Digital Literacy Programs for the Facebook Generation

Murray Hill Academy student Niles Flowers and his mother Jerine Wentt display Niles' new laptop he received after completing the DIG/IT course. DIG/IT is part of the city's initiative to bring broadband and digital literacy to schools in underserved communities. MetroFocus/John Farley.

On Tuesday evening, students at Murray Hill Academy in Manhattan gathered to give science fair-style presentations about the work they’ve been doing all semester. These weren’t dioramas of volcanoes and chemistry experiments, but projects for a class they’d taken on digital literacy called DIG/IT, aimed at using the Internet to prepare for college and get a job.

Demetrius Lefas, a ninth grader, used a software program to create a comic book about superheroes dealing with bullying. Tyqwon Warren, a tenth grader, showed off a short documentary he made about his teachers’ experiences when they were applying for college.

Over half of the students at Murray Hill are transfer students, the term used for those who have fallen behind at, or previously dropped out of, other high schools. At the end of the evening, each received free Netbook laptops to take home and their families were offered information about how to apply for discounted broadband Internet. The DIG/IT class and event were the culmination of a new program in 36 transfer schools called Connected Foundations, designed to empower young people with technology using federal Broadband Technology Opportunities Programs (BTOP) funds.

“The class was really good. I think was great that they let you make the things you’re usually just looking at,” said Niles Flowers, a 9th grader from the Bronx who created a Powerpoint presentation with voiceover about how technology impacts social environments. Like many of the students at Murray Hill, Niles said his family shared a computer, but before he took the class he mostly used it for Facebook and Youtube.

“I think it’s great opportunity for students to gain experience creating the things they normally use for pleasure, things they’ll use for college,” said his mother.

The City’s Response to the Digital Divide

In 2010 the City of New York received $40 million in BTOP dollars to put towards discounted broadband Internet access for low-income families and free computers for children whose parents can’t afford them. The Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) used the funding to implement three programs it had envisioned to address digital literacy, including Connected Foundations.

It’s an attempt to fill in what The New York Times, last December, called the new “digital divide,” a term originally coined in the ’90s to describe the gap between those who had a home computer and those who didn’t.

The term is now being applied to high-speed Internet and laptops, even in an age when it seems like every high schooler on the subway is looking at a smart phone. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), 65 percent of Americans have broadband Internet at home, but only 40 percent of homes with less than $20,000 in annual income have it.

The City of New York was aware of the gap in 2008, when DoITT released a comprehensive report on the city’s broadband infrastructure. The study found a wide gap between broadband adoption by low-income and middle-income households, which DoITT says isn’t just because of the cost of high-speed Internet, but often due of a lack of appreciation for the value of broadband and digital literacy. A number of initiatives were developed out of that study, including free broadband in public parks and industrial areas.

For the three programs funded by BTOP dollars, DoITT coordinated with the Department of Education, cable companies, and various community centers and technology companies.

In addition to Connected Foundations  for older students in transfer schools, the program Connected Learning has allowed nearly 30,000 sixth graders at high-needs middle schools to receive free desktop computers in their homes, and their families to apply for inexpensive broadband access.

The third program, Connected Communities, will add or improve technology at 100 public computer centers in low-income neighborhoods.

For the students participating in the Connected Foundations and Connected Learning, there was one catch to the free computers and cheap broadband: a mandatory education class.

Connected Foundations for High Schoolers

Connected Foundations students were required to take a one-semester, one-credit class where they used technology to improve their digital and financial literacy, career and college awareness, and learned about arts and culture. The Department of Education contracted with the company LearningTimes to develop a system in which students received reward badges — think digital trophies — when they completed certain tasks. Badges were awarded for everything from creating spreadsheets to building a resume to creating multimedia projects. Because the curriculum isn’t tested on the Regents, students of different ability levels can work at their own pace.

“It’s not just providing access and hardware, it’s about college and career planning,” said Debbie Marcus, director of the Connected Foundations program. When the program started, DoITT and LearningTimes worked with teachers and administrators to develop a curriculum, which Marcus said left the teachers with a great deal of flexibility. At Murray Hill, teachers from various departments taught the course.


This video introduces the DIG/IT program for digital literacy, which was implemented at 36 transfer schools as part of the Connected Foundations program. Video courtesy of the Department of Education.

“That way each teacher can bring their own specialty into it. It’s really about creating things,” said Principal Anita Manninen-Felix.

At this point, you might ask yourself, aren’t modern teenagers more computer and Internet savvy than anyone?

“At home they’re primarily consumers of media, but here they’re creators,” said Josh Burstein, an English teacher who taught the course along with three other teachers from various departments.

Panels from a digitally-created comic by Murray Hill student Demetrius Lefas. In the comic, Mr. Guidance mediates bullying disputes between superheroes.

“When we first deployed the program as a pilot, we were making certain assumptions about what the students knew about the technology,” said Jonathan Finkelstein, the executive producer at LearningTimes. “We learned that it actually was not safe for us to assume everyone was comfortable with those things.”

Finkelstein explained that computers are so user-friendly nowadays that kids who grew up with them have never really needed to troubleshoot programs, so they lack some specific skill sets even if they’re whizzes on Twitter.

Teachers at Murrary Hill identified a host of digital literacy issues they’ve seen in recent years.

“When they Google something they’ll type out the full question instead of the keywords,” said Burstein.

All of the teachers, students and parents MetroFocus spoke with said they’ve experienced dramatic improvements since the program began in 2010.

“We’ll talk about code switching, how you write a personal email differently than a business email. They get to see what an email signature looks like,” said social studies and special education teacher Alex Mednick.

