Using Technology to Help At-Risk Teens

Public libraries are, as ALA President Courtney Young said in a July 2014 Comcast Newsmaker interview, “digital learning centers.”’  We are able to provide access to computers, wireless capabilities, and also a space to learn. Access to technology becomes even more important to our “at-risk” teens; the library becomes a safe spot to use these resources. The question becomes how do we help them use this technology and learn from it? Earlier this month, the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) published a report titled “Using Technology to Support At-Risk Students’ Learning.” This brief defines “at-risk” students as high schoolers with personal and academic factors that would could cause them to fail classes or drop out of school all together. They give three variables for success, real-life examples to why these variables work, and then recommend policies to help achieve these variables. While the article was geared towards schools, these variables are important to keep in mind as we work with the teens in our libraries.

When learning new digital skills, youth must be engaged in interactive projects, must do more discovery and creation than the standard “drill and kill,” and must have a blend of both teacher and technology (6). These variables are part of the larger, digital learning ecosystem which places the learner at the center. This ecosystem relies on the constant bi-directional dialogue as the learner engages with learning outcomes, technology, and the context of the situation (which includes the activity, the goals of the activity, and the community the learning is taking place in). As we use technology and support our teens, we should be in constant reflection mode, altering our future programs to best fit the needs of our teens. Feedback we receive can help us discover what we are doing well and what needs to still be worked on. How we shape our digital literacy programs are up to us; we know our community of teens better than anyone else in the library. If we highlight and support their interests, they are most likely to be engaged with the program and more likely to return the library and use our resources.

These variables overlap and are more powerful when used together. The authors cite that interactive learning allows “students to see and explore concepts from different angles using a variety of representations” (7). As the teen engage, they are likely to discuss their findings with the people around them, which in turn strengthens both the learning and the existing community. As we work with our teens, we should push for creation versus just going through the steps, because this form of interactive learning this strengthens retention of skills and again, creates conversation. As we implement this programming, we can also be resources and a support team for our teens. It is important to stress that we don’t have to be the experts, and there might be times where we are all learning together. The moments of collective learning enhances our community and creates shared memories the teens won’t forget. Looking at the big picture, by keeping these variables in mind, we can empower our teens through access to technology they might not have regular access to.

To me, these variables seem obvious and are important to keep in mind as we think about creating programming that target digital literacy skills. This might also be because of the assistantship I am a part of at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Our nine month grant from the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity focuses on eliminating the digital divide across the Urbana-Champaign community. I am working with two after-school programs and am developing curriculum to support digital literacy. As we think about this article and our own libraries, this can be our framing question: How can we support teens’ digital literacy with the resources our library has? These variables also push us to provide more than just access to our teens. While access is important, this article reminds us that thoughtful programming can engage our teens, help them become a stronger part of our library community, and grow as an informed global citizen. We can help them create content they can share with the world and empower them to use technology as a tool to better themselves. Over the following months, I’ll be creating digital literacy programs and will be keeping these variables from the SCOPE article in mind. I cannot wait to share my discoveries with you and hope some of what I learn and create can be used with the teens you serve.

About Hailley Fargo

Hi, I'm a new professional working as a Reference and Instruction Librarian at Penn State University. As someone who provides reference to undergraduate students and teach information literacy to primarily freshman, I'm curious about the intersections of the work of YALSA and academic libraries (and how we can collaborate and work together to help our teens). In my spare time, I like to bike, read memoirs, watch TV shows, and consider myself an oatmeal connoisseur.
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