Randy Macdonald is a teacher and networked education activist. He currently works as a Program Manager at the Technology Association of Oregon Foundation. He also directs an initiative that provides STEM-based after school programs for youth in Oregon. He has been active in the internet health movement as a Mozilla Club Captain, and trains others to teach computational and design-based thinking skills for solving community problems using mobile technology.
Tell me a bit about yourself and a brief overview of the work you do, highlighting some specific projects or examples of the work.
In my current work and career now, broadly speaking, I am working to bring more computer science and digital literacy education to K–12-age students.
Currently, I’m working with the Computer Science Teachers Association of Oregon. I got involved with them through an after-school project back in 2013. Since then I’ve been through several iterations of that. Through that work, they hired me to help them implement their professional development for K–12 teachers in Oregon. Their mission is to provide more computer science and digital literacy education to students in Oregon by training more teachers to teach those topics.
Their biggest initiative is SuperQuest a series of summer three-day workshops that take place around the state of Oregon. They provide them to teachers for free to learn various computer science, digital literacy and engineering topics. I help implement that.
That’s a great overview.
Parallel to that, and even before I started working for them, I was working with the Technology Association of Oregon (TAO), specifically their educational foundation. They decided, when I joined them back in 2012, that they were going to try to launch their own initiative to bring computer science and digital literacy into Oregon’s schools, beginning with high schools. There really was very little of that when they launched this initiative. There was maybe one high school that had a full-time computer science teacher in the whole state.
The school where we started was a school in Portland, very near to where I was living. The executive director of the foundation had a daughter there. You know people are always motivated by their own kids first. He worked for the association,was involved in the tech industry and realized there was no technical education – computer science or otherwise in that high school . It’s the fastest growing segment of our economy in Oregon and probably in most places in the U.S.
Like a lot of schools, the school’s got their mission to educate students to some general standards and satisfy the Department of Education’s requirements. Basically, they just gave us permission to come in. We weren’t going to get any additional help or resources to do it, and we were fine with that. It gave us a lot of freedom. We started there from about one high school to simply bring in speakers from the tech industry to tell students what it is they do, what their job’s like, what their education was like and what they liked about what they did.
After a couple of months of lunchtime speakers, then we asked the students, “Okay, so now that you’ve heard what our industry is about, what would you like to learn? What interests you?” From the survey, we gathered that students were very interested in more digital literacy and more computer science. When we started from that, we decided to launch an after-school program to teach rudimentary web development and game design. Those were the two most popular topics the kids were interested in. We did that for a couple of months.
Then we decided that what we really needed was a big launch to get the teachers and the community really involved in this project. It was going to take the whole community as well as the teachers to really buy into it. We launched on May 18, which here in Oregon, in the Northwest, is a well-known day in history. It’s the day that Mount St. Helen’s erupted, in 1980, I think, when I was still in high school. We decided that was the day we were going to launch. It was on a weekend, and we had a big open conference.
The open conference is where you invite a lot of stakeholders, community members with a general idea but with no set agenda. That develops organically during the conference. The idea was we pose the problem to them. In an open conference, we’re looking for them to 1. better help us describe the problem given our general description of it and 2. pose some solutions to the problem. The problem was how to bring more computer science and digital literacy into the curriculum.
From that, we came about with this idea of Innovation Academy and the after-school program. Innovation Academy started in 2013. We kept it going over the summer and then the following school year, 2013-14, as an after-school program that meant twice a week.
Through that was probably, what I feel, my greatest initial success, which was to convince the school to forecast computer science classes.
Here in Oregon, and I think many states, students actually pick the classes that they will take next year – in order to figure out which classes will have the best success and the ones that students want to take outside the ones that are specifically required. You put any new classes into that forecast packet, as well as the classes that students have to take. We got some teachers together to draw up four general computer science courses and put them in their forecast packet. We got them to forecast these classes as a way to see if there was enough interest so that then the school could decide whether they were going to hire or dedicate teachers to them.
