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The Harvard Family Research Project separated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to become the Global Family Research Project as of January 1, 2017. It is no longer affiliated with Harvard University.

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FINE Newsletter, Volume VI, Issue 2
Issue Topic: Making it Real—Connected Learning in the Digital Age 


HFRP director Heather B. Weiss asks us to think creatively about how to make the most of digital media for children’s learning.

Many of us have moments when we feel like Digital Disasters. We can’t get an app to work, so we turn thankfully to a nearby Digital Native—who could be a six-year-old—for help. Even Digital Natives describe the difficulties of keeping up with rapidly changing technologies and the explosion of available information. We are all Digital Learners recognizing and managing the many ways in which the Internet and digital media are fundamentally transforming what learning is, and how, why, when, where, and with whom it happens, for everyone.

Who could have foreseen that third graders in an after school program in the United States would be web chatting with their counterparts in India, that a local library would have digital animation classes for youth, and that high school students would hold Saturday sessions to help their teachers learn new media skills? Digital media jet propels anywhere, anytime learning from early childhood, and it offers dynamic, collaborative learning opportunities. At the same time, it is challenging families and everyone involved with children and youth to make sure that children get the access, supports, and opportunities that they need to get the full benefits of digital media for learning. In today’s technological world, the skills related to digital media navigation and use are crucial for success in school as well as in the workplace.

The rapid spread of digital media in daily life challenges us to think imaginatively about what we need to do to optimize digital media use for children’s learning. We also need to think hard about how we need to change to make such learning happen. Emerging research tells us that parents of young children use digital media as one among several parenting tools (e.g., toys and books) to keep their children occupied. As children grow older, parents show concerns about how their children use digital media. They are trying to understand and manage digital media use so it does not harm, but benefits and contributes to their child’s learning. However, parents are not always sure what to do or where to turn for information and assistance.

It is against this backdrop that we invited four experts (Gregg Behr, Mizuko Ito, Marsha L. Semmel, and Katie Salen Tekinbas) to reflect on their work in engaging families in a digital learning environment. We asked them to address the question, “How can institutions offer relevant and useful guidance to parents and families about scaffolding their children’s digital media use?”

As their responses and examples show, schools, museums, and libraries, as well as after school and summer programs, can incorporate digital media into the core of their work and build bridges to connect learning experiences for families and children across different media. These institutions can reach out and partner with parents and families in exciting ways to help them understand, shape, support, and share in their children’s digital learning. With these practices, family engagement becomes a shared responsibility for children’s learning and development in a digital environment. These practices also affirm and open up new roles for parents and families.

Seven Family Roles in a Digital Learning Environment
Research from the growing new field of digital media and learning clearly shows that children and youth develop their digital skills with on- and offline cooperation of peers, mentors, and parents, and then, in turn, help others. When youth describe their digital learning experiences, it occurs across multiple settings, and parent and family come up as important in many ways.

Based on their ethnographic work with youth, Brigid Barron and colleagues found parents play seven key roles. They are: Teacher, Collaborator, Learning Broker, Resource Provider, Nontechnical Consultant, Employer and (Co-) Learner. While most of these roles are not specific only to learning with digital media, this and other research indicates how important family engagement is in helping children and youth access and make good use of digital tools and experiences at home and in and out of school.

The growing use of digital media for learning often generates discussion about what it means for all children to have full and equal access to and participation with digital media. Access includes not only the availability of hardware and broadband, but also parental and institutional guidance and scaffolding so that youth make good choices in the use of digital media and have opportunities to use digital tools in and for learning. In their longitudinal study of literacy and learning in contrasting socioeconomic neighborhoods, Susan Neuman and Donna Celano point to the importance of digital access, broadly defined, in the development of the information capital that youth need for 21st-century success. They suggest policy changes to provide more resources and supports for disadvantaged communities, especially for libraries as learning centers, and also programs to train adults—including parents—to help students gain literacy skills and optimize digital learning resources.

Media scholar Henry Jenkins coined the term participatory culture to describe the ways youth go beyond consuming to creating and sharing media content. In a participatory culture (in contrast to a consumer culture), youth are actively engaged in creative expression. They produce published media (e.g., music, information, stories) and pursue civic engagement interests with strong support from others and with some type of informal mentorship. A participatory culture requires youth who are able to read and write and who are equipped with new media literacy skills (see Textbox 2). However, Jenkins points to the reality of a participation gap, one that can be addressed not by any one single institution. It takes families, schools, and communities sharing responsibility and working together to raise a child with the digital media skills necessary for engaging in a participatory culture that undoubtedly will shape school and workplace success.

Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education of the 21st Century
Henry Jenkins identifies the following skills as critical for literacy in a new media culture:

  • Play—the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem solving
  • Performance—the ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation and discovery
  • Simulation—the ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real-world processes
  • Appropriation—the ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content
  • Multitasking—the ability to scan one’s environment and shift focus as needed to salient details
  • Distributed Cognition—the ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand mental capacities
  • Collective Intelligence—the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common goal
  • Judgment—the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources
  • Transmedia Navigation—the ability to follow the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities
  • Networking—the ability to search for, synthesize, and disseminate information
  • Negotiation—the ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative norms.

Many of you reading this commentary are building visions for how to create more equitable digital access and opportunities. As you think about engaging families, ask young people about how and where they are building and using their new media skills, and ask families what information and supports they need to guide their children. We hope you will share what you are learning. Join the conversation about this issue on our Facebook page.


This resource is part of the April FINE Newsletter. The FINE Newsletter shares the newest and best family engagement research and resources from Harvard Family Research Project and other field leaders. To access the archives of past issues, please visit

© 2016 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project