Lori Rose Benson leads Hip Hop Public Health, a non-profit dedicated to empowering youth around the globe with the knowledge and skills to make healthier choices, reducing preventable health conditions and the rising tide of childhood obesity. Prior to joining HHPH, Lori proudly served as Vice President of Healthy Lifestyles for the YMCA of Greater New York and was the founding Executive Director of the Office of School Wellness Programs, supporting 1,700 schools and 1.1 million students in NYC public schools. Over the last 25 years, Lori’s work has centered around the development and scaling of high-impact, innovative health and wellness initiatives.
This interview was conducted on September 7, 2016 while Lori was still at the YMCA of Greater New York.
Can you start by telling me a bit about your work?
I’m working with the YMCA of Greater New York, which is the largest Y association in the nation, serving about 600,000 people a year with half of them under the age of 18. In general, most of our work falls into three buckets — healthy living, youth development, and social responsibility. While there’s clearly some overlap amongst those three areas, I am fortunate to oversee the Healthy Lifestyles portfolio and work with a team that supports everything from youth sports and aquatics, to adult fitness, personal training and group exercise programs. The work also extends beyond the Y branches and connects with NYC’s public health-related initiatives including youth obesity initiatives and diabetes prevention programs.
The work we’ve been doing in the digital space is linked to exploring ways to motivate young people to become more physically active — to stay more physically active, and to take responsibility for their own fitness. We want to utilize tools and strategies to take kids from a level of dependence to independence, and it doesn’t have to just ecompass traditional fitness approaches. This work resulted in the creation of a new, innovative teen fitness program called Y-MVP. When hearing the name, most kids would probably think it’s about being a Most Valuable Player but it’s really a much less sexy acronym: Moderate to Vigorous Physical activity.
I don’t actually come from the technology field. I come from the health and physical education arena. Before I was at the Y, I was the inaugural Executive Director for the New York City Department of Education’s Office of School Wellness Programs, spearheading health and physical education initiatives for 1.1 million kids and nearly 1,800 public schools.
What I witnessed during my time with the NYC education department, and experienced personally growing up in NYC public schools, is that while there is a good amount of young people who enjoy team sports, I believe that we as a society tend to focus too much on competitive sports in physical education classes and not enough on other forms of physical activity. There’s actually a majority of kids that are not interested in team sports at all. As educators, we need to ensure that we don’t turn these kids off by the competitive, youth sports status quo and instead motivate them by introducing a range activities so they can find the ones they enjoy.
In 2011 and 2012 , I began learning a lot more about the field of digital badging and the potential educational and behavioral pathways that badges could support, encourage and reinforce . We became more and more interested in figuring out how to couple the motivation and behavioral change science within the fields of exercise science and the social psychology of what was emerging in the field of digital badging, and the Y-MVP concept was developed. Y-MVP has been through a bunch of iterations over the last three years, and now includes a mobile app that is aligned to an 8-week fitness curriculum where kids are guided to go after different fitness missions and challenges.
Youth can participate in the program at one of our Y branches in a small group class led by a trained coach that takes them on fitness journey which starts from a level of dependence to ultimately a level of independence. Kids put together “playlists” which, by the way, isn’t a playlist of what they’re listening to but rather how they’re playing, how they’re moving and working out. They are introduced to a range of fitness concepts along the way. Kids get rewarded for taking on these very specific missions and then earn weekly achievement badges, moving through a scaffolded journey to unlock the final Y-MVP challenge badge.
Within the program, there’s a whole ecosystem of badges that are aligned to the F.I.T.T. exercise science principle, which stands for Frequency (how often you do an exercise), Intensity (how hard you work), Time (how long is spent doing the exercise) and Type (understanding the difference between cardio, strength, flexibility and creating a mix of activities for cross-training). Participants are taught these concepts by the Y-MVP coach but they also learn that they’re getting rewarded as they move along the different badge pathways.
