Nonprofit Leaders in Digital Learning Share Their Insights

What roles can data play in building effective digital learning programs for youth? How can those programs ensure that their most ambitious projects succeed? And how can your organization leverage professional development to maximize impact?

In a new webinar series on Reclaiming Digital Futures, experts from our Digital Learning partners explore these questions—and much more. These webinars are great resources for educators and nonprofit professionals interested in effective practices for equitable, youth-centered digital learning.

Watch the webinars here!

#1: Using Data to Improve Out-of-School Digital Learning Programs

#2: Creating Big, Ambitious, Collaborative Projects

#3: Professional Learning and Staff Capacity to Support Out-of-School Digital Learning Programs

We asked teens how to exercise better judgement online. Their responses blew us away.

“How might we improve people’s judgement in digital spaces?”

This was the question that guided the Untagle the Web hackathon, a two-day event we hosted this summer in collaboration with We gathered 15 exceptional young people who had expressed an interest in improving online life and asked them to develop a wireframe for a tool that would do just that.

Untangling the web

Last year, we partnered with DoSomething to develop Untangle the Web, a campaign designed to kickstart intergenerational conversations about digital life. DoSomething asked young people to take a quiz about how they used technology and media. Based on their responses, they received a digital personality and an action guide to help them start a conversation with an adult in their life. Whether a News Detective battling misinformation or a Ray of Sunshine spreading positive vibes, each young person shared an insight about their relationship with technology with a trusted adult.

Through this campaign, we aimed to reach 25,000 young people. Fifty-five thousand took the quiz.

Clearly, this project struck a chord with youth. We saw that young people recognized the effects that technology had on their lives and were desperate for resources that would help them navigate online environments.

Building on this momentum, we identified a small subset of the most engaged teens and asked them to apply for a hackathon—a two-day event where they could actually design a product that would help their peers untangle the web. We selected 15 of the most promising applicants from around the country and flew them out to New York City to participate.

Designing a mobile application to improve judgement in digital spaces. ©

The Hackathon

Working in small groups under the guidance of DoSomething mentors, these 15 teens developed wireframes for products that addressed our challenge question: “How might we improve people’s judgement in digital spaces?”  They then presented their ideas to a panel of judges with diverse experiences in technology:

  • Samarth Bhaskar, Senior Editor for Digital Transition Strategy, the New York Times
  • Ross Dakin, adjunct professor of computer science, Lehman College
  • Tej Gokhale, Civic Action Lead,
  • Jerelyn Rodriguez, co-founder, The Knowledge House
  • Calvin Stalvig, Director of Youth Programming, Beam Center

We wanted to make sure our participants had plenty of space to develop their own ideas, so we only had a few requirements. Products had to be feasible, with a well-articulated problem, simple solution, and clear distinction from applications already on the market. They had to be functional, with a fleshed-out user experience. Lastly, they had to be integrated with existing online platforms.

Working in teams of three, our participants developed five product ideas:

  • Thinklight: a chatroom that connects users with mental health professionals.
  • ZiN: a bot that sends users daily affirmations that reinforce positive behaviors.
  • VeriLegit: an application that uses existing databases to judge the accuracy of online media.
  • HideOut: a service that clarifies who will see the personal information that users share.
  • BullyBeeGone: a program that automatically hides and deletes abusive comments and messages on social media.

The 15 participants. ©

What did we learn?

This inspiring group of youth taught us so much about how young people today relate to technology. Here are our main takeaways.

