Tag Archives: digital literacy

What’s it take to teach technological fluency to digital natives?

For nearly 30 years, Stehlik has been a computer science (CS) professor at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU); he was also Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Education for over 20 years, and is now Assistant Dean for Outreach. In 1984, when personal computers were a fresh innovation, he helped train the first cohort of Advanced Placement (AP) Computer Science teachers. In the digital age of ubiquitous smartphones, Stehlik continues his central role in computer science education.

Gregarious and voluble, Stehlik’s enthusiasm for CS is quickly apparent and highly contagious. Remake Learning spoke to him about spreading the gospel of computer science.

Whether you become a software engineer is less important than understanding the technological milieu in which we live.

What does the Assistant Dean for Outreach do?

While Carnegie Mellon has had tremendous success over the last 15 years with the female demographic—we went from 10% of a class being female to now almost 50%—we have not had as much success with other populations. Part of the outreach job is trying to figure out how to get more underrepresented students into the pipeline—to make the pipeline bigger. That is very much connected to where students learn about professions. Typically, that’s in high school, and high school computer science has not been in the best shape. So we think about how Carnegie Mellon can help in this space.

What should students know by the time they graduate high school? And what can they gain from early exposure to CS, even if they don’t pursue a CS degree?

They should know how to think. A lot of computer science is about problem-solving and figuring out how to implement the solution in a constrained programming language, which is an exercise in moving between layers of abstraction. It’s also incredibly creative, because you and I can come up with different solutions. We can argue about efficiency, or elegance, or clarity, so you start looking at layers of problem-solving—not just what answer is correct, but which is better.

We also know that technology is driving forward the US economy. Whether you become a software engineer is less important than understanding the technological milieu in which we live. What does it mean that elections can be hacked? When we talk about autonomous vehicles, at some point you need to decide how it responds to an unavoidable accident: what do you prioritize, what do you evaluate first? Some developer is going to have to implement this, but some non-developer should be thinking about the ethical implications.

I would also say everybody needs to be able to write a little bit of code, because everything exists in that space now. It’s important to be technically savvy in a tech-oriented world, and this generation is going to need to understand that space incredibly well.

You’re currently working with the South Fayette school district to improve their high school CS program, and teaching an AP course there. How do you get younger students excited about computing?

One of the interesting things in South Fayette is they have a wonderful K-8 computational thinking program. But if you took the kids who came through this program—exploring with Arduinos and robots, Scratch and Snap!—and you dropped them into the current 9th grade Java class, they would look at you like you had three heads.

You want to show the breadth of computer science as being way more than programming. I can envision a curriculum that lays the foundations in the 9th year with a bunch of different electives: robotics, machine learning. But you need wonderful programs in K-8, and then you need to look at what you’re doing in the high school and make sure you’re ready to engage these kids when they get there. The Remake Learning initiative is a perfect example: you’re thinking about how you can engage people in this technology now.

Do you notice a gender gap in either enrollment or performance in the K-12 classes? If so, what are your thoughts on how to narrow it?

In my AP class, there’s definitely a skew. But I think if you show things to kids in elementary school, before they’ve really figured out what they want to be, we’ll find a lot more people attaching to computing. I don’t think use of iPhones skews male or female, so why should thinking more deeply about that technology?

And people attach to technology in different ways. Some kids like to play with robots, some don’t; some kids like to play with graphical things, some don’t. The more varied the contexts you embed the technology in, the more likely you’ll be to not see those striations. Indeed, this is why it’s a fundamental access issue—it’s keeping the keys to the kingdom locked up that I think drives some of those gaps.

You spent two and a half years working at CMU’s Qatar campus. Qatar is highly ranked in average years of schooling, life expectancy and quality of life. But it’s also a monarchy ruled by Sharia Law. With programming, people can build their idea and share it widely with nothing more than a computer, which feels very democratic. Do you think computer science has a role to play in advancing equality in the world?

Oh yes, absolutely. It goes back to what we were just talking about: when you present these tools more widely, the equity and democratization issue comes as a matter of course.

For many women in that part of the world, being exposed to higher education and computing is a fundamental alteration of the expected career path. It’s no longer that you can only stay home and be married, you now have this other opportunity. My sense is that a lot of the Qatari females will have fundamentally different conversations with their daughters than they are having right now with their mothers.

Researching your work as an educator, it’s clear you are a deeply beloved professor who inspires students and colleagues alike. You have both a scholarship and a fellowship named after you, and at least two students have even asked you to participate in their weddings. What’s been your central philosophy as an educator?

Dave Kosbie, who’s a very good friend and colleague of mine, put it more succinctly than I think I ever could. As he tells it, the three rules are:

  1. Students come first
  2. If you want people to work hard, you have to work harder
  3. Attend to the whole student, not just their mind

Photo courtesy Aileen OwensI have a couple of my own on my website, and you can pick whichever subset of those you like.

