Category: Connected Learning

I once built a widget that had over 1 million views a day serving celebrity data. After building a several educational systems potentially serving over 500000 kids, I have to say learning just can’t compete with Hollywood. There are learning management systems that teachers love; there are classroom management systems that school districts love; there are even learning apps that funders love. However, the question that drives me and pushes the entire Digital Youth Network team is what does the most impactful integrative learning platform look like, and how can we build it?

Why Learning?

Education is a great equalizer of communities with varying resources. Many lives would change with a more effective learning cycle. (There are many models of learning cycles, but a simply version to consider is Experience>Share>Process>Generalize>Apply.) Typically public investments focus on the educational system and how to create personalized experiences for students in a one-size fits all learning environments. Contrarily, private investors attempt to influence learning in the out of school spaces by funding innovative programs targeted at specific communities, age ranges or even domains such as STEM. They all need to work together.

Young learners need a stronger, more engaged network with better empowering tools.

This network and set of tools can be described as an integrative learning platform whose objective is to create a replicable process to enable young learners that are proficient at exploring, discovering and building skills. The integrative aspect of the solution extends to the learner’s parents and caring adults. They’ll promote growth and be empowered to help add to their child’s learning portfolio. School teachers and mentors will activate and push opportunities to the learner that could start creating a formal learning trajectory. 

Our platform solution: L3. Learning takes place everywhere—in-school, out of school and online.

Design the foundation of L3: Mapping Learning Assets

Besides the learners themselves, the most important part of the network is the infrastructure that provides learning opportunities. The basic infrastructure is the collection of organizations, programs and its mentors, and the learning spaces. From the perspective of building a data architecture model, our platform has to understand and codify each of these data types.

› Organization – group offering programs with a particular purpose

› Program – a face to face activity run in a specific community for a particular cohort.

› Mentor – admin running the program working with the learners

› Learning spaces – facilities that enable learning to occur with built in resources and/or valuable community space

Pulling all of these disparate learning data together is called asset mapping. Asset mapping is all the rage these days. Smart cities have to understand their resources around the region to be efficient, effective planners. When we start asset mapping the community’s learning assets, we discover where learning happens (and does not happen) and we know who is responsible for providing learning opportunities. This knowledge alone could enable the community to make some strategic decisions, if they can gather everyone around the same table.

As the platform Tech Lead, I consider this level of detail about the infrastructure a requirement. Our platform must be able to identify gaps in equity around programs and organizations serving underserved communities. It’s part of Digital Youth Network’s mission:

DYN designs learning systems to ensure that all youth, especially the underserved, cultivate the critical skills, literacies and agency necessary to have the opportunity to create lives that are engaged, empowered and successful.

We strive for equity in each learning community we set out to positively impact. We structure, collect and package data that our clients export to influence their decisions, inform their partners, and if they work with the city’s pillars like school districts or mayoral offices, then they share reports with power brokers and start reshaping the ecosystem in the desired image. Our data are built to expose inequity and to inform decisions towards improving learning equity.

Case Study: Is transportation provided for a program?

We discovered an equity-building attribute for programs while working with one of our clients. A program for middle school girls, Digital Divas, was being offered in two locations—the second was commissioned because one location was not considered attractive to a subset of learners coming from an underserved ward according to the client’s previous informal findings. Additionally, the program administrator decided to offer transportation based on previous experiences with after school programs in large communities.

What happened?

The program administrator generated a report from the collected infrastructure data (organization and program metadata including location) and combined it with demographic information of the participants. Girls from the underserved ward attended the location that was predicted to be a deterrent. With the data generated, we concluded that organization-provided transportation in this scenario was a game changer. The after school transportation made an available program more accessible and created an equitable cohort for a program feared to be under attended by their target audience.

Organization provided transportation is now a permanent flag or an attribute to our program data object to help clients and researchers identify programs that are making the extra effort to increase equity in their community.

There’s more to it…

In our quest to build an integrative learning platform, our understanding of the community’s learning asset map was the most important step but only the first milestone. There are more data to codify, there is always the drive for improved user experience and there is content, relevance, gamification…there’s a lot for us to do.

Next time, I will breakdown something else from my experience of building L3, maybe APIs and how they extend learning opportunities.

In Profile of a Learner (Part 1), you experienced our redesign of the CCOL Profile. One update shows the achievements each learner completed and highlights in-progress activities for them to continue their aspirations. Another change allows the learner to save their interests to the CCOL Profile. Now fast forward three months, and the tech team has iterated and strengthened the learner’s experience based on those selected interests.

User Experience Research

Digital Youth Network has always maintained a strong product feedback with our users. Mentors, teachers, and students have helped shaped all of our products including iRemix and Chicago City of LearningWe invested some valuable time to understand how learners were using their new profile, and whether it matched up with our pre-launch research. Our assessments came in the form of tools like CrazyEgg and old fashioned f2f user observations.

Our first research technique for this particular feature consisted of unstructured observations.  These observations were designed to avoid impeding a learner’s workflow. The team wanted to see what the learner’s mental model was when they interacted with a new experience. (sorry about the technical jargon)

The primary outcome was quite positive with many learners successfully self registering to any of our programs and exploring thousands of activities. However, the question of ‘What now?’ or ‘What do I do next?’ did arise several times.


As a complimentary tool to our observation, we employed Crazy Egg. This UX tool allows us to see a heat map of what learners were doing when they returned to this page. Many of our call to actions were taken as expected. Learners updated their interests, continued their in-progress online challenges, and registered themselves to activities and badges.

