George Lucas Educational Foundation

Digital Media Empowers Kids to Create -- and Critique -- on Social Networks

Both in the classroom and in after-school pods, students learn to become critical creators in Chicago's Digital Youth Network. On Remix World, the program's social-networking site, participants share, critique, and discuss their work.
By Laila Weir
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Digital Media Empower Youth (Transcript)

Asia Roberson: This chair is for the presenter. This is for the person who created the trailer. You're going to say how you decided to do your trailer. Then we'll do warm and cool feedback.

Narrator: In this digital storytelling class at Carter G. Woodson Middle School on the south side of Chicago, students are learning to express themselves using new media technologies.

Student: I liked how you incorporated everything together and made it dramatic.

Narrator: And learning how to critique what they see.

Student: Because it seemed like the sound effects took over and you really couldn't hear yourself.

Narrator: Carter G. Woodson is one of four schools that make up the Digital Youth Network or DYN, a sixth through twelfth grade program that was created in 2003 by the University of Chicago's Urban Education Institute.

Nichole Pinkard: The Digital Youth Network takes up the challenge preparing kids for the year 2020 and beyond. And we do that in trying to create partnerships between all the spaces where kids spend their time during the school day, in school, after school, and after-school programming, at home through the use of online tools and social networks, and in the communities that surround them.

Akili Lee: If you could if you know your account, log in.

Nichole Pinkard: So we've tried to allow kids to sort of learn on demand.

Jared Washington: Through Digital Youth Network and presence of DYN classes inside the school day our students are gaining access to software and skills that really push the envelope on what we think or what teachers think they're capable of doing.

Student: What did you guys do with those pictures?

Student: They're all right there.

Narrator: During the school day DYN staff teach mandatory media arts classes. There students acquire basic tech literacy skills that allow classroom teachers to integrate digital tools into their curriculum.

Akili Lee: So again, you can upload the music y'all are doing, and you can also make blog posts and start discussion forums etcetera.

Narrator: After school, students can pursue their passions in a variety of DYN classes that meet for two hours once a week. They include digital video production.

Teacher: Yeah, make sure you're moving your play and then play from the beginning.

Narrator: Digital audio production, robotics, graphic design, and game design.

Student: I made it based on game so I tried to make it like with some type of fortress-

Jalen: DYN is just like one of the awesomest, sickest programs ever. It's like technically it's just like all these awesome sick programs like gaming all the way to poetry. And after that we have something called Freedom Friday and there sometimes we talk about topics that need to be talked about around the world like global warming.

Teacher: We have many perspectives, not just one. And you could add to that perspective.

Narrator: There's also a Digital Queendom offering just for girls.

Teacher: Alright, ladies, thank you.

Akili Lee: Digital Queendom is an initiative to really support gender equity. Girls often thought that they couldn't necessarily do the work to the same level that the boys would, so we brought the Digital Queendom pod in giving the girls kind of a safe space and in a more engaging kind of context that's focused on their own issues.

Teacher: Think about the kind of advertising too that you've seen before. What is it they try to tell you to get you to-

Asia Roberson: We discuss and analyze and critically break down images of females in the media, anything that has the female presence in it, we break it down to see what is empowerment, what isn't empowerment, and how they can create media that better reflects themselves.

Narrator: The DYN network is accessible 24/7 through its closed social network site called Remix World. Students post their work, take part in critiques and discussions and receive online mentoring which expands learning beyond the school and program day.

Teacher: Did you put sound to this?

Student: Yeah. Yes and no, I don't like it anymore.

Akili Lee: If you want them to really be a sophisticated game developer or a graphic designer or a videographer. It's hard to do that with once a week so we use the online space as an extension and an opportunity for the kids really on their own time to really delve a little bit deeper into the work.

Student: We just talked about the presidential election.

Student: Yeah.

Narrator: Once in high school, DYN students begin to focus their development on an individual medium.

Terrence: And action.

Narrator: Oftentimes youth who excelled in the middle school program are given internship opportunities to serve as mentors for middle school students.

Terrence: Okay, I'm not sure if we're going to get that shot.

Terrence: Being a mentor you know really teaches me skills about working in a productive environment. You know, it teaches me how to be professional, how to take those skills that I have already and enhance them and how to teach another generation how to use those and so hopefully there can be kids that I'm teaching who could wind up being bigger and more famous than I hope to be, you know?

