For At-Risk Youth, is Learning Digital Media a Luxury?

| July 22, 2011 | 17 Comments
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S. Craig Watkins maintains that teaching students to use digital media is not a luxury, but a necessity.

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.

“We need to build a more compelling narrative that digital literacy is no longer a luxury but a necessity.”

“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.”

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 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?

S. Craig Watkins

“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.


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  • Mic Mechanics

    I use technology with youth labeled as “high risk.” and wanted to share what I consider some best practices.

    Technology, digital arts, multimedia formats are crucial for 21st century learning.

  • Siegelr

    It is clear that learning for the digital natives of our time takes place at a different rhythm and vibration than what most of us digital immigrants understand and are willing to learn.
    The above link is a white paper sent to SIGGRAPH 2010

  • Ksniffin

    One big concern is that our digital natives do not know what to do with so much information… they are not so savvy that they can decipher what is credible and is propaganda.

    • Anonymous

      All the more argument for teaching them those skills in a way that can be applied to learning.

  • Anonymous

    Digital literacy is definitely vital because the world is becoming more technologically skills and jobs will require employees that are more internet savvy than ever before. In addition, I agree with the fact that having access to this information will inspire students to learn and explore on their own. Online University

  • Anonymous

    In my school in Finland we have used game based teaching and learning with good results. With a simple game editor students can design educational games for others to play. Small groups of our students have also participated in game development in collaboration with researchers and with companies developing games. Game development in school environment as a collaborative, pedagogical process
    between a company and groups of authentic end users has clear educational advantages
    from the point of view of the student and the school.

    a pedagogical point of view students’ participation in software development and
    design necessitates creative problem solving that involves a cross-disciplinary
    approach and teamwork. It is an engaging and interesting way for students to
    bring together a multitude of skills, talent and ideas. It is learning by
    doing, a process during which the students also learn to listen to and take
    into account many different points of view, incorporate each others ideas, solve
    practical problems and ultimately discover that the result of a collaborative
    effort is more than the sum of its parts.  
    valuable aspect is that the students feel they are an equal part in a real
    world process. They are not treated only
    as a target audience, a test group or a potential client – instead they have
    real influence in content, form and design of the games. They are not working
    with a simulated development process or simply learning curriculum- based
    content. The connection with an authentic development project is inspiring and
    motivating. They learn to work towards real world deadlines and follow given
    guidelines, their input is taken seriously and they will see the results of
    their work filter through and become a part of the final product.

  • Jane Bgcp

    With the opening of our Center of Excellence tech lab in the Menlo Park clubhouse, we are trying to make technology more accessible to the kids in our community.

  • Anonymous

    one ipad per child: give them something that’s theirs, to open doors into the future

    • umbrarchist

      Why an iPad?  Is this brandname brainwashing?  What about the HTC Flyer, wireless only.  $300 each.

      HTC Flyer Wifi-only

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  • umbrarchist

    Just learn von Neumann machines.  To hell with digital media.

    Check out Vero Beach high school, Florida 1987

    Has this become about educating kids or just another ploy for the educational bureaucracy to make a buck?  They haven’t suggested making double-entry accounting mandatory in the last 50 years.  Double-entry accounting is 700 years old.

  • Gericar

    I think it is right to look at the influence of technology on the kids we would consider at-risk. Especially since we are creating more at-risk kids all the time. I have a few questions. Where is the technology. Can families afford to buy the stuff for their kids to use at home? and more recently,… can they afford to buy it for their kids to bring to school. How much, how often updated? Is it really just the “telephone” functions that is being used? Do kids really use the stuff for political awareness? How often does this happen. Is being excited about a Summer “project” the same as the sustained effort it takes to learn algebra or higher math or science or even music if such a thing were possible. Where are the schools going to get the money for all this technology? Even if they think thechology is the savior of the world… there is one barrel of money and it is not full and it is going down all the time. you can put the spigot in the barrel anywhere you want but it is still the same barrel of money so something has to go….. does more art amd music go….so kids can have ipods?  I hear a lot of cheerleading for gadgets but no solutions to the fundamental questions. I live in Michigan, the Macinaw Bridge was built by people with slid-rules…. There is more to learning that fun projects……

  • Ishan

    Digital literacy is going o be booming in future as, I had joined the fashion designing courses, were they teach the art of designing in digital manner.

  • DaisyOMP

    Now in days, learning through technology is now a necessity more than a luxury. As years and years go by, there is new technology coming out with huge improvements and impacts that it leaves on the youths in this generation. With schools being on tight budgets, digital media and literacy is now being looked at more like a luxury than a necessity for the students, implies S. Craig Watkins. Watkins believes the kids should be taught through technology rather than just learning how to use social media. Technology is advancing each and every year and students should learn how to use it for school rather than just knowing how to post something on Facebook. Most colleges require work done through technology, not manually done. By teaching students through digital media, it is preparing them for their futures. Although this new technology pricy, it better students and helps them know what to expect for the long run.