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July 28 2011

17:39

Is Digital Education a Luxury for At-Risk Youth?

For schools in low-income communities, the idea of investing money, time, and energy into a digital media program or mobile-learning program might seem superfluous. Administrators and teachers already have so much to contend with — safety issues in high-crime communities, chronic student truancies, debilitating health issues due to poverty, families in constant state of flux, not to mention blocked access to wide swaths of the Internet.

In those cases, the idea of investing precious dollars or the attention of already overtaxed administrators seems unlikely.

But what if some of these very issues could be solved by creative ways of using digital technology in schools? That’s the argument coming from S. Craig Watkins, author of The Young and the Digital: What the Migration to Social Network Sites, Games, and Anytime, Anywhere Media Means for Our Future, and a professor of sociology, African American studies and radio-television-film at The University of Texas at Austin.

“My concern is that as schools are now struggling with budget cuts, digital media and digital literacy is looked as a luxury as opposed to a necessity,” Watkins says. “I understand the enormous pressure that teachers and administrators are under, especially in the public school system. But we need to build a more compelling narrative that digital literacy is no longer a luxury but a necessity.”

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Watkins points to research from the recent Horizon Report, as well as the pilot study with Project K-Nect, which clearly show the benefits of engaging students (even those considered “at-risk”) through mobile phone programs and curriculum.

“They're already seeing the potential of mobile devices in science, art, and math classes,” Watkins says. “So it’s no longer a theoretical conversation — it's already happening, but only in ‘islands of innovation.’ The real challenge is, are those opportunities to encounter those types of learning being evenly distributed?”

Probably not, he says. So even though studies have shown that kids in communities that are considered marginalized are actively online with their mobile phones, and we’re seeing plenty of evidence showing the benefits of mobile technologies in learning, the discussion around the achievement gap gets pulled back into the “no money” conversation.

BEYOND TEXTING AND FACEBOOK

Beyond just allowing kids to use their mobile phones in schools rather than telling them to shut it off — which is already a blasphemous idea in most schools — Watkins argues in a recent article on his blog that at-risk students need to be taught how to use these important tech tools beyond just texting and posting updates on Facebook.

“The educational environments that will thrive, the ones that will be the most innovative, and the ones that have most impact will be the ones that create opportunities for kids to create digital media literacies that we all recognize as important and that have social implications, educational implications and civic implications, as well,” he says. “So we have to equip kids with skills that help them not just to consume, but to become architects of their information environment and that requires different skills in using mobile devices and using the Internet.”

Watkins witnessed the powerful impact of helping low-income kids use technology to create digital tools that are directly relevant to them: A group of high school students who were charged with designing a playable game about green technology and green architecture.

“Every single day during one of the hottest summers on record, they showed up enthusiastic, and with very little involvement from teachers, created this game,” he said. “The whole project was student-centered, totally collaborative, and it was pretty incredible to see.”

But could a short-term, summertime project result in any kind of lasting impact on these kids’ lives after the project is over?

“For some, it will ignite passion for learning that will translate to the formal learning space,” he says. “They felt like it was a powerful experience and one they could take with them into other endeavors. It gave them confidence, self-efficacy as learner. They felt like they'd developed a new skill, but more broadly, it influenced their disposition towards learning and as learners.”

All of which points to the importance of teaching students how to create content — not just consume, play with, or pass along to friends.

In continuing his work in this realm, Watkins is working on a number of initiatives.

  • Knowing the depth of impact of digital literacy on low-income kids, Watkins is now focusing his efforts on figuring out how to connect these skills to what he calls “civic outcomes” — issues that have a direct bearing on disenfranchised communities. “To teach them how to become community activists, and showing them how technology can be a powerful tool in problem-solving,” he says, such as conducting original research about health challenges in their communities, such as H.I.V., diabetes, asthma — “problems they face in real and tangible ways.”
  • With support from the MacArthur Foundation, Watkins and Mimi Ito, among others will be embarking on a three-year study that examines how kids from low-income communities are “craftily navigating the digital world.” “What are the learning outcomes, what are the learning potentials, what are the obstacles?” he asks. In addition to a national survey of up to 1,000 people, there will be three case studies involving 100 to 150 students in four areas: Austin, Boulder, Southern California, and London.

