Computer Clubhouses in the Inner City: Access Is Not Enough

At the clubhouse, I work with Lakesha. She is a mentor which means she knows a lot about computers.
When she is not at the clubhouse, she is an engineer. She shows me how to do lots of fun things with
computers like controlling LEGO robots. I want to learn about engineering in college.

—Latoya Perry, age 13

Digital Cap graphic

Illustration by J. T. Morrow


The New Media and Learning

With this issue we inaugurate a series
of articles on the new media and
learning, drawn from a conference
sponsored by The American Prospect
on June 4th at the MIT Media Laboratory.

The aim of the
conference and the
series is to explore
whether the new
technologies offer
genuine promise for
improvements in
learning or are
merely a diversion
from the real
problems of
education, and to
ask what
approaches to
policy and the new
technologies hold
the most promise. In
addition to the
authors of articles in
this issue, the
conference featured:

  • Congressman
    Markey of
    on why the
    should adopt
    an "e-rate"
    under the
    Act of 1996
    that would
    make a basic
    level of
    access free
    to schools;
  • Mitchell
    Kapor, who
    served on
    resigning in
    protest, on
    what went
    wrong with
    the NII
  • Seymour
    Papert on the
    use of
    change in
  • Sherry
    Turkle on
    how learning
    may affect
    our thinking
    about other
    things; and
  • Howard
    Gardner and
    Veenema on
    and new
    ideas about
    and learning.

Audiotapes of the
conference are
available by calling

Support for both the
conference and
publication of these
articles comes from
the Spencer
Foundation of

Ever since the development of personal computers in the late
1970s, there have been growing concerns about inequities in
access between technological haves and have-nots. Some groups
have worked to close the gap by acquiring computers for
inner-city schools. Others have opened community-access centers, where
youth and adults alike from inner-city communities can use computers at little
or no charge.

The Computer Clubhouse of Boston, organized by the Computer Museum in
collaboration with the MIT Media Laboratory, grows out of this tradition—but
with important differences. At many other centers, the main goal is to teach
young people basic computer techniques (such as keyboard and mouse skills)
and basic computer applications (such as word processing). At the clubhouse,
in contrast, the goal is for participants to learn to express themselves fluently
with new technology.

Fluency in a language involves not only a knowledge of basic vocabulary and
grammar, but also the ability to articulate a complex idea or tell an engaging
story. To be fluent, you must be able to "make things" with language.
Analogously, technological fluency involves knowing not only basic techniques,
but also how to make things of significance with them. A technologically fluent
person should be able to go from the germ of an intuitive idea to the realization
of a technological project. Increasingly, technological fluency is a prerequisite
for jobs and full participation in our society.

The Computer Clubhouse aims to help inner-city youth gain that type of
technological fluency. The clubhouse is based not just on new technology, but
on new ideas about learning and community. It represents a new kind of
learning community where young people and adult mentors work together on
projects, using technology to explore and experiment in new ways.


As co-founders of the Computer Clubhouse, we were involved from the very
beginning. The first clubhouse was opened in 1993 in a 1,000-square-foot
space on the ground floor of the Computer Museum in downtown Boston.
During its first two years of operation, it attracted more than 1,000 young
people ages 10 to 16, with 98 percent coming from underserved communities.
Participants were from diverse cultural backgrounds, including
African-American (61 percent), Asian (13 percent), and Latino (11 percent).
To attract participants, the clubhouse initially established connections with
community centers and housing projects in target communities; since then, it
has relied primarily on word of mouth. Youth do not have to sign up for time at
the clubhouse; they can drop in whenever it is open.

