Learning Labs in Libraries and Museums


December 13th, 2013


Learning Labs in Libraries and Museums is a program funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). Initiated as a public/private partnership as part of the White House Educate to Innovate campaign, this program supports the planning and design of spaces in museums and libraries where youth can pursue interest-driven activities using digital and traditional media. Sites for Learning Labs were selected through two national competitive grant cycles and are managed by two cooperative agents, the Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC) and the Urban Libraries Council (ULC). A total of 24 sites were awarded $100,000 each, to be spent in planning and design of a learning space over a period of 18 months. A technical assistance program designed by the cooperative agents provided convenings for peer support, and laid the foundation for a national network to disseminate this model of youth programming to different settings and contexts.

The Research Background

The Learning Labs project builds on research funded by the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning initiative, which explores how digital media are changing the ways in which today’s youth learn, play, socialize and participate in civic life. In particular, the Learning Labs program expands on the work of Mizuko (Mimi) Ito of the University of California (UC), Irvine, derived from a three-year ethnographic investigation she conducted of over 700 youth. Interviews and observations led Ito and her team to identify three modes of participation that describe how teens engage with each other and with digital media. Collectively termed HOMAGO (Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out) these modes describe levels of engagement that vary by degrees of intensity and intentionality; they also have corresponding design features that can be incorporated into physical spaces to encourage movement from one mode to another. Based on Ito’s initial HOMAGO work, the Learning Labs sites were encouraged to create spaces to engage teens in youth-centered, interest-based, mentor-led, collaborative learning using digital and traditional media. It was acknowledged from the beginning of the project that these spaces might look very different from each other, depending on the communities and institutions where they were situated.

Recently, a broader theoretical framework has emerged from Ito and the DML Research Hub, a non-profit research group supported by the MacArthur Foundation and based at UC Irvine (Ito and others, 2013). “Connected Learning” is guided by an education reform agenda, and this research that shows the most effective and meaningful learning happens when learners have rich social supports, and the subject matter is relevant and interactive. These aspects of Connected Learning — social supports for learners and relevant, interactive subject matter — are signature elements of Learning Labs as well.

A Growing Community

At the time the Learning Labs program was initiated, a handful of sites served as models for this kind of youth learning. These included libraries (YOUMedia at the Harold Washington Public Library, Chicago; the North Dade Public Library, Miami); a museum (ARTLab+ at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC), schools (Quest2Learn), and community-based centers (Dreamyard Project, in the Bronx).

Through the Learning Labs program, an additional 24 sites have been added to this group. Because of the nature of the federal funding (IMLS), these grants are led by libraries and museums. However, this collective includes a rich array of partners: museums that include science centers, art, natural history, and children’s museums; libraries that are involved at local, district, and system levels; other partners including colleges or universities, public broadcasting affiliates, parks and recreation departments, school districts, afterschool and out-of-school organizations, and youth advocacy groups.

A student at the New York Hall of Science Learning Lab in Queens applies what he has learned about Arduino programming.

A student at the New York Hall of Science Learning Lab in Queens applies what he has learned about Arduino programming.

Sites are located in 15 states, in settings that include large urban centers (New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco) medium-sized cities (Tucson, AZ; Madison, WI; Portland, OR), small cities (Billings, MT; Tuscaloosa, AL), and suburban settings (Thornton, CO; Columbia, MD).

Content areas or topics are not prescribed across the Learning Labs; rather, each site proposed its own programmatic direction, based on an assessment of the needs and interests of the youth in their community. Programs piloted to date offer a rich palette of activities: graphic and visual arts, spoken word and music performances, blogging, journals and video game review, making and tinkering, photography, digital music and video production, CAD design and 3-D printing, game and e-book production, engineering design challenges, and fan fiction clubs.

Despite this wide array of places and themes, three programmatic goals tie the Learning Labs together. At the end of the 18-month planning stage, each site should: 1) better understand the transformation of learning in the 21st century; 2) participate in a robust community of practice, sharing knowledge with each other and beyond the project; and 3) be ready with an implementation plan for a sustainable Learning Lab. Progress towards these goals was supported by the technical assistance plan carried out by the cooperating partners through planned meetings, an online hub, and the engagement of peer professionals to consult on topics like space design, mentoring, assessment, external communications, and sustainability planning. Formative evaluation of the sites’ progress is being carried out by Kiley Larson and Anindya Kundu as part of the Connecting Youth Project, led by Richard Arum at the Institute of Human Development and Social Change, New York University. Through interviews and observations, the evaluation team is working to identify patterns across the Learning Lab sites, to describe effective practices that can lead to successful implementation.

Challenges and Next Steps

At the time of this post, 19 of the 24 Learning Labs are working under their original IMLS planning and design grants. Challenges that have emerged tend to focus around two areas: partnerships and institutional buy-in. For example, a number of Learning Labs teams are working in collaboration with new partners. Although they have may have co-existed in the same community for decades, this is often the first time that a library or museum has worked with community partners under the same funding, toward the same goals. There is a lot to negotiate in the conception of a new space, from physical location to staffing, to youth recruitment and program design. Those sites that have spent time cultivating their relationships, and understanding the different organizational cultures, tend to be more stable, as indicated by staff continuity and planning progress.

There is also sometimes an inherent tension between the goals of the program and the organizational realities of the participating institutions. Having a free, drop-in space exclusively for teens can be a controversial choice within a non-profit museum that depends on admission fees to operate. Finding staff with the appropriate training and housing materials for design or tinkering programs is not easy for many libraries. Those sites that seem headed for success are those that enjoyed buy-in at multiple organizational levels.

While these are very real tensions within specific Learning Labs teams, some sites are already showing successful transitions to an implementation phase – often with additional external support. Four teams are participating in larger Hive learning networks that are emerging in their respective cities (New York, San Francisco, Pittsburgh), bringing with them the additional support to connect with other local education partners. Two other teams have been successful at securing funding from corporations or foundations based in their communities. “Surge” Columbus, a collaboration among the Columbus Metropolitan Library, Wexner Center for the Arts, the Columbus Museum of Art, COSI, and public media station WOSU, was awarded a grant through a regional Battelle STEM grant program for Central Ohio. The Kansas City Public Library, which partners with Kansas City’s Science Center, Science City, received additional financial support to implement a mobile digital media lab through the Kansas City Digital Inclusion Fund, a consortium that includes Google Fiber, Sprint Foundation, and other family foundations.

In the meantime, the second (and final) Learning Labs cohort approaches the end of its 18-month design phase in June 2014. Their current activities range from recruiting youth advisory councils to piloting programs and negotiating for spaces and resources. The challenge at the program level is to continue to connect these sites to each other, and to distill and share lessons learned from the first cohort into a broader shared body of knowledge and practice.

Relevant Resources