YOUmedia Expansions Offer Teens Student-Centered Learning Opportunities with Digital Media


At the Hirshhorn Museum’s ArtLab, D.C. area teens can drop in and experiment with digital media. The museum plans to open a YOUmedia lab later this year, modeled after the space at Chicago's Harold Washington Library. Photo/ ArtLab.

7.11.12 | It’s been a hit at the Harold Washington Library in Chicago, and now it’s spreading.

YOUmedia are learning spaces where kids explore, express and create using digital media, and then hook what they learn there back into the classroom. Expanded learning, experiential learning, student-centered learning—whatever the term, YOUmedia’s core philosophy is that youth are best engaged when they’re following their passions, collaborating with others, and creating instead of passively consuming culture.

YOUmedia is the brainchild of researchers in the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning initiative. The idea was to create a public space where teens and pre-teens could come and learn about digital media from practitioner/mentors via a process that involves “hanging out,” “messing around,” and “geeking out.”

In other words, kids come into the space to play video games with their friends, move on to, say, borrowing a podcasting microphone, and end up learning how to do sound engineering. They then use those skills to re-imagine and remix “Neverwhere,” a book by Neil Gaiman, or remix a jazz classic. In doing so, they gain a new appreciation for literature or music that may engage them in new ways in the classroom.

The design of the space is deliberate. It’s grounded in the experiences of an innovative afterschool project, Digital Youth Network, that Nichole Pinkard, associate professor in the College of Computing and Digital Media at DePaul University, had designed in Chicago, as well as the work of Mizuko (Mimi) Ito, a cultural anthropologist at University of California, Irvine, whose study of 700 youth uncovered the “hanging out,” “messing around” and “geeking out” process of learning and engagement.

When it debuted at the Harold Washington Library in July 2009, YOUmedia was a radical idea—a library space that wasn’t only about books, that was rambunctious, that embraced social networks and video games. Three years later, there’s a new wave of similar ventures springing up at community centers and museums as well as libraries.

“A Resource for the Whole Community”

DreamYard, the biggest arts education provider in the Bronx, marks YOUmedia’s debut into a community-center model.

“We felt at home with the philosophy right away,” said Tim Lord, co-executive director of DreamYard, which provides arts education through afterschool programs and at its own public high school, DreamYard Preparatory. DreamYard launched a YOUmedia program at its community arts center this summer, with a full roll-out planned for the fall.

One of the ideas that intrigued Lord was that of “connected learning”—another idea from Ito’s work that is becoming a catch-phrase in digital media and learning circles. Connected learning essentially means learning that is socially connected, interest driven, and directed toward concrete goals. The idea is for young people to develop a personal interest — with the help of professional adults and others interested in the same subject — and then turn that interest into actual academic and professional success or meaningful civic engagement.

Ito’s work is based on research showing the most lasting and adaptive learning comes when individual interest is pursued and social support and recognition are provided. Because online networks expand the possibilities for connecting around an interest, digital media is a centerpiece of connected learning.


High school students in a digital photography class at DreamYard’s arts center. Photo/ Dreamyard.

“We were already living this philosophy on the ground,” Lord said. “We’ve been trying to reach them at school, after school and at home. This gives us a new way to connect to the youth we’re trying to reach in a community-based way.”

DreamYard’s YOUmedia space is on the ground floor of a 90-unit affordable housing building and within walking distance to the local public school.

“It needs to be a teen space, but also a resource for the whole community,” Lord said. “There are incredible opportunities in the fact that we can be connected to families living right in our own building.”

How to Encourage “Messing Around”

There are obvious connections between connected learning and a community-based model, but what is new for DreamYard is teaching digital media. To get up to speed, DreamYard brought in Hillary Kolos last August as director of the project. Kolos was a graduate student at MIT under Henry Jenkins, one of the grandfathers of digital media and learning. (Jenkins coined the phrase “participatory culture.”)

“I thought YOUmedia was a great thing before I even started at DreamYard,” Kolos said.

Kolos said the challenge for DreamYard is the “messing around part.” Unlike at the Harold Washington Library in Chicago, where people were used to dropping in, DreamYard has traditionally operated with classes but without an open door policy.

“The library model is different than ours because they already have people dropping in to do their own things,” Kolos said. “They had a ‘hang out’ model, so they had to figure out how to get people to ‘geek out.’ We already have people ‘geeking out’ in our classes, so we’re trying to figure out how to make less structured time work.”

Kolos said she thinks about geeking out as “a time for exploration.” And that’s what makes it important.

