connected learning

How Youth-Serving Organizations Power A Connected Learning Ecosystem

Several weeks ago, I paused to reflect on what Chicago City of Learning has become over the span of just 2 short years (it’s still hard to believe). And just two weeks ago, in the company of over 100 friends – #StateofCCOL! – we had the privilege of celebrating the collective gains that we have made in this movement to build an infrastructure for connected learning among those who touch the lives of Chicago’s youth.

Jeff McCarter CCOL Photo

Partners at the annual State of Chicago City of Learning meeting

One thing made clear in the lovely room at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, in and of itself, was how critically central a network of youth-serving organizations is to the development and sustainability of a living, breathing connected learning ecosystem. Because of the commitment and partnership of the 150+ organizations who have joined us and joined together to make their program opportunities visible on our site and articulate their program outcomes using digital badges, our learning ecosystem thrives in our great city.

Program Locations Map_Oct 2015

A map of where programs in Chicago City of Learning are located

But this ecosystem work is not about each organization “representing” itself and its youth’s achievements. Rather, it is about the potential energy generated by the inter-connectedness across organizations.  By definition, an ecosystem is a community of living organisms interacting as a system. And while the first step in building a connected learning ecosystem is to establish the community – to identify and convene the “organisms”, as it were – a connected learning ecosystem’s life-sustaining power and vibrancy is the result of the dynamic ways in which its organizations continuously organize, connect, and exchange.

State of CCOL Connections Cropped

Chicago City of Learning partners’ connections to the work

This is what was so exciting about our 2nd annual State of Chicago City Of Learning meeting last week. Our community conversations were replete with “eco-speak”, as these thoughts shared out by tables indicate:

“access to the entire city”

bringing organizations together in an open sharing environment”

“collaborative, not competitive”

“sharing other organizations’ opportunities with students”

“connecting private and public organizations”

“creating pathways to other opportunities (jobs, scholarships)” 

These connections to the work harken back to the moniker we gave ourselves two years ago, when we envisioned what it would look like to turn Chicago into a “campus of learning” for our youth. “Chi-Y.O.U.” – Chicago’s Youth Owned University – represented our hopes and dreams for what we, working together, might provide the city’s young people – a system designed for their pursuit of interests within and across all of our program offerings.

ChiYOU Badge Level 1_2014

The digital badge that Chicago City of Learning partners earn after completing our first professional development series

Our treasured, inspired, and inspiring community of youth-serving organizations is the heartbeat of the connected learning ecosystem that we have built here in Chicago. And the data that we are beginning to examine together are enabling us to better organize, more intentionally connect, and deliberately partner in ways that facilitate youth in accessing and, ultimately, crafting pathways to opportunity.


We Built This City of Learning!

We all can relate. Working so hard, with nose to grindstone, failing to stop to take in the work, or smell the roses, as it were. That’s how it was for us here at Digital Youth Network, then one September Saturday afternoon we found ourselves wading and weaving through 1200 youth and families who reflected every diversity of our great city and who were excitedly engaged in making “stuff”, connecting with each other, and reveling in the talent of Chicago’s youth.

That’s when we had to stop and say to ourselves – “What we have achieved here is amazing!”. That moment of awe turned into something greater – a consideration of our history and all of the amazing people and organizations that have made Chicago City of Learning what it is.

A Snapshot of the Chicago City of Learning Back to School Jam, September 19, 2015 (Chicago Art Department).

In the summer of 2013, the City of Chicago’s Mayor’s office did something that no other city had done before – connected its learning opportunities through an initiative called Chicago Summer of Learning. With funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and largely “powered by” a Mozilla Foundation platform, Chicago Summer of Learning made the programs of hundreds of organizations easy to find online and the achievements of youth easy to identify via digital badges. That summer, thousands upon thousands of the youth who engaged in programs earned badges that indicated their participation and skill development. The Chicago Summer of Learning initiative was deemed a success.

The Evolution of Chicago “Summer” of Learning

It quickly became clear that this “initiative” was actually an “infrastructure” – an infrastructure for a connected learning ecosystem. Enter Digital Youth Network (DYN).  Our youth-centered, DePaul University-based organization has been an engine for learning innovation in Chicago for the past 12 years, with the support of the MacArthur Foundation, the Gates Foundation, and the National Science Foundation.

DYN was borne from a question that challenged Dr. Nichole Pinkard, now a professor at DePaul’s College of Computing and Digital Media and head of its Design School. That single question, “How do we address the digital literacy divide that Chicago’s South Side youth face?” led not only to more questions, but to action and “intervention”, propelling DYN from working in the after-school space, to collaborating in formal school spaces, to innovating in library spaces, including our co-design of the now-national YouMedia model.

