Hillary Kolos “There's a huge disparity in the access teachers have to professional development around computers, the internet, and broadband.”

Hillary works at the intersection of technology and education. Her interest in enhancing young people’s learning experiences with media and technology has led her to her current position as Director of Digital Learning at The DreamYard Project, the largest arts education provider in the Bronx in New York. Prior to joining DreamYard, she received her Master’s degree in Comparative Media Studies at MIT. She is especially interested in fostering digital equity and working with underrepresented communities to access the digital tools and connectivity they need to organize and be heard.


Hillary’s Story

Tell me a little bit about your work.

My current role is the Director of Digital Learning at The DreamYard Project in the Bronx in New York. I’ve been here about five years.

The role of Director of Digital Learning is constantly changing and evolving, which I think all of our 21st-century tech-related jobs do. Overall, my job here is to help us integrate technology and digital tools and practices into our existing programs in a way that enhances learning and helps our young people and teaching artists do something that they couldn’t have done without technology.

We have three core values: create, empower, and connect. We are always working on how digital learning can connect to each of these values. For create, it’s using digital tools and documenting their process. For empower, it’s media literacy and learning about the digital divide and power structures around digital technology. Connect is using technology to share their work and connect to other forums.

My job ranges from starting new programs that have more of a digital focus, like digital music or maker programs, to working on a big partnership — which actually happened because of the Hive — with Parsons School of Design on a learning portfolio project, helping young people to make the portfolios and document their creative process.

All of this fits within the larger context of DreamYard project, which is about 23-year-old Arts and Social Justice Organization here in the Bronx. We basically work solely in the Bronx, with both schools and also we have our own high school, called DreamYard Prep.

We work in over 40 K–12 schools here in the Bronx. Also, we have an art center, where we do out of school programs. We do a lot and we have a lot of different types of programs, mostly in traditional art forms, both performing and visual arts.

Then we’re trying to add in some other programs with a more digital focus and add digital learning into the programs that already exist, so even if young people are making paintings, they can think about how they might also use digital tools in their work — just to make sure that we’re not leaving them behind with the digital divide and they’re ready to start a career if they want or access whatever they need to access as they move out into the world.

When you say “digital divide,” can you explain to me what you mean by that?

Digital divide is a concept that’s always evolving. The first layer has to do with access to technology — who gets access to technology, who can afford it, who has time to use it. Then another layer is the participation gap — Henry Jenkins and his team have done a lot of thinking around this; I studied with him at grad school. Participation means not just having access to the tools, but also having access to mentorship and time to use the tools. Think, for example, about the schools who block YouTube and a bunch of other great tools for learning and expression — so youth maybe have access to a computer and internet, but half of it’s blocked from them. Then there’s the question of who gets WiFi and who can afford broadband versus just access the internet through a mobile phone. Also who’s making policy around this.

So the digital divide includes all of these different layers, from the personal to the political and everywhere in between, about who gets access, who has a say, who has a voice, and who’s in control of media. It’s a big smorgasbord of complicated issues that are really important and that are just deepening divisions that already exist in our society — even without technology.

Honing in, can you tell me about a specific time when you really felt a sense of success in this work?

A lot of my work right now is on the learning portfolio project and there’s pressure to just jump right in and have all your students create these beautiful digital portfolios that they’re using to get jobs in college and personal success.

It’s been a little slow but there are these beautiful moments with some of the young people either when you talk to them about the process of portfolio development and how that’s changed how they think about their art.

One of the biggest successes is watching some of the young people who start here in high school and create a website with us that’s showing their work and they keep using it into college.

I’ll go back to the blogs they started here and see the art that they’re making in college. To me, that’s a success because we helped them develop something for themselves that they decided to keep using even when they weren’t here.

It means that we gave them some lifelong skill and tools that were relevant enough that they continue using them — it doesn’t just live here and we don’t own it. It’s something that they own.

Then they can keep evolving after they leave and keep telling their story online, which is part of the big reason why we do this — helping young people tell their own learning and creative story throughout their lives, not just when they’re here with us.

How about an example of a challenge?

Time is always a challenge, and fitting technology and digital learning into an already busy schedule when it may not seem necessary.

We’re an arts and social justice organization, focused on how social justice is core with the arts and how to help young people make art that is speaking back to the world. And teaching that it in a way that is rooted in social justice pedagogy. That already takes up all of our time and more.

We could always be doing that better. The way we approach digital learning is to try to think of using technology as a tool to enhance both the art and social justice.