People say ‘do what you love.’ I believe I’m one of the few that gets to do that. And if you love what you do, I think you owe it to everybody you come into contact with to be enthusiastic about it, and in some sense, to be an evangelist for it indirectly. I don’t have to tell people computer science is cool—what I should be doing is showing them it’s cool by how cool I think it is.


You can see Mark Stehlik’s TEDx talk, “What is your fractal dimension?,” at Qatar’s Education City, here.

Librarians Lead the Way to Digital Literacy

Unfettered access to information and news is essential for learning—but it can also be a hazard when learners lack the right tools for parsing that information.

Nobody knows this more than librarians.

“We’ve always talked about information literacy,” Nicole Cooke, a professor who teaches future librarians at the University of Illinois’ School of Information Sciences, told The Verge. “Information literacy is just trying to get people to be savvy consumers of information.”

For decades, visitors to a library were confined to a static collection of information. Librarians helped them access and wade through it.

“In today’s digital world, information literacy is a far more complex subject than it was when the phrase was coined,” writes University of California, Merced, librarian Donald Barclay at PBS. In this digital world, librarians play a different, yet even more important, role.

Last month this blog explored the need for digital literacy education in the age of “fake news.” We covered the recent Stanford University study that confirmed many educators’ fears: middle and high school students are likely to take false information they encounter online as fact. More than 80 percent of middle school students studied were unable to distinguish between credible online news and sponsored content.

“Librarians are natural allies for educators in helping students become critical news consumers.”

Sam Wineburg, the director of the Stanford History Education group, which published the study, says librarians may be uniquely poised to help young people navigate a sea of digital information.

“Librarians are natural allies for educators in helping students become critical news consumers,” he told the American Libraries Magazine.

Librarians—whether at schools or in public libraries—provide access and support in welcoming settings. Trained to help people find and decipher information, they can act as coaches. As young learners explore topics of their choice, librarians are there on the sidelines pointing them to sources that may be helpful and training them to recognize those that are not. Libraries also can hold workshops for visitors on topics like online safety and digital literacy.

Many students learn basic practices for determining whether a digital source is trustworthy. Is the ending of a URL a for-profit “.com” or an academic “.edu”? Is there an author or organization’s name attached to the information, and what can you find out about that person or entity?

Beyond encouraging those basic precautions, librarians and other educators and mentors can facilitate conversation that stokes inquiry and critical thinking—necessary skills as digital credibility becomes ever murkier.

“Having respectful and constructive dialogues is a must so that people can feel heard and understood,” Barbara Alvarez writes in the Public Library Association magazine. “Public libraries have an opportunity to lead this effort while promising a space where all are welcome…they may be able to use the connections made in their conversations to form new opinions and critically think about the information they read.”

One path to critical consumption of media is by creating it. Doing so allows young people to share their own truths while honing their critical thinking and evaluation skills. Libraries have increasingly begun offering programs that train students to make their own media.

“Teaching evaluation of information has never been so critical.”

Storytellers Without Borders, a joint program between the Dallas Public Library and the Dallas Morning News, teaches journalism to high-school-aged visitors. As part of the journalism training, librarians show participants how to conduct research using digital resources at the library.

In Pittsburgh, the Carnegie Public Library becomes a “lab” where teenage visitors can work with mentors to make films, record music, or build robots. The Labs @ CLP program, at multiple branches, leverages the library’s accessibility to all in the community.

As the digital information landscape continues to change rapidly, so too must librarians. As the consequences of “fake news” become clearer, some veteran librarians are reevaluating how they approach digital literacy education.

In the School Library Journal, longtime librarian Laura Gardner writes: “Teaching evaluation of information has never been so critical, and I’m thinking fast.”



The Need for Media Literacy in the Age of ‘Fake News’

An article on The Atlantic’s website, “Working Better: Bite-Sized Ideas and Wisdom to Help Businesses Become More Aligned, Productive, and Agile,” looks at first glance like many well-designed digital stories. There are interactive infographics and Q&As with experts embedded in the multipart story.

It might take even a savvy reader a few moments to figure out that “Working Better” is native advertising—a sophisticated ad made to look like other parts of the publication. A small box in the corner notes that the piece is “sponsored” by Xerox, though that box itself looks like an ad unconnected to the story.

For readers, it can be quite a challenge to decipher which online articles are trustworthy and which are not.

In fact, a 2016 Stanford University study found that many middle and high school students are quick to believe false information they encounter online.

More than 80% of middle school students can’t distinguish sponsored content from news.

The study found that more than 80 percent of middle school students couldn’t distinguish sponsored content from a news article. In another part of the study, researchers showed high school students a photo of deformed flowers, labeled as having “birth defects” from the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The photos had no attribution or contextual information, yet many of the teenagers found them trustworthy, and nearly 40 percent argued that photographic evidence itself was proof of legitimacy.

