Digital Edge

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The Digital Edge project was developed between 2011 and 2013, it included a period of fieldwork immersion of approximately one year and a half, and two years of analysis, follow-up interviews, and writing. I was part of this process and actively participated in the analysis, fieldwork, and writing. A forthcoming book from the project is expected to be published in 2015.

Topics of analysis

  • social capital and social resources
  • technology-rich and technology poor
  • the lack of economic opportunity
  • tenuous access to social, mobile, and digital media
  • technical education, vocational education, and academic education
  • blocked access to networked media in schools
  • the role of after school and informal settings in the expansion of social capital and social resources

Findings

  • Majority of digital edge youth and their families belong to precarious communities with poor social, cultural, economic and human capital. Despite these limitations, unprivileged youth are able to mobilize resources they find in their school, in particular, in the after school world (not-school).
  • Disconnection between school and home: most of the parents from digital edge youth develop poor or none relationships with school teachers, counselors, and other parents.
  • Although many of the participants of our study are engaged in using digital media for expressing and cultivating their creativity, their new media literacies are poorly developed. Skills such as negotiation, collective intelligence, and distributed cognition are particularly low among the majority of participants in our study.
  • Education (vocational/academic/technical) quality is low, especially for digital edge youth in the general track. There is no clear definition of the boundaries between the different approaches to education. In the case of digital media classes, the emphasis is in an education that helps to develop technical skills through hands on projects and messing around with media authoring software.
  • After school emerges as one of the most important settings for connected learning for digital edge youth. In this setting, we found evidence of the existence of communities of practice where low income youth are developing interest driven learning, engaging in hands-on projects, and participating in peer learning. Social, cultural, and technology resources are mobilized by participating in this communities (afters school clubs and programs).
  • There is a need for creating an infrastructure (badges?) that helps to validate and assess the learning that is taking place in after-school and not-learning settings, as well to facilitate the transition to the labor market. Although, digital edge youth participating in after school digital media programs are having the opportunity of developing technical skills, they struggle with finding jobs where they can apply these skills in the real world.
  • Students are going out of their way to learn informally via social/digital media, but schools are not effectively utilizing this new cultural competency, and in fact are often directly opposed to this sort of learning.
  • Students on the "digital edge" cope with inconstant and tenuous access to digital tech. Fluctuations in level of access over time is a hallmark of the "digital edge."
  • It is minimally beneficial to deploy technology in the classroom without a well-developed curriculum that focuses on design-based thinking. In fact, the state standards clearly outline this need but there is a big gap in execution in school, especially under-resourced schools.
  • Teachers in charge of technology-rich classes in this under-resourced environment feel intense pressure to justify their existence and sometimes resort to rhetoric of vocation to do so.
  • Although many of the participants in our study engage digital media to express and cultivate their creativity, their new media literacies tend to be consumer rather than maker oriented. Skills such as collective intelligence and distributed cognition are particularly low among the majority of participants in our study. Specifically, while many of the students in our study use social media platforms most were unlikely to participate in the sharing and distribution of knowledge that make social media tools and ties a powerful resource. [A1] This can be attributed to, among other things, the lack of diversity in their social networks (online and offline), and the class-tinted dispositions that render low-income youth less efficacious about their social and networking skills and participation in online communities.
  • America's digital divide is growing increasingly complex.  Rather than define the divide as simply a matter of access to technology or as a participation gap, our study suggests that the dimensions of inequality are varied, nuanced, and continually evolving.  First,  the "access divide" has been complicated by the arrival of mobile, the uneven distribution of home broadband Internet, and the diffusion of networked computers in public schools and libraries.   Second, the participation gap also has varied dimensions which are marked by distinct genres of participation--interest-driven, friendship-driven, and civic-driven.  Involvement in these genres is shaped by race, class, and the acquisition of social and cultural capitals.  A third dimension is related to different formations of digital media literacy including tools literacy (e.g., the ability to use hardware and software functionally); information literacy (e.g., the ability to use media technologies to access appropriate sources of information and content); production literacies (e.g., the ability to design and make multimedia products); and networked literacies (e.g., the ability to connect to people, communities, and expertise via online platforms).  The mastery of these distinct expressions of digital literacy are also shaped by race, class, and the acquisition of social and cultural capitals.
  • Disconnection between school and home: most of the parents from low-income households develop poor to no relationships with teachers, counselors, and other school-based parents. Such social relations are pivotal sources of social capital or the kinds of social investments that parents make in the social and educational development of their children.  Low-income parents are more likely to defer to school authority when it comes to the educational development of their children thus relinquish any influence or input in the academic trajectory and future prospects of their children. These issues are especially acute in immigrant households, that is, households in which language may function as a key barrier to engaging school officials about the educational experiences of second-generation cohorts.
  • Mobile paradoxes: Latino and African American youth are increasingly likely to access social media through a mobile device--typically a phone or iPod.  In many instances mobile provides an alternative pathway in lieu of home broadband connections.  But rather than bridge the many different dimensions of the digital divide, mobile's influence on digital inequities may be effective in certain instances (e.g., access to information) but ineffective in others (e.g., the mastery of production-based literacies).  The adoption of mobile devices among low-income youth is often tenuous, limited, or intermittent as a result of economic instability, devices that are outdated or broken, and/or the inability to commit financially to a mobile data plan.  Finally, low-income youth develop social workarounds, that is, creative ways to adopt mobile despite the circumstances that often limit their access to mobile platforms through, for example, the creation of swapping and improvised exchange networks that facilitate access to mobile devices and mobile content.
  • Mobile media consumption: The mobile media ecologies of the students in our sample were marked primarily by friendship-driven practices (i.e., texting, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter) and the consumption of mobile media entertainment (e.g., music, video, games). Mobile, in very few instances, is used for academic or interests-driven purposes, thus suggesting that the use of mobile among low-income youth remains restricted to consumption rather than production or academic oriented purposes. Similar to previous media platforms (e.g., television, video game consoles) the marketing of mobile media to black and Latino youth tends to emphasize the consumption of entertainment-based content.
  • Although many of the participants in our study engage digital media to express and cultivate their creativity, their new media literacies are poorly developed. Skills such as collective intelligence and distributed cognition are particularly low among the majority of participants in our study.  Specifically, while many of the students in our study use social media platforms most were unlikely to participate in the sharing and distribution of knowledge that make social media tools and ties a powerful resource.  This can be attributed to, among other things, the relative 'contact poor' existence of low-income youth and the lack of diversity in their social networks, on and offline.
  • While a growing number of low-income schools are beginning to adopt digital media a significant challenge is the development of a rich and nuanced curriculum.  Similar to other studies, we found that Freeway High School was technology rich (in certain classes) but curriculum poor.  More specifically, technology classes tend to emphasize relatively low-order thinking and technical skills (e.g., search, video editing) rather than high-order thinking skills (e.g., the synthesis of information, the application of technical skills that reflect critical thinking and design oriented capabilities, or transmedia communication).  One of the major challenges facing low-income schools is to what degree can technology-based courses and instruction blend vocational and critical competencies in a way that prepares students for learning, civic, and economic futures. 
  • After school emerges as one of the most important settings for connected learning for low-income youth seeking social and educational opportunities that engage and support their interests.  In this setting, we found evidence of the existence of communities of practice where low income youth are developing spaces for interest driven learning, engaging in hands-on and production oriented projects, and participating in peer-driven forms of  making, doing, and learning.  Social, cultural, and technological resources are mobilized through participation in these communities of practice.
  • There is a need for creating infrastructures (badges?) and pathways  that help to validate and assess  the learning that happens in after-school and not-school learning settings.  Another notable challenge is the transition from participation in informal learning settings to economic and future opportunity.  Although low-income youth are participating in after school digital media programs that provide access to technology, peer and interest driven learning experiences, and the opportunity to develop technical skills, they struggle with accessing pathways that lead to viable opportunities for pursuing their interests and applying their skills in the real world.


