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Bridging the Digital Divide

How afterschool time can generate content creators

by Edwin Link

Computer Binary Human Company Monitor TechnologyIt’s no secret that technology follows finances. In a world that’s increasingly connected by social media and runs off web-based systems, technology is currency, literally. From manufacturing motherboards to creating software, it costs money to develop and maintain an infrastructure that supports access to digital devices and tools, which means that if you find yourself born into a wealthy or middle-class household, you’re more likely to benefit from having easy access to both the tech as well as the education to put it to use. On the other hand, if you happen to live on the opposite end of the educational and financial spectrum, it’s more likely that you’ll find yourself lacking the technology skills to keep up with job market demands, and thus eventually find yourself in a less privileged position socially, educationally, and financially. Experts have christened this growing gap between the tech-savvy and the less-than-savvy the “Digital Divide.”   

The issue isn’t that some people own a computer and some people don’t. When you follow the ripple effects generated by this one factor—access to tech and tools compared to limited access to tech—that gap widens into a chasm. It’s not just about being able to own a digital device, whether it be a laptop, tablet, smartphone, or talking toaster oven. It’s about having the knowledge and resources to connect to an increasingly global community, and have a voice in a constantly larger conversation.

With children, the conversation takes place as they’re exposed to digital methods of communication on various devices, learn to use the Internet, become proficient in Cloud-based productivity tools and software, and successfully navigate the social aspects of a tech-based culture (i.e. cyberbullying, appropriate smart phone etiquette, etc.). The problem used to be a lack of access to technology within disadvantaged communities, but a new digital divide is emerging as the price of computers gradually decreases and the popularity of tablets and mobile smartphones rises. Now the crux of the issue lies in the relationship a child forms with technology in terms of being a consumer of content or a creator of content.

Online Digital Mobile Smartphone Data ComputerAccording to the Afterschool Alliance, “There is a growing awareness of the inequalities that exist in the way youth are interacting with digital media; whereas affluent youth are more likely to behave as ‘content producers,’ disadvantaged youth tend to be ‘content consumers.’ Through creating digital content – such as blogs, zines, videos and digital art – youth who are content producers are acquiring a number of key skills and competencies, including a more comprehensive understanding of intellectual property, opportunities for cultural expression and the importance of active citizenship.

“Youth who sit on the sidelines as content consumers – or, in other words, those who interact with digital media only in the context of watching videos or using social media sites – will be left behind as they enter institutions of higher education and, eventually, the workplace. The 21st century skills perceived to be essential to the future success of youth are precisely the same skills that are fostered through involvement in a participatory digital learning culture.”

It takes very little effort to learn how to be a content consumer; it’s as easy as playing a YouTube video or reading a Tweet. Being a content producer, on the other hand, requires a completely different skill set. You need to not only become familiar with and proficient in the software and apps needed to produce a video or record a song or write an article, you need to develop a voice, find a perspective, and locate an appropriate context for your content.

In this respect, afterschool programs are uniquely poised to help students bridge the gap between passively standing on the sidelines listening to other people’s voices, and having the resources to enter the conversation on your own terms. According to an article in Education Week, “…just offering kids the latest-model laptop isn’t enough. Instead, what distinguishes the most innovative schools is what students and teachers do with the technology they have. Parents want their children prepared to shape the future, not get steamrolled by it.”  

It’s important to frame best practices for afterschool providers in terms of engagement and participation in the world, not simply proficiency with computers and the Internet. It’s not about having a laptop or a smart phone, it’s about using the laptop or smartphone to translate a child’s worldview into content. It’s about giving them the creative space to digitally develop a voice. Here are a few examples:

  1. My.Future through Boys & Girls Clubs of America Nationwide – The My.Future digital platform lets Boys & Girls Club members and non-members of all ages use computers, smartphones, and tablets to play, learn, and socialize. Put simply, it’s a digital version of what members experience every day and takes the Club beyond its own walls. Through the platform, which is made possible through a partnership with Comcast NBCUniversal, users can share the great things they’ve made and amplify their voices. Whether they’re making lyrics, videos or apps, they’ll be able to share the things they create and connect with their peers across the country.
  2. Wide-Angle Youth Media in Baltimore, MD – This program engages 10-15 year-olds by challenging them to explore community issues. Using their own mobile devices and basic software, students create media projects, in the course of which they “…engage in critical discussions, conduct research, interview community members and participate in reflective writing exercises. Past projects have included tops such as school bullying, gang activity, pollution and police surveillance.”
  3. Computers4Kids in Charlottesville, VA – At-risk students are matched with a mentor who helps them complete two meaningful technology projects in one of the following areas: graphics, audio, Web design, video, animation, print, presentation and 3-D modeling. They must “…demonstrate a sound understanding of technology concepts, use digital media to communicate and work collaboratively, show creative thinking, demonstrate critical thinking skills for planning and managing projects; and make informed decisions using appropriate digital tools and resources.”
  4. Green Energy Technologies in the City in East Lansing, MI – This program seeks to develop middle-school youth into STEM experts who use cyber tools like podcasts and PSAs to work through scientific problems. “Youth develop STEM expertise through authentic investigations of green energy challenges…They put their knowledge to work through youth-led community workshops, social media outreach and creating content for the project website.”
  5. YTECH Civic Voice Curriculum Programs in Seattle, WA – This program uses digital tools that are normally frowned upon in schools (i.e. YouTube and Facebook) to help low-income, urban youth create digital projects that “…enhances students’ digital literacies, communication and leadership skills while also developing their sense of belonging and investment in their communities.”

As the digital divide continues to widen as a result of the rapid evolution of technology, it’s critical that in-school and out-of-school time work together to ensure that all youth have the opportunity to become content creators, develop their digital voice, and make connections beyond their physical community. By investing in these opportunities to level the playing field for today’s young people, we’re investing not only in their future but in the future of our communities, our nation, and our world.

Author Further Reading
  1. American Psychological Association – What makes a good afterschool program?
  2. Science Daily – After School program environments linked to academic confidence and skills
  3. U.S. News – After-School Programs Foster STEM Skills
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