What can young people learn from reflecting on their own learning experiences, from becoming equipped with the power to not just share what they know but how they came to know it? Why are these skills particularly relevant in our emerging digital age where knowing how to tap collective knowledge can be as important as spending time learning on one’s own?
Global Kids (New York, NY), a strength-based youth development organization with over two decades of experience working with young people and technology, constantly seeks new ways to explore and answer these questions with diverse groups of youth. This article describes a pilot project that linked youth detention centers with community libraries in two cities, to work specifically with incarcerated youth and new learning technologies. This pilot project demonstrates that collaboration within and among youth at two youth jails can create a participatory learning culture even when digital media and learning run up against existing cultural practices and norms.
Global Kids jumped at the chance to work with the libraries and jails in the uCreate project for several reasons: first, it would follow a previous collaboration between Global Kids and Charlotte Mecklenberg Library in North Carolina; second, Global Kids would have the opportunity to continue their work around nontraditional youth populations. Incarcerated youth are arguably the most disenfranchised population of young people in the United States. Although the Convention on the Rights of the Child guarantees all young people the right to access new forms of technology, education, and assembly, these rights are often denied incarcerated young people irrespective of their crime. Incarcerated youth need positive youth engagement so that they can successfully transition out of the system and re-enter society, which sometimes takes unlikely collaborations.
About the Edge Project and uCreate
In 2009, Global Kids launched The Edge Project with the support of the MacArthur Foundation to expand the capacity of civic and cultural institutions to use new media as innovative educational platforms. More specifically, the Edge Project is interested in civic and cultural institutions bringing cutting edge digital media into their youth educational programs. It is equally interested in where this type of programming—adue to technology, its pedagogical implications or both—is a disruptive force challenging the educators and/or the institutional cultural to work on the edge of their comfort level. uCreate, the first of the short-term educational projects outlined by the Edge Project, was a 6-week long educational project that brought together Jail North with Charlotte Mecklenburg Library in Charlotte, NC, and Dane County Jail with the Madison Public Library in Madison, WI. The community libraries were brought in because of their experience implementing new technologies for community education programs, and because they had existing relationships with the youth detention centers in their regions.
As the project began, there were seven youth ages 18 and 19 in the uCreate program at Jail North. At the end of the six weeks, that number dropped to three (some due to losing interest in the program, taking a work study class that conflicted with the time of uCreate, or being sent to another jail during the program). At the Dane County Jail, there were three young people ages 16 and 18 and all three stayed the length of the program.
In order to afford youth interaction with one another, the project utilized a private social-network, plus the mentorship of trained adults from each of the libraries, to facilitate the participants’ explorations through their own and their peers’ learning ecology maps. The participants met three mornings a week for two hours each morning to develop their own web content, and comment on that of their peers.
As a result of the activities, the young male participants gained new media literacy skills while conversing with their peers in a geographically distant detention center. This presented an opportunity for participants to reflect on and consider their experiences through supportive visual and textual dialogue.
Learning Ecology Maps
All Edge Projects begin with the youth learning how to use VoiceThread to create their Learning Ecology Map. VoiceThread is a free, easy to use, online social media tool that affords the ability to link together digital media assets in an online presentation and offer guided text or voice narration. Creating Learning Ecology Maps is a process developed by Global Kids that emerged from the recognition that digital media is challenging what learning looks like, when it happens, where and with whom. The map helps young people visualize their distributed learning network, develop language to talk about it, and increase their ability to intentionally structure and navigate their way around it.
To create the maps, youth are asked to list all of the places in their lives where they learn—similar to Tashawna’s list at the beginning of this article. It is up to participants to determine how to define “places” and “learn.” After an iterative process in which youth share drafts of their list and eventual maps, a final map is produced, such as Tashawna’s below:
The youth participating in the uCreate Project were asked to follow example’s like Tashwana. Once the maps were created, the participants shared their maps with each other. Finally, these maps were designed to be used as the foundation for the program so that at the end of the six weeks they could discuss how they incorporated what, how, and where they learned about digital media into their maps. The maps were also used as reflection tools throughout the six weeks when they focused on critical choices throughout their lives.
One participant, “PJ” in Madison, empathizes with another, “KB” in Charlotte, asking probing questions like: “Your map is very interesting because everything you learn from I have been through, but how has what you learned effected your life?”
Through the very act of presenting one’s map, through teaching another how to view it, participants have a moment of realization that is then encoded into the presentation itself. For example, KB stated: “well I did [not] make that realization until now, that’s another good reason I’m explaining this to you.” The participant is aware that he is “explaining it,” in part, so that he can make “realizations.”
Comments on each other’s projects were not only given by the youth participants but by the facilitators as well. Although participants and staff wanted to continue dialogue—a natural response in a social interaction—the jail could not permit incarcerated youth to enjoy unmoderated, open-ended conversations with people physically outside the system, even designated educators. As such, VoiceThread’s limited comment capabilities forced the youth’s conversation with Global Kids staff to be confined to details about their projects while excluding a lot of open-ended, personal dialogue. However, at the end of the day, the educational forces pushing collaboration successfully used VoiceThread as a communications device that could function within the required strictures of the jail and its need for isolation.
