Learning life, communication & app development all at once

By Anne Collier

One of the most interesting comments I heard in the “Making Apps with Youth” session here at the SxSW EDU conference was from Kurt Collins, tech strategist and lead developer at Youth Radio in Oakland (he also started a nonprofit called the Hidden Geniuses Project aimed at “teaching young black men how to code”). Kurt said that “the liberal arts matter. The problems we run into [in the app development process] have more to do with communication – being able to communicate their ideas – than the science or the coding. Coding is just another language.”

I asked Kurt if he means pure communications skills or ideas and subjects of common interest as in “liberal arts,” and he said “both.” This was the strongest argument I’ve heard yet for STEAM rather than just STEM (adding the Arts to Science, Technology, Engineering & Math). Kurt said it’s ironic that “the one area where we all have commonality – the English language – is actually where things can fall down.”

Kurt’s colleagues Lissa Soep and Asha Richardson explained that Youth Radio is responding to the tremendous appeal (and rapid adoption) of mobile social media by adding app development to the journalism and more traditional media production skills Youth Radio develops in young people. Part of that app development process is a highly collaborative “rapid ideation” about what participants want to develop: the app’s purpose or “end game,” targeted user, why it’s special, what’s its function, why should it be us making it?, and “what’s its emotional heart?”, etc.

Collegial, networked learning

This is “collegial pedagogy,” Lissa and Asha said, where each participant (teachers and students) has needed expertise for the project, and young people become colleagues. It’s collegial in the sense of reaching outward as an organization too, Lissa said – “make friends like crazy” to find the mentors and community organizations that can help you develop your project (Youth Radio has been in a learning process too, as it added app development to teaching journalism and media production). This is 21st (and probably 22nd) century, networked learning.

“Coding is not that difficult,” Kurt said, contrary to what a lot of people who don’t code think. It just takes practice, like learning any language, and good resources like App Inventor, Code Academy or LearnStreet. “There’s a community built up around programming – people who want to teach each other and themselves.” This is echoed by social media researcher danah boyd in a recent talk she gave about the very communal sensibilities of software engineers in the startup community.

Here are the “words to live by” from Youth Radio’s app developers, as explained by Kurt:

  • “Stay close to your knitting” (makes sense that the write-what-you-know-about that writers live by works in app development too)
  • “Single scoop vs. sundae” (“minimum viable product” – don’t load up on tons of flashy features like in a banana split, make the one feature awesome)
  • “Search first, ask second” (Kurt’s teaching self-sufficiency with this one – don’t ask the teacher before you’ve tried to figure it out yourself)
  • “Steak knives” (this took a bit of explanation, and Lissa invoked a story about Jimmy Wales’s development of Wikipedia that “may be an urban myth, she said,” but it’s about not holding back because bad things can happens, as in how a very useful dining tool like a knife could hurt someone; create it, but create it so that it’s completely fun and compelling to do good things in it and with it). [I found the Jimmy Wales account here, but I liked Lissa’s explanation better.]

So these are your experts on supporting young app developers. But just as important is their expertise in what learning, education, and business look like in a networked society. Do you see a blend of age-old wisdom, youthful energy, science and art? I certainly do!

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