Department of Play Asks: Can Technology Improve the Lives of Youth?

On August 10th and 11th, 2010, the Department of Play (DoP) hosted its first Summer Institute, a workshop for practitioners and researchers, all with one thing in common: a commitment to improving the lives of youth through technology. The purpose of the Summer Institute was to bring together people from across the globe that were pursuing similar work, but had not necessarily connected with one another yet. Attendees were asked to rethink the role of technology in youth participation, social inclusion and local civic engagement, and in the process form meaningful partnerships for future projects.

Participants included Media Lab professors, researchers and students, representatives from the MIT Center for Future Civic Media, members of the DoP, program officers from UNICEF, the co-directors of the Children’s Environments Research Group at CUNY, and a member of Plan International, West Africa, as well as the founder and director of the Srishti School of Art and Design in Bangalore, India.

The Summer Institute began with each participant creating a map and timeline of his or her professional and personal path, and explaining it to the group. This activity allowed everyone to learn about one another and become familiar with each other’s perspectives and experiences. For example, Nitin Sawney, a DoP member explained, “Seeing how media and arts education programs helped young people deal with trauma in the Palestinian refugee camps has really molded the direction of my work.”

This workshop then took the format of “World Café”, a methodology for hosting conversations about questions that matter. The group broke into three smaller teams and had in-depth discussions and debates about three “provocative propositions,” which included:

  1. What does true youth empowerment look like to young people, adults, organizations, and communities? How can one recognize it when we see it?
  2. In terms of children and young people’s empowerment, in what cases should telephones and computers be placed before food?
  3. Based on your experience, what are the key qualities of successful projects in which technology is used to empower children and young people? How can we balance the highly innovative technological interventions/research with the realities of the underserved? Where do start when beginning interventions such as this one?

These questions ultimately forced participants to reflect about their role in the field of youth empowerment and the overall effects of their own work. Professor Roger Hart from CUNY went on to explain that in order for each individual to begin to understand this, the group needed to understand why youth choose to use technology versus why NGOs and governments choose to use the same tools.

Each participant had the opportunity to present his or her own projects and receive feedback from the team. These presentations fueled a larger discussion: were social media, blogging, and digital mapping really useful tools for youth in marginalized communities? The group extensively debated why we use these tools and the various tangible outcomes of using them. For example, it was agreed that digital mapping helped youth gain a sense of ownership over their communities.

By the end of the workshop, most participants agreed that a next step for the group should be to evaluate the impact of technology in the lives of youth through methodological research and studies. “We need to see if it is really making a difference and how,” said Geetha Narayanan of the Srishti School. To do this and to continue exploring the questions that were raised at the Summer Institute, the participants formed the DoP Working Group to keep in touch with one another, share ideas, and collaborate on projects.