On Common Language as Hive Network Infrastructure

One of the things I’ve been contemplating recently is the role of language within a network like Hive NYC. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about how common language might actually be considered part of the network’s infrastructure, and how that infrastructure can support achieving a host of collective impact goals. Infrastructure is a notion that I’ve previously used to describe Hive, and I think that it’s apt when it comes to issues of common language’s role in coordinated action.

This has been in the back of my mind for a while, but came to the forefront as Hive Research Lab recently released a number of interim briefs relating to our research within the network, as well as through a number of Hive events that we were involved in – the February meet-up focusing on leveling up project ideas and the recent event on “Unpacking Spread and Scale” with Cynthia Coburn from Northwestern University. In each of these examples, language, and specifically well operationalized and meaning-laden language, played a key role.

In the case of the first “networked innovation” interim brief, we worked with Hive NYC HQ to figure out how ideas we shared in the brief could be infused into a network meet-up focused on issues of innovation. Part of the goal of that meet-up was to help members “level up” their projects through creating scaffolds for articulating their value from number of different perspectives and to contextualize the problems they were solving and for whom. We explicitly used some of the conceptual frameworks from our brief to create activities. Specifically, we talked through how examining different “dimensions” of an innovation — such as value-add, novelty, form, complexity –might allow that innovation to be better understood and described. One positive outcome of this meeting was that people were able to better understand this concept of innovation from the perspective of network facilitators, researchers, and funders. In a context where language around innovation is regularly used in conversations, requests for proposals and community calls, the meeting was a means to give more depth to a communally valued idea in a way that cut across stakeholders.

Similarly, the recent event Cynthia Coburn ran relating to spread and scale was centrally focused on sharing and clearly defining language relating to these issues of organizational reach (you can see a similar talk she gave at the 2014 Digital Media and Learning conference here). A lot of what Cynthia shared was founded on clearly defined constructs which were then built up into a larger dynamic framework. As small example, she describes spread as the means to achieving scale, which describes as a state. In this case spread is the verb that leads to scale, a noun. As she shared her broader framework and the meanings associated with various concepts, I saw Hive members actively use newly introduced language as a means to sort through dilemmas they’re encountering in their work. Having meaningful language was a tool to engage in problem-solving.

An important point that Cynthia alluded to in her talk that’s also good to highlight here is that particular definitions for words are of course contextual and that the idea is not to convince people that a given word must be defined in a give way absolutely. It’s just useful to know that within a given context language is meant by a particular actor in a particular way. This is what allows meaning to emerge when people then ground that language in their experiences, and share across them. On a similar note, part of the conversation around common language also needs to address how common language is negotiated and agreed upon, by whom, and for what purposes. Words and their definitions of course carry values and assumptions, and language can end up silencing and marginalizing, even inadvertently.

In a network like Hive, made up of individuals with diverse backgrounds both culturally as well as professionally, it’s easy for discourse to simply to be experienced as jargon or buzzwords. Innovation. Pathways. Spread. Etc. These words mean nothing if we don’t work out their meaning together. And unless that happens, we fail to truly reach towards collective impact because we talk past each other in a modern tower of Babel. But when we say what we mean and mean what we say through shared language, then we can actually accomplish something in relation to shared goals. I’m only coming to realize now how much of our role at Hive Research Lab is about that. By engaging in basic research on the network, we work out well defined language that actually describes phenomenon in the real world, and by sharing this language we can do a small part in helping the network take steps towards achieving shared vision. We can play a role in co-creating a common linguistic infrastructure for collective problem solving.

Cross-Institutional Partnerships for City-Scale Learning Ecologies – DML2014 Panel

At this year’s Digital Media and Learning Conference, I had the privilege to be discussant on a panel that shared and contrasted three ambitious city-scale learning efforts: New York City’s Digital Ready/Hive NYC partnership, Chicago’s Summer of Learning project (now Chicago City of Learning) led by Digital Youth Network, and the Providence After School Alliance. As discussant, my job was to contextualize, synthesize and offer challenges for growth related to the incredible work shared by the panelists about the respective efforts.

Since we’ve gotten a number of requests for material related to the panel, the presenters agreed to have the audio recording and slides posted here on the HRL blog. The slideshare is here and also embedded below, and the recording is here, and also available in the player below.

