Meet Breanne Litts

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CIRCL perspectives offer a window into the different worlds of various stakeholders in the cyberlearning community — what drives their work, what they need to be successful, and what they think the community should be doing. Share your perspective.

Breanne Litts

Breanne Litts is an Assistant Professor of Instructional Technology and Learning Sciences and director of the Learn, Explore, Design (L.E.D.) Lab at Utah State University.

How did you get started in cyberlearning?

I realized the power of technology and making back when I was working with kids in Belfast, Northern Ireland and doing cross community projects with the Belfast Computer Clubhouse. If you’re not familiar with the history: It’s a very segregated community, and their identities are wrapped up in stories and history they tell. They often have little contact with the “other side,” and have physical “peace walls” dividing their neighborhoods. Historically, they have experienced a lot of bombings and violence. As part of a study abroad program through the University of Washington, I had an opportunity to work with the Belfast Computer Clubhouse, which was the only Clubhouse in the world that had 2 locations in the same city because of the segregation. We did a lot of digital media projects with the kids at the separate locations, and they would often say discriminatory things against “the other.” But then when we did these cross-community events, where the kids would interact by making things together, it was a really humanizing experience for them. They acted like they had been friends their whole lives.

I got even more interested in the instructional side while I was doing peace education research in Northern Ireland as part of my master’s degree with the University of Wisconsin. I was working with teachers to integrate forgiveness education into their classrooms. We had a good relationship with the teachers in Northern Ireland, and they asked us different questions about technology and how to integrate it into their curriculum — at the time, it was the Smartboard — but I didn’t know how to do that. It seemed like a really important question to them, and I was of the mind that if they’re going to be teaching this curriculum for us, shouldn’t we do it in a way that’s useful to them for their practice?

Seeing the need in the classroom and the power of technology in this really contentious, divisive environment, got me interested in the learning sciences. I wanted to think more about how to integrate technologies and making in learning contexts to bring people together, especially how (re)telling our stories and histories with technology can facilitate productive collaborations. My first project along these lines was to recreated some of the events in Northern Ireland using ARIS (Augmented Reality and Interactive Storytelling). All the historical documents about bombings, witness accounts, etc. are being released, so they are publicly available and using ARIS allowed me to digitally re-situate the events into their original physical location. But I quickly ran into some deep cultural, historical, and political tensions around (re)telling another culture’s stories through a new media, which really sparked my interest in design more broadly.

What are you currently working on?

The broad scope of my work is looking at how people learn through building things with technology and how we can use technology to bring people together, inspired by my work in Northern Ireland. A lot of people know me as part of the maker movement, but I’ve also done a lot of work in mobile technologies and how kids learn through design processes more broadly. That is what I’ve been revisiting since I finished my dissertation: How can we leverage different storytelling and narrative processes to teach different concepts? How can we use narrative to teach computing skills? The programming interface for ARIS is narrative based, using logic to connect scenes together and tell a story that is tied to place. There is also an augmented reality portion of this.

So, my L.E.D. Lab has been exploring how kids learn at the intersection narrative, place, and augmented reality primarily through computational making activities. Moreover, as part of our EAGER grant (with Kristin Searle (USU), and a collaborative grant with PIs Bryan Brayboy (ASU) and Yasmin Kafai (Penn)), we recently worked with an American Indian community to co-design a computational making summer camp for about 50 kids. In our early meetings, we presented ARIS as a potential tool to use in the summer camp and the Community was really excited about connecting stories with place using technology. It was promising to see how making with this augmented reality tool connected youth to their community through their heritage practice of storytelling.

What are you struggling with now?

Our EAGER work brought up tensions around knowledge, which are similar to what I encountered in my work in Northern Ireland: who gets to tell the story and who gets to know the story (some stories are sacred and only shared within the community). Balancing that tension has been an interesting co-design process. We’ve been talking through how to represent stories though different maker materials, and we’ve been experimenting and prototyping with the Community to represent their stories with electronic textiles, 3D printing, ARIS, and other media.

There are two different pieces to the struggle of thinking about designing for narratives using computational tools and maker technologies. The first piece of the struggle is the broader co-design process with communities and how to engage them around this practice of storytelling with augmented reality and across different media. The second piece is the design challenge of how do we tell stories and how do we (re)tell stories through different media, what are different story structures, what are the commonalities between structures, and for what levels and pieces should we be designing tools? We have found that sometimes stories are linear and other times they come in other forms and aren’t linear at all, but programming is pretty linear — even if it has loops, the mechanism is very linear (a sequence of lines of code). How do we design tools that support different narrative structures and still teach programming? For example, in our summer camp, some of the kids were (re)building and digitizing community sculpture tours using ARIS. One group designed a structure such that the player would go and collect materials about a specific sculpture, bring those materials back to the artist, and the artist would tell them the story of the sculpture. They used an iterative, repetitive process of going back out to gather information, coming back, then going out to another sculpture, and so on. There was no end; it was mini-adventures with no prescribed pathway. It was surprisingly challenging to translate this structure into programming logic, even with a narrative-based platform.

What should the cyberlearning community be doing?

I’ve benefited so much from the cyberlearning community over the years. Lately, I’ve been thinking about research practice partnerships and how to do research in meaningful ways with museums, classrooms, and other partners. When we’re thinking about innovation, we’re not always doing that process. It can be scary to think about implementing new, unstable technologies in practice, because it’s messy and takes much more time. I’m really curious about how the cyberlearning community can bring in practitioners more to co-design tools and technologies to further bridge the gaps between research and practice. Taking seriously that we can learn by making things, how does that apply to us as a research community? There’s definitely been great efforts in this area, for example, the Research Practice Collaboratory is focused on solving problems of practice together. So, what happens when we’re making things together, too? I’d love to see the community co-designing tools and technologies together by leveraging each other’s experiences and considering our specific needs to create something more applicable to the different contexts and disciplines we come from. I know there is some work in the community, but it would be interesting to further explore that model, look at how we can go deeper, and think about how we can innovate and build together.

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