Making Technology Meaningful

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Get animated: Clay and cameras enable youths at Atlanta After-School All-Stars to create clay animation projects. Photo: Atlanta After-School All-Stars

OK, so you have computers in your after-school program. Now, what do the kids do with them?

If they do some Web research and play games – even off-the-shelf math and language games – that’s fine. But many after-school programs are getting more innovative, finding ways to teach their youths significant technological skills.

Youth at these programs start blogs, create animation, use digital cameras and camcorders to make electronic scrapbooks and movies, and build their own games.

“Our model is to use technology to offer an outlet for self-expression,” says Lilian Nuñez at CentroNia, a bilingual after-school program in Washington, D.C. “Not only has it given students increased awareness in the technological field, but it has enabled them to learn about their own cultures.”

Don’t forget: Although talk of the digital divide has subsided in recent years, as more and more households, schools and youth programs get computers, that divide “is still out there,” says Trudy Dunham, research fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Center for 4-H and Community Youth Development. Even with computers around them, youth in poorer communities often don’t have the access or the training available to others.

Dunham notes that technology is an important tool not only for education, but for youths to navigate their world. “It lets them participate more fully in their culture,” she says. “Building MySpace pages, downloading music, doing online research – it allows kids to stay up with their peer group, as well as helping them prepare for college and the work force.”

Dunham says that using computers to do homework or play games does little to promote a youth’s understanding and effective use of technology. “You have to make it meaningful,” she says.

And fun. “You have to recognize that between sports and homework, sometimes kids just want to hang out,” says Erika Thiel, program coordinator for Explore 4-H Afterschool Fun in Bonners Ferry, Idaho. “We don’t want to make it stressful.”

Therein lies the challenge for after-school programs. It’s true that just providing computer access draws kids off the streets and into programs, says Nuñez at CentroNia. The challenge is to set up activities that are constructive, but don’t feel like more school work.

One approach that’s perfectly suited for after-school programs is to combine technology with art, self-expression and creativity. At 5th Dimension, an after-school program in Watauga County, N.C., youths can’t play games on the computers, but they can create their own games and share them with others. Almost every youth has a college-age mentor who works as a partner on digital projects.

That human connection is an easy element to overlook in a tech program, but agency administrators say it is no less essential than in any other form of youth work, such as recreation or art.

“Relationships matter between staff and students,” says Catherine Jordan, project manager for the National Partnership for Quality After-School Learning at the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory in Austin, Texas. “What attracts kids and keeps them coming is an adult who cares about them.”

The YouthLearn Initiative – a pilot project of the Washington-based Morino Institute, which helps youth development programs apply technology to education – has confirmed this in its own research, pointing out that meaningful relationships with both adults and other children is key, regardless of how much access kids have to technological tools. CentroNia is one of the programs that YouthLearn assisted.

“These kids don’t always have someone at home they can talk to,” says Jessica Spears, the lead site coordinator at 5th Dimension. The mentors create “a ‘friend’ relationship. The kids get very comfortable with their mentors, and some of these relationships last beyond the after-school program.”

There are, however, several challenges for after-school computer initiatives.

YouthLearn’s research shows that youth workers need to be well-versed in technology before exposing children to it. Jordan, of the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, says one of the biggest problems with technology programs in after-school programs can be adults who don’t know the technology themselves.

She says that’s why older students can be great mentors or teachers in these programs: They’ve usually grown up using technology and are comfortable manipulating digital tools and learning new software. Thiel’s 4-H after-school program, for example, uses high school volunteers to work with kids.

Another key, according to Jordan, is variety: giving kids access to all kinds of technology, such as digital cameras, computers, GPS systems and robotics. In Chicago, Cabrini Connection uses blogs to provide access to videos that the youths create about their lives, including what it’s like to live in the notorious Cabrini Green area of Chicago. This gives the kids an opportunity not only to be creative with technology, but also to share their messages with others.

As for one of the most basic issues – getting computers – many agencies raise funds to buy their own, but others set up their programs in schools, using computers that are already there. That raises the promising but sometimes touchy matter of using school space, equipment and even teachers or volunteers. “Having the school district’s support has been our mainstay,” says Thiel at Explore 4-H Afterschool Fun. “If we had to pay for a facility and computers, we wouldn’t have a program.”

The programs on the following pages serve a variety of youth populations, using various approaches to creative expression through technology.

Deborah Huso is a freelance writer in Blue Grass, Va.