Dixie Ching “Being with the members propelled me forward, buoyed me, and gave me a lot of encouragement.”

Dixie Ching is a senior user experience researcher at Google, where she supports education-related products and services through strategic research and partnerships. As a doctoral student in the educational communication and technology program at NYU, she co-led with Rafi Santo the Hive Research Lab, a research-practice-partnership with the Mozilla Hive NYC Learning Network, a community of youth-serving institutions offering innovative out-of-school digital making programs. Previously, Dixie has worked at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, Center for Children & Technology/Education Development Center, New York Hall of Science, Discovery Communications, WGBH/NOVA, and Beijing Television.


Dixie’s Story

Can you start by giving me an overview of the work that you do.

I’m part of a research-practice partnership project called the Hive Research Lab, funded by the Hive Digital Media Learning Fund managed by the New York Community Trust.

The other members of the project are Dr. Kylie Peppler, my close collaborator Rafi Santo, and Dr. Chris Hoadley. We like to describe ourselves as an applied research partner to this amazing community of out-of-school program providers called the Hive NYC Learning Network.

We have two research strands — “network innovation,” or how innovation is fostered and supported in the Hive, and “youth pathways” — how to support youth futures essentially.

My colleague Rafi Santo leads the network innovation strand while I lead the youth pathways strand.

Thinking about your work, could you hone in for me and describe a time where you really felt a sense of success?

I would go back to this extended engagement we had with Hive members that led to a greater appreciation for a youth development practice that we call “brokering future learning opportunities.”

It started with a “problem of practice” that emerged through the case studies I had developed of teens that were part of Hive programs. These case studies basically told the story of how a digital media making interest and identity changed over a period of time. My shortest case study was 6 months and the longest one spanned 2 years.

I was struck by the drop off in social support that teens experienced after a program had ended, something Rafi and I called a “post-program slump” in support. Framing it this way, we hoped, emphasized the core issue — how the loss of key relationships and access could influence or even stymie an interest.

I circulated these findings at Hive meet-ups, community calls, and on our blog, and then Rafi and I invited members to come together for an all-day “design charrette,” to design solutions to mitigate post-program slump and better support youth pathways. The conversations and interactions from that meeting helped crystallize the issue for me: To better support youth pathways, we need to be better at brokering opportunities and resources to young people so that they don’t feel that slump after a program ends.

Eventually this led to a community-developed white paper. Over 70 individuals contributed to this paper, either by adding comments to a Google doc, or sharing their feedback via email or in-person. We posted this white paper to our project website and so far it’s been viewed or downloaded over 1000 times and cited in other publications at least two dozen times.

I loved that Hive members seemed to value the ideas in the white paper and were sharing it with others. Hillary Kolos from DreamYard shared the paper with Nathan Larson at Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School, a portfolio school in the Bronx that allowed students to earn credits through afterschool programs. Nathan utilized aspects of the paper and the conceptual framework into the design of his Advisory model and we’ve collaborated on various things, including an all-day teacher PD event for a network of portfolio schools. That was fun and super rewarding.

When is a time when you really had a difficult challenge? It could be something that recurs. It could be just something top of mind.

There’s two things that come to mind. One has to do with engaging with members and trying to be as helpful as I can — sometimes my idea of what’s possible or what would be useful can play out in ways that can be onerous to an educator. I think in the beginning with some of our partners, there was a lot of negotiation back and forth in terms of what’s possible, what’s useful, and what we should be doing. But it’s really a gift to be part of a project that lasts so long. You’re able to learn from each other and continue to build that relationship. Sometimes, having conflicts can create closer relationships with each other.

I would say another thing that came to mind is that the longer I am in the space, even though brokering was a great thing to bring forth, I’m still noticing that many of the young people I interviewed and still keep in touch with continue to meet serious challenges. So as much as we’ve been able to talk about and highlight these issues, I’m not seeing the changes on the ground that I would love to see.

What I’m hearing you say here is that it’s just really hard work. That the challenges are a part of it, especially when you’re working so closely and you’re so embedded. I can imagine there are some days where it was just really difficult. You don’t really know which way to go and it can become really personal.

Yeah, exactly.

My next question, I think you’ve already answered it, but I’m going to bring it up just in case you want to add some more detail, which is how you’ve approached addressing this challenge?

We’re really excited about this. We had identified brokering as an area with a lot of potential to help support youth pathways, and now we’ve been funded by the Spencer Foundation to continue that work with a handful of Hive member organizations.

One of project goals is to show that we’ve developed designs or program routines or made tweaks to a program that will make a difference in terms of better brokering of learning opportunities to young people. We’ll then compile a toolkit with all these resources and information for the field.

Like you said, it’s hard work and it takes a while. Now we are getting to that part, which is around really making a difference on the ground, hopefully. That is where we had started, in terms of wanting to begin this work. It’s coming full circle a little bit.

