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Reflections on Digital Literacy from Youth Radio's Mobile Action Lab

Reflections on Digital Literacy from Youth Radio's Mobile Action Lab


As Youth Radio's Mobile Action Lab gears up for more youth-made app launches in 2012, we're marking the new year with some reflections on what we're learning about digital media literacies from our own design and development efforts. Some thoughts: 

  • From community need to citizen participation: A founding principle of the Lab was to develop apps that “serve community needs.” Over the course of the last 18 months, our orientation shifted, to focus instead on designing apps that promote citizen participation. Rather than lead with needs—what designers determine to be lacking or broken in a given community—young people partner with potential users to identify meaningful activities for which apps can stoke momentum and maximize impact. The ultimate goal is for users to emerge as engaged citizens deploying technology (in our case, our apps!) to achieve greater freedom, equity, collaboration, and expression in the public sphere. (Warren Sack provided added inspiration for this approach at the Digital We workshop at UC Berkeley, December 2011.)
  • Virtual worlds re-imagined: There is of course a strong tradition in DML of building and studying virtual worlds. We are struck by a different manifestation of virtual worlds through app development. When building new tech tools, young people constantly use conversation to conjure imagined worlds, as they are repeatedly called upon to describe scenarios in which a product they’re working on is finished and being used. Their language is shot through with hypotheticals—“What if…” “When the user…” “If this happens, then…”—that reveal a capacity to project future outcomes for in-the-moment decisions. This world-making activity is necessary, for young people to make a persuasive case to collaborators, and for them to test assumptions against convincing claims about how actual users will take up their products. It’s a way of “feeding forward” (rather than just feeding back) that’s key, in our experience, to digital media literacy.
  • Performance programming: As evident in our DML competition application video, we have clearly been provoked by Douglas Rushkoff’s argument that young people who don’t at least understand that there’s “a thing called programming” run the risk of becoming “the programmed,” i.e., marginalized from decision-making power and self-determination. Something that stands out in our own programming activity is its dramatic quality. While computer programming is undeniably rooted in math and science, very often the work itself bears much in common with the rituals and practices of theater. (Tara Lemmey raised this theme to great effect at the 2011 DML conference.) Young people constantly rehearse pitches and presentations to potential partners, investors, and users; they role-play various stakeholders and act out “use-cases” for the apps being developed; the sequences of code are like scripts that composers continually try, tweak, and re-work; we anxiously await high-stakes public reviews; we cast, shoot, and edit narratives in the form of promo videos and online posts designed to drive downloads; we appropriate pre-existing code bases much like theater companies adapt plays; and we improvise our way through inevitable crises in the development process. As educators sometimes struggle to find ways to hook young people into STEM fields, grounding the work in metaphors of theater can engage young people who are inspired to dramatize and perform what they know.
  • Irresistible utility: Youth Radio’s core business is youth-made media content. The ultimate achievement in that arena is for young people to establish their credibility as believable, compelling reporters whose insights cannot be ignored. (Here's a collection of research on credibility as it relates to digital media and learning.) With app development, the highest aspiration is different. Credibility remains important, but the success of the product hinges on its utility. We don’t define utility in a narrow way, as in utilitarian, but in the sense that the app insists on repeated, contagious, and satisfying use. The project has to strike an emotional chord and become, in some way, irresistible. The principle of utility has been especially important in our approach to competitive research. With every app, the youth team scans existing marketplaces to determine what products are already available. There’s invariably a moment of discouragement, when we first come across a similar app to the one we have in mind and have to decide whether to move forward anyway. The key question is whether there’s something about the app’s utility—combined with its look, feel, and flow—that we can keep improving on, given our target users. If so, we proceed, with a sharper view of how to make an effective product (and, perhaps as importantly, with an underlying lesson about the importance of seeking available data to refine your own process). 
  • "Connected learning" makes connected institutions: When Youth Radio, a non-profit, community-based youth organization, launched the Mobile Action Lab, it already had strong ties to networks in journalism, health, and youth development. To support youth learning inside the Lab, the organization has forged new relationships that criss-cross institutional boundaries. Concrete collaborations have formed with higher education (faculty and grad students at Stanford, USF, Mills, MIT, and UC Berkeley); industry (from leading Silicon Valley start-ups to Google); online networks (e.g., the community using Google’s App Inventor, now based at MIT); and social justice efforts (e.g., food-equity and urban farming projects, health clinics, libraries and schools). The process of building these connections reflects game researchers' notion of on-demand, just-in-time learning as key to digital media literacy through hands-on technology development. These institutional connections also point to the importance of organizations and youth-adult collaboration to support organic peer-to-peer learning among youth. 

We'll keep you posted on how these ideas about literacy evolve as we continue our work and roll out two more apps in the coming months.

And one more update. A comic book-inspired review of my book, Drop That Knowledge: Youth Radio Stories (UC Press, with Vivian Chávez), was just published by Harvard Ed Review. We're so excited to see Paul Kuttner's lovely transmedia approach (how meta!) to describing the book. A taste below. 



Hey Lora, thanks so much for writing and sharing these reflections! I really like the way you've pushed beyond "youth voice" as the end-all. Would be great to put our youth teams in touch. Will you and/or any of your students be coming to the DML conference in SF in March?



The link to your post appeared in my email this morning just as I was integrating Drop that Knowledge into my syllabus for a course on youth media I'm teaching at Muhlenberg College this semester.  The thoughts you share above resonate with much of what we're seeing in HYPE, the youth media program I co-direct in Allentown, PA (you can see our DML4 proposal here).  Additionally, one of the major shifts that's occurred for us in the last 18 months is moving from the inital goal of "raising youth voices" in the community to developing community-based practices for "valuing youth voices" beyond HYPE.  I've been working with HYPE for 6 years, and before that, In Berkeley with the UC Links statewide project.  In the last five years or so of this work, increasingly the evidence suggests to me that we need to use digital media tools not primarily to help youth "raise their voices" but to use these tools to create spaces where their voices are heard, where they matter, and are actively valued.  The youth-made apps you all are creating are doing just that!  Hope to be able to share the Mobile Action Lab's apps with HYPE teens in the new year.  Would there be any possibility to organize an online meeting for teens in your program to show HYPE teens what they're working on?  I know we have a 3 hour time difference that would require some creativity...



Lora Elisabeth