As Chicago Summer of Learning evolved into the year-round Chicago City of Learning (CCOL), DYN stepped up to lead and facilitate the work involved in building a robust city-wide infrastructure designed to address the opportunity gap that exists between more- and less-resourced youth. Such an infrastructure might be powered by a technical platformand we built one based upon our expertise in creating our own social learning network – iRemix. But a truly robust learning ecosystem infrastructure is powered through the dynamic interplay of several critical components that together, in addition to the platform, serve to make visible and connect learning opportunities for youth across spaces and places.

A Network of Youth-Serving Organizations

The first critical component of a thriving learning ecosystem is a community of youth-serving organizations. Our 100+ CCOL organization partners are the key to Chicago City of Learning’s success so far. They include numerous small neighborhood-based organizations, as well as our big city agencies and many of Chicago’s museums and cultural institutions. As a collective, they share a mission to support the positive development of youth across a broad age span, and therefore quickly “get” the need to make their opportunities more visible and accessible.

In the Fall of 2013, we asked our CCOL partners to imagine Chicago as a college campus, and their programs as the available “courses.” In small groups, they made connections between each individual organization’s “course offerings”, forming unique “departments” that our youth could “major” in, like “Civic Leadership and Community Development” and “Green Studies.” Our partners were abuzz with the vision of Chicago’s youth traversing the city, exploring their passions, and building an interest-based “transcript.” That day, we, this network of youth-serving organizations, dubbed ourselves “Chi-Y.O.U.” – Chicago’s Youth Owned University.

A Common Language: The DYN Badge Framework

It’s not enough to have youth-serving organizations in the same room – they have to begin to speak the same language. In Chicago City of Learning, we use digital badges, to “translate” youth experiences and achievements into a “language” that can be used across formal and informal spaces. The DYN badge framework provides the basic units of that shared language – enabling organizations, and schools, to identify and recognize youth achievements in the same way across different experiences. The badge framework identifies important dispositions, skills, and knowledge sets demonstrated by learners in the context of their experiences. It also recognizes when youth showcase those abilities to a broader audience.

Digital badges are terrific tools – an efficient way to share a wealth of data, including evidential artifacts, about learning. However, because they were still a shiny new toy, we found that they often became the focus, and could be a distraction from the learning that they represented. So, DYN developed a 12-hour badge design process that led with learning in two important ways. First, we firmly grounded our professional development and the Chicago City of Learning work in the values and principles of connected learning.

Chicago Art Department developed a series of Connected Learning videos for DYN’s CCOL training series; this one highlights the design principle of “Openly Networked”.

Second, in the badge design process itself we required organizations to unpack their programs, starting first by calling out their targeted learning outcomes and thinking about the ways in which youth demonstrated those outcomes. Only after such deconstruction did we delve into the badge framework, with organizations identifying the types of badges that best fit the kinds of evidence of learning that they gather and assess as youth participate. Many organizations have told us that this process, while lengthy, not only helps them better articulate their program goals, but also gives them a chance to reflect on and question the focus and efficacy of their work.

In 2014, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Pittsburgh followed Chicago’s lead and implemented their own Summers of Learning. Washington, D.C. joined in 2015. We shared our badge framework and training approach with our colleagues, resulting in a shared national framework and approach. We envision a future in which a Chicago youth shares select disposition and skill badges from her digital backpack on her Howard University application, and the admissions officer knows exactly how to “read” them, because of the strength of the learning ecosystem that District of Learning has built.

Pathways to Opportunities: Equity by Design

We all know that “if you build it”, they won’t necessarily come! We also know that if what you build is situated in a societal context that has not changed structurally, then those who are less resourced are least likely to find “it” and reap its benefits. In order to achieve equity within a robust learning ecosystem, one must do so “by design”.

At DYN, our team has developed a conceptual framework for designing learning pathways. This research-informed framework proposes that issues of identity, social capital, and equity are central and critical to the design of pathways that enable youth to pursue their interests into the future. These pathways must affirm new possible futures by supporting youth’s development of specific dispositions, knowledge, and skills; by connecting youth to socially networked peers and mentors; and by providing youth with special opportunities that translate into the social and cultural capital that they need to access pathways to college and career. Within the context of Chicago City of Learning, we have co-designed, with several writing organization, a pathway to support youth interest in writing, which has begun to be taken up by teachers in classrooms.

Chicago City of Learning’s Young Author Playlist unlocks a special opportunity for 5 Chicago youth (Chicago Art Department).

