Brennan, Karen, Sarah Blum-Smith, and Max Yurkofsky. 2018. “From checklists to heuristics: Designing MOOCs to support teacher learning.” Teachers College Record 120 (9). PDF Abstract

Background: Although much is known from educational research about factors that support K–12 teacher professional learning, it has been an ongoing challenge to incorporate these factors into practice in new contexts and environments. We argue that these factors are too often treated like a checklist of discrete elements, either present or not, insufficiently attending to the complexities of design and experience. To understand how Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) might support K–12 teacher learning, it is critical to move beyond application of discrete factors to nuanced navigation of the interplay among researcher examination and theorization, designer intention and implementation, and learner use and experience—balancing considerations of learning theory, instructional objectives and specific learning context, and the desires, needs, and experiences of participants.

Focus of Study: This study examines MOOCs as a medium for supporting teacher professional learning. What did K–12 teachers identify as meaningful about their participation in the Creative Computing Online Workshop (CCOW), a large-scale, constructionist, online learning experience for teachers? How do the teachers’ experiences relate to each other, to learning research, and to the affordances of MOOCs?

Research Design: This qualitative, interview-based study draws on 15 semistructured interviews with participants 1 year after they completed CCOW, as well as course artifacts. We used an iterative approach to develop common themes reflecting what teachers found meaningful and key tensions present in these themes.

Findings: Teachers described four qualities as most meaningful to their learning: activity, peers, culture, and relevance. Although these qualities were often mutually supporting, three key tensions among the qualities and the implications for the design of online teacher learning experiences are discussed: autonomy, with structure; diversity, with commonality; and experimentation, with validation.

Conclusions: This paper challenges the notion that implementing successful professional development for K–12 teachers is simply a matter of following a checklist of design elements. This study presents qualities that teachers found meaningful in an online learning experience, offering heuristics that designers might consider when designing for their specific contexts. Future research might assess to what extent the qualities and tensions identified in this study apply to other contexts, and explore the reasons why contextual changes may or may not influence results.

Brennan, Karen. 2017. “Designing for learning by creating.” International Journal of Child-Computer Interaction 14: 7 - 9. PDF

Audience can serve as powerful motivation in learning – and network technologies have the potential to greatly broaden audience for the processes and products of learning. But these new opportunities for audience are accompanied by new challenges. In this paper, we examine and problematize the notion and role of audience in learning by presenting a case study of a large online community of young interactive-media designers. We focus on two key questions: (1) How do young people develop a sense of audience in the online community? (2) How does this sense of audience shape kids' participation as interactive-media designers? Drawing on five years of observation data and interviews with 30 young designers, we share a portrait of how these kids engaged with others as audience, drawing out several major themes: kids' desires for attention in a populous, digitally mediated space, the challenges of getting attention or not getting attention, and how attention-seeking behaviour can be aligned and misaligned with kids’ initial intentions as creators, community members, and learners.

Brennan, Karen. 2015. “Author's Response: The Critical Context of Teacher Attitudes and Beliefs.” Constructivist Foundations 10 (3): 301-302. PDF Abstract

The OPC responses aptly identified numerous factors teachers encounter that can impede changes in pedagogical practice in the classroom. Although some of these factors are external, beyond a teacher’s control, I discuss one internal factor - a teacher’s attitudes and beliefs about their role and the learners they support - that was raised in the responses.

Brennan, Karen. 2015. “Beyond Right or Wrong: Challenges of Including Creative Design Activities in the Classroom.” Journal of Technology and Teacher Education 23 (3): 279-299. PDF Abstract

In this article, we explore challenges encountered by K-12 educators in establishing classroom cultures that support creative learning activities with the Scratch programming language. Providing opportunities for students to understand and to build capacities for creative work was described by many of the teachers that we interviewed as a central aspiration of learning and education. But creative learning is an iterative process that necessarily involves moments of getting stuck, not knowing, being wrong, and failing — moments that conflict with how learning is enacted in many school settings. The analysis is organized into three thematic clusters that elaborate this conflict: teacher vs. self, teacher vs. student, and teacher vs. culture. Teacher vs. self explores the role of teacher identity and psychology in supporting creative activities in the classroom. Teacher vs. student discusses unanticipated resistance from young learners encountering creative activities in school settings. Teacher vs. culture describes how expectations from beyond the classroom setting can constrain creative activities within the classroom, including the role of parents, administrators, and policy.