[audio https://archive.org/download/DML2014CityScaleLearningEcologies3.8.14/DML%202014%20City-Scale%20Learning%20Ecologies%203.8.14.mp3]

The full abstract for the panel is here:

Organizers: Rob DiRenzo

Presenters: Rob DiRenzo, Alex Molina, Sybil Madison-Boyd, Rafi Santo, Clare Bertrand

Expanded Learning Opportunities (ELOs) are reshaping when, where, and how student learning occurs. A well-designed and well-implemented ELO program can complement and enrich in-school learning and support academic growth by combining various ways for students to engage in learning. How do organizations, including schools, districts, and partners, build “expanded learning ecologies” for youth that that support connected learning?

The goal of this panel discussion is to inform participants about building expanded learning ecologies to scale and across boundaries showcasing successes and challenges by presenting recent examples from Chicago, New York, and Providence, RI. To address the topic of scale, we will share examples of efforts that aim to reach many youth across many programs, beyond a single intervention or setting. To illustrate crossed boundaries, we will explain efforts to connect various nodes in a youths’ learning ecology (e.g., in-school, out-of-school, individual passion, etc.).

Chicago: The first Chicago Summer of Learning (CSOL) was a citywide mayoral initiative designed to expand learning opportunities for youth during the summer of 2013. More than 100 organizations took part in this effort to recognize learning in out-of-school spaces through digital badges. More than 200,000 youth participated in CSOL programs, and more than 100,000 badges were earned by youth of all ages.

Chicago took a first, critical step in enacting core principles of connected learning and laying the foundation for a vibrant ecosystem of learning opportunities. As ELOs begin to signify experiences that link to content- and career-specific pathways, we expect to see even greater potential to transform youths’ lives.

New York: The NYC Department of Education’s new Digital Ready program is designed to help participating NYC public high schools use technology and student-centered learning to improve their students’ readiness for college and careers. With Digital Ready’s explicit focus on student-centered learning, expanded learning opportunities play an important role in preparing students to explore, engage, and practice their interests. The Digital Ready and Hive Learning Network teams have worked to coordinate a collaborative effort between 10 innovative high schools and 13 groundbreaking Hive NYC organizations to provide students with a range of opportunities that blend in-school and out-of-school learning with experiences that are production-centered and creativity-focused.

Providence: Since its creation in 2004, the Providence After School Alliance (PASA) has built two citywide expanded learning models in collaboration with the City of Providence, the Providence Public Schools (PPSD) and the local community: the AfterZone for middle school, and The Hub for high school. These models offer Providence youth a coordinated schedule of in-school, after-school and summer learning programs for high school credit. Programs incorporate 21st century technology, and students create online portfolios of their work on http://hubprov.com/ . Through hard work, relationship building and years of trial and error, PASA has established itself as a critical component of the educational reform landscape of Providence by enabling students to drive their own learning experience.

[brief] Networked Innovation Interim Brief #2 – Innovation Practices and Hive NYC

As many of you following our work know, HRL has been working hard to put together a series of interim NI Brief 2 Cover Finalbriefs that allow us to make more transparent the research we’re doing within Hive NYC. We’ve released two so far, related to our Networked Innovation research strand, and another on our Youth Trajectories strand. Building on the first brief on innovation, which focused on innovations as “things” or products, this second brief on the subject moves begin conceptualizing innovation as a process, or, more precisely, as a set of practices that organizations engage in. We originally wrote about these practices here on the blog, and in the brief we refine our original framework, extended its discussion, and, most importantly, wrote up examples from the fieldwork we’ve conducted within Hive that give life to these practices. A big goal for us was to go from the theoretical ideas about innovation down to the practical level of what innovation looks like on the ground in Hive NYC. We hope you’ll read the whole thing, but as a teaser, here’s an excerpt from the introduction:

Hive NYC has as its tagline “explore+create+share”. It’s a sentiment that expresses many of the core principles the community holds in terms of its pedagogy – one in which youth explore interests and identities, engage in creation, production and expression, and then share this work in authentic contexts. But explore/create/share can also be seen as a loose framework for how those in Hive NYC, as educators, designers and activists, engage in the practices of innovation. It is these practices of innovation we focus on in this brief.

