MAS.714J | Fall 2009 | Graduate

Technologies for Creative Learning


Reading responses for Week #6: Communities of Learners

Reflection and Questions

Posted by AB, VC and, FG

During the first hour of class we will be discussing Ito, et al’s Living and Learning with New Media. Focus on the beginning (Executive Summary) and the Conclusions and Implications section (pp 35 - 40).

For your blog entry, tell us a story about an experience learning informally about something you were interested in. How did this differ from your experiences learning in more structured settings (i.e. school)?

What, if any, community resources did you use, and how did your community affect your learning process? How do you imagine these experiences would be different if you were coming of age today with the increased availability of new media?

Student Reading Responses

Posted by JC

A few years ago, a friend of mine wanted me to paint a design on his flight helmet. I had been interested in learning how to airbrush, but I didn’t have a project in mind to motivate me to play. Now that I had a vision to play with, I started using online blogs, magazines, and Web sites to learn what supplies to start with. I started playing with the airbrush on paper to get used to using it - holding, control, paint flow, etc. The majority of my informal learning was done on my own exploring the new method of painting. I eventually got comfortable enough to take a crack at painting the helmet. With practice and play, I eventually completed a simple design.

I imagine if I had taken a class, my learning experience would have been drastically different. Typical art courses I’ve had involved structured exercises, mini projects, formal critiques, etc. I personally need a vision to shoot for - in this case it was the flight helmet. However, I enjoyed learning the airbrush by just playing at my own pace and free to explore in the directions that made sense at the time. Admittedly, a structured learning environment may have given me an expert’s guidance. I also would have been around other students in the same struggle.

My “community” was online. I frequently visited Web sites for feedback from experienced people. Streaming video sources provided visual instruction as well. Being my airbrush learning occurred only 5 years ago, I had a rich online resource which I frequented for information and depended upon. I consistently use Web sites and streaming video for instruction in learning/playing.

Posted by FG

What you wrote about the need for a personal guiding vision in order to learn is interesting. I myself have very little experience in visual arts of any kind, be it drawing, painting or others [save as a child], and have no particular interest in them. However, just recently I found myself learning informally about airbrush technique too, as I was online searching and reading about airbrush paints and supplies for designing and decorating gourmet chocolate - a possible project for Pr. Neil Gershenfeld’s class ‘How to Build Almost Anything’ that I am taking here at the Media Lab. I didn’t go as far as reaching out to the online communities of designers of edible art, but might do so if my project gets the green light. Perhaps like you, I needed to have a motivating factor- a concrete chocolate project - in order to learn about airbrush. Only in my case, I had no initial interest in learning about the technique. Had it not been for my idea of a chocolate design class project, I would never have learned or even heard about airbrush.

This is what I call a case of ‘accidental’ learning, one that happens by chance, although one may also describe it as resulting naturally from a need or conditions in the course of work or play around a project. But as your case illustrates, this can also act as a powerful motivator if there is already an initial interest in learning something.

Thank you for sharing!

Posted by DG

I agree, having a goal to work towards allows you to prioritize and trim the tree of possibilities that bog one down when they have no goals. This especially seems to be true when one is first learning about the craft. For instance, when I was a child I used to build the the picture on the box when I got the new LEGO kit, and afterward I would then experiment and build my own creations. The toy we played with in class last week used a locomotion challenge to guide our initial experimentation.

Posted by MN

In your case, the online resources and community provided just the right method for learning how to airbrush at your own pace and the desire to freely explore. Also, the painting activity that is visually suitable for learning through streaming video makes the digital platform a great place to learn. In the case of figuring out a particular functionality of a computer software, however, I wonder if there is a way to make the digital learning cater towards the exact need of the user (ex. going directly to the problem and being instructed with the knowledge just around the context of what you want to know). In the case of learning how to operate the software with only a partial knowledge of the manual, it would be interesting to see what could replace the instant feedback from a real-life instructor or mentor. I guess a combination of video-streaming, video chatting, and a smart recognition algorithm that will instantly figure out what exactly you’re stuck with.

Posted by SL

Who would guess that an Easter egg is a great conduit for informal learning about technology—in ways that approach “geeking out?” Decorating Easter eggs was one of my favorite activities growing up, a chance to express myself using unusual and colorful materials. My sister, brother and I would wait eagerly through the year for the night to arrive when we would mix strange and unusual dyes, wax different parts of the egg so that we could dye it in layers, add pipe cleaners and magazine photos and all sorts of paraphernalia to create “The Quintessential Egg.” It was great fun, and we looked forward to that night of crazed creation every year.