At the clubhouse, young people become designers and creators—not just
consumers—of computer-based products. Participants use leading-edge
software to create their own artwork, animations, simulations, multimedia
presentations, virtual worlds, musical creations, Web sites, and robotic

What does the clubhouse learning community look like? Here are some quick

  • Binh moved to the United States from Vietnam three years ago. He and
    his friend Liem learned from clubhouse staff how to build a computer
    interface to control motors. Binh and Liem are now showing other
    clubhouse members how to build interfaces to control such motorized
    devices as robot arms and toy dune buggies.
  • Essam, a ninth grader from Roxbury, designs and programs his own
    computer games at the clubhouse. He usually uses the Logo
    programming language, but Michael, a student from Wentworth
    Institute, is mentoring him to program in C, a professional programming
    language that Essam wanted to learn. Essam's work has attracted the
    interest of other clubhouse participants, and he is in turn helping other
    youth learn to design and program their own games. Michael is also
    gaining confidence and learning from his experience as a mentor.
  • Sandi is developing an interactive multimedia project for an independent
    study course at her school. She chose to research the history of Native
    Americans to learn more about her heritage. Her project combines text,
    graphics, photographs, and sound. Sandi's teachers are impressed by
    what she has produced, and they hope that more of their students will
    start producing multimedia reports.
  • Emilio saw a laser-light show at another museum and wants to create
    something similar at the clubhouse. He glues small mirrors onto a few
    LEGO motors, writes a short computer program to control the motion
    of the motors, and bounces a laser light off of the mirrors to create
    wonderful Lissajous-like patterns. Throughout the project, Emilio is
    involved in mathematical thinking, modifying angles and speeds to create
    new laser patterns.
  • Several clubhouse members are creating the Online Art Gallery on the
    World Wide Web. Once a week, they meet with a local artist who has
    agreed to be a mentor for the project. After a year, their online art show
    was accepted as an exhibition at SIGGRAPH, the premiere
    computer-graphics conference.
  • Paul's art teacher recommended he visit the clubhouse, just two weeks
    after Paul moved to Boston from Trinidad. Paul had always enjoyed
    drawing but had never used a computer before coming to the
    clubhouse. He now comes to the clubhouse three or four days a week.
    Last summer, based on his clubhouse experiences, Paul got a job
    designing Web pages for a local company. He designed a series of
    original character drawings, and he reliably met demanding deadlines.
    Now Paul is interested in pursuing a college program in computer
    animation and graphic design.


The development of the clubhouse learning environment has been guided by
four core principles:

Principle 1: Support learning through design experiences. Activities at
the clubhouse vary widely, from constructing and controlling LEGO robots to
orchestrating virtual dancers. But these varied activities are based on a
common framework: engaging youth in learning through design.

In recent years, a growing number of researchers and educators have argued
that design projects provide rich opportunities for learning. Design activities
engage youth as active participants, giving them a greater sense of control over
and responsibility for the learning process, in contrast to traditional school
activities in which teachers aim to "transmit" new information to the students.
Design also encourages creative problem solving and fosters a search for
multiple strategies and solutions, instead of the focus on getting one right
answer that prevails in most school math and science activities. Design
projects are often interdisciplinary, bringing together concepts from the arts as
well as math and sciences.

Design activities, moreover, can create personal connections to knowledge,
since designers often develop a special sense of ownership (and caring) for the
products and ideas that they design. Yet design also promotes a sense of
audience, encouraging youth to consider how other people will use and react
to the products they create. And design projects provide a context for
reflection and discussion, enabling youth to gain a deeper understanding of the
ideas underlying hands-on activities.

This emphasis on design activities is part of a broader educational philosophy
that MIT professor Seymour Papert has termed "constructionism."
Constructionism is based on two types of "construction." First, it asserts that
learning is an active process, in which people actively construct knowledge
from their experiences in the world. People don't get ideas; they make them.
(This idea is based on the "constructivist" theories of Jean Piaget.) And,
second, people construct new knowledge with particular effectiveness when
what they make is personally meaningful.

Subscribe to The American Prospect

At the clubhouse, construction takes many forms. Rather than playing
computer games, clubhouse participants create their own computer games.
And rather than just "surfing" on the Internet's World Wide Web, participants
make waves: They create their own multimedia Web pages, such as the
clubhouse's Online Art Gallery.