If course, if you have thoughts, feedback or questions, please don’t hesitate to be in touch. Part of our work in these briefs is testing the waters to feel out what has utility for Hive members in their own organizations, so any and all thoughts are welcome.

Hive Research Lab at the 2014 Digital Media and Learning Conference

Along with many of our colleagues from Hive NYC and many other Hive networks across the country, Hive Research Lab will be heading to Boston next week for the annual Digital Media and Learning conference. As many readers might be already be aware, the Hive Learning Network initiative emerged from the broader field of digital media and learning, building on the work of many pioneers in this space and centering its pedagogical commitments around Connected Learning, a research and design framework associated with this community. So, no surprise that Hive networks have a strong presence.

For those attending that want to check out the places where Hive Research Lab will be speaking, we wanted to share a round-up below:

If you’ll be going to the conference and would like to connect, keep an eye out and say hi!

[brief] Networked Innovation Interim Brief #1 – Innovations and Hive NYC

Over the course of the coming weeks, Hive Research Lab will be releasing a series of interim briefs, short form writing based on early observations and conceptualizations that are designed to provide the Hive NYC community with ongoing frameworks, findings and recommendations related to the Lab’s two research areas: supporting youth trajectories and pathways, and developing the Hive as a context for networked innovation. The briefs are part of a broader effort to connect current research and emerging findings to issues of practical importance to the Hive NYC community in order to improve network activity. Recommendations are preliminary and based either on existing literature or observations of practice within the network, and we hope that they can serve to spark conversations both within member organizations as well as across the network.

Hive Research Lab - Networked Innovation Interim Brief #1 - Innovations & Hive NYC - February 2014 cover imageOur first brief, which speaks to our Networked Innovation research strand, builds off of earlier work we’ve done to think about what counts as an innovation, but in it we take more of the perspective of what this question might mean for Hive members, as opposed to for our work as researchers. We include a set of “dimensions” that can be considered vis-a-vis a given innovation, consider how these dimensions might have import in the Hive NYC context, and provide a snapshot of things that might be considered innovations, broadly speaking, within Hive NYC.

Of course, thoughts and questions are welcome! Link to the brief is here.

What are the “practices” of innovation?

Previously we’ve written about how we define the “stuff” that might be considered innovations within the Hive – ideas, technologies, program models, and design principles are all the “things” or “nouns” that are the results of other activities. But what about the activities that bring these innovations about? These are what I refer to as  innovation practices. These practices operate on the level of verbs – they’re not things, but rather actions, activities, and processes. They make up the evolution or life-cycle of innovations, from brainstorming and iteration to implementation and scaling. Innovation practices are often so invisible and taken for granted that we thought it might be useful to name and offer some definitions here on the blog. Part of the idea in doing so is to let people in on the process we’re going through to theorize innovation in the Hive, but another goal is to give language to Hive members so that they might better recognize and call out things they do every day, activities that are central to how Hive works together as a network.

Sprout bulb in interative cycle

To offer a framework, we’ll draw on the work of James March, a scholar of organizational learning who famously offered [pdf] that the process of innovation can be broken up into two primary sets of activities – the work of exploration, and the work of exploitation. According to March, exploration “… includes things captured by terms such as search, variation, risk taking, experimentation, play, flexibility, discovery, innovation”, while exploitation “… includes such things as refinement, choice, production, efficiency, selection, implementation, execution.”

Put another way by the scholar Kwaku Atuahene-Gima, exploration encompasses a set of innovation practices that aim to develop new knowledge (broadly defined – ideas, technologies, program models, design principles, etc.) within a given context, and supports greater departures from current knowledge that exists in that context. And exploitation encompasses a set of innovation practices that aim to hone and extend current knowledge. Exploitation, rather than departing greatly from existing knowledge, hews closely to it in order to further and deepen it. It “exploits”, or makes the most of on an area that’s already familiar.

So what, more precisely, are the actual activities that make up these two areas of innovation? Based on what I’ve seen in Hive, on my own work experience, and on what the literature discusses, I’ve broken down a set of innovation practices I see as belonging in each of these buckets.

