Minecraft, littleBits – virtual/physical interactions and sensing

This past Jminecraftlilbitsuly we did some work with littleBits and Minecraft (video below) which has lead to some further thoughts and development. Once you start taking these two tools seriously there is a tremendous amount of potential in their educational use. One of the most important aspects for me is the connection of the virtual and the physical. Being able to use Minecraft as one piece of an ecosystem that connects virtual and real provides an easy entry into the module development of a range of activities. littleBits provide a toolkit that we initially used to mirror creation in Minecraft. The expanding range of littleBits modules is continually opening new connectors that allow for an even greater range of activities.

As I was thinking about this I felt a need to map what I view as the current ecosystem for this virtual physical project space. While this is not definitive or static, it captures what I currently see as the key elements – the flora and fauna – of this space. The Minecraft/littleBits symbiosis moves beyond a mirroring of what is created in one is replicated in the other into a robust and modular system that can include programming, micro-controllers and sensors. Mapping physical world interaction into the virtual or having virtual interactions move out into the physical – sensing changes, reacting – all within the creative grasp of kids and curious adults is powerful and facilitates multilayered learning processes.

So what I’m poking at now or in the near future: redstone, sensors, arduino, logic gates, computercraft – still the Minecraft/littleBits combo but expanding a bit to strengthen the virtual physical interactions elements. Look for more specific details, recipes and learnings over the next few months as I (with the help of engaged colleagues and new collaborators) tinker and test.

Raising funds to support technology workshops in Nicaragua

michael-kids-smallerThis January (2015) I’ll be heading off to Nicaragua for two weeks. During my time there I will be conducting several technology workshops with youth. While I am still in the planning process I do know that I will be using littleBits as the core tool set for these workshops. Right now I am hoping to run 4 workshops – 2 on the Atlantic Coast (Puerto Cabezas) and two inland in Matagalpa. While littleBits is donating some modules I am hoping to raise funds to purchase additional modules and possible a few other components. I am not used to asking folks for money like this but as I am self-funding I find that it is necessary if I hope to have a full range of flexibility in the workshop activities and outcomes.


This past summer I used littleBits in a workshop for 4-H here on campus and had very good results. You can learn more about that work here: http://littlebits.cc/educator-spotlight-paul-treadwell

As always I am more than happy to talk about this work and answer questions, so please feel free to drop a comment here and I’ll respond.



Preparing for Career Ex 2014 HackJam

Osamu IwasakiIt all begins tomorrow. This year we’ll be (hopefully) making and hacking a bit, which is a deviation from my past few yearly sessions and a bit of a challenge. Lately I’ve strayed away from, the hardware and technical aspects of things – focusing more on the social (storytelling) potential of digital media – but this session will return me to my roots in some ways. In prepping for the session I’ve re-visited my early days a bit, recollecting experiences with Hollis Frampton and learning assembly language programming for the 8088. But enough with the nostalgia.

Tomorrow afternoon we’ll introduce the gear we have to work with and form project groups. As always there are varying technical capabilities within the group of 20 kids.I think we’ve provided for that range of capabilities by including a fairly broad spectrum of tech to work with from littleBits to Raspberry Pi, we should be able to find a fit for everyone.

We’ll be updating as we go along over at http://blogs.cornell.edu/careerex2014hackjam/.

My motivations for shifting focus for this session comes from several directions, but the initial genesis can be found in the two paragraphs below (with (some) citations- maybe someday the two paragraphs will grow into a paper):

Working from a Freirean pedagogical foundation I propose enlarging the concept of literacy to include the literacy of hacking. The increasing ubiquity of technology, the pervasiveness of connectedness mediated by technology and the intentionally ‘black box’ quality of so much tech it is now imperative that youth can ‘read’ these technologies. The promise of technology as a method of empowerment necessitates a serious consideration of the ability of users to work with, as opposed to working on, new hardware and software. The literacies of hacking and making are fundamental to the development of technologies that increase freedom.

This process of reading and the development of these new literacies, should lead to a liberatory faculty – being able to re-mix, hack or make, new technology to allow for the emergence or creation of new worlds. These worlds are not predetermined by a corporation, but arise from the combination of imagination, technology and agency. The literacies of hacking moves users from passive and consumptive objects to active subjects (makers).


Blikstein, P., & Krannich, D. (2013, June). The makers’ movement and FabLabs in education: experiences, technologies, and research. In Proceedings of the 12th International Conference on Interaction Design and Children (pp. 613-616). ACM.

Blikstein, P. (2013). Digital Fabrication and “Making”in Education: The Democratization of Invention. FabLabs: Of Machines, Makers and Inventors. Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/download/30555959/Blikstein-2013-Making_The_Democratization_of_Invention.pdf

Copeland, S. (2009). Digital Storytelling : A cross-boundary method for intergenerational groups in rural communities A study in rural England, 1–7.

