As new initiatives to exploit technology and digital media for learning sweep the country, a learning center for teens at the Harold Washington Library in downtown Chicago demonstrates both the challenges and opportunities that these efforts present, a new report from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research finds. Opened in the fall of 2009, YOUmedia Chicago, attempts to capitalize on teens' interest in technology to motivate them to create, innovate and become active learners by providing them access to digital media, a safe, inviting space and staff members who serve as mentors. There currently are 30 learning centers across the country being modeled on YOUmedia Chicago and funded by the MacArthur Foundation and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
"Teens are avid consumers of digital media—from video games to social media; yet they rarely have the opportunity to use these technologies for educational purposes," said Penny Bender Sebring, the lead author of the report Teens, Digital Media, and the Chicago Public Library. "YOUmedia provides a new kind of space—one that encourages teens to follow their interest in digital media to pursue substantive learning opportunities, but also allows them simply to hang out, study or socialize with peers."
YOUmedia attracts between 350 and 500 teens weekly, the report finds. The largest single demographic group attending YOUmedia is African American males, who historically have been underserved by after-school programs. With the guidance of adults and collaboration with peers, participants discover and pursue their interests through activities such as blogging, writing and sharing poetry, playing and reviewing electronic games, producing music and videos, and participating in book clubs.
Marcus Prince, a graduate of the UChicago Charter North Kenwood/Oakland Middle School Campus and currently a rising sophomore at Howard University, demonstrates what access to digital learning opportunities can provide for urban youth. Recently featured on an MSNBC panel on education innovation, Prince discussed the impact his experience with the Digital Youth Network and YOUmedia had on his education and aspirations.
"In my middle school, the North Kenwood/Oakland Charter School sponsored by the University of Chicago," Prince said, "one of the programs that we had after school was a program called the Digital Youth Network…it put you into doing studio work, film work, graphic design, all of these different things that made you embrace your creativity and definitely developed for me, and a lot of my friends that I saw in middle school, a 'teach yourself' aspect that went really far in the classroom."
After graduating high school, Prince served as a junior mentor for YOUmedia’s audio production program when the downtown location opened in 2009. “I got to meet a lot of different kids from the West Side or the North Side that I would never have gotten to meet outside of that," he said, "and everybody was coming to a central location and just having a good time learning. If we could make more spaces literally across the country—these spaces that promote self-learning, giving you something that you can really hold on to that you can also transfer into the classroom with learning—it would be great just to see that happen.”
Prince is currently pursuing a degree in music education and trumpet studies and aims to become a teacher—he credits his experiences with the Digital Youth Network and YOUmedia for helping him discover his passion for music and hopes to create similar opportunities for other youth. Watch the MSNBC panel video and hear Marcus Prince's other reflections on education innovation >>
Other key findings from UChicago CCSR's report include:
- YOUmedia is cultivating a budding sense of community among teens who participate. This sense of community, along with peer relationships, serves as a potent force for driving teens to engage in digital media in new ways. The vast majority of teens say that at YOUmedia it is "cool to be excited about your interests" and that they have met peers and mentors that share their interests.
- A majority of YOUmedia participants report that they have improved their digital media skills due to YOUmedia.
- The majority of teens also report that YOUmedia has helped them with their school work and better understand opportunities available to them after high school.
- Staff members at YOUmedia have at times struggled to balance the imperative to let teens choose their own activities in the space with the desire to engage students in more structured learning activities.
- Participation at YOUmedia differs substantially from teen to teen. While about 22 percent of teens regularly create original work, 28 percent use the computers to do their homework. A little over 30 percent use a variety of media, including video games, keyboards, and podcasts; and 18 percent primarily socialize and attend open mic sessions performed by other teens.