In Toronto, Building a Citywide Network for Learning

By Kelsey Herron

The inner workings of a beehive are intricate, purposeful, and pragmatic: each member of the self-sustaining community works together to create a truly magnificent collaboration. So perhaps it’s no surprise that the MacArthur Foundation called its new connected citywide learning networks “hives.”

The goal of the networks, as Kevin Gavin of Pittsburgh’s NPR affiliate recently explained, is to “expand learning for young people beyond schools to museums, libraries, afterschool programs, and community centers,” as well as to combine physical and virtual environments to offer youth new connected learning opportunities.

Today there are three Hive Learning Networks—in Chicago, New York, and Pittsburgh—and seeds have begun to sprout for international Hives in India, Greece, and Indonesia. Most recently, a new Hive Learning Network has launched in Toronto, sharing space with the Mozilla Foundation.

“I think that with the success of Chicago and New York City, Toronto seemed like the natural next step,” said Kathryn Meisner, director of Hive Toronto. The Toronto learning network has been gaining momentum since using pop-up events to test the waters last year.

“It was really a startup year for the Hive, feeling out if there were organizations interested in being a part of it, and whether there were even enough of them doing this same kind of work,” said Meisner.

“Sometimes people think that collaboration means they show up on a specific day and contribute something and go home, when really we need them to share what they’re doing and how they want to be involved with us,” said Meisner. “A lot of people aren’t used to collaborating in that way. Pop-ups were a great way to show potential members how we roll, so to speak.”

And Hive Toronto, which now includes over 40 members, “rolls” quite efficiently. Hive member and “champion” Joseph Romano said that working with Hive Toronto has enabled much faster growth of new projects and ideas than is possible in public schools.

“I really like the openness, flexibility, and timeliness that Hive promotes in Toronto. With Hive, it’s like, ‘Let’s do it and let’s do it now,’ rather than the ‘Let’s wait three months and see where we are,’ attitude that is more common in the public sector,” said Romano, who teaches in the Toronto public schools and is the creator of Classpace, a learning hub and community forum centered on the overlap between virtual and physical learning environments.

Juan Gonzalez, founder of FabSpaces, an organization that orchestrates workshops to teach youth essential digital literacy skills through fabrication techniques, said that Hive Toronto will ideally help enhance the public education system in the city.

“Getting programs into the school system is a slow process that most small organizations can hardly afford. Hive gives us the opportunity to continue building on our ideas, marketed through a single ‘brand.’ The collaboration will inevitably lead to better connections with the education establishment,” Gonzalez said.

“Being part of Hive gives me firsthand access to an extraordinary pipeline of ideas about new ways to keep children interested in learning new things, via unconventional means that turn out to be far more engaging than what they do at school,” said Gonzalez. “I’m convinced that Hive will continue to be a fundamental part of my toolkit to keep my children interested in their learning.”

Hive Toronto also focuses on Mozilla’s key pillars, such as web literacy and helping youth learn and teach the web. Mozilla offered resources such as space and access to #MozFest 2013 for Hive partners. “We have this extra bonus in a way,” said Meisner. “We have a large space here for any organization or nonprofit to use as long as it aligns with the Mozilla pillars. We are lucky to have it.”

Hive partner Laura Plant, who is the director of youth programs Girls Learning Code and Kids Learning Code in Toronto, said that the link to Mozilla and Hive has helped her organization overcome one of its most cumbersome hurdles: exposure.

“Honestly, one of our biggest challenges is letting parents know that we exist,” said Plant.

Fellow member Zahra Esmail of Eva’s Initiatives agreed, and said that Hive has helped expand her organizations’ partnerships. “I think what makes Eva’s unique is that our focus is on homeless and at-risk youth, so it wouldn’t have really been on my radar to connect with many of these organizations. It’s not necessarily an obvious alignment between what we do and what other organizations are doing. There are some that I didn’t even know existed,” said Esmail, who is the general manager of the organization’s youth housing program, called Eva’s Phoenix.

As for future plans for Hive Toronto, Meisner has a vision. “We’re working toward having a very active network where members are sharing skills and facilitating things themselves,” she said. “A lot of times, I am asked to do things that I want to come from the network.”

To ensure Hive becomes more sustainable, Meisner intends to turn to mentoring and community. “I want to have organizations mentor other organizations, and have all needs be met within the network. I want Toronto to be a place where Hive is associated with our youth-peer mentorship, making as learning, and codesigning with youth. I want organizations to join Hive because of those values, recognize why they are important, and want to integrate them into their own programming.”

They might already be there. As Laura Plant put it, “I definitely think we are a part of something bigger.”

Photo/ The City of Toronto