Tag Archives: Pittsburgh Education Innovation

What We Learned: The Sprout Fund & Digital Badges

The Sprout Fund has been working to help people develop digital badges in Pittsburgh and beyond since 2013. Through events like the 2014 National Summit to Reconnect Learning and the 2015 Learning Pathways Summit in Pittsburgh, Sprout convened stakeholders to explore the prospect of using digital badges as a way to recognize student learning and achievement. In 2015, Sprout also led a community-wide process to develop shared learning competencies and engaged regional employers in a discussion about connecting badges to workforce development goals. From 2014 through 2016, Sprout worked with more than 50 community partners who began using digital badges to capture summer learning through Pittsburgh City of Learning, and Sprout provided support to six teams to create cross-disciplinary, badge-enabled learning pathways during the 2016-2017 academic year.

As of 2017, the technology underpinning digital badges is still in development; however, the design principles and shared practices that have emerged for digital badging are increasingly sophisticated. Sprout has helped organizations in Pittsburgh and across the country design their own digital badges, and Sprout’s badge development process has been tested and refined by a national community of practitioners.

As a result of our efforts in Pittsburgh and beyond, there is now broader awareness of digital badges as a way to recognize and reward learning. Educators working in schools, after-school programs, and informal learning spaces are increasingly considering digital badges as a way to document and reward students for learning anytime, anywhere.

Sharing What We’ve Learned

We’re proud to have played a role in the early stages of this work and we’re eager to share what we’ve learned about digital badges along the way. Today we’re releasing What We Learned: The Sprout Fund & Digital Badges, a collection of resources that covers the history of our experience with digital badges and includes key considerations and design principles for developing your own high-quality digital badges for learning.

In addition to some downloadable worksheets and reference guides, we’ve included descriptions of the key steps in our process and a discussion about why we pursued these steps, what we were trying to achieve, and the insights that emerged along the way. We hope that these resources will help practitioners thoughtfully design and begin to issue digital badges in their programs.

The publication includes five main sections:

  • Key Considerations for the Badge-CuriousUse this section to read about the history of digital badging and Connected Learning and some key considerations for the “badge-curious” — that is, people who are considering using digital badges for the first time.
  • Case Studies: You can read about Sprout’s history with badging and browse some brief case studies of badging in Pittsburgh.
  • Design PrinciplesTo get started with designing your own badges, use the self-assessment tool to see whether badging is a good fit for your program. Then, use a series of worksheets we’ve created to help you design your badges.
  • Platform & Technology ConsiderationsFinally, explore some key ideas that should guide your thinking as you pick tools to support your work.
  • Links & Resources: You can also browse a list of links and resources that we’ve curated of the best and most useful badging resources out there.

We hope that these resources will help others build on the good work that’s been started in Chicago, in Pittsburgh, and across the country. We believe in the potential of badges and other new forms of assessment as tools that help make all learning count.

If you’re interested in getting started with badges, or if you’d like to share your own stories of success, we hope you’ll get in touch. We’re eager to share what we’ve learned to help other programs better serve their students. If you’d like to learn more about our work, please contact The Sprout Fund at connect@sproutfund.org.

Read What We Learned on Medium.

Preparing For the Future Together

One week last May, more than 30,000 people gathered throughout Pittsburgh to celebrate learning. Participants in the first annual Remake Learning Days could choose from hundreds of events hosted by our diverse Network members—who also marked the occasion by committing more than $25 million to learning innovation.

Apparently word got out.

Remake Learning Days got a shout-out in January in a World Economic Forum white paper on the future of education and work. The paper highlights the event as a model of an educational system that loops in families and other community members.

“An effective multistakeholder approach to education ecosystem governance should look beyond government, education providers and businesses, to include teachers, parents and students,” the paper says.

That “all aboard” approach to learning is the only way to develop an education system that allows all kids to meet their own potential and the demands of a changing workforce, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF). Networks like Remake Learning can overcome obstacles like parental skepticism or misalignment between the school system and the workforce by bringing everyone into the conversation and fostering unlikely partnerships.

“What are the key features of a future-ready education ecosystem?”

This “multistakeholder consultation and leadership” is just one of the items on the agenda laid out by WEF in the white paper, “Realizing Human Potential in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

Twice a year, WEF convenes members of the business, public, and academic sectors to develop a global agenda for the future of education, gender, and work. In fall 2016, the group focused in part on answering the question, “What are the key features of a future-ready education ecosystem?”

Around the world, education systems and educator training models have “remained largely static and under-invested in for decades,” says the paper. The same is not true for the economic landscape. Most kids starting school today are likely to end up with jobs that don’t even exist yet, and might not get adequate preparation even for those that do, notes WEF.

