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A Learning Network for Berlin

There’s a long road ahead to bring Europe’s “start-up darling” Berlin up to par with learning & and the web. Digital literacy and simple computational competencies are often lacking; and there’s no indication yet that Berlin schools will step to fill the gap.*

There’s an important “out of school” role to play with Berlin’s tech-savvy communities and hackerspaces, together with an existing network of media centers and educational activists.


To get closer to a vision of what this could look like, 10 educators, tech community members, and activists met on Wednesday at St. Oberholz for a community brainstorm.

The goal: to map current digital literacy needs & offerings in the city, and to scope possible next steps for a learning network in Berlin.

Connected Learning

One of theories of change driving this discussion is connected learning.

Pioneered by UC Irvine researcher Mimi Ito and the MacArthur Foundation, connected learning is about re-imagining education in the information age. It leverages today’s technologies to meet youth at their interests and passions, realized through hands-on production, shared purpose and open networks.

I personally find this model very promising, as it centers on:

  • actively producing, creating, experimenting and designing
  • valuing the interests of young people to steer their learning
  • cross-generational collaboration
  • harnessing peer culture
  • linking the school, home and local community in an open network
  • and honoring academic achievements.

While the steps we are taking now are small, there are a number of successful learning networks to draw inspiration and mentoring from. Among them Hive NYC and Hive Chicago, as well other models at work in Pittsburgh and other cities.

Berlin: a network for making & learning together

What could such a network look like in Berlin?


  • Visit the Pergamon Museum and get an introduction to new methods in archeology and how to scan for objects underground.
  • After unearthing a digital file of a buried statue from the museum’s learning center, you head to Open Design City, where you pick up the basics of 3D scanning and printing. You print off a copy of the statue based on the museum’s files.
  • Your class had a workshop earlier that year in the Wikimedia Germany community space. So you know the basics of wiki-editing and online research. After digging through articles, you pull up an ancient inscription to go with your statue.
  • Go around the corner to lasernlasern, who helps you etch the inscription into the statue using lasers.
  • You’re really proud of what you made and want to tell the world. The nearest media learning center is a few minutes away. You bring your statue and some photos, and a volunteer helps you set up a blog and a gallery.
  • They tell you about Coder Dojo, a youth-led initiative to learn code, which has it’s first event in Berlin next week. You sign up, eager to make a game about hunting statues and cracking ancient codes.


Needs & Offerings

At the meet-up, we mapped what we already have to offer and what we need.

It was exciting to see that collectively, we have more to offer than we have needs. Lots of important skills at the table (teaching web development, film-making, media theories, entrepreneurship, and more), as well as connections to subject-matter experts, a nation-wide network of education activists, meeting spaces, hardware, time, and even small funding to get started.

The full list is here, and please feel free to add if you something to offer to the network.


Next steps

We decided we needed to test our thinking by running an event.

An event is a concrete way to 1) try out partnerships, 2) gauge local interest, 3) experiment with the curriculum, and 4) have fun.

Together with Fabian, I’m drafting a lightweight scaffolding for a youth pop-up event this summer. Chris Lawrence from Hive NYC has written an excellent piece about how to run one of these events, from which we’ll certainly borrow many ideas.

If you’re interested in:

  • Hosting a learning/hacking station (1-3hr, fun small activity that teaches a skill)
  • Offering a space (large, open space holding 50-100 participants)
  • Volunteering (the more, the merrier!)
  • Recruiting young people (We’re old. Where do we find young people in Berlin?)
  • Spreading the word

Then please join us on June 20 for a planning meeting. Location & time to be determined.

You can follow #hiveberlin for updates and also ping me (@thornet) and Fabian (@fabianmu) with ideas & questions.


Democratic Transport

A bikeway is a symbol that shows that a citizen on a $30 bicycle is equally important as a citizen on a $30,000 car. — Enrique Peñalosa, former Mayor of Bogata

Urbanized is a documentary by Gary Hustwit about the future of designing cities. A screening was organized last week by @mjays using Gidsy, the “marketplace for authentic experiences”. As my first Gidsy experience, it definitely seems like a fun, easy way to host cool events.

