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Most of an average student’s waking hours are spent somewhere other than school. That means out-of-school activities offer a powerful opportunity to either mitigate or exacerbate gaps in student achievement. Historically, wealthier students have had greater access to enriching out-of-school experiences, compounding their privilege.

The Chicago Learning Exchange supports out-of-school programs that are trying to change that, particularly those using technology to offer innovative opportunities for kids in Chicago who historically haven’t had them. The new nonprofit helps programs take advantage of the time before and after school, as well as over the summer, to level the playing field for the city’s disadvantaged youth.

Given that goal, the nonprofit commissioned a study of out-of-school programs to see how they use digital media tools and technologies with students. Are they giving students chances to be creators and have meaningful interactions with technology that will prepare them for future work and their adult lives? The project surveyed almost 250 Chicago organizations offering about 1,000 programs that use digital media tools and technologies, which they defined as hardware, software and other digital tools and resources. The programs vary widely, giving students the opportunity to do things like design new products with digital tools or use software to study music theory or produce videos about community events.

While digital technology has become ubiquitous in most communities, there is a hierarchy in how it is used for learning. Simply putting students in front of computers or other devices and letting them be passive consumers is a missed opportunity. The real value of using technology as a learning tool, according to researchers, comes when students use it for active learning. Studies of tech use in schools, however, show passive consumption is exceedingly common.

Related: Don’t ask which ed tech products work, ask why they work

But as it turns out, the out-of-school providers surveyed in Chicago say they are primarily using technology for active learning. According to the Chicago Learning Exchange’s report, prepared by Outlier Research and Evaluation, based at the University of Chicago, young people are most commonly using digital media technology and tools for collaboration, creation and active engagement in out-of-school programs.

This finding wasn’t particularly surprising to Sana Jafri, a program officer at the Chicago Learning Exchange. She said out-of-school programs are freer to design learning experiences that are more engaging to students, because they don’t have the same pressure to teach certain academic standards.

“The out-of-school-time space is more ripe for innovation because there isn’t as much structure,” Jafri said.

The Anti-Cruelty Society’s After School Advocates program is one that’s helping students make the shift from consumers to creators. Its student participants create adoption campaigns for shelter animals on social media. Students interviewed for the report described feeling empowered by the opportunity to use social media as a tool to advocate for things they care about.

Supporting youth empowerment is one of the top purposes Chicago programs cited for digital media technology tools, along with supporting youth expression, building 21st-century and lifelong skills, and fostering civic engagement.

One opportunity gap the study identified in Chicago’s out-of-school learning community is that there are far more programs introducing students to digital media technology and tools than teaching more advanced skills.

“It’s a super-important piece of the work to increase awareness and exposure,” Jafri said. The next step, though, is preparing students for higher-skill jobs. “There is still a lot of work to be done to build out the learning experiences for young people.”

The study, at least, provides a starting point to measure progress toward this goal.

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