And this year, for the first time, we were able to connect youth to pathways to employment through our role in the 100K Opportunities Initiative, which held its launch event in Chicago. The historical data that CCOL holds enabled us to identify and refer 2100 youth to the 100K application and hiring process based on the badges that they had earned during their 2014 One Summer Chicago jobs. These badges, earned by reporting to work 100% or 80% of the time, were evidence of the reliability that employers seek from entry-level employees. This was the first time that we were able to make a connection between badge-earning and pathways to jobs!

Highlights from the 100K Opportunities Youth Fair and Forum (Chicago Art Department).

Learning pathways are critical components of robust learning ecosystems – those that are constructed intentionally to make visible the way forward, those that emerge as youth pursue their interests and discover their passions, as well as those that youth design for themselves. Our work to build equitable pathways for youth within the Chicago City of Learning ecosystem has revealed the challenges inherent in designing for equity. And while we are inspired and energized by the paths that the youth who have connected to CCOL are blazing into the future, there is still much to be learned.

Data-Informed Action and Intervention

So, we have a platform that powers the infrastructure; we have a community of partner organizations whose offerings “populate” the learning ecosystem; we have digital badges that make more visible both the achievements and achievement patterns of youth; and we have frameworks and tools for identifying and designing interest-based pathways for youth to pursue toward college and career. These components are the makings of a robust, city-wide learning ecosystem, and this system generates a host of data that can, and should, create feedback loops that inform ongoing planning, action, and “intervention”.

As CCOL enters its 3rd year, we are at that “tipping point”, where there are enough data available, and enough reliable data, to inform action and even intervention. Just this past summer, we used data to examine the types of programs that were being offered across the city, with a special interest in computer science, a field that in which youth of color and girls are woefully under-represented (and one in which DYN holds specific expertise and resources). CCOL data indicated that the “coding and games” offerings (the dark blue part of the pinwheels in the graphic below) were fairly scarce, more likely to be downtown, and likely to be cost-prohibitive for lower income families.

Chicago program offerings by category and zip code.

We knew that these were data that we could act on. We couldn’t create programs in every neighborhood that was lacking them, but we could bring programs to neighborhoods across the city. We went mobile! With the support of Best Buy and in partnership with a community church, the Chicago Park District, and the Chicago Public Library, we rented (and bedazzled) a van and equipped it with trained digital mentors, laptops, and Wi-Fi. Our van visited South Shore, Garfield Park, and Chinatown – all neighborhoods with a wealth of programming, but scarce computer science opportunities. Our van also popped up in parks and events, enabling youth to “get connected” to our online offerings and hands-on making.

The CCOL Destination: Chicago Van “pops up” at La Villita Park (Chicago Art Department).

Building a City’s Learning Ecosystem

We are beginning to see how designing an equity-centric, robust learning ecosystem can make a city smarter – maximizing its abundant resources toward the education and development of all of its children. As the steward of Chicago City of Learning, DYN has had the privilege to partner with dedicated individuals from the city’s great community-based organizations, youth-serving agencies, schools, and cultural institutions. We all share a mission to connect youth to robust learning experiences that enhance and support their paths to exploring their interests, discovering their talents, and charting a course, enriched by formal and informal learning, to college and career. In Chicago, this has been a collaborative and collective process. Together, we built this City of Learning.

Why Chicago Summer of Learning is a B.F.D.

(that’s Big FANTASTIC Deal, for those who assumed I was a potty mouth!)

Chicago Summer of Learning is a joint endeavor led by the City of Chicago Mayor’s Office, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Mozilla Foundation, with the help of over 100 youth-serving organizations in the country’s 3rd largest city.

Chicago Summer Of Learning Logo

“CSOL”, as it is affectionately called by my Hive Chicago Learning Network buddies and me, is designed to help Chicago’s youth take advantage of the diverse array of learning opportunities available to them this summer and to make sure that their “learning counts” by acknowledging each young person’s achievements using digital badges (see this video if you are new to the concept) 


CSOL is a big, fantastic idea that is being implemented at an ambitious scale.  And, it is critically important for Chicago’s youth.  Taking a closer look at STEAM|Studio, a Hive Chicago-funded CSOL Challenge, will help me explain why.

STEAM|Studio is engaging a group of young people (right now) in the complex tasks of designing a STEAM-inspired fashion line and documenting the design and production processes.  The “STEAM Team” is comprised of apprentice fashion designers, jewelry designers, bloggers, and photographers.  These 8th – 12th graders have “leveled up” within CSOL and “unlocked” this particular challenge, which will culminate in a youth-produced, mutli-media runway show and the professional manufacturing of the best fashion and jewelry designs.

STEAM | Studio exemplifies exactly why Chicago Summer of Learning matters so much.

