Digital Learning Connects Youth to Opportunity

EdSurge featured two of our Reclaiming Digital Futures partners Digital Harbor Foundation (DHF) and Dream Yard in a new article about how youth are developing cutting edge skills to prepare them for future employment opportunities. While both organizations are leveraging technology, youth are learning far more than anything that requires them to plug in.

When facilitators at Digital Harbor Foundation’s Maker Foundations program give a group of students an electric toothbrush, a plastic cup, a few markers and some rubber bands, then tell them: Build a robot that draws… without any additional guidance, they are teaching youth that they can teach themselves new skills. Afterall, they have Google and each other. Basic robotics and effective Google research are just the tip of the iceberg; students learn problem solving, collaboration, innovation, project management, and much, much more.  The goal of this approach to digital learning is to prepare youth for the jobs of the future and for the ones we can’t even yet imagine. With the skills to take on new challenges and learn how to be successful, youth will be prepared for any digital or analog opportunity that arises.

DHF also regularly uses client work as pedagogy. Youth in their programs learn by doing real work for real paying clients, not observing.

Dream Yard allows students to connect artistic endeavors, social justice and digital savvy. Through developing online learning portfolios, they are not only documenting their artistic processes, they are also presenting their work in a manner that helps them create opportunities for themselves, from applying to arts schools to participating in online and analog arts communities.

Read the full EdSurge article here.

The SCE Digital Learning Challenge: How Can We Help Young People to Thrive in their Desired Futures?