Despite the tremendous diversity that exists among education systems, the forum aims to establish a general shared agenda for curricula, programming, and pedagogy. All curricula should focus on linguistic, mathematical, and technological literacy, WEF says, to better prepare students for the workforce. So too should educators promote interdisciplinary learning, “global citizenship” values like empathy, and the kind of noncognitive skills like collaboration and project management that will help students in future employment.

Many kids starting school today will end up with jobs that don’t yet exist.

The most effective pedagogies are those that do not focus heavily on content, but also teach students “how to learn,” the paper notes. Hands-on lessons with reflection exercises built in allow students to engage in self-directed learning through adulthood, and to better weather whatever changes and obstacles they encounter.

WEF also encourages more access to—and less stigma around—technical vocational training, which can prepare those who are not necessarily college-bound for success in growing fields. All students’ experiences with education should include direct exposure to the workplace, whether through technical training, internships, or site visits, says the paper.

The next time WEF members gather, they could have an even clearer sense of the kinds of employment training students might benefit from. Those in education and business will continue to keep tabs on exactly which fields are growing and what technology is expanding. In 10 years, the activities at Remake Learning Days could look a lot different from this year’s, which include documenting biodiversity using a smartphone app and coding a robot with LEGO software.

“Skills such as coding may themselves soon become redundant due to advances in machine learning,” says the WEF paper.

But that’s precisely why networks and other education ecosystems are so critical to preparing children for the future. Networks like Remake’s help build the important foundations and skills that can survive economic and technological change by keeping everyone in the conversation and continually adapting.

Learning Pathways: A Walkthrough

The digital age brings a seemingly endless number of options for today’s learners. But it’s also easy to get lost. Enter learning pathways.


What are learning pathways?

Learning Pathways are the routes learners take to discover new ideas, pursue their interests, and develop their skills. These routes involve experiences in school, out of school, and online. School systems, for example, are pedagogical pathways that build on each prior stage of learning. Other pathways are less formal, and can be a road to discovery based on personal interests.

Previously on this site, we’ve dug into the concept of networks and the umbrella of learning innovation. In a sense, pathways are the intersection of these ideas. Access to a network of mentors and innovative education opportunities enables learners to follow a pathway of experiences, building on their interests and developing skills along the way.

Why pathways, why now?

Pathways are important now because the Internet, social networks, and our changing economy have unleashed a seemingly endless number of options for exploring and learning. But in that vastness lies the problem. It’s easy to get lost.

Learning pathways help students draw connections and adapt.
Pathways are the map on a road trip; they guide you from point A to B, but along the way they also reveal the side roads, historical sights, and other detours that add richness to the journey. Without the map, a traveler may have missed those opportunities, or worse, gotten completely lost.

The time to build deliberate pathways is now, says John Seely Brown and co-author Douglas Thomas in their book, “A New Culture of Learning.” In a rapidly changing world, adaptability and the ability to see connections are critical. Students must understand how skills and knowledge build on each other and how to find entry points to new opportunities. They must be able to steer a new course, adapt, and adjust. Learning pathways help imprint that understanding.

But the map alone is not enough.

A family can stop at the historical site on the map, but then what? They need a guide to make sense of what they’re seeing. It’s the park ranger or historical interpreter who adds new insights and maybe sparks a latent interest. In learning pathways, guides are posted along the way to help learners not only see how to get from home to their destination, but to see how the points along the way connect to make the journey more meaningful.

“When kids are pursuing their interests and going deeper into a topic, having a more advanced thinker help them scaffold that interest can be key to whether they go deeper into it or move away from it,” said psychologist Jean Rhodes on Connected Learning TV. Connected Learning, an emerging theory in education, posits that personal passions, strong mentorship, peer relationships, and technology are the key ingredients in a learning pathway.


Pathways help learners connect in- and out-of-school experiences and pursue their interests. Photo/Ben Filio

Where did the idea for pathways come from?

The idea of pathways has been around a long time. But it was in video games where some scholars had an aha moment.

In video games, players advance—level up—only when they master a level. The game is designed to urge the gamer on to the brink of frustration, but not so overwhelming that they give up.

“Good games offer players a set of challenging problems and then let them solve these problems …,” wrote learning scientist James Paul Gee. “Then the game throws a new class of problem at the players, requiring them to rethink their now taken-for-granted mastery, learn something new, and integrate this new learning with their old mastery. In turn, this new mastery is consolidated through repetition (with variation), only to be challenged again.”

Pathways work similarly. Pathways nudge learners to level up, but with more room for discovery and detours along the way.

“The game throws a new class of problem at the players, requiring them to rethink their now taken-for-granted mastery, learn something new, and integrate this new learning with their old mastery.” – James Paul Gee

What’s an example of a pathway in action?

