“What types of participation are happening at Chicago’s YouMedia Digital Media Lab? What struck you from the report about its first year in action?”

The Chicago YOUMedia learning center offers teens the ability to grow in their knowledge of and engagement with digital media. What is unique about the design of YOUMedia’s educational environment is the simultaneous existence of activities that range from completely unstructured socializing, to absolutely structured, staff-led projects.

The center places importance on allowing teens complete choice in regards to their attendance, their participation, and their learning (or not) experience. Because of this flexibility, five types of participation practice have been observed in the young people who visit, as described in the UChicago CCSR Research Report, Teens, Digital Media and the Chicago Public Library.

At the most unstructured end of the participation spectrum are the Socializers, who utilize the YOUMedia lab as a gathering place where they spend time with friends. Readers/Studiers use the more traditional library resources of YOUMedia, and do schoolwork or check out materials. At the middle of the spectrum are the Floaters, who participate in many of the activities available at YOUMedia, but not at a heavily focused level.

In contrast, Experimenters do engage more intensively with the digital media equipment to develop a personal interest, but tend to work alone or with peers, rather than with library staff. Finally, at the most structured level of participation are the Creators, who are the most active participants at YOUMedia. These self-driven teens develop strong relationships with staff mentors, and collaborate with them to advance their digital media skills.

The various levels of participation demonstrated by the YOUMedia teens closely follow the genres of interaction as defined by Ito, et al.: hanging out, messing around, and geeking out. Whether a teen’s behavior is classified using labels coined by Ito or the CCSR, the conclusions reached by both demonstrate that the geeked out Creators benefit the most from their exposure to digital media, and develop confidence, competence, and marketable skills.

The YOUMedia lab is truly an amazing project that has markedly improved the lives and learning of hundreds of Chicago teens. What struck me about this project (besides wishing we had something similar at my library) was that despite the abundance of digital resources and cutting-edge technology, the most important factor for achieving success in an initiative of this type is the positive and supportive relationships between teens and the staff.

YOUMedia staff engage with the young people who visit the lab by recognizing and encouraging further development of the teen’s interests. These staff mentors design workshops and events based their understanding of what would appeal to students with varying levels of skill, and fully support participants who want to delve into a particular project more intensively.

YOUMedia staff genuinely relate to the students, and build connections that extend beyond the daily activities of the lab. While only a small number of digital media labs like YOUMedia exist in the country, similar personal connections between teens and staff can occur in any learning environment, and are definitely worth replicating in youth services programs everywhere.

Ito, M., Baumer, S., Bittanti, M., boyd, d., Cody, R., Herr-Stephenson, B., Tripp, L. … (2010). Hanging out, messing around, and geeking out: Kids living and learning with new media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

University of Chicago Constortium on Chicago School Research. (2013). Teens, digital media, and the Chicago Public Library. Retrieved from https://consortium.uchicago.edu/sites/default/files/publications/YOUmedia%20Report%20-%20Final.pdf