Student: Right now I'm editing the clip shorter so that it kind of looks more like a movie and not like just like pictures just floating out of the air. So I'm going to see how that works out first.

Jared Washington: We know that the world is shifting and that there are a number of new ways of thinking, new ways of learning and working and socializing that won't go away. It's not a fad. It's not a trend. And the way people connect, the way people work, the way people learn is very different so we think our kids need the ability to use technology in their personal development and in their learning.

Student: Hi, this is:

Students: The Random Show!

Student: And you are watching it on DYN TV.

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Video Credits

Produced and Directed by

  • Maria Finitzo

Written and Edited by

  • Karen Sutherland

Coordinating Producer

  • Lauren Rosenfeld

Camera Crew

  • Jim Morrissette
  • Zak Piper

Production Support

  • Amy Erin Borovoy

Production Assistant

  • Doug Keely


  • Kris Welch

Executive Producer

  • Ken Ellis


Digital storytelling: Using new digital tools to help ordinary people tell their own real-life stories.



Discussion Questions

1. What do you think of the Digitial Youth Network? What would it take to start a similar program in your community?

2. How is DYN redefining literacy?

3. What do you think of the DYN's special program for girls only? Is this a good idea? Why, or why not?

4. The DYN uses a social network for kids to provide each other with meaningful feedback. What are the benefits of doing this online versus in person?

5. Do you agree that the way people learn is different today than it was in previous generations? Why, or why not?

Digital Remix:

The Digital Youth Network's social-networking site Remix World allows students to post and share videos, as well as collaborate on projects, and more.

Credit: Courtesy of Akili Lee

In the common conception, kids plus social networking equals an online popularity contest conducted in grammar-free instant-messaging lingo -- not exactly an educator's dream world. But the Chicago-based Digital Youth Network, a digital-literacy program funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, has tapped into the networking phenomenon to encourage creativity and learning.

The Digital Youth Network runs a private Web site called Remix World, which is modeled on popular online social networks such as Facebook and MySpace. The students and mentors who use it have Web pages that contain pictures, profile information, and links to their friends' pages. They can post digital artwork -- such as videos -- on their pages, comment on friends' pages, and participate in discussions with other users through the Remix World forums.

By providing students a place to share their work and ideas, Remix World allows them to solicit feedback and give constructive criticism. Some students have found the process of sharing on Remix World so compelling that they've gone on to post to public sites, such as YouTube or open social networks.

Twelve-year-old Jalen (also the subject of an Edutopia video profile) is among those who've taken their work to a larger audience on YouTube and elsewhere. "I post online because I don't want it to just be on my computer, where nobody can see it," Jalen says of his work, which includes graphic art, videos (both remixed mash-ups and some using original footage), and computer games. "I get positive and negative feedback, but it helps me get better and better," he says.

"One guy on YouTube told me it was a good video, but the timing was off," he remembers of one project that got mixed feedback. "So I went back and edited it."

Self-Directed Learning

When students are motivated to create work that they share online, it ignites an independent learning cycle driven by their ideas and energized by responses from peers.

“Through trial and error, youth add new-media skills to their repertoire, such as how to create a video or game or how to customize their MySpace page," says the 2008 report "Kids' Informal Learning with Digital Media" (also funded by the MacArthur Foundation). The report also says, "Teens then share their creations and receive feedback from others online. By its immediacy and breadth of information, the digital world lowers barriers to self-directed learning."

That's because the Internet makes it easier and less daunting for students to find information or plug into expert communities, according to one of the report's principal investigators, cultural anthropologist Mimi Ito. "They can do a Google search or lurk in a forum and mess around on the Internet without putting themselves out there or having to go to a special location," Ito explains. "They can do it without fear of failure."

Thirteen-year-old Mosea exemplifies this self-directed learning with the evolving digital masterpiece he's created. But he doesn't post that masterpiece on an existing social network; rather, it is a social network itself. Inspired by Remix World, Mosea decided to create his own kid-focused networking site, Realm of New Thought.

"I didn't learn from anywhere particularly," Mosea says about creating his network. "I just experimented."