A California school district partners with an afterschool program and the state’s student poll worker program. Teenage participants take an online civics course that includes a unit on app development. After learning about electoral politics and history, they code and create a mobile app that lets their peers find their polling places and look up candidates’ positions on issues relevant to youth. Completion of this task unlocks the real opportunity to work at the polls on Election Day. The pathway leads students from interest and education in politics to practical skill development and real-world opportunities.

Pathways can nudge learners to “level up.”

The Aspen Institute on Learning and the Internet recommended pathways like these in its 2014 report analyzing the needs of 21st century students.

Are pathways linear only, from Point A to Point B?

Learning is not linear and nor are pathways. Becoming part of a robotics club might actually reveal to a young person that robotics is really not their thing. But while designing posters for robotics competitions, they might realize they are interested in graphic design.  

As Kris D. Gutiérrez, professor of literacy and learning sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder, cautioned in a webinar hosted by the Connected Learning Alliance, learning is rarely smooth and uncomplicated, and learning pathways should allow for “this wonderful messiness and complication with learning.” 

Youth working in nature

Photo/Ben Filio

Who is working on this idea around the country? 

Some digital learning platforms are incorporating concepts similar to pathways into their systems so that learners can connect the dots between learning experiences. LRNG is one such platform that lets educators create learning “playlists” that lay out a specific sequence of activities that a teen can complete to develop their skills while exploring their interests. Activities on these playlists can be face-to-face or completed online.

Learning is not linear and neither are pathways.
Some organizations are applying playlists and pathways to out-of-school learning, guiding kids as they pursue their interests while accumulating expertise and experience. In Chicago, for example, the Cities of Learning program first engaged youth in learning pathways during their summer of 2013. An online platform created by the Digital Youth Network presented young people with 25 playlists and more than 1,000 summer learning opportunities—from scriptwriting to coding.

Once a participant completed an activity, he or she earned a digital badge, which celebrated and documented new skills (think digitized Boy Scout badge). Then that student could “level up” and unlock a more challenging opportunity in the same field. In one such sequence, the Lights! Camera! Action! Playlist, kids received instructions on how to conduct interviews, brainstorm stories, and shoot and edit videos. In some cases, young people can earn the chance for mentorship from a professional upon completion of a playlist.

What about in Pittsburgh? What else is next?

In Pittsburgh, we have been mapping what learning pathways look like across the city and working to define and develop them since 2014. Starting in the 2016-2017 school year, Remake Learning Network members will pilot six learning pathways that connect complementary programming across multiple organizations. These six pathways are built from programs and organizations in the city, but connecting them more intentionally helps young people follow their interests and hone their skills.

Among them is a “Young Conservationist” pathway run by a consortium of Pittsburgh ecology nonprofits including Student Conservation Association, GTECH Strategies, Venture Outdoors, and the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. High school-aged students participating in the pathway receive immersive education in ecological stewardship, with opportunities to learn online, do conservation work in their communities, and work as outdoor trip leaders. As they advance along the Pathway they encounter learning experiences that expose them to the variety of disciplines and job opportunities in urban ecology. Students who complete the most rigorous branch of the pathway will earn a Conservation Leader badge that unlocks the opportunity to participate on an SCA National Crew doing conservation work in a National Forest.

With funding support provided by The Sprout Fund, each pathway will provide hundreds of youth from Pittsburgh and Allegheny County with access to Connected Learning opportunities and chances to earn badges when they level up their skills.

Educators, technologists, and community leaders throughout the Pittsburgh area are constantly thinking about how to link up the countless local learning opportunities in order to connect kids to success in and out of school. Whether through networking at the Pittsburgh Learning Pathways Summit, aggregating opportunities on platforms like LRNG, or building bonds informally, the idea is to turn the city into a network of pathways for all the local learners.

In a Rapidly Changing World, What Defines an Educational Innovation?

What defines something as an “innovation”? In education, what new ideas or shifts in thinking merit our attention and why? We take a closer look at what constitutes innovative practice in education, and why it matters for the future.

What is Innovation?

Something new. As John Seely Brown, formerly the chief scientist at Xerox said, “Something is innovative because it is outside of the standard.” An innovation can be a method, an idea, or a device, something that creates new value or a shift in thinking.

How does innovation apply to education today? What does it look like in education?

There are many “innovations” in today’s education landscape—teachers making minor, but critical shifts in their instructional practice to better meet the specific needs of their students; partnerships between technology companies and educators to develop instructional technology that change classroom dynamics; or communities coming together to make learning opportunities available not just in school, but in places not traditionally thought of as institutions of learning. In Kentucky, a new “Districts of Innovation” law defines innovation as “a new or creative alternative to existing instructional and administrative practices intended to improve student learning and the performance of all students.”

