Nichole Pinkard from New Learning Institute on Vimeo.

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The Digital Youth Network (DYN) was founded in 2006 by Dr. Nichole Pinkard at the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute.

DYN is a project that supports organizations, educators and researchers in learning best practices to help develop our youths’ technical, creative, and analytical skills.

Originating from the keen desire to understand and support urban youth in learning digital media for their educational development, DYN grew as a resource to help youth understand how to use digital media for all aspects of their lives. As technology rapidly evolves, supporting our underprivileged youth in school and out of the classroom has become a critical and timely issue to address. Currently underprivileged students live under the following statistics:

  • 47% of low-income households have broadband access at home.
  • 37% of teachers of low-income students use tablet computers.
  • 35% of teachers of lower-income students say their students use cell phones as a learning device in class.

In an effort to resolve these conditions, we have created iRemix social learning network for students in formal and informal settings; Co-founded YOUmedia – along with the Chicago Public Library – to develop innovative spaces for youth; and implemented Chicago City of Learning – with Chicago’s Mayor’s Office – to join together learning opportunities for youth.

Most recently we created the blueprint for Cities of Learning modeled by Chicago City of Learning, released DYN’s book in spring 2014 and launched DYN Studio at DePaul University in winter 2014.

Our goal is to create an equal platform for ALL to be digitally literate.



The Destination Chicago pop-up shop traveled around the city to provide youth more opportunities.


For nearly 10 years, the Digital Youth Network has provided Chicago’s under-resourced youth access to the ever-evolving array of tools and technology needed to be successful in today’s educational and professional world. Founded by DePaul’s Nichole Pinkard, associate professor in the College of Computing and Digital Media, the organization has gained traction over the last few years through successful outcomes, growing programs and funding from the MacArthur Foundation. Read on to learn just some of the ways the organization is making a difference.

Read the full story on Depaul’s Newline


Giving youth the tools to be engaged, articulate, critical and collaborative


The Digital Youth Network is, at its core, a design-based research project. The research team works with DYN mentors, students, families, and other practitioners to better understand the impact of DYN initiatives and learning environments on youth, educators, organizations, and communities, identifying critical practices and informing iterations of the DYN model. Current research questions include:

  1. How do we understand and represent learning and participation in informal (including online) environments and over time?
  2. What are the generative practices and supports within those environments that cultivate that learning and participation, including youth production, interests, and identity development?
  3. How we intentionally design learning tools and environments (face-to-face, online, and blended) to foster interactions that support the kinds of outcomes we care about?

The research team brings together individuals with varying interests and areas of expertise, including learning sciences, human-computer interaction, youth mentorship, and professional development. DYN research also frequently collaborates with distributed colleagues who contribute their expertise and focus to this work.

Broadening Participation in Computing through a Community Approach to Learning

Learning occurs in many different spaces, including museums, afterschool programs, churches, and home. The learning ecologies—the set of environments and social supports within those environments—that youth have access to have important implications on the interests, expertise, and ultimately the identities that young people adopt. When it comes to women, people of color, and youth from low-income households, research suggests that barriers—costs, location, program composition, stereotypes, and reduced visibility of learning opportunities—exist that prevent these youth from accessing computational learning opportunities. The Chicago City of Learning (CCOL) initiative is specifically designed to provide all Chicago youth with an opportunity to expand their learning ecologies. Through a partnership between the city of Chicago, the Digital Youth Network, and over 130 youth-serving organizations, local youth are connected with informal STEAM learning opportunities across the city. These citywide opportunities include online challenges, community showcase opportunities, and youth-focused face-to-face and blended programs. The content available to youth ranges from computer programming and video game design to making and e-textiles.

Qualitative work has pointed to social networks as a driving force for accessing and participating in computing communities. To foster these social networks and learning opportunities for underrepresented youth in Chicago, we are working with local organizations to create a computational making pathway in CCOL. This pathway is a cultivated network of mentors, peer groups, face-to-face and blended programs, online challenges, special opportunities, and showcase events that focus on 1) cultivating youth’s interests in computational making and 2) providing avenues for long term engagement and possible career opportunities. The pathway is being designed to be highly visible and desirable to youth. Through a design-based research approach that is informed by learning analytics and GIS mapping of participation, we seek to uncover factors that influence the participation, engagement and learning of youth around computational making, and use these principles to iterate on the design of the pathway.