Social media can amplify this kind of confusion, where headlines from unknown sources are often posted without context, and where users’ networks can create echo chambers. Google’s algorithms and advertising platforms promote the “fake news” alongside sourced material. Google, along with Twitter and Facebook, have come under close scrutiny lately after allegations that erroneous articles influenced the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. Many articles from unverified publications spreading myths about the candidates went viral.

In an article about the Stanford study, the Wall Street Journal talks to parents and educators who have their kids use search engines that censor websites they deem inappropriate, and those who bar their children from using social media to protect them from false information. But are those methods sustainable as kids get older? Some educators and journalists say they don’t get to the root of the issue.

“The fake news problem we’re facing isn’t just about articles gaining traffic from Facebook timelines or Google search results,” writes online journalist Kyle Chayka at the Verge. “It’s also an issue of news literacy—a reader’s ability to discern credible news.”

Digital literacy education can equip young people with the tools they need to better navigate online resources and take advantage of the internet as a tool for learning.

Instead of shunning social media, some students took control of the platform to spread facts.

Common Sense Media’s Digital Citizenship Curriculum offers an online curriculum on responsible and empowering internet use. It includes information on privacy, and cyberbullying, copyright, and information literacy. The curriculum is designed for different grades, and has lessons for youth as young as second or third grade. Kids can build skills such as how to recognize advertising, how to conduct strategic online searches, how to judge the legitimacy of online sources, and how to sift out misinformation.

The News Literacy Project’s Checkology program takes students through a series of online exercises on how to evaluate information using actual examples of fake news. In response to the Stanford findings, an educator compiled a list on his blog of resources for teaching kids to recognize fake news.

A University of California, Davis marine biology professor came up with a nifty way to approach the problem. Instead of shunning the social media sites where fake news thrives, her students take command of the platform to spread accuracy. Some of her students hosted an AMA (“Ask Me Anything”) on Reddit, a trove of both misinformation and information, responding to users’ science questions with facts.

Social media sites and online information sources are integral parts of young people’s lives—92 percent of teens went online daily in 2015, according to Pew. Therefore, arming children and teens with investigative skills and the ability to reflect on what they are seeing can help them weed out the garbage and leverage the internet for inspired learning.

What’s it take to go from ‘Rec Center’ to ‘Tech Center’?

As the National Week of Making comes to a close, there’s equal measure of excitement and motivation going around. Excitement for the potential of the maker movement to empower a new generation of creative and capable builders, inventors, and tinkerers ready to overcome today’s most pressing challenges and re-energize the economy. Motivation to determine exactly how such a diffuse and decentralized movement can achieve that lofty vision in a way that is accessible and equitable to all.

A few weeks ago, more than 50 educators and municipal leaders from more than a dozen cities across the country met in Washington, DC to take the first steps toward making hands-on, technology-enhanced learning opportunities not just something that a few children experience at occasional events, but something that cities and towns invest in and support as part of the public, municipal infrastructure.

The idea goes like this: many cities maintain community recreation centers in parks, public housing buildings, libraries, or other neighborhood-based sites and with the right mix of human capital and equipment, many of these recreation centers could be activated anew as makerspaces and tech labs—in other words, going from ‘Rec Center’ to ‘Tech Center.’

Andrew Coy

The meeting was convened by Andrew Coy, Senior Advisor for Making at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Andrew’s experience as the former Executive Director of Digital Harbor Foundation, a nonprofit that led a Rec2Tech conversion project in Baltimore, inspired him to explore opportunities to build a model for similar projects communities across the country, especially in under-resourced communities and communities of color.

Participating cities came from across the U.S., from Philadelphia in the East and St. Louis in the Midwest, to New Orleans in the South and Palo Alto in the West. The size of the cities ranged from major metropolitan centers like Chicago and Los Angeles to small towns like Ithaca, NY and Wenatchee, WA.

Pittsburgh’s Remake Learning Network was there, represented by staff from the Heinz Endowments, Pittsburgh City Parks, the Maker’s Place, the Remake Learning Council, and The Sprout Fund. The network is working to deepen the impact of local educators and youth workers to provide more young people with hands-on learning experiences that are engaging to their interests and relevant to their future success. The Rec2Tech model is one of several approaches network members are exploring to expand access and equity.

Models to Consider

Two guest speakers shared insights from their experience working to expand access to innovative learning opportunities in partnership with municipal and community spaces.

Shawn Grimes, Executive Director of Digital Harbor Foundation, recalled the history of risk taking, sweat equity, and practical problem solving that went in to the launch of their Rec2Tech conversion in Baltimore. First opened in 2013, Digital Harbor’s Tech Center emerged from a collaboration between Baltimore City Recreation & Parks, Baltimore City Public Schools, and Digital Harbor. Today, they serve 1,300 youth per year with an average engagement of some 40 hours through year-round progressive programs.

Dr. Nichole Pinkard

Dr. Nichole Pinkard, founder of Digital Youth Network, grounded the discussion in the critical issue of equitable access and the changing meaning of literacy in today’s world.

“If a society’s definition of what it means to be literate is tied to the technological innovations of the time,” said Dr. Pinkard, “Then today’s technologies have created a world where computational thinking and making are becoming essential literacies for all.”

