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Geeking Out With the New York Community Trust

October 05, 2011

(Laura Cronin is a frequent contributor to PhilanTopic. Her last post was about the metrics individual donors use to make giving decisions, and she has also written here about the role of technology in K-12 education.)

Digital_media There is probably no more familiar outlet for foundation, corporate, or individual giving than educational television. We are reminded of the medium's appeal to donors each time we watch the closing credits on a favorite PBS show. But it wasn't always thus. Before the late '60s and the research-based programming of the Children's Television Workshop, television rarely was seen as a grant-worthy vehicle for donors concerned about education or children.

These days, donors and parents might be forgiven for thinking about digital media in the way critics thought of television before the arrival of Joan Ganz Cooney, the Carnegie Corporation, and Big Bird. Beyond Google and Wikipedia, how educational is the Internet? What happens when young people go online? What does it mean for a 14-year-old to have eight hundred friends on Facebook? How good is the content they find while hanging out in cyberspace?

Few educators and other experts would hazard a guess as to where we will be forty years from now, but many are eager to find ways, right now, to use digital media for learning.

The New York Community Trust's Hive Digital Media Learning Fund is an effort to help create high-quality educational opportunities using digital media. Launched in 2011 by the trust and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the fund will make grants totaling $1.5 million this year to museums, libraries, and community groups interested in exploring how digital media can be used to get young people excited about their own education and deepen their knowledge.

Considerable philanthropic effort has gone into getting state-of-the-art hardware into the hands of students. While thousands of U.S. schools still struggle with outdated computers, progress has been made, and even low-income teens today are using mobile phones and laptops to communicate, game, and study. But with the growing popularity of Facebook and Twitter, figuring out how to offer interesting educational content to kids through their social media networks requires the same kind of philanthropic support.

According to Hive Digital Media Learning Fund adviser Catherine Fukushima, the research behind the initiative, much of it funded by the MacArthur Foundation, reveals that:

This is not about kids working in isolation using technology -- that happens, of course -- but the research shows that kids who go the farthest and learn the most are in social networks, either supported by mentors or peers, and those relationships happen both online and in person. That is the sweet spot. Technology and social networks allow kids to connect with other people. Say you're really interested in geology and you start fooling around online and learning about it online. The people who go the farthest are people who meet other people either online or in person, who get really excited about the same topic. It's other people who can say, "Have you thought about this?" "Have you tried that?" "Have you tried writing a piece about this?" "Or I saw what you wrote about this." "Did you think about X, Y and Z?" That's what pushes young people. This is very different than a fear that a lot of people have which is that everybody is just sitting alone at their computer and not actually talking to anyone or interacting socially....

First-round grantees include prominent arts and culture organizations like the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, WNYC, the New York Hall of Science, the Museum for African Art, and the New York Public Library. The fund is encouraging its grantee organizations to let young people take the lead in discovering what digital learning looks like in different institutional contexts and figuring out how that learning can help prepare them for academic and career success.

For example, teens taking part a New York Hall of Science partnership with the youth group Iridescent are creating mobile phone applications based on museum exhibits that will make the exhibitions "pop" for their peers and younger students. Another group of students working with the Hall of Science (and City Lore and Bank Street College) is studying air pollution and finding ways to use smartphones to collect data on carbon monoxide and particulate levels in their neighborhoods. Early use of the prototype they helped develop revealed that idling school buses cause unnecessary spikes in polluted air. Armed with the data, students immediately lobbied to get bus drivers to shut down their offending engines.

According to Kerry McCarthy, program officer for the arts and historic preservation at NYCT, the project has helped to boost the impact the trust's arts grants while also helping its nonprofit grantees, large and small, better relate to younger audiences.

In addition to creating a growing cadre of city youth who are engaging with nonprofit content providers in new ways, the fund also has galvanized a network of professionals who come together regularly -- both virtually and in person -- to share lessons learned and talk about how they can become ambassadors for the broader adoption of digital media in their home institutions.

Fittingly, the Joan Ganz Cooney Fund is an early supporter of the effort, which, according to McCarthy, has made it possible for any number of grantees to do interesting and innovative work at a time when grant dollars are limited. It is a way, she adds, to amplify one's giving, reach multiple groups, and explore the world of digital media. No password required.

-- Laura Cronin

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