To support these activities, the clubhouse provides a variety of design tools,
from introductory paint programs (such as KidPix) to high-end animation tools
(such as Director). Other software tools include digital music recording,
editing, and mixing tools; desktop publishing tools; programming tools (such as
Microworlds Logo); virtual-reality design tools for developing
three-dimensional models on the computer screen; and construction kits for
creating and controlling robotic machines (such as LEGO Control Lab). The
clubhouse also serves as a testbed for new technologies under development at
research universities and companies. For example, the clubhouse was the initial
test site for the Programmable Brick, a portable tiny computer built into a
LEGO brick, developed at the MIT Media Lab.

At the clubhouse, youth learn how to use these tools. But even more, they
learn how to express themselves through these tools. They learn not only the
technical details, but the heuristics of being a good designer: how to
conceptualize a project, how to make use of the materials available, how to
persist and find alternatives when things go wrong, and how to view a project
through the eyes of others. In short, they learn how to manage a complex
project from start to finish.

The design tools at the clubhouse were chosen, in part, because they connect
with children's imaginations and interests. But at the same time, these tools
connect with important mathematical and scientific concepts. The tools don't
directly teach mathematical and scientific ideas; rather, youth use (and learn)
these ideas as an integral part of their design projects. For example, as
clubhouse youth work on robotics projects with LEGO/Logo (a
computer-controlled construction kit) and the Programmable Brick, they
naturally engage in thinking about such scientific concepts as mechanical
advantage and feedback. And as students work on computer art projects,
they need to develop a working understanding of scaling, perspective, and

Principle 2: Help youth build on their own interests. In schools of
education, the focus is usually on methods of teaching, not motivations for
learning. Many courses emphasize how and what teachers should teach, but
seldom examine why their students might want to learn. When the issue of
motivation is addressed, the emphasis is often on extrinsic motivators and
incentives, such as grades and prizes based on performance.

Yet if you look outside of school, you can find many examples of people
learning—and learning well—without explicit rewards. Youth who seem to
have short attention spans in school often display great concentration on
projects that truly interest them. They may spend hours learning to play the
guitar or play basketball. Their interests are a great untapped
resource—untapped, that is, in school. As Roger Schank, a professor at
Northwestern University, has written, "An interest is a terrible thing to waste."

When youth care about what they are working on, the dynamic of teaching
changes. Rather than being "pushed" to learn, youth work on their own and
seek out ideas and advice. Youth are not only more motivated but also
develop deeper understandings. Pursuing any topic in depth can lead to
connections to other subjects and disciplines. The educational challenge is to
find ways to help youth make those connections and develop them more fully.
For example, an interest in riding a bicycle can lead to investigations of
gearing, the physics of balancing, the historical evolution of vehicles, or the
environmental effects of different forms of transportation.

The clubhouse is designed to support youth in developing their interests. While
youth from middle-class households generally have many opportunities to build
on their interests (music lessons, specialty camps, and so on), most clubhouse
participants have no other constructive after-school options. And many do not
even have a clear sense of their interests, let alone how to build on them.

Clubhouse participants are encouraged to make their own choices. All of the
youth at the clubhouse have chosen to be there, and they can come and go as
they please. At the clubhouse, participants continually confront choices about
what to do, how to do it, and whom to work with. The clubhouse helps these
youth gain experience with self-directed learning, helping them recognize, trust,
develop, and deepen their own interests and talents.

Helping youth develop their interests is not just a matter of letting them do
what they want. Young people must be given the freedom to follow their
fantasies but also the support to make those fantasies come to life. On the
walls, shelves, and hard drives of the clubhouse, there is a large collection of
sample projects, designed to provide participants with a sense of the possible
and with multiple entry points for getting started. In one corner of the
clubhouse is a library of books, magazines, and manuals filled with more
project ideas (and a sofa to make reading more comfortable). Many youth
begin by mimicking a sample project, then work on variations on the theme,
and soon develop their own path.