Within the app, the colors of the badges are all aligned and reinforce the F.I.T.T. principle. For example, all of the strength activities have red badges, cardio is blue and cross training is purple. There are also many fun, surprise badges and some silly and goofy badges that we learned during the design process that kids really liked. By the way, while this was tailored for tweens/teens, we also found that adults seem to really like it too!
It’s also important to note that while we created Y-MVP to be a formal teen group fitness program, taught by a coach, we also designed it so that people can use the app and the Y-MVP activities even beyond the walls of the Y. The app can be downloaded on the apple store for free and use it anywhere, anytime.
The majority of the app content is available to everyone, except for the very specific Y-MVP journey, which is specifically for kids participating in the in-branch program. Other than that, anyone can use it, and also can contribute to it. Users can create a new playlist, give it a fun name and share it with other users. Note that an administrator will need to approve this, so we can be sure that the playlist titles remain appropriate for G-rated audiences across the world.
Developing Y-MVP has been an incredibly interesting learning process for us. We now have a whole new bunch of acronyms that we added to our health-related jargon! We not only talk about fitness principles but now there’s badging, ecosystems, constellations, pathways, UX, and UI. Personally, I’ve enjoyed focusing on the science behind designing the user experience, especially understanding how to marry the in-person experience with the experience of interacting within the app.
While we believe that Y-MVP could be motivating for all kinds of kids, during the design process we specifically considered user personas who were couch potatoes, inactive, overweight, underweight, or perhaps socially awkward youth. Kids who may be particularly motivated about a program that embraces technology vs. traditional team sports. That being said, Y-MVP missions could also work very well aligned to specific sport skill development for a basketball team, for example, however that wasn’t the intention. Our focus was to reach kids that aren’t necessarily interested in physical activity and not already involved in team sports.
Kids can choose from a range of non-gender specific avatars, and change them when they feel like it. They can track their total time, and the badges that have been unlocked. Technically, users could cheat if they really wanted to, but they’re only competing against themselves. Believe it or not, what we found was that most young people were not interested in gaming the system. We completed a comprehensive formative and impact evaluation with an external evaluator when Y-MVP was available in iPad kiosks within all of our branches during our initial pilot. What we found was that only 30% of kids participating in the program really cared what other kids were doing in terms of their accomplishments. 95% of the kids used the app to set and “compete” against their own personal goals, which is really what we wanted to see happen. In fact, in the very first version of the program we had a leaderboard for total time and earned badges across all users, and ultimately decided to take it out and only include personal stats within the app.
Do you need an iPhone to access the app, or just the whole access issue?
That’s a really good question. So within the walls of the Y, we have iPad kiosks that kids could log into. We’ve also piloted having iPod Touches available so kids who do not have their own devices have the exact same experience like someone else who has their phone with them.
We’ve also created two different ways that the app works. We can set a device to a kiosk mode, so you can just enter workouts in after the fact. Or, kids can use their phone (or the borrowed iPod Touch) as a real-time tracker, which will count down and track their activity time while they’re doing the exercises.
These are the options we have right now. We haven’t raised the funding yet to create the android app which would be wonderful, but for now we figured out how to handle this within the walls of our Y. We’re considering how this might run in our off sites, since we have a lot of after school programs at NYC public schools, and where WiFi may work or not work. We need to be able to work around that.
Our main interest is getting kids to become more physically active, and we know that being able to unlock the digital badges is the hook, but how much and how often will really range depending on the level of equitable access of the Web.
We’ve created lots of levels and different journeys within the program, so it can be completely all hands-on and checking into the app every day, or much more low tech, and then maybe you check in only once a week.
How many or one specific example, is there anything that stands out as a time when you really felt a sense of success with regards to this program?
I’m especially pleased with the external evaluation approach we took early on during the beginning stages of program development. In addition to evaluating the skills, attitudes and behaviors of the youth participating in Y-MVP, we also included a a peer comparison group of other young people that were participating in other Y programs, but not Y-MVP.