The film was filled with nuggets of wisdom, and some honest quips (“Now, you might not agree with me if you listen to NPR, but I love my backyard and my pool. And Phoenix is not the poster child of sprawl,” retorts an Arizona zoning official. Cut to the New Urbanist Ellen Dunham-Jones: “Sprawl is like pornography. You know it when you see it.“)

I was particularly impressed with Enrique Peñalosa, the former Mayor of Bogata, whose accomplishments included an extensive, modern bus route, bike paths, and restricted raised parking in the city. I’ll have to check with my aunt, a researcher specializing in environmental issues in Colombia, about Peñalosa’s true effectiveness, but in general the politician had a very democratic way of talking about transport.

“There are a lot of important things written in the Constitution. But the right to have a parking space is not one of them.” He smiles.

Buses have priority on our roads. Because if each citizen should have equal claim to public roads, then a bus with 100 people should have 100 times more space than a car with 1 person.

There were many more gems from Peñalosa and others, including an architect of a poor Chilean neighborhood, who advocates for participatory design:

In building these homes for the poor, we faced a decision. Do we put in a water heater or a bath tub? There is not space for both. Many architects and city planners proposed a water heater. But when we asked the residents, 100% of them chose bath tubs. Why? Because they do not have money for the heating bill. This is why participatory design is important.

I encourage you check out Urbanized! A smart film with inspiring ideas and an impressive look at cities around the globe.

Image courtesy Swiss Dots Ltd.

Why do you participate?

Prompted by a filmmaker’s uninspiring suggestion to “crowdsource” footage, we had a good round of spontaneous chatter at ODC about: what motivates you to participate?

Given how participation is now the metric driving all Mozilla Foundation projects, the topic of motiviation certainly deserves some reflection. Everyday we’re all bombarded with requests and invitations to “participate, / contribute / help” one initiative or another. Of course we all would like to do more, but there are limits, and there are filters and triggers that help us decide where to dedicate our time.

The great thing about the discussion we had at ODC is that for a group of people that identifies itself as a community of practice, there was such an array of motivations for contributing to that community. And I suppose it’s this heterogeneity within a tribe that makes you feel like you belong, with all your eccentricities, yet also allows you to be pleasantly surprised and interested in the cast of other characters working together.

A sampling of why people in the room participate:

  • Part of a bigger whole. To play a role in shaping a larger effort you believe in.
  • To help others. And to follow your contribution to see how it helped someone succeed.
  • Feel needed. Handcrafted requests seem to hit targets more often. People like to know why *they* in particular are needed, what is it that they are bringing that is unique and essential — rather than feeling like an invitation is a mass-ask.
  • Achieve a shared goal. If you want to see something happen, then you’re primed to pitch in to make it possible. I think there’s lots of value in this also framed as “solve a common problem.”
  • Friends or people you admire are involved. Who doesn’t love hanging out with good people?
  • Curiosity. Some folks said they dig any opportunity to learn something new, or to level up their skills in a topic of interest.
  • Nice graphics. One guy flat out admitted that he’s more likely to chip in when the project has a good design and visual identity. Looks can matter — and show how much the project cares about presentation.
  • Fun. ‘Nuff said.

Not so effective? Some common motivations  we didn’t mention at all:

  • Rewards. Interestingly, many calls for participation offer a reward of some sort (Win an iPad! Have dinner with a star! Earn miles!), but interestingly, no one in the room mentioned that as an incentive that gets them going. Certainly there are successful instances of enticement through money & prizes, but that didn’t seem to be a killer factor.
  • Competition & games. Despite much hype about the power of games to get people to do all sorts of stuff, none of us said, “Oh yeah, if I got a 4SQ badge for that, I’d do it.” Not saying those point / badge systems can’t work, but just that its absence from the discussion was interesting.

What motivates you to participate? Anything surprising or missing from the ideas above?

I’m curious to follow this thread at Wikimania 2011 as well, where antischokke will facilitate a session on “Incentivizing Engagement“, sharing experiences from Wikimedia Germany and learning from others what is effective is bringing people on board.

Image: Casual Coder by goopymart / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0