To Dr. Pinkard, the Rec2Tech concept has the potential to answer both the equity question and the literacy question: it embeds technology and talent in the communities that children call home and it exposes them to new modes of thinking and the future rewards they can lead to.

Exploring Critical Issues

During the afternoon session, The Sprout Fund led a facilitated discussion about four critical issues related to municipal makerspaces:

  1. Establishing partnerships and collaborations that can support Rec2Tech conversions
  2. Creating high-quality youth programming that is engaging and relevant
  3. Building work readiness skills relevant to careers in high-demand sectors
  4. Identifying best practices regarding space design and technology

Key findings from this discussion will guide ongoing conversations among the emerging national community of practice about municipal makerspaces. You can read the Key Findings and contribute your own thoughts on Medium.

 A Rec2Tech Framework for Pittsburgh

In Pittsburgh, the Remake Learning Network is committed to expanding equitable access to powerful experiences related to making and digital learning.

As announced during the National Week of Making kick off last Friday, the City of Pittsburgh and The Sprout Fund, together with partners from the Remake Learning Network, are working to develop a community-informed plan for Rec2Tech along with site-specific curriculum and demonstration programming for kids at multiple recreation centers across the city. While these efforts are just getting underway, they signal what is possible when educators, youth-serving nonprofits, and municipal leaders come together to make deep investments in community assets for learning.

Learning to ‘Speak’ Tech

Amidst all the playing, programming, and tinkering we wrote about for our story on the Remake Learning Digital Corps last month, the work going on at El Círculo Juvenil de Cultura stood out. The Carnegie Mellon University-sponsored program caters to Spanish-speaking youth. Their mission:  To familiarize young students with their heritage and, increasingly, to provide them with digital learning opportunities.

While working to bolster the kids’ literacy in both their native languages and in English, El Círculo staff has recently added digital literacy to its agenda.

Many of the 6-to-12-year-olds who attend the program have access to cell phones or iPads, said director Felipe Gómez. “But beyond being users, what we’re interested in is giving them some idea of how to create the technology and how to explore their own identities with technology,” he said.

El CírculoHe is describing a perennial task for educators, who know how savvy their students are as consumers and users of technology and want to leverage this interest and acuity for educational or civic ends. The challenge is even more pronounced in bilingual populations, Gómez said. The kids he works with often attend under-resourced schools and come from families who may lack the resources to facilitate digital education.

Findings from the Pew Research Center corraborate Gómez’s anecdotes. Along with their black peers, Latino youths are no strangers to technology, using digital devices even more than their white counterparts. Thirty-two percent of Hispanic teens report going online “almost constantly.”

But professor S. Craig Watkins who studies young people’s digital behavior, finds that digital prowess on its own does not equal digital empowerment.

“While digital media is more widely distributed than ever before, not all learning ecologies, literacies, and pathways to digital participation are equal,” he wrote at the Connected Learning Research Network.

While bilingual students might miss out on some of the digital education that their native-speaking peers are more likely to receive, they are also in a powerful position if they have access to scaffolding and guidance.

We call them digital literacy and coding languages for a reason. Technological agility is another means of communication, one that is increasingly valuable in professional and civic settings. If bilingual students can add this third “language” to their repertories, they are poised for a wealth of opportunities.

Isabel Gordillo, a Digital Corps member and volunteer at El Círculo, is a good example. A native of Ecuador who started learning English as a teenager, and who also speaks Czech and French, Gordillo uses her multilingualism in her career as a translator and court interpreter. Her tech savvy has come in handy when using translation software—and when securing the Digital Corps gig.

“We’re trying to foster the idea that bilingualism is an advantage,” Gordillo said. “And on top of that, if you can combine it with literacy in terms of how to think critically about solving problems with computers and programming and design, I think that makes a very strong set of skills these kids are going to have later in life.”

Thoughtful educators of bilingual kids, in and out of school, try to cultivate digital and linguistic literacy in tandem.

Some use digital tools to help non-native-speaking students settle into classrooms or social settings. One preschool teacher helped a boy who spoke only Chinese use a digital storytelling program to introduce himself and his background to his classmates.

“With the connection of seeing and hearing about his home, the communication began to flow,” wrote Diane Bales on the National Association for the Education of Young Children website. “The children worked together to find other ways to communicate, and the boy’s English skills grew quickly.”

Educators should be aware of the specific needs and existing skills of dual-language learners when it comes to digital literacy. When kids are given opportunities to develop bilingualism and tech skills, it makes for “a very powerful combination,” Gordillo said.

Digital Corps Empowers Youth to Master the Digital Landscape

The Hilltop YMCA appears, from the outside, a regular office building, small and brown and clinging to the hills of Pittsburgh’s Knoxville neighborhood. Inside, however, the space booms with energy as children move between various programs held in the orange and green rooms atop the South Side Slopes. Since this YMCA site is a free meal distribution location, kids come in for lunch and snack, are intrigued by the flat screen televisions and gaming systems, and stick around for classes on cell-phone repair or robotics.