Tina Barseghian is the editor of KQED's MindShift, an NPR website about the future of education. In the past, she's worked as the executive editor of Edutopia, a magazine published by the George Lucas Education Foundation, as well as an editor at O'Reilly Media and CMP Media. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

mindshift-logo-100x100.pngThis post originally appeared on KQED's MindShift, which explores the future of learning, covering cultural and tech trends and innovations in education. Follow MindShift on Twitter @mindshiftKQED and on Facebook.

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April 21 2011

18:02

5 Great Media Literacy Programs and How to Assess Their Impact

Increasingly, Public Media 2.0 projects are moving not only beyond broadcast to social and mobile platforms, but into the realms of digital and media literacy training. Producers of such projects recognize that in order to participate fully in the new media world, children and adults need to be able to access, analyze, evaluate and communicate messages in a wide variety of forms.

Over the past two months, on the Center for Social Media's Public Media 2.0 Showcase, we profiled a series of such initiatives, examining in particular how project leaders evaluate their impact.

While there has been some controversy over semantics, for the purposes of this series, we used the term "digital and media literacy," which encompasses the foundations of traditional media literacy while emphasizing the importance of access to and informed use of digital tools. These types of programs help people to create their own media messages, participate in cross-platform civic dialogue, recognize and evaluate the messages implicit in media, assess the credibility of news and information sources, and understand the risks and responsibilities associated with social media and media production.

Strong, national support for digital and media literacy initiatives is currently lacking -- both in the public broadcasting and educational sectors. However, innovative programs are popping up across the country, sometimes in unexpected locations.

Snapshots from the Field

Our series examined initiatives from diverse sources, including public broadcasting stations, non-profit organizations, museums, schools and federal agencies, all designed to help users become fully engaged media consumers and producers. Each of the initiatives had a different focus (building students' journalism skills, recognizing hidden advertisements, bringing public media to underserved communities, etc.) They took place in person and online, in school and community-based settings, and in both kid- and adult-focused arenas. Five of the most interesting projects included:

  • The PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs: This program, which recently completed a successful pilot year, pairs high schools with public media professionals in order to create investigative video reports. The program combines digital and media literacy, media production, news and current events and journalism education and includes a flexible curriculum developed by Temple University's Media Education Lab.
  • Admongo: Last year, the Federal Trade Commission launched Admongo, an online gaming initiative aimed at helping 8- to 12-year-olds "become more discerning consumers of information." The centerpiece of the Admongo campaign is a single-player online game in which users navigate everyday settings, searching for hidden advertisements. The project includes an accompanying curriculum, developed by Scholastic. While Admongo provides a fun new way to look at advertising in the classroom, it is lacking in meaningful engagement, as it doesn't encourage students to critique or analyze advertisements so much as recognize them.
  • Common Sense Media: Common Sense Media recently released a new K-12 curriculum focused on digital citizenship. According to the Common Sense Media website, this curriculum aims to "teach students to be responsible, respectful, and safe digital citizens." The curriculum focuses primarily on digital ethics and responsibilities, using engaging classroom activities to tackle issues like privacy, cyber-bullying, online identities, and copyright/fair use.
  • City Voices, City Visions: City Voices, City Visions, a program from the Graduate School of Education at the University at Buffalo, provides summer professional development institutes for middle and high school teachers. These sessions educate teachers on how to incorporate digital video into their classrooms in both interdisciplinary and subject-specific settings. Teachers use handheld digital videocameras and basic editing software to turn academic concepts into familiar video formats and work with the City Voices, City Visions team to create appropriate classroom assignments, evaluation rubrics, and sample videos.