Over 200 students picked or forecasted our computer science classes. I think we had 225 students sign up to take four different computer science classes that year. They went from no computer science to having over 200 students – out of a high school student body of about 800 – take computer science classes. That was a big win. It completely changed the story at this high school.
Currently, the high school now offers six different computer science tracks. The big win this year is the computer science teacher applied for what is called a program of study. That’s when the Department of Education provides you with funding to further develop it as a department in your school. This teacher now can also offer dual credit at the community colleges. This all came about through an after-school program that we essentially bootstrapped from nothing.
Wow, the impact of that and the evolution of it over, I guess it was, two years?
It took us a little over a year to get the first computer science classes offered. Then it was another two years to get to the point where it could be a full program of study – so three years.
The development of the credit program – is that still in the works, the one that they applied for?
They got approved for it. I just found out from the current CS teacher, that he has been awarded that program of study, so he’s going to be able to offer credit to the community colleges now.
The idea is that we feel like, or at least I feel, that this is the model for bringing more of computer science and digital literacy to schools that don’t yet have it. You need this bottom-approach, where you can get the interest. I feel like the best way to do it is some sort of out-of-school-time program. At the same time, you have to get the buy-in from the top, first the administrators and then the teachers.
Absolutely. Do you think that the un-conference that you had was the main trigger to get that buy-in that you needed from teachers and community?
Well, for us, it was our way to take the temperature of the community and to see how much enthusiasm there was for this idea. It certainly helped get the buy-in. I’m not sure it would be necessary everywhere you wanted to do it, but for doing something that’s the first time, I felt like it was extremely useful.
I love how you used it as a way to craft the problem statement. I thought that was interesting in the approach itself, having everyone who’s directly connected really have a voice in what the issue is and the problem is. That was cool.
Absolutely, because we were coming at it through the Technology Association. They have their understanding of what they think the problem is, but we knew that wasn’t the only perspective on what the problem was. We knew teachers were going to see it probably differently. Parents were going to see it differently. We even invited students to be part of it. We were definitely trying to come at it from all the different perspectives we could find.
That’s so interesting and such a great part of this story and the evolution of the work. You touched on some really wonderful successes in the process over the three years of where you started and then now the CS (computer science) program being embedded in the actual offerings. I’m wondering if over that time period there are any re-memorable moments that you faced, challenges that were disruptive or things that you ran into along the way, and then how you solved those challenges or approached them?
Lots of challenges. There’s always challenges. Especially anytime you’re dealing with public education. It’s a very large bureaucracy that is protective. There’s a lot of inertia to launching new programs, new initiatives. I would say that was the biggest challenge was steering them towards this goal of bringing computer science to their students.
I would say we met those challenges by inviting them to as many of our meetings as possible. When we were having meetings, we always tried to invite someone from the administration. They didn’t always come, but we tried to keep that line of communication open – so they can see what was happening, that we were there for them and we were there for the long run.
The other challenge, as in anything, is resources. How do you get funding for this? How do you get other resources that you need to carry out the education? A lot of that was going through the TAO, which was really helpful. They were able to go to the technology community and get some in-kind donations, such as an online program for teaching computer science called Treehouse. We got them to donate hundreds of free licenses that we could then give to teachers and students so that they could learn outside the classroom. That really helped us a lot. We didn’t have the time or the teachers to bring this education to students on our own. Getting that available for free was huge.
Those are very common challenges for people working in educational environments but also people working in other environments that aren’t necessarily tied to schools. The idea of keeping an open conversation, you mentioned, or letting people see how the progress and the process was going for you is interesting. It touches on one of the questions I was going to ask you related to working open.
I’m wondering if you can you elaborate on that or provide additional information on what exactly that meant, such as where you were showing them your process.
Another thing that we were fortunate to get donated in-kind was an account in one of these open project management platforms, called Basecamp.
Basecamp is a project management platform. Also, it’s just a way to create a forum for people to talk about the project. This was all new to me. I’d never used these tools until I joined this project. I had a steep learning curve.