Driving these innovations is growing conviction that we need to rethink education’s role in a rapidly changing world, where information is at our fingertips and how we learn is more important than what we learn. “In large part,” says Seely Brown in his book, A New Culture of Learning, “the role of the teacher needs to shift from transferring information to shaping, constructing, and overseeing learning environments.” Teachers are also increasingly cultivators. “You don’t teach imagination; you create an environment in which it can take root, grow and flourish.”


Photo by Ben Filio

What innovations—changes in pedagogical practices and shifts in thinking—merit attention?

There are numerous instructional methods and education technologies designed to advance learning innovation. These methods and technologies each have their own unique approaches and specific goals. But three foundational ideas underlie most of today’s innovations in education:

1) Interest-Driven Learning Engages Today’s Students

Kids learn best when they follow their interests. But in traditional pedagogical models, students do work based on what the community or society expects them to know and all students in a given classroom typically learn the same thing. Today some educators are moving away from this “one-sized-fits all approach” and encouraging educators to support students in interest-driven learning.

“When you can connect a passion with peers and a community that supports and motivates you,” said Collective Shift’s Connie Yowell at a recent SXSWedu conference, “and connect that to real opportunities, magic can happen.”

“When you can connect a passion with peers and a community that supports and motivates you, and connect that to real opportunities, magic can happen.”

With support from peers and mentors, and the time and space to create work that they find meaningful, experts like Yowell believe that interest-driven learning can lead to academic achievement, career success, and civic engagement.

For example, teen journalist Nathan Lawyer, whom we profiled in 2013, got his start making his own horror movies, shooting in the hallways of his high school with friends after school.   But after dipping his toe into media production at his school’s broadcast club, and with some guidance from peers and teachers like Kris Hupp, a social studies teacher and 21st Century teaching and learning coach, Lawyer became executive director of his school’s TV channel, producing daily announcements, news, weather and live broadcasting to his peers.

“We were just having fun and goofing around, but then it turned into an actual passion,” Lawyer says.

Lawyer also learned important leadership skills and confidence that he’s taken with him into other projects. For example, he participated in This Day In Pittsburgh History, shooting on location at historical sites and museums in the region. Lawyer also traveled to South Africa over the summer to teach computer skills to local kids and visit national parks, and hopes to work in the non profit field in the future.

Cultural anthropologist Mimi Ito and colleagues have created the Connected Learning model to support passion-driven learning like Nathan’s. It rests on bringing three spheres—peers, interests, and mentors—together to support learning. These experts say that to put all young people on a path that unlocks opportunity, educators should be asking, “What are the supports each learner needs in order to achieve her potential?”


Photo by Ben Filio

2) Learning Can Happen Anywhere, Anytime

With digital media, following one’s interests has seldom been easier. Young people can follow their nose and tap into a wealth of knowledge beyond the school walls. The internet expands access to experts, information, and others’ views, and digital tools, from iPhones to online editing software, lower the barriers to creating. Youth today can learn anywhere, anytime. The innovation lies in building vibrant learning ecosystems in communities so all young people can benefit.

“How do we make visible all the learning opportunities happening in a city 24-7 that kids are already doing?” asked Nichole Pinkard, founder of the Digital Youth Network. “How then do we help kids and their parents link to other learning opportunities they might not know about?”

If learning is now an anywhere, anytime activity that lasts our whole lives long, then the responsibility for educating today’s students needs to extend beyond the school system.

Collaboration is central to these efforts. The Remake Learning Network is part of a growing network of education innovation clusters across the country that aim to foster collaboration between diverse sectors to create more learning opportunities for its young people. Remake Learning Network is made up of, for example, more than 250 organizations, including early learning centers and schools, museums and libraries, afterschool programs and community nonprofits, colleges and universities, ed-tech startups and major employers, philanthropies and civic leaders.

3) Students Must be Able to Solve Complex Problems—to Learn How to Learn

The third shift in thinking that merits attention is a focus on 21st century skill-building.

Teaching students how to learn is as important as teaching them content.

John Dunlosky, professor of psychology at Kent State University in Ohio, in an article published in American Educator, emphasizes that “teaching students how to learn is as important as teaching them content, because acquiring both the right learning strategies and background knowledge is important—if not essential—for promoting lifelong learning.”

Today’s educators understand the need to go beyond helping students retain specific content and help them to become learners and to think like problem-solvers. These skills of critical thinking, “systems thinking,” and collaboration are often collectively referred to as 21st century skills.

Mickey McManus, chairman and principle at MAYA Design, has argued the problems facing the globe today are complex, interconnected issues, from climate change to disease management. To solve them requires a deep understanding of the interconnected nature of complex systems.

Game design is another route to build systems thinking and problem-solving skills in young people. Some educators are using Gamestar Mechanic, for example, a video game that teaches kids how to design video games in classrooms to teach skills such as systems thinking, collaboration, and iterative design.