Exploration might include the following:

  • Exposure – the act of encountering an innovation or information about an innovation without specifically seeking it out.
  • Search – the act of actively seeking out an innovation or information about an innovation in a directed and intentional manner.
  • Sense-making – the process of coming to understand the nature of an innovation and/or the innovation’s potential relationship to a given actor’s goal(s). Sense-making can be intentionally undertaken as a practice, or more organically occur without specific direction on the part of an actor.
  • Ideation – the practice of intentionally generating ideas for potential innovations that might be further developed by a given actor.
  • Prototyping – the practice of creating early-stage pilots or models of a given innovation for the purposes of gaining information that would further the design.
  • Experimentation – the practice of engaging in early-stage implementation of a prototype within a variety of contexts with the intention of gaining information that would further the design.
  • Refinement – the practice of using information gained through prototyping and experimentation processes in order to change central aspects of an innovation’s design.
  • Iteration – the practice of repetitively engaging in cycles of prototyping, experimentation and refinement for the purposes of systematically improving an innovation. 
  • Recontextualization – the practice of adapting a given innovation to a particular context to better meet the needs and priorities of said context.
  • Reinvention – the practice of re-conceptualizing a given innovation such that it takes on a substantively distinct new form.

Obviously, many of these practices are overlapping or encompass one another. For instance, “iteration” is a sort of meta-practice that subsumes prototyping, experimentation and refinement. The processes of “recontextualization” and “reinvention” imply that exposure or search must have occured, as well as some sort of sense-making. Each of these practices though offers a distinct lens into the larger process of exploration.

Exploitation, on the hand, includes a very different set of practices such as:

  • Production – the creation, manufacturing or design of a given innovation at a degree of refinement and scale such that it is ready to be implemented in its intended context of use.
  • Implementation – the execution and/or release of a given innovation within its context of intended use.
  • Establishing Efficiencies – refinement to non-core aspects of an innovation or the processes surrounding the production or implementation of an innovation for the purposes of making its continued production or implementation less resource intensive.
  • Institutionalization – the development of increased capacity, knowledge and expertise vis-a-vis a given innovation within an organization or system.

We could possibly leave the story of innovation practices at those two buckets of exploration and exploitation, but as I looked at the Hive and considered the networked nature of innovation that occurs here, two other linked practices seemed to be important: documentation and circulation, defined below:

  • Circulation – formal or informal sharing of an innovation and/or information relating to an innovation across multiple actors (individuals, organizations, systems). Actors engaged in circulation may or may not be associated with development of the innovation.
  • Documentation – the practice of creating artifacts and reference materials relating to a given innovation to help achieve a variety of functions across the spectrum of innovation practices.

In terms of “networked innovation”, these practices are central to the ways that innovation is captured, spread, and accumulated throughout the network, operating as a sort of connective tissue in terms of innovation. They speak to the process of “diffusion of innovations“, made famous by innovation scholar Everett Rogers.

So what do we make of all this when we think about studying innovation in Hive NYC? In general, part of why we go through the process of developing such layers of theory is so we can get a better sense of what activity is actually going on, and where to focus our energies and attention as researchers. In the context of the Hive, the practices of exploration and circulation seem to be the most relevant. In terms of exploration, the discourse of the network is generally oriented towards experimentation with new ideas, technologies and programs, something encompassed by exploration practices. And in terms of circulation, many Hive-supported activities, including partnerships, meet-ups, learning lab and community calls are heavily oriented towards sharing what people are working on and spreading knowledge across the community. These circulation practices in the network also feed back into such central exploration processes as search, exposure, sensemaking, recontextualization and reinvention. Exploration and circulation practices both inextricably tied to one another in a networked context, and as such are central as we study what Hive is up to.

Where do we go from here then? Two things have emerged for us as critical as we’ve started to conceptualize innovation practices, both of which have emerged from our fieldwork.

The first is that it’s become increasingly clear that the real value here is in understanding the particular ways that organizations string all of these different practices together. If these individual practices are the innovation equivalent of walking, we want to understand and be able to talk about how Hive organizations dance, whether it be on their own, in pairs, or in epic choreographed ensembles (if that makes sense!). This means being able to speak to how the different innovation practices I’ve talked about here are coordinated into larger patterns of organizational behavior and strategy, and how being part of a network intersects with that.

