Today’s students often outpace the classroom in their exploration, use and understanding of new technology and media. Young people are investigating and mastering communications technology on their own time, in their own ways, and learning to adapt those technologies to their individual needs. At the same time, educators are seeking to join students in the exploration of digital media and to guide them to the skills and understanding they will need to be successful and productive adults.
At the Chicago Public Library’s YOUmedia Center, educators have constructed an innovative learning space that represents a new approach to guiding young people in their use of technology and at the same time, help them acquire essential 21st century skills. The center, underwritten by the Pearson and MacArthur Foundations, is designed to mimic and support the way young people actually use technology and create media. It’s a place where students can experiment with digital media on their own or work on projects under the guidance of YOUmedia staff. High school students from any school in Chicago are free to visit YOUmedia after school when it is open from 2 to 9 PM. During school hours the center is available for class visits.
The New Learning Institute approach of student-centered, hands-on learning has proven to be an excellent fit with the design and goals of the YOUmedia Center. From its inception in the summer of 2009, NLI has been an active partner in the project, participating in planning and leading on-site activities.
Hang Out, Mess Around, Geek Out
The design of YOUmedia is based on the research of Mizuko Ito and colleagues at the University of California, Irvine. Ito’s study found that high school age students, when working on their own, interact with digital media in one of three ways: 1) “hanging out,” in social networks or online spaces such as blogs, chats or Facebook; 2)“messing around,” or tinkering with software to produce various types of media; 3) “geeking out,” a more serious exploration of one type of media or technology, often in online interest groups. Media to young people might mean Japanese anime, fan fiction, spoken word or rap poetry, video, music or any combination of different forms and styles of communication.
The center, which is housed at the Harold Washington Library in downtown Chicago, has a floor plan that is loosely based on these three ways of interacting with media. The activity at the center is designed to encourage young people to move along a continuum of engagement, from “messing around,” to “geeking out.” The boundaries are intentionally kept fluid, to allow the students to find their own way of interacting with the technology and their peers.
One of the tools available to students is the YOUmedia social network site developed by the Digital Youth Network and based on their Remix World networking platform developed by researchers Nichole Pinkard and Akili Lee. Like Facebook or other online social network, this network gives young people a way to connect, communicate and express themselves to their peers. But unlike Facebook, it’s a closed network, open only by invitation and one that is geared specifically to allow students a means of self-expression through online publication of media, whether it is in the form of music, text, video, gameplay, photography or some combination.
With the YOUmedia network, the participants in YOUmedia center have an instant means of broadcasting their work and get instant feedback from other students and adult mentors. Broadcasting and networking is an essential part of the YOUmedia experience, one that echoes the way young people use technology on their own. The network is available to participants wherever they have online access — at school or at home, transforming YOUmedia into a virtual space that can bridge the boundaries between classroom, after school center and personal use.
Digital City Planners
In the summer of 2009, YOUmedia and the Chicago Public Library launched the Digital City Planner project, a six-week competition that asked young people to create an expression of their vision for their city or their community. The project took place in the context of the centennial of the 1909 Burnham Plan or The Plan for Chicago, an early example of city planning that reshaped parts of the city’s downtown and infrastructure. To mark the centennial, the Chicago Public Library chose a contemporary view of the original plan, The Plan of Chicago by Carl Smith as their One Book, suggested reading for the entire city for the year.
With the Digital City Planner project New Learning Institute partnered with the MacArthur Foundation and the Chicago Public Library to sponsor a competition for Chicago high schoolers, challenging them to become city planners in their own right. Sixty students took part in the program, which was based at the YOUmedia center. Working with an NLI digital arts team and the staff of YOUmedia, the students began by studying the original Chicago plan and then began to imagine what changes they would make in their communities as Chicago enters the 21st century.
Once they had arrived on a plan, the students began to produce a statement documenting and promoting their ideas. They used Nokia smart phones to capture video footage, photos, sound recordings and then post those resources to blogs and the Remix World network. They also utilized the resources at YOUmedia to produce 3D CAD drawings, mini documentaries, original music, poetry and visual art.
The students were motivated by a chance to have their voices heard and participate in the citywide conversation about the future of Chicago. They were also competing for the opportunity to present their ideas to a global audience at United Nations World Habitat Day held in October 2009 in Washington D.C. Four projects were chosen as the winners and the authors represented YOUmedia at the United Nations celebration in Washington.
A 21st Century Learning Space
Educators are only just beginning to imagine what a 21st century learning space would look like. How can the structure of a learning space encourage the development of critical 21st century skills like project planning, creativity and problem solving? How can a physical environment be integrated into the virtual classroom that exists on the Internet? Can a learning space harness the and enhance the ways in which young people already interact with technology and media?
The Chicago Public Library’s YOUmedia center represents one exciting attempt to answer those questions and construct an innovative 21st century learning space. The New Learning Institute is an enthusiastic partner in this project and continues to work with the Chicago Public Library and the MacArthur Foundation to explore the possibilities YOUMedia holds for next generation learning.