“The questions I’m thinking about are: How do we feed our new space with inspiration materials? How do we make a space that’s really inspiring? And how do mentors inspire young people to try something new?”

The idea, Kolos said, is for young people to look at something, whether it’s a video game or a piece of fabric, and think, “What can I do with that?” — and then progress to the next levels. Kolos also said studying what teens do in their free time will dictate what kind of structured workshops DreamYard sets up. “We have to be responsive to their interests,” she said.

That’s another key element of YOUmedia programs: Teens have a central voice in the offerings. Interests drive programming, and that’s what makes the programs a success.

In the fall, Kolos hopes to have 20 to 30 teens per week in the program working with two to three full-time mentors and two to three part-time mentors.

YOUmedia at the Museum

In Washington, D.C., Ryan Hill, director of the Hirshhorn Museum’s ArtLab, is figuring out how to adapt YOUmedia to a museum setting. Located in the sculpture garden of the museum, ArtLab is a drop-in area for D.C. teens to come and experiment with digital media. The teens are also encouraged to form clubs based on their shared interests. They work closely with mentor/artists, which allows them to learn more about the life of creative professionals.

Before, museums were sacred spaces for quiet observation. But that’s shifting now, so there’s a real need to interact with audience and help them make meaning out of their experience.

– Ryan Hill, ArtLab

In December, another YOUmedia lab will open in the lobby of the museum. “This is very different and very new,” Hill said. “It’s the first time a Smithsonian Museum has ever had a drop-in center.”

Hill said part of the motivation for adopting a YOUmedia component to the museum was about “keeping what we do relevant.”

“Before, museums were sacred spaces for quiet observation,” he said. “But that’s shifting now, so there’s a real need to interact with audience and help them make meaning out of their experience.”

Another reason for adopting YOUmedia at the Hirshhorn is to develop future patrons, the idea being that providing a hangout space and workshops for teens will instill a lifelong interest in the arts. Also, as with all the other YOUmedia sites, it’s “a way to serve an at-risk population and bridge the digital divide,” Hill said. 

If you were to walk into ArtLab, you’d see teens sitting in a gaming area, laptops open, on Facebook and chatting with each other. You’d see mentors setting up keyboards and encouraging the teens to take a turn and teaching them how to use Garageband. In one corner of the space, a mentor operates a sound booth; in another corner, a mentor is overseeing a film editing station.

This summer, ArtLab has been offering five-day workshops on subjects like broadcasting. During the school year, teachers can pick a theme and bring their classes to the museum. The students will first visit the collection and then go into ArtLab and participate in drop-in workshops related to the selected theme. According to Hill, this is one of the exciting parts of housing a YOUmedia space in a museum.

Recruiting YOUmedia Teens for College

YOUmedia is also expanding through the original library model. At North Dade Regional Library, part of the Miami-Dade Public Library System, librarian Stephanie Hope-Cochran started with 13 teens in January and has seen that number shoot up to 140. The original goal was to have 200 teens participating in that library’s YOUmedia Miami program within two years. She’s already been contacted about expanding to another location farther south in Miami.

“This is something we needed,” Hope-Cochran said. “We have teens who don’t have the advantage of other kids living in more affluent areas. They’re neglected. This gives them an opportunity to take on new things in technology and to make connections with mentors.”

Hope-Cochran said the teens in YOUmedia are the kids who otherwise would have been hanging around outside the library causing trouble. “This gives them an outlet,” she said. “They can come in and take advantage of what’s happening in YOUmedia.”

In addition to offering a hangout space, workshops and mentors, the library has formed a partnership with Miami-Dade College to recruit teens from the YOUmedia program.


Photo/ ArtLab.

“We’re giving them the beginning knowledge necessary to move into a college program,” Hope-Cochran said. “During the recruitment process, Miami-Dade knows that the teens have been exposed to what they’ll need when they get to college. We’re trying to create a place where the teens can get a competitive edge to help with what they want to do career- or education-wise.”

Hope-Cochran said the partnership with Miami-Dade College was there from inception, and that she’s hoping to form more such partnerships.

“In a lot of libraries, they’re trying to keep teens quiet or even keep them out of the library all together,” Hope-Cochran said. “But here, they have the opportunity to be in a area where they’re free to do what they like –within guidelines – and they have the opportunity to have technology actually in their hands. They can create music, do photography or make videos, and then show their work to each other. It’s the perfect place for them to come – not to be quiet and reserved, but to be creative and take advantage of these technologies as they’re evolving.”

Back in Chicago, YOUmedia has expanded into three new locations since the fall, with more to come.

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