“Reclaiming Digital Futures”: Integrating Technology and Youth Development in Afterschool Education, a New Report Published by UCI, NYU, and the Susan Crown Exchange

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Study of eight exemplar organizations yields practical toolkit to help educators implement community-based digital learning to equip youth to thrive in the rapidly-changing, technology-driven world

The free guide will equip educators to leverage technology to foster learning that infuses digital tools and practices with deep focus on positive youth development

A team of researchers from the University of California, Irvine (UCI), and New York University (NYU) has just published “Reclaiming Digital Futures,” a free guide and associated website for youth organizations to use as they integrate digital learning into their programming and practices. The report is available at DigitalLearningPractices.org.

The objective of the guide is to equip educators to leverage technology to foster learning that infuses digital tools and practices with deep focus on positive youth development, igniting the hearts and minds of youth and preparing them to be impactful 21st century citizens – a much larger task than simply teaching technology-related skills like coding or data analysis.

The rising generation must learn to thrive in a world changing at warp speed, and it will take more than gut-level instincts to develop effective tools and programs to prepare them for this reality. To that end, the Chicago-based foundation Susan Crown Exchange worked with UCI and NYU to execute an in-depth analysis of leading out-of-school time organizations focused on equipping youth to navigate a world both analog and digital.

The report and the associated DigitalLearningPractices.org site contain a cross-section of resources to aid organizations and educators in developing quality programming that integrate technology and youth development. Rather than focusing on efforts to help youth become fluent and skilled in uses of technology simply for the sake of meeting predetermined standards, the organizations highlighted in the report provide practical avenues to support youth in transforming their communities and worlds.

The knowledge and best practices gleaned from the report’s partner organizations may be adopted and adapted by any youth-serving practitioners. Five strategic areas are identified for success in digital learning. The toolkit provides perspectives, practical how-to’s and case examples in each:

  • Pedagogy: Co-design programs with youth, combining educator and learner expertise with youth interest to help students develop relevant launchpads for learning. Learner-centered supports carefully surround youth with the right adults, educators and peers as they pursue robust digital projects in the context and application of meaningful work, play and goal achievement.

A strong example is seen in the YOUmedia program in the Chicago Public Library, which encourages youth to co-design new programs. Young people in YOUmedia have developed video screencasts of gameplay and community tournaments that link youth interests in gaming to digital production, leadership, and neighborhood organizing skills.

  • Skills: Design programs that offer students the opportunity to participate in real-world contexts and practice integrated skills such as technical production, project management, collaboration, adaptability and problem solving.

One highlighted example is FUTUREWORLDS, an annual event held by youth arts organization AS220 Youth in Providence, RI. FUTUREWORLDS focuses on ‘writing the future,’ and is part fashion show, part music and theater performance and part live storytelling. Apprentices from multiple programs in AS220 Youth collaborate and coordinate on all aspects; from determining a theme and format for the event, to the design and technical production of the event.

  • Technology: Leverage technology in a way to support larger organizational goals, moving youth from consumers to producers who understand technology is a useful tool to help achieve their own cultural and social agency. Youth should work collaboratively on projects with experts, such as teaching artists and industry volunteers, learning to tailor technical practices and applications to their deepening expertise in a field.

In Brooklyn, NY, Beam Center is a ‘maker’ centered organization that supports young people to create hands-on projects that integrate a wide variety of tools that include carpentry, welding, physical computing, video, ceramics, programming, textiles and design. Students are encouraged to push beyond discomfort with new tools to start immediately growing learning.

  • Community: Serve all students where they are, including disconnected and at-risk youth. Featured programs are deeply rooted in their individual communities and rely heavily on rich connections to local opportunity and need. Participants are provided the inspiration and audience for media and technology projects, plus access and pathways to professional and higher education opportunities.

An example is provided from WMCAT in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where students are encouraged to understand the “inner workings” of the Jammy’s, a local musical awards night. Students are encouraged to go backstage and interview the artists, plus they have other ‘behind the scenes’ access. Local professionals also come into the student space to discuss the types of paths through college and industry that make sense for their profession.

  • Capacity: Understand the importance of overall organizational priorities in hiring and developing staff individually and collectively. Emphasize a blend of skills in technology, creative media and the arts, and youth development.

The Digital Harbor Foundation (DHF) describes itself as “a melting pot of people from wildly different backgrounds (in both education background and professional experience).” At DHF, nobody presents themselves as a knowledge expert. All employees have experience on certain tools or processes, but there’s always room to grow, and that’s expected of staff and program participants alike.

The report on Reclaiming Digital Futures was developed after careful analysis of eight organizations that were selected through a highly competitive, national RFP. All are helping youth evolve into secure, capable, contributing adults through programs outside of the traditional classroom. The partner organizations are:

The distinctive vision of digital learning shared by these organizations focuses on youth power, creativity and agency instead of sole attention on technology or media. This kind of digital learning involves making and creating, amplifying youth voice on issues that matter, balancing technical and social and emotional skills, enhancing connections to culture and community, and directly linking youth to future opportunity.

Creating the Report
Developed through a collaborative process between the Susan Crown Exchange, researchers from the University of California, Irvine and New York University, and eight exemplar youth-serving organizations, Reclaiming Digital Futures is a toolkit of adoptable and adaptable resources that relay knowledge and best practices in achieving real success in youth-centered digital learning. The full project is available at DigitalLearningPractices.org. Learn more about the Susan Crown Exchange at scefdn.org.

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 grantmaking programs in digital learning and social and emotional learning, SCE helps to identify, codify and promote high-quality opportunities for young people to learn and grow in out-of-school time.

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Jamieson Pond
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since: 04/2011
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