  • School based clubs and extracurricular activities are one of the most important sources of social capital for low-income and non-dominant youth.  First, these spaces are crucial in addressing what we refer to as the "enrichment opportunity gap," a reference to the widening advantages youth from affluent families gain from parental investment in enriching activities like music lessons, tutoring, summer camps, and travel.  Second, students in our study made significant investments in the after-school programs provided by the school.  These investments led to enhanced connections to peers, interests-based communities, and teachers which provided access to resources--digital media and game-based projects, summer employment, and connections to non-school related professionals such as college professors, game designers, and other creative industry professionals--that are generally unavailable to non-dominant, low-income youth.
  • Access to in-school digital tech and participatory culture/peer learning activities (some aspects of homago) may not by themselves effectively buoy students for advantageous next steps or the "last mile" to substantive educational, civic, or economic opportunity.  Thus, attention must be paid to developing social and cultural capitals in terms of future orientation, social connections, and opportunity.
  • Students are actively pursuing ways to learn informally via social and digital media (the YouTube effect), but schools are not effectively utilizing this new cultural competency, and in fact are often directly opposed to these kinds of learning practices.  Many schools are reluctant to embrace social and mobile platforms, viewing them instead as sources of distraction and de-motivation.  Our study suggests that the decision to block access to networked media may actually be causing more harm than good.  Not only does it alienate students but it also limits the opportunities for schools to help young people develop important cultural competencies such as networking, anytime/anywhere learning, and the cultural capitals associated with participation in online and networked communities.   When schools block access to networked media they also block the opportunity to cultivate the social skills and ‘information spillovers’ that are increasingly central to participation in connected communities, innovation hubs, and creative economies.
  • Students on the "digital edge" cope with inconstant and tenuous access to social and digital media. Fluctuations in level of access to mobile connectivity, home broadband, and updated hardware and software over time due to economic constraints are a hallmark of life on the "digital edge."
  • Policies designed to address the social, economic, technological and educational inequalities addressed in our study must grapple with the impacts of geo-social isolation. The poor are isolated geographically and socially. Importantly, geo-social isolation severely limits their ability to connect to the institutions and interactions in which social resources are exchanged informally in various kinds of settings and social interactions. Educators must devise ways to grow the social skills, social networks, and social resources of low-income students by expanding learning beyond schools walls in ways that encourage greater social investments in community agents, institutions, and communities.