Developing frameworks, tools, and social practices to support effective instructor use of online social learning networks in blended learning models 

In this work, we use the existing robust ecology of DYN to conduct design research in learning environments that are making use of networked technologies and online spaces. The goal of the work is to design supports for online educator-learner interactions. We are working with six focal educators across school and after school programs using Remix with both middle and high school students, from content ranging from e-fashion to world history. This multi-year study is organized around four primary research questions to better understand sociotechnical systems to support blended learning: (1) What types and patterns of online interactions create opportunities for and evidence of learning across multiple levels of analysis, including teachers, students, and community? (2) How can we design online social learning networks that support generative interactions that lead to learning outcomes? (3) What kinds of analysis and representations of online data can best be used by both practitioners and researchers to inform understanding of interactions within online social learning networks? (4) How can we support practitioners in effectively using the affordances of sociotechnical systems to creating learning ecosystems that develop students’ digital literacies? This work is supported by an NSF Cyberlearning grant.

Exploring learning, participation, and mentorship in the Chicago Summer of Learning (CSOL) 2013

Chicago Summer of Learning, 2013
In the summer of 2013, the City of Chicago embarked upon a highly innovative 12-week initiative in collaboration with youth-serving organizations throughout the city to increase youth participation in and access to Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math (STEAM) learning opportunities over the summer months. The DYN Remix platform hosted deep online learning pathways for content areas such as circuitry and fashion, introductory programming, and app creation, and DYN initiated a face-to-face summer CSOL program called Digital Divas with 38 urban middle school girls where they worked through computational pathways in Remix. The research is able to go deeper to understand the 38 participants from the Divas program, using both online participation data and adult mentor reflections and student archives. This work is designed to find out more about youth progress in an online system designed to foster self-paced work, incentives for participation, distributed mentorship (online, face-to-face, and blended), and how to look at learning outcomes or other indicators of success from online use data from a short term voluntary program. Exploratory findings are directly influencing the design of the larger-scale effort Cities of Learning 2014, in Chicago and other cities in the US. This work is sponsored by an NSF RAPID PRIME grant.

Identifying educator roles that support students in online environments
Potential generative outcomes of participation in online learning communities have been documented, alongside inequities in terms of who is participating. We analyzed four months of  online participation and interactions of six adult educators and their students in a blended school-day and online ELA unit. The student participants were middle school urban youth from an underserved primarily Latino/a community. This analysis looked specifically at the types and frequencies of adult-to-student actions within the online environment. The result of this work is the Online Learning Support Roles (OLSR) framework, a blended, multi-level approach to identify and explore online educator roles to support learning and participation. We define eleven roles played by educators, using as our starting point the parent roles to support child technology learning developed by Barron, et al, 2009.

Cultivating Digital Citizenship and Creative Production at Renaissance Academy

A collaborative multi-site research team carried out a longitudinal, multi-method study in order to document the dynamic DYN environment at one school on the south side of Chicago and to describe how learners benefited from participating. This work was intended to look at the outcomes and also to highlight the practices that were intentionally designed and emergent that made these sorts of outcomes possible. The work specifically set out to address issues of equitable opportunities and fostering learning across settings. Strategies included team ethnography (observation, documentation, and analysis of school day, after school, and online environments in addition to ongoing educator professional development sessions), collection of quantitative metrics of access, interests, expertise, and experiences over time for one student cohort (sixth through eighth grade) and comparative data from Silicon Valley eighth grade students, constructing technobiographies of 16 focal case students from the cohort, including visualizations of focal learners unfolding learning pathways over time and across settings, and ongoing communication and collaboration with DYN designers, educators, and mentors. This work was supported by the MacArthur Foundation and NSF LIFE (Learning in Formal and Informal Environments) Center.

Martin, C.K., Pinkard, N., Nacu, D., Madison-Boyd, S., Lee, A. (2015). The Chicago City of Learning Initiative: Designing for Youth Engagement Within a Maze of Adult Stakeholders. In Balancing the needs of children and adults in the design of technology for children workshop. Interaction Design and Children Conference, Boston, MA.

Acholonu, U., Pinkard, N., & Martin, C. K. (2015). Locating Opportunity Gaps by Mapping the Computer Science Landscape in Chicago. Presented at Digital Media and Learning Conference, Los Angeles, CA.

Acholonu, U., Martin, C. K., Nacu, D., & Pinkard, N. (2015). Mentorship In Blended Spaces: What Is The Value of Face-to-Face Mentorship On Participation and Learning? American Education Research Association (AERA) Conference. Chicago, IL.

Acholonu, U., Pingrey, K., Bell, B., Pinkard, N., & Martin, C. K. (2015). Uncovering Barriers to Participation Through Mapping Citywide Computing Opportunities: What do we mean by access? Proceedings of the first annual Research in Equity and Sustained Participation in Engineering, Computing, and Technology Conference, Charlotte, NC.

