Mobile Media: Turning Quantity into Quality, Access Into Empowerment


1.13.11 | Jesse Washington of the Associated Press has written an extended article about minorities and mobile media. The statistics he cites are stereotype-busting, especially when the conventional wisdom only mentions the pairing in the context of a presumed digital divide that leaves a huge percentage of minorities without access to digital tools.


For more about Craig Watkins see “To Be Young, Digital and Black” at Spotlight.

As a survey by Pew Research Center shows, Latinos and blacks access the mobile web on their phones at a much higher rate that their white counterparts—and all three groups have roughly equal percentages of laptop ownership. According to Edison Research, furthermore, blacks make up about 25 percent of Twitter users, double their percentage of the total U.S. population.


Craig Watkins

While a divide still exists for broadband access in the home, Craig Watkins, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of “The Young and the Digital,” has moved beyond questions of access to technology and instead focuses on the quality of that access. And the way to improve quality is to teach digital literacy.

Watkins, who is mentioned in the AP story, also has a piece at Huffington Post in which he notes that blacks and Latinos “watch videos, play games, and listen to music at rates that dwarf their white counterparts,” but he wonders: “What if young people were encouraged to view their mobile phones, cameras, and iPods as learning devices and tools for critical citizenship and engagement in their communities?”

He continues:

This is actually happening in a surging number of community centers, after school programs, and media education initiatives. These community leaders, technology educators, and social entrepreneurs view kids mobile lives as a starting point to engage, explore, and experiment with the world around them. The work that Lissa Soep is doing with Youth Radio is a great example of an innovative learning ecology where student interest in media technologies is connected to local challenges. Unfortunately, learning experiences like these are rare in the schools that most young people attend.

Every day, a majority of black and Latino youth walk into schools that are not equipped to engage them in any meaningful way. As one social studies teacher in a school populated by black and Latino students told me, “my colleagues have no idea of how tech savvy these kids are.” In many of the low-performing schools that I have visited mobile is viewed less a learning tool and more as a source of teacher-student conflict. Mobile phones are treated as contraband to be controlled, policed, and ultimately, confiscated. This battle around the phone reflects a broader problem in low performing schools: the creation of a classroom environment marked by distrust and hostility.

His own experiments, in which high school students used use their feature-packed phones without shame in the classroom, not only created an innovative, dynamic learning environment, but also reduced conflict between teachers and students.

In the meantime, classrooms can look to innovative afterschool programs for ideas and guidance on tapping the potential of digital media for engaged learning. The New Youth City Network in New York City, for example, is bringing museums, libraries, and other learning institutions together to join forces in offering innovative and engaging digital media projects to youth. In Chicago, a parallel network is underway. Digital Youth Network (view stories) and YOUMedia (view stories), in the Chicago Public Library, are two exemplars in the field that Spotlight frequently covers.

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