Significance and Challenges
Being able to comment through digital media forced uCreate to work on the edge as the ability to collaborate within a jail environment is severely curtailed, even more so with the outside world or into another jail. For example, talking in the hallways is not allowed in order to minimize any fights that might break out if someone says something that might upset another (for more details, go here). If the guys are in a classroom such as the library, they are not allowed to look out the windows into the hallway where others might be passing by. They need special permission to work on a project together outside of the classroom. This is often difficult because while permission might be granted at one level, it might not reach another level for it to actually happen due to a lapse in communication somewhere along the lines.
As Global Kids learned through this pilot project, the Internet is viewed as a particularly risky space in the eyes of penal institutions whose responsibility is to monitor and regulate the activities of incarcerated youth. However, through years of experience working with young people and new media technologies, Global Kids has developed ways to balance existing institutional needs with the new requirements educational technology often create and work with partners who are comfortable walking that edge. We find that new technologies can be altered to fit specific circumstances and aims without losing their potential for teaching and learning. At the same time, existing cultural and practices can be challenged to progressively adapt to utilize the educational affordances of digital media. Our experiences speak to the potential of teaching and learning via partnerships between county libraries and county prisons.
uCreate was unusual for most if not all of the youth in the program in how it situated digital media production within an educational setting. When it comes to digital media, they usually experienced it, before their incarceration, as largely youth- and interest-driven. They used it because they wanted to use it, not because someone told them they had to.
This is a far cry from their educational experiences, both inside and outside the jail. In a GED class offered within the institution, youth learn to “game the system,” doing the work to meet not their own expectations but those of the teacher and program. They will ask questions like, “how many pages do you want me to write,” and “tell me what I need to know to pass the test.”
So they had to sacrifice the freedom that they were used to working with digital media in order to access it within a controlled and restricted environment; yet, at the same time, claim the opportunities offered for personal expression rarely presented within the formalized expectations experienced in traditional educational programs.
While we had to restrict youth access to the full potential of digital media for education, we also had to empower them to use the resources we were making available. Throughout the design and implementation process, we tried to be very aware of how we would present the information to the participants so that their project was not the result of what they thought we wanted to hear. We attempted to foster a more natural response in using the technology as if they were in an unregulated environment.
The project often challenged the comfort level of the institutions involved by asking, “how can a participatory learning culture be created within an institution where self-expression is discouraged, where the idea of collaborating with adults and fellow incarcerated youth in other jails challenges key assumptions and structural components of the institution’s culture and practices?”
From the perspective of Rik Panganiban, the Assistant Director of Global Kids’ Online Leadership Program, the project impaacted the young men in the following ways:
• They were able to see the library as a resource for them to access technology, learn about interesting issues, and create media. This can have dividends both while they are incarcerated and after their release. I.e. they may be more likely to go to their local public library to find out about job opportunities, access the internet, or get college information.
• They were able to reflect on their own life experiences, create various media about choices that they have made, and relate their own experience with others in similar circumstances.
• They were exposed to a variety of user-created media, from digital comic strips to music production software, and get to experiment with creating their own media. When they are released, those forms of expression are still available to them, to pursue as they see fit.
Panganiban suggests that in the future, we prepare for “a very transient population of participants, who might come for only one or two sessions, or might come for a whole series of workshops. Given the realities of jail, there are a variety of factors that can effect their participation—early release, court dates, solitary confinement, etc. Designing and running a digital media program in this environment is extremely challenging for the facilitators.”
Panganiban continues: “I should have anticipated that music creation was going to be a very attractive part of program. In the future, I think an entire program could be built around music creation, incorporating digital media skills, youth voice, cooperation skills, and civic engagement. Many of the young men take their music very seriously, much more than any other media they created.”
We want to better understand how an educational program using new media can afford youth new opportunities to leverage their learning from other spheres. Is there something specific to new media tools, or the pedagogies they engender, that create more flexibility and openness for youth to bring in existing knowledge and practices? How can these forms of participatory learning programs support youth to strategically shape and navigate their learning network? Finally, how can these skills be extended to all populations of young people, and what are the long-term consequences of providing these skills? The uCreate project took a first step toward answering these questions by developing a methodology and curriculum specific to incarcerated youth.
More information about uCreate can be found at EdgeProject.org.
Barry Joseph, Director of Global Kids’ Online Leadership Program, holds a BA from Northwestern University and an MA in American Studies from New York University. Barry came to GK in 1990 through the New Voices Fellowship of the Academy for Educational Development, funded by the Ford Foundation. He has broad experience in human rights work and computer technology. The Global Kids Online Leadership Program works with young people to develop web-based dialogues and socially-conscious games that inspire youth worldwide to learn and take action about global and public affairs. With programs like Playing 4 Keeps, Global Kids is a leader in utilizing online games as a form of youth media, while Newz Crew, a partnership with the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, is an innovative current events dialogue. Barry also leads Global Kids work supporting youth voices on digital media and translating a youth development model to the Global Kids Island in Teen Second Life, both funded by the MacArthur Foundation.