By: June Ahn, Associate Professor, University of California, Irvine
I’m continuously in awe at the creative and innovative ways that young people use technology to make sense of, and have agency over, their lives. Give a child a good video game, and they can imagine far-away worlds, quickly learn new skills, and explain new concepts to you with gusto. Encourage teenagers with a passion for social justice and social media at their fingertips, and they can foment civic action. Provide access to a computer, 3-D printer, and a community of other makers, and young people will design and engineer amazing new solutions to real-world problems. Scholars in my research fields – such as the learning sciences and digital media for learning – have done a tremendous job documenting the rich ways that learning happens in our everyday engagement with technology. For a place to start exploring this domain, I’m always inspired by my colleagues in the Connected Learning Lab and Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop (full disclosure, I am a collaborator in these projects).
Policymakers, researchers, and educators are also worried about an uncertain economic and social future. For example, income inequality is rising and the gap between who wins and loses in our economic system grows larger each day. New technological developments, such as artificial intelligence and automation, mean that the nature of work and the supply of jobs will evolve drastically in the future. We just don’t know exactly how and who will be left out (although we have lots of conjectures). Check out this report for some ways that researchers and institutions such as the National Science Foundation are thinking about these issues.
Put these two ideas together and people (myself included at times) often make broad claims such as “Every child should learn to code!” or “Every kid needs to become a maker!” if they’re going to be economically competitive in the future. Interrogate any of these ideas more deeply, and the arguments fall apart quickly because it is unclear (for example) whether sitting every child in a computer programming class, by itself, would really equip them to thrive in the social and economic futures they will experience. On the other hand, we see everyday that learning with technology can unlock incredibly rich and powerful experiences for young people. How do we bridge this gap in our understanding and more systematically develop rich pathways of learning with technology for young people? To search for some answers, we went to some of the most innovative educators we know in out-of-school (OST) programs that integrate digital media deeply into their teaching and learning.
For the past year, I have led the Susan Crown Exchange (SCE) Digital Learning Challenge with an amazing team including Dr. Rafi Santo (Project Director, Research Scientist), Dr. Anthony Pellicone (Research Scientist), and Juan Pablo Sarmiento (Graduate Student, Documentary Filmmaker). In partnership with SCE, we regularly convene a small cadre of 8 OST organizations that share best practices with each other. These partners include AS220, Beam Center, Digital Harbor Foundation, DreamYard, Free Spirit Media, The Knowledge House, West Michigan Center for Arts + Technology, and YouMedia.
We also convene face-to-face meetings where we workshop new ideas in OST learning. Our research team has interviewed the staff and teachers in our partner organizations, asking them about their pedagogy, their missions, visions, and how they develop programs and partnerships to sustain their organizations. We’ve also made site visits to each partner, gathering footage and observations of their daily work, innovative programs, staff development, and community initiatives.
What have we learned so far? We’re documenting how our OST partners provide diverse learning experiences for young people who want to create with technology; whether it’s creating artistic expression and journalistic media or engineering software and physical products. But the most powerful lesson for me, has been in developing a deeper appreciation for how OST programs can provide apprenticeship experiences that onramp youth into new fields. OST programs can be nimble, in the face of a changing world, to directly apprentice young people into evolving fields in ways that other institutions are constrained from doing.
We look forward to sharing case studies and the best practices that our partners are showing us, in the near future via reports and web-based resources. We hope that these best practices will help other OST programs develop their pedagogical practices, choose technology, understand how to foster a multitude of skills for youth that range from technical to social and dispositional skills, and create better partnerships with their local networks to support their youth.
As we delve deeper into digital learning programs and compare across them, we are also realizing that our OST partners – together as a collective – provide experiences for youth that prepare them to have more agency over their futures. For example in Chicago IL, young people with a shared interest in gaming, come together and create podcasts that they release to the public. Not only are these youth developing technical skills in media production and communication, but also learning key skills in utilizing the Internet to promote, share, and communicate their ideas. They are collaborating, following through on their passions, and thinking as entrepreneurs.
In Providence RI, young artists of color use their skills across the arts (e.g. digital arts, music production, performance art etc.) to unveil an end-of-year performance based on afrofuturism. What’s happening here? This performance is not your run-of-the-mill school play. These youth – many coming from low-income and marginalized communities – are deepening their practice as artists (where digital tools are increasingly a core part of artistic practice), interrogating the oppression and obstacles they face in their everyday lives, learning to mobilize their local community, and designing the futures that they want to create for a more equitable world.
In the Bronx NY, youth are geeking out, learning to code, developing software, and creating web applications. But, because their OST program has developed partnerships with other non-profit organizations, loc
al universities and community colleges, and employers in the city, these youth have opportunities to level-up their skills in different settings, earn credentials to demonstrate their growing expertise to the world, and apply their skills directly in client-based work that give them direct pathways to work.
All of these examples, and the many more we will share from this project, are case studies of unique ways to structure and deliver digital learning experiences to young people. Also important to note, is how any given configuration in a program, prepares young people for different potential futures: entrepreneurial, artistic, personally fulfilling, community enriching, and sometimes with economic potential and social impact. Any one program does not do it all. So, a vital question that I am pondering, going forward, is how do we leverage the expertise of our educators to systematically provide a range of experiences for a young person, as they seek out their vocation in life?
Finally, our partners have taught me the profound importance of being “place-based” and deeply rooted in their local communities. Why is this feature important? Often, when we talk about preparing young people for the future, the automatic assumption is that we need to teach them content knowledge and technical skills. There is no doubt that knowledge and skills are vital in the learning process. However, what happens when young people are learning these skills with peers who are similar to them, face similar challenges in society, and see adult mentors and teachers who deeply understand where they are coming from? All of a sudden, learning these skills becomes relevant to a person, a part of their social and personal identity, and an endeavor that one can imagine doing for a long time and even enjoying.
What happens further when I am learning skills (such as coding etc.), but then applying them to community projects that uplift your neighborhood? Now the skills and dispositions I am developing can be used in ways that matter to the world. Now I can have an impact! And when I work with others, we can amplify our impact. We have a purpose and a mission. Now imagine, that young people are having all of these experiences, but they can also receive recognition for their work. Perhaps their portfolios help them to the next step of their personal pathways, such as getting into college. Perhaps OST programs partner with employers to provide paid-internship experiences or client-based work. Now the skills young people are learning, the dispositions they are developing, the mission and purpose they are cultivating, can also be economically viable through work experience.
This picture of learning experiences goes much deeper than merely learning “skills” and gaining

 knowledge. As I’ve reflected on these examples from our OST partners, I was reminded of the concept of “ikigai”, or the striving to find one’s deepest vocation or reason for being. The popular notion of the concept suggests that one needs to develop a combination of facets in one’s life: being good at something, finding love in it, making a social impact and doing good in the world, and being able to support oneself economically (at least). This deeper notion of learning to be, seems abundantly present in how our OST partners try to reach young people. In the coming months, I’m most excited to share the stories and case studies from our partners, revealing how their best practices promote this deeper notion of learning and prepare young people for a diverse array of possible futures.
(Feature image provided by Digital Harbor Foundation in Baltimore, MD.) 