Tuesday afternoons, the older kids are learning programming and coding via the Remake Learning Digital Corps, a group of mobile digital learning mentors visiting out-of-school time (OST) learning sites throughout the city to bring digital literacy skills to tweens and teens.

The Corps, a program of The Sprout Fund, is one response to the reality that today’s youth spend up to 8 hours per day engaging in digital media, and a recognition of the important role programming, coding, and basic robotics play in education, the workforce, and life.


What is Digital Literacy?


Ani Martinez, Program Associate at The Sprout Fund / Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf

Ani Martinez / Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf

“Digital literacy” can encompass everything from word processing skills to online privacy to advanced lessons in coding. These skills are becoming increasingly essential for success in higher education and the workforce, and yet Remake Learning Digital Corps program manager Ani Martinez observes “there is a deficit of mentors or educators with digital literacy training, across the board from formal education to informal learning environments.”

The Internet abounds with pre-made curricula to teach and learn digital literacy skills. But, some of these teaching tools overload kids with options or else are very finicky–if someone misses a semicolon along the way, the entire program doesn’t work and users wind up frustrated. Martinez wanted the curriculum for the Digital Corps to provide a foundation in digital literacies so youth can then take their skills in whichever direction they chose. She says, “We want our classes to be studio classes, where students get an introduction to a skill and then immediately, in the same session, learn by doing,” so it became important to select course material that could quickly translate to hands-on project work.

In its first year, the Digital Corps offered a sampling of four digital tools:

Scratch is free, open-source programming software developed by the MIT Media Lab for 8-16 year olds to create and share interactive stories, animation, games, and more. This will help young people learn the basics of programming.

App Inventor is a free open-source software kit created by MIT Media Lab that enables learners to build apps for Android devices. App Inventor uses a framework of “building blocks” that can be assembled into apps and games that can be tested instantly on Android mobile devices or with a built in Android emulator.

Building from this, Thimble is a free Mozilla Webmaker application that allows learners to easily design their own web pages. So, youth will develop skills in html and CSS languages.

Hummingbird Robotics Kit

Hummingbird Robotics Kit

Finally, the Corps teaches Hummingbird, which is a no-experience-necessary robotics kit designed locally by folks with BirdBrain Technologies at CMU. Hummingbird provides the physical technology to let a computer interact in some way with the physical world. Users learn about circuits, light, and motion to create projects like kinetic sculpture or animatronics from craft supplies, and it’s compatible with many programs. Scratch is one of them! Which brings the workshops full circle.

In addition, the Digital Corps workshops emphasize troubleshooting and collaborative learning. Martinez says, “learning by doing is a great method to get students asking questions, learning to troubleshoot, and figuring things out together.” The workshops not only teach technical skills, but also foster 21st Century Skill-development, teaching kids how critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity are interconnected. Digital Corps students learn to ask questions (of each other and of instructors), use Google to find an answer, or delve into the network of Scratch projects created by others to find bugs in their own program. The Corps members also model collaboration by working in pairs or small teams to introduce the material.

Once mentors are accepted into the Digital Corps program, they enter a training program to help familiarize them with the digital tools, but more importantly allow the group at large to collaborate on best teaching practices so they can deliver more effective learning experiences and support positive youth development. The training sessions are hands-on, a model of the “learn by doing” style the Corps aims to present to the youth participants. Corps members are team-taught by people familiar with the tools–these leaders range from a teenaged Scratch expert to roboticist Tom Lauwers, who created the Hummingbird tool.

Meet the Digital Corps Members

Martinez recruited members from throughout the Greater Pittsburgh region. The members are paid for their time spent teaching with the Corps, and although their training is unpaid the program offers attractive professional development opportunities for folks interested in facilitating out-of-school learning opportunities. After receiving 85 applications from artists, librarians, technologies, formal educators, roboticists, and even teenagers, the program selected 50 people to receive training as Digital Corps members.

One member, Mike Elliot, works as a media engineer for an audiovisual company. With a master’s degree in audio education, he’s had a lot of experience writing tutorials and teaching these skills to learners of all ages. While he was familiar with programming and coding, he’d never taught these skills. When he saw the Digital Corps call for member applications, he felt drawn to the opportunity to hone his skills and work with young people.

Scratch training at Hilltop Computer Center / Photo: Norton Gusky

Classes at the Hilltop YMCA / Photo: Norton Gusky

Elliot now teaches Digital Corps workshops at the Hilltop Y, along with Greg Cala, an engineer with a software company focusing on industrial automation, and Marilyn Narey, who teaches at Duquesne University’s masters in education program.

The trio represents a blend of experience typical of the Digital Corps members placed in the various host sites. Cala and Elliot are experienced coders and programmers, while Narey has long been interested in educating educators, studying effective ways of learning in and outside of school.