A few years ago I informally sponsored a small competition within the fab lab network to make a cool, decorative Easter egg using fab lab tools and processes. In the interest of “eating my own dog food,” I too participated in the contest. The first year of the fab egg contest I decided the laser etch an egg. I never had laser cut an egg before, and neither had anyone I knew. But I was determined to do so and with great effort, through many iterations, and with lots of help from peers and experts, I figured it out. First I had to create a rotary tool for the laser cutter. While the lab had a rotary device for the cutter, it was definitely not made for holding fragile eggshells and none of the other labs had a rotary tool either so I had to start from scratch. Then I had to figure out how to etch a flat design on a round (ish) surface—which involved playing with the software a lot, and then playing with my makeshift rotary tool. There were lots and lots of iterations. Occasionally I would consult the local experts (John DiFrancesco, Amy Sun, Kenny Cheung, Manu Prakash, Amon Millner, etc.) as they passed by the laser. They didn’t have the answers, but they did have techniques based on experience that helped point the way forward. Eventually (after hyperventilating several times to the point of passing out while blowing the egg interiors out through tiny holes in the tops and bottoms of the eggs) I succeeded and created a basketful of eggs etched with the MIT logos and memorabilia. It was so much fun, and I learned so much about the laser cutter, the software, and the rotary device. It was terrific! And I was hooked.

The next year I upped the ante, so to speak, and made my egg a blinking light circuit. I appropriated a LED multiplexing circuit design from the HowToMakeAlmostAnything class, and rerouted it so that I could cut the circuit on the vinyl cutter with flexible copper foil, in one layer, and have it fit over the rounded surface of my egg. After that I had to actually solder all the components onto the surface of the egg. This was not an easy process, as eggshells are not the most cooperative substrate for soldering. Then I cracked into the program code and figured out how to make the 12 LEDs blink in a sequence that looked circular to the eye. Again, I got help from peers and experts around me (Amy Sun stayed up all night helping me with the programming). I was so intent on making the coolest egg that I would stop at nothing to make “The Quintessential Egg.” No one was grading me, but my project was going to be seen and critiqued by an international gathering of peers in the fab lab network. I finished up at about 8AM before the contest deadline, and I decorated my egg as a Vegas dance girl, complete with feathers and a sparkly crown. She was a hit. I won second prize.

It seems that this kind of the project-based, personally motivated choice of subject matter can be extremely powerful. The motivation for me was tremendous. I wanted to learn everything possible to make my eggs great and I would search far and wide to figure out how to do this. There was no online documentation to consult, but there was a community of fabricators, both online and physically present, who helped support and scaffold all of us through the process of making our eggs. Where there was no documentation before, now there is documentation for others to follow. As the participants shared our projects and processes with one another online (using VOIP tools), we learned from one another about different ways to handle the laser, the rotary, the electronics, etc. Judging and critique occurred between peers and experts who helped us along the way. And we continue to offer informal competitions every year or so, as motivation to others in the network, participating ourselves as both fabricators and advisors.

This kind of passionate but geeky pursuit of a silly idea would be very unlikely to happen in a school setting—the learning, though powerful, was too unstructured and difficult to measure according to state assessment mandates. The topic, on the surface, lacked content and validity. In a school setting, the critique would have been less meaningful for the right reasons (really wanting good feedback from others doing the same thing) but very meaningful for the wrong reasons (wanting that good grade, impressing the teacher). Wanting the grade and the teacher’s approval would have affected just about every decision I made in the process, including the subject matter. It seems that with online and new media resources, and especially the ability to socially network and to document with video online, the learning experience can be more personal and powerful, and one can truly participate as a peer in a community of practice in meaningful ways. This kind of project-based competition/collaboration with a network of peers would offer a great experience for a student to sample what it might be like to participate in professional societies in the future workplace. And the experience includes a much broader community than that of the local teacher and classmates, it includes experts from outside who can help scaffold learning and create a more powerful learning event.

Posted by FG

This is a wonderful and inspiring example. I have to say it reminded me of the family tradition of decorating eggs during the Orthodox Easter celebrations in Russia, where I lived before coming to Boston. Everyone in the family takes part, although it is essentially seen as an activity for children. You can find all sorts of colorful egg-decorating kits in stores and supermarkets a few weeks before the holiday. They look attractive and deceptively easy to use, but as my own attempts at using them, this is an activity that requires time, patience and some skills using arts tools. I found it hard to believe these kits are marketed for children. It is true though, that this is something that Russian children always do with adult guidance, even though it is in the informal setting of the family, with parents, grandparents and siblings to help them. Schools also set a day for decorating eggs at Easter time, although this is a more structured activity.

I am curious to know what you all think about the learning scenario SL described which concluded with a contest. What is the role - if at all - of a competition, game with prizes, and the like, in such collaborative experiences as we are documenting here? Are we learning better, faster, with more motivation when we know we will be judged for the product of our learning activity, when we have competitors?

Posted by SL

Tavareesh! Thanks for the great feedback. In reflecting on this activity, the contest was an important part of the process, but it was not so much the winning that interested me, as it was wanting to show off, and contributing to the general knowledge and creativity of the moment. Competitions are quite popular in high schools these days, and it seems with good reason. They are great motivators. However, it might have been just as effective if I had a public deadline, say for an exhibition. Anchoring activities around a public event or deadline might stimulate similar motivation. For me it really was about being able to show off to others who would appreciate the kind of work that went into it… much like the youth in the Ito paper, the fansubbers who weren’t very interested in posting their videos on YouTube as the feedback wasn’t as meaningful as feedback from their own community. For me it was the interactive audience that was compelling.

