Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy

Fall 2016

“If you believe literacy is important, we know we have to create environments where it’s valued,”

- Nichole Pinkard (PhD98)

Nichole Pinkard (PHD98): Connecting Urban Youth to Digital Literacy

Nichole Pinkard (PhD98)
Photo Courtesy of Digital Youth Network

Nichole Pinkard (PhD98) was a high school senior when she first came to Northwestern for a summer program. Brimming with confidence, she believed hard work led to her accomplishments. But after taking a bus ride to the west side of Chicago and seeing the daily reality for other children, Pinkard gained a deeper appreciation for the wide network of support she had in her hometown of Kansas City, Kansas.

“‘I’ is always ‘we,’” Pinkard says. “That was the first lesson Northwestern taught me. I had a community of caring adults that held me accountable for my actions when my parents weren’t looking. … So when I returned to Kansas City, I was humbled and forever changed.”

Today Pinkard, an associate professor of computing and digital media at DePaul University, works to tackle the digital literacy gap, building on her experiences working with young people.

During her undergraduate years at Stanford University, she majored in computer science and performed community service in poverty- stricken East Palo Alto, where teens often experienced “culture shock” and dropped out of school, Pinkard says. “They’re no different from me. They’re smart. Why are our realities different?” she wondered at the time. “I’m African American. My parents never graduated from college. I felt an affinity and connection to the kids.”

Fast-forward to her dissertation at SESP in the Learning Sciences Program, which drew from her experiences working with youth in Chicago’s Cabrini Green housing project. Under the mentorship of SESP professor Carol Lee, Pinkard explored how educational software programs translate—or don’t— to young people whose environments fail to promote digital literacy.

Her research roused her to action in tackling the digital literacy gap. In 2006 she co-founded the Digital Youth Network with Lee’s son, Akili, as a space for Chicago youth to learn the latest in computing. Originally housed at the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute, the 20-employee organization is now moving into a 20,000-square-foot youth creative space west of Chicago’s Hyde Park.

“If you believe literacy is important, we know we have to create environments where it’s valued,” says Pinkard, who spoke at the 2016 SESP convocation in June. “You need to learn to read and write, and you need to learn to do video and to code. Digital Youth Network is a place to develop that skill set and show why it’s valuable.”

A number of projects and programs have evolved out of Digital Youth Network, including Remix Learning and its iRemix platform, a cross between social media like Facebook and educational software like Blackboard. iRemix provides teacher-moderated 24–7 access for youth to interact with their peers while learning how to make a movie, for example, or critiquing one another’s writing assignments.

“You can share media with anyone else in the school,” says Pinkard, who received a 2014 Northwestern Alumni Award. “Normally if you do an essay, no one sees your essay. But if you put a video up, and everybody in that school is going to see and critique and give feedback, you’re going to put more time into it.”

Digital Youth Network has created both online space and physical space for youth media, partnering with the Chicago Public Library to create YOUmedia. With a grant from the MacArthur Foundation, DYN created a space for high school students at the central Harold Washington Library, where Chance the Rapper recorded his first mixtape. “We put digital mentors into the space with equipment and programs to make the library a hangout,” Pinkard says.

Digital Youth Network also has partnered with the office of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to create a system of digital badges to document students’ out-of-school learning. In its fourth year, this badge initiative has spread to more than 100 organizations around the city, Pinkard says. Through a subsequent partnership with Chicago Public Schools, more than 100,000 students have claimed accounts on the system, and six other cities including Pittsburgh, Dallas and Los Angeles use the DYN platform.

All of these initiatives are grounded in the learning sciences as taught at SESP, according to Pinkard. “My work has been influenced and informed by my years at Northwestern, but also by continuing interaction with folks who are there,” she says. In the learning sciences program, you have a particular perspective, but you have to learn about the others. You know what you don’t know, so you know when you need to collaborate.”