The 5 things learned from my first grantmaking initiative

It has been nearly a year to the day since I started as SCE’s Digital Learning Program Officer. Since then, I’ve collaboratively worked to build and launch the Digital Learning Challenge. As in life, things always comes full circle: on the anniversary of my start date, we publicly announced our incredible program partners for the Digital Learning Challenge. Here’s what I’ve learned:

1) The hardest part is starting: There is an interesting balance required of any new employee in a new organization: find a way to respect the organization’s history and learnings, while respecting your own experience and knowledge, and then figure out how to blend them together so that all parties feel heard, respected, and invested. Yet, I’ve also learned that when you land in the right organization, that balance is no longer required. In short, it’s been a great year.

On its simplest level, SCE is a learning organization and my job is to figure out how to bring together really smart people with great ideas and work together to find answers to hard questions. We believe that our grantees – or as we refer to them, partners – are the experts because day in and day out, they are the ones researching and working directly with the youth to develop the programs that best work for them. At SCE, it is our job to listen. It’s not about saying we don’t know everything, it’s about recognizing that there is always more to learn. It’s a humbling and empowering way to work.

2) The second hardest part is remembering those values: The hard work is only just beginning and the true test is remembering to let go of what I think and really, truly listen.

3)  The more questions you ask…: When we set out to build the RFP, we took learnings from the first SEL Challenge. First, we did not want to overburden the finalists with a lengthy RFP process, so we sought to ask more questions up front, believing that it would provide us more information to make a decision. We also thought we were super smart in setting word counts. Nope. Not only did we likely put a strain on already-time-strapped (and overworked!) development officers and organizations, but then we had to read all the answers. With nearly 100 applicants, over 30 questions, 2 employees, and only 10 days to get through it all, it was a lot.

Next time, how do we set up an RFP that includes specific enough questions to get us the information we need while balancing the time and effort of the organizations applying? On that note, are there any grant processes that have been your ‘favorite’ and why? Leave a comment below!

4) How can we better address the geographical divide?: As you have seen in previous posts our goal with this initiative is to identify and bring together diverse organizations to collaborate and share their practices. Here’s who didn’t apply: organizations serving rural communities. More specifically, of 90 applicants, only 2 applicants served rural-only areas. The reality is, and further evidenced by results of the recent presidential election, urban and rural populations are deeply divided.

Now there could be a lot of reasons to this: there are not many organizations using digital tools for learning in rural communities (unlikely), organizations may not have ‘seen themselves’ in the RFP language (possible), organizations serving these areas may not have the capacity to participate in a high-touch initiative (something to think about), our networks in these areas are weak (true), or maybe they just don’t want to hang with us city folk (I don’t really blame you). But for whatever the reason for the dearth of applicants, we have to do better: all initiatives are stronger with diverse voices at the table.

If you’re an organization serving rural communities, we would love to hear from you on how we can do better. Comment below please!

5) Where are the Citizen Coders?:  Broadly speaking, our cohort of applicants consisted of two types: arts and design. We classified arts as journalism, photography, music, and digital arts programs and design as video game design, sound design, general making or other industrial-type design.

This led me to ask, why does it seem that the nonprofit, corporate, and civic sectors always talk about coding as a way to get a job, as opposed as a way to make change? We know that youth today are demanding careers that have a sense of purpose and meaning and to me, coding and STEM is just as much about art, language and problem solving as any of the other programs listed above. How can we change the narrative about these vital skills?

In conclusion, this is why SCE is so cool. I get to take these questions that arise from the first step of a process, talk to other people who are doing this work, and let that inform our grantmaking strategy moving forward. Stay tuned…

Sarah Kammerer is the Digital Learning Program Officer at SCE.


Announcing SCE’s 2017 Digital Learning Challenge Grantees!

Throughout the course of this 18-month initiative, the Challenge learning community – a primary team consisting of afterschool program partners, a research team from NYU, and SCE, and a secondary team of human resource professionals and system intermediaries – will explore what it means to be a prepared and skilled 21st century citizen. To do this, we have partnered with eight programs that use digital tools for learning. We will study how the work is done, in differing contexts, with different sets of challenges, and how success is achieved navigating all of these factors.

Each program partner has similar qualities: exemplar programs using digital tools for learning, and serving youth ages 13-18 in afterschool settings. Each focuses on skill growth by working with youth to create and connect hands-on learning experiences to life, work and play beyond the program. Each program partner serves an urban population (a challenge we hope to address in future grantmaking). However, each program partner differs in how it defines 21st century skills, the tools used, and program model, all of which are based on the unique community context.