The second thread we want to pull here is about language. A lot of the literature on innovation isn’t really native to the educational world, and some terms (like exploitation, for instance) don’t really resonate with the culture and ethos of the Hive. While such terms might be useful analytically, we’re curious to learn more about how Hive organizations talk about the ways they engage in the activities we described here. Some things we know have become common parlance – prototyping, iteration, playtesting – but we’re sure that there’s a lot of other ways that Hivers talk about how they engage in innovation, and we’re curious to hear from people on this front.

Prototyping a Network-level Design Research Process

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One of the guiding principles of the Hive Research Lab model is a tight coupling between practice and research. Practical needs and concerns informed the development of our core research questions, and ideas from the academic literature base and the basic research we’re conducting are meant to inform practice on the ground. And the idea of engaging in co-design experiments with Hive NYC network members emerged from this same spirit of being an applied laboratory at the intersection of theory and practice. All of this sounds well and good on paper (and in theory!), but the actual nuts and bolts of collaboratively developing new things within the network and then researching them is quite complicated and has potentially infinite permutations on the ground. So in developing what this design process would look like in practice, we went back to our first principle – tight coupling between researchers and practitioners. We knew we had to talk to and work with Hivers even as we were planning and developing the practical aspects of the co-design research work to make sure that we get it right when we do our full fledge launch of that work (we always joke about how meta we are in the lab…).

So in late October, we held a prototyping and focus group session with a group of Hive NYC members about our co-design research process. In doing so, there was a lot that we wanted to get feedback on. What sort of value did they think Hive members might get from participating? What did they see as likely challenges? Had they engaged in cross-organizational co-design processes before? If so, what worked or didn’t work in the past? Prior to our session we brainstormed probably a dozen and a half questions that we’d been chewing on and that we thought this group might help us to answer. We knew full well that we wouldn’t be able to get answers to everything, but also knew that having a good sense of our “known unknowns” would allow us to make the most use of the collective intelligence of the group.

Based on the core areas we were curious about, we structured the half day meeting into two parts: engaging in a mock (and rapid) design activity around the issue of supporting youth trajectories and pathways, and then having a free flowing, focus group-esque conversation where the group both reflected on the design activity they just engaged in and gave feedback on what it might look like to engage in a more prolonged and robust collaborative design process with Hive members.

While we won’t go through the blow by blow of the design activity and the entire conversation that followed, we did want to share what we saw as the major points of feedback that the group provided:

  • Provide a very clear sense of the value proposition for participation in a collaborative design process.
  • In providing a value proposition, give prospective participants rationales that both speak to them personally (as people likely already invested in the idea of Hive to varying degrees) as well as ones they can use within their organization to justify taking the time, effort, and, potentially, organizational resources that might be required.
  • It’s likely much easier for Hive members to plan ahead to participate in a 1-2 day intensive charette or hack jam style event than it might be for ongoing engagement over the course of a, say, six week process. One model to consider might be holding an intensive charette and then empowering and supporting groups and projects that come out of that in a more tailored fashion that doesn’t need to involve all original participants.
  • Be sure to capture what Hive members see as core challenges to reaching the design objectives that they’d be working towards.
  • Frame problems and possible design solutions in “if/then” format. For example, “If we want to better support robust youth trajectories and pathways for learners in Hive NYC, then we need <insert design solution/proposal/practice/project here>.”
  • Don’t shy away from presenting participating Hivers with very specific design problems that are sub-issues within the areas of interest, just being sure to leave space for them to totally do their own thing. For instance, for the goal of better supporting youth trajectories and pathways, we can leave that as a basic design space to work in, but also provide specific areas such as “design a way to improve pop-up events so that they operate as ‘on-ramps’ into further engagement”‘ or “design a way that youth coming from Hive member organizations can find internships in areas they’re interested in”, etc.

Moving forward, we’re going to take the feedback we got and work in the next month or so to solidify our plans for the first co-design cycle to launch after the new year. In doing so, we’ll combine what we learned from this prototyping session with the insights from related research methodologies including design-based implementation researchparticipatory design, and participatory action research to gain additional perspective on what others have done, the challenges they’ve faced, and the successes they’ve had.