Kids Teaching Kids Web Design: Participation Gaps, Literacies, & Identification

Supporting Literacies & Participation

Last week I was in Boston for the 5th annual Digital Media & Learning Conference: Connecting Practices. I presented a talk based on research I conducted at  a public library this summer. I spent part of the summer observing a web design workshop for kids that was run by an amazing 17 year-old girl. My basic argument was that we need to change the discourse (and therefore practices) around web design so that girls and non-dominant youth feel invited to participate. The workshop was a powerful example of how that can happen.

Affinity Spaces

The girl running the workshop (who also initiated it & designed her own curriculum) taught herself to code after she got interested in blogging. However, she struggled to find an offline community of other females to share her passion. She found code and web design to be very empowering and a way to express herself and she wanted to share that with others who might not otherwise have the opportunity. Thus one impetus for starting the workshop was to build a community she was lacking by helping others discover the power of code. This is also why she approached a library that primarily served a non-dominant population – she wanted to expand opportunities for youth who otherwise had not been exposed to web design..

Her approach was very informal, interest-driven, and trial and error. She approached web design as a way to express identity and thus positioned the youth as both experts (of their own interests) and novices (of web design). They all helped each other and worked together on individual pages. Rather than waiting for them to master a skill, she helped them see the value of the skill by asking them to find a way to immediately apply it to their own websites. The kids worked together to explore, learn, and then teach each other, thus creating affinity spaces of informal leanring and mentorship.As John Seely Brown says, “For interest-driven learning to work, you need mentors…The role of the mentor is to get you to discover things you might not actually know you were interested in, to confront topics you may not be very good at understanding, but once discovered, you will.”

Participation Gap

Because discourse is both constitutive of, and constituted by practice, I argue we must consider interest-driven and informal learning, peer-to-peer learning, and mentorship alongside issues of identification. In order to close participation gaps, access and literacies are not enough, but rather we must also address gaps in identification. In other words, who feels they are invited to participate and whose experiences and voices are validated? Prior to the workshop, only one of the participants had any experience with code or web design, two had no internet access at home, and the others had minimal to moderate computer literacies and no web design competencies. By the end of the three week course, each participant had created her or his own webpage and expressed new-found interest in technology and web design; they unanimously agreed it had been a positive experience (parents and the library concurred).

Regardless if any of the participants decide to explore a career in computers, technology, or web design, they have had experiences that have helped them to identify with such interests and skills. Many of the kids expressed a desire to continue to learn more and continue to practice. This can be situated within what Craig Watkins refers to as “design literacies” – in order for youth to participate in meaningful ways, we must move beyond competencies and basic literacies and also think about how we can help youth “use digital media in ways that create more enhanced and more empowered expressions of learning, creative expression, and civic engagement” . Only then can we create more diverse and equitable futures for young people.

Changing Discourse & Practices
In addition to being meaningful for the participants, the workshop also helped the girl running it figure out her own passions and aspirations. She loved  technology but also had a desire to help people; as such she was indecisive about her future career trajectory. After the workshop she explained to me that she realized her interest in technology and helping others didn’t have to be two separate aspects of her life, but that there were ways to combine them. The workshop helped her realize she wanted to pursue a career in technology (computer science more specifically) and that she didn’t have to wait until she had a degree or career to start helping people. Such a decision is also indicative of the importance of affinity spaces in shaping interests, identities, and practice.

You can check out my slides here and read a short column I wrote about this for the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy. I’m working on turning this into a full research article for journal publication some time soon. Any feedback or suggestions would be much appreciated.

*All images are slides I created for the talk and licensed under Creative Commons attribution, share alike.*

One thought on “Kids Teaching Kids Web Design: Participation Gaps, Literacies, & Identification

  1. Jacqueline, this is such a great story. I would love to talk to the girl you are speaking of here. Are you able to connect to me via email? monetdiamante at gmail dot com. I am passionate about empowering teens to pursue their passions and encouraging them to live outside the confines of what they think or believe that they know. I have been interviewing teens on Spreecast (check out two of them if you would like so you get some background on me – plus they are fun to watch, especially the one with Rachel, you'd think we have known each other forever!). Long story short, I would love to interview this girl. Look forward to connecting with you and thanks for this post.


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