It takes time to learn new tools, to stay up-to-date, and to figure out where you can insert technology in a way that’s it’s not a distraction from either the art or the social justice, but is actually holding it up or moving it forward.

The biggest challenge is just finding the time, whether it’s for trainings, discussions or creating tools. Not even just digital, but planning tools for classes that help people think about how they might use technology.

Yeah, I would narrow it down to time. How to make space and time for technology in a way that’s not taking away from the other great work that we’re already doing.

I also hear you saying that it’s difficult work in terms of the pedagogy — the design and how you do it. That’s where the time comes in because it’s not something you can just throw together. It’s an ongoing practice that you keep having to hone and get better at because, in the end, you’re talking about creating experiences for youth that bring them somewhere.

Yeah. It relates back to making distinction between the digital divide and the participation gap, which is not just about access to technology.

We could easily buy technology and put computers in every room, but it doesn’t mean the young people are going to feel comfortable using it — know about the programs that are on the computer, know where to get started, be able to find the YouTube video that could help, and teach themselves that technology is obviously more than just the hardware and software.

It’s the people, it’s the relationships, it’s the content of what they’re looking at — it’s the pedagogy around it — how we teach technology in a way that isn’t just reiterating old practices that might not be working, but not getting rid of the old practices that do work and finding the ways to bring in what new possibilities that happen with tech, new ways of teaching without getting rid of all the good stuff from the past.

Turning now to what I would call one of the broadest issues in the Mozilla universe, what for you is the open internet?

To me the open internet would be a space that’s accessible from all parts of the world, and a place where you have access to information. All the information is there, but you also have access to pathways through that information and ways to use it.

Sometimes everything is open and yet there’s no way to navigate it. Those who have the privilege and access already in the world are just going to drive through that much quicker, and be able to use it to their benefit.

It’s an open space to access information — to communicate, to share, to create. That also has supports and some regulation that allows people at different levels, whether it’s economic or location-based, to access what they need and have agency within it to use the information to do what they need to do.

Is there a time that you could think of when the open internet has been important to you?

Definitely. I’m a child of the late ’80s, ’90s, so I’m part of that generation that experienced before and after the internet — we had both. When I got the internet in high school, I was pretty excited about just how accessible things were and also how the back-end — or how things were made on the internet — was a little clear.

I can’t remember what I built my first website on. It was just pictures of the bands I liked. [I had to learn some HTML, and pasted pictures and chose colors.

Just to make a simple website, you had to know that. I really appreciated having a little bit of that language and being able to learn through playing with it in my personal interests. I don’t think MySpace was the open internet, but you could get into the behind-the-scenes of it and customize your page.

I really miss that part of the early internet. I’m not sure it’s still the open internet. The earlier internet — where you had a lot of control over how things looked and you could help build it — I don’t feel that anywhere in the internet that I go to now.

Now it’s all presented to me in a nice package. I can add content, like text or pictures, or share an article, but I don’t get to actually mess with the architecture of the pages I’m on, or build new tools through it. I know that’s possible, but it feels less accessible.

It was important to me in high school to have a little more access to the architecture of the internet, and the power to know how to create my own sites. I appreciated that.

What you’re describing seems linked to what you raised before, which is agency.

Yeah. It wasn’t like anyone ever saw my website, but I did, at least, feel like I could both find and teach myself some of the basic building blocks. I could’ve gotten further if I wanted to.

It felt like a place where that was allowed a bit more and things could look a little scrubbier. That was OK.

Getting more specific about Mozilla, how did you get involved with them? What has that been like?

It all stems back before to the work Mozilla did with the MacArthur Foundation when I was in grad school from 2008 to 2010. Part of the reason I was able to get funding to go to grad school was due to the MacArthur Foundation.

I was at the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program. I was following a lot of the work MacArthur was doing. These two initiatives that they had were the YOUmedia Network, which was a network of digital teen spaces across the country. And they had this Hive thing starting, which seemed more like a dispersed network across cities of organizations working with young people and technology. I became involved in both through my job here at DreamYard.

DreamYard was already a part of it when I started. I was really excited to start going to meetings and be a part of Hive NYC. Mozilla joined that effort. I’ve been a part of Hive NYC since 2011 and just immediately fell in love with going to the monthly meetings and connecting with other people working in youth development, arts education, and technology.

I especially appreciated that it wasn’t just exactly the same types of organizations that I normally would work with. I have a history of working in youth media, usually working with young people in video or on social issues.

It was great to meet with other youth media practitioners. I wanted more of that, so that we could share curriculum and ideas.