Posted by VC


This is a great story! Laser-cutting an egg, how cool!

I get really into crafty holiday projects as well (I just carved a rad godzilla jack-o-lantern), but my creative side doesn’t really come out except around the times when I get to make things like that. Are you motivated to be crafty on your own during non-holidays?

I’m interested in hearing more about when people are really moved to pursue their own interests. I tend to do it only for special occasions. There’s a great This American Life episode where David Rackoff, a craft hobbyist and one of the contributors to the show, visits Martha Stewart Living. The question posed on teaser is, “If his hobby became his job, he wonders, would it still be fun?” I won’t ruin the piece by telling you the answer, but I’ll give you the link!

Meet the Pros.” This American Life, Episode 192. Original air date: August 31, 2001.

Thanks for sharing!

Posted by SL

I too think special occasions inspire these spurts of creativity, including holidays, birthdays, and virtually any celebratory event. Unfortunately these spurts are harder and harder to wedge into our overfilled schedules. The resulting projects have always represented time carved out of the insane pace of regular life. And that’s too bad. Why can’t we find that satisfaction in the course of daily life? Why can’t our kids find it in school? Creativity and learning can bring such joy into life. It is a great goal to work toward finding that magic in the everyday.

I can’t wait to listen to the This American Life episode you link to above, it’s one of my favorite shows. I’m going to bet this episode tracks to my own experience a bit- in that if this hobby became a job, it could either become a deeper passion, or it could become a bore… but 99% of that is up to the protagonist to determine.

Posted by VC

I became interested in nutrition as a child, and I’m not quite sure how it happened. My parents had a subscription to Reader’s Digest, and I remember reading articles about diabetes and heart disease risk, boosting immunity, and the importance of exercise, and I took it to heart. Much to my parents’ chagrin, I was probably the only 8-year-old who refused to eat sandwiches because she saw partially-hydrogenated vegetable oil on the ingredients list and worried about the repercussions of having too much trans-fat in her diet. Except when refusing to eat my parents’ food, however, I never talked much about this interest. I knew it was a “nerdy” interest, and I worried that I would be judged as having some sort of problem. My sister was entering her teen years and a few of her friends had developed eating disorders; I worried that if other people found out how much I thought about food, I’d be categorized in the same way.

It’s funny because, despite being a dedicated follower of health news (I always stole the health section of the newspaper from my parents), I never paid much attention in health class. My knowledge of fitness and nutrition went far beyond what they taught in school (this is more a reflection of my school system rather than my knowledge), and I got annoyed with my classmates for their lackadaisical attitude towards something that I took very seriously. I mostly felt like my peers were holding me back from learning things I wanted to know.

For the most part, I avoided community resources in my self-guided endeavor, but I wonder if things would have been different if I had some kind of like-minded web community. At the very least, I probably would have been less embarrassed by my interest. Perhaps I could have found a partner in crime instead of being a somewhat lonely child!

Posted by AL

I was selected to participate in a gallery show in 2005. It was a group show consisting of different artists designing the decks of surfboards, which were printed onto silk and glassed into actual boards. I wanted to make a large collaged image of interstellar particles but with images of headlamps as the planets. The only way to do this was by using Photoshop-which I had on my computer but didn’t know how to use. I also only had 2 days to do the design. I basically bought a book and called a couple of intermediate Photoshop users to help me through the process.

With a program like Photoshop, even if one was to take a class for it, the best way to learn is by practicing and by learning from your peers. Others find so many shortcuts that would be difficult to teach in a classroom setting.

Posted by JP

About ten years ago, I joined a group of people who studied fine arts together. The unique and common thing among members was that there was no people who were actually majoring in fine arts. For me, I worked for a construction company and I was an architectural engineer. One of my close friends in the group was majoring library and information science who always wanted to study abstract painting. From Monday to Friday, from 6 PM to 10 PM, members gathered in a studio and did whatever they wanted. On weekend, we casually met at a bar and enjoyed chatting about our double lives with fine arts. Some people focused on oil painting, some people on sculpture and some people on croquis. I started with croquis, developed my skills into designs and changed my interests in medical illustration like anatomical drawings and skeletal sketches. Later, we could hire professional instructors and nude models biweekly together.