This approach works only if the environment supports a great diversity of
possible projects and directions. The computer plays a key role here. The
computer is a "universal machine" that supports design projects in many
different domains: music, art, science, math. At any time, two participants
might be using a computer to create a graphic animation, while at the next
computer another youth might be using a similar computer to control a robotic

Of course, the technology alone does not ensure diversity. In schools, more
teachers are beginning to include design experiences in their classroom
activities. But in many cases, these design activities are very restrictive.
Students do little more than follow someone else's recipe. In classes working
with LEGO/Logo, students are often told precisely how and what to build. For
example, a teacher might instruct every student to build the exact same LEGO
car, using the same bricks, gears, and wheels and the same computer program
to control it. The clubhouse, in contrast, has the feel of an invention workshop.
Working with LEGO/Logo, clubhouse youth have built, programmed, and
experimented with a wide assortment of projects, from an automated hair
curler to a computer-controlled LEGO city. The LEGO materials and
computer technology allow this diversity—even more important, the clubhouse
community supports and encourages it.

Principle 3: Cultivate "emergent community." How do people learn to
speak a language? Many American students take several years of French in
high school but still can't communicate fluently. The language is learned best by
actually living in France and participating in the culture—by going to the store
to buy a baguette, joking with the vendor who sells Le Monde, overhearing
conversations in the café. To become technologically fluent, young people
need a similar type of immersion. They need to live in a "digital community,"
interacting not only with technology, but with people who know how to
explore, experiment, and express themselves with the technology.

To foster this type of community, the Computer Clubhouse includes a
culturally diverse team of adult mentors—professionals and college students in
art, music, science, and technology. Mentors act as coaches, catalysts, and
consultants, bringing new project ideas to the clubhouse. Most mentors
volunteer their time. On a typical day, there are two or three mentors at the
clubhouse. For example, clubhouse participants might be working with
engineers on robotics projects, artists on graphics and animation projects,
programmers on interactive games. For youth who have never talked to an
adult in academic or professional careers, this opportunity may be a pivotal

In this way, the clubhouse deals with the "access issue" at a deeper level.
Inner-city youth need access not only to machines, but to people using
technology in interesting ways. This type of access is not possible in a
classroom with 30 children and a single teacher. The clubhouse takes
advantage of an untapped local resource, providing a new way for people in
the community to share their skills with local youth.

By involving mentors, the clubhouse provides inner-city youth with a rare
opportunity to see adults working on projects. Mentors do not simply provide
"support" or "help"; many work on their own projects and encourage
clubhouse youth to join in. John Holt, the author of several influential books
about education, argues that children learn best from adults who are working
on things that they themselves care about. Holt writes, "I'm not going to take
up painting in the hope that, seeing me, children will get interested in painting.
Let people who already like to paint, paint where children can see them."

To become good learners, young people should observe adults learning. But
that is rarely the case in schools. Teachers often avoid situations where
students will see them learning: They don't want students to see their lack of
knowledge. At the clubhouse, however, youth catch adults in the act of
learning and, for some clubhouse participants, it is quite a shock. Several
clubhouse participants were startled one day when a clubhouse staff member,
after debugging a tricky programming problem, exclaimed: "I just learned

Projects at the clubhouse grow and evolve. A mentor might start with one
idea, a few youth will join for a while, then a few others will start working on a
related project. For example, two graduate students from Boston University
decided to start a new robotics project at the clubhouse. For several days,
they worked on their own; none of the youth seemed particularly interested.
But as the project began to take shape, a few youth took notice. One decided
to build a new structure to fit on top of the robot, another saw the project as
an opportunity to learn about programming. After a month, a small team was
working on several robots. Some youth were integrally involved, working on
the project every day. Others chipped in from time to time, moving in and out
of the project. The process allowed different participants to contribute to
different degrees—a process that some researchers call "legitimate peripheral

This approach to collaboration is strikingly different from what occurs in most
classrooms. In recent years, there has been a surge of interest among
educators in "collaborative learning" and "communities of learners." In many
schools, students work in teams to solve problems. Often, each student is
assigned a distinct role in the collaborative effort. At the clubhouse,
collaboration has a different flavor. No one is assigned to work on any
particular team. Rather, communities "emerge" over time. Design teams form
informally, coalescing around common interests. Communities are dynamic and
flexible, evolving to meet the needs of the project and the interests of the
participants. A large green table in the middle of the clubhouse acts as a type
of village common, where people come together to share ideas, visions, and
information (not to mention food).