The maker movement is another way to impart 21st century skills. At makerspaces throughout the Pittsburgh region, kids can build things, tinker and experiment, and learn from their own mistakes, which also builds problem-solving and systems-thinking skills. At the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh’s MAKESHOP, for example, kids are free to experiment with wood, circuitry, a needle and thread, or old technology that they can take apart and put back together. Kids get ideas, but things usually don’t go right the first time. They’re freer to say, “Oh this didn’t work out, how can I make it work?” And importantly, they work with their peers to solve the problems.

ORC Maker Faire

ORC Maker Faire

Haven’t educators always focused on these “21st century” skills?

All of these innovative practices are facets of the fundamentals of good teaching and learning. One-hundred years ago, when philosopher John Dewey wrote about the purpose of public education, the world was also changing fast. He saw inquiry—following our interests where they lead us—at the center of education and hands-on learning as the way to experience it. Extending that philosophy to today, Gregg Behr wrote recently at Forbes, “We are now immersed in another era of great change, but our education system has not kept up. Dewey’s ideas ring truer than ever, but how do we adapt what he articulated for the modern world?”

Why act now?

Because today’s problems are more interconnected and challenging than ever, and because youth are too easily becoming disconnected from school.

In 2012, 6.7 million youth ages 16-24 were neither in school nor working. They either had dropped out of school or left with too few skills to find a job, became discouraged and disconnected from society’s twin pillars, school and work.

We are now immersed in another era of great change, but our education system has not kept up.

That drift and disconnection squashes hope and dreams for a future. More than four in ten high school dropouts ages 20-24 in 2011 were unemployed year-round. Far too many end up in the prison system, or start families before they’re ready. Others grow frustrated as door after door is shut for lack of the right credentials. Even when they do graduate, far too many students leave school without the set of skills and competencies that can lead to a good job. A recent IBM survey of more than 1,500 global CEOs revealed that it’s virtually impossible to find workers with the skills they need to do the job—because those skills don’t yet exist. Instead, CEOs are looking for employees who can constantly reinvent themselves and solve for the future.

A generation risks being lost as the demands of the world increase, and as the issues of tomorrow only get more complex. Without innovation, education may become a driver of inequality rather than the great equalizer we intend it to be.

Pittsburgh Public Schools to Open STEAM Magnet Program

Once at risk of closing, Pittsburgh Woolslair PreK-5 will become a partial STEAM magnet school next year with the aid of nearly $900,000 in foundation grants to support STEAM learning at several schools in the district. The new STEAM programs are part of an ongoing movement in the region’s schools and informal learning spaces to improve access to STEM learning as well as to integrate the A in “art.”

The Pittsburgh Public Schools Board considered closing the small school of about 110 students in 2013 to help narrow the district’s budget deficit. But last September, the board approved a plan to turn the school into a partial STEAM magnet school, meaning kids from all around the city can apply. The school will also stay a neighborhood school, and the STEAM program—which stands for science, technology, engineering, art, and math—will grow one grade level per year.

When the district approved the plan in the fall, funding for the program was still up in the air. On Wednesday, the district announced the plan would be funded with $480,000 in grants from the Grable Foundation and $391,000 from the Fund for Excellence, a consortium of foundations.

Foundation support will also help to develop STEAM curriculum at Lincoln PreK-5 and Schiller 6-8, two other schools in the district. The district is also planning a STEAM program for Perry High School.

“Our current vision for STEAM education is to provide experiences where kids will eventually not just participate in the economy as consumers of things, but have the capacity to really be makers of things,” district STEAM coordinator Shaun Tomaszewski told local radio station WESA.

The district plans to hire two new STEAM teachers who will lead the program at all three schools and collaborate with teachers on projects. The schools will also turn spaces in each of their buildings into STEAM labs with plenty of spaces for hands-on projects.

At the news conference announcing the STEAM programs, students from Schiller showed off levees they’d built in plastic shoeboxes with materials like sand and sponges. Though the details are still developing, teachers throughout the district will be also able to seek mini-grants for innovative STEAM projects with the new funding.

Although the Pittsburgh region has always had long history of industry and engineering, the new shift towards combining art and design sets the programs apart.

The STEAM movement is growing in the Pittsburgh region. The Allegheny Intermediate Unit, one of 29 intermediate units across the state that are part of the public education system, has poured over $2 million into STEAM grants for 150 schools across the region, ranging from robotics to coding and game design. At the C3 Lab at Blackhawk High School, students use 3D printers to design and print parts for broken equipment. Meanwhile, students at Crafton Elementary School have been known to use the STEAM Studio, a dedicated room with technology and equipment, for projects during lunch.

And although the region has always had long history of industry and engineering, the new shift towards combining art and design sets the programs apart and helps prepare kids for an economy that requires divergent and creative thinking.