These two years of work that you’ve done, is this in addition to the three years that Rafi was embedded, or do those overlap? Are we talking about three years? Are we talking about five years?

Yeah, I’m talking about the same period; we were embedded in Hive for about three years.

The reason I asked that question is that it changes how I interpret what you’re telling me. If you had still a good period of time, but it does change things because you just know so much more and you’re able to do so much more if you’ve really embedded yourself in that community.

Yeah, the first year, there was a lot of, “Anything is possible! We can just start this project and that project with this organization or that organization. It will be great!”

Then you realize that these problems are outcomes of embedded structural issues that need much bigger levers. Now it’s, “We need to think on the policy level,” and “create even bigger partnerships,” — stuff like that.

On a more personal level, I also like thinking about how in the beginning, I was very shy, I didn’t know anyone in the network. Now I feel like one of the older members in the network. It’s been nice to have this community that’s been with me on this incredible journey, which also included getting my PhD.

Being with the members propelled me forward, buoyed me, and gave me a lot of encouragement. Having Rafi as a research partner, participating in Hive meet-ups and calls, and sharing my work with members and teens has really helped me work through my ideas as well. Basically, this is a fantasy world for a researcher — to be able to engage with people, have your ideas be improved, and have an intellectual community where you can regularly talk about it.

Turning now to the broadest issue in the Mozilla universe, keeping the Web open and free, what for you, and I really want to emphasize the “For you” part here, is the open Internet?

To me, it’s about access, equity, and being able to share and engage with one another. There is so much untapped potential around facilitating collaborative interactions to do great things — to do impactful things together. There is the possibility of humanizing technology through that kind of process.

Coming off of the election, I also think about privacy issues, how our desire to be open and our preferences around privacy must be negotiated together.

That makes a lot of sense. Thank you. Thinking about what you’ve just described to me, can you give me an example when these open aspects of the Internet have been really important to you personally?

I live in a privileged bubble, where I can move seamlessly through open and closed technologies without even noticing. It’s really a problem in a way because it doesn’t help me build enough empathy around the issue. To be honest, I don’t really know exactly what Mozilla’s ideas around Open Web are.

No, that’s cool. That’s why I really try to emphasize that “For you” piece. I would feel the same way. This stuff is just an important question, in terms of how Mozilla does its job. If it’s fighting for the open Web, it needs to be able to articulate that to people.

It’s just a great reflection back to them. In some ways, “getting it wrong,” I put that in quotes because I think that it’s just getting it different from the way that is useful data to them. Those are useful points.

Yes. I don’t think we talk about these issues in the Hive that much. Also, we’ve been talking about a different era of the Hive. I’m getting this sense from Meghan and Hana that we are trying to bring more of those ideas and conversations into the Hive and connect the Hive’s goals with Mozilla’s goals.

I like this new effort because Mozilla represents such a powerful, amazing community of volunteers that is doing so much. And then there’s the Hive community that is also doing so much. I feel like we could learn a lot from each other.

Again, this is something you’ve already started answering but if you just want to add more clarification. I just want to get a little more specific about Mozilla now and understand how you got involved with them, so your pathway in, and what that has been like and felt like for you.

In 2009, I was part of a two-day design charrette. It was the first time in which a group of people were proposing the idea of Hive. I got to know Chris Lawrence then, when he was at NYSCI.

Back then, to me, he was just this awesome person at NYSCI. I’d run into him again every once in awhile and we would alway have these great conversations. Then I went to grad school and didn’t keep up with what happened. I got reintroduced to the Hive through Rafi and then met Chris again in his new role.

That makes a lot of sense. My next question is, can you tell me about a time that Mozilla has had some sort of impact on your life or your work or your organization? Another example or an anecdote?

Again, because I don’t feel affiliated with Mozilla at large, I think about the people — like Chris Lawrence and Leah Gilliam — who helped us shape this research project and helped us get a bigger grant than we initially thought we’d be able to get. They encouraged us to think more ambitiously and gave us really good advice and feedback on our proposal.

The fact that we could work with them to align our project to be something that they felt was important for the Hive was supremely important in terms of setting us up for success, not only in terms of securing funding, but also because it helped ensure that we would work with members in a hopefully mutually beneficial way.

If your question is also about how the Hive has impacted me, then I would again bring up the relationships I’ve built and the community that I was welcomed into.

As a researcher, I’m always looking for people who are willing to let me into their world — and in the Hive it became so easy I almost forgot that it was a hard thing to do. That is such a gift for a researcher.

I think also that being part of the community allowed me access to a kind of honesty around the work — around my work and around their work. It wasn’t like they were showing me perfect things and also I felt that members were able to tell me when they disagreed with me. It’s been wonderful.