Creative Distraction While Craving Direction

Digital Media in Los Angeles High Schools Highlights Culture of Information Gaps

Contributed by Sara Harris hosts and produces Hear in the City
March 30, 2011
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I am a journalist and a teacher of multimedia and radio production to high school students in Los Angeles. The students I work with come from a range of family backgrounds, but they all have this in common: they live in low-income households, they are teens and young adults of color, and they attend public high schools or community colleges in Los Angeles. In this regard they make up a majority, not a minority of students in this city. (see:LAUSD Free Lunch Program and American Community Survey, LAUSD

During the past year, I've worked on participatory journalism and multi-media projects with students in various classroom settings, both during and after school. I want to share a few snapshots from three of these experiences in order to illustrate how access to technology and classroom culture affect the ability and desire of students to focus on media multi-tasking as a way of sharing and producing knowledge, both formal and informal.

While access to new media technology is crucial for opening opportunities to begin a conversation about productive distraction and digital focus with teens in a learning setting, the mere presence of technology in the classroom does not present a clear path to learning-centered engagement with new media. In most public schools in Los Angeles, online access and new software and applications arrive in the classroom via corporate or philanthropic donations, if at all. In the public schools I have taught in, students have very limited opportunities to use computers as a group and in a context where a common goal guides the quest for digital expression and information-gathering.

The computer lab is a space visited in 40 minute shifts with access blocked to most social networking and media sharing sites. As such, the lab feels more like a bankrupt internet cafe — a site of momentary access for condensed social or professional or gaming communication but no social networking — than it does like a space for exploration and academic learning. Combine their usually brief school-based opportunities with the dearth of internet access on computers at homes and the proliferation of smart-phones (which are not ideal for academic research and writing) and for LAUSD students, you have a situation not unlike a hungry man invited to a full buffet who is told to use a saucer to serve himself instead of a dinner plate. (see: Pew Research, Tech Trends Among Youth Color

As one of my students put it during an audio production workshop:

If we get into computers, we are going to be so into computers that we’ll be checking e-mail and be on Facebook all the time. It has to really do with students in school and the way they act toward computers and the energy they bring to school. That can change a lot,  but that has to do with the teachers.

- Jesse Nerio, Hollywood Media Arts Academy, age 16.

Jesse is articulating the reality that teachers will have to confront and unpack if they are to successfully bring interactive digital media into the classroom in a way that offers positive distraction opportunities to students. Teacher motivation and guidance is key for creative and productive digital media work, just as it’s key for success in executing any assignment that requires students to draw from existing texts to produce original work. I would argue that students deserve to have the opportunity for productive distraction, and that teachers have the responsibility to unpack attitudes toward and realities about digital media access with their students if honest and relevant learning is going to happen in the classroom. These rights and responsibilities are a fundamental part of media literacy.

At Youth RadioLos Angeles, fellow journalists Daniela GersonJean Yung, and I worked with a team of about 20 reporters on Mobile Youth Voices, an experiment in participatory journalism by and for young reporters from under-represented communities.

In this setting, students self-selected in order to gain access to highly-enabled computers and highly-engaged instructors in an after school project. The project emphasized a collective storytelling process. Students would choose an issue and then use their social networks to gather anecdotes and opinions that become part of the discussion. Participants shared audio, video, photos and messages on a group-curated database that serves as a virtual reporters’ notebook.


(Watch Jordan Monroe’s video clip about the virtual notebook.)

The Mobile Youth Voices classes took place at ArtShare, a community art and theater space in downtown Los Angeles. All of the students had access to either a laptop or used their mobile devices during class to post audio, video, photos, links, and text.

After the first two weeks of the class, the communication felt scattered and quickly became uninteresting, so — at the encouragement of students— mentor/producers decided to limit their focus to reporting on transportation in Los Angeles. That set the group off on a manageable track.With so much material in play, media-savvy students relied on teachers to help produce focus, not to produce media. In short, they demanded: what is the assignment? In thinking about productive distraction, we can look to these students’ experience as lesson in seeking teacher guidance when information is copious and unfocused— as it often is on social media sharing and search engines.

Youth Radio reporters are typically highly motivated and technically savvy students. Tasked with the goal of producing coherent individual work rooted in social media interaction — perhaps an ideal example of creative distraction — students needed the space to play a bit with the digital sharing process in order to hone in on the material that most lent itself to producing journalism.  By virtue of using a social media platform to report and share recordings and ideas, student did not edit and cull and prepare their material as diligently as they would in a more formal editorial interaction.  This was an experiment in creating shared attention, and success depended largely on teachers articulating shared purpose in the form of an assignment.