Cala explains that the Digital Corps training sessions were so informative and the digital tools so useful that he has integrated Hummingbird into his work developing curriculum for industrial clients who come to him for instruction.

He says, “They’re going to be getting a better experience in class than they do currently with the standard curriculum. They’re not going to be building cardboard robots–these tools let our clients build automated control systems, measure pressures, analyze temperatures…they’ll be using this tool to affect overall manufacturing processes. This training has been amazing for me in my own work.”

Regular round-table sessions allow the Corps members to come together to discuss curriculum challenges, like how to plan workshops for the Hilltop Y, where one week might bring 30 students and the following has just a few teens show up.

Narey says, “We’re learning that the pre-built curriculum we studied is just a guide for us, that we have to figure out what the specific kids need at our host site.”

Corps members learn to work with both the young learners and the adults who facilitate the host site programming. Some hosts, like Hilltop Y director Nic Jaramillo, are well-versed in the tools the Digital Corps is presenting and can already help the teens throughout the week if they continue working on skills. Others are learning to use the digital tools for the first time.

Martinez says, “We want our Corps members to feel comfortable saying, ‘I don’t know, let’s figure it out together,’ both when they are learning and teaching.” Since problem-solving skills are a vital component of the program, Martinez encourages asking questions and collaborating with others (regardless of age or role) to find solutions.

Visiting Digital Corps Host Sites

The Digital Corps partnered with a group called Allegheny Partners for Out-of-School Time (APOST) to find potential sites to pilot the digital literacy workshops. Martinez sought sites that have forged lasting relationships with their community, had a certain level of infrastructure and equipment on site, and served an audience of tweens and teens.

Patrice Gerard / Photo: Ani Martinez

The Hilltop Y is one of 25 host sites throughout the city’s neighborhoods. Program Coordinator Patrice Gerard points out that the Knoxville community has limited parental involvement and neighborhood children have few options most summer days. Apart from some structured day camps or short-term programs, the kids had tended to loiter at Rite Aid.

As a technology center (no gym or basketball courts at this YMCA), the Hilltop site offers everything from Minecraft clubs to a program called RoboKids, focusing on Hummingbird. The Digital Corps workshops seemed a perfect complement to the site’s existing programming, where Jaramillo says their space also offers a lot of unstructured time for youth to use the equipment under supervision from a team of AmeriCorps volunteers.

At Jaramillo’s site, the Digital Corps workshops represent one sliver of a vast pie of tech-based course offerings. Gerard remarks that the local youth is already familiar with technology and “our core group of ‘students’ is beginning to expect technology programming to happen within our center, programs presented through a digital medium.”

Other host sites, like the Maker’s Place in Homewood, aim to teach youth to create tangible items. At these locations, the Digital Corps workshops offer makers the tools to develop, say, online stores to sell completed products, like the music the youth produce in the in-house recording studio, string art, or fashion products.

The host sites vary widely in their mission (they encompass community resources ranging from libraries to faith-based youth groups), the types of learners they attract, and even the regularity of their participants’ attendance. Thus, the Digital Corps members aim to tailor their workshop content to best meet the realities and needs of each site.

Damian, a 10-year-old who frequents the Hilltop Y, loves animation. “You can check out a bunch of my creations on YouTube,” he says. He’s spent the summer learning more about Hummingbird and jumps to enroll in classes to enhance those skills.

Working with Plants vs Zombies for Hour of Code

Damian starts his summer session with the Digital Corps working on an activity called “Hour of Code“–a game using Angry Birds characters to teach the basics of drag and drop programming. The activity is self-directed, so the Corps members can both gauge each student’s base knowledge and supervise multiple youth working at their own pace.

By having each student complete the Hour of Code, Corps members make sure even drop-in students are familiar with terminology and basic skills before moving on to more complex lessons. Damian is among the younger students the Corps has taught this spring–the initial vision for the program was to work with youth aged 12 to 18.

Like many kids visiting the Hilltop Y, Damian is responsible for his younger sibling, who is upstairs engaged in a card game with AmeriCorps volunteers. In between levels of coding, he pauses to go check on his sister. He comes back to the workshop just as the students are working as a group to write a code loop that will direct Elliot to walk from the sofa to the doorway. “If path ahead, move forward. Else, turn right,” shout the students as Damian enters the room. “Turn right!” Damian and his much-younger sibling could potentially become a bump in the path for the program.

Jaramillo says, “We’ve overlapped our staff with Corps members in an effort to carry on their programming throughout the week. Our staff are trained innovative facilitators, so we try to model adaptability for our youth.” He says he’s seen Elliot, Narey, and Cala adapt their teaching style to connect with the Hilltop youth as the program has progressed.

Understanding the Impact

As the name implies, the Remake Learning Digital Corps program would like to remake the process of learning digital literacy. Helping to do this is Tom Akiva, a professor of Psychology in Education at the University of Pittsburgh. He’s been conducting an empirical study of the Digital Corps for publication in the journal After School Matters.