Freire, P., & Macedo, D. P. (1987). Literacy: Reading the word & the world. South Hadley, Mass: Bergin & Garvey Publishers.

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Mayson, S. (2013). People-Centred Desktop Design and Manufacture: a review of web enabled open source tools for localised community focused inclusive design. In Include Asia 2013: Global Challenges and Local Solutions in Inclusive Design (pp. 1-10). Royal College of Art.

Söderberg, J. (2008). Hacking capitalism: The free and open source software movement. New York: Routledge.

Empowering technology? Tablets, youth and collaborative video production.

I recently spent a few days working with 25 4-H youth in a program focused (loosely) on digital storytelling. This is the fourth year I’ve conducted this program and I always intend to gather my thoughts afterwards in some sort of coherent fashion – but it always seems to slip away from me. This is my attempt to frame some coherent thoughts, reflections and questions around my experience conducting this workshop.

Empowering technology?

IMG_5052I deeply believe that technology can be empowering and, in the best of circumstances, transformative in its usage.  It is the foundation from which I work, it is the hope that empowers me when I undertake this workshop. In the 12+ years I have been engaged with youth through this program (previous years focused on web development and/or mobile devices with the transition 4 years ago to digital storytelling) I have seen glimpses of transformation in some of the kids I’ve been fortunate to work with. But I am coming to think this has less to do with the tools we use, and much more to do with creating a space that supports the process. It may seem obvious, but it has taken me a while to come to this understanding, to actually work from this understanding.

So it may be better to say I deeply believe in the potential of technology to be a useful tool for empowerment and transformation. The same can be said of poetry, theater, etc…the tool is the tool. The space and method of working with the tool can be supportive of exploration, discovery and transformation (with the converse always being true, as well). So it all comes down to intent – my intent when approaching this workshop.

That being said…

Having good tools to work with makes it far easier to keep intention in mind. Less time spent troubleshooting, working with multiple quirks, searching for specific IMG_5024cables and so on, means more time spent interacting with (and supporting) actual productive “work”. In years past I’ve worked with whatever I could lay hands on – which usually meant a mish-mash of video and still cameras of varying pedigree – leading to incompatibilities and wondrous challenges focused on just getting content off the menagerie of devices. This is obviously less than optimal.

And the physical environment can present its own challenges. At various times I’ve held sessions in labs, computer labs and the lobby of a library. Last year we used a collaborative center within one of the libraries here on campus. The collab center was built to facilitate shared work (unsurprisingly) and has flexible partitions, whiteboards and reasonable setting. Being in a library is interesting. Kids have been trained to silence in libraries and even though the collab center is positioned to allow for more activity and noise there is still the ambience of library. My experience is that this helps settle things down much more rapidly when chaos begins to creep in. A simple reminder that we are in a library is often enough to moderate voices, to diminish ‘horseplay’. (And I realize this makes me sound somewhat…aged, if not downright ancient. But after 4 or 5 hours of working together it’s very easy for the chaotic trickster spirit to be evoked with little effort. I want to maintain just enough of the trickster energy to foster creativity and engagement, but don’t want to have it slide over into unfocused chaos.)

This year my group was able to work with ten tablets for content capture and some creation. These tablets are part of a larger project in which NYS 4-H is participating. I pre-configured the tablets so that they all had the same apps and a connection to a shared dropbox account. The tablets were set to automatically upload images and videos to the shared account.

My hope was that a shared account would make it possible for some groups of kids to be out capturing content while others remained in our collaborative center able to download and work with the content. This should lead to a much more rapid production cycle. It would also allow groups to sub-divide and have one or two members out in the field while one or two we able to work on a desktop pc editing.

I was somewhat skeptical of the tablets as capture devices. I have an iPad and have used it to capture some video and was not overly impressed with the quality – it was adequate but does not work for me as a video camera replacement. So I was interested to see what these new tablets could do.

I will also admit to some reservations about the potential of the tablets as distraction. There was nothing to stop any of the kids from downloading games or other apps from the Google store. And the display is quite nice and we all know YouTube can provide hours of distraction, should you so desire.

So I distributed the tablets and was hopeful, but not overly optimistic, that they would provide more utility than distraction.

Look! A squirrel…

IMG_5003We broke into 5 groups with topical foci. 25 is a large number of teens to work with and my prior experiences have always lead me to believe that at least one of my groups will ‘check out’ pretty early into the program. So I anticipated, and within the first hour had already identified my ‘disinterested participants’. And again, with a group that large I expected some chaos accompanied by whispered reprimands or icy glares from annoyed library patrons.