Brennan, Karen. 2015. “Beyond technocentrism: Supporting Constructionism in the Classroom.” Constructivist Foundations 10 (3): 289-296. PDF Abstract

In 2015, we are surrounded by tools and technologies for creating and making, thinking and learning. But classroom “learning” is often focused on learning about the tool/technology itself, rather than learning with or through the technology. Problem: A constructionist theory of learning offers useful ways for thinking about how technology can be included in the service of learning in K-12 classrooms. To support constructionism in the classroom, we need to focus on supporting teachers, who necessarily serve as the agents of classroom-level innovations. This article explores a central question: How can we support teachers to engage with constructionism as a way to think beyond a technocentric view in the classroom? Method: I approach this work from the perspective of a designer, using the process of supporting teachers working with the Scratch programming language in K-12 classrooms as a central example. I draw on reflections from six years of the ScratchEd project, which includes interviews with 30 teachers, and observations from teacher professional development events and an online community of educators. Results: I describe five sets of tensions that I encountered while designing the ScratchEd model of professional development: tensions between (1) tool and learning, (2) direction and discovery, (3) individual and group, (4) expert and novice, and (5) actual and aspirational. I describe how these tensions are negotiated within the elements of the PD model (an online community, participatory meetups, and an online workshop). Implications: The tensions I describe are not specific to Scratch, and can serve as a more general model for PD designers to scrutinize and critique. Constructivist content: This work contributes to ongoing conversations and questions about how to support constructivist/constructionist approaches in classrooms.

Brennan, Karen. 2015. “Open Peer Commentary: Objects To Think With.” Constructivist Foundations 10 (3): 313-314. PDF Abstract

Open peer commentary on the article “Designing Constructionist E-Books: New Mediations for Creative Mathematical Thinking?” by Chronis Kynigos. Upshot: Chronis Kynigos’s article invites us to explore how to make familiar objects for learning — namely, books — more constructionist. In my response, I ask questions about the affordances and potential limitations of books as central objects, particularly about the role of the learner in relation to the objects.

Brennan, Karen, Sarah Blum-Smith, and Max Yurkofsky. 2015. “Supporting constructionism in the classroom: MOOC as platform for teacher learning.” American Educational Research Association meeting. Chicago, IL. PDF Abstract

MOOCs have received enormous attention over the past several years. This study explores xMOOC platforms as contexts for teacher learning, focusing on teachers’ perceptions of how learning in large-scale, open, online courses can be meaningful to them. We use the Creative Computing Online Workshop (CCOW) — a large-scale, online constructionist learning experience for teachers, developed on an xMOOC platform — as a central example, drawing on 15 semi-structured interviews with participants, course artifacts, and designer reflections as sources of data to develop understandings of the course qualities that teachers found meaningful. Our analysis focuses on rich descriptions of the four primary qualities that teachers described as most meaningful to their learning: (1) activity, (2) peers, (3) culture, and (4) relevance. We argue that these qualities were often mutually supporting, but that key underlying tensions in learning environments also played out within and across the experiences of individual teachers. We consider three specific tensions and their implications for the design of online teacher learning experiences: (1) autonomy, with structure, (2) diversity, with commonality, and (3) experimentation, with validation.

