New Opportunities for Community Development
By Mark Macmurdo & Kate Monahan, with Carl Skelton
One of the primary goals of the 2012 Teaching with Technology Conference was to inspire attendees with concrete examples of the innovative and effective ways that NYU instructors are enhancing their pedagogy with technology. Carl Skelton’s presentation about Betaville—an open-source collaborative online platform for proposals on urban design—fit that bill perfectly. As both an instructor and founding director of the Brooklyn Experimental Media Center (BxmC) and Integrated Digital Media programs at NYU’s Polytechnic Institute, Skelton is at ease with the convergence of teaching and technology. As is so often the case, though, Betaville’s success and significance relate less to the technology itself (impressive though it is), and much more to what it enables: improved community discourse, practical application of academic research, participatory creativity, and enhanced, meaningful student learning.
Skelton began developing Betaville as a “crossover software art/collaborative design environment.” It is a free, open-source platform that allows anyone who is interested—individuals, classes, community groups, design firms or even government offices—to not only view realistic 3D computer models of their communities, but to experiment with the creation of new buildings, structures, and landscapes within that space. Whether someone is a student or neighborhood association president using a free 3D modeling program like Google’s SketchUp or a professional architect using advanced CAD software, they are given the opportunity to modify their environment and develop their proposal on the fly. Options overlaid on the model of the city then provide anyone with the chance to browse and follow proposals through various stages of development, make modifications, offer feedback, and start conversations and new collaborations.
The result is a “beta” city where new projects can be proposed and critiqued with little up-front cost or technical skills. In this fashion, a proposal for a new apartment building from an established development firm and a design for a repurposed park by a high school student are on the same playing field:
… the future of a street corner, a blank wall, a vacant lot, or an entire city can now be tinkered with on an ongoing basis at negligible cost by the full spectrum of subject matter experts: the people who know what it’s like to live there now, the people who know how to make new things happen… and people with great ideas to share, anywhere in the world, whenever they can and care to. [Source]
The “Neotechnic” Model
Though largely focused on and of benefit to the community beyond the classroom walls, Betaville also serves as a interesting model for what a 21st century university can achieve. Skelton proposes “There shouldn’t be as hard of a line between education, public discourse, and government.” One of the early partners in the development of Betaville was the M2C (Media2Culture) Institute for Applied Media Research at the University of Applied Sciences, Bremen. Embracing a broad view of the role of the university, this German engineering school describes itself as“ decidedly innovative and practically oriented.”
Skelton refers to its approach as the “neotechnic” model—having a strong emphasis on the application of research in the real world with less focus on the boundaries of disciplines. This model takes advantage of what has traditionally been the role of polytechnic institutions, while making use of the wide range of knowledge available at a university. As described below, Skelton has found this model, as explored through the development of Betaville, to be of great advantage to his students.
Student Inspiration and Collaboration
Skelton has found that Betaville offers a host of practical benefits and “meaningful competencies” for his students to help prepare them for professional life after they graduate. Because of the nature of the work on the platform and the longevity of the project, students learn how to collaborate effectively, pick up work from their predecessors and pass it on to others, and develop concrete, complex examples of their own work to show future employers. They also develop important interdisciplinary knowledge and communication skills that are highly sought after by employers who want someone who “can talk to everyone in the room.”
In turn, the students contribute to the project in important ways as well. Like the platform’s non-NYU user community, Skelton’s describes his students as interesting citizens with diverse backgrounds and skills that often make them meaningful collaborators in the platform’s development. He notes that sometimes students have more expertise in certain areas than the project’s principal investigators, a fact which they respect and strive to harness.
One of the most interesting dynamics he has observed is the benefit of not only bringing together students from varied disciplines, but of encouraging participation from students with multiple skill sets themselves. An art student who also has programming experience, for example, can bring an entirely new perspective to a project. This diversity of knowledge, he believes, is an important concept for innovation in technology, and one that can and should be nurtured in academic environments (rather than the tendency towards specialization that is so prevalent). While most people interact with a given technology by using it for its intended purpose, both users and technologists can be empowered to impose a change on the terms of their engagement with the technology, influencing not only how it is designed, but what it is used for—“changing the medium to change the message.”
Skelton has noted how the quality of work from many students increased markedly from involvement in the Betaville project, with them exhibiting a high level of professionalism and interest. He attributes this to the fact that they are empowered as creative technologists with meaningful work, and that “students do better work if they know it isn’t going to get thrown out.” Indeed, Skelton has found that students who work on Betaville often go above and beyond what would technically be required of them for a high grade—instead being motivated by and interested in the relevance and quality of their work to others. Knowing that they are responsible to a community for the quality and viability of their work, and that their efforts are part of something larger that will live on, are powerful motivators.
Betaville is currently involved in several educational collaborations that empower students to envision the future of their urban environment, including at the Louis Armstrong Middle School in Queens, the ReGeneration exhibit at the New York Hall of Science, and a project with the Urban Assembly Gateway School for Technology in Manhattan. For more information about Betaville, including a link to download and experiment with the software yourself, see the Brooklyn Experimental Media Center (BxmC) website.