What we found was that 100% of kids that participated in Y-MVP said that after completing the program they felt they could workout on their own — I was so surprised by this number. It was amazing that the participants felt confident enough to work out on their own, without a coach, which is what we wanted to see happen. Kids participated in activities, but they also developed the knowledge and the skills and learned how to exercise, how to develop balanced personalized routines, and they found things they wanted to continue to after the program ended.
This independence and self-motivation is even more important as teens transition to adulthood. Too often, we fail to introduce kids to individual, lifetime fitness activities and then one day they’re an adult and they have no idea what to do, nor the confidence to now start trying something for the first time.
Another key finding was related to how much the kids enjoyed sharing their personal accomplishments digitally, and being connected to a larger social ecosystem. While many adults may say, “Well, what’s so impressive or important about digital badge? It’s just a picture” the kids gained a lot of satisfaction by earning badges. We found this to be especially interesting for the middle school kids, even more than the high schoolers. The extrinsic motivation from the badges and missions got the kids interested in the program. What we hope to see in the future is that this extrinsic motivation develops into intrinsic down the road.
How about flipping that, how about an example of a challenge.
So when we created the first iteration of the program we thought, “kids are on screens 50-plus hours a week, and they would only want to use a device and not interact with any adults.” We piloted this approach at two Y branches: the Bedford-Stuyvesant Y in Brooklyn and the Harlem Y in Manhattan and had about 150 kids participating in the initial pilot. We built an entirely kiosk-based program, which incorporated a digital badging reward system. We thought that when these kiosks landed in these branches kids are just going to use them, play with them, and take on the different missions.
They tried it out, and initially they did think it was interesting and liked the elements of gamification, but what they really wanted was a coach to help them. They weren’t confident exercisers or felt like they had any sense of agency in the “adult” fitness areas. They didn’t really know where to start in the fitness center, even though there were directions in the kiosk and they had a brief orientation. They actually wanted to be guided by a trusted adult. We were really surprised about this. So, we went back to the drawing board and built the formal 8-week program curriculum so the kids would know what they were going after. There was a beginning and an end. There was a clear pathway with fun, digital rewards. And, there was an educator (the Y-MVP Coach) who was trained not only in fitness skills but also youth development approaches to support kids and provide developmentally-appropriate encouragement along the way. Yep – we learned a lot!
So interesting. My next question was about how you addressed it, but you already answered that. Shifting now to a topic that’s really important to Mozilla, which is the open Internet, and you did mention the issues of access previously. How would you describe the open Internet, what is that for you in your own words?
For me, coming from the health arena, what I have seen is that having access to the world wide web really helps bridge that divide, that information divide, and this is especially important not only to support educational initiatives but also there is an increasing focus on digital health initiatives.
It can really connect people and families to resources in a way that they never had before — at both ends of the spectrum from urban environments to rural settings— being able to be connected to healthy messaging, supporting behavior change with consistent reminders and having virtual cohorts or groups when there may not be access to an in-person support system.
That’s what, from a health perspective, has been so profound for me, and I’m so excited about how we can even take that further.
Shifting now to Mozilla, how did you get involved with Mozilla or Hive NYC? What has that been like?
Connecting with the Hive has been a wonderful, wonderful journey. It began right around the time when I first started here at the Y in and was thinking about how to find a way to track and reward young people for achieving levels of fitness. At the time, I was sharing my ideas with a colleague who runs education initiatives for The Asia Society. She told me about a competition that she was working on: digital badges for lifelong learning. She was applying for a grant to support a professional development badge pathway project for educators in their network. She said, “You know, this might be an interesting thing for you to explore.”
As I continued to explore this opportunity, ironically I found out that the Y was actually one of the founding member organizations of the New York City Hive Learning Network. I had no idea that my colleagues from our youth development and teen program division were involved in the Hive. The majority of the member organizations at the time were much more technology focused, clearly. All these youth-serving organizations focused on digital and social media learning, but I believe the Y was invited because of our extensive reach to young people across the city. Till this point, the Y was more of a convener for the group since we had so many locations across the five boroughs of NYC and were able to host Hive hackathons or other events. When I found out about this unique Hive network,, I started going to Hive meetings. I had no idea that my professional life was about to change.
