March 7, 2012

Reflections on DML2012 and Visions of Educational Change

Categories: Connected Learning, Equity
DML 2012 conference room full of people

A few days back home after DML2012, I’ve been browsing through the blogosphere and tweet streams and reflecting on the various conversations I had at the event. One unfortunate side-effect of being part of the organizing is that I can’t get to many sessions, so I’m grateful for the after-party happening online. I wanted to pull one thread of my own learning related to this year’s theme, which centered on innovation, technology, and educational reform.


The theme and the Bay Area location was a provocation, designed by conference chair Diana Rhoten to confront key differences in how the DML community views innovation. She started the event with a call to action for our community to aspire to “audacious goals.” My burning questions through the event: What are these audacious goals? And what are the strategies that we are mobilizing to reach these goals?

On the question of different strategies — when we were planning the conference, we were inspired by a blog post by Paul Edelman on when to hack and when to stack education. He argues that we need innovations that are directed at both the edge and the core:

“Indeed, we need to make distinctions here. Education is a many fangled thing, not all of it served well by hacking. In some areas, our kids will be better served if we stack (that is, double down on what already works) instead of hack their experiences.”

As an educational researcher and practitioner who has worked outside of schools, from a youth-centered perspective, my personal inclinations have been decisively on the disruptive “hacking” side of the equation, but I’ve come to understand the importance of building bridges across different visions of change and innovation. I was heartened to see many more folks working in K12 schools this year, thanks in large part to the efforts of our conference committee member Antero Garcia. One high point of the event for me was having coffee with my “mentor” group. I got to connect with fellow scholars in games and learning who are working in schools and libraries, Crystle Martin and Jayne Lammers as well as John Patten, Director of Technology and Information Services for the Sylvan Union School District who is in the IT trenches putting in place progressive policies in his district. At what other event could I get to meet like-minded educators across this range of practice? This was definitely my DML2012 FTW moment.

The connected learning model that has inspired our research and community site has grown out of a recognition of the importance of bridging between the learning environments of interests, peer culture, and academic worlds. While my own research focuses on the geeky interest-driven sector, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of the “hanging out” sector of kids’ friendships, as well as the importance of learning institutions such as schools, libraries, and museums.

While feeling a sense that we are getting a little better at building connections across diverse sectors — classrooms, libraries, entertainment, youth serving programs, families, youth culture — I also was left with the question as to whether we are really about stacking at all, or rather about cross-sector hacking. It’s easy to confuse these things — particularly when it comes to funding and strategies for change. Which brings me to the plenary on Investing in Education Innovation, moderated by Betsy Corcoran (EdSurge) and featuring Carina Wong (Gates Foundation), Connie Yowell (MacArthur Foundation) and Mitch Kapor (Mitch Kapor Foundation).


Steve Hargadon has an excellent analysis of the panel in terms of “A ‘Tail’ of Two Ed Tech Agendas.”

“Ed tech reform in the head is about using money to scale simplified solutions of that which is popular, or the status quo. Ed tech reform in the tail is about using the network to provide freedom and choice. Ed tech reform in the head is like a diet pill, addressing the symptoms, whereas ed tech reform in the tail is like learning to eat healthfully, addressing the cause. The diet pill is easy, learning to grow and eat healthy food is much harder.”

I don’t think the panelists, or anyone at DML2012 would dispute that we share a common commitment to educational innovation that is directed toward more equitable access to learning opportunity, and that technology can play a key role in helping with this agenda. But what Steve’s post highlights is that there are key differences in strategy and approach. The most relevant distinction is not whether we are working in school or out of school, but where we look for our problems, solutions, and inspirations for change. 

Those who are addressing the head see the goal of reform investment as improving the existing core functions of schooling, and making them work more efficiently and equitably. By contrast, those who are in the tail, or to use John Seely Brown’s terms, the edge, question whether the existing metrics of achievement and sorting can achieve the goals of a more equitable educational system. Connie was the one voice on the panel clearly working from the tail, and as you can expect, that’s where you will find me as well.


My mentor in educational research, Ray McDermott is fond of saying “school is where you show up to display what you already know.” He’s not suggesting that people don’t learn anything in school, but rather forcing us to confront the fact schools sort kids based on what they know, and not all of what they know is gained in school. In other words, high-stakes sorting based on knowledge that kids have differential access to is fundamentally unfair. In Successful Failure: The School America Builds, Ray argues (together with Shelley Goldman and Herve Varenne) that too often efforts that focus on optimizing the existing sorting mechanism, or “leveling the playing field” do not address the more fundamental inequities of the sorting mechanism itself.

“When competition on level playing fields is upheld as a cultural model both of the way the world is and of the way it should be, getting unfair advantage is what makes sense for people to do. The more fields are leveled, the more the people who race can be seen reconstructing new obstacles for those behind them.”

For every heroic story of success we hold up, it casts a long shadow on all the other kids who have failed, for whatever reason. It is tragic that talent is being overlooked because of accidents of birth, but what does this mean for the kids who don’t get plucked up when the playing field is tweaked and tilted? Do they deserve to be left behind in the race to be college ready for elite schools and jobs?

If we have a standardized and competitive set of metrics of educational achievement, education will never elevate all young people equally. Even if we are able to reshuffle the deck for a lucky few, success will always breed failure in such a system. It is a structural inevitability. We can lament achievement gaps, and we can make heroic efforts at leveling playing fields, but as long as education is structured as a high stakes competitive race with a limited number of winners, it will always produce widespread and systemic inequity. I think the history of school reform in this country, as well as recent lessons from Finland, underscore that this not a purely theoretical argument.