We were insistent that all the conversations took place in that environment as much as possible so that anybody who joined the project could catch up with what was currently going on but could also easily contribute. That way, you didn’t have to have big, face-to-face meetings. You could just do it all online.
The platform did have a conferencing functionality. We initially started with weekly online meetings usually by phone and eventually went to at least monthly, sometimes bimonthly. We would invite teachers, administrators and tech leaders to talk about the current work and how to overcome whatever problems we were dealing with.
That sounds great. Was it something that was made public, or was it a certain amount of stakeholders that you would invite regularly?
It was invited stakeholders. We were pretty open about who could be there, but you had to be invited to participate.
Right, that makes sense, I suppose, because it was a very specific part of the project at that point.
Yes, again, the whole concept of working openly was still, for us, pretty new. I don’t think many of even the individuals from industry had, just from my remembrance, a lot of experience working openly or working on open source. We were all learning how that process works.
Do you feel like the opportunity to work among people that they were familiar with gave them more of an incentive to explore working openly, or do you think they were eager to do it on their own?
I think it helps if these are people that you have some previous familiarity with. It helps you get started. Once the community starts and works that way, then even people you’re not familiar with or who aren’t familiar with the community have an easier time onboarding, because there’s this culture of being open and sharing knowledge resources, sharing work. Once you create that culture in the community, it’s much easier to propagate it, to maintain it.
Yes, for sure. You may be disconnected at this point from where the classrooms are, but do you get the sense at all if the teachers carried that over into the way they were teaching?
I felt that was a much harder lift for teachers. I think they’re just not taught to work that way. They have so many demands on their time and energy with the school day and then other professional demands, even outside the school day, that the really working open and sharing is tough.
What I did see, when it did work, it was because it was a project that they were very much invested in and it was literally the only way to make that happen. For example, if they were really invested in teaching something new, and that curriculum was only available in an open way, then they took the time to learn how to work with that open source, open educational resource.
That’s interesting. I know what you mean. It’s definitely something that I’ve heard before from teachers and educators. In addition to some other things, the timing that is required to successfully openly license and work openly takes time. You have to dedicate time to it, so I hear you.
Just backtracking through my work with the Computer Science Teachers Association, that’s something that we’re now looking at as part of the professional development: teaching teachers about open educational resources. It’s on our radar. We’ve had a couple of small workshops. Our model is we have educators who have experience in a topic, and they are the ones who provide the professional development for other educators. Right now, there aren’t a lot of educators who have experience – at least in Oregon – working with open educational resources and working openly. There are some, but it’s a pretty small community. That’s part of what we’re trying to develop.
I would add that Oregon does have an open educational resource initiative. I think they do get some funding from the Department of Education, but it still feels like it’s in its infancy. There isn’t yet a lot of professional development around utilizing it.
Cool, then there’s room to grow. That’s the fun part.
Absolutely, I would say once I was onboarded with Mozilla, and especially having attended the All Hands, that’s where I really learned about working openly and the culture around it. That opened my eyes on how you guys implement working openly.
I would love to hear more. Can you think of particular instances at All Hands or otherwise?
At All Hands, the daily workshops that we attended, especially around the Mozilla clubs, we would sit down and brainstorm. Then we’d share out immediately, get feedback, and that would help us further develop whatever problem we were brainstorming on.
I remember working with Andre. We were given the challenge to develop a web literacy curriculum that was offline because the problem was a lot of communities have very spotty internet coverage. The idea was, okay, well, how can you develop something to teach offline. We brainstormed for half an hour, and other people shared out what they had done. We documented all this. We got feedback, and, I think, it was captured, and you guys blogged about it.
Part of working openly was capturing ideas and putting them out there for feedback from a broader community — even from people that aren’t working or going to be working on your project. That was something that perhaps I hadn’t fully appreciated, how well that could work.