  1. Young people want their voices to be heard. Over and over again, the young participants expressed appreciation that adults were making space for their ideas—and their leadership. Knowing that their voices are truly valued can encourage young people to get involved.
  2. These issues resonate with participants. The 15 young people we invited to the hackathon care deeply about online interaction. They also believe that online spaces could function better for young people—and that they’re perfectly capable of fixing them. These people were willing to spend a summer weekend working hard to make the internet better. They skipped their optional breaks to do it. And they designed five really, really impressive products.
  3. Diverse solutions empower more users. In the selection process, we prioritized participants that came from different geographies, races, socioeconomic backgrounds, and gender and sexual identities. This group clearly recognized that issues of online judgement don’t operate in a vacuum, and proposed solutions that took identity into consideration.
  4. Good online judgement means something different to everyone. We encouraged our participants to relate this topic to their own lived experiences. This allowed the cohort to focus on the specific issue or multiple issues that they felt were most pressing—and led to a diverse set of solutions. These participants didn’t necessarily agree on a single definition of “online judgement.” We think that’s a good thing. The one thing our participants did agree on? That it shouldn’t just be on them to exercise good judgement—tech companies have a responsibility to promote it.

The BullyBeeGone team. ©

What comes next?

Based on a set of criteria that included functionality, user experience, and potential for impact, our panel of judges selected BullyBeeGone as the official winner of the hackathon. Over the next few months, DoSomething will work with BullyBeeGone’s young designers to develop a minimum viable product (MVP) that will bring this great idea one step closer to the market. We’re excited by BullyBeeGone’s potential and thrilled that young people themselves are involved at every step of the design process.

Young people have really good ideas—and they’re willing to share them. It’s up to us to listen and to help them bring those ideas to fruition. In partnership with organizations like DoSomething, we’re striving to elevate youth voice and unlock young people’s potential as true agents of change.

Watch the video from the event.

Lessons Learned from a Research-Practice Partnership

SCE’s executive director shares lessons learned from a research-practice partnership focused on how digital tools and practices can promote the development of skills for the workforce and positive community participation. Read the blog here.

The Power of Learning Communities: Three Things I Learned from a Research-Practice Partnership


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.) 

UNICEF Report: The State of the World’s Children in 2017: Children in a Digital World

“Digital technology has transformed the world we live in – disrupting entire industries and changing the social landscape. Childhood is no exception. One in three internet users worldwide is a child, and young people are now the most connected of all age groups. From photos posted online to medical records stored in the cloud, many children have a digital footprint before they can even walk or talk. Digital technology can be a game changer for disadvantaged children, offering them new opportunities to learn, socialize and make their voices heard – or it can be yet another dividing line. Millions of children are left out of an increasingly connected world. And the online gender gap is growing: Globally there are 12 per cent more men than women online, and the gap is greatest in low-income countries. And as digital technology rapidly evolves, so can the risks children face online – from cyberbullying to misuse of their private information to online sexual abuse and exploitation. For better and for worse, digital technology is an irreversible fact of our lives. How we minimize the risks while maximizing access to the benefits will help shape the lives and futures of a new generation of digital natives. UNICEF set out to uncover how the internet and digital technology are helping and hindering children’s learning, well-being and social relationships. Explore these stories and learn about the urgent need to make the internet safer for children while increasing access to digital technology for every child, especially the most disadvantaged.”

To learn more and download the report:


What Makes a House a Home?

The Susan Crown Exchange (SCE) staff and board are not alone in our concern about the current state of our country: who is being heard, who is getting what they need, and who is being left behind. And like many others, we are seeking to define what that means to us in our investments, and how to collaboratively find solutions to these challenges..

We started by thinking about our model (the Exchange), our areas of interests (digital learning and social and emotional learning), and better defining what success means to us (ensuring youth have the skills to thrive). Without getting into the nitty-gritty of these conversations, we have come to the realization that when we say our goal is for youth to thrive, we mean that youth need the skills to thrive in life, work, and play. This realization has led us to more specifically think about digital citizenship, workforce readiness, and sports and coaching.

The why in this case matters, but that is for another time. Right now, I would love to know:

what does digital citizenship mean to you?

Webster’s Dictionary defines citizenship as “the qualities that a person is expected to have as a responsible member of a community.” The term is listed as a noun, but really, citizenship is a verb: it’s a way of responsibly living and engaging in the community in which you live. The word’s origin is Latin – civitas – because at the time, more people identified as a citizen of their city than with their country. Today, technology has broken down traditional borders and again shifted the meaning of community. Thus, a digital citizen is one who acts as a responsible member within their online community.