Pinkard, N. and Lee, J. (2015). The Digital Exchange Society: The Stories We Tell. In session High School Students as Social Justice Researchers, Connecting Praxis and Theory: A New Generation Emerging symposium. American Educational Research Association Conference, Chicago, IL.

Madison-Boyd, S. and Steele, J. (2015). Designing a Pathway to Support Teen Engagement in Writing. In session New Tools, New Voices: Innovations in Understanding and Analyzing Life-Wide Ecologies for Youth Interest-Driven Learning. American Educational Research Association Conference, Chicago, IL.

Martin, C.K. Does making matter, and how can we tell? Presentation at the Maker Educator Institute, Pittsburgh Children’s Museum, Pittsburgh, PA, October 9, 2015.

Martin, C.K., Erete, S., Pinkard, N. Developing Focused Recruitment Strategies to Engage Youth in Informal Opportunities. Proceedings of the 1st Annual Research on Equity and Sustained Participation in Engineering, Computing, and Technology (RESPECT) conference, Charlotte, NC, August 14-15, 2015. View Research Poster

Erete, S., Pinkard, N., Martin, C., Sandherr, J. Employing Narratives to Trigger Interest in Computational Activities with Inner-city Girls. Proceedings of the First Annual Research on Equity and Sustained Participation in Engineering, Computing, and Technology (RESPECT) conference, Charlotte, NC, August 14-15, 2015. View Research Poster

Nacu, D., Martin, C.K., Pinkard, N. and Sandherr, J. (2015). Encouraging Online Contributions in Underrepresented Populations. Accepted for presentation and proceedings publication: RESPECT (Research in Equity and Sustained Participation in Engineering, Computing, and Technology) conference, Charlotte, NC, August 13-14, 2015.

Erete, S., & Pinkard, N., Martin, C.K., Roberson, A. (2015). Digital narratives to engage girls in computational making. In C.K. Martin and D. Nacu (Organizers), Intentional and Inclusive Design to Create Social-Technical Learning Systems. Symposium at Digital Media and Learning Conference, Los Angeles, CA, June 11-13, 2015.

Roberson, A., Martin, C.K., Erete, S., Pinkard, N. (2015). Flip the switch: Generating girls’ interest in STEM through e-fashion. Presentation at International Society for Technology in Education, June 28-July 1, 2015.

Sandherr, J., Martin, C.K., Nacu, D., Pinkard, N. (2015). Challenge Your Students: Building Self-Paced Learning Experiences. Presentation at International Society for Technology in Education, June 28-July 1, 2015.

Martin, C. & Nacu, D. (2015). Intentional and Inclusive Design to Create Social-Technical Learning Systems. Symposium at Digital Media and Learning Conference, Los Angeles, CA, June 11-13, 2015.

Nacu, D., Martin, C.K., Pinkard, N., Sandherr, J. (2015). Promoting online Latino youth voice through collaborative design. In C.K. Martin and D. Nacu (Organizers), Intentional and Inclusive Design to Create Social-Technical Learning Systems. Symposium at Digital Media and Learning Conference, Los Angeles, CA, June 11-13, 2015.

Martin, C.K., Nacu, D., Pinkard, N., Acholonu, U. (2014). Using a Networked Community to Support Equitable Access to Computational Learning: The Digital Divas. SIG-Learning Sciences Poster Session at American Educational Research Association Conference, April 16-20, 2015.

Barron, B., Gomez, K., Pinkard, N., & Martin, C.K. (2014). The Digital Youth Network: Cultivating Digital Media Citizenship in Urban Communities. Boston, MA: MIT Press.

Sandherr, J., Roberson, A., Martin, C.K., Nacu, D., Acholonu, U. (2014). Distributed Mentorship: Increasing and Diversifying Youth Access to Learning Networks. Panel at the 6th annual Digital Media and Learning Conference, Boston, MA, March 7 – 9, 2014.

Larson, K., Ito, M., Brown, E., Hawkins, M., Pinkard, N., & Sebring, P. (2013). Safe Space and Shared Interests: YOUmedia Chicago as a Laboratory for Connected Learning. Digital Media + Learning Research Hub.

Martin, C.K., Nacu, D., Pinkard, N., & Gray, T. (2013) Educator roles that support students in online environments. In Proceedings of the 10th International Conference on Computer Supported Collaborative Learning, Madison, WI, June 2013.

Levinson, A, Stringer, D., Matthews, J., Hutton, M., Rogers, M. (2012). Digital Media and Gender: Women and Girls Engaging with Technology. Symposium at the 4th annual Digital Media and Learning Conference, San Francisco, CA, March 1 – 3, 2012.