One major part of the group activity was sharing experience, exchanging our trials and errors and tutoring each other. Since all members were novices in fine arts and lacked in knowledge, any information and even a tiny little experience of using different materials was great help in improving each other’s work. I learned about basic skills in sketching and collages; most of my foundation in painting was achieved by this group activity. On the other hand, I could teach architectural representation like perspectives and model making techniques. Since every member had different interests and various types of works, our tutorials and comments on each other’s works looked unorganized and even inappropriate sometimes. On the contrary, I remembered this multi-cultural and cross-genre (the truth was there was no genre at all) discussions were the best part of our activity. We discussed each other’s oil painting (from abstract to highly detailed drawing), water-color painting, mobile sculpture, self-portrait all the same time. We even compared an abstract oil painting and kinetic structure. I guessed that our amateurism - lacking in experience but passionate - allowed us to encourage to do something new regardless of the result, and to cheer each other up all the time. I guess this learning experience - always cheerful and enjoyable and educating in parallel - is the ideal structure for any kind of learning for children.

Posted by FG

JP’s experience, as the others posted so far, is a great example of community-supported learning: learning by sharing with others and mentoring one another, which is proving very effective.

Judging by this experience with painting, and JC’s here above and SL’s egg decoration endeavors here below, as well as other comments in our previous discussions, it seems that fine arts and the arts generally lend themselves particularly well to cooperative learning. I would be curious to hear about experiences in other spheres, perhaps the more ‘academic’ or traditional ones from schools’ curriculum, what is generally considered ‘core subjects’ like foreign languages or technical skills like programming. Admittedly, it takes more dedication and discipline to pursue these on a purely hobby-based level. Anyone with experience learning one of these subjects for themselves, for personal enjoyment, and with the help of other people, pooling resources and sharing knowledge?

JP also makes a very interesting comment regarding the ‘fun’ that resulted from his collaborative experience learning with amateurs and the support and camaraderie that developed. Although there is no doubt that such a safe, fun and optimistic atmosphere is conductive to effective learning, I would like to suggest that we look at the real world, in which conditions are not always optimal for acquiring and practicing new skills. Probably as our own experiences would attest, one’s learning path in life is less than easy and without bumps along the way. I would think one of the core skills to learn in one’s personal education is perseverance when the going gets tough, to stick with it even during the most arduous learning moments. Also, there are still plenty of areas of knowledge and practice, such as learning to play the violin, grammatical declensions in various foreign languages or all sorts of sports that require hours of arduous solitary practice. An athlete such as a figure skater still has to do daily stretching exercises and rehearse his moves on his/her own, often as part of a grueling regime if training at the competitive level. This is not especially ‘fun’. Whether we like it or not, there are still plenty of spheres that by definition involve a boring routine of regular practice. Perhaps this is an area where educational innovation is needed!

But for now, wouldn’t it be teaching children a valuable life skill to not be afraid of ‘boring’ or difficult, ’non-fun’ learning activities? Life is not always fun, so learning how to deal with that productively seems to be a skill in itself in my opinion. And by the way, perhaps this can be done using human resources too.

To illustrate my point, I have to say I am slightly disappointed in my brother’s decision to let his 7-year old son, Louis, who was up to now learning the violin, to switch to the cello on the basis that it is ’easier to learn’ than the violin. Indeed, especially at the beginning, the violin can be very discouraging because it takes a long time for a novice to be able to play little tunes. The piano is kinder to first-time learners, as children can start playing something coherent much sooner. Same thing with the cello. Fair enough. But opting for what’s ’easier’ - what kind of life lesson is that for a child? What about personal love and appreciation of a particular instrument, questions of musical taste and style? These in my opinion should motivate our educational choices, not simply the ’ease’ of learning them.

What do you all think?

Posted by JC

In regards to the comment regarding technical learning, or something outside of arts and crafts (art was a core subject back in the day), I have taken the same approach to learning as I have with the airbrush. For instance, I enjoy learning new programming languages in order to determine what new things the languages allow me to do and how existing concepts are implemented. When I’ve picked up a new programming language, I tend to have a project in mind; something I want to implement or work towards. I access all resources possible: books, online tutorials, reference Web sites, etc.

The beauty about learning new programming languages is that I rarely need to actually talk to anyone else face to face. Online resources are more than sufficient for me to explore and play. This allows me to play whenever I have free time or general inspiration. I am not tied to any real physical source for learning (except for the obvious of needing a decent laptop).

I find computing related learning to be convenient in terms of resources available to help. Art is not so easy as there is a strong physical component. Other topics, such as anything mechanical, I have found myself in a mentoring type situation. For instance, learning to work on cars is something I don’t typically tackle alone; I make use of resident experts willing to let me hang around and play. 

Posted by ZH

I think learning together at the same level is very different from learning when you have some experienced ones in your group.

Definitely, if there are some people you can always ask for, it will make your learning process more “efficient”. But you also lost the chances to explore them by yourselves and the best part like you said: the discussion.

Actually sometimes we do not care the final skill we get so much, but we do care the process, and what we get through the exploring.

Posted by JP

I like your point of differentiating the level of learning. I guess it will be very useful and effective to divide students in various level of learning. My questions is then how to divide children, how to evaluate children.

I also like your comment of the purpose of the process rather than result. I guessed the feeling of satisfaction came from the process in which people cared more on exploration than the result in my case (group study of fine arts). I know some schools have Pass/Fail grade system in which student can focus on learning itself without worry about grade. (For some students, even B+ means failure). I guess it is great to discuss together about what other ways for children to enjoy the learning rather than competition.