I learned that there was this terrific, scaffolded grant program that the New York Committee Trust supported with the Hive, and it was perfect for what we were hoping to do with teen fitness and digital badging. We were able to test out our initial ideas through the first SPARK Grant (that’s how we started with the Bedford-Stuyvesant YMCA pilot) and then we applied for the next level and the next level, and then ultimately was able to build capacity and plan for program spread and scale.
Every time I would go to another Hive meetup, whether it was in person or virtually, I’d be connected to another colleague that would give me some advice on the way that we were going. This advice was priceless. Also, through the grant structure you were — forced is not the right word — but yeah, you had to collaborate with other organizations in the Hive as you moved up to the higher grant awards. Sometimes the collaborations worked out really well. Sometimes we came to find out that we weren’t the best partners, but there was always good lessons learned.
As the Hive grew and grew, being able to have an iterative process to review what happened and then test that feedback with so many different folks from different arenas was wonderful for me, because, again, not coming from a technology based background, it was so unique to have access to a cohort with such vast experience and resources.
Yeah, and space to sort of try and fail in a way that’s OK.
I always liked how everyone asked thoughtful questions and gave good feedback and good pushback. It wasn’t always like, “Oh, that’s just great, YMCA.” It was, “Have you thought about this,” or, “How are you going to solve that?”
Really thoughtful process. Also trying to not reinvent the wheel where things were already happening. We had originally tried to leverage some things that the Hive was initially going to do with digital badging. That ended up not working out, because we wanted to do something way more in-depth and then ended up building our own platform with developers.
Can you tell me about a time where these interactions have not met your expectations?
I’ll give you one example. There’s a dynamic Hive member organization we met called the Institute of Play (IOP), who also ran programs in NYC public schools. We formed a partnership with IOP for one of our Hive grant applications and they were supporting us through the design process to gamify and test the in-person Y-MVP curriculum that we were writing. Many times we would get stuck on the element of competition, because they generally wanted there to be a winner or identify who could do something faster or who could do the most of something. We didn’t want a winner. We didn’t want to see who can do the most push-ups. We wanted kids to be able to set personal goals, based upon on their own fitness levels, and build upon that.
There were a lot of great lessons that we learned and while we did incorporate some of the IOP suggested elements into the program design, there were some things where we came to an impasse, because we simply had a different philosophy on what a fun game experience would be. Most of the time it came down to competition, and we wanted to take out the competition. We really wanted it to be more of an individual approach.
We do think that down the road it might be interesting to add another level to the Y-MVP structure where there kids can self-select and create teams within the app, and you can reward teams that collectively earned the most badges or did the most missions.
Not having competition as the main driver could be a hard thing for some folks in the gamification field to swallow, because, “well, who wins?” No one wins. We’re all participating. But it’s not like the, “everyone gets a trophy,” thing. Not at all. This is about your own personal growth on your own goals.
It’s more like, “Did you win against yourself in the past?”
Yes, that’s exactly it. That was a good example of where, at the beginning, it seemed like a really great relationship for us to have, but ultimately we had a hard time aligning philosophies on the program design.
How about the network itself and your interaction with the network itself as Hive has grown? Have you faced any challenges there?
There’s such a great wealth of information it’s sometimes hard to take it all in. What’s great about how the Hive connects with member organizations is that they offer so many different platforms and mechanisms to connect both in-person and virtually. Sometimes that’s also overwhelming.
You have meetups online, and you have in-person meetups and then you have your etherpad meetups and the online chats, and now the LISTSERV and the Slack channel. One one hand, it’s great, because you can interact in the way that’s most comfortable for you, but every time I interact in one way and not the other, there’s also the fear of missing out or you missed something.