That’s great. It’s interesting because at Mozilla, we’re challenged with working remotely within our communities. Most of the time, we’re maintaining that exact type of interaction but in a remote way, so it was nice that you were able to be there in person, especially at least for your first getting-to-know Mozilla phase. You could be there in person with a variety of people and work with them and experience what it feels like to be in an environment that’s open. That’s cool.
Absolutely, it gives you a little more courage to step in, at least for me, when I’m there with people face to face. The other thing I like to say is that real, live face-to-face interaction has the highest bandwidth of all forms of communication. You still can’t replace that face-to-face contact.
For me, it was a great way to onboard and upload this way of working and thinking openly. Now it’s much easier to understand it, even remotely.
Do you want to talk about where you’ve been involved and the things that have been of most value to you in the Mozilla community?
I got involved with the Mozilla community that previous summer in August of 2015. I was invited by OregonASK, which is our state’s training and resource provider for out-of-school-time services. They were working jointly with Mozilla and funding from the Mott Foundation to pilot the Mozilla web club model at a rural after-school STEM program. I had worked with them through my Innovation Academy program, and they felt like I brought some needed expertise to the project.
We helped develop a web club model at this rural middle school academy that was basically staffed by high school mentors. It was a very cool peer-mentoring model. Working together with the high school students, we developed the curriculum as well as connecting them to Open Badges for recognizing the learning in that curriculum.
That was really my whole onboarding to Mozilla’s web literacy program as well as Open Badges. That’s eventually how I ended up being invited to the All Hands last June.
This was An-Me Chung’s project. She was sort of the project manager for it. She invited me, and I spent most of that time at the All Hands really talking and connecting with An-Me and then Chad Sansing. Working with him and trying to figure out how my work could be better connected with Mozilla. They’re the ones who actually talked to me about working open and their open leadership program they were developing.
After that, I went back to continue working on my after-school program, which was now more around training people to deliver after-school programming because the only way it was going to expand is if I could find local people to run the program. I didn’t become part of the open leaders program, but I did use some of the ideas from that to develop the site leaders for my program and for training them. We would form a cohort. We’d meet online. We’d document what we were working on openly and learn from each other.
Wow, that’s really interesting. You and several teachers were doing that?
Yeah, some of it was teachers, and some of it was community members. I worked with a couple of workforce training programs, so they had their own workforce trainers, some of whom were community members who had been involved with an after-school program and wanted to implement more of the computer science and digital literacy. I helped train them.
Now, I meet with three programs. Two of them are high school teachers. The other is a retired software developer who has formed his own nonprofit around this idea. We meet on a weekly basis to talk about what’s going in our individual after-school programs and share resources and what we’ve learned. It’s been very productive, especially having one of the leaders who’s a very experienced high school teacher, who I got to know through the Computer Science Teachers Association. He has the most experience teaching computer science and web development to kids. He shares a lot of what he knows with the rest of us.
That’s so cool. It’s nice that you’ve, along the way, found colleagues and peers to throw ideas around with.
Yeah, absolutely, and it makes it easier to share in the work of developing ideas, definitely. For the out-of-school programs, right now that’s currently the main thing I’m working on – developing, I’ve called it, a learning community. It’s an out-of-school learning community.
I love that. That’s great. Are there things that you were disappointed in ever or felt like were missing from what you got from Mozilla or suggestions, feedback or opportunities for ways our work can better help people or connect people now that you have this experience with us?
I would never say I was disappointed by Mozilla because I always felt like this was an incredible opportunity for me that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
If I would give Mozilla any feedback – and I’m sure you hear this from other club leaders and volunteers – is getting connected with more resources and partners to bring these programs to, in my case, K–12 students in an out-of-school environment. It’s very hard sometimes for those of us who are not directly in the education system to find the resources we need, to pay people for their time, to find spaces where you can conduct some of these activities. I understand Mozilla has their limited resources, but even just having more information about where to look would be helpful.
