Monthly Archives: February 2010

Scaling digital media and learning

At the Digital Media and Learning conference last week, I heard a number of people mention scale. Projects were growing fast, gaining “traction,” attracting new partners and inquiries. At the same time, there were hurdles: finding time in already compressed schedules, understanding and leveraging resources, raising funds. How then does a promising foundation-backed grantee/organization/project scale their work so that it has meaningful impact in the world? The timing might be right, and the tech might be innovative, but there is more to the picture.

It’s no news that foundations have borrowed from the venture and business worlds, looking to support longer-term projects and making capital more efficient. They vet the project, the management team, and the market. They do their due diligence. Something is missing from the equation, though: a bridge from start-up seed funding to viable footing in the marketplace.

Enter Startl: “Identifying talent and advancing products for the future of learning.” At DML2010 I talked with co-founder Diana Rhoten about her goals.  Rhoten had seen too many projects receive funding, then wither when the funding cycle ended. So, with impressive co-founders and partners, she created an organization to fuel this growth to viability. Rhoten is also focused on how foundations can collaborate to help grantees succeed. Syndicating to scale growth.

The venture capital industry has long used syndication to enhance an investment’s likelihood of success. Magnifiying, amplifying. So, for example, several venture funds amplify their capital’s effect by pooling money to invest in a start-up entrepreneur, thereby also mitigating some of the risk in an inherently risky business. The start-up typically needs follow-on rounds of capital, and having partners with resources makes good sense. Beyond capital, though, syndication broadens the entrepreneur’s networks—business partners, sales channels and relations, and knowledge and experience. Surely these assets would also benefit a grantee.

Of course, a foundation’s backing a grantee is not a direct analog to a VC’s investing in an entrepreneur. The VC’s fiduciary responsibility is to return capital (and hopefully double-digit multiples) to its Limited Partners, the investors.  The foundation is focused on its mission and program goals, and not necessarily on Return on Investment (ROI), although a definition of ROI might consider other factors as a “return.”  There are nonetheless overlapping areas where the non-profit world might borrow from VC practices. And perhaps a group like Startl can help a professor/innovator with a promising mobile learning application scale to self-sustainability.


Note: for the funding competition mentioned in our “Diversifying Mobiles” panel, see the Joan Ganz Cooney Center for details on their $50k Breakthroughs in Mobile Learning awards.

Diversifying Mobiles: Participatory Learnings

I’d like to share information on our mobile learning panel at Digital Media and Learning next week. It is an honor to have some very substantive thinkers on board for this discussion on mobiles and diversifying participation.

The DML Conference is supported by the MacArthur Foundation and organized by the Digital Media and Learning Hub at University of California, Irvine. @dmlcentral

If you could pose a question to this panel regarding their work in digital learning, mobile learning, etc., what would you ask?


Diversifying Mobiles: Participatory Learnings

Chair: Richard Scullin (


Eric Klopfer (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
Jared Lamenzo (
Derek Lomas (Carnegie Mellon University/The Playpower Foundation)
Colleen Macklin (Parsons The New School for Design)
Richard Scullin (

This panel explores how mobile devices diversify participation in myriad communities, both global and domestic. The panel discussion offers program descriptions and research from the following: Eric Klopfer, MIT Teacher Education Program and Education Arcade, does R&D on mobile learning games both place based and place agnostic, primarily around science learning; Jared Lamenzo,, a mobile phone service helping citizen scientists and learners collect better data; Derek Lomas, Mobile and Immersive Learning for Literacy in Emerging Economies (MILLEE) cell phone applications enabling language literacy in immersive, game-like environments) and, learning games for radically affordable computers; Colleen Macklin, Parsons PETLab (, working on geolocative and mobile games exploring real-world information and databases, including Mannahatta: The Game (; and, Richard Scullin,, an organization helping integrate mobiles with curriculum.

