Digital Youth Network Program Expands to Underserved Areas in Chicago


Sixth graders in Chicago wrote their own song lyrics as part of the Digital Youth Network (DYN), a program that teaches kids to be meaningful producers of digital media. DYN has just expanded to schools in five economically disadvantaged communities in Chicago. Photo by the Digital Youth Network/ Avri Coleman.

12.20.10 | Kids in Silicon Valley are assumed to be more digitally literate than their counterparts at an urban public school on the South Side of Chicago. After all, the first group has greater access to technology, and many of their parents and friends’ parents work for Google, Intel and other high-tech companies.

“We are all part of the environment that we live in,” says Nichole Pinkard, founder of the Digital Youth Network (DYN). “If your parents work at Apple, they are probably talking about it—and you will have more access to developing and using technology socially and academically. Growing up on the South Side, that’s not the economy in their community.”

But according to a study by Brigid Barron, DYN has turned that assumption on its head. Barron, an associate professor of education and learning sciences at Stanford University, assessed the kids at DYN’s in-school and afterschool digital media programs at a middle school on Chicago’s South Side. She found some remarkable results. 

We want to create a community and environment where use of digital media becomes an important social tool in their school and their lives.

– Nichole Pinkard, Digital Youth Network

Initiated five years ago, DYN has narrowed not just the access gap to digital media, but the participation gap. It is one thing to use digital tools and be consumers. It is quite another—and more important—to know how to be a meaningful producer of digital media. That’s the true meaning of “literacy.” 

By providing access to digital media, along with strong mentoring and a well-defined curriculum, students in the DYN program had, by the end of 8th grade, experienced more media and in greater depth than kids in America’s high-tech capital.

“We had success in terms of engagement and academic outcomes, as well as our ability to close the participation gap between kids in Chicago and Silicon Valley,” Pinkard says. With that success, “We reflected on what we did and thought about how we could take it elsewhere.”

Which is what DYN did this fall. Working in conjunction with LISC/Chicago and the City of Chicago’s Smart Communities initiative, DYN took its program to schools in five economically disadvantaged communities (Auburn Gresham, Pilsen, Humboldt Park, Chicago Lawn and Englewood) as part of a Broadband Technologies Opportunity Program. The broadband program is part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and its aim is, among other things, to bring broadband to communities across the country.

The ultimate goal of the DYN expansion is to do more than provide access and teach basic skills. It is to create an atmosphere where digital media is part of the culture.

“Just providing access alone isn’t going to accomplish what people want to accomplish,” says Pinkard. “We want to create a community and environment where use of digital media becomes an important social tool in their school and their lives.”

DYN does this by providing “human examples”—mentors who show kids what digital media projects can look like and who then create a clear path to attaining the skills needed to bring the projects kids imagine to life.

This means more than simply showing kids a Spielberg movie and saying, “That’s what we’re trying to do,” says Pinkard. Instead, students are shown good work by someone at their own development level and the incremental stops it took to produce that work.

“It’s similar to sports,” Pinkard says. “You might want to be Michael Jordan, but your goal is to make the team in your grade. You develop a skill that takes you further and further towards the ultimate goal.”

One of DYN’s key motivational tools is social networking via Remix World, a private social networking site based on the iRemix platform, where students can share and comment on each other’s work in a safe environment.


In Remix World students can share and comment on each other’s work in a safe environment.

“It’s a tremendous motivator when you see another kid do something,” Pinkard says. “You go, ‘Oh, that’s nice. Let me try to do that.’ You get these economies of scale when you do this in a social network.”

Like athletes, she says, students involved with DYN want to improve their skills and develop a reputation for being particularly good at something. At Woodson Middle School, the program focused on student films and multimedia projects created for a history fair. The fair was a public performance space where kids could show off their work and, like in Remix World, see what others were doing.

“If there are enough places to play and demonstrate their abilities, kids will look up to these people and want to be like them,” Pinkard says.