Tom Akiva

Tom Akiva

Akiva is interested in what factors enable the corps members to deliver the information in the OST environments, as well as how the teens and tweens are experiencing the workshops.

For the pilot year, Akiva found some interesting, if a bit surprising, results. For one, members like Elliot and Cala are the minority among the corps. The majority of the Corps members identify as youth workers or educators instead of technologists. Martinez says the eagerness of these educators “to expand their expertise into digital learning points to the great need for this sort of programming in OST.”

Rather than struggle with how to deliver content to youth, the Corps members have instead wrestled with curriculum challenges, like how to handle drop-in students or the wide age range of participants at the Hilltop Y.

Akiva observes the round-table discussions attended by the Corps at large, where they debate and collaborate to find solutions to these challenges. He notes that the atmosphere during the sessions is friendly, saying “I’ve seen Ani [Martinez] create a comfortable and productive experience that carries over into the classroom and workshops the Corps members go on to teach,” he says.

In order to remake the learning process, the Corps discusses the ways lessons are being delivered in Digital Corps workshops. Akiva has noticed a tension between offering structured, how-to lessons about the digital tools versus presenting open-ended projects as a way for students to learn. The Digital Corps is designed to engage students in ways traditional school environments cannot, but at the same time wants to effectively deliver the information so the students can build their digital literacy.

A Digital Corps training session with Ani Martinez

Digital Corps training session / Photo: Ben Filio

“They are debating ideas education science has looked at for years,” says Akiva. “Will ‘discovery-based learning’ work in this context? The idea of the project is to remake learning, to shake up teaching. It’s interesting to watch them debating methods to provide small amounts of structure that support kids in their learning.”

As a new experience for all involved, these sessions help everyone strike a balance between program needs and member backgrounds as they get to know each other as a community of digital learners and educators.

As the program wraps up its first year of programming, Digital Corps members are eager to apply what’s come up in the roundtable discussions and surveys. “Our data can help to tell the story of what works well for the Digital Corps here in Pittsburgh,” says Akiva, “and hopefully we will learn things we can apply to both future sessions of this program and eventual implementations in other cities.”

Akiva has observed the youth participants very quickly engage in the material, eager to delve deeper. One day at the Carrick library, he saw a 13-year-old boy come late, catch up very quickly programming an LED traffic light, and progress to creating an automated robot of his own design: a giraffe whose eyes lit up and neck moved side to side. Far from loitering at Rite Aid, this student was enhancing his digital literacy while building his problem-solving skills as he worked out how to bring his imagined giraffe to fruition.

“It was so neat,” Akiva says, “to watch this middle-schooler get an opportunity to be creative, to be a kid in the context of this technology.”

Given a solid foundation in these digital tools, Digital Corps learners seem well equipped to impact the future of our city. Automated cardboard animals today can provide the foundation for untold innovation tomorrow.

With Technology, Learning from the Experts Themselves—The Students

A group of schools and community organizations around the country are swapping roles and giving kids the floor to teach technology skills to their teachers. For teachers, learning from their resident tech-experts lets them pick up new skills and really watch the way their students use devices. But, as is often the case for teachers, the student tech guides are picking up just as much from passing on their skills—confidence, enthusiasm for school, and a way to express their abilities.

During the Hive Learning Network’s Learning Aloud Geekout Series, young experts shared their skills with educators in four youth-led webinars, held as part of Connected Educator month.

In one of the webinars, fashion designer and blogger Alex from the Digital Youth Network in Chicago taught a group how to use Tumblr, a visually based blogging site that inspired him to pursue his love of fashion.

In another, Assemble intern Caroline taught teachers how to use Scratch, a programming language developed at MIT that makes it easy for kids to create and share media on the web.

“When we go into different schools and events and we’re teaching Scratch, we have our expert, who is now 14, teach Scratch for us. Because, well, why not let the expert shine?” said Assemble founder Nina Barbuto of Caroline’s teaching role during her webinar.

Students interacted with educators around the country in the Geekout Series, but around the country kids are also guiding their own teachers in symbiotic face-to-face lessons.

Students from the public schools that make up Chicago’s Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) are instructing teachers in mini, student-led professional development events called App Speed Dating. The concept, which was adopted from Mauri Dufour and the Leverage Learning Institute in Maine, let’s students be hands-on guides for their favorite apps like Croak.it, Keynote, and Kidblog.

“It’s much more dynamic to have the student sharing and hearing it from their voices,” Jennie Magiera, the digital learning coordinator at AUSL and writer of the blog Teaching Like It’s 2999, told WBEZ. She added that learning how apps work from students can also be a lot less intimidating for teachers, who may not be familiar with the technology. (Magiera explains the whole App Speed Dating process in greater depth in this EduSlam webinar.)

On her blog last February, Magiera broke down the success of App Speed Dating after a session at Chicago Public School’s Tech Talk Conference. “[The students] spoke from a place of experience using the app, and genuinely demonstrated that yes, a 1st grader can operate it and no, a 7th grader will not be bored by its interface,” Magiera wrote. “Moreover, it empowered them to take charge and have agency in their own education.”

