Learning Technology for Youth, Learning Technology By Youth

In synthesizing my recent ideas around a model for technology and learning, I realized that I’d been limiting my conceptions of what role youth should play within a broader learning ecology. I’d placed them, both physically and theoretically, at the center of the layout of the model. I wanted to convey my priority around keeping the model centered directly on the learner. To some degree, this was also meant as a subtle shot across the bow of traditional educational approaches and, to be honest, most educational technology, which are generally more oriented towards administrators, teachers and the larger accountability systems that surround them and thus reflect priorities other than the learning experience of the young person. But in writing up my ideas about the role of a larger technology system that aims to personalize and link up the various nodes in a youth’s learning ecology so that they can better pursue their interests, I fell into a common trap: I didn’t include youth in the role of co-designers of such a system.

I’ve updated my model here to include this role (click on the “Young Person” node to see the addition). I also added in a snazzy back button (woo!).

I was inspired by readings I’d done about other educational technologies, notably two projects that came out of the University of Maryland Human Computer Interaction Lab (HCIL). The first was the StoryRoom project, which aims to create physical objects that youth can program without a computer interface in order to tell embodied stories (totally cool in my opinion). The second was on designing intergenerational mobile storytelling apps for the iOS platform [pdf here]. In both of the projects, I noticed that youth were not positioned as playtesters or as part of focus groups, but rather as designers themselves. On further digging into the lab’s work, it’s clear that they’ve had a priority around involving youth in the design of new technologies for over ten years, creating what they refer to as “an intergenerational, interdisciplinary design team”. Incredible. But not, however, without precedent.

In a not-entirely-former life, I worked at a great organization called Global Kids that regularly approached educational work from the perspective that kids should be in decision making positions. Youth ran workshops for their peers on global issues, co-developed highly successful educational games, designed and ran our annual conference, and even had positions on the organization’s board of directors. This is an approach grounded in the youth development movement, which was a reaction to “deficit thinking” approaches that viewed young people, especially those coming from under-privileged and marginalized communities, as “at-risk” problems waiting to happen. Consider what terms like “dropout prevention” and “keeping kids off the streets” say about those young people. Youth Development assumes strengths, and gives opportunities to display those strengths by creating opportunities and situations in which they take on real power and responsibility. For instance, being designers of technologies they’d ultimately use.

And while this approach is vital, it’s by no means uncomplicated. As a colleague of mine mentioned today, most of the time youth involvement is an afterthought, done in a perfunctory way. I had this experience bringing youth to conferences that “wanted to have youth voices” but rarely considered what this would look like. On numerous occasions while I was still at Global Kids I wrote about how having youth as equal partners at the table and as collaborators on projects is not as easy as it sounds. There are limits to youth time, understanding and interest in relation to any given project, and for it to be a fruitful process for all parties, especially in a design process, it makes a lot of sense to invest resources into an infrastructure that provides youth with experiences and context that will allow them to contribute in meaningful ways. It sounds like the UMD lab has done just this, and so I applaud them and would look to their model as I consider how youth can play the role of co-designers in my own work.

4 Responses to “Learning Technology for Youth, Learning Technology By Youth”

  1. 1 Rosh Dhanawade October 13, 2011 at 12:09 am

    I will agree on the role of users are active participants in the design of the product or implementation, and I will raise a question. In the case of an environment in which we hope a group of people are going to learn something, what is the power of having the students manipulate the design and come to realizations of connections and implications? Constructionists talk about this process of actively manipulating information and representations to build understanding, and I think that is very closely related to what you are saying in your write-up. You look at the social and societal aspects of involving kids in design, and another part that you could add would be this piece about how inquiry is changed when students become active designers.

  2. 2 johannakeene October 13, 2011 at 10:50 am


    I agree that it is important to have kids as co-designers, and not merely an afterthought in a design process. I’m curious as to how you think that process could be improved. As you said, it is difficult to involved kids for various reasons, and I’m sure that from your experience you have some ideas of how to make that a smooth process without losing the kids’ voices. My fear would be that because of the difficulties the children would end up being merely bystanders, not really participating with the actual design. What can adults do to combat that?

  3. 3 M Levine October 29, 2011 at 8:41 pm

    Hi Rafi:

    Allison Druin’s work at HCIL is terrific and appreciate your bringing her work to the fore in your post. One great resource you don’t mention is the amazing International Children’s Digital Library–the largest resource of children’s lit available in dozens of languages on the web

    All best

    Michael Levine

  1. 1 Avoiding the “Creepy Treehouse” When Using Technology to Connect Learning Ecologies « Empathetics: Integral Life Trackback on October 25, 2011 at 12:12 am
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