“Some of the things you’re seeing going on at universities right now, [like at] Carnegie Mellon, are pulling together people who are engineers, who are artists, designers. That’s the kind of thing we see going on out in the world,” Superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools Linda Lane told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in an article about the Woolslair plan last September, before it was finalized. “I really like that kind of blending.”



What “Steel City” and “Cottonopolis” Have in Common

At first glance, it might not seem like Pittsburgh and Manchester, England, have a lot in common—other than the Manchester neighborhood on Pittsburgh’s north side.

Manchester, with a population of 2.6 million, is a sprawling metropolis and economic powerhouse driving a big chunk of the United Kingdom’s economy. The city is all-out obsessed with soccer, and you’d be hard-pressed to find an authentic Primanti sandwich there.

But at closer look, the two cities have more in common than you’d think. To start, they’re the only cities with Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards. (More on that later.) And they’ve both reinvented themselves for a 21st-century economy.

Pittsburgh, once nicknamed “Steel City,” and Manchester, once nicknamed “Cottonopolis,” have all but shed the industries that once drove their economies. In the 1960s and 1970s, textile mills in Lancashire, the county in which Manchester is located, were closing at a rate of nearly one per week as other nations produced textiles cheaper and quicker.

Across the pond, Pittsburgh’s factories were closing en masse and thousands of people were leaving the city for jobs elsewhere. In the 1980s, Pittsburgh lost seven percent of its population.

But the story of renewal that’s happening here in Pittsburgh has caught national attention.

“Pittsburgh, after decades of trying to remake itself, today really does have a new economy, rooted in the city’s rapidly growing robotic, artificial intelligence, health technology, advanced manufacturing and software industries,” wrote journalist Glenn Thrush in the Politico Magazine feature, “The Robots That Saved Pittsburgh.” The story detailed how smart investment and collaboration from universities, start-ups, nonprofits, and health care services have transitioned the industrial economy to an innovative, creative one.

The city has also built a hub of intertwined education opportunities unlike anywhere else. Throughout the city, kids are joining the burgeoning maker movement, using gardens to learn about STEM, and building their own circuits, thanks to the many cultural, science, and education institutions that have joined the Kids+Creativity Network.

This type of collaboration and planning earned Pittsburgh and Manchester a Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Award, which recognizes people or organizations that “have broken the mold to create significant impact.” Most of the awards go to people. But in this case, Pittsburgh and Manchester are the only cities to have won the award.

“We’ll never be the biggest city in the world, but we know to succeed we’ve got to be one of the smartest,” said Sir Howard Bernstein, Chief Executive of Manchester Millennium Limited, when accepting the award for the city. In the 1990s, the city invested in a cultural plan that eventually boosted its presence in the art world and kick-started creative industries by leveraging its three major universities. “What we’ve been trying to do over the last 10 or 15 years is to actually create one single strategy built around place for the entire city where our universities and our businesses can all bind to.”

Sounds a bit like the planning we’ve put into action here.

“What we’re seeing [in Pittsburgh] is an unprecedented collaboration of people and institutions from the entire city pulling together to remake education and rebrand themselves in the process,” said journalist and filmmaker Perri Peltz, who emceed the awards ceremony.

Pittsburgh’s mines were filled with iron ore and Manchester’s air was damp enough to not break the fragile cotton threads. For much of the cities’ histories, geography shaped the economy. But in the 21st century, cities like Pittsburgh and Manchester are tapping into an even more valuable resource: their people.

And just as manufacturers once learned from each other by being in such close proximity, the same goes for education innovation. When universities, schools, afterschool programs, and nonprofits feed off each other, it makes for a new type of innovation chain fit for the 21st century.

Beyond Screen Time

Experts gathered at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. this week for a moderated discussion that explores “a world beyond ‘screen time.’” How to use technology as more than an electronic babysitter and how to push for higher standards in technology use are on the agenda.

We spoke with Lisa Guernsey, director of the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation and author of “Screen Time: How Media – From Baby Videos to Educational Software — Affects Your Young Child” about what brought this group together and where work around early learning innovation is heading.

Remake Learning: Tell me about this new group, the Alliance for Early Learning in a Digital Age.

Lisa Guernsey: It’s a coalition that came together at the Clinton Global Initiative in 2012. It’s the Ounce of Prevention Fund, Sesame Workshop, PBS, Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College, Erikson Institute and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center. I came into things in 2013 to help think through some of the challenges that a group like this might face.

What was the spark? What made something like this seem necessary?

The early childhood community has been a little averse to talking about technology in any deep way. And for good reasons, honestly. There is fear that technology in a preschool classroom might lead to kids sitting around staring at the TV. There is also fear that kids might get pushed into things before they are developmentally ready. Everyone wants kids to have a well rounded, hands-on, exploratory learning environment, but those types of fears have hung over the question of what role technology should play in that.

