The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has announced a $2 million open competition for ideas to transform learning using digital media.

The announcement came on Nov. 23, the same day President Obama called for new efforts to reinvent and improve education in science and math. (See story here)

Supported by grants to the University of California at Irvine and Duke University, the competition invites designers, researchers, educators, entrepreneurs, and others to build digital media experiences–the “learning labs of the 21st century,” the foundation said–that can help students interact, collaborate, build, and explore in new and innovative ways.

“Lifting American students from the middle to the top of the pack in STEM achievement over the next decade will not be attained by government alone,” said Obama. “I applaud the substantial commitments made today by the leaders of companies, universities, foundations, nonprofits, and organizations representing millions of scientists, engineers, and teachers from across the country.”

The competition is designed to promote “participatory learning,” the notion that students often learn best through sharing and involvement. Participatory learning, as defined by the competition, is connected to individual interests and passions, inherently social in nature, and occurs during hands-on, creative activities. Successful grant projects will leverage all of these elements, the foundation said.

Awards will be made in two categories: “21st Century Learning Lab Designers” and “Game Changers.”

Sony Computer Entertainment America (SCEA), in cooperation with the Entertainment Software Association and the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, have partnered with the foundation to support the “Game Changers” component of the competition.

Game Changers will provide awards for the creation of new educational gaming experiences using PlayStation’s LittleBigPlanet video game. SCEA also will donate 1,000 PlayStation3 (PS3) systems and copies of the LittleBigPlanet game to libraries and community-based organizations in low-income communities.

“MacArthur is pleased to team with Sony … to encourage the next generation of innovators to focus on science, technology, engineering, and math. Digital media, including games, are the learning labs of the future, and this open competition encourages people to consider creative new ways to use digital media to create learning environments that are engaging, immersive, and participatory,” said Connie Yowell, MacArthur’s director of education.

“This competition will help ensure that the new and highly engaging approaches to science, technology, engineering, and math find their way into schools, libraries, museums, and other spaces for learning.”

The competition includes three rounds of submissions, with public comment at each stage. The public also will be invited to judge the final candidates, including the selection of People’s Choice awards in each category.

“Learning labs are digital media projects that promote hands-on, participatory learning,” said Cathy Davidson, Duke University professor and co-founder of HASTAC (the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory), a consortium of scientists and engineers committed to new forms of cross-disciplinary collaboration fostered by creative uses of technology.

“They promote learning together with others, by interactively doing, trying, sometimes failing.”

She continued: “When we think of laboratories, the image of beakers and microscopes come to mind, but learning labs help us reimagine and expand our understanding of learning across all domains of knowledge.”

Administered by HASTAC, the competition is part of MacArthur’s digital media and learning initiative, which is designed to help determine how digital technologies are changing the way young people learn, play, socialize, and participate in civic life. (See “MacArthur to invest $50M in digital learning.”) Applications will be accepted beginning Dec. 7.

Competition winners will join an existing community of 36 awardees from 2007 and 2008, including a video blogging project for young women in Mumbai, India; a cutting-edge mobile phone application that lets children conduct digital wildlife spotting and share that information with friends; a project that leverages low-cost laptops to help indigenous children in Chiapas, Mexico, learn by producing and sharing their own media creations; and an online platform for 200 classrooms around the world that allows young people to monitor, analyze, and share information about the declining global fish population.

Links:

Digital Media and Learning Competition

MacArthur Foundation

HASTAC