There is always an interesting degree of diversity in the kids who choose to participate in my workshops. In many ways it is a fair representation of the diversity of New York State, drawing from rural, suburban and urban 4-H clubs. At least 3 or 4 are fairly fully digitally literate, bring a solid technical skillset to the group. All of the kids are socially networked. Without overstating the obvious – this is a radical change from just 5 years ago.

Whether you love or hate Facebook, it does facilitate a baseline level of digital literacy. It may not be a comprehensive literacy (think about issues around data security here) but it does support skills for creating and posting content online. Couple this with the increasingly pervasive presence of smartphones being used to capture images and video and our teens now have a fairly robust creation and production skillset in use, which is woven through many of their daily activities.

The novelty factor was in play for the first 15 minutes of use. Mastering the interface was no great struggle. The tablets we were working with use the Android OS which was familiar to some of the kids from their phones. Functionality across an Android and iPad tablet are similar enough to not be an impediment to effective use.

Mediating relationships

IMG_4957I also need to note the ability of technology to act as a buffer and mediator. I’ve seen this happen in many different contexts. Placing a piece of technology in the middle of an unacquainted and mixed group and asking them to use the technology can bridge boundaries very rapidly. This initial focal point is neutral (in some ways) and allows participants to get to know each other as they explore the tool.

There is also a process of peer learning and teaching that can unfold in the right conditions. Some of the more technically adept kids can help other learn how to use the new tool. This draws out sometimes reticent participants, and values their contributions which can be obscured by the more socially outgoing participants. This process of relationship building can be encouraged as part of the facilitation process, but it cannot be enforced. Trust, confidence in the workshop and a receptiveness by all to work together are necessary elements that can cultivate an atmosphere of peer learning and teaching.

Tablets as capture devices

I use my iPad primarily as a consumption device. My few attempts to use it for video have been disappointing, at best. Personal experience has lead me to conclude my smartphone is a better device for media capture. I find it easier to hold steady and movement is fairly fluid with the smaller form factor.

So, my expectations for high quality, usable, video being captures on the tablet was low. I came prepared with several handheld video cameras, considering them more appropriate to the task at hand. I expected the bulk of video that would be used would come from the video cameras, with the tablets contributing small clips or images.

My expectations were consistently confounded during the course of our workshop – and this was no exception. The kids were adept at handling the tablets, video cameo out crisp and clear, and the audio quality was very good. A lot of usable content. As a matter of fact, the bulk of the content used in the videos we produced were captured using the tablets.

There was also a spontaneity in using the tablets that is missing or more difficult to achieve with a traditional video camera. Sometimes people react unnaturally once a camera lens is turned on them – they ‘act’ for the camera. The tablets seem to moderate this effect, to a degree. And the capture ability is always there with a tablet. It is a matter of switching apps, not pulling out a separate device and intruding into whatever space the kids are working in.

And there is the familiarity factor. A tablet is (in some ways) a large smartphone. With the introduction of Vine (which was surprisingly popular with some of the kids) spontaneously grabbing video is just a normal everyday activity. This ‘habit’ of capture and go is a beginning, but only that. It is like a moving still picture – a snapshot, discrete and unconnected.  To intentionally capture and weave together video, images, and sounds into a story is missing from this process.

Bracketing out a challenging issue

Having a topic is a kind of starting point. Having something meaningful to say, or ask, is a larger challenge. This is the gap with video snapshots. They are spontaneous but often without intent. Intent demands some reflection and grasp of where one stands in the world. This issue of intent is another chapter, a whole universe which has been explored deeply by others and which demands its own exploration beyond the scope of this document (which started out intending to be a somewhat concise blog post).

Finally. Trying to wrap this up

I wanted to capture a few thoughts and reflections, but obviously opened a can of worms. I hope to revisit this topic soon. Weed through and sort out a bit more of the issues and opportunities.  Some – perhaps most- of what I’ve said is not news, but it is my attempt to order and understand what happened over the course of three days. Some things have been left dangling and I haven’t even begun to encounter some of the pedagogical underpinnings, aspirations and challenges that work of this type surfaces. Nor have I undertaken any rants about the rhetoric around tablets (or any technology) ‘revolutionizing’ education. But that is coming, sometime soon.



CareerExplorations 2013

Waiting for the kids to arrive in about 15 minutes. Walking over to Mann Library I realized that this is my12th year doing a session for Career Ex. And this years group may be the largest Ive worked with (25 kids) which may be a bit ofa challenge. Im hoping for five working groups addressing a variety of topics, from women in science to the impact of STEM programs in low resource communities.

As always I’m starting out with high hopes. ….let’s see what we end up with.


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