Interns from Fort Sam Houston Independent School District in Texas said they felt the same way. In the district’s tech intern program, students create screencast tutorials for teachers, lead professional development events and even fix technology glitches in class. “Not gonna lie, it makes me feel important,” laughed one young tech intern in a video by TechSmith..

Rob Zdrojewski, a teacher at Amherst Middle School teacher in Buffalo, created a similar program fueled by a real gap in some of the teachers’ knowledge about programs kids were already using. While Zdrojewski knew the program would provide teachers a good way to access screencast tutorials, the students’ enthusiasm surprised him.

“I didn’t think the kids would be as excited as they are to make them. I thought they [were] going to say, ‘Oh Mr. Z is having me do some work for somebody else to benefit.’ But it’s really not been the case,” he told the Hechinger Report. “The kids are excited because they know that their teachers, potentially a lot of them, are going to watch and learn from them and hear their voices.”

Teachers love what they do because passing on knowledge to others is one of the most rewarding and life-changing experiences. The teaching experience is no different for kids, who, after spending most of their days listening, suddenly command attention from those they respect most.

Can Screens Help Young Kids Learn?

They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. That’s certainly the case for kids and babies who, just like their parents, are using smartphones and tablets more than ever.

A new Common Sense Media study found 38 percent of toddlers under 2 have used a mobile device. That number is up from 10 percent in 2011, when Common Sense conducted the first national survey of parents of children birth to age 8.

It’s worth noting that kids aren’t necessarily plugged in more than they were before. The total average time kids are using screen media actually dropped 21 minutes, leaving the average amount of screen time a little under two hours. While TV is still the predominant way kids consume media, the use of mobile devices is on the rise. The average time kids spend using mobile devices tripled to 15 minutes per day.

There are a lot of reasons for the shifts, the most obvious being access. The study found 75 percent of kids age 8 and under have a mobile device in their home, compared to 52 percent in 2011. The digital divide persists; 63 percent of higher-income families own a tablet, compared with 20 percent of lower-income families. But that’s up from just 2 percent two years ago. Plus, when lower-income kids do have access to a mobile device, there’s almost no gap in how often they use educational content.

Another reason for the jump among our youngest techies? Mobile devices and the apps on them are becoming more intuitive. (For a clear illustration of that fact, just watch this baby try to use a magazine like an iPad.)

“iPhones and tablets are game changers, because they’re so easy to use. While there was some floor on how young you could go with computers and video games, a young child who can touch a picture can open an app, or swipe the screen,” Vicky Rideout, the author of the report, told the New York Times.

Are all these screens okay for kids? According new guidelines released by the American Academy of Pediatrics, it depends on how they’re using them. Some things haven’t changed; the AAP still says no screen media for youngsters under two and discourages screens in kids’ bedrooms.

However, the guidelines did become more nuanced. New to the guidelines is the idea of a healthy “media diet,” one with limited but purposeful screen time. Content that’s interactive, social or educational is preferable over passive media, where kids just sit and watch. “The amount of time spent with screens is one issue, and content is another,” the AAP wrote in a statement about its new guidelines.

As NPR points out, Skype or FaceTime are some of those activities that are screen-based, interactive, and social. Plus, they have potential to show young kids the links between their onscreen experiences and their offline lives, something that’s crucial for learning.

Even with the new guidelines, managing toddlers’ media worlds is still uncharted territory. Pittsburgh is home to a number of leading organizations that are providing guidance for parents, educators and media makers in using technology in ways that are developmentally appropriate for young kids.

Fred Rogers revolutionized educational TV programming for kids, so it’s only fitting that the Fred Rogers Center has the same goal for the 21st century media. The center is providing national leadership on this issue. In 2012, the center partnered with NAEYC to release a position statement on using technology and interactive media in early childhood programs. The center’s Early Learning Environment (Ele) is an online support system that provides resources and guidance for digital media literacy to parents, family childcare providers, and educators.

To help close the digital divide among Pittsburgh kids, Baby Promise is connecting underserved families with hand-held technology through home visits and summer day camps. The curriculum is balanced out with swim classes, yoga, and healthy meals.

Lastly, a prime example of using media in an active, multilayered way is Message from Me, a project from CREATE Lab, the Children’s School of Carnegie Mellon University, and the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children. Using email, digital cameras and microphones in kiosks set up in classrooms, kids 3 to 5 record their daily school experiences and then send them to their parents.

“The technology is great. But the goal of the project—to increase communication among parents, teachers and young children and improve language development—is what’s primary,” Michelle Figlar, who heads up PAEYC, told Remake Learning in October.

Figlar’s sentiment echos that of the AAP and other media experts. Technology for young kids is best when it’s used for the things we know have helped kids learn even before the existence of screens—communicating, and engaging with the world around them.


Photo / Brad Flickinger