That’s helpful. I do hear that a lot, especially working on clubs. I think it’s one of the most common places that people find gaps in their work with us – that idea of being able to sustain what they learn being in this community but in an independent way so that they can have an impact. It’s, for sure, a common suggestion.
Maybe even just some training on how to do that. Being part of a nonprofit, I don’t always know how to go about looking for resources and asking for resources. If there was some way to develop training on how to do that, that would be really helpful.
That’s interesting. Also, if we were able to point to an organization or a place to get that expertise to help people because, obviously, our expertise is specific to certain things, but if we can find experts in those areas that we don’t have expertise, that would be helpful.
Yeah, absolutely. The technical training, the technical expertise that Mozilla provides and the working openly expertise are all really important. We’re all doing this work because we love the work. To sustain it, we need to also find resources. That’s where the weakness is for a lot of us, I think, who work in this area.
I totally hear you. That’s so true. The last question from me is related to the idea of internet health. This is a term that’s come out of our work in the last year. I’m curious for you and your work and in the professional development that you’ve been doing, what would you qualify as a healthy internet, and does that term even resonate with you at all?
I’ve tried to think about this. I think it means a lot of different things to different people depending on where they’re located. I would say, for me, in education, I think one of the biggest concerns is around privacy and identity. How can you 1. be sure of a person’s identity and 2. how can they be sure of your identity when you’re just working with them online. I think that’s really big because especially when you’re working with students, there’s a lot of laws around protecting people’s identities.
A healthy internet provides a way to work in a way that you protect people’s identity, so people can be sure of who you are when you’re working with them. For example, if you’re working with teachers and you’re an outside organization, they really need to be careful, I’m sure, of who they’re working with. Ways that you can assure them of who you are and that you can be trusted are important. Privacy – how can you assure them that you are protecting the privacy of students.
Students especially love to share. How can you provide a way of working with them that protects them from sharing too much? I think that’s something I hear from teachers.
That makes a lot of sense.
The other thing I see is the whole access issue. Especially when you get out of the city, the access becomes a problem for students and even for teachers to the internet that so much of us take for granted. What has become really unhealthy is the consolidation of access providers. It’s making it much too expensive for so many places to get access. When you do have access, you don’t have a lot of control over that access. It’s dictated by a few providers. I feel like that the internet now has become more of a utility, like a phone service. We should have moved away from that model with the internet. I think that’s the wrong direction.
What you said is great. I think it could actually be something that we could add to this list of indicators that we’re collecting for our next Internet Health Report.
Yes, definitely, I would just say that one of the things I’m actually trying to get involved with is this idea of community network providers. One of the communities that I work with – in fact, one of my Innovation Academy site leaders – was involved many years ago in bringing gigabit fiber internet to Monmouth and Independence, two rural communities in Oregon.. They had a lot of problems getting providers; providers were just passing them by. They managed to put together a consortium to bring in fiber to their community. Now, they have internet that’s a community network, MINET, which is very rare, at least in Oregon. I’ve been in talks with him to see about maybe how we might expand that opportunity for other communities to do that.
I know that’s probably tangential to these questions. It’s something that I’ve started to become more involved in.
That’s great. I think that’s very relevant to a lot of the conversations that are building within our Internet Health Report. Was there anything else related to internet health that you’d like to share?
Internet health is a very broad topic. I think those are the issues that are most important to me right now in my work.
If you had access to 10 skilled volunteer collaborators and contributors, what would those skills be?
Gosh, that would just be gold. That’s the one thing that I hear from people who are running after-school programs is that once you get a certain number of students, you really need some volunteers to help the students. Also, even just to expand to some other sites, it would be great to have some volunteers who are willing to put in just a little bit of time – once a week – at a site to help get things going.