The discussion shares experiences ranging from rural villages in India learning language on a mobile to US students exploring ecological habitats using GPS/LBS and augmented reality. From a 6th grade elementary school class using simple mobiles for environmental field research to a charter school for at-risk students harvesting visual data to elucidate geometry concepts, mobile technologies help extend the boundaries of where participation and learning occur. The session will engage attendees with a series of questions to investigate the future of mobile learning in diverse contexts.

Play, Gee

I met James Paul Gee at Handheld Learning (HHL09) in London this fall. His keynote at HHL09 explored how gaming and immersive environments shape and/or facilitate learning. Gee has built a notable body of scholarship in this field, and his work shares common ground with scholar/thinkers such as Steven Berlin Johnson, Henry Jenkins, and Katie Salen (Institute of Play), among many, many others.

It was helpful to hear his voice, and his thinking and research on how gamers build impressive expertise and demonstrate mastery of nuanced skills, even though these very people may or may not succeed in “traditional” academic contexts.  (Of course, defining success is another discussion.)

In his essay, “Digital Media and Learning as an Emerging Field, Part II: A Proposal for How to Use ‘Worked Examples’ to Move Forward,” The International Journal of Learning and Media (IJLM)), Gee describes his thinking re. “New Literacy Studies” and his efforts to build an understanding of the emerging field of Digital Media and Learning (DMAL).

Regarding the creation of this new field, Gee writes, “While within a discipline—like anthropology, for instance—people will compare and contrast different approaches in the discipline (usually a new one against an old or traditional one), people do this much less commonly across disciplines.” He suggests that we can add coherence to DMAL as an emerging field through a cross-disciplinary approach.

This makes good sense: a cross-disciplinary approach loosens strictures and broadens the resources from which the emerging field can draw, it adds new and diverse perspectives to the intellectual talent pool, and it acknowledges that there are myriad forces already gathering with/in the field.

To promote scholarly collaboration, Gee also proposes creation of “play exemplars.” While more established disciplines have had “worked examples” to use as models, teaching tools, foundational examples, etc.; DMAL, in its nascent form, would purposefully create “play exemplars,” opportunities for the community to engage with and accelerate the growth of field into discipline through the act of play. The DMAL community would hack and tinker.

So, as Gee writes, “What is important about such exemplars to an emerging field is that they focus debate in such a way that people, via that debate, come to articulate and share a common set of standards and values. These standards and values in turn form the foundation of the new field.”

This is intriguing: Gee acknowledges the field-building process, then asks a nascent, hybrid cross-disciplinary DMAL community to accelerate creation of exemplars through debate, through play. It’s as if to say, instead of waiting, instead of using olde timey measures of scholarly production, let’s build some prototypes so we can experiment and get messy, thereby discovering what works. Let’s get our hands dirty now, not later.

Beyond possible echoes of Barthes’ and Derrida’s concepts around free play (and I do think there are some productive overlaps here), this proposal mirrors Gee’s broader thinking on games. Games are meaningful contexts for learning, so why not facilitate the field’s growth through play, through “play exemplars,” through playing a game?

Gee’s essay, then, becomes an invitation, an offer to join in a playfulness. The essay is an act of play in and of itself. A dare and a risk.

And I think there is risk here, a vulnerability at stake. When we play, we reveal. We reveal thought, strengths and weaknesses, creativity, problem solving, inter/ra personal relations, emotion, and our own limits and prospects. We open ourselves to a  willingness to let lose. And this, I believe, is fertile ground.

“I propose that we pretend we are experts in a field that as of yet has none. I propose that we treat each other as students working over problems as if they are well established even if they are not, so we actually know concretely what each other think and value, as a starting point, not a finished point.”

Our understanding of learning in the 21st Century is changing and/or will change radically in the very near future. Former models of teaching, scholarship, authorship, intelligence, etc., in a digital context are coming apart and being redefined. (See EduCon, for example.) Gee’s proposal, to accelerate creation of a field of study through game, makes sense on many levels, most important being that we cannot wait any longer for the academy to catch up.

–Richard Scullin,