Have recent technological changes altered this conversation at all?

Lisa Guernsey

Lisa Guernsey

There have been some very interesting advances in technology — most obviously the touch screen. There’s also been some recognition through research and through the work of some pioneering educators, that, gosh, there are chances to use technology in ways that help children explore, that help open up windows into new worlds, or enable them to see themselves as creators.

That’s interesting, that idea of the difference between kids staring blankly at a TV and being “creators” as you say. Why is that so important?

We now have tools that let kids talk more freely and really capture what they’re exploring and creating. There are math concepts we used to think kids under a certain age couldn’t grasp, but it turns out, yes, they can — they just might not communicate it the same way older kids do. What if we can give them tools — like video cameras or tape recorders — to enable them to communicate in ways they couldn’t before?

For 4- and 5-year-olds, it can still be a struggle to put ideas on pen and paper, but maybe there are all kinds of things they want to say. For teachers this means being able to see more clearly how the kids are learning. And for the kids, it’s a chance to look back at something they’ve just done and say, “Hey, I did that. And here’s my story.”

There’s so much going on in the world of digital media. Is there a central set of concerns, or a central question around which the Alliance is organized?

At the New America Foundation, where I work, we have questions about how to break through the tired, polarizing conversations about technology, and how to bring educators up to a new level professionally with the right resources at their finger tips. The Alliance has several categories it coalesced around, and one is to build an agenda for new research. Our two organizations wanted to find a place to bring together all the research that’s happening in so many disparate places — some in science labs, some in research groups, some in the media literacy world.

So we had a research conference at the New America Foundation offices in October, and researchers talked about the similarities in their findings and their thinking. The desire to enable children to explore and be creators was an exciting idea to many people in the room, though it hasn’t been tested very much in research.

I’d imagine, considering the group, there was also talk about the role of the teacher or caregiver in facilitating children’s relationship with technology.

Children will really learn more and gain more from the experience if they are asking questions of a peer or adult while engaged. Sometimes the media itself triggers conversation or new questions — or takes them down paths of new learning. That joint engagement piece came through pretty loud and clear in October.

What else?

There’s a big focus on using media intentionally with young children and being very mindful about what it means for them.

I feel like so many people are so excited about these new digital tools and possibilities. Do you still find yourself telling people screen time is not inherently bad? Or has the conversation moved on from there?

What do we know about how children are interacting with digital technology? What are they learning? 

I don’t think everyone is on the same page because of the varied experiences out there. I see all sides of this because I talk to teachers in the elementary realm as well as in the realm of childcare and preschool. I also meet with childcare providers who work with, say, six children, in their home, and also public school teachers working with 3- and 4-year-olds. In some places there’s still a lot of concern that it’s just inappropriate for children to be using screen media.

On the other hand, I see teachers wishing they had more iPads, for example. There’s a wide range of view points out there, and we can learn from them all. It goes back to the mindfulness question. What do we know about how children are interacting with digital technology? What are they learning? What are they understanding when they’re using these materials? Those are the big questions.

I’m struck by how the first thing you said was, “We need to do more research.” What do we know? Is there anything specific to which you can point?

There is a lot that we do know. My book, “Screen Time,” was based on scores of studies on television and some new studies on interactive media with children under the age of 6. But questions from educators and parents are still hard to answer, often because they’re asked in such broad ways, such as, “Should my child use an iPad?”

To answer that kind of question, we need to go deep and get specific. There’s some research, for example, that showed 30-month-olds could learn something specific from a short, interactive video experience. So we have research like that. Little slices that give us some hints.

And people surely have been researching TV for ages.

There’s all sort of research about background television, or just television without any consideration of content. That’s the very opposite of mindful and intentional. It’s just noise and visuals off to the side of the room. There are studies that show background television is disruptive to children’s play patterns.

That of course raises all sorts of interesting questions about why it’s disruptive. Is it the noise? Is it the visuals? There have been a couple of studies that show problematic connections between background TV and kids not getting enough verbal interaction from adults. In other words, different media used in different ways make a big difference.

In your book you talk about the three C’s.

It’s a shorthand way of understanding how complex it all is. It’s not just all or nothing when it comes to media and kids. You have to look at the content,  the context of how the media is being used , and of course there’s the child herself. How old is she? Where is she developmentally? What are her interests? Etc.

A lot of people are starting to really look at the equity component of all this. What’s your thinking? Is this part of the Alliance’s focus?

From what I understand, one  reason the group is named the Alliance for Early Learning in a Digital Age is that it’s about ensuring all children, even children from low-income families, have access to the same kind of learning environments that kids from the richest families have. At New America, that focus on equity is a core piece of our work throughout our education policy program.