The challenge with digital citizenship is that because it is so new, the rules are constantly being drafted and re-drafted without understanding the risks, rewards, and responsibilities of  navigating online communities, sometimes – whether inadvertently or advertently – causing pain to others. At SCE, we believe kindness matters. We are seeking to bridge, rather than divide our communities, our workplaces, and our families, and we are looking at how to best do that.

Recently, I had a conversation with Kristen Cambell, the executive director of PACE, and I asked what digital citizenship meant to her. She replied that the answer would depend on the perspective: is it an avenue for engaging in citizenship, or a practice in and of itself? To further our discussion, Kristen shared a metaphor around how her funders and practitioners think about civic engagement (as excerpted from the original blog: The Civic Engagement Field is a House, July 28, 2017):

“If you think of the civic engagement field as a big house, it’s easy to visualize the way funders and practitioners interact with one another to create the larger whole we all represent, and how each piece interacts with and supports the others. In civic engagement some folks come in through the front door, with the kinds of activities we traditionally associate with civic engagement like voting, community organizing, volunteering, etc. Others come in through a side door or a window. These folks might focus on issues like the alleviation of poverty, environmental work, or health, and they use civic engagement as a strategy to achieve those ends. Others serve as the floor or foundation of house. These are folks who focus on issues like structural inequality or personal freedom, and see civic engagement as a mechanism for building individual social and political power and shifting systems toward a more inclusive and representative frame. Without a strong foundation, the other elements of the house are fundamentally weakened. Finally, there is the roof, or the enabling conditions of democracy, encompassing things like journalism, media, and social entrepreneurship. The roof protects the house — if there’s a leak, that negatively influences the way the rest of the elements can operate.”

I like this metaphor. It’s a simple, yet systematic way to understand the players in the civic engagement space. However, it is missing one vital thing: the people – the citizens themselves – and how they interact with one another.

Change, on any level, cannot happen without people. And while these interactions between citizens look slightly different whether online or offline, it’s the core components of citizenship – responsibly living and engaging in the community in which you live – that matters. To take the house metaphor, is (digital) citizenship the nails of the house – what keeps it all together – or is it the people living in the house – the ones who make the house a home?

We are still early in this process and are still seeking to understand what is going on in this space: if you have thoughts or ideas on this, please take one minute to fill out the survey or leave a message in the comments below.

Announcing Two New Venture Grants

SCE is pleased to announce two new Venture Grants: Remake Learning in our Digital Learning portfolio and Wings for Kids in our Social and Emotional Learning portfolio. SCE Venture Grants target thought leaders and creative organizations on the leading edge of the field. Through our Venture Grant initiative, we build partnerships with innovative groups working to solve key challenges aligned to our strategy.

Remake Learning is a professional network of educators and innovators working together to shape the future of teaching and learning in the Greater Pittsburgh Region. Representing more than 250 organizations, including early learning centers & schools, museums & libraries, afterschool programs & community nonprofits, colleges & universities, ed-tech startups & major employers, philanthropies & civic leaders, Remake Learning is collaborative effort to inspire and empower a generation of lifelong learners in Pittsburgh, West Virginia, and beyond. To learn more about Remake’s process and outcomes, download the Remake Learning Playbook. The Playbook covers the theory and practice of building learning innovation networks, the resources and strategies required to put networks into action, and the impact of the network in schools, museums, libraries, communities, and more.

Wings for Kids aims to equip at-risk kids with the social and emotional skills to succeed in school, stay in school, and thrive in life. WINGS is the only U.S. organization focused solely on providing social and emotional education within after school programs and serves more than 1,600 kids every day at 11 locations. The organization uses a codified, research-based curriculum that requires daily data entry to track kids’ progress and ensure that providers are delivering the desired outcomes of improving social and emotional skills, behavior, attendance, and academic performance.  Click here for a free DIY SEL kit.

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.