March 21, 2011

Three Lessons Learned From Hack Jams

The first five Hackasaurus hack jams taught us a lot. Here are a few lessons we learned from them.

  1. Know How Much Freedom You Have.

    At our hack jams in the New York Public Library, we discovered that their publicly-accessible Windows XP machines were so locked-down that we were unable to run Firefox or any other programs off a USB stick. Our prototype Web X-Ray Goggles don’t currently work with the built-in Internet Explorer 8, so we weren’t able to use them. Even more distressing was that we couldn’t even show kids the power of View Source, because that feature was actually disabled on the library’s computers.

    This gets to the heart of what Jonathan Zittrain has described as Freedom At The Endpoints, because such a thoroughly locked-down computer—particularly one with an aging browser that doesn’t support many of the Web’s greatest benefits—has relatively little generative potential.

    We still need to figure out how to make it accessible for people to experience the full awesomeness of the Web in public spaces, but in the meantime, we’ve learned to bring our own computers for kids to use when necessary.

  2. Digital Natives Know Less Than You Think.

    When I was a kid, computers were all the rage at schools around the country. Throughout elementary and middle school, my classmates and I were taught Logo, BASIC, HyperCard, touch typing, and more.

    These days, however, kids are apparently assumed by the school system to be “Digital Natives” and not in need of any technology education: as a result, many of the kids in our hack jams had never done any programming in their life, and few of them knew how to touch type. Aside from being a distressing discovery, this meant that we had to “calibrate” the jams to the experience level of our students. It varied a lot from one jam to another, since we couldn’t rely on the school system to give them a firm grounding in basic computer use.

  3. Engage Your Audience’s Interests.

    One of the broad goals of Hackasaurus is to help kids see themselves as hackers—especially girls and minorities who are traditionally under-represented in technical communities.

    The first four hack jams we did in New York City and Chicago were promoted as Hackasaurus events: the main reason to attend was to learn how to “hack the Web”. Unsurprisingly, we only got kids who self-identified as potential hackers, which meant that nearly everyone who showed up was male.

    In contrast, the fifth hack jam, held in San Francisco at the Bay Area Video Coalition, was actually a Web Made Movies Workshop where Ben Moskowitz decided to deploy the Hackasaurus tools. This was a perfect pairing, as understanding the basics of HTML and how the Web works are closely related to making movies with it.

    Since the event was promoted as a filmmaking workshop, however, we didn’t get kids who self-identified as potential hackers. They picked up hacking just as quickly as the kids from previous jams, and they enjoyed it just as much; but by teaching them about technical concepts that were directly related to things that they were already passionate about, we were able to make them really excited about the Open Web. Aside from attracting a more diverse group of kids, we were also able to engage them more directly.

    So, future Hackasaurus hack jams might not even be promoted as such. Right now we’re thinking about developing many different “genres” of jams that engage kids on non-technical issues that they’re already excited about. If you have any suggestions, we’d love to hear them!

© Atul Varma 2021