Posted by DG

I’m an optimist and most of the learning that I do involves a lot more pain and suffering than I ever imagined. In fact, my friends and I have coined a term for this style of learning that we’ve dubbed “insta-expert”. By severely underestimating the difficulty of the tasks and not even realizing, or having knowledge of, what the actual difficult parts will be, one can quickly get into a sink or swim learning style that I’ve found to be extremely successful, but very challenging.

Often times reflecting on a challenge, I realize that if I had known how difficult, time consuming, or painful it would be, I would never have done it. Through the process of the insta-expert all one needs to do is refuse to give up, go without food and sleep, and muscle through the pain. When I competed in cayuco race down the panama canal (ocean to ocean), I did not know anything about what would actually be involved. It turns out that not tipping over, bailing the boat, and getting back in after it capsizes were three challenges that we never considered, but the most surprising was the shear pain we experienced in our buttocks and the challenge of staying hydrated with no restroom facilities on our boat. During our preparation, and I use that word loosely, we thought that arm strength and synchronizing our paddling would be difficult — that turned out to be non-issues.

On a kayak trip in Maine, we didn’t realize the importance that tides would play in our trip. The difficulty of paddling and navigating in the fog, was also underestimated. The most serious problem we could of faced was averted at the last minute — on our way up we stopped at an outfitter to pick up some more gear and purchased maps of the islands without which we would not have been able to navigate the maze of islands and rivers.

These two trips are just a few of the many I’ve underestimated the difficulty that I forced me to learn at an extremely rapid pace. Additionally, I find that when I write software I often pick up tasks that if I knew the complexity of I would never have started – this is often termed the “weekend project”; where a developer postulates that could solve that problem in a weekend, which if tried often turns into months as the complexity involved unfolds.

Posted by FG

Well, this proves my point that there can be, in fact there are many cases of painful learning situations, that it is not all easy and rosy - as I explained here earlier in response to JP’s post. I love the ‘realism’ of this example, thanks for posting!

Posted by DL

Your post got me thinking about the differences of formal and informal learning, and you’ve touched on a great point about how formal learning really sucks out a lot of the “uncertainty” in learning. With the way classroom activities/assignments/projects are structured in schools, students always know how difficult something would be because they know that teachers won’t ask them about something they haven’t learned in class. So kids are able to identify the limits of the “problem space” and work within that. But in real life, problems don’t come neatly packaged, directing you to certain sections of your classroom notes for the answers.

Posted by SL

You bring up a couple of great examples and points here. First, the thirst for knowledge and the context motivates meaningful, just-in-time learning. This can be seen over and over again in project-based learning. Second, the insta-expert approach might work for some if they choose it knowingly, and clearly you have chosen this approach and it works for you. But if someone (a teacher or parent) imposes this approach on a student, it can be a deterrent to learning. You really have to want that knowledge badly to be willing to go through this kind of pain and iteration. When someone else is dictating the subject matter and the method of learning, this could be overwhelming, and the student might just give up. I’ve seen this happen from time to time and it breaks my heart. I can see that the student wants the knowledge and is willing to work hard for it, but is overwhelmed by the challenges and barriers and doesn’t have enough scaffolding to support the learning. On the one hand, it is great to have complexity unfold over time, that’s an ideal learning environment. But educators have to walk a fine line between supporting complexity and discovery, and offering complexity beyond the student’s current capacity to learn and integrate knowledge.

Posted by RC

When I was very young I took a trip to China and my cousins “taught” me how to play Chinese Chess. I learned by watching them play with each other and then playing them myself. At first I would make a bunch of illegal moves which they were sure to point out, but slowly I got the hang of it. Even when I knew how each piece moved, I was still terrible. It took time to pick up little tips and tricks before I became a worthy opponent. I learned how to place pieces to be on the defensive while advancing others to play offensively. What was different about learning how to play in an informal environment was that I had more opportunities to fail and learn from it. If I had learned to play in a structured setting I would’ve been taught the typical starting moves and where pieces should be placed for the best defensive strategies. However, I wouldn’t have understood why. Additionally, in a structured setting I wouldn’t have learned the importance of knowing your opponent because my opponent would be just as inexperienced and be continuously changing. Since I played the same cousins over and over again, I knew what strategies each one preferred and could therefore be more effective with my own strategies.

With the increased availability of new media, I would assume I could learn to play chess just as well today by reading about people’s tactics on forums or by registering on an online site to play opponents. The site might even have a sense of community where people are willing to give you pointers when you lose to them, or have a competitive nature where you work hard to become better than everyone else and increase in some kind of rank. Both of these techniques would help one improve drastically.

Posted by FG

Chess is something I’ve always thought I wanted to learn ‘at some point in my life’, but I never had a ‘burning desire’ to do so. I also, unlike you, never had someone ‘who happened to be there [i.e. a family member or friend] to learn from. As a result, to this day I’ve still never sat down to learn chess. So your example highlights the difference that having human resources that happen to be in one’s natural, everyday environment can make.