Schools Can’t Do It Alone

Schools are faced with the reality that they must play a number of roles (with and often for parents) in the lives of young people if they are to succeed academically – educator, advisor, enricher, accelerator, mentor, and even caretaker and protector. These roles, particularly in our urban schools, are enacted against the backdrop of high-stakes testing, district- and school-level instability, and the general under-funding of public education. Schools can not do the work of nourishing the next generation of leaders and innovators alone – nor should they. Our communities are teeming with untapped resources – after school programs with empty slots, civic institutions with treasures to share, and caring adults with talents, heart, and time.

At STEAM | Studio, our young designers, photogs, and bloggers are being mentored closely by professionals who excel in the specific areas about which our kids are passionate. “Real life” boutique owners, jewelry designers, photographers, fashion designers, and media-makers are listening to our young STEAM|Studio apprentices’ ideas, providing feedback on their concepts and sketches, helping them prototype their designs, and pushing their thinking about their own work as they iterate.  And it’s all taking place in a spacious pop-up studio provided by Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (and later in space offered by DePaul University).  These are robust, production-oriented experiences that schools and parents would find challenging to provide.  CSOL has facilitated the mining of these unique human and capital resources in the service of young people’s interest-driven learning pursuits.

Photography Mentoring at STEAM | Studio

Digital Youth Network mentor, Brother Mike, talks cameras with STEAM|Studio Photogs and Chuck from Chicago Art Department.

STEAM | Studio Jewelry Design Mentoring

FUSE mentor, Henry, helps STEAM|Studio Jewelry Designer iterate with SketchUp.

Sir & Madame STEAM | Studio Mentoring

Sir & Madame mentor, Bryan, gives feedback on a STEAM|Studio Designer’s sketch and prototype.

STEAM Studio Jewelry Design Mentoring

Christopher Duquet Fine Jewelry mentor, Terran, examines the prototype that a STEAM|Studio Jewelry Designer made the day before.

Young People Need “Possible Selves” Spaces

“Possible selves” are our ideas about who we would like to be and who we might become, as well as who we are afraid of becoming.  As you can imagine, these “self” concepts can be quite salient and powerful, particularly for young people.  Their ideas about who they are and could be are influenced by context – what they see, experience, and interpret around them.  Research has indicated that these beliefs can operate like self-fulfilling prophecies, because they influence the choices that students make.  For example, decades ago, Roslyn Mickelson found that students who, in their personal experiences, did not see education “paying off” were more likely to have poor grades, despite their positive attitudes about education.  And more recently, Daphna Oyserman, Deborah Bybee, and Kathy Terry, from the University of Michigan, demonstrated that when students’ academically-based possible (and feared) selves were activated and they were supported in developing strategies for striving, they made more achievement-focused choices (attending school, behaving, participating, studying, etc.) than students without such intervention.

Unfortunately, too often our young people live in contexts that communicate limited possibilities – neighborhoods reflecting the effects of blight and unemployment, schools focused on student deficits and “failing” test scores, families struggling to make it in the present to the neglect of focusing on the future.  Our youth need spaces like STEAM|Studio, where they not only imagine, but see multiple possible futures … as a fashion designer, an entrepreneur, a jewelry designer, a journalist.  These spaces are unfettered by standards and rank.  The kid who struggles in algebra can still use CAD to design; and then might have a reason to work harder in math back at school.  The kid who takes hours to put pen to paper can find expression through photography; and then might be inspired to find the words to explain the inspiration behind the image.  The kid who never makes the Honor Roll can be recognized as making a meaningful contribution; and then discover authentic reasons to feel proud and accomplished.  CSOL is helping Chicago youth find and connect in these “third spaces” where many selves become possible and mentors exemplify and share the pathways to actualizing them.

Exit Slips in response to "How Do You Feel about What You Did Today?"

Exit Slips in response to “How Do You Feel about What You Did Today?”

More exit slips.

More exit slips.

Global Girl Media interviews STEAM|Studio Designer

GlobalGirl Media interviews STEAM|Studio Designer.

Learning Should be Connected Across Spaces

Too often today, the rich and meaningful learning experiences that young people have across spaces – in schools, out of schools, at home, and online – are fragmented and disconnected.  Youth might navigate these spaces with peers, but largely are left on their own to make sense of, stitch together, and integrate what they are making, doing, and learning in the various spheres of their lives. They also usually carry the burden of finding the next opportunity to extend their engagement in things that they like, and have begun to love to do.  Furthermore, the adults in these young people’s lives often are unaware of the skills and competencies that they are building and the possible selves that they are trying on, embracing, nurturing, and developing.  Connected Learning seeks to address the fragmentation of youth learning, using old and new technologies to both a) make visible the making and doing that youth engage in across spaces and b) provide avenues for adults across spaces to, together, support young people in discovering their interests and deepening their passions.

