Rethinking Mentorship, Learning Pathways in a Networked Age

A Few Moments with Nichole Pinkard

As founder of the Digital Youth Network, a digital literacy program for Chicago youth that incorporates both in-school and out-of-school settings and co-founder of YOUmedia, a 5,500-square-foot multimedia learning space for Chicago teens, Nichole Pinkard is well known in the digital media & learning community for work that encompasses both theory and practice. Pinkard is also the co-creator of Remix World, a social learning platform that connects youth’s learning opportunities in school, home, and in the community. She’s also serving as conference chair for the 2014 Digital Media and Learning Conference, which is themed “Connecting Practices” and will take place March 6-8, 2014, in Boston. We sat down for a few moments with Pinkard to learn more about the upcoming conference and to talk about how mentoring practices can best support today’s youth.

How is the increase of online and mobile access changing the nature of the mentor-mentee relationship?

We just spent the summer participating in the Chicago Summer of Learning where we provided more than 500 learning opportunities for youth, many of which were online-driven. Some of them were face-to-face as well, but for the majority, youth only had access to mentors in the online space. One of the big challenges for us particularly with our mentors was understanding the difference between providing face-to-face support, which is much more tangible but limits the amount of lives you can touch, versus trying to create other opportunities we might call ‘light versions’ of the same programming where mentors have the opportunity to reach a thousand kids or more. Part of it is technical. How do you articulate challenges and learning opportunities so kids can pick them up online but also make sure you have enough resources available so they can access them if they have questions? It’s a challenge if you are trying to turn a face-to-face experience into an online experience. The question is whether you should even start with the face-to-face or just start online from the beginning.

One of the projects we used this summer, Code HS, is an online tool that uses a specific platform to help kids develop programming skills, but the company provides online tutoring and mentoring if the students need it. This platform works because it was designed from the ground up to be an online system as opposed to taking a face-to-face program and trying to turn into an online program.

What are your hopes for mentorship in the digital age?

I grew up in Kansas City, which was small, and because of its size, there was easy access to mentoring opportunities. I don’t know if that is the same anymore. In today’s era, we have to think about how to use technology to make mentoring opportunities more accessible both to those who want to mentor and to youth who need mentors. We have to complexify our definition of mentorship so that it is not all about ‘big brother/little sister.’ How clear do we make the process that led to the creation of the artifact? There are ways to use technology to enable people to learn from each other even when they are not intentionally set up to have a close connection.

It is just as important to enable a long-tail form of mentoring. If I have an expertise in one small aspect of photography, then it is incredibly important for me to have the ability to use online tools to make that expertise available to others. In order to do this, we have to address this fear that kids shouldn’t be talking to adults online. There’s no reason why a kid couldn’t be a mentor to an adult and vice versa around a shared passion or interest. We have to figure out how to get rid of some of our expectations around who can connect to whom. We must ensure we have secure ways to make it happen, but we have to allow for short term mentoring connections. I might be your mentor for just the next 40 minutes. The question becomes, am I a teacher, a mentor, a role model, or an instructor? What do all of these terminologies really mean? What’s the assumption about them, and how is technology facilitating them? We can’t assume all mentoring opportunities will be lifetime connections.

You recently reimagined the role of the mentor in your summer project, Digital Divas. What did this entail?

This summer, we took a group of middle school girls and tried to develop their ability to engage in STEM-related activities such as e-fashion and programming. We intentionally wanted to do it so that the mentors weren’t like myself in the way that I am a computer scientist, but people whom the girls could connect with on a personal level. We wanted to know if we could create enough support using online tools such as Code HS and the work Kylie Peppler has done in the e-fashion world so that a third-year college student who had the ability to create an affinity space but wasn’t someone who necessarily had the expertise and the knowledge to teach them how to code could use these resources to mentor these girls. Are the online tools sufficient enough so the mentors feel comfortable supporting the girls, but so they don’t have to be the ones teaching them to do everything? It is critical because when we move into new areas, particularly in digital media, we often want to place them in underrepresented communities, and the people who know the kids aren’t the people who have the technical skills in these areas, and the people who have the technical skills aren’t the ones who know the kids. How do you create a marriage so you are educating those who know the kids and also providing them the resources so they can create the spaces that kids want to be in and they can still develop the skill set?