For what I do,volunteers would have maybe some experience, but it wouldn’t be necessary in working with young people, kids usually from elementary to high school age. More importantly, we need the enthusiasm to work with young people across a range of age and technical abilities. In after school, we’ll get kids who are still English language learners, so you spend a lot of time – when you’re running an after-school program – just helping them through the language barrier. Then in the same program, you might have kids who have had a computer at home since they could walk or have parents who work in the industry and they just want to run with the program and move really fast. Therefore, you need to have people who are comfortable in that environment, where you’ve got this range of abilities. I get that a lot.
In a volunteer environment, having people be physically there would be probably the best scenario in that case?
Yes, initially. One of the models I’ve been trying to develop is when you start an after-school program, you’re there physically with the kids, and they get to know you. Then when you can, you move somewhat to a virtual model, where mentors, volunteers can work with the kids virtually part of the time as well. Because so much of what we do is online, you can have mentorship and actually help them through Google Hangouts or Skype, like we’re doing, with their curriculum, whatever they’re working on. What I’ve found is it’s very important to develop that relationship of trust with students initially. The only way to do that, at least in my experience, is to work with them face to face initially.
It goes back to what we talked about a little bit ago. That in-person time helps.
It’s hard to replace that, yes. I’ve always found that whenever I work on a project remotely, it always goes much smoother if I have met that person at some point, in the beginning hopefully, face to face. I got to meet you face to face before we ever corresponded online. I think that helps a lot, so we’re able to establish that trust and understanding much quicker.
Yes, I totally agree. I think the second best thing is having video face time with someone as much as possible helps if you can’t be in person.
Yes and just having it be consistent. Through the clubs, I met some of the leaders at the All Hands. That really helped. Then some of the people I’ve been meeting in the clubs have only been through our club calls. I feel like we’re getting to know each other now finally and, more importantly, getting to know what is important to each of us. For example, Eduardo, during the last couple of calls, I can really see what he’s trying to do. I now understand it, and I feel like we’re developing some trust and starting to share more with what we’re doing. There’s been a couple of email correspondences back and forth. That just takes time to develop.
I totally agree, and I see that. I’m glad to hear that actually. Things kind of take off on their own around here, which is wonderful because there’s just this natural momentum and overlap in interest and experience between community members. I don’t always get to see exactly where the conversations pick up, but I’m glad to hear that they are for you.
Those things, like what you just said, that discovering the overlap takes some time to figure out. I feel like it usually happens a little quicker face to face, but it can happen online as well.
Yes, I know exactly what you mean. It definitely takes time. There are some magic moments that I’ve noticed between people that have never met and only been online in our communities. I guess there’s always some commonality to start with. In my experience, there is either a project, or clubs, for example, is a commonality that people connect through. That definitely has helped in those collaborations that I’ve seen.
Yes, or a shared experience, maybe not together, but something about an experience that we both have shared that’s similar. That’s probably why you guys still have those All Hands is because there is no replacement for getting people together in one area or place from time to time. You still have to do that even with the ability to do so much virtually.
Definitely, that’s the intention of those for sure.
With the volunteer collaborators, for me, right now it’s having people who could be somewhere physically. I think also as I develop my idea, just having people maybe who would be willing to contribute ideas about curriculum would be helpful too. That could be virtual.
Cool. That was great. I think that last point about what type of people might be involved or ideally involved is the wrap-up for us in terms of the questions. Is there anything else that comes to mind that you want to include here?
I think I’ve answered all the questions. Right now, I’m really just looking forward to more context through the clubs and our calls. As I develop this idea, I feel like my program’s still evolving, and seeing what other people are doing really helps me shape that.
Great, that’s good to hear.
That’s been the real value of this relationship.
That’s great. That’s music to my ears because I get very inspired by the people that I work with on a daily basis. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to have everyone at least share once a month through in person and in time and in addition all the other asynchronous online conversations that can happen. I’m very happy to hear that, and I am happy to help keep that going as much as I can.
I would end with – this has really gotten me out of my bubble here in where I’m at in Oregon in general – meeting people outside of Oregon, outside of the U.S. I would say that, to me, has really opened my eyes to what’s possible and to what issues people are facing, so thank you for this work. What’s next.