Experts say that, even more than the digital world in general, collaborative Web 2.0 tools in particular can motivate self-directed learning. "With Web 2.0, there's a strong impetus to make connections," says University of Minnesota researcher Christine Greenhow, who studies how people learn and teach with social networking. "It's not just creating content. It's creating content to share."

And once they share their creations, kids can access one of the richest parts of this learning cycle: the exchange that follows. "While the ability to publish and to share is powerful in and of itself, most of the learning occurs in the connections and conversation that occur after we publish," argues education blogger Will Richardson (a member of The George Lucas Educational Foundation's National Advisory Council).

In this online exchange, students can learn from their peers and simultaneously practice important soft skills -- namely, how to accept feedback and to usefully critique others" work.

"I learn how to take in constructive criticism," says thirteen-year-old Tiranne of her experience with Remix World. She says the collaborative online environment has made this process easier for her. "I'm learning how to post my work, because I never really did that before. I don't like to share personal things, but because everyone else on Remix World is doing it, I can feel comfortable, and I don't have to feel shy."

Lessons for Educators

Still, researcher Christine Greenhow cautions that the virtual world can also present its own barriers to independent learning. "Students can get easily distracted," she observes. "There are so many nonlearning paths, so we need to help them stay focused." That's where a program such as the Digital Youth Network can help direct kids' online time toward learning. By observing how students use Remix World and public social networks, educators can draw valuable lessons about how to exploit social networking for more formal learning.

"Social networking is the platform they're used to," says Digital Youth Network director Akili Lee. "It is a very sophisticated communication platform and, in many ways, it's a collaborative platform. If they're communicating and collaborating in a certain way, why can't we leverage that?"

To this end, the Digital Youth Network remains on the lookout for ways to encourage learning through the activities kids are already engaging in on social-networking sites: YouTube lets viewers rate videos on a scale of one to five stars. Remix World takes this idea a step further: It allows users to rate videos separately for image quality, audio, editing, and content. Rolling a cursor over the stars reveals exactly what each rating means: One star for editing indicates, among other things, that transitions "did not effectively connect the clips," while four stars signals that the transitions "connected all parts of the video seamlessly."

So, as students rate their friends' videos on Remix World, they're also learning how to critique media in an informed way. In this manner, the Digital Youth Network has adopted and adapted a popular social-networking feature to nudge students' activities toward a greater realization of a particular academic goal -- in this case, media literacy.

"We can use social networking in the classroom," affirms student Mosea, who taught a workshop for teachers on using and making social networks. Mosea advises teachers to experiment with using social networks to get to know their students better; to let students submit homework, share projects, and access calendars or a syllabus; and even to reach out to parents. "I think the best use of a social network is as an exoskeleton, or the part of the classroom that exists on the outside but supports the inside," Mosea notes. "The network should be a base of support for whatever the students are learning at school."

Using tools such as the social-network-creation site Ning, teachers can easily develop their own networks, Mosea says. "It is better to create your own," he argues. "If a teacher creates his or her own network, students will post as if their teacher is watching them, and they'll tend to be more safe.

"You can build social networks around the curriculum," Mosea adds, "so you can use them as a teaching resource or another tool." An online social network is another tool -- but it's a tool with an advantage: It wasn't just imposed by teachers; the students have chosen it.

Laila Weir is a contributing editor and writer for Edutopia.

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Greg Casperson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoy the articles here at Edutopia but it would really be nice if more if not all of the rss feed came through to readers

Shane's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I relly like this idea. I think it will really help outcasts become more part of their social groups thus helping them to produce better quality work.

Felecia A. B. Hanesworth's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm taking a class in literacy and social practice, and through the reading and class discussions, it seams inevitable that social networking and other social spaces should be integrated into classroom practices. The technology is readily available and most children are already relying on the technology to create multiple social spaces. The one thing that worries me with regards to bringing this type of literacy into the classroom is that some teachers may not understand that the flow of information and the direction of the content is student centered. In the social network spaces, learners are leaders and leaders are learners; the participants are undefined by classroom structural status. The framework of teacher as leader must cease in order for the creativity and exploration of content and ideas to flow. Our students are already learning within new media spaces as exemplified in the article above. It's wonderful to see that children are seeking alternative venues to improve their craft in self directed and self motivated ways.

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