Brennan, Karen. 2014. “Social dimensions of computing education.” NSF Future Directions in Computing Education Summit. Orlando, FL. PDF
Brennan, Karen. 2014. “Constructionism in the classroom: Three experiments in disrupting technocentrism.” Constructionism and Creativity. Vienna, Austria. PDF Abstract

In this paper, I explore a question that is central to studying learning and technology : How can we support teachers to think beyond a technocentric view in the classroom? I argue that engaging teachers in experiences with constructionist approaches to learning can help teachers disrupt a technocentric approach. Drawing on reflections from five years of the ScratchEd project, I outline the elements of teacher support that I have designed and studied , which include an online community, face-to-face meetups, and an online workshop. I describe five tensions negotiated through this design work : the tensions between (1) tool and learning, (2) ahead-of-time and just-in-time, (3) individual and group, (4) expert and novice, and (5) actual and aspirational .


We live in a computational culture – a culture in which we are surrounded by computational systems and interfaces, from social networks to banking infrastructure, to entertainment platforms, to transportation systems. This culture introduces new expectations and new opportunities for learning, creating new demands for what to learn and offering new possibilities for how to learn.

In this dissertation, I adopt a predominantly qualitative approach to exploring learning in computational culture, studying how the Scratch programming environment and online community are employed to support learning both in and out of school. To this end, I conducted interviews with 30 kids working with Scratch at home and 30 teachers working with Scratch in K-12 classrooms to develop descriptions of computational creation in these two settings.

Using a theoretical framework of agency and structure, I analyze how the at-home and school-classroom contexts enable – or constrain – young people’s agency in computational creation. Despite common assumptions that at-home learning is necessarily low-structure/high-agency and that at-school learning is necessarily high-structure/low-agency, I argue that structure and agency need not be in opposition. Designers of learning environments should explore intermediate possibilities, finding ways to employ structure in the service of learner agency.

Brennan, Karen, and Mitchel Resnick. 2013. “Imagining, creating, playing, sharing, reflecting: How online community supports young people as designers of interactive media.” Emerging Technologies for the Classroom: A Learning Sciences Perspective, 253-268. Springer. PDF Abstract

As young people design interactive media, they go through an iterative process of imagining, creating, playing, sharing, and reflecting. In this chapter, we describe how this iterative design process is ideally supported by having access to other people. We illustrate this through case studies of young people using the Scratch programming environment to create their own interactive media with support from the Scratch online community.

Brennan, Karen. 2013. “Learning computing through creating and connecting.” IEEE Computer 46 (9): 52-59. PDF Abstract

Despite increased cultural awareness of computing, programming remains inaccessible to many young people. In response to this challenge, MIT Media Lab researchers are developing Scratch, which combines an authoring environment for interactive media projects with an online platform for sharing those projects. Visit for a video overview of Scratch and ScratchEd, showing the authoring environment for interactive media projects as well as the sharing platform.

Brennan, Karen, and Mitchel Resnick. 2012. “New frameworks for studying and assessing the development of computational thinking.” American Educational Research Association. Vancouver, Canada. PDF Abstract

Computational thinking is a phrase that has received considerable attention over the past several years – but there is little agreement about what computational thinking encompasses, and even less agreement about strategies for assessing the development of computational thinking in young people. We are interested in the ways that design-based learning activities – in particular, programming interactive media – support the development of computational thinking in young people. Over the past several years, we have developed a computational thinking framework that emerged from our studies of the activities of interactive media designers. Our context is Scratch – a programming environment that enables young people to create their own interactive stories, games, and simulations, and then share those creations in an online community with other young programmers from around the world.

The first part of the paper describes the key dimensions of our computational thinking framework: computational concepts (the concepts designers engage with as they program, such as iteration, parallelism, etc.), computational practices (the practices designers develop as they engage with the concepts, such as debugging projects or remixing others’ work), and computational perspectives (the perspectives designers form about the world around them and about themselves). The second part of the paper describes our evolving approach to assessing these dimensions, including project portfolio analysis, artifact-based interviews, and design scenarios. We end with a set of suggestions for assessing the learning that takes place when young people engage in programming.