Nacu, D., Pinkard, N, Schmidt, R., Larson, K. (2012, March) Remixing iRemix: Data Visualizations to Understand Learning and Development in Online Social Learning Networks. Presentation at the Digital Media and Learning Conference, San Francisco, CA, March 1 – 3, 2012.

Richards, K.A. & Gomez, K. (2011). Participant understandings of the affordances of RemixWorld. International Journal of Learning and Media 2(2-3), 101-21.

Zywica, J., Richards, K.A., & Gomez, K. (2011). Affordances of a scaffolded-social learning network. On the Horizon, 19(1), 33-42.

Martin, C. K. & Barron, B. (2009, June). Learning to collaborate through multimedia composing. Part of the Repertoires of Collaborative Practice symposium. In C. O’Malley, D. Suthers, P. Reimann, & A. Dimitracopoulou (Eds.), Computer Supported Collaborative Learning Practices: CSCL 2009 Conference Proceedings (pp. 25-27). New Brunswick, NJ: International Society of the Learning Sciences (ISLS).

Martin, C.K. and Barron, B. (2009). The pursuit of computational thinking: Gender patterns throughout middle school. In the European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction (EARLI) 2009 Conference Proceedings. Amsterdam, Netherlands: August, 2009.

Martin, C.K,, Barron, B., Austin, K. and Pinkard, N. (2009). A Culture of Sharing: A Look at Identity Development Through the Creation and Presentation of Digital Media Projects. Presentation at the International Conference on Computer-Supported Education (Lisbon, Portugal) March, 2009.

Austin, K. (2008). “Fostering 21st Century Skills: Tool-Based Instructional Change.”

Austin, K. (2008). Establishing and Negotiating Teaching and Mentoring in an Informal Setting. International Conferences on Learning Sciences, Amsterdam, Netherlands, June, 2008.

Gomez, K, Austin, K, Zywica, J, Hooper, P, Pinkard, N. (2008). Instructional Environments Designed to Increase Quality of Access to Technology and Expertise in the New Social Futures. American Education Research Association Annual Conference (New York City, NY) March.

Gray, T., Pinkard, N., Gomez, K. & Richards, K. (2008). Developing instructional practices of mentors through the creation of professional learning communities. American Educational Research Association Annual Conference (New York City, NY) March.

Pinkard, N., Barron, B. Martin, C. K., Rogers, M., Gomez, K., Zywica, J. (2008). Media Arts Program: Fusing School and After-School Contexts to Develop Youth’s New Media Literacies (2008). In Proceedings of the 8th international conference on International Conference for the Learning Sciences, 3. Utrecht, NL.

The Digital Youth Network: Cultivating Digital Media Citizenship in Urban Communities

Available now from MIT Press. amazon button.


The popular image of the “digital native”—usually depicted as a technically savvy and digitally empowered teen—is based on the assumption that all young people are equally equipped to become innovators and entrepreneurs. Yet young people in low-income communities often lack access to the learning opportunities, tools, and collaborators (at school and elsewhere) that help digital natives develop the necessary expertise. This book describes one approach to address this disparity: the Digital Youth Network (DYN), an ambitious project to help economically disadvantaged middle-school students in Chicago develop technical, creative, and analytical skills across a learning ecology that spans school, community, home, and online.

The book reports findings from a pioneering mixed-method three-year study of DYN and how it nurtured imaginative production, expertise with digital media tools, and the propensity to share these creative capacities with others. Through DYN, students, despite differing interests and identities—the gamer, the poet, the activist—were able to find some aspect of DYN that engaged them individually and connected them to one another. Finally, the authors offer generative suggestions for designers of similar informal learning spaces.


“If we are going to reach minority kids in our schools, we need to empower them to be creative and thoughtful, much as the Digital Youth Network is doing. Their research demonstrates how it is possible to measure student growth in creativity and engagement that standardized tests ignore. The book shows the way to transforming education in America.” —Allan Collins, Professor Emeritus of Learning Sciences, Northwestern University, and co-author of Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology: The Digital Revolution and Schooling in America

“So rarely are we offered the opportunity to really learn from the development of innovative educational youth program. Through careful observation and thoughtful analysis, this book reports on an unprecedented collaboration between mixed method researchers, program designers, and educators,  demonstrating  research and practice brought together in service of improving the life opportunities of underserved youth. It is a must-read for learning scientists, educators, media artists, technology makers, and anyone who cares about making a difference in today’s pressing problems of educational inequity.” —Mizuko Ito, Professor in Residence, University of California Humanities Research Institute, and author of Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media

“A rare book, informed by rigorous research, written with clarity and verve, and filled with concrete insights and tools that educators in a range of settings can use right away to put digital literacy to work for youth.” —Elisabeth Soep, Youth Radio, co-author of Drop That Knowledge, co-editor of Youthscapes

Ryoo, J. J. Book Review: The Digital Youth Network: Cultivating Digital Citizenship in Urban Communities. In Urban Education, September 2013, 48: 759-764.