At the Center for Social Media, we are using our examinations of how these projects are assessing themselves to inform the evaluation of a project the Center has been incubating: the Public Media Corps (PMC), a public media and community engagement initiative from the National Black Programming Consortium. A service corps model, the PMC aims to increase both broadband adoption and public media creation/use in underserved communities. Last year, 15 fellows worked with Washington, DC, community organizations and public media stations to create a series of engagement models, which combined media production, media access and civic engagement. CSM will be releasing a report on the results in May.

Evaluating Media Literacy Projects

DigitalandMediaLit2.jpgAs with public media engagement projects, digital and media literacy initiatives face a challenge when it comes to evaluating success. There are currently no standard tools for assessing baseline digital and media literacy skills -- although in her white paper, Digital and Media Literacy: A Plan of Action, Dr. Renee Hobbs strongly advocates for their development. She notes that "there are so many dimensions of media and digital literacy that it will take many years to develop truly comprehensive measures that support the needs of students, educators, policymakers and other stakeholders."

Because the initiatives we looked at varied so much in scope and size, each took a slightly different approach toward evaluating programmatic success. Not every organization we profiled implemented a comprehensive evaluation plan. However, many of them did, and some key themes emerged:

1. Set clear and ambitious goals, and assess against them: It is important that digital and media literacy initiatives move beyond "raising awareness" and move instead toward
empowering users to make their own meaningful choices, critiques and content. For example, Admongo does not go far enough in allowing users to evaluate and analyze the game's advertisements, nor does it offer users much in the way of content creation. Successful digital and media literacy initiatives must set goals beyond awareness-raising, and evaluate their success based upon clearly-defined criteria.

2. Evaluate both media literacy and media production quality: One of the major tensions in evaluating youth and community media production initiatives is the extent to which media production values should be considered. Leah Clapman, director of the PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs, noted that, as the program progressed, program leaders moved away from evaluating the production values of student projects and towards measuring what students have learned in the process. City Voices, City Visions is able to negotiate this tension with a multi-pronged evaluation strategy. Students are judged in class primarily by how well they convey academic concepts through video, but an annual film festival showcases high quality student productions, as determined by external judges.

3. Evaluate both teachers and students: Staffers from almost every initiative we talked to expressed that feedback from both teachers and students is necessary in order to obtain a comprehensive understanding of how well a given project worked. Both Common Sense Media and City Visions, City Voices, for example, combined student assessments, teacher interviews and case studies. Dr. Suzanne Miller, director of City Voices, City Visions, stressed that evaluating teachers beyond the confines of teacher training institutes is key, as "not enough research follows teachers out of professional development institutes and into the classroom."

4. Examine a variety of data: While most of the data collected in these projects was qualitative (a potential problem for some funders), it took many forms, including case studies, teacher and student interviews, and student pre- and post-assessments. Some of the data was collected through less traditional methods: the teachers involved in the PBS Student Reporting Labs spent a day in Washington, DC to discuss and debate the program and analyze strengths and weaknesses with external evaluators. Most of the programs hired external evaluators at least for part of the analysis, which helped to ensure depth of analysis as well as objectivity.

PMCToolkit.jpg5. Share evaluation data with the field: Many of the programs are planning on publishing evaluation data in order to inform best practices. Common Sense Media plans on sharing video case studies on its blog. The Public Media Corps published a toolkit outlining the lessons learned from the program's pilot year. This toolkit is designed for use by public media stations looking to implement similar programs but can also be employed as a general guide for community-based media programs. The Center for Social Media will also be working with PMC leaders to release a more comprehensive evaluation next month.

It is this last point -- sharing information -- that may be the most crucial for measuring the success of digital and media literacy initiatives. Developing shared best (and worst!) practices and lessons learned through smaller-scale media literacy programs will help to ensure the development of the field and the success of future programs.

Katie Donnelly is Associate Research Director at the Center for Social Media at American University where she blogs about the future of public media.

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