George Lucas Educational Foundation

Nichole Pinkard on Digital Literacy (Big Thinkers Series)

The founder of Chicago's pioneering Digital Youth Network (DYN) describes how the organization empowers young people with critical digital literacy skills that make them academically and professionally competitive.
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Nichole Pinkard on Digital Literacy (Big Thinkers Series) (Transcript)

Nichole: Literacy has always been defined by the technology, right? Before the printing press, your ability to orally recite something meant to be literate. And so as technology has made things cheaper, we're now saying, "Well hmm, is someone literate if they cannot critique media, take media in, if they're only taking in traditional text?" So if a sixth grader today, by the time they graduate from college, is not fluent, if you will, in some of these other forms of media, I would venture to say that they won't necessarily be considered as being literate.

The Digital Youth Network was started over five years ago, really out of trying to understand how we can support youth in learning to use digital media, initially for schoolwork. But the more we thought about it, and the more we realized how the world was changing and evolving, we realized we really needed to help them understand how to use digital media for all aspects of their life.

Our population of youth were urban youth, living in the city of Chicago. And we couldn't assume that they were gonna learn how to use technologies and media in the way that we wanted in their home life. So we had to figure out how to make it happen within the context of school or in the space where kids connect into school. And we realized that so many efforts around tech integration in school have failed, mainly because the purpose was to try to get teachers to be the ones who taught kids how to use technology. And we just knew that that couldn't be the way to go. First, because our kids were more digitally sophisticated than teachers.

We've also then in the last year established a partnership with the Chicago Public Library to open up a high school only space called YOUmedia, which is a space just for ninth through twelfth graders. And in that partnership, the Chicago Public Library provides the space, provides the library, and we provide the digital mentors, who collaborate collectively with the librarians to create opportunities, learning opportunities, digital opportunities for youth. We've also created a social network called Remix Learning, and that's a platform that youth use to connect to one another twenty-four seven. So the DYN is an after school program, an in school program, a shared space with YOUmedia, and is also an online social space.

What we initially did is, we asked teachers to just come and watch and to look at their students and to see their students using technology in a way that was very different from how they were using it in a school. So they saw their students and producers and creators of technology. They saw them creating videos. They saw them creating some video games, music and songs, and what they saw, which many of them talked about, is that they saw students who were quiet in the school day come alive in the after school space.

Student: The thing that drawed me in about DYN was the studio that was upstairs, and that's just like a place that I'd love to be in.

It's a spot for inspiration really, and on top of the inspiration, it's the spot where you have the tools as well, to again, like I said earlier, bring out what you want to, what you hear in your head, and putting it in front of a camera or in a beat machine, or on paper. And if you know how to use it, this is amazing.

Nichole: I think we've structured our work with students in such a way to try to create a cycle where they are developing the skill sets, but they're constantly making use of those skills, in ways that are, you know, first personally beneficial, but also beneficial to their society.

We have a trajectory, if we will, and it's first, you're just a regular DYN kid and you're learning how to use digital media. And if you choose to like really develop a passion, to geek out if you will, in one area, then you can become a junior mentor. Because now you've developed a set of skills that we think can be used to teach others. And at that point, there's a set of responsibilities that come with that. One is, you're responsible for working with those who are younger, and teaching them how to do what it is that you do. But then, you also get more specialized support in mentoring to help take your skill sets to a different level. You get opportunities to be professional and to go record your work. And if you really do this for a couple of years, and you demonstrate some mastery, if you will, you can get paid to do this particular work.

Student: I started off as just the student, but now I'm getting paid to do what they do, and that's how long I've been with it. And now, I actually have my own class, and I used to just be a part of the class. And I don't know any teenager or senior in high school that has a class full of students where they get to teach and create their own curriculum.

Nichole: I think the ways in which most technologies have been brought into the classroom in videos and things, they've come in with a natural audience. So I think if you were just doing the video that only your teacher saw, I think eventually you would get to the point that that would be the same as doing an essay. But I think because oftentimes they're brought in, what you're gonna share with your classmates, you can take in and share it with your parents or with your friends, that that motivates you to do work.

Student: But before his voice box was completely boxed in, he thought to himself, "Why should I silence myself?”

