Amy Bruckman is an associate professor in the School of Interactive Computing. Which makes perfect sense since she was admitted to graduate school in art history. Which also made sense since she majored in physics as an undergrad. All of which, of course, prepared her for a job as a technical writer for a medical publishing company in Massachusetts.
As she was producing 100-page tomes on anti-fungal agents, fate stepped in to guide her toward computing. She was assigned to help create interactive video training for the sales force and found she loved the work—so much so that she applied and was accepted to the MIT Media Lab's M.S. program, focusing on video systems.
This was in the late 1980s, when the word "online" was taking on a whole new meaning. The Internet was just beginning to work its way into everyday culture, and suddenly anything and everything seemed possible. Even in these earliest stages of connectivity, Bruckman was fascinated.
"What was happening was mindboggling," she says. Perhaps it came from developing training materials, perhaps from her own winding path through the arts and sciences, perhaps from a natural curiosity about learning—specifically, it also came from a paper she wrote on concepts of self in text-based, virtual online worlds called "MUDs," and a professor’s reaction to that paper—but Bruckman soon was thinking more broadly about how people acquired knowledge through technology.
In particular, she considered the constructionist approach, an extension of Jean Piaget's "constructivist" theory of cognition. Constructionism holds that learning happens through an active process of constructing knowledge in the mind. The process is reinforced, says the constructionist, if the individual is using the knowledge to make something in real time, a product that preferably has personal interest to the learner. Anything in the world of digital media certainly qualifies.
"What a fascinating approach, to combine the constructivist [school] with the Internet," Bruckman says. "The Internet provides a ready source of social support for learning, support that’s readily available and emotional as well as technical. It takes the fear out of it."
Studying creativity in the online world
Bruckman earned her M.S. from MIT in 1991, then her Ph.D. in 1997 and came to Georgia Tech that same year. Since then her research has involved not only explicitly social networks but also collaborative environments. Her heart, she says, lies in studying creative collaboration reflected in the online world in myriad ways. Open-source software is a good example—witness the success of Linux, the open-source operating system now used by some 40 percent of large U.S. companies, according to one estimate. Another is online collaborative animations, like the animated "Valentine '29," which tells the story of the 1929 Saint Valentine's Day massacre in Chicago. The five-chapter feature was created by six amateur computer animators located in five countries on both sides of the Atlantic. The project leader was 16 years old.
"The Internet can help individuals like the "Valentine '29" amateur animators to become creators rather than merely recipients of content," Bruckman says. "This phenomenon is exciting for two key reasons. First, peer production of content makes a richer variety of content available to everyone, and this broader participation and greater variety of content is potentially a democratizing force in global culture. Second, making something and sharing it is a unique way to learn."
Along with Ph.D. student Kurt Luther, Bruckman is building a suite of online tools called Pipeline to support collaborative creative projects just like “Valentine '29."
Adventures in constructionist learning
Weaving its way through nearly all of Bruckman’s research is this model of shared, constructionist learning: Knowledge acquisition, enabled by technology, bolstered by a social network (either live or virtual), with some kind of product creation at the end. This process is reflected in wikis, just as it is in a project she began in fall 2009 in cooperation with the Atlanta Girls School. Using tools available online (like www.ning.com), groups of teenage girls not only will join online social networks but even design their own. The question is, how does this influence the effectiveness of their learning elements of computer science, as well as their attitude toward that learning?
"What I'm interested in is what motivates the creative process," Bruckman says, comparing the girls' task to a person writing a short story or even a diary—it's not even the certainty of the work being viewed by others, it’s the possibility that it might be. "[Building something as you learn] gives you a sense of audience."
Another great example of constructivist learning is the Glitch game-testing program developed by Bruckman and Professor Mark Guzdial (Interactive Computing), along with fellow principal investigators Charles Meadows and Kenneth Perry, both professors at Morehouse College. Though teenage boys becoming engaged in video games is nothing new, Glitch attempts to channel that engagement into real learning and curiosity about computer science. Launched in summer 2009, the program recruits economically disadvantaged, African American teenagers to test video games for real game manufacturers (including GameTap and Electronic Arts) and for real paychecks.
To prepare for their jobs, Glitch participants learn enough basic computer science to enable them to generally understand the kinds of bugs they encounter, if not exactly how to fix them. That part (hopefully) comes later.
"Teenagers don't often look at video games and say, 'Oh, that's a computer program; I can write that,'" Bruckman says. “We combine the testing with an elementary CS education and try to point them to more in college. The game companies have said our bug reports are as good as [those produced by] their in-house staff."
Betsy DiSalvo, the graduate student who manages Glitch, has been advised by Bruckman during her three years in the Ph.D. program. "I would come in and pitch research ideas, and she would continually poke holes in them. At the time it was discouraging, but she made me think much harder about what would make a good research project."
Glitch is DiSalvo’s project, and she serves as the day-to-day "business manager" of what essentially is a small game-testing company. After 15 teenagers launched the project as participants in summer 2009, a dozen stayed on to work every Saturday during the following academic year, and DiSalvo says she gets applications for new testers every week. She and Bruckman have published three papers detailing the research that led up to and includes Glitch.
"There are not a lot of people who would let grad students do what I’m doing; I have a lot of freedom," DiSalvo says. "I have 12 years of professional experience [before beginning my degree program] as a project manager, and Amy lets me use that experience."