Examining Technology Use, Diversity & Equity at the Digital Edge

A Few Moments with S. Craig Watkins

As a leading ethnographer, lecturer, and author, S. Craig Watkins is working at the forefront of the digital media and learning initiative. At the core of his studies is an interest in how young people navigate social change around them, particularly the innovative ways youth are adapting to new media and mobile media platforms. For more than a year, Craig and his connected learning research team have been working with Texas City High School (TCHS), a public school with an enrollment of 1,650 students, the majority of whom are minorities, in an effort to implement several ‘connected learning’ design pilot projects. He also serves as conference chair for the 2013 Digital Media and Learning Conference, which is themed “Democratic Futures” and will take place March 14-16 in Chicago. Craig spent a few moments with us talking about how his perspectives on civic education and issues of digital equity have evolved as a result of working at the majority-minority school.

How has being in the trenches shaped the work you do?

The principal hat I wear, in all of the work I do, is that of a learner. The opportunity to meet young people has certainly been a part of my own lifelong learning. Over the years, I have met a number of young people who have exuded a creative energy and ambition, which has been really inspirational for me. I’m in a unique position because my job allows me the opportunity to meet young people both as a researcher and also as a speaker, as I travel across the country to talk with school districts, youth organizations, and after-school programs. A lot of the students we have met this past year come from homes and attend schools where the resources aren’t substantial. Yet they develop this sense of optimism and this sense that their voices matter. The ways they struggle to achieve that voice is what I find really fascinating.

One young student I have had the chance to befriend is someone who comes from an immigrant household. His mom works at a cafeteria and doesn’t speak English well. His dad has a similar background. There are all kinds of reasons why this young student shouldn’t be very optimistic. He has had some ups and downs in school, and when talking to him, I learned about how that history had framed who he was as a learner. Yet he was able to demonstrate a kind of integrity and intelligence that eventually forced his parents and teachers to realize he was capable of so much more than people expected. I was really struck by the fact that even in a space that would otherwise be devastating odds, he’s optimistic about his future. There are definitely some challenges he will face, but seeing the ways he leverages his interest in games and technology to become both a star pupil in his classes and also a star citizen in the after school space is inspiring to me. It’s nothing I could have pictured or put together if I hadn’t had an opportunity to meet someone like him.

After working at Texas City High School for the past year and a half, do you have a better understanding of the challenges students attending majority-minority schools face?

Part of the reason we wanted to roll up our sleeves and get into this classroom setting was to build a sense of trust and build a connection with these students. That allowed us to explore their life history both in school and outside of school. One of the things you learn is that over the course of their lives as students, the expectations have been consistently low for them. The achievement environment and the standards are so low for these students, and increasingly, these are the students who are beginning to represent the majority of students in our public schools. It really does create some serious challenges in terms of how we begin to create curriculum that demands more in terms of innovation, creativity and autonomy. As learners, these students have never been expected to do that, so how do we begin to create an environment, or opportunities, or classrooms that enable them to start doing that type of work?

What I found really interesting was that we didn’t meet a single student who had an oppositional culture to learning. We never saw any evidence of that at TCHS. What we saw were many instances of kids trying to do well in school or attempting to take on a leadership role in the projects we were working on. It’s not that these students do not want to achieve, but the low set of expectations that have been cultivated over a set of years have established a set of norms and behaviors that makes success and achievement at a high level very difficult for them.

Is this a major cause for concern considering recent demographic shifts in the US?

As we look at an increasing number of metropolitan areas that are becoming majority-minority–where the majority of the population is Latino, Asian American, African American, and multi-racial–this has severe implications for not only the future of learning, but also for the future of who our young learners are. One of the things I find most striking about the demographic trend–-more than 50% percent of our nation’s population younger than age 1 are now minorities–is that if you look at the public school districts in the major metropolitan areas, those are now above the participant threshold in terms of minorities of the population. Much of our future will in many respects be defined by the kind of education these students receive and the kind of skills and knowledge and competencies they develop. The implications are enormous. The very students we are largely failing are the students that we need to be supporting by creating pathways for them to succeed. But this is not about merely preparing young people for good jobs but rather equipping them with the knowledge and skills to thrive in future classrooms, workplaces, and civic spheres. Their success will be our success. This is something we think about constantly in our work.