Nichole: Part of what we've also been trying to understand is, "Well, does this matter?" What impact does it have besides, "Yes, it's good, a kid can make a video or a podcast?" Does it lead to a set of portfolio, a set of skill sets that can impact their life? So we did a three year ethnography on a group of kids, starting from the sixth grade, in their sixth grade year, following them all the way through the end of their eighth grade year. And the question really was, "Okay, so what? Does this matter?" And we needed to compare them to a group of kids who we felt were probably exemplifying what digital native should be. And so we chose to compare our kids to a group of kids in Silicon Valley, kids who grew up in environments where it was just sorta in the water, the use of digital media. Their parents work for tech firms.

And we wanted to see, could we create an ecology, if you will, a cocoon of in school, after school, online social capital here in Chicago, where our kids could begin to look like those kids in terms of the digital, their digital portfolios. And so starting at the beginning of the sixth grade year, as one would suspect, ninety-six percent of our kids have fewer digital media experiences, portfolios if you will, than the kids in Silicon Valley. And every year we test it and, you know, we looked at where we were going. At the end of the sixth grade year, beginning of seventh grade year, I think seventy-six percent of our kids had more experiences than the kids in Silicon Valley. And at the end of the eighth grade year, I believe the number's more like eighty-six or eighty-four percent of our kids had more, have more experiences.

Almost any kid that you look at and you say, "Oh wow, this is a great user of digital media," you can trace back. There's a parent, there's, you know, a program, there's something that inspired them and developed them. And that we need to make sure that we have those types of programs and those people represented equally throughout all of society.

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  • Producer: Stephen Brown
  • Director of Photography: Drea Cooper
  • Second Camera: Joe Rivera
  • Editor: Drea Cooper
  • Associate Producer: Douglas Keely
  • Senior Manager of Video: Amy Erin Borovoy
  • Executive Producer: David Markus

This video was originally produced by Mobile Digital Arts for the New Learning Institute, from the Pearson Foundation.

Big Thinkers Video Series

Some of the most compelling visionaries in the world -- from Sir Ken Robinson to Jane Goodall to Martin Scorsese -- are focusing their attention on how to improve education. From innovative classroom concepts to suggestions on how to foster creativity and collaboration, they share their valuable insights for teaching and learning and illuminate new solutions to old problems.

Get inspired by their big ideas.

More Edutopia Coverage on Nichole Pinkard and the Digital Youth Network:

Find more information on the Digital Youth Network website, or follow Digital Youth Network on Twitter.

Visit the Big Thinkers series page to see more videos.

Comments (6) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Lisa Raffel's picture

Wow - awesome video. I'm grateful to people like Nichole that are thinking about what literacy means today, and about how technology in schools and society raises lots of issues about equity. And even more so, for her work for increasing equity. I appreciated that in the project teachers observed students to understand how they were using technology in their lives.

BMurray13's picture
Digital Learning Specialist at the Doherty Middle School

Inspiring video. Great idea, " student technology mentors". Students would love to do this and it creates a student-teacher learning community.'s picture
Well balanced children in a connected world

Brilliant. Digital literacy is so important in today's world. Loved the initiation taken by Nichole. Very inspiring!

We recently had the discussion on Which digital skills would give a school leaver the edge? and all of our experts agree that children leaving school need to be responsible digital citizens and publishers.

Darlene's picture
1st Grade Teacher, Philadelphia, PA

Inspiration and tools is a recipe for success. Each one teach one with opportunities for growth within the structure of a learning community. I love this. This is the future of learning, it's meeting our children where they are. Using what they are exposed to on a daily basis to help us help them learn.

drs18's picture
multimedia designer

It may be the future of education, I don't know. Right now, I don't have the bandwidth to see the video. Who else doesn't? Who else doesn't have the tools to create media, respond to media, interact with media, or not be intimidated by media? Video is taking off because parents in offices all over the world are watching youtube videos when they have the bandwidth at work. Faculty and staff at universities are spending time catching up on HULU. If this is the future, who, again, is being excluded?

Paula's picture
Primary Teacher in International School

Thank you so much for this great video. It is very hard for me to work in an environment where many teachers fold their arms, stand their ground and use the phrase "we have always done it like this". It's great to realise other people are thinking differently out there. We should all get together to make new places of learning! I am ready to jump in!!!!

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