There’s a limit to what you can learn within your own little bubble, so it was great to go to Hive meetings where it wasn’t just arts education or just social justice organizations. It was libraries and museums and coding organizations and gaming organizations. Literacy organizations. It was great to learn from a wide range. The focus on digital learning was what held us all together.

We were all going into this uncharted territory of new media and youth development.

Can you tell me about a time where this involvement has had impact on either your life, your work, or your organization?

Yeah, definitely. One is the relationships. The people I’ve met through Hive, the folks who work for Hive headquarters and also at the other Hive organizations, have become not only trusted colleagues but also good friends, which I think is important.

We’re not competing all the time, or just going through regular business and sharing some ideas. I feel like I really trust the people I work with in the Hive. That means that I can be more critical and supportive. It’s not just like we’re all patting each other on the back and saying, “Good job,” and sharing a couple of things. We really get deep into the issues that we’re all facing.

I feel like we can push on each other, whether it’s in a meeting with the whole group or on the sidelines. We can ask critical questions and it’s received well by Hive headquarters and each other.

Having researchers as part of the group was important too, there’s Dixie and Rafi, who are part of the Hive Research Labs. When they came into the mix it felt like someone was helping keep track of some of those questions and really explore them. That, to me, felt very different from any other network I’ve been a part of.

Then also just to have those relationships — like I said before — they’re friends, too. That’s how deep the relationships go. Whether they remain in Hive or not, those folks I met are still friends, which is nice.

Mozilla throws parties for us and that helps. We get time to be social. Not always just getting down to business, but really getting to know each other as individuals — allowing time for that.

Then DreamYard has been able to receive a lot of funding through Hive. It’s enabled us to have partnerships with organizations that maybe we wanted to partner with for a long time, but weren’t able to, which has allowed us to offer tons more opportunities to our young people, which is what matters the most.

Our young people are able to do more because of the partnerships that have been funded through the Hive. I could list those out to you, but that funding has really helped us do more for our young people in our community here.

I imagine that it’s not just funding that’s the glue to those partnerships. How has Mozilla or Hive facilitated or contributed to partnerships that work?

Part of what Mozilla’s done beyond funding us to make the partnerships work is ask a lot of questions in the proposal stage. I have to really explain what we’re doing and be clear and create some solid goals and outcomes in our proposals. Then, once the project is a go, they really trust us to do it in our own way.

They’re looking for innovation, so they’re not being too prescriptive about what we do. They have a couple of tenets that they hope that we are holding to. It really feels like they trust us, and that allows us and our partner to dig in and figure out what makes the most sense for us, and what’s going to be best for the program and for the participants.

I’m a bit of a documentation nerd, because I have a history in documentary filmmaking. Mozilla really pushes us to document what we’re doing in the open and share that. I like that, because it helps me keep track of what we’ve done, and it helps me feel like what we’re doing isn’t just for us and for our community or for our partnership.

Other people can learn from it, and that gives me more drive, even more than I would already have to do it, and to do it well. I really enjoy that part.

Sometimes I go a little overboard on documentation, but I feel very encouraged and supported by all the folks at Hive to share what we’re doing. When I hand over documentation to them, it’s in depth and they support us a lot in sharing that.

They encourage us to go to conferences. They help us find funding to go to conferences. They talk about our work to other people. They connect us to other people around the world who are doing similar work. I really appreciate that support around the documentation and sharing out our work with others.

Documentation is a lot of work, but it’s super important.

Why do the work if we’re not sharing it with other folks? I can’t share this to everybody, but if someone could read something and be inspired… That’s how I work. I read things and get inspired, and I kind of adopt and remix what other people are doing, if I can help in any way.

But I think sometimes my reports are too long and not accessible. That’s what I’m going to work on: how to synthesize what I’m doing so it’s easy for folks and they don’t have to sit down and read a 30-page report, every little detail.

A former boss that I had, he would blog a lot while on work travel all over the world and after meeting with different partners. He’d also take lots of great photos. Then take all of the blogs from one trip, stick them in a Word document, and annotate with the inside baseball stuff. That would be his trip report. He was working open and building the internal piece at same time.

I love that approach. Because usually I just go back and look at all the stuff I wrote and it’s like, “Oh, I can’t go through this again. How am I ever going to go back through?” I like that idea of using the blog and then annotating it. That’s really cool.

Can you think of a time where Mozilla or Hive didn’t meet your expectations, or places where you see gaps or challenges?

There’s not too many. It’s more stuff I have questions around, and that I maybe would like more transparency around.

I’m always trying to figure out the structure of Mozilla. Even at the beginning of this interview, I asked you what part of Mozilla is this for? Mozilla’s such a big organism that’s ever evolving. What’s part of the corporate side? What’s part of the foundation? Which part of the foundation are we in right now?