Front Porches / Backyards with the HeArt Project is the second project of Mobile Youth Voices. In this setting, students overcame barriers to digital access by combining resourcefulness and showing responsibility in using their own digital devices when the classroom could not provide. Students with the HeArt Project attend continuation high school, meaning they have opted out of or were moved out of traditional high school due to a variety of life circumstances and are now completing their degrees on a flexible timeline. Los Angeles Central High School’s Beverly Small Learning Center is on the top floor of a Korean Christian Church in central Los Angeles. For this project, students set out to profile how people are using the areas around their houses and apartments as spaces of adaptation, expression, and resistance. For nine weeks, we documented and profiled people and their yard spaces in the square mile around Central High School-Beverly Small Learning Center Branch in the Westlake/MacArthur Park area of Los Angeles.  At the end of the process, we pulled all the pieces together to produce one story about the neighborhood and how the people who live here use outdoor space. I taught this class with my co-producer, Luis Sierra Campos.

The classroom we worked out of had one computer that the students could  use for word processing and Photoshop, but they could not get online. Ass instructors, we relied on and shared our own computers and portable recording devices with students. Still coming up short, we proposed students share their phones to do the work in class. This was an unorthodox request as cellphones are forbidden in the classroom. Prior to starting the class, we had conducted a survey of all students and found out that of our twenty high school students, seven used their smart-phone to access the web, ten had computers at home, and five didn’t have access to the web at all.

The session turned into a discussion about who would be able to use their phone to share photos and videos and which of their classmates lacked similar access. The act of sharing and pairing based on digital capacity allowed for productive group activities centered around a device normally associated with negative distraction in the classroom. From that point forward, students made their work using a combination of professional portable devices from teachers and off-the-shelf mobile phones owned by  their peers. The fact that they were already inclined to share their phones and SMS photos and videos made the whole process of coordinating a large group with varying interests almost seamless. Creative distraction was something several of them used to and others craved. We provided the opportunity to use the classroom as a setting to work together to produce focused and meaningful media with otherwise forbidden or inaccessible tools.


(Watch a cellphone video about the school by students Alejandro and Rubén.)

We owe the success of this experiment in no small part to teacher Richard Katsuda who was dedicated to helping his students reach the goal of completing high school without treating the classroom as a punitive space. He allowed us to trust the students with technology otherwise not available in the classroom and instilled a culture of respect in the space. As a teacher with a deep understanding of the challenges and information isolation his students face at home, Mr. Katsuda valued the opportunity for students to use a non-traditional interface to learn and express themselves.

The last set of students, at the HeArt Project and Hollywood Media and Arts Academy are not very invested in the classroom experience and resist the concept that productivity and learning can happen in a classroom context using the web. This is primarily (as they articulate in a recorded conversation) because they see the digital realm as an exclusively social space that they retreat to after school is over. The idea that they could use the web and mobile media to enhance the learning experience is something that would, "turn us into robots. We'd be online all the time and never talk to people in person." In this setting, most students languished and dabbled with digital media while productive minority seized the opportunity to use the access for creative distraction.

(Listen to an interview with the students about digital learning here)

The teachers at this continuation school are not involved in my multimedia workshop and do not endeavor to contextualize the work that happens in the class within the larger learning experience. If they had been, perhaps the students would better be able to make the distinction between valued learning in a more passive, text-book-and-white-board setting and valued learning in a multi-platform digital media setting. I realized too late at this location that while the main goal for the multimedia workshop was to map spaces with audio and oral histories more primary goal might have been to interest the students in learning as an interactive, enjoyable, collective activity.

In this setting, the main challenge for me was that these students are used to one-way pedagogy and punitive feedback from teachers. The act of collaborating and using digital media to forward learning goals is perhaps desirable, but certainly not something that these students were ready to see as compatible with their school setting which was experienced as the antithesis of a collaborative space. Thus, adding media to required course work seems to provide a fun distraction, but not a quality forum for learning or expression. For these tools to move beyond a distraction in this setting, students need a culture of creative focus using tools they normally associated with distraction. To return to Jesse Nerio, who puts it best:  “It has to really do with students in school and the way they act toward computers and the energy they bring to school. That can change a lot, but that has to do with the teachers."

Hollywood Media Arts Academy