Remixing Education at the 2012 Digital Media and Learning Conference

Like most academic conferences, the hallways of the 2012 Digital Media and Learning (DML) Conference in San Francisco last week were dotted with small knots of colleagues exchanging ideas and business cards. The main reception hall, however, showed that there was something different about this gathering.

On screens throughout the conference center and ballroom, live Twitter feeds displayed a constant commentary on the panels and conversations (#dml2012) while participants tapped away on their digital devices. Others gathered around digital displays with laptop connections, discussing slides and websites in detail.

On one side of the hall, four colleagues gathered around a table, holding open laptops in one arm while discussing, gesturing, and pointing at a display with the other; a fifth followed along on his smartphone. In a nearby session, absent followers posted questions to an online bulletin board. In every way, the DML conference used digital media to expand conversations beyond the walls of the conference hotel.

The DML Conference is an annual event supported by the MacArthur Foundation and organized by the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub at the UC Humanities Research Institute. This year’s conference, “DML 2012: Beyond Educational Technology,” challenged participants to seek out “learning innovations in a connected world.” K-12 and university teachers from across the United States and the world, educators from community and arts organizations, grantmakers, makers and innovators from private industry, and even high school students convened in San Francisco to rise to that challenge in three days of intensive discussion about how to modify, remix, and adapt existing technologies and practices.

Innovation expert and self-proclaimed “Chief of Confusion” John Seely Brown presented the keynote address, “Cultivating Entrepreneurial Learners,” arguing that we will all need to develop entrepreneurial learning skills–the habit of constantly looking around us for new resources and new ways to learn–in order to adapt to our rapidly changing social and digital infrastructure.

Subsequent panels tackled the questions of where to focus when investing in education innovation as well as how to build the social and technical infrastructure to support such innovation. Mitch Kapor, panelist and pioneer of the personal computing industry, captured one of the major themes of these panels when he proclaimed: “We are no longer entitled to be naïve techno-optimists.”

Kapor argued that education is one of the last arenas in which information technology remains under-used. Constance Yowell of the MacArthur foundation agreed, noting that we cannot simply layer new technologies over outdated, institutionalized practices.

Panelists encouraged attendees to use the conference as a place to begin conversations about how to reform the research, design, and redevelopment system for education. To that end, Kapor announced a call for proposals to radically innovate schools, offering substantial funding (provided by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) for experimental schools.

Despite Kapor’s admonition, it was evident that some of this innovation is already happening at the ground level. For instance, a Friday morning panel showcased the work of the Hive Learning Networks, a collaborative endeavor funded by the MacArthur Foundation and Mozilla Foundation.

Hive learning networks link libraries, museums, afterschool program, and community-based organizations through collaborative, digital projects to create out-of-school learning opportunities for youth. Hive is focused on creating connected learning experiences by providing kids with challenges that allow them to embrace the “homago” model first proposed by Ito, et al: hang out, mess around, and geek out, an ethos of learning through playful challenge.

Though the constant barrage of Tweets has now slowed, conversations spurred by the conference continue to buzz across the Internet, including blogger’s highlights and attached articles. See #dml2012 on Twitter,, and for a sample of some of these ongoing discussions.