Digital Learning

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.)