Empowering Youth Through Media Production and Critique

 Our pods are production oriented, meaning students learn these new skills through the process of creating. Our mentors have developed scaffolded-learning experiences that allow students to learn the basics or choose to become experts in any medium over time.

Current Program / Computational making
Past Program
Past Program / Game
Past Program / Film
Past Program / Writing

Facilitate the ability to become creators, designers, builders & innovators




iRemix is a cloud-based social learning platform available to schools and organizations seeking to safely connect youth with extended learning and mentorship opportunities. Create your own customized private social learning network that is completely controlled by you.

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ExploreChi is a space for youth to build new skills and discover new interests. Users can take on media production challenges at their own pace, get feedback from expert mentors and earn badges to represent the media skills they’re developing.

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CurateIt is an online gallery & learning tool designed in collaboration with the Art Institute of Chicago, Little Black Pearl & Yollacalli Arts Reach.

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Spokes is a tool for growing from a consumer into a media producer. Build shelves of your favorites & create original media in response.

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Social discovery tool empowering youth to find and participate in new learning activities in their city.

Experience Discovery (xDisc) is a social discovery tool empowering youth to find, share and engage in new learning opportunities across the city. xDisc goes beyond simply presenting a list of programs to users, it builds on their interests and social connections to suggest new pathways of participation.

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Envision new possibilities


In Profile of a Learner (Part 1), you experienced our redesign of the CCOL Profile. One update shows the achievements each learner completed and highlights in-progress activities for them to continue their aspirations. Another change allows the learner to save their interests to the CCOL Profile. Now fast forward three months, and the tech team has iterated and strengthened the learner’s experience based on those selected interests.

User Experience Research

Digital Youth Network has always maintained a strong product feedback with our users. Mentors, teachers, and students have helped shaped all of our products including iRemix and Chicago City of LearningWe invested some valuable time to understand how learners were using their new profile, and whether it matched up with our pre-launch research. Our assessments came in the form of tools like CrazyEgg and old fashioned f2f user observations.

Our first research technique for this particular feature consisted of unstructured observations.  These observations were designed to avoid impeding a learner’s workflow. The team wanted to see what the learner’s mental model was when they interacted with a new experience. (sorry about the technical jargon)

The primary outcome was quite positive with many learners successfully self registering to any of our programs and exploring thousands of activities. However, the question of ‘What now?’ or ‘What do I do next?’ did arise several times.


As a complimentary tool to our observation, we employed Crazy Egg. This UX tool allows us to see a heat map of what learners were doing when they returned to this page. Many of our call to actions were taken as expected. Learners updated their interests, continued their in-progress online challenges, and registered themselves to activities and badges.

Per CrazyEgg’s site: Crazy Egg is like a pair of x-ray glasses that lets you see exactly what people are doing on your website.

Crazy Egg Heat map of CCOL Profile Image

Crazy Egg Heat map of CCOL Profile

One area stood out: our learners hovered over their interests…quite often. We did not design the interests themselves to be interactive. But the evidence presented on the heat map combined with the user research feedback suggested an opportunity for a focused call to action. The action was to make the interest icons interactive by presenting 3 activities as options for what to do next.

How did we convert research into “impactful value” for our Learners?

In the screenshot below, the application presents three Top Picks based on the learner’s Game Designer interest. These picks will be a mixture of face to face and online activities. With this enhancement, the CCOL Profile allows learners to dive into activities based on the interest they want to pursue right now.

This engagement-based update creates a valuable feedback loop that encourages learners to update their interests when their interest in subjects or professions shift. And because those can change as often as their avatars, CCOL can present new and challenging activities for our Learners to explore.

Top Picks on CCOL Profile Image

Top Picks for Interests on CCOL Profile

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Program Founder, Associate Professor Northwestern University, School of Education and Social Policy
Learning Pathways Program Director
Tech Lead
Aneta Baran
Learning Experiences Coordinator
Mighel Jackson
Implementation Coordinator
Shai Moore
Ellie Smith
Project Coordinator
DENISE C. NACU, PhD (Affiliated)
Educational Designer
UGOCHI JONES (affiliated)
Postdoctoral Research Fellow
Lead Researcher




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