We work to develop new technologies that, in the spirit of the blocks and finger paint of kindergarten, expand the range of what people can design, create, and learn – thus sowing the seeds for a more creative society. Our goal is to help children learn to think creatively, reason systematically, work collaboratively, and learn continuously – essential skills for success in the 21st century. We are developing a new generation of technologies that not only enable children to connect with new concepts and ideas but also enable them to connect with other people, providing new pathways for sharing, collaborating, and empathizing with one another.
Examples from two of my projects – Scratch and the Computer Clubhouse – illustrate this point.
Scratch is a graphical programming environment that makes it easy for children ages eight and up to create their own interactive stories, games, animations, and simulations – and then share their creations with one another online. Roughly one million children have joined the Scratch online community, where they share more than 2,000 new Scratch projects each day.
The way students use this online community provides a compelling example of how valuable human connections can be fostered by new digital tools. Participants in the Scratch community serve alternately as peers and teachers, solving problems and perfecting programs together. The following excerpt from A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, a recent book by Doug Thomas and John Seely Brown, describes the experiences of nine-year-old Sam, who uses Scratch to create his own animations and games:
Scratch has an additional element that takes the experience to a different level: a collective, a community of similarly minded people who helped Sam learn and meet the very particular set of needs that he had. When Sam posted his game online to that community, it became accessible to thousands of other kids who were also working with Scratch, and that’s when some very interesting things started to happen. The other players were able not only to play Sam’s game, but also, with the click of a button, to download it into the Scratch interface, see the code, and modify it if they wished.
Perhaps the most important aspect of all, however, was the users’ ability to comment on projects they liked by clicking a “Love it?” button. What Sam found when he joined the online community was that he was no longer simply creating animations or games; he was part of a larger conversation. He was excited about receiving his first comment, of course. But when we asked Sam what it meant to be a good member of the Scratch community, we were surprised by his answer. It had nothing to do with building games or posting animations. Instead, Sam told us that the single most important thing was to “not be mean” in your comments and to make sure that you commented on something good when you came across it, as well. The game does not just teach programming; it cultivated citizenship...
Sam made perhaps the most revealing comment, one that tells us the most about the new culture of learning, when we asked him what he looks for in other people’s programs. He told us, “something really cool that you could never know yourself.” While playing Scratch, Sam has learned a lot about programming and a lot about participating in online communities. But what he has learned most of all is how to learn from others.
The following example illustrates how a 13-year-old girl, identified as “BalaBethany,” learned to program through interactions with peers online:
BalaBethany enjoys drawing anime characters. So when she started using Scratch, it was natural for her to program animated stories featuring these characters. She began sharing her projects on the Scratch Web site, and other members of the community responded positively, posting glowing comments under her projects (such as “Awesome!” and “OMG I LUV IT!!!!!!”), along with questions about how she achieved certain visual effects (such as “How do you make a sprite look see-through?”). Encouraged, BalaBethany then created and shared new Scratch projects on a regular basis, like episodes in a TV series.
She periodically added new characters to her series and at one point asked why not involve the whole Scratch community in the process? She created and uploaded a new Scratch project that announced a “contest,” asking other community members to design a sister for one of her characters. The project listed a set of requirements for the new character, including “Must have red or blue hair, please choose” and “Has to have either cat or ram horns, or a combo of both.”
The project received more than 100 comments. One was from a community member who wanted to enter the contest but said she didn’t know how to draw anime characters. So BalaBethany produced another Scratch project, a step-by step tutorial, demonstrating a 13-step process for drawing and coloring anime characters.
Over the course of a year, BalaBethany programmed and shared more than 200 Scratch projects, covering a range of project types (stories, contests, tutorials, and more). Her programming and artistic skills progressed, and her projects clearly resonated with the Scratch community, receiving more than 12,000 comments.
Our group at MIT also founded the Computer Clubhouse project, an international network of 100 after-school centers where low-income youth ages 10-18 learn to express themselves creatively with new technologies. With support from adult mentors, participants create interactive stories, music videos, and robotic constructions. The following excerpt underscores how technology can help children forge their identities and establish themselves as part of a community:
Consider Mike Lee, who spent time at the original Computer Clubhouse in Boston. Mike first came to the Clubhouse after he had dropped out of high school. His true passion was drawing. He filled up notebook after notebook with sketches of cartoon characters. At the Clubhouse, Mike developed a new method for his artwork. First, he would draw black-and-white sketches by hand. Then, he would scan the sketches into the computer and use the computer to color them in. His work often involved comic-book images of himself and his friends.
Over time, Mike learned to use more advanced computer techniques in his artwork. Everyone in the Clubhouse was impressed with Mike’s creations, and other youth began to come to him for advice. Some members explicitly mimicked Mike’s artistic style. Before long, a collection of “Mike Lee style” artwork filled the bulletin boards of the Clubhouse. “It’s kind of flattering,” said Mike.
For the first time in Mike’s life, other people were looking up to him. He began to feel a new sense of responsibility. He decided to stop using guns in his artwork, feeling that it was a bad influence on the younger Clubhouse members. “My own personal artwork is more hard core, about street violence. I had a close friend who was shot and died,” Mike explained. “But I don’t want to bring that here. I have an extra responsibility. Kids don’t understand about guns; they think it’s cool. They see a fight, it’s natural they want to go see it. They don't understand. They’re just kids.”
Mike began working with others at the Clubhouse on collaborative projects. Together, they created an Online Art Gallery on the Web. Once a week, they met with a local artist who agreed to be a mentor for the project. After a year, their online art show was accepted as an exhibition at Siggraph, the world’s premiere computer-graphics conference.
As Mike worked with others at the Clubhouse, he began to experiment with new artistic techniques. He added more computer effects, and he began working on digital collages combining photographs and graphics, while still maintaining his distinctive style. Over time, Mike explored how he might use his artwork as a form of social commentary and political expression.
As he worked at the Clubhouse, Mike Lee clearly learned a lot about computers and about graphic design. But he also began to develop his own ideas about teaching and learning. “At the Clubhouse, I was free to do what I wanted, learn what I wanted,” said Mike. “Whatever I did was just for me. If I had taken computer courses [in school], there would have been all those assignments. Here I could be totally creative.” Mike remembers – and appreciates – how the Clubhouse staff members treated him when he first started at the Clubhouse. They asked him to design the sign for the entrance to the Clubhouse, and looked to him as a resource. They never thought of him as a “high-school dropout” but as an artist.
After several years of volunteer work at the Clubhouse, Mike earned his high- school equivalency diploma, then landed a job as a graphic designer at a high- tech company near Boston, designing graphics for the company’s web pages, stationery, catalogs, and brochures.