youth is equally, if not more, valuable.

ROBBIN: I view the exceptional mentoring that takes place at the Clubhouse as a function of four core mentor “strengths;” mentor as model, cultivator, peer and network. While it is rare for a single individual to embody all these strengths, it is the combination and distribution of these attributes that determine the “feel” of a Clubhouse and the breadth and depth of the learning activities that take place. The “mentor as model” represents mentoring behaviors that expose members to how the adult goes about problem solving, learning new things, and how they articulate their meta-learning experiences. Members tend to be particularly drawn to mentors that exhibit this strength. The “mentor as cultivator” speaks to how mentors seed many of the “firsts” members discover during their time at the Clubhouse, including expectations of going to college, involved community citizenship, and connecting Clubhouse lessons to their dreams and aspiration. The “mentor as peer” is the person who encourages members to teach what they know to other Clubhouse members. These mentors tend also to encourage members to problem-solve and provide moral support while the member navigates this process. The members are then encouraged to share their understanding of meta-learning with their peers. Finally, the “mentor as network” refers to the mentor as a key resource, to people and ideas previously unavailable to the member through his or her personal networks. Exposure to a “larger world” than that experienced in their local neighborhood is a critical part of the learning and teaching that occurs at the Clubhouse.

You talk about the Computer Clubhouse as a “community of learners.” How important is it that they function as communities rather than provide services to individual learners?

KYLIE: This question is really at the heart of what makes the Computer Clubhouse unique. During one of our interviews for the book, one of the Clubhouse Coordinators put it in terms that really resonated with me. He was someone who had made quite a bit of money in a former career as a computer engineer in the .com era but was increasingly dissatisfied with his former job. As a result, he quit his job and started working at a local Computer Clubhouse, sharing his knowledge about computer programming and engineering with the Clubhouse youth. His daughter, on the other hand, was still attending a wealthy private school. He noted that despite having access to all of the same equipment at home and at school, the crucial ingredient that was missing was the community of learners engaged in shared activity. Even learning about technologies en masse in a computer class in school doesn’t provide the same arena for the development of personal interests, nor the amount of time to work in depth on your projects, using these technologies. Without it, he argued youth didn’t have the support from adults and peers to creatively engage with the technologies as youth have at the Clubhouse. It’s really not about the technologies, the communities and practices that emerge around the technologies are what are most important for meaningful and continued long-term engagement, which ironically is not part of technology programs even in wealthy and more well-off neighborhoods.

ROBBIN: A defining characteristic of a vibrant, productive community is its resiliency and strength. Such communities are themselves the “safety net” that protects its members and ensures their personal and professional development. Service providers may provide various safety net functions; however in most cases this requires the person being serviced to fit within a framework particular to the service provider. Clients must use the programs and services in particular ways that are determined by the service provider. The Clubhouse, as a learning community, provides a safety net without an excess of program constraints. Kids are members of the Clubhouse community. The resources of the Clubhouse belong to them and are their responsibility. They have a say in how their Clubhouse manages itself and how it grows. The Clubhouse is the launch point for new, future opportunities, including higher education and creative, successful careers based on the learning lessons of the Clubhouse. Also, the Clubhouse community is more than a group of learners and is deeply connected. Members and mentors develop lifelong relationships.

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.