Murray Hill teacher Gregory Dulce's students prepare to receive free laptops. MetroFocus/John Farley

Through the program, the school set up a special website with an eye on 21st-century learning, where teachers can post all of their assignments, and students can turn in their completed work.

“Now, nobody has an excuse not to turn in their homework,” said math teacher Gregory Dulce, who added that he’s seen a huge drop in uncompleted assignments since the semester began.

Connected Learning for Sixth Graders

The Connected Learning program used a different model that wasn’t based on one specific digital literacy class. Instead, the sixth graders and their families had to attend a Saturday training workshop at or near their school. After each family was given a desktop computer and training materials, instructors taught small groups of families in a variety of languages. In addition to installing and learning about the computer, navigating the Internet and using the educational programs that the computer came with, lessons were provided in related areas like cyber security, cyber bullying and monitoring social media use.

Sixth grade students and their parents take part in one of the Connected Learned family sessions hosted by CFY. Photo courtesy of CFY.

“It’s about being part of your kids education, that’s what’s going to help them do better in school. Ninety-eight percent of the families that have been through our training say they feel more confident helping their kids learn,” said Cindy Menz-Erb, executive director of CFY, the company that ran the training workshops, distributed the computers and coordinated with other partners that were present in the schools themselves in both the Connected Learning and Connected Foundations programs.

While there wasn’t a semester long class in Connected Learning in the same way as Connected Foundations, teachers were given guidance to synch their lessons, plans and homework with the programs installed on the computers, and special teaching assistants from City University of New York (CUNY) and the company MOUSE were on hand to facilitate. It was more about incorporating technology into all of the sixth graders’ curriculum. By the end of the program, the sixth graders were learning impressive skills.

“We take the kids from the broad basics to creating Google apps,” said Andrea Kirsner, program director for Connected Learning.

A Child Has a Computer and Internet Access: Now What?

The city’s training requirements address yet another new “digital divide” reported by The New York Times in May: the time-wasting gap. According to a 2010 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, teenagers whose parents do not have college degrees spend an average of 90 more minutes per day than teenagers whose parents graduated from college. The study’s author, Vicky Rideout, said that children from low-income families tend to spend more of their time online for entertainment than their more affluent peers.

“Despite the educational potential of computers, the reality is that their use for education or meaningful content creation is minuscule compared to their use for pure entertainment,” said Rideout. “Instead of closing the achievement gap, they’re widening the time-wasting gap.”

The idea of a new digital divide may soon lead the FCC to commit $200 million towards a digital literacy corps that would teach productive Internet use to young people. But Rideout’s interpretation of the study findings — that poorer students tend to waste more time than their wealthier peers, in part because their families are often least able to monitor their Internet use — is controversial.

“Affluent white men — to vastly simply — and their habits of access and use end up being the standard against which everyone else is measured, so that when there’s any difference from that pattern, it ends up getting read as ‘bad’ or pathological somehow,” Jessie Daniels, an associate professor of urban public health at Hunter College, told Technology Review in an interview about the Timesmost recent digital divide story.

She added, “The framework of ‘digital divide’ also encourages us to assume that certain categories of people — everyone other than white males — are somehow less technologically adept.”

Judging by the comments left on the Times story, many readers shared Daniel’s opinions, but the professor herself actually said digital literacy programs are still a great idea, particularly for teaching young people to think critically about the web. In her own research, Daniels said she found that while most adolescents tend to be good at finding and organizing information online, many tend to have trouble discerning between legitimate and slanderous websites.

On that point, Finkelstein, who created the learning program for Connected Foundations, agreed.

“When it comes to being able to vet information, it’s not necessarily a skill we can assume everyone has,” he said.

The teachers at Murray Hill said many of their students definitely could benefit from the free computers and access to broadband, but they felt like the issue of digital literacy isn’t really a class problem. It’s more of an inter-generational problem between students trying to learn traditional skills in a digital world where casual spelling and grammar is normative, and parents and teachers figuring out how apply non-digital communication techniques to new mediums.

However, teachers complained that it’s more difficult to experiment with new technology and teaching methods in their regular classes because of the pressure to follow common core standards so that their kids perform well on Regents exams.

For Menz-Erb, the executive director of CFY and lead partner in Connected Learning, the program isn’t about preventing time waste, it’s about helping kids learn autonomously so they choose not to waste time.

“I think what’s most  impactful is that it helps kids get engaged with their education — that’s the big picture of what were trying to do. Families need these resources, the access to broadband, computers and training. But the ultimate goal is that kids become self-directed in their learning,” she said.

Intersections of class, race and technology aside, the Times story didn’t address the fact that in today’s job market, the line between entertainment and career strategy is sometimes blurry. After all, might not someone applying for a job in New York City’s tech scene have a leg up if their resume mentioned their large Twitter following?

The City and Department of Education seem to think so. According to DoITT, the Connected Learning and Connected Foundations programs are scheduled to run through February and August of 2013, respectively. After that, they hope to assess, reorganize and continue the programs with new funding streams.

“Without a doubt we’ve seen results from the program. Tyqwon [who made a movie for his final project] has told me ‘I want to use iMovie to create presentations in my other classes,'” said Mednick.

For more technology news, watch “MetroFocus: The Tech Economy,” airing on THIRTEEN on June 30 at 5 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. and July 12 at 8:30 p.m.; on WLIW at 5:30 a.m. on June 30; on NJTV on July 1 at 5:30 a.m. and July 2 at 4:30 a.m.


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