My reason for working on the edge is not because I don’t believe in school or classroom learning, but because the system of education in this country, taken as a whole, is structured to produce heartbreaking forms of inequity. But what would it mean if we didn’t conceptualize education as a race towards scarce individualized achievements, but a process of collective play and inquiry with outcomes that are discovered not given?


This is where John Seely Brown comes in, as my mentor in embracing an entrepreneurial mindset in working from the edges of educational reform, and Connie Yowell as the leader of the DML initiative that has translated this approach into a philanthropic strategy that isn’t about scaling as brute force “pushing” or “replicating” of innovation, but of connection across networks.

John kicked off his keynote by stating that “Technology is the easy part. The hard part is social and institutional.” And then he goes on to explain that our institutions need to embrace play and making as much as they embrace knowledge. What would it look like if our educational success was keyed to experimentation and uncertain outcomes, or as Doug Belshaw argues — “it’s what you can’t see that counts…processes and networks.” Or as Bud the Teacher suggests, scaling should be about building connections based on love and care, and focusing on what we put into the system, not on the outputs.

I’m with Doug and Bud. We need to be looking much more at the connections, relationships, and spirit of inquiry that goes into the system, and focusing less on optimizing measures and pathways that sort kids, schools, and teachers based on output metrics. Or as Paul Gray has forcefully argued, real reform can’t work inside a compulsory school system where we tinker with inputs but where the outputs are pre-determined:

“A little “freedom” in a system where success is measured by tests doesn’t work, because free children don’t choose to learn the test answers. “Play” in a setting where children are segregated by age and are constrained in what they can play at is not a particularly effective learning tool.” 

Efforts to reshuffle the deck, or to offer spaces of freedom and play within dominant regimes of assessment can make a difference for individual kids, but aren’t going to result in systemic change. And this has implications for one of the more controversial topics at this year’s conference:


I won’t delve into the intricacies of the thoughtful perspectives put forth by folks like Audrey Watters, Alex Halavais, Cathy Davidson, Mitch Resnick, David Goldberg, Dan Hickey and Henry Jenkins, among many others. I’m not an assessment expert, a motivation expert, or immersed in the badges work. I do have a few opinions on badges though that come from my perspective on innovation, experimentation, and networked models of change.

First, a badge is only as good as the community, learning philosophy, and theory of change attached to it. It follows that I want badges that correct for imbalances and singularity in achievement metrics. For me, any form of competitive credentialing that is high stakes and overwhelmingly dominant is bad. Badges can fall into that camp, but can also perform a diversifying function in achievement metrics. As Dan Hickey notes, “the motivational consequences of rewards are highly contextual,” so being attuned to that broader context is critical.

It’s been interesting to see how, as powerful players have waded into this agenda, it has challenged elements of subcultural capital and edge innovation in our community. I think it’s been a good test for us to try to walk this balance of power and interests. I also understand and recognize the grouchiness about the amount of attention being poured into badging at the expense of many other worthy forms of development and experimentation. It’s a fair complaint. But I don’t expect that badges will be the be all and end all in DML innovation themes and competitions. I’m with Henry in supporting badges as “one interesting model for thinking about how to insure greater respect for the value of informal learning,” but certainly not the only one.

I appreciate all the cautionary notes about how badges can and will be used for various forms of evil, including commercialized gamification, a resurgence of behaviorist nastiness, or a way of colonizing play with the logic of achievement and ranking. All of these are valid concerns. Badges in the hands of unrestrained capitalism, narrow views of learning, and those who advocate for singular forms of competition will all lead to the dark side. But we’re talking about the DML community here. I think we can move forward with cautious optimism. Blind faith is bad, but a bit of trust and support can go a long way in a community of people who share a philosophy of learning and core values of equity. So yes, I’d love to see ongoing thoughtful critique, but also a bit more recognition that we’re not talking badges in the generic here, but badges in the hands of edge innovators who care about a socially connected, interest-driven and equitable learning ecosystem.

As Alex Halavais suggests, we shouldn’t be framing our conversation as whether we are “for or against” badges or if badges are “good or bad.” What I’d like to ask is, “What kinds of badges do we want to support,” and then I believe we need to actively rally around this positive vision of badges to provide an alternative to the unhappy versions. Otherwise, badges really will pull us toward the dark side.


And finally, after launching our research network site and new community site around connected learning, I’m already learning a ton about varied perspectives and players that have been part of building toward shared goals with complementary approaches. I’ve been heartened by the enthusiastic response as well as the thoughtful posts and tweets pointing out our blind spots and omissions. I want to emphasize that those of us launching new research and seeking to facilitate community and connection are fellow travelers and seekers.

At the DML Hub, this is our moment of reaching out after puzzling for many years over how we might do that, where we are starting new investigations and seeking to support new forms of connection. This is the message I was trying to give in my ignite talk, to call out for new collaborations that leverage the power of our distributed networks to connect those of us who share not only a vision of a more equitable educational system, but a similar model of networked innovation and change. I feel we have an emerging network of innovators, educators, funders, and creators who can diversify the inputs and pathways for learning, and broaden our imagination of what successful learning outcomes look like. This kind of innovation can only scale if it is pursued end-to-end, in a spirit of radically inclusive diversity united by shared purpose, principles, and platforms. How else will we achieve the audacious goals Diana set out for us at the opening of DML2012?

Banner image credit: DML Central