For this particular program, we wanted to look closely at the programming because it is all done online. I really tried to not come in and teach it because that would have defeated the purpose. In Code HS, the girls moved through the system at different enough paces so that there were always girls who knew more than others. There is a peer-mentor aspect to it. We also created an end-of-summer goal that was predicated not just on individual success but on group success as well. If they wanted to get that goal of going to Great America, they had to make sure that enough girls progressed in ways that they needed to progress. It was interesting seeing middle school girls – majority of them African American – helping each other code and making sure each other understood the concepts. It’s definitely something we are going to continue pursuing in the future.

DML2014’s theme, “Connecting Practices,” marks a transitional focus from theory to educational practice. Is this a sign of changing times in the field?

One desire of DML is to really begin to bridge research and practice, and selecting me as chair of the conference is indicative of that desire because I sit at that very intersection. Everything I do from an intervention standpoint is informed by research, and the work I do informs research. The work I do is in fact research, but it is in a different form than the traditional academic paper trail.

We are now at that point where we can think about DML and connected learning becoming a movement. We now have on-the-ground applications so people can touch it and feel it, which means that we have to really move towards helping more people understand how to turn theory into practice. DML has always been about that intersection of people who are both interventionists and researchers. Because of traditional conference formats, the conferences might have been more research intensive in the past, but those who have attended in the past have been intervention-based people who are looking to be fed on the latest theory and where they can go next. It’s really important to keep that combination because if you just have practice without theory, you start to question what it is you are doing, and you also want to make sure theory is informed by practice.

How do these shifting connotations of mentorship you speak of factor into the conference theme?

Those of us who work in digital media – and DYN have been guilty of this –are in a space where we can show great examples of what kids have produced, but we don’t display the pathways beyond the one-year or three-month program a kid is engaged in. We have to start to understand the pathways and the longitudinal outcomes and impact of our work. How do we follow kids over a period of time, and how do we hand off kids to each other such that I shouldn’t have to feel I have to run a video program that expands six grade levels? Can’t I focus on what I know best and figure out what the natural handoffs are for other organizations either online or in the physical space to support the kids? We work with kids, and we think they are our kids until they graduate, but for the betterment of the kids, we have to think about the pathways.

We also have to recognize that kids have different onramps to those pathways, and we have to have multiple onramps to engage kids. If not, my big fear is that we will do all of this work, and the kids that are participating will be the kids who would have participated all along, and the kids who want to participate are sitting on the sideline. They want to participate, but they just don’t know how to get access. For me, it goes back to Annette Lareau’s work on unequal childhoods. From birth, some kids are taught how to access resources to help them explore their interests. Others aren’t taught that interests can be explored. They might have the same interest, but one kid knows how to find mentors and the other kid doesn’t access pathways that might be right in front of him/her. We really want to start to find these pathways that can enable all kids to connect.

Did you have any mentors growing up that have really inspired that work you’re doing now?

Kansas City was a mentoring community. Growing up, my father was a mentor in so many different ways. He was a football coach in the local community, and I would go to practice with him often and see him working with kids that weren’t his. I had a brother who wasn’t even on his football team. I think about all of the lives he touched.

I was in the third or fourth grade, and I really wanted to play soccer. I didn’t know what it was, and it was new to Kansas City, but I was into sports, and I wanted to play. He signed me up, and on the first day of practice there were no girls, and there were no kids of color, so I looked at him and said, “Well, I guess we can go home now.” He told me I was going to get out of the car and play soccer. I still vividly remember walking across that field feeling so out of place but knowing I couldn’t turn around and go back to the car. Once I got across that field, I started to enjoy the sport, and I played for several years. I was often the only girl, and the only African American on the field, but that experience was a turning point for me. I have never allowed being a woman or a minority to be a barrier for me in doing something. Had he allowed me to turn around, my life could be very different.

 Banner image credit: Aspen Institute,