Per CrazyEgg’s site: Crazy Egg is like a pair of x-ray glasses that lets you see exactly what people are doing on your website.

Crazy Egg Heat map of CCOL Profile Image

Crazy Egg Heat map of CCOL Profile

One area stood out: our learners hovered over their interests…quite often. We did not design the interests themselves to be interactive. But the evidence presented on the heat map combined with the user research feedback suggested an opportunity for a focused call to action. The action was to make the interest icons interactive by presenting 3 activities as options for what to do next.

How did we convert research into “impactful value” for our Learners?

In the screenshot below, the application presents three Top Picks based on the learner’s Game Designer interest. These picks will be a mixture of face to face and online activities. With this enhancement, the CCOL Profile allows learners to dive into activities based on the interest they want to pursue right now.

This engagement-based update creates a valuable feedback loop that encourages learners to update their interests when their interest in subjects or professions shift. And because those can change as often as their avatars, CCOL can present new and challenging activities for our Learners to explore.

Top Picks on CCOL Profile Image

Top Picks for Interests on CCOL Profile

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The Office of Education Technology (OET) recently released its 2016 National Education of Technology plan. First of all, you should get familiar with the Office of EdTech if you aren’t already. Their mission is clear:

…Provide leadership for transforming education through the power of technology. OET develops national educational technology policy and establishes the vision for how technology can be used to support learning.

Secondly, OET highlighted Digital Youth Network’s Chicago City of Learning as an excellent model for connecting schools and community institutions. We’re super excited that progress and impact has been so great that OET wanted to tell everyone.

Interested in reading about the learning vision: OET Learning NETP 2016

Interested in reading the entire report [PDF]:  2016 Technology Plan 

Footnote: Others can and should try to duplicate, replicate, and/or reverse engineer the unprecedented success that DYN has had in Chicago over the last two years. Why? Because youth everywhere benefit from stronger, connected learning and valuable digital badges.

2016 is going to be the best CCOL year ever.

Follow along to see just how amazing it gets.

One of our annual goals is to increase access to opportunities and experiences through technology. Chicago City of Learning does it. iRemix does it. And since 2014, our aptly named Broadening Participation initiative does it. Ugochi Acholonu leads this research initiative, and recently she presented a summary of programmatic efforts in 2015. Here’s a brief look at some of the presentation.

First she talked about a student’s ecosystem of learning pathways:


Next up was Hour of Code that DYN hosted at DePaul University. The number of participates and potentially increased interest in coding and designing was substantial.
– 639 Students from Chicago Public Schools
– 412 Badges earned to represent their learning experience.
– 12 different schools participated

Finally connecting Minecraft to deeper connected learning. While kids are building and designing, they are reaching achievements. The BP team has designed some achievements to translate into badges to mark important skill accomplishments. Using an existing framework like Minecraft to add custom achievements and badges is our next step for connecting outside of school activities to highlight their interests and skill sets inside of school.

In 2016 badges earned in our Minecraft universe will get pushed to Chicago City of Learning. This will allows students to see their programs and skills learned and to share those accomplishments with mentors, parents, teachers and employers.



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The Chicago City of Learning started with complex but connected objectives. These objectives included building a platform that enabled every youth organization in Chicago to add their programming, creating a framework for identifying and badging skills in those programs, and designing an exploration interface for parents and youth to find programs to fit their schedule, skills, and interests.

This alone would make two valuable apps.

But another beneficial need pushed to the forefront once these features meshed: Highlighting the learner’s activities and skills. Helping the learner explore their interests with pathways.

Appropriately, we built CCOL for the learner with community organizations as the primary opportunity broker. The tech team waited to iterate on the learner profile design. After so many ambitious organizations added over 17k programs and learners earned over 130k badges, the design team shifted focus to redesign the two year old user experience of the learner’s profile.

First requirement: Recommend activities based on their interestsMy_Profile

We had our work cut out for us. DYN Tech started simple. Get each student’s interest with a visual icon-based selection process. These interests came from our ground team that works with teens in the classroom and in afterschool programs.

The images had to convey more than just the simple label beneath it. They each had to capture our learner’s imagination and hopefully spark their interest.

We didn’t stop with three interests. By designing a low friction process, we hoped our learners would be charitable and provide roles that captured their future interests as well. Roles are notoriously difficult because teens don’t always know what they want to be…when they “grow up.”  However the process is quick enough that they can (and do) update it every time they change their mind. And just like that CCOL offers recommendations based on those selections.

What I Like / Want

Second requirement: Show the skills and dispositions young people have developed in and out of school.

Things I’ve completed. For our learners, we display badges they earned from our organization’s programs and our platform’s online challenges. As part of identifying their skills and dispositions, we show the learner programs or events they have attended. Now our users have a repository of things they have done or earned. The landscape of learning is evolving and digital badges will play a big role in the documentation of that learning.

What I’m Working On. Our profile’s true call to action is nudging the learner to continue working on their skills. If a learner bookmarks a challenge, we have a card to remind them when they come back. Same reminder for a started challenge. If our learner starts a self-paced challenge but leaves before they complete it, we’ll add that to the Working On section as well.

Our design increases the visibility of activities they want to do or started but didn’t finish. Finish these and our design shines light on your accomplishments which usually result in digital badges.

Big step yet this is only step 1. Part 2 – engaged recommendations.


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.

*Also posted at

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.


YouTube / Chicago City of Learning – via Iframely

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.

YouTube / Chicago City of Learning – via Iframely

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.

YouTube / inPOINTS – via Iframely

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!

YouTube / Chicago City of Learning – via Iframely

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.

YouTube / inPOINTS – via Iframely

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.



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