How do you go about addressing this issue?

We’re focusing right now on equity in broadband access. We’re looking at the lack of discounts for internet services in childcare settings, as well as many Head Start classrooms and some publically funded pre-K classrooms. The public schools have the E-Rate program. President Obama is pushing for the

It’s about ensuring all children, even children from low-income families, have access to the same kind of learning environments that kids from the richest families have.
new ConnectED initiative, and the FCC is in the process of revamping the E-Rate to try and infuse a little bit of money into the system.

We’ve been writing and making recommendations to the FCC. One of our recommendations focuses on the early learning setting and trying to ensure more parity, at least for Head Start and publically funded pre-K. In an ideal world, we’d get it for childcare centers, too. This ability to gain access to the internet is important for teachers and caregivers so that they can communicate and share information professionally.

New America is holding an event in Washington, D.C. on March 26 titled Beyond Screen Time.  What’s the connection here to Pittsburgh? 

I’m glad you asked that. Pittsburgh is at the forefront of seeing past this old debate about passive media being detrimental to children’s learning. They’re past, “Oh gosh, technology just means putting kids in front of a screen.” They’re helping move us into a new realm, which imagines children as creators themselves and agents of their own learning, and having access to all sorts of resources to help them learn, create and make. We can learn a lot from what’s happening in Pittsburgh.

Why Silicon Valley Wants Humanities Majors

It’s no secret the traditional humanities in higher education, especially at the graduate level, are struggling. Fewer students are enrolling in humanities classes as undergraduates, and fewer graduates of humanities doctoral programs are finding the jobs they expected.

But slowly, scholars and universities are beginning to break down the longstanding divide between the humanities and STEM disciplines. Digital humanities researchers are mapping the spread of ideas, crowdsourcing digital archives, and making manuscripts accessible to answer timeless questions about what makes us human. Stanford University recently announced it is developing new majors that integrate computer science with humanities disciplines like English and music.

And engineers and entrepreneurs are taking note. When the New York Times asked techpreneur-turned-academic Vivek Wadhwa to write a 2011 opinion piece on where to spend higher education funds—on STEM or on liberal arts programs—they expected him to argue for STEM. But he didn’t.

Wadhwa and a team of researchers surveyed more than 650 CEOs and leading product engineers at more than 500 technology companies. They found that about half had earned a STEM degree at some point in their academic career (bachelor’s, master’s, or Ph.D.). The rest held degrees in a variety fields, including the humanities. “Gaining a degree made a big difference in the sales and employment of the company a founder started,” Wadhwa wrote. “But the field that the degree was in … was not a significant factor.”

Students of the humanities bring skills to the table that engineers don’t—like how to tell a good story. That’s a skill in high demand among tech businesses, as Silicon Valley chronicler Michael Malone discovered when he invited entrepreneur Santosh Jayaram to speak to his writing students. As Malone described it to the Wall Street Journal, he extended the invitation but begged Jayaram not to “dash their hopes” by telling them to leave the humanities.

But Malone, too, was surprised. “English majors are exactly the people I’m looking for,” Jayaram said. He explained that to create a successful tech startup today, you must research “that one undeveloped niche you can capture” and sell the idea to investors, partners, employees, and customers. “And how do you do that? You tell stories.” According to Jayaram, good storytellers are much harder to find than good engineers. “That’s why I want to meet your English majors.”

As Christine Henseler, a leading scholar in the digital humanities movement, wrote, “To write or represent a good story, we have to think about the power of the image, the sound, the word, the logic behind our arguments, the cultural perspectives of our audiences, the faith, or lack thereof, in what we do.” That’s what the humanities teach students.

The classroom discussions and group projects in history, English, and other humanities disciplines also foster social intelligence in a way that traditional STEM disciplines have not always done. “Social intelligence is not what schools specifically train people in, but the highest growth right now and the highest salaries go to people with high social intelligence skills. These are skills better fostered by the humanities,” said Kevin Stolarick, a researcher on the “creative class” who recently spoke at Pittsburgh’s Creative Industries Summit. (For more of his perspective, plus a look at our local creative class and our ability to attract and keep creatives, check out this post.)

The Kids + Creativity Network is helping Pittsburgh-area children and youth develop skills not only in STEM, but in arts and imagination—key building blocks of a humanistic world view. Projects like Crossing Fences, the Literary Arts Boom (The LAB), and Pittsburgh Filmmakers’ Youth Media Program combine the best of the humanities—asking questions, reflecting on stories, and discovering the common elements of the human experience—with cutting-edge technology and communications tools. Thanks to these kinds of experiences, Pittsburgh’s next generation will seize—and likely, create—new pathways to integrate the humanities with STEM.


Photo/ Kaitlin Phillips