Uniquely positioned, each partner has identified a set of skills – digital, social and emotional, and civic that are most valuable for the youth based on the demands of each community. Prescient in the program design, organizational leadership also understands that in a world where technology is changing how we work, digital media skills are a critical vehicle for teens to develop in-demand workforce skills. Many, if not all, have partnered with local employers and other organizations to create economic pathways through project-based training, networking opportunities, and paid apprenticeships.  Due to this, the Challenge will also explore the changing nature of work and the role of digital media and informal learning environments in equipping youth with skills needed to thrive as professionals in the workforce.

And that, we believe is our sweet spot. Our goal is to honor the important contextual differences while identifying and understanding common processes. And then together, we will analyze and articulate best practices and share what we’ve learned with educators, informal learning practitioners, and others with a vested interest in ensuring more youth have access to more meaningful learning experiences using digital tools, while preparing them for success in work, life, and play.


Learning Community Participants

Program Partners

 AS220: Founded in 1985, AS220 is a non-profit community arts organization located in downtown Providence, Rhode Island and is the parent organization to AS220 Youth. AS220 Youth serves 450 students four days a week, year round, in partnership with an alternative middle school and the state juvenile detention center. AS220 Youth’s core project focus is ZuKrewe:  a youth-led artist collective that uses music, art, social justice, and popular culture to promote and create social change. ZuKrewe represents a diverse group of young people who are using their talents to positively affect their friends, families, and neighborhoods while encouraging their peers to become involved in the issues that matter most to them. The program combines in-depth arts, entrepreneurial, and technical education with service to communities in Providence and greater Rhode Island and helps prepare our youth postsecondary education and/or the workforce. Zukrewe is divided into 5 teams, with each team responsible for elements that contribute to a final performance on social-justice topics at the end of the year.

The Beam Center: Founded in 2005 in Brooklyn, NY, Beam Center connects youth to learning with creative projects that combine STEM with art and design while fostering collaboration and authentic relationships with adults. The Beam Center’s Apprentice Program recruits high school juniors and seniors from Title-I public school partners and provides an intensive internship-like, afterschool experience for cohorts of 25-30 students. Apprenticeships take place twice-a-week over a 16-week period with Beam faculty engineers, artists, and scientists to create a large-scale collaborative project each session. Students learn the basics of digital and manual tool use, as well as how to collaboratively plan and execute a large project. Projects vary per session but all employ design-thinking, hands-on creation, multidisciplinary academic content, digital and manual fabrication skills, and digital media creation. The experience forms the basis for future interest-driven learning as well as skills that can be used in a variety of settings. Apprentices who complete the program are eligible for paid summer jobs at a community day camp and afterschool programs through a partnership with ExpandEd NYC.

YOUmedia, Chicago Public Library: Since 1873, Chicago Public Library (CPL) has encouraged lifelong learning by offering equal access to information and knowledge. Created in 2009, CPL’s YOUmedia is a 21st century teen learning lab in 12 branches. It serves as a national model that has informed the work of nearly 30 libraries and other public spaces throughout the country. This Library program) offers teens numerous entry-points for self-expression, project-based learning, and collaboration. At YOUmedia, high-school students from across Chicago can access—free of charge—a range of technologies that would be difficult to find elsewhere, such as DSLR cameras, maker bots, and graphic design software. Whether building basic skills, learning advanced production techniques, or pursuing more individualized projects, specially-trained mentors support teens in using these technologies as tools for creating, learning, and communicating. YOUmedia’s digital learning opportunities are also designed with low barriers to participation: teens can join a project at lower engagement levels and “level up” as their skills and interest develops.

Digital Harbor Foundation (DHF): In 2013, DHF transformed a closed-down inner-city Baltimore rec center into the DHF Tech Center, a 5,000-ft2 makerspace to deliver youth-focused technology education programs in high-growth pathways ranging from digital fabrication to web development, design, and electronics. Based in maker philosophy and practice, DHF programs provide support for informal learning, and create a continuous, progressive pathway into technology education, innovation, and career options for youth ages 13-18. All incoming DHF youth enroll in Maker Foundations, a 14-week exploratory course designed to give youth hands-on experience with the various meanings of ‘technology,’ help them identify their own interests, and develop career-ready skills and self-efficacy as creative technologists. When youth complete Maker Foundations, they progress to the MegaLab programs, an array of seven-week project-based courses that build access, interest, and competence in technology innovation and creativity, especially for minority and underserved youth. These intermediate and advanced courses offer deeper experience in high-growth, interconnected areas such as Interactive Design, JavaScript, Game Design, CAD software, and Electronics.