It is also useful to read about what you think of today’s online resources for learning the game. I have to say that despite the Net’s ease of access, I haven’t been motivated enough to search and navigate these resources. So learning through the Net’s vast resources and communities does take some time, effort and dedication in my opinion. It can all look deceptively easy and accessible sometimes.

Posted by DL

Given that it is pumpkin season and I haven’t worked with pumpkins before, I spent the weekend learning about pumpkins. I wanted to carve pumpkins and make pumpkin pie from real pumpkins. My learning took about 15 minutes—enough time for me to search online to see what types of pumpkins are best for carving and what are best for eating. Then found some advice as to how to prepare the pumpkin for carving and baking, and it was all smooth sailing from there.

I guess my point is that traditional views of “learning” tend to be viewed as something that takes a long time, and can only be acquire after many trials and tribulations (could this be why some teachers purposely make learning so boring and miserable?). But with the new media ecology, learning has taken on new connotations. We are able to learn things much faster and with much less effort than before.

Posted by RC

I think you bring up some great points. I love that new media makes it easy to learn things on a whim. When I was younger I’d always see things that were cool and want to learn how to do it (tumbling for example), but I could never commit to classes or find someone to teach me. Now with the internet (especially YouTube videos) it’s easy to quickly pick up tips and things to try whenever I feel the urge to learn something.

Posted by ZH

One thing I really want to mention here is the experience I have in Shanghai, where I live for twenty years. There is a place, called Mecooon, which used to be a factory loft but now it is a space for the contemporary drama performance. At Mecooon, it is always free for all the audience to watch the play. At the same time, it is also a place open to all the independent drama groups for practicing during the daytime. Moreover, they organize a lot of salons and lectures talking about the contemporary stage performance.

In fact, Mecooon play a main role in building such a community for the people who love contemporary drams, especially for those who are not professional drama groups.

Before “being a fan of Mecooon”, I think drama to me was just a very normal hobby. Once the first time I went to Mecooon, I was deeply fascinated by the passion from all the participants and the amazing culture there. After that, I almost went to Mecooon every week. Actually Mecooon also attracts a large group of volunteers to run this space. I remembered that I was a volunteer for a series plays as a light controller. As a volunteer there, I learned a lot about the drama related knowledge and also some techniques like lighting control. More important is that I get so many chances to know people who have the same interests and I can exchange the ideas with them

And two years ago, Mecooon recommended me to assistant a French director who was making a documentary movie in China. That was also an amazing learning experience about making documentary movie to me.

Mecooon is far beyond a physical space for drama performance. And two years ago, Mecooon also built their online community. People can have very hot discussion through that. Two month ago, through its Web site, Mecooon organized a competition, asking for new media drama works using video.

Posted by MN

During my consulting internship with the San Francisco Symphony, I came across Ito, et al’s white paper, Living and Learning with New Media, and used his concepts last summer to give recommendations for the new version of kids’ Web site the symphony was planning on building. What struck me most was the radical new model of learning- and consequently future schools- the digital media model was suggesting us. Thanks to the ability to:

  1. Tinker around the pool of potential new skills and knowledge without the pressure of results and formality
  2. Instantly communicate, collaborate, provide and receive feedbacks
  3. Tap into the vast global community of geeks who encourage deeper learning through informal “mentorship”

The potential level of engagement that a new digital learning system could elicit from a child is very significant. However, what I also discovered is the complications in selectively introducing the most effective contents to the child and enforcing some constraints on the child’s use of the contents so that some productive goals are met and the child’s time with form of learning is balance with real-life learnings. Since openness and casualness could also means that adults are giving up some control over the “result” of the child’s time (while tinkering around), it will be interesting to see how we figure out how to balance a reasonable control and productivity without overbearing the child’s creativity and engagement.

Q1: For your blog entry, tell us a story about an experience learning informally about something you were interested in. How did this differ from your experiences learning in more structured settings (i.e. school)?

The first thing that comes to mind is learning how to design Web sites through iWeb. Apple’s iWeb is a pretty intuitive tool for beginners to learn by “tinkering around”, but figuring out all the different functionalities, especially when I wanted to have specific tasks done in a tight deadline, was quite time consuming.

Q2: What, if any, community resources did you use, and how did your community affect your learning process? How do you imagine these experiences would be different if you were coming of age today with the increased availability of new media?

In my case, I could fall back on my sister, who is an industrial designer, whenever I was stuck with a particular function (such as hyperlinking, etc.). Having a mentor gave me instant access to the functionality, which in turn, provided me with opportunities to tinker around that particular functionality. Because of the quickness of interactions with a “person” as a reference to fall back on with questions, I still think the most efficient way to learn is human instruction. The ideal form would probably be the hybrid model, where either a human instructor points at useful starting points to tinker around and then the digital learning tools take on the next step, or vice versa.