Every time there’s new folks in the organization — which is great that it continues to grow — it’s like, “Wow! I wish we would have known this.” How do you capture all of that and synthesize that in a way that’s easily digestible for everyone? I think this process is something that continues to evolve.
I think it’s a good problem to have. I feel like I can be a full-time commercial for the Hive experience. As it’s grown, I feel like we’ve really grown along with it, and we’ve learned so much. Many people have been so generous. A lot of people within the network are so eager to see youth be more successful, have more access, have more connections. There’s been such a generosity of spirit, even if there isn’t a formal contractual relationship, to try to help other organizations out.
That’s good feedback. Thank you. How might these stories be useful to you, if at all? Do you see any purpose for them so that we might build that in?
I guess I can only speak a little bit more selfishly from our experience. I think there are so many youth-serving organizations that don’t have the technological expertise and wouldn’t even know where to start.
Being able to share stories from people that have had experiences that make integrating technology less scary, and to be able to find a way to categorize these stories so if you want to learn more about how someone did X or how someone went from A to Z— like why invest in a native, mobile app versus a Web app and what the pros and cons are. Some of these things may seem very simple for those in the digital and social education arenas, but having access to sophisticated networks like the Hive can help reduce wasting time and much needed resources for those in the general education and health fields.
No, I hear what you’re saying. It’s like by having an example of how to start engaging with technology it can help you navigate that and check in or have some folks to talk to or maybe have some examples before you launch on that yourself.
There’s so much out there. How do you know you’re not trying to reinvent the wheel? What already exists in this space? The other thing is, for educators that are not in that tech space — how do you know if a project should take three days to build, three weeks to build, three months to build? Is this what a mobile app should cost? Really? Or not?
In every area that I’ve worked in, whether it’s been health education, physical education, or public health, I’ve always wished that there was some sort of matrix of what’s already available and perhaps open sourced, what’s going on, who has the expertise, and guidance on technology project costs.
Where those experiences fit in, so that you could learn from others. That makes sense. Is there anything more you want to tell me or ask?
I feel like there’s definitely more room for collaborations between the makers, the creators, the implementers and convenors. It would be wonderful to have some sort of speed dating-type opportunity where you convene a range of youth-serving organizations come together. Some may have access to the young people, and they may have the capacity to implement different programs, but don’t have the expertise. Then there are many smaller and specific organizations, that do have the expertise, have the technology, have the developers, have the products and want to test it but don’t have the place or program to do that. I just wonder if there could be a more formal way of introducing people and organizations to one another. I’ve seen the power of intentional collaborations that the Hive fostered and would like to see more non-tech organizations in a position to know about these opportunities.
I think the other thing for me, personally, is the world is constantly changing so quickly. For example, we’ve built the iPad app, and then we’ve built the mobile app. As we pat ourselves on the back for building something new and innovative, we need to already begin to consider what’s the next thing? What’s the next platform? It’s going to be interesting to see the continued iteration of all of this work and how we can keep up with it.
I think the last thing that I’d want to say, is that one of the things we’re thinking about seriously is open sourcing the Y-MVP app so that other organizations that are looking at scaffolded digital badging approaches can take advantage of all of the work we’ve already done. While our system was developed to support a fitness program, the framework could lend itself to any educational subject area. We put so much work into this, and there’s even an entire tiered management system with various levels of access and permissions, in addition to a robust back end analytics component. We should figure out how to best share this and put it out there in the universe. We need to figure out how to do that.
That would be really interesting. Of course, when you do that, there are all the support questions that come in, and how do you prep for that? How does that backpack piece work, where you can put all your badges together? Where does that platform sit and how can it be maintained? How can you port badges from one place to another and have them show up in your LinkedIn page? How do they play nicely with other platforms? You kind of needed to depend on a third party to collect the badges.
Yeah, I hear you. I think it would be interesting if there could be something more formal in terms of how all of these credentials can come together. I imagine that’s something that’s being worked on and we’d love to learn more about it.