Many different roads led our STEAM|Studio youth to our unique pop-up maker space. Several of them heard about it through their mentors from other programs.  Others came with a program to check out our drop-in maker space and came back to work with us. Some just happened to walk by and walk in.  One of our designers found us through his teacher, Stephanie, who learned about Chicago Summer of Learning, heard the details of STEAM|Studio, and immediately thought of her student – “All he talked about, all year long, was about being a designer!”  She called him up, he joined us on the first day, and has been soaking up all that the space is offering – the lessons on the design process, the use of digital tools to create mood boards, getting feedback on sketches, learning how to use SketchUp to prototype, and engaging in the process of iteration and refinement.  When he earns the STEAM|Studio Designer badge, it will represent the complex set of skills and knowledge that he has acquired and indicate the sophisticated tools he has used. This CSOL badge provides a digital footprint that can link his learning between STEAM|Studio and school, helping caring adults support his learning and helping him craft a pathway of learning organized around an evolving and emerging set of competencies and identities. And one day, that badge might also “count” and be converted into credit or service hours.

STEAM|Studio Design Start

STEAM|Studio notes on starting the design process.

STEAM|Studio Maker Bot

STEAM|Studio Designer watches prototype being printed on the MakerBot.

STEAM|Studio Designer Badge

The earner of this badge demonstrated knowledge of the design process, moving from brainstorming through production and engaging in multiple iterations in response to feedback. As the learner engaged in design, s/he used spatial reasoning, transferred 2D images to 3D designs, and applied geometry knowledge in the use of computer-aided design software.

The Chicago Summer of Learning has the potential to change the learning landscape for Chicago’s youth.  It galvanizes the numerous resources available in the city; provides youth with spaces designed to uncover, tap into, and fuel their interests; and uses digital badges as a mechanism for connecting, communicating, and “counting” young people’s learning across those spaces.  The adults involved are learning a lot this summer about the level of collaboration and coordination it takes to do this important work well – we should all earn badges ourselves!

I look forward to seeing how our STEAM|Studio designers and media-makers forge pathways forward after the summer is over, as they return to school, apply and transfer these new skills and knowledge, and explore multiple possible selves.  It’s a big deal.

STEAM|Studio Fashion Design

STEAM|Studio Designer proudly displays her t-shirt concept.

President Clinton is Down with Badges!

DigiBadges-200.jpg.580x580_q85On Thursday, June 13th, President Clinton announced the Clinton Global Initiative’s (CGI)Commitment to Action in support of the use of badges as a mechanism to create pathways to college and career for two million Americans.This effort is being powered by the MacArthur Foundation, Mozilla, and HASTAC.  Check out this press release, in which our friends Connie Yowell, Nichole Pinkard, and Mark Surman talk about the impact and significance of CGI’s commitment to opening up new avenues of opportunity for individuals across the country.The 2 Million Better Futures Initiative creates:

  1. New avenues for individuals to build the knowledge, skills, and credentials needed in today’s economy
  2. New mechanisms for recognizing and valuing the competencies that individuals develop through learning that happens everywhere and all the time
  3. New entry points for employers to find the talents and skills sets that they need

CGI’s commitment makes all the more important Hive Chicago’s collective goal to cultivate and illuminate pathways that connect learning experiences across organizations in the network.  These pathways provide the foundation and infrastructure needed to develop a robust ecosystem of badges.


CGI’s call to action also highlights/underlines/bolds/italicizes the importance of Hive Chicago’s collective investment in and support of the success of the Chicago Summer of Learning (CSOL).  CSOL is the largest and only effort of its kind taking place anywhere in the world – striving to significantly change the learning landscape in Chicago moving forward. CSOL makes visible the summer learning opportunities available to youth and acknowledges their achievements through the use of digital badges. These badges provide the shared language and artifact-based portfolio needed to make the rich informal learning that young people engage in outside of school “count” in the formal school arena.

What we accomplish this summer, through CSOL, will provide us with the “evidence proof” needed for Chicago to create avenues for more possible futures at scale, from K to 12 and beyond, across school, university, and workplace spaces.

Hive family, our work has never been more needed.  Our roles never more clear.

Let’s “make” learning count this summer … together!

Sybil Madison-Boyd

Hive Chicago Learning Network

**Hive Chicago is a network of civic and cultural institutions dedicated to transforming the learning landscape by creating opportunities for youth to explore their interests through connected learning experiences.