Nichole Pinkard on Teaching Today’s Digital Literacy


Nicole Pinkard. Photo/WBEZ.

9.17.13 | Nichole Pinkard is the founder of the Digital Youth Network, a digital literacy program that works with middle school students both in and out of the classroom. She is also a visiting associate professor at DePaul University in the College of Computing and Digital Media.

This post is part of a series of conversations with thought leaders on digital media and learning, then and now. In conversation with journalist Heather Chaplin, leaders reflect on how the field of digital media and learning has changed over time, and where it’s headed.

Spotlight: What made you think that the Digital Youth Network would be a good idea?

Nichole Pinkard: We believed that digital literacy was going to be a crucial skill moving forward and that we had to find a way to develop those skills in youth, particularly urban youth. And we wanted to do this outside of traditional schools. The goal isn’t for everyone to become a movie maker or a musician—it’s for kids to understand that digital literacy is the same as other kinds of literacy no matter what career choices they make.

What’s changed since then?

Our understanding of the importance of digital literacy hasn’t changed, but I think that as technologies have become more accessible, the ways we’ve gone about fostering it has changed.

Can you give me an example that?

The goal isn’t for everyone to become a movie maker or a musician—it’s for kids to understand that digital literacy is the same as other kinds of literacy no matter what career choices they make.

Seven years ago, you wouldn’t assume that someone could make a video on the internet. Having kids make videos was a very intensive activity—but now they use flip cams, and you can actually work with HD raw footage in real time. And there are tools like WeVideo that allow you to edit in the cloud. All this means kids can work from home and school and wherever else they are through the day. This means opportunity for learning anytime, anywhere.

I see what you mean.

At the same time, with mobile phones, kids can document their everyday environments. They can make digital artifacts with real ease. 

Are there are pitfalls to this kind of immediacy too?

The challenge is that just because they can do these things with low-level tools, they might think they’re better than they are. A kid can create a video quickly on the phone but that doesn’t mean they’re editing or really creating a story structure around the video. You have to be able to help kids see that just because they can do something technically, it doesn’t necessarily mean they truly understood what they’re doing in any kind of intentional sense.

How do you help kids get from point A to point B?

We try to be clear about pathways. We set challenges for them. We’ll say, “This is a beginning level challenge.” And then make clear that there are things beyond the technical. It helps to show them work by their more advanced peers, so they can say “Oh, I want to do that. What do I need to do to get to the next level?” We’re always trying to show them that if they develop their skills, they’ll be able to produce a better product. It’s just like in sports. If I want to make the eighth grade team, I’ve got to get better at my free-throw shot.

What’s got you excited at the Digital Youth Network right now?

The city-led, MacArthur-sponsored Chicago Summer of Learning Initiative here in the city. Four of our mentors are former students we started working with back as early as the fifth grade. They’re in college now, but they’re back to teach middle school and high school students. When we work with kids over a period of time, we try to develop skill sets but also to teach them the responsibility of supporting others. For us, to have former students come back and ask to be mentors in the program for the next generation, that’s a big reward.

What hasn’t worked out as you would have hoped? What’s gone wrong?

When you think of Mimi Ito’s work, she talks about how only 10 percent of kids geek out, and most kids just hang out. One of the hardest challenges is getting kids to try things. We can always tell you success stories—we’ve gotten X number of kids working to discover their interests. But for every X number of kids who have, there are Y number of kids who haven’t. I don’t think we understand enough about what actually engages kids and what doesn’t.

Can you give me an example?

Case in point: This summer we’re running a program called DYN Divas. We know that if a girl from an underrepresented group doesn’t take STEM classes and doesn’t have informal learning experiences in STEM, the likelihood that she will major in STEM in college is minimal. It’s just not going to happen. To address this, we’ve modeled DYN Divas on the Summer of Learning program in Chicago—we have 50 middle school girls coming in teams from a group of schools to learn to program, create apps, and do e-fashion. None of these girls have done any of this stuff before, but because it’s being put in front of them, as a challenge, they’re discovering they have some interest.

What’s the single most surprising thing you’ve seen happen since you started with the Digital Media and Learning initiative (DML)?

I don’t think we understand enough about what actually engages kids and what doesn’t.

YOUmedia. I did not believe the library could become the place to be for African-American high-school males. The creation of YOUmedia and demonstrating that you could create a space that would bring people together across economic status, quality of school, and racial identity to collaborate together—I didn’t think that would happen. I’ve seen parents coming to the library saying, “I need to make sure this place actually exists because I don’t understand why my son says he’s going to the library everyday!”

What’s the biggest hurdle moving forward? What has to happen next?

Showing the long-term impact of participation. Are we having longitudinal impact? What happens to the kid who has participated for four or five years? And what are the pathways back into the formal schooling space? And again, I think it’s important that we don’t get too excited about the 10 to 15 percent, because those are kids who probably would have been successful anyway. We need to push ourselves to make sure we’re addressing the equity question.

I feel like you’re saying a couple of things here. One, that there needs to be a way to reach more than just the kids who’d find a way to succeed anyway, and two, that there needs to be a way of quantifying what you’re doing. Is that right?

Yes, unless you quantify what you’re doing, you can’t say whom you’re actually reaching. Usually we talk to the kids after they’ve demonstrated some ability, but how do we start understanding at the beginning who’s participating in the first place? Who’s choosing to engage and who’s choosing not to engage? And why? We need a richer picture of participation.

Is there anybody in particular whose work you’re interested in right now?

There are a couple of people, but they’re not directly connected to DML. For example, I really like the work of Na’Ilah Nasir at Berkeley. She wrote a book called Racialized Identities that talks about the way kids follow the storylines most common to them and how you have to help them create new story lines. Also, there’s a growing field of educational data mining, which I think is really going to help us. The DML community can benefit from quantitative methods in toolkits.

Do you think DML is ready for that?

We’re probably mature enough as a field now that its time to bring more of the quantitative into what we’re doing as long as it is integrated with the qualitative to tell a full story.

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