I like the focus on the open web and web literacy, but sometimes that feels limiting. We’ve talked about that in Hive before. How can they keep that focus, which is really important — and I don’t see a lot of other people working on — but also remain open to related issues around digital learning? I think they’ve done a pretty good job of that, but sometimes there’s lack of clarity around that.

I wonder: Does this fit their mission? Am I doing the right thing? Do I have to throw in some HTML and CSS over here or is it all part of a bigger project? So I’d like some clarity around the organization itself and where everybody fits in, and then how the mission relates to everybody’s work could be clearer.

We’ve had focus groups in Hive to talk about this. It was really exciting to watch Hive grow.

We do need to be clear about access, too, and make sure that we’re being equitable about who’s there and the voices in the room. But also make sure the people who are participating, that it’s a two-way street, and that we make it possible for a wide range of people to participate in different ways, whether it’s calls or in-person meetings, but that we keep people participating in the network in a way that keeps it alive, so it doesn’t just feel like an affiliation. It feels like we’re really doing work together.

That could also mean prioritizing our goals, so that we’re not asking people to do a million different things. What are the things that Hive in particular could be addressing, and who’s on board for that, and can put in different types of effort to forward those goals?

I’m wondering if what you’re talking about is a free rider problem? Where you’ve got a core group who are contributing and participating, yet around the peripheries you have others who are only taking, benefiting but not investing in the network. Am I understanding correctly? That dynamic underlying what you’re talking about?

No, I don’t see the other organizations as just taking. I’m just not sure Hive is even on their radar. It might be an old affiliation, so they’re part of the network in name, but there’s been a staff change and the new person doesn’t get why they’re supposed to go to these Hive meetings, or there’s a new Executive Director that doesn’t see the importance of it.

It’s more like some organizations are disconnected. There’s been multiple efforts to bring people in, but they aren’t sure it’s useful to them anymore. Then there’s a kind of committed core that really gets how this relates to their work, and knows how they can add to it and what they can take from it.

It might go back to when we were talking about the open web. If you have a totally open space, there’s ways that privilege and access are going to allow those people to do more with what’s there.

How can we create more structures within the membership of the network? To make sure it’s clear, how to on-board, how to become a part of it, what groups you can join. What are the monthly meetings for? What are the calls for? What is headquarters doing for us? What are we doing for headquarters?

Keeping the network open, but building those structures and systems within it that help people know where they can off ramp and exit out if they need to. And maybe some more systems within the network that help people navigate what’s possible, where they can contribute, and where they can benefit.

That clarification is really helpful. Thanks. You mentioned that the focus on web literacy is important, but that you see other issues coming up. I’m wondering what those other issues are.

Almost everything we do relates back to the internet in some way, because it’s such an important communication tool for us. All I can think of is that here at DreamYard, we don’t do a lot of programming that’s explicit to building things on the web. We use the internet to access information, to do research, to document our work, but we’re not leading with teaching young people how to make on the web.

Although we do have that focus on in the Learning Portfolio Project, because we’re helping young people create their own presence online and share their work. But a lot of our other work doesn’t feel like it’s related to building the web or keeping the web open.

It might feel like a stretch sometimes, to be like, “Oh, okay, if we’re going to be part of Mozilla’s mission, do we need to think about how visual arts and the web are related, and tailor our program to that?” Rather than just a more general digital learning and digital literacy lens that uses offline software and that may eventually get online. For example how to use Photoshop, or software like that. Or building games. Or making videos.

There’s all this stuff about content that could go on the web that’s not directly related to how to build the web or how to keep the web open.

There’s a bigger world of digital literacy and creating with digital tools. And that world overlaps a lot with building the web and keeping the web open, but it doesn’t always feel directly tied to that work.

I don’t feel a ton of pressure from Mozilla, but sometimes if feels like we need to learn those skills. When I hear their mission, I’m like, “Oh yeah, we’re not teaching web design” or something like that. It’s more about the content that could eventually go on the web. How do you navigate information on the web to make what you want to make? That’s more of a perspective from an arts and social justice organization that is trying to add more digital learning into what we’re doing.

Well web literacy is definitely a key issue for Mozilla, but so is digital inclusion, decentralization, and open innovation.

Yes, and even within web literacy, that team has done a lot. They have a cool web literacy wheel and it’s gotten much broader than just building stuff on the web. I see more and more an opening of that, but I also appreciate the specificity of it, too, because I don’t see a lot of people working in that area. And it is a skill set that relates to all the work we do, no matter what we’re doing, even if we don’t think about it explicitly like that.