As youth become more fluent with the technologies at the clubhouse, they too
start to act as mentors. During the first year of the clubhouse, a group of six
youth emerged as regulars, coming to the clubhouse nearly every day (even on
days when it was officially closed). Over time, these participants began to take
on more mentoring roles, helping introduce newcomers to the equipment,
projects, and ideas of the clubhouse.

Mike Lee, one of the earliest clubhouse participants, quickly emerged as a
mentor to other youth. Mike had enjoyed drawing comic-book characters
ever since he was a young child, but he had no experience with computer
graphics until he came to the clubhouse. To get started, he scanned in some of
his black-and-white sketches, then used the computer to color them in.
Everyone in the clubhouse was impressed with Mike's artwork, and other
youth began to come to him for advice, and started mimicking his approach.
Before long, a collection of "Mike Lee style" artwork filled the bulletin boards
of the clubhouse. Mike recognized his role as a mentor to younger clubhouse
participants, and took the responsibility seriously. For example, he decided to
stop using guns in his artwork, feeling that it was a bad influence on the
younger clubhouse members.

While serving as a mentor, Mike also learned from others. At first, he worked
only on comic-book characters. Over time, he began to experiment with
artistic ideas that he saw in other clubhouse art. He began to add more
computer effects, while maintaining his distinctive style. Eventually, he
expanded beyond static images, creating his own computer animations. After a
year, Mike used his clubhouse experience to get a job designing online
graphics for a local consulting company—a job he wouldn't have dreamed of
getting a year earlier.

Principle 4: Create an environment of respect and trust. When visitors
walk into the clubhouse, they are often amazed at the artistic creations and the
technical abilities of clubhouse participants. But just as often, they are struck
by how clubhouse youth interact with one another. The clubhouse approach
puts a high priority on developing a culture of respect and trust. These values
not only make the clubhouse an inviting place to spend time but are also
essential for enabling clubhouse youth to try out new ideas, take risks, follow
their interests, and develop fluency with new technologies.

There are many dimensions to "respect" at the clubhouse: respect for people,
respect for ideas, respect for the tools and equipment. Mentors and staff set
the tone by treating clubhouse youth with respect. Right from the start,
participants are given access to expensive equipment and encouraged to
develop their own ideas. "You mean I can use this?" is a common question for
youth to ask when they first visit the clubhouse.

Even with all these options, youth won't take advantage of the opportunities
unless they feel "safe" to try out new ideas. In many settings, they are reluctant
to do so, for fear of being judged or even ridiculed. At the clubhouse, no one
gets criticized for mistakes or "silly" ideas; it is understood that ideas (and
people) need time to develop. One new clubhouse participant spent weeks
manipulating a few images, over and over. But then, like a toddler who is late
learning to talk but then starts speaking in full sentences, he suddenly started
using these images to create spectacular graphic animations.

Clubhouse youth are given lots of choice, but with this freedom come high
standards and high expectations. Clubhouse staff and mentors do not simply
dole out praise to improve the self-esteem of the youth. They treat youth more
like colleagues, giving them genuine feedback and pushing them to consider
new possibilities. They are always asking: What could you do next? What
other ideas do you have? Many clubhouse youth thus learn not only new
computer skills, but also new styles of interaction. Treated with respect and
trust, they are expected to treat others the same way.


As new technologies arise, these clubhouse principles can serve as important
guideposts. Today, public discussion about the role of technology in education
focuses on the Internet. As the Internet plays an ever-growing role in
commerce and social life, there are concerns that people without access will
be left behind. California's highly publicized NetDay in February 1996 (when
thousands of volunteers helped set up network connections at elementary and
secondary schools) was one effort to broaden access to the Internet. Many
other states are now following suit with NetDays of their own.

But access to the Internet, like access to computers, is not in itself enough to
create substantial change in the lives and learning of children. The Internet can
be used in a wide variety of ways—and with radically different results. A
decade ago, Sherry Turkle argued that computers serve as a Rorschach test:
How people view computers reveals much about their views on other things.
Today, the Internet serves as a type of Rorschach test of educational

Some people see the Internet as a new way to deliver information. They
explain how lectures by expert scientists could be beamed down to thousands
of schools. They imagine the day when personal work stations will give
problems to students, monitor student progress on the problems, and
automatically download video segments from network servers at appropriate
times during the instruction.