Posted by JL

In middle school, I always had an interest in arts and crafts. I loved to fuse color with materials to create fun and pretty art. I constructed many different things from roses made from paper party streamers to origami made out of dollar bills. I learned most of these techniques from friends or just by playing around with different materials myself. My friends would sit down with me to walk me through the steps; the experience was very one-to-one, as they would make sure I understood each step.

Unfortunately, people were the main resource for learning because the complicated techniques were very difficult to learn from a book. But once I knew everything my friends knew, my learning stopped. Since then, I have not advanced in arts and crafts as my resources were depleted. My community was limited to my friends that knew the different techniques. If I were coming of age today, I would use all the available Web sites that offer video tutorials! These video tutorials give you the real-time step-by-step procedure in making complicated pieces. I recently found a 3 part video instruction of how to make a koi fish out of dollar bills, and I am eagerly waiting to find time to learn.

For those who are interested: “Money Origami Koi Carp Instructions.” The Art of Dollar Bill Origami (blog), June 2, 2009.

Posted by FG

I thought I would jump in with a new comment:

Not sure if anyone saw this, but the front page of the MIT Web site on Oct 19 is frankly disgusting - a close-up of a rat, yuk!:) But it leads to an interesting article on how by listening in on rat brains, Matt Wilson tries to understand the role of sleep in learning and memory:

Trafton, Anne. “In Profile: Matt Wilson.” MIT News, October 19, 2009.

Since this is about learning, I thought I would mention it here.

And maybe soon we will be able to engage in night-time learning in groups too! - A classmate in my MAS 863 class ‘How to Make Almost Anything’ came up with an interesting idea for her final project: embedding audio recorders in bed pillows so that we can record our dreams as soon as we wake up, or thoughts that come up to our mind at bedtime. She envisions a system that would connect pillows in different rooms, houses, buildings, etc. so that they could ’talk’ to each other and share these nocturnal observations. Here is her project intro.

24/7 learning is just around the corner. Stay tuned!

What do you think: does the idea of learning at night in such a way, with such enabled devices, during time meant for rest, sound appealing to you - it’s great for time management, etc., or on the contrary, is it taking it too far? [one needs breaks, time alone, etc]

Posted by DK

The initial things that came to my mind when thinking of non formal learning experiences, were learning how to drive form my dad, starting to cook which I also somehow learned at home, to making remote controlled toys that I made with friends of mine. The story I want to talk about is however related to rebuilding a motorcycle. I was 14 and riding motorcycles in Germany at that time was only permitted for 16 year-olds. My friend who was 16 had purchased a 50 cc motorbike without having a driving permit and did this without his parent’s knowledge. We lived in the outskirts of a small town and legal driving matters were not strictly enforced by police.

My friend came to my place and asked me to “store” the bike for him as it stopped working a few hours after he purchased it and he didn’t want to take it home. I decided to try to repair it without knowing what a combustion engine was. My tools were not quite adequate and when I had completely disassembled the engine I had broken a few gaskets and other small parts. The dilemma was that I of course couldn’t really talk about what I was doing to my parents and most of my friends thought that this was a hopeless project. Internet or any kind of digital medium did not exist, but I was driven to fix it so I started cruzing around and rode my bicycle from garage to garage and asked questions about how engines work and which kind of materials could be used to fix or mend cardboard gaskets (while trying to not sound too stupid). I gathered all the knowledge verbally and went back home to patch up what I thought might work. The engine was running within a few days better than it did before, but I couldn’t celebrate my triumph as I was not supposed to do something like that anyway. My friend was very happy and rode it for a few weeks until his parents eventually found out and made him sell it again.

While going through the reading I was struck by frequent comments that parents can not engage in the way youth communicates today and tries to restrict access to the internet without knowing what is going on. Another striking fact was to hear that teens come up with work-arounds to “hang out” in situations that would not be detected as “hang out” places or activities. This reminded me of the power I was driven by “wanting to do something bad”. I was thrilled by the fact that I was engaged in something I should not do and had to resort back to getting knowledge form experts without them knowing what I was doing. The learning part was purely based on verbal interactions with bicycle mechanics and motorcycle repair guys who were willing to talk to a 14 year old asking questions and me then trying to do it on my own.

I am not advocating illegal activities, but I would be interested to know how much teens try to bend rules or explore the boundaries of these peer observed networks. My story is not so much about a communal activity, but talks about the drive I had to finish my project that was entirely motivated by trying to do something I was not supposed to do. I wish we could learn about the limits, dangers and bad examples of such studies as I feel that mere enthusiasm will not help us to really understand what new developments young people might encounter.

Posted by VC

A friend of mine rented the Animaniacs series from the library, hoping for a little nostalgia. Instead he was more or less horrified by how “annoying” the characters were. During our discussion, he concluded that kids love the obnoxiousness of the characters because being obnoxious or crazy is possibly the only means they have to assert control or power in their worlds. It seems totally plausible, but I don’t have the same interactions with kids as you do. what do you think?

