In early March, a delegation of Pittsburghers joined hundreds from across America and around the world at the Digital Media & Learning Conference (DML). Held in San Francisco in 2012, DML is supported by the MacArthur Foundation and organized by the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub located at the UC Humanities Research Institute, University of California, Irvine.

DML is the premiere national event of an emerging collaborative movement working to apply recent advances in digital media and communications technology to enhance learning in our new connected world. Composed of academic scholars and social science researchers, software and technology developers, old and new media makers, educators and entrepreneurs, artists and game designers, this eclectic band of innovators is gaining prominence rapidly as some of their daring ideas are put to the test.

While the DML crowd is a widely distributed and relatively leaderless group, certain cities and regions have emerged as nodes of activity. In Chicago and New York City, for example, the MacArthur-supported HIVE learning networks are building connections between cultural institutions and out-of-school learning centers.

Locally, the Pittsburgh Kids+Creativity Network has been working since 2007 to create relevant learning opportunities through the compelling use of technology, media, and the arts. Coordinated by The Sprout Fund through its Spark program, nearly 30 people represented the Pittsburgh Kids+Creativity Network at DML including institutional leaders like The Children’s Museum’s Jane Werner, WQED’s Deb Acklin, and The Grable Foundation’s Gregg Behr, as well as field practitioners like Drew Davidson from the Entertainment Technology Center, Lisa Brahms from UPCLOSE, and Derek Lomas from Playpower.

With so many Pittsburghers in attendance, DML 2012 felt like a coming out party for our region’s creative innovators working at the intersection of technology, media, learning, and play.

Opening keynote by John Seely Brown

Almost everyone who attended DML from Pittsburgh reported on the influential experience of hearing the opening keynote speech by John Seely Brown, better known as JSB. Brown currently serves as co-chair of the Deloitte Center for Edge Innovation, where he examines how new information technology is affecting organizations and society.

In his remarks, JSB shared some startling ideas.

“In a culture of rapid change, the half-life of newly-learned skills is about 5 years, requiring constant augmentation, refinement, and evolution,” said Brown. “What’s needed in this environment is a new toolset” to equip people to thrive in this environment.

This toolset, in JSB’s view, involves a blended epistemology of learning that includes knowing, making and playing. It is essential to equip young learners with capacity in each of these aspects of learning.

“I felt a great deal of resonance with [JSB’s] blended epistemologies which together promote the notion of learning through “becoming” in an ever-changing world.” said Lisa Brahms, a researcher of informal learning at the University of Pittsburgh Center for Learning in Out of School Environments (UPCLOSE). “His championing of the shared imagination, his nuanced and deep appreciation of playful experimentation, and his characterization of the entrepreneurial learner, rang true for me–the important work we do and approach we take every day at The Children’s Museum and in MAKESHOP.”

Mozilla Science Fair

Pittsburgh was also prominently featured during the Mozilla Science Fair on Thursday evening. The Sprout Fund presented several with a few outstanding Pittsburgh projects during the happy hour science fair.

Promising Maximum Fun, the Spark exhibition included ZooBeats, a touch-screen music composing kiosk developed by WYEP and Electric Owl Studio; Digital Toys for Math Literacy, a collaboration by Propel Schools and Sima Products; Children’s Innovation Project circuitry kits by CREATE Lab resident artist Jeremy Boyle; and Hear Me audio devices for listening to children’s stories.

In addition to Spark, Pittsburghers showcasing in the Mozilla Science Fair included past DML competition winners Click! Spy School of the Girls, Math & Science Partnership, and mobile app game design project Playpower.org.

Other Pittsburgh Highlights

A big boost to Pittsburgh came when Robin Shoop and Ross Higashi from the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Academy were announced as winners of the fourth annual DML Competition. Their project, the Computer Science Student Network (CS2N), is an online learning environment that enables anyone to learn about Computer Science and earn badges demonstrating their mastery of new skills.

And on the closing day, Heather Mallak from the Girls, Math & Science Partnership gave an Ignite Talk entitled “Opening Things with Your Teeth,” a parable on some of the unsung aspects of creativity. Joining luminaries such as HIVE New York director Chris Lawrence and connected learning apostle Mimi Ito, Heather shared her idea for an expansive vision of creativity that embraces the unexpected uses and re-appropriation of skills and techniques to solve new problems.

By everyone’s report, DML 2012 was an inspiring and meaningful experience for all who attended. Seeing the breadth of new ideas and approaches to learning was a revelation that helped establish in everyone’s mind the unique position Pittsburgh holds in this moment. While there is a tremendous amount to learn, to adapt to, and to innovate on immediately, the people and organizations of our region are poised to get to work.

Stay tuned for even more!