When other people look at the Net, they see a huge database for students to
explore. They dismiss the idea of delivering information to students across the
network. They want to turn the tables, putting students in control of the
information. They talk about new tools that allow students to search through
thousands of servers on the Net, locating information that they are interested

The clubhouse philosophy suggests a third, very different, vision of the
Internet. We see the Internet as a new medium for collaborative
construction—a new opportunity for students to discuss, share, and
collaborate on constructions. We would like to see youth use the Internet to
create and share new types of simulations and animated stories. For example,
youth could use the Net to collaboratively create an ocean ecosystem, with
each person programming the behavior of an "artificial fish"—then discussing
with one another the systems-level phenomena that arise from the interactions.
Through these activities, students could develop an understanding of certain
scientific phenomena (such as feedback and self-organization) that are usually
studied only at the university level, using advanced mathematical techniques.

Each of these visions of the Net reflects a different educational philosophy.
The first vision sees education as instruction: If we could just "deliver" better
instruction, we would have better education. The second and third visions are
more "learner centered," based on the belief that people actively construct
knowledge from their experiences and explorations. In the second view, if we
can provide better environments for explorations, people can learn more. The
third vision (the clubhouse vision) puts a special emphasis on design and
construction activities, based on the belief that people construct knowledge
with particular effectiveness when they are actively engaged in constructing
meaningful artifacts. In this vision, the Internet brings together ideas of
community and construction, enabling people to engage in a new range of
collaborative design activities.


When people think about thinking, they often imagine Rodin's famous sculpture
The Thinker. Rodin's Thinker is a solitary individual, sitting by himself, with
his head resting on his hand. This image seems to say: If you just sit by yourself
quietly and concentrate hard, you will do your best thinking.

But that image provides a restricted view with dwindling relevance to today's
digital world. In recent years, there has been a growing recognition that
thinking usually happens through interactions with other people, often aided by
media and technology. New media and technologies support new
representations of knowledge, which in turn open up new ways of thinking
about problems.

The clubhouse helps young people become fluent with these new "tools for
thought." Two product managers from Adobe, a leading software company,
spent several days at the clubhouse, hoping to gain insights on how they might
change and improve their products. Afterward one of them wrote:

We were amazed at the incredible rate the kids learned
complex products such as Photoshop and Director and
how they used the software almost as an extension of
themselves. The kids seem to have a lot more enthusiasm
and creativity in the work since they choose their own
projects and determine for themselves what they want to
do. I liked how the more experienced members trained the
new members how to do things and how they took
responsibility for the computers and their setups. Clearly
the Clubhouse is their clubhouse, not someone else's

These comments capture some of the core ideas underlying the clubhouse
approach: young people working on design projects, following their own
interests, developing fluency with new technologies, sharing knowledge as
members of a community, and becoming self-confident as learners.

Of course, creating this type of learning environment isn't easy. At times, the
clubhouse might seem chaotic. It takes trust and patience to allow youth to
follow their own interests. But the clubhouse should not be seen as
unstructured: Although youth have great freedom in choosing their projects,
there is structure embedded in the design of the materials, space, and
community. Through its choice of mentors, sample projects, and software
tools, the clubhouse provides a framework in which rewarding learning
experiences are likely to develop.

The clubhouse's long-term goal is to make these types of experiences available
to youth in many more low-income neighborhoods. We are currently
establishing a nationwide network of Computer Clubhouses. As part of this
effort, we are developing workshops and materials to help other sites start
their own clubhouses. In addition, we are creating the infrastructure for
network-based interaction among the sites, so that youth at different
clubhouses can collaborate on joint design projects, and mentors and staff can
share ideas with one another. Ideally, these new clubhouses will serve as
models for a new approach to technology, learning, and community—while
giving youth who most need it the opportunity to build futures of their own.


You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)