Posted by SL

It seems that young people explore the boundaries of acceptable behavior as a natural part of learning to be civilized (or not). So it seems OK, within limits, to allow the kind of exploration DK undertook as a youngster. And that behavior represents a little bit of delicious, harmless, anti-authoritarianism, much like Victoria mentions- a way to exercise control over a tiny part of their world. I’ve met a number of home schooled children that don’t seem to feel as out of control as many formally schooled children, and they don’t act out in the same ways. I wonder if there are lessons there for us as mentors. Internet access is a huge issue in schools, as we’ve read, and much of the pressure to limit access at school comes from parents… often too disconnected to really understand the power that the internet provides. Parents don’t always take the time to really learn about new media and the Internet, and they are fearful of online predators. Parents are so fearful of predatory behavior and access to inappropriate content like pornography, that they would rather block access than risk (even if the risk is extremely small) the dangers. So the problem may be with educating the parents, as much as with educating the children. More realistic, involved parents, might cede more control to their children in learning through new media and thus solve some of the anti-authoritarian, control issues that surface in learning environments.

Posted by FG

I think these are excellent points - the first one on schools’ responsibilities and parents’ genuine concerns [even though I am myself extremely liberal and would not limit access at all], and the second one on the significant presence of adults online today. By now, the vast majority of workplaces require their employees at all levels to use the Net at least in some way. Many places have actually integrated social networking sites into their employees’ duties. I know this is the case for journalism and the media in general since it is my sphere, but I’m sure it’s happening in plenty of other areas too. Most news organizations [print, broadcast, et.] now require their reporters and editors to use Twitter, citizen journalists communities’ online resources, etc. in their work.

One would need to live in a cave not to have some experience using the Net and its social/professional communities. So I agree that Ito might be too intensely focusing on youth. Adults today probably form the majority of people interacting online.

Posted by JL

I completely understand how some illegal activities can foster intense interest. Remember the good days when peer-to-peer sharing was legal? And Napster was a wonderful source of free music? As the legal system worked out all the “rules”, many different sites for peer-to-peer sharing began to pop up and then soon become shutdown as new laws unfolded. It was like a race against time trying to find a site that is still running and not yet caught by the law. I started to participate in forums in the search to find the next knew medium of free data! This new world of downloadable music and video also opened up doors to learn about all the different codecs and formats for audio/video files. I had to learn things like how to convert files to different extensions and extracting. iso using Alcohol or through virtual drives. It is amazing how constraints like legality can cause such increased interests!

Posted by FG

Well, to answer the question of whether children brought up with less freedoms are more likely to ‘revolt’ and test the boundaries: I think it eventually depends on the child’ s personality. But speaking for myself: I was brought up very strictly and with less freedom and access to youth resources than the average teen, and I can say that yes, it certainly has turned me an extreme liberal and freedom-fighter for all ages! And I am aware that I developed those traits partly in response to the stifling environment and restrictions I grew up with.

Posted by SK

This week’s article about the Scratch community mentioned Lave and Wenger’s idea of “legitimate peripheral perception.” This idea that simply “hanging around” folks who know better than you can be an educational experience resonated with some specific cases in my own learning history.

Last summer, a housemate of mine, an architecture student, was working with a professor on a project that involved an electronics component in addition to solving the design problem - they wanted to use a windmill to power LEDs such that their brightness was proportional to the wind speed. He didn’t know much about electronics and felt very outside his comfort zone, so one day he was venting his frustration to me. Much to my own surprise, I was able to answer some of his questions, explain some things, and make suggestions. I have never taken a formal electronics class in my life, and at one point he stopped me to ask where I learned all that I was telling him. After some thought, I realized that I had picked up enough bits and pieces from overhearing conversations at MITERS, a student-run hackerspace, that I was familiar with some relevant terms and concepts for this particular project. Somehow I was able to explain why my friend needed to control the LEDs brightness with a PWM signal instead of simply varying the voltage, and I even came up with a scheme to do this.

Since coming to MIT, I have “hung around” MITERS for countless hours. It’s a casual shop space that places tools for - and people interested in - electronics, software, and mechanical projects together. I began using the space because of its machine tools for working with metal, but as part of the community I also saw e-mails on the discussion list and witnessed informal tutorials about electronics. When people around me were working on cool projects that I didn’t understand, I asked questions. I never learned a sequence of concepts that intentionally built upon each other and were designed as a “curriculum,” but I had gained enough knowledge to have something useful to say about my housemate’s project. Of course, I’m fairly certain my suggestions were not the best and my answers to his questions might not have been entirely correct as a result of my informal, casual learning of the material, but I had some idea of what was possible and which paths might be most helpful to follow. Overall, I believe that experiences of peripheral perception at MITERS or other spaces at MIT compromise the bulk of what I have truly learned since being here.

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Learning Resource Types
Problem Sets with Solutions
Projects with Examples
Activity Assignments with Examples