Student Well-Being

Out-of-School Settings Create Climate for New Skills

By Nora Fleming — August 21, 2012 8 min read
Osarieman Igbinevbo, 17, right, and her teammate, Miguel Zeng, 18, discover a geocache inside a disused Fire Department call box in New York City. The Global Kids program uses the treasure hunt and technology to teach students about public-policy issues.

As pressure mounts for students to improve their digital-learning and 21st-century skills, out-of-classroom environments are increasingly being seen as appealing settings to foster them.

This growing interest comes hand in hand with discussions on whether the traditional definitions of schooling and learning need to change to provide students with a broader knowledge base that includes skills such as problem-solving and creative thinking.

From out-of-school programs that use mobile gaming to reinforce school lessons to learning labs where students create their own multimedia projects using digital tools, these new environments have provided more leeway for young people to pursue individual interests, which some educators say helps them gain a deeper understanding of core academic knowledge. In addition, they say, the new learning models are a source of experimentation that, when successful, could be scaled up inside the traditional classroom, where change is often slow.

“Kids spend only a fifth of their time in school. The rest of their day is out of school, where they are often connected [virtually] in some way,” said Michael H. Levine, the executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at the Sesame Workshop, a New York City-based research lab that studies digital-media technologies and children’s learning.

“One of the big questions for those running after-school and summer programs,” he said, “is how to strike the right new balance to leverage where and how kids are learning.”

‘Connected Learning’

Limited research on best practices and the ever-changing digital landscape have made it challenging to determine what, where, and how best to teach students new ways to learn using digital technology and how to define these new skills.

A report this summer from the congressionally chartered National Research Council found students need to be taught a balance of skills—from critical thinking to teamwork—to succeed in college and the workplace. But what those specific skills are, and how they should and can be taught, lacks definition and consensus, according to the findings.

The interest in and research on using out-of-school settings to teach digital media and 21st-century learning are not abating.

In 2006, the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation launched a project that spurred research and initiatives examining new ways children were learning via digital media.

The funding, totaling $85 million to date, catalyzed a growing field that aims to see whether these evolving strategies and spaces for learning have an effect on the way children are educated, relate to others, and develop greater self-awareness.

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Innovative programs like YouMedia, a digital-media-infused learning lab for teenagers at the Chicago Public Library and the HIVE Learning Networks, which combine collaborative community efforts to promote digital and 21st-century learning, have led the pack. YouMedia, for example, is now serving as a model for at least 30 other digital labs for youths that are expected to take off in museums and libraries nationwide.

Support has also continued to increase in the past half-dozen years in both the public and private spheres, targeting creative programs that get children more engaged and learning in new ways rather than simply teaching basic digital and media skills.

Some, like David Theo Goldberg, the executive director of the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub at the University of California, Irvine, which studies the impact of the Internet and media on education and youths, call this emergent field “connected learning.”

Connected learning looks not only at new ways to learn, he said, but also at how the community, parents, and other out-of-school experiences contribute to learning and make in-school learning have more real-world context.

“We’ve lost kids in school who no longer have a great deal of interest in learning, because not all kids learn in the same way,” Mr. Goldberg said. “Connected learning is about catching kids in their passions and making their learning passion- and interest-driven. This means connecting them through their intersecting interests with other learners to expand their own learning.”

Treasure Hunters

Some days, students in the Bronx can be found after school scouring the streets of their New York City neighborhood with iPads and other mobile-technology devices playing detective for their client, the ghost of Edgar Allen Poe. The virtual ghost, that is.

Stopping at historic sites like the author’s cottage to look for clues, the students not only play a game and learn local history, but also use digital media to address larger social problems and become more “globally aware” of issues that affect them day to day. In this instance, they explore the reasons behind the air quality of the neighborhood, which has become polluted since Mr. Poe’s day.

The middle and high school students are participating in NYC Haunts, an initiative run through the New York Public Library and headed by Global Kids, a 20-year-old nonprofit organization based in the city that partners with groups, libraries, and schools to deliver high-quality programs focused on global learning, digital media, and civic engagement.

One of the first on the scene in the digital-learning space, more than a decade ago, Global Kids’ digital programs today incorporate a range of tools and curricula. While programs are tailored to meet the needs of the middle and high school students they serve, the common thread is having youths produce content that educates themselves and others, according to Barry Joseph, the director of Global Kids’ Online Leadership Program.

“The after-school space is crucial for modeling the potential for learning with digital media, Mr. Joseph said, “without compromising what attracts youths to them in the first place: pursuit of individual passions, group collaboration, and the building on individual strengths.”

For example, teenagers in New York’s jobs program worked this summer with Global Kids to create a “geocaching” game—a treasure hunt using mobile devices equipped with GPS technology—on the topic of the 2012 elections.

GPS-linked “travel bugs” were coded with various public-policy issues deemed relevant to the presidential election. Fellow geocache players who found the bugs could deem the importance of each policy issue by choosing to physically move the bug closer to, or farther from, the District of Columbia, and writing about why they made that choice through Global Kids’ website.

The theme of all Global Kids’ programs both in and out of New York is to make youths more aware and engaged citizens, a goal shared by a growing number of out-of-school organizations that have incorporated digital media into their curricula.

In Seattle, for example, YTech, a collaborative supported by the YMCA of Greater Seattle, the University of Washington’s Center for Communication and Civic Engagement, and the city, uses digital-technology tools to promote civic engagement and service learning. Students learn digital and communication skills by sharing community stories and information via an online platform and other digital media.

Technology Relevance

The crux of the program is to make technology more accessible and technology skills more relevant, said Chris Tugwell, the regional director of education, employment, and technology programs at the Seattle YMCA. For example, a group of Latino students in YTech used mobile devices to film, edit, and share stories about Latino culture and then incorporated those videos into a lesson to teach their peers about mobile technology.

“Learning the hard media skills is just as important as planting seeds of being active community participants,” Mr. Tugwell said.

Seeking Balance

To some educators, it will be crucial to bridge the gap between the new learning experiences and traditional classroom experiences.

Akili Lee, the co-founder and director of digital strategy and development at the Digital Youth Network, a Chicago-based program that works both in schools and in after-school programs, said a number of its sites emphasize collaborative relationships between the community and schools.

For one project, the group brings its staff members into schools to work with students and classroom teachers to teach a 21st-century writing class aimed at connecting traditional writing and digital-literacy skills. Students write articles and blogs and create related media content, such as podcasts, for a digital magazine. Afterwards, using social networking, they can connect with network staff and their peers outside the classroom day.

“We’ve tried to make the skills students are developing with us transparent to teachers, and work with them to support those skills in the classroom,” Mr. Lee said. “This allows the kids to leverage what are often more engaging skills in core-content areas while still maintaining the same expectations from the teacher around content knowledge.”


But bridging the gap between in and out of school, as well as improving the quality of digital-learning and 21st-century-skills content, will also hinge on staff development, some in the field say.

That may require a learning process for educators and students alike, according to Jen Siaca Curry, the director of national technical assistance at the New York City-based After-School Corp. Yet to a number of leaders in the field, better definition and recognition of what the skills are is the first step in improving the quality of instruction.

“Asking people to change a curriculum to something that’s relatively unknown and untested is really hard, as there’s not a tremendous amount of evidence-based research with new tools,” Ms. Curry said. “It’s a leap of faith to use these tools and this pedagogical style, but it’s absolutely critical for out-of-school practitioners to be willing to take a risk to further engage students.”

Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the August 22, 2012 edition of Education Week as Out-of-School Settings Create a Climate for New Skills


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