If you want to plan strategically for the future, you have to know where you’re starting from in the present. That was the thought the Chicago Learning Exchange (CLX) had when creating their most recent report, “Engaging Youth in a Connected World,” in partnership with the University of Chicago’s Outlier Research.
CLX is part of a region-wide Education Innovation Cluster (EdCluster)—a local ecosystem of organizations working across sectors and silos to advance transformative teaching and learning. As an organization that works to support the programs and people that prepare learners for the digital world, CLX realized it might be useful to know exactly who they could work with in the city of Chicago. For CLX, that meant creating a city-wide catalogue of the landscape of out-of-school-time (OST) programs offering learning experiences with digital media tools and technology (DMTT) citywide.
CLX hopes to use the data from this report to demonstrate ways other educators and cities can “remake learning… so it is enhanced by technology, driven by learners’ interests, supported by their peers, and connected future opportunity.”
By creating an asset map of DMTT-focused informal learning programs in Chicago, CLX also hopes to inspire other cities to do the same. They believe these stats will help them demonstrate future growth and progress, illuminate continuously underserved areas and student populations, and highlight currently successful programs for expansion and emulation.
Formal learning gets more press time, study, and funding than its informal counterpart, but that wasn’t the main motivation when CLX mapped Chicago’s DMTT-focused OST programs. Though often comparatively overlooked, OST programs are where students have a chance to build social capital among peers.
Social capital is highly important to future success. However, many informal learning programs compound the privilege of those with access to them while traditionally underserved students are often denied the safe spaces and additional learning opportunities that OST learning experiences can provide. Through inequitable distribution and access, students who already have advantages over their peers maintain those advantages through the accumulation of more social capital via OST programs.
Furthermore, OST programs are uniquely equipped to provide students with access to experiences with DMTT. Rather than viewing them as fun bonuses to formal learning, DMTT-focused OST programs should be seen for what they are: underutilized opportunities to close the Digital Learning Gap and equip students with the necessary skills to function in the digital age.
According to the CLX report: “Engaging in OST programs that provide these types of opportunities has been shown to benefit youth learning and development, improving academic, social, and emotional outcomes (depending on the program’s focus) for all youth, regardless of socioeconomic status, racial/ethnic background, or gender.”
However, without hard data showing where these programs exist, who they intend to serve, and who they actually serve, it’s difficult to say where these efforts are or are not succeeding and who is or isn’t being given access.
To get an idea of what was already happening in their community and where access gaps persisted, CLX decided to create an asset map of the current DMTT-focused OST learning ecosystem.
Findings from Digital Promise’s Education Innovation Clusters initiative show that starting with asset mapping—creating a database of resources and organizations a community already has rather than a list of things you lack—is essential for understanding and connecting your learning ecosystem. Doing so can help forge new partnerships and connect stakeholders to more opportunities, just as it can reveal gaps in opportunities that networks can work to fill. In the same vein, CLX hopes its data will help Chicago understand the importance of informal DMTT-focused learning experiences for the city’s students.
CLX now has substantial, informative data they can use as a foundation or justification when making decisions around funding, advocacy, partnership, and expansion. With the assistance of data visualization tools, they can easily pinpoint areas of the city where OST programs are thriving and where they’re needed. With this foundational data, they hope to eventually be able to demonstrate growth and progress over time.
Equipped with this hard data, Chicago’s OST programs can make decisions differently, based on concrete facts and evidence. The informal learning ecosystem can request funding from donors to fill clear gaps, highlight areas that might benefit from their offerings, and strategically point out continuously underserved areas where their programs are most needed. They can also see where potential partners, peers, and helpful connections are located and who they serve, pinpointing valuable information-sharing resources.
With this foundation, Chicago’s OST programs can scale responsibly for students that need them most.
You don’t have to have the resources of the city of Chicago to create similar opportunities for the OST programs in your learning ecosystem. CLX believes their report can and should be emulated so that other communities can see the returns they hope to see with the expansion of informal learning opportunities in their community.
Even a report done at a school or district level could highlight which programs are reaching and benefiting your students. This type of project can also help bring to light potential partnerships between schools and other OST organizations.
The good news is that you don’t need a bunch of fancy tools to start surveying your OST learning ecosystem. You can access Digital Promise’s EdClusters asset mapping toolkit for free to start outlining your purpose and process. For data gathering, there are plenty of free and low-cost survey tools that will get you started.
Mapping your learning ecosystem’s OST opportunities will help you follow in the Chicago Learning Exchange’s footsteps, building opportunities for students by creating pathways for all informal learning opportunities.
To create lasting networks, you have to understand who and what you’re already working with. Gathering this type of data on OST programs can help you build a solid foundation on which you can create those networks.
Armed with hard data concerning your community’s OST learning ecosystem, you’ll be ready to make smart decisions that will provide equitable opportunities for your learners, now and in the future.
One great way to start making connections and expand your network is to meet the people who run programs in your learning ecosystem in person. Remake Learning Days Across America (RLDAA) is an upcoming festival of experiential learning events designed for learners and their families and hosted by a variety of organizations, such as schools, museums, libraries, after school groups, and more. The events will be held in regions across the country this spring. (If you aren’t in one of the participating regions, you can still learn more about hosting a pop-up event.)
Festival activities are designed to be hands-on, relevant, and engaging—giving parents, families, and caregivers an opportunity to experience future-facing learning opportunities with their children. Together, these events are a celebration of the innovative experiences available in different regions for youth to develop their sense of creativity, perseverance, and curiosity.