The DYN expansion sites will use a “record label” curriculum that emphasizes developing not only the digital skills required to record music, podcasts and videos (as well as designing logos and other visual materials), but also the skills to work collaboratively and become good digital citizens. This means that mentors model how to talk about and critique each other’s work, demonstrating that warm feedback (what worked) must come before cool feedback (areas for improvement). In addition, virtual dollars provide a reward for good critiques.

A project-based curriculum that asks students to write and record their own songs, the record label program begins with an intern phase, which introduces basic media concepts such as content, authorship, audience and format. Students are asked to listen more deeply to music, trying to understand its message and its target audience.

“We’ve been exposing them to different types of media and giving them an understanding of how to create with a purpose in mind,” says Sean Owens, a mentor at Cameron Elementary School. “We are teaching them how to develop a message and then decide who they are trying to send it to.”

The program then moves to its apprentice phase, in which the students learn how to use iMovie, Aviary, Garage Band and other digital media tools to create podcasts, videos, logos, songs and posters. 


DYN mentor Tony Gilbert talks with students about digital music production at Talman Elementary in Chicago.

Students at Talman Elementary in Chicago Lawn are currently in this phase. First introduced at Talman in October, the afterschool program operates in four different classrooms. In one room, three girls create a podcast. One hosts, the other produces and the third pretends she is the teen pop star Katy Perry. Down the hall, students are learning how to add color to a skull and bones logo in the online graphics program Aviary, while a few doors away, students have finished editing their movie, “Zombies Attack Talman.”

Meanwhile, in Tony Gilbert’s music classroom, students are identifying different instruments in a video on music production. Gilbert is also introducing students to a hang drum and a tube that allows the musicians to change his or her voice to match musical notes on a keyboard.

Initially, Gilbert says, students were apprehensive about using technology to which they had limited or no exposure. During the short time they have been involved with DYN, however, that has changed.

“They’ve told me that they expected it to be lame, at first. They didn’t know what it was,” Gilbert says. “But, their expectations have been reversed.”

Now, Gilbert says, he hears things like, “I never thought I’d be able to make music like this. I didn’t think I had the ability to do this.”

The final step in the curriculum is the company phase.  Students are assigned specific jobs and join together to create music, videos and other materials for their own record label. It is an example of using content that meets them in their area of interest and engaging them in learning skills and processes that will last long after they are done with DYN.

“We are taking information and presenting it in a way that is beyond the boundaries of day-to-day teaching, using the whole aspect of mentorship and creative expression to empower the [students] to take those next steps,” says Owen, one of the mentors at Carson Elementary. “Some may never make another video or song. But they’ll take these concepts and confidence and apply that to so much more.”


Picture of Daniel Bassil
Daniel Bassil (800 W. Huron, Chicago, Il.)


It would be great if programs like this were reaching kids in all high poverty neighborhoods, either in stand-alone programs, or as part of programs that already exist.  I lead the Tutor/Mentor Connection and maintain an on-line map/directory showing existing tutor/mentor programs in different parts of Chicago. The current version only shows mentoring, tutoring, or tutor/mentoring as categories of service, or layers of information on the maps. However, our survey has questions related to technology and this information could be displayed on a map, showing which places include digital learning/creativity. Using the maps programs and donors can work together to develop strategies that sustain on-going operating funding in to existing groups so kids stay connected with age-appropriate support as they get older. Assets and hosts could also be identified in areas where no programs exist, or where existing programs don’t have a technology capacity.  We’d like to be working with leaders of the digital media initiative to make this resource more available and used by more people.

Picture of Joyce C.
Joyce C. (Chicago, IL)


The Intel Computer Clubhouse which was created to allow young people to take their interests and design and create with technology has been established for over 15 years by the MIT Media Lab and Museum of Science.  Their mission has inspired other organizations like YouMedia to come about. Has DYN included the Computer Clubhouses in Chicago and New York in this wonderful network???  Its seems like this would be a wonderful match and partnership since their missions are practically identical.


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