DreamYard: Established in 1994, DreamYard is the largest arts provider in the Bronx. The organization’s approach is rooted in art and social justice pedagogy and supports students in developing a lifelong learning pathway. DreamYard’s Digital Learning Portfolio initiative captures the process of student learning, encouraging students to manage and direct their own learning narrative to better present themselves to colleges, employers, and peer interest groups. DreamYard is building out their digital portfolio work with the DreamYard Bronx Art Collective (BAC), a year-round visual art program to activate STEM learning and interest in design, coding, digital art, and more.  DreamYard is supporting youth as they experiment with ideas in hands-on, real-world situations. The skills and knowledge that youth acquire at DreamYard are wide-ranging, from learning to use technology, to developing original pieces of art, to creating community place-based design initiatives, to developing communication and leadership skills.

Free Spirit Media: Founded in 2001, Free Spirit Media (FSM) provides youth on Chicago’s South and West sides with a comprehensive foundation in media literacy and hands-on digital media production experience. FSM News is an afterschool and summer program where student reporters produce news packages, issue specific mini-documentaries, socially conscious narrative pieces, and public service announcements for broadcast on local Chicago TV stations. Curriculum focuses on news literacy, solutions-oriented reporting, journalism ethics, and digital media production as a form of civic engagement. At the apprentice level, the curriculum is focused on building the literacy and technical skills needed for journalism and video production. By the program’s completion, apprentices produce and distribute a newscast using the digital media skills gained throughout the year. Advanced crews are responsible for completing 5-6 themed newscasts throughout the year to showcase their skills in broadcast journalism and digital media production.

The Knowledge House (TKH): Located in the Bronx, TKH provides technology and digital media instruction to young adults to prepare them for the 21st century workforce. The Intro to Tech Entrepreneurship course provides low-income students in NYC with an introduction to the various technology occupations and skillsets (AutoCAD, Virtual Reality, Data Visualization, UX/UI, Graphic Design, Digital Marketing, and more), coding, and workplace skills to prepare them to thrive in the technology ecosystem. Students engage in project-based learning through daily digital and coding exercises, individual and group projects, and final presentations. To complete these core programs, students ideate, design, develop, and demonstrate a technology product produced within a team that addresses a community or user need. Students present their digital project at a demonstration event (Demo Day) open to the community. The program also exposes students to professionals in the technology sector through networking events, site visits and Hackathons.

West Michigan Center for Arts + Tech (WMCAT): Founded in 2005, WMCAT after school Teen Arts and Tech Program provides hands-on studio experiences to high school students in Grand Rapids, Michigan. WMCAT engages nearly 150 students twice a week throughout the school year in student-centered, project-based learning experiences melding the arts and technology. This non-drop in program is comprised of both introductory and advanced level courses, guided by professional teaching artists to expand teens’ technical skills, build their creative confidence, and promote engagement with their community. WMCAT provides studios in video production, audio production, digital photography, and video game and app design and engages teens in creating original films, podcasts, video games, and photo essays to elevate their voices and affect community conversations. The tuition-free after school program eliminates financial barriers, offers transportation to and from the WMCAT facility, and provides all students with access to professional equipment, intentionally outfitted studio spaces, and mentoring from teaching artists.

Research Partner

The Innovatory Learning Group, based in New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, is an interdisciplinary research group that designs and studies novel ways to interact with technology and information in the service of improving educational opportunities for all learners. The team – Dr. June Ahn, Dr. Dixie Ching and Dr. Rafi Santo – brings expertise in out-of-school and community-based programs, digital media and learning, design of learning technologies, digital initiatives in informal learning organizations, and the role of networks in informal organizational development that will inform the research and learning community aspects of SCE Digital Learning Challenge.

Funding Partner

Susan Crown Exchange (SCE) is a Chicago-based foundation invested in shaping an ecosystem of anytime, anywhere learning to prepare youth to adapt and thrive in a rapidly changing and highly-connected world. Through three primary programs—digital learning, social and emotional learning, and catalyst grants—SCE connects talent and innovation with forces for positive change. SCE’s exchange model leverages up-to-date research, best practices, grantmaking, and innovative programming to design, evaluate, and promote high-quality learning experiences for young people beyond the classroom, particularly youth from underserved communities.