Media center nurtures teens’ interest in digital technology to help them connect with their passions and interests

girl browse internetNo doubt when Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg were students, they had teachers who thought they were wasting too much time on their computers.

Although many educators continue to feel skeptical about the value of many of teens’ activities in cyberspace, it’s the rare teacher who doesn’t acknowledge that students nevertheless are building technology literacy as they engage in these activities.

But there may be an even more important reason to nurture student engagement with digital media than technology literacy, says the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute in a Year 1 report on YOUmedia, an ambitious digital media program for teens in Chicago.

The ultimate goal of YOUmedia, the joint venture of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Chicago Public Library, and the Digital Youth Network, is to help teens connect with their interests and passions through technology and in this way put them on a path of engagement, learning and leadership to be the next generation’s entrepreneurs, artists and change agents. The partners wanted to embed technology in a fluid social environment where friendships and communities could organize around shared interests and help guide and inspire activities.

“Currently, the learning that takes place around the use of digital media appears to be largely organic, arising serendipitously online and through collaborations with friends,” the Consortium writes.

“Peer relationships and an emerging sense of community served as a potent force that drove teens to engage with digital technology in new ways. YOUmedia encouraged teens to socialize, exchange ideas, and collaborate and share with their peers. Teens view YOUmedia as a unique learning environment—one that does away with the formalities of high school so that they feel free to explore their interests and express themselves.”

30 YOUmedia centers planned nationally

YOUmedia is not an isolated initiative. Pres. Obama recently announced that the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the MacArthur Foundation will fund the creation of 30 more YOUmedia centers across the country. Chicago Public Schools will soon open 3 new YOUmedia centers in library branches across Chicago.

In Chicago, YOUmedia occupies 5,500 square foot space on the ground floor of the Harold Washington Library Center downtown. It is the first space in the public library to be dedicated to teens, the Consortium reports. The space is designed to accommodate 3 levels of teen engagement with technology. The space features brightly colored lounging furniture as well as computers for browsing and social use; gaming consoles, digital music equipment and audio production computer software that can be used according to interest and a serious work space that includes modular conference tables and a SMART board.

3 levels of student engagement

The 3 levels of student engagement were identified during a 3-year ethnographic project built on observations at 23 field sites including homes, neighborhoods, learning institutions, (after-school programs), online communities, networked sites and interest-based groups.

The 3 levels of participation at the core of YOUmedia are:

Hanging out, which is primarily friendship driven. The “hanging out” section of the library is defined by bright green, red and yellow couches, cushioned rocking chairs and plush bean chairs. In this section, teens can check Facebook on laptops, play games like Rock Band and even eat on the green flooring. They can browse the library’s young adult collection here while socializing with friends.

Messing around, in which teens display a budding interest in digital media. They may have particular skills around digital media across different domains. This section in the library space is identified by red flooring, and also provides a gaming console, plush seating, and books (mostly reference materials and Japanese comic books called manga). This space has kiosks with PC and Mac desktops that contain production software. Students can also use a studio that has tools to produce music and other audio recordings.

Geeking Out, in which teens develop specialized expertise with digital media. This might also include involvement with particular sub-cultures or interest-driven communities. This section in the library is designed as a more serious work space. It is located far from the chatter of the hanging out space and has moveable conference tables, dry erase boards, and a SMART board. Here, as throughout the space, teens can use laptops, cameras, and other digital equipment to make digital media products.

Researchers theorize that interacting with digital media can provide significant motivation for youth to participate, create, and become active learners. By allowing youth to directly create, share, revise, and publish their own work, digital media can influence learning in ways that textbooks, lectures, and older generations of technology can not,” the report says. Teens receive immediate and continuing feedback on their efforts from their online audience and collaborators.

YOUmedia was designed to draw teens into progressive levels of participation in digital and traditional media. At any given time, most teens choose to be in the “hanging out” space, the report says. The initiative has an online space, a closed social networking platform that offered teens 24-hour access to digital media across the gamut of engagement from casual to intense participation. In its report on Year 1, the Consortium said the online component was not well utilized.

One of the major lessons learned in Year 1 of the project is that relationships between youth and adult mentors are crucial in guiding teens toward productive growth. Initially, the partners believed that providing teens with a space and with digital media tools and activities centered on their interests would be enough to yield results.

During the first year, though, staff found that teens left on their own did not automatically connect with workshops and other structured activities that were designed to teach new skills and provide opportunities to explore interests more deeply. That changed when adults reached out to connect with youth socially, acting as guides and “cool” collaborators,” the report says.

Flexibility among staff and fluid processes around programming were found to be very important for youth involvement at all participation levels. Mentors learned to shift away from an adult structured mode of teaching and activity towards a model that was more closely tied to what teens wanted to learn and how they wanted to learn it. This responsiveness and flexibility in formal learning opportunities—as well as informal, purposeful interactions—increased participation, expanded social networks, and deepened the teens’ understanding and use of digital and traditional media, according to the Consortium report.

Consortium researchers logged 130 hours over 9 months in the library space, observing activities and informally interviewing teens to file their report. They also conducted interviews with teens, mentors, librarians and security guards.

Between October 2009 and August 2010, 1,593 teens registered for YOUmedia. Of those who reported demographic information, 47% were male and 53% were female. The majority of those who reported race were African American (64%). Comparatively, the CPS student population during the 2009-10 school year was 50% male and 45% African American.

Digital resources available to teens included:

  • Garageband, a software program that allows users to create music or podcasts,
  • Manga, a type of Japanese comic or print cartoon
  • MPC Player (Music Production Center), a production tool that allows users to create “beats” and songs by sequencing existing rhythm tracks and instrumental audio, and to import audio files
  • Protocols, a software program used by many professionals that allows for digital music editing production
  • Rock Band, a music video game that allows players to use instrument-like con- trollers to stimulate playing popular songs. The “band” can be up to 4 participants, including vocalist, lead guitarist and drummer

“YOUmedia Chicago, Reimagining Learning, literacies and Libraries: A Snapshot of Year 1”, by Kimberly Austin et al., Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute, May 2011.

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