Yes, within web literacy is “working open”, which is something you’ve mentioned, and which is key.

Definitely. That’s been a really big part of why the Hive has worked. It’s changed people’s thinking. When we meet up, it’s not like, here’s my proprietary curriculum that you guys can buy from me. We’re realizing that we’ll all do better if we share parts of what we do, rather than trying hold on to these little pieces and sell it or charge for it.

There’s other ways that us working together can help us find funding in other places and stay alive, and also be more relevant to the young people that we work with, which is really important.

How might these stories that we’re collecting be useful to you, if at all?

It’s always helpful for me to hear from other educators and practitioners, whether they work in a similar or very different context. I work in a borough of New York City that has been very disinvested in by multiple sources. It’s had a lot of challenges, but it’s also is full of beautiful, creative work and people.

I know there are other places in the world like that, so I’d like to learn from them. Then I know there are other places that are full of financial resources, and I want to know what they’re doing as well. Because even if they have less access to financial resources, I want our young people to be doing similar work.

If second graders are building websites at a very affluent school, I want our kids to be able to do that too. I know there’s tools out there that can help them do it. We don’t have to have the fanciest computers to do that. It just helps to know what other educators are doing around digital literacy and learning.

I think having more conversations with the people we work with would be good. With the young people that we work with, who are interested in this but don’t feel like they’re being supported as much as they could be. Families: What do parents think about this work?

I don’t know if you’re collecting those kinds of stories, but I would love to hear more from our communities about what they need, and what their roadblocks are, and their obstacles. I’d like to learn about the creative ways they have overcome those obstacles, to learn from them, and then share those stories out more as well. Then, because Mozilla has some resources and structure across the world, I think it’s important for them to hear all that feedback, so they can be directing that in the right place and help them prioritize.

You gave me a wonderful segue into my next question, which is, who else should I speak to?

You should talk to people in the schools, whether they’re educators or some kind of other staff, because that’s really where young people are. Some young people are not in school. They’re disconnected, and we should be talking to them as well. I think schools get a really bad rep, but they really want to do more in this work.

There’s a huge disparity in the access teachers have to professional development around computers, the internet, and broadband. That’s where our young people are most of their day, or a big chunk of most of their day. Then you walk from one floor to the next in a school building — we have multiple schools in one building in a lot of parts of New York City —there’s all kinds of disparity in terms of resources. In terms of technology infrastructure, one school might have full access to the internet, and then in the next school — on the next floor — everything’s blocked. A lot of websites are blocked.

So being more involved in advocacy in school and support for schools. Talking to teachers and administrators about what they need, then, of course, talking to young people who want to do so much, but had a lot of roadblocks, obstacles, and doors closing on them, for a multitude of reasons.

There’s a Hive organization called The Knowledge House here in the Bronx. I just love their work. Part of their focus is finding youth who are disconnected. Youth who went to college, tried to study computer science, and had to leave for family issues or financial issues, or maybe they left because of the culture of the computer science department — which is a big problem — because of racism and sexism.

Finding out how to connect with those young people, and what they need, and what are the supports outside of the system — until we can fix the system — that Mozilla could offer them.

Then families too, parents who want more resources around this for their young people, and don’t just want to keep them off the computer. What do our families need to support this type of work?

Is there anything more you want to tell me, or anything more you want to ask?

I think Mozilla’s in a really powerful position to keep this type of work advancing. I was very involved with MacArthur Foundation work. They helped me a lot as I was evolving from a grad student into a working person, or rather going back into the workforce. They’ve since pulled back that area of funding and are moving into other areas.

There’s another organization called LRNG working in that space, but there needs to be more people working on the broader issues of the open web, access and equity, and digital inclusion. There’s just not enough people doing it. I would love to see Mozilla just leading the charge.

The MacArthur Foundation basically created a field of digital media and learning. It had a huge impact and now we’re all off and running. But it’s important to keep us as a network in the field, and have us connected and talking to each other. That requires money and people to organize it.

I hope that work continues in its own way, but that Mozilla can — it might be a different type of work that they’re doing — take a part of that field that was created, and keep moving it forward. Advocating for it and bringing us together.

I hope that Mozilla remains open to the ideas of those of us who work directly with users of the web, creators of the web, young people and people who have been excluded from that work or that are doing it at the margins.

Bringing those people more into the conversation is really important. What’s already happened is amazing. I just hope it continues and becomes ever more open with the supports along the way, so that everybody can have access to the conversation and create together.