Design Crit: Playlists for Learning (and what we learned)

Design Crit: Playlists for Learning (and what we learned)

It’s a wrap! Our DML 6 Playlists for Learning grantees met for a day-long design crit at the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s wonderful design studio (peek here for a look at how great this space is) last week in Illinois. Connie Yowell (above), CEO of, kicked off the event by sharing her vision for what is possible when everyone has access to connected learning experiences. 

The next day, we invited research & design and assessment staff from to be our expert panelists, and prepped them in advance with primer materials featuring a range of design challenges grantees were grappling with in their projects: pacing and sequencing, social and technical challenges, systems change, trade offs between assessment, motivation, and rigor, designing manageable badging opportunities, sustaining programs, replicating programs at scale, co-designing with youth, and other topics.

Mikey Cordero and Geneva White from Urban Arts Partnership discuss their Creative Careers playlist at Chicago Architecture Foundation.

Each project had a total of 25 minutes to present and receive targeted feedback from experts and peers, with 5 minutes to present a high-level overview and the rest of the time spent on questions they wanted addressed. Below are notes from the session and a few takeaways that emerged from discussions:

Art & Science of Vision told us how they relied on teen feedback from focus groups to inform the design of their playlist, which translated into using video, stop-motion animation, and a video game in their playlist design. A high school intern, with input from peers, has been helping them develop and edit the work. Interestingly, youth also said they wanted a physical, collectible badge as a keepsake. One of Art & Science of Vision’s questions focused on language — and making sure that the playlists addressed the needs of both English and Spanish-speaking youth.

Creative Careers is working on 3 different playlists (design, film, and game design/coding) and looking for endorsements from industry leaders willing to offer meaningful career-advancing opportunities for youth, not just job shadowing and interviews, but resume-building experiences in creative workplaces. Like a lot of grantee projects, Creative Careers is also making sure their playlists work for youth with different levels of tech access.

DesignLaunch raised an issue that other grantees also face: how to create a cohesive learning experience across multiple learning platforms? Their work will live on,, and Chicago City of Learning. There may be technical affordances on one platform and not another, and this can influence the kinds of learning experiences that designers experience.

Digital Citizenship Learning Playlists raised the issue of how to engage youth in meaningful co-design, which can be a messy, challenging experience for both facilitators and youth. In particular, one tension that resonated with other Playlists for Learning groups was how to balance youth preference for shorter, more streamlined content and inclusion of core content? Do you shave off big parts of the curriculum to keep youth interested? Another challenge is how to balance the difference between playlist design with a caring adult, and playlist design without.  

Playground City Farming shared 4 of their 5 proposed playlists that they have mapped out and begun prototyping with youth. One of their items focused on the very practical challenges of introducing a new platform ( to youth who are ambivalent or reluctant about creating yet another account. And, similar to what colleagues at Creative Careers discussed, Playground City must balance issues of inclusivity and accessibility for youth who may not have smartphones or tablets, yet still want to be involved.

My City, My Place have created their three playlists and will be user testing them in April. Their design team knows that proper sequencing of XPs is essential to their series of 3 tourism/hospitality playlists. Embedded in each playlist are a series of XPs that youth must complete before moving on to the next XP and next playlist. For now, they have simply listed each playlist by number. One of the design challenges they addressed was how to incentivize youth to move forward from one playlist to the next.

Pittsburgh Galleries Project has completed their playlist and is preparing to test things on the LRNG platform. One of the common refrains we heard from Pittsburgh Galleries Project and other DML 6 grantees is the desire for more social and communication features so that learners can connect through the platform. For Pittsburgh Galleries Project, their other design challenge is thinking about ways to scale the playlist citywide. One suggestion was to create a toolkit for educators, explaining how to include school facilities personnel in the playlist so that youth can turn their schools into curated art exhibits and/or gallery.

Sandboxes for Learning articulated the challenges that accompany not only assessment at scale, but badging, especially across shifting contexts. In particular, how to find a fluid work-flow, especially across multiple playlists, multiple assessors, and multiple playlist designers. Sandboxes is another project balancing content on multiple platforms (Youth Voices and, and they recognize that teaching or mentoring practices are likely to change when curricula is adapted to different contexts and technologies.

SciGirls Code is embedding computational thinking into three playlists that focus on mobile app development, robotics and e-textiles. One of their challenges is that their learners are not in 1:1 environments where everyone has a device. How, then, do youth upload evidence if they do not have access to their own devices? And, like many of our other Playlists for Learning grantees, SciGirls Code will need a workaround so that youth can connect with their peers and build their learning community.

Sky, Water, Earth made an important shift in their work as they began to focus on youth and young adults preparing for careers in science. We saw again a theme of managing content on multiple platforms, and the (age-old) challenge around motivation in online environments. Sky, Water, Earth also touched on questions about how best to market the playlists; how to foster online communities of learning; and how to scale up the assessment and evaluation process.

Sound Explorations is working through issues of cross-referencing in their playlist design. In other words, figuring out playlist designs that allows learners to follow branching logic (for lack of a better word) as they acquire skills in coding and programming music; making beats; building instruments and interfaces; producing music; connecting music and culture; and jamming. Sound Explorations, like Sandboxes for Learning and other DML 6 grantees, raised questions about how to scaffold XPs in contexts without educators or mentors to guide them. They also addressed important questions about how to break complex topics into XPs that were not too daunting. Do you simplify the XP? Or add additional support?

Tim Cook of shares what his team is working on, and provides feedback to DML Playlists for Learning grantees as the workshop wraps.