Brennan, Karen. 2012. ScratchEd: Developing support for educators as designers. Designing with teachers: Participatory professional development in education. Edited by Erin Reilly and Ioana Literat. PDF

This paper explores the differences between the aspirational (what designers desire) and the actual (what participants do) in an online learning community of young people, using the Scratch website as a case study. Interviews with members of the MIT Scratch Team and two years of ethnographic observation of the site inform the discussion of these differences. The paper presents four tensions that arise between the aspirations for this community of learners and the realities of actual participation: (1) enabling exploration of the personal vs. pitfalls of the personal, (2) fostering meaningful interactions with others vs. lack of respect, (3) supporting diverse creative expression vs. conflicts in interests, and (4) encouraging a sense of group belonging vs. seeking attention.

Brennan, Karen, Amanda Valverde, Joe Prempeh, Ricarose Roque, and Michelle Chung. 2011. “More than code: The significance of social interactions in young people's development as interactive media creators.” ED-MEDIA. Lisbon, Portugal. PDF Abstract

Being able to design interactive media is an important capacity for young people to develop in order to understand and negotiate our modern media landscape. Scratch ( is a programming environment that enables young people to create their own interactive media and share their creations within an online community. In this paper, we describe the ways in which young people’s development as creators of interactive media is supported by others, using the context of the Scratch online community. Through a series of six case studies, we focus on the social nature of young people’s participation, and the shifting and unexpected roles that they take on in the community. We discuss what the case studies have in common (opportunities to imagine, program, and share) and we suggest making similar opportunities available to young people situated in other learning environments

Brennan, Karen, and Anthony Clarke. 2011. “The Jared phenomenon: Intergenerational learning in a teacher education context.” Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education 39 (2): 125-137. PDF Abstract

While student teachers have essentially unfettered access to the expertise of university instructors and practicum supervisors during their teacher education program, this study explores the potential of employing recent graduates as a source of expertise that current student teachers might draw upon during their program. Over the course of three years, the authors employed recent graduates to facilitate instruction in an experimental 12-month after-degree BEd option at the University of British Columbia. Through the use of surveys and interviews, the authors demonstrate that graduate involvement is a special case of intergenerational learning that they refer to as the Jared Phenomenon. Their analysis offers five characteristics that define the phenomenon, outlines the contexts in which this definition is applicable, and points to a set of dilemmas that arise from its application. They recommend the judicious use of recent graduates as instructors for current students as an important and underutilised resource in teacher education.

Brennan, Karen, Mitchel Resnick, and Andres Monroy-Hernandez. 2010. “Making projects, making friends: Online community as catalyst for interactive media creation.” New Directions for Youth Development 2010 (128): 75-83. PDF Abstract

To become full and active participants in today's technologically saturated society, young people need to become creators (and not just consumers) of interactive media. Developing the requisite abilities and capacities is not a wholly individual process; it is important for young people to have access to communities where they can collaborate and share ideas. This article uses the Scratch online community for exploring how different forms of participation and collaboration can support and shape the ways in which young people develop as creators of interactive media. We describe participation in this community in terms of a spectrum ranging from socializing to creating and present examples of three forms of collaboration within the community. We argue that the most exciting interactive media creation and valuable learning experiences are taking place in the middle space, where participants draw on the best of socializing and creating practices.

Brennan, Karen. 2009. “Scratch-Ed: An online community for Scratch educators.” CSCL. Rhodes, Greece. PDF Abstract

Scratch is a programming environment that enables users to easily construct a wide variety of interactive projects - and share these creations with an online community. A main goal of Scratch is to enable young people to engage in construction-oriented acts of personal expression. From community narratives to role-playing games to mathematical simulations to consciousness-raising presentations, the potential for creative production with Scratch is boundless. However, for those who are primarily concerned with assisting others' Scratch learning, there is a disconnect between what individuals want to do and the resources that are presently available. In response, we have developed Scratch-Ed, an online environment for educators. Using the lens of situated learning, Scratch-Ed has been designed to enable users to organize a community of practice for Scratch around the processes of mutual engagement, joint enterprise, and shared repertoire by sharing stories, exchanging resources, facilitating discussions, and establishing relationships.