The struggles that students, teachers, and families face every day at TCHS are always on our minds. If we look at the demographic trends in this country, we will realize we are at a critical juncture. Someone on our research team made a powerful observation about TCHS and that is the persistent anxiety among students and their families associated with living on the edge–the social, economic, and political edge. That’s why we call our project the Digital Edge. It’s in the context of urgency and uncertainty that we wanted to not only understand their adoption of social, digital, and mobile media but how these practices relate to larger issues of social, academic, and economic inequality.

How can we get it right and start to construct innovative curricula if the almost universal decision to block digital media, such as social media platforms, continues to be upheld in schools?

The blocking of social media was something we saw from the very beginning of our time in TCHS, and the most frustrating part about it all is that, in addition to the students not liking it, the teachers don’t like it, and even the administration doesn’t like it. But the fact of the matter is that it is a district mandate. I have become more and more aware of how important a platform like YouTube is for young students as a result of my time spent at TCHS. From the perspective of the school district, YouTube is seen as a waste of time and having no educational value at all. But when you observe kids using YouTube you get a completely different perspective. For them, it’s a node in their learning ecology, an example of how “connected learning” happens in a very real way. When kids want to learn how to do something today, they are just as likely to go to YouTube as they are to Google or Wikipedia, especially kids intrigued by designing and making things. Doing so allows them to expand their learning network and tap the rich stream of distributed expertise made possible by networked media. Google learned this about young people a few years ago and, consequently, began to redesign how they do search by making video more prominent.

In five or ten years, I believe this will be something we will look back on and think, how did we ever reach the conclusion that it’s appropriate and an intelligent decision to block kids’ access to the networked world? Rather than teaching them how to navigate that world and teaching them how to be citizens in that world, we instead just pretended it didn’t exist. We couldn’t imagine doing our TCHS summer project without students having access to online information and having the ability to communicate with each other via social networks. It was absolutely crucial to the program. We lobbied the school district to open up the network. The school listened.

Our hope now is for the district to begin to see how youth use social media in very productive ways and how social media can expand their learning. A lot of kids are participating in these networked publics as learners, storytellers, and information seekers. As researchers, we can begin to document and demonstrate how learning can and does happen as a result of engaging with these platforms. If we can make compelling cases, it really does force schools to rethink some of these broader policies.

The digital media and learning field is at defining moment because we are in a position to not only be thought leaders in terms of this work, but we can also help with intervention, policy, and curriculum design as more schools begin to rethink the role of technology in the learning environment.

What impact has your experience at TCHS had on your agenda for DML2013?

In my own experience growing up, there were internship opportunities and classes that provided pathways to bridge learning both in and out of classroom, which allowed me to see myself as part of the greater community. For me, it was always important and certainly was part of my own trajectory towards college and beyond in terms of the disposition one develops and how one begins to see himself/herself in the world.

I did have those opportunities in middle school and high school, and my time spent at TCHS has left me wondering, to what extent can we create those experiences for all students? What we know now is that there is what Joseph Kahne and others call the civic opportunity gap, which is this notion that not all students have access to opportunities where schools can support students in understanding the importance of civics. TCHS is so focused on meeting the bare minimum–getting bodies in the seats, keeping attendance up, and performing well on tests–that the school does not have a chance to expand the curriculum and create these opportunities for students, which are so powerful and so important to their civic identity. These opportunities are beginning to fade away entirely from schools like TCHS. 

Our work at TCHS has largely focused on bridging those pathways between the classroom and the community. It’s a much more robust way of thinking about civic education and learning in general. Part of my vision for DML2013 is to find teachers, students and schools who are already doing this type of work. They are out there, and if we can bring their personal experiences to the conference, they can serve as models for others who are attending. It provides for a really fascinating set of conversations around what it means to think about democratic futures and what role teachers and students will play in making those futures more compelling.



In the video interview above, Craig explains the conference’s thematic focus on civic participation – “Democratic Futures: Mobilizing Voices, and Remixing Youth Participation.”