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Expert Interview: Nichole Pinkard and Akili Lee, Digital Youth Network

Audrey Stokes | March 18, 2011

The Digital Youth Network is a digital literacy program that gives students on Chicago’s South Side the skills and tools they need to be media creators — and critical media consumers. So what can teachers and parents across the country learn about teaching digital literacy from Digital Youth Network’s program? Common Sense Media talked with founder Nichole Pinkard and program director Akili Lee to find out.

In addition to technical skills, what are the kids in your program learning?

Nichole: One of the skills our kids are learning in the context of Digital Youth Network is how to collaborate. They’re developing the ability to communicate with an audience beyond their local community — people across the state but also in other countries. Also, they’re learning how to critique the media that they take in on a daily basis, to understand how both the format and how the media is presented impact the message and to be more conscious of that. What we do is try to teach them how to critique it through the process of creating it.

Akili: We also really try to work on developing a framework that can support students in building a sense of social agency and social responsibility for how they take in media and really inform how they create media as well.

Why do you think your program is successful?

Nichole: First, I believe that if we look at most people who are using media effectively, you’re going to see that there’s either some type of network, social capital, or people who are surrounding them and helping them. So our program has been partly successful because we have a group of kids who see each other every day, and they’re constantly seeing someone who’s doing something that they’re interested in. So they’re surrounded by opportunities to develop their skill sets and by people who look like them who are doing it. So there’s no excuse for why they can’t.

Second, our program is successful because we’ve developed partnerships between our parents and teachers and media artists, and everyone is working together for the greater good of the kids. Teachers respect the media artists who come in, and parents respect what kids are doing with digital media because they see a value that it adds both in traditional academics but also the skill sets that they’re bringing home into the family.

What would you tell a teacher who wanted to start something like DYN?

Nichole: First I would tell the teacher to do a canvas of their local community and look at the community centers where their kids are already going. You will probably see kids already engaged in media. I would tell them to do some surveys, and gain an understanding of just what are the skills their kids already have, where are they learning from, what are their learning resources, and who are they learning with — to just get a picture of the tremendous number of resources that they probably already have at their disposal that [teachers are] just not aware of.

And then once you understand that, you can think about what partnerships you need to put in place and realize that it’s not the teacher’s responsibility to try to do everything themselves. It’s to think of who are the parents or kids in the school who can come in and do some of these mini workshops for them.

What about on a smaller scale? What can they do to bring digital literacy into their classrooms?

Nichole: Before you think about teaching it, think about how you’re using it. So get a Facebook page, learn how to Twitter, create a movie, go on YouTube every once in a while and see what’s going on. Get comfortable and familiar with some of these resources, and then once you do, the ideals of how to incorporate it into your instruction will naturally come to you.

Akili: I think the biggest barrier to all of this for adults is that we’re slow to stop and say “we want to learn from what the students are doing.” It’s a hard thing for us to decide to do, but it’s actually an easy win to stop, listen, and really look at what the students are doing and try to realize what’s productive in those different interactions and then try to figure out how you can build on top of that.

So if you have a student who already spends all day on YouTube, or they’re doing a lot of critique through blogs or forums and have these amazing discussions online, do adults look at that as just a waste of time? Or can we now take a step back and say, “All right, this student has been blogging for months now and writing pages and pages worth of text that are very focused on a particular issue, and they’re engaging with a wide audience around that, and they’re doing that on their own accord. Now, from an English teacher perspective, can I actually pull something from that?”

What’s the role of parents in kids’ media lives today?

Akili: When I was growing up, I couldn’t leave the house without my mother knowing where I was going or who I was going to be with. Same thing for the digital space. We don’t necessarily expect parents to engage in these spaces as deeply as children do. But let’s take the time to sit down with your child, and let’s look at Facebook. Ask, “What are you doing on Facebook? What are you doing on Tagged? What are you doing on YouTube?” I think if we can get past the stigmas around some of these spaces as just kind of “ scary spaces” and walk with your child into these digital spaces for a while, you can get acclimated and assist them in getting acclimated to the space as well.