Life after the Digital Club: Minority Students navigating their Creative Ambitions

November 13, 2012

PROJECTS: The Digital Edge



The Digital Edge is invested in situating digital media and learning strategies in social context, including exploring the factors that contribute to a student’s future orientation. In related blog posts, both Vivian Shaw and Alexander Cho explore this topic based on the Digital Edge team’s field work in an Austin-area high school.


“I don’t think I’m ready!” Antonio exclaimed, breaking a nervous silence that was starting to settle in the room. The other students laughed awkwardly as he continued on, describing anxieties about the uncertain responsibilities waiting for him after graduation. Last May, my colleague and I sat down with four graduating seniors from our study with Texas City High (TCH), talking with them about post-high school plans. We asked the students how their educational experiences at TCH and social experiences with family and friends have prepared them for their future, how they saw their lives after high school, plans for college, and their careers and dreams. How had the skills they acquired through classroom learning and in particular, through their involvement with an after-school media production club, prepared them for the future?

Antonio’s was not the only voice of ambivalence about the big changes ahead. Students were excited to leave TCH, a school environment which they often described as frustrating, boring, and even unsafe. However, few students in the group had clear plans for either college or career advancement after graduation, with the exception of one young woman who was moving to the West Coast to attend a fashion design college. This fact was troubling for my colleague and I–throughout our year working with these seniors, we had witnessed and felt inspired by their creative ambitions. Antonio and Sergio, two Latino students included in our focus group, were leaders of the school’s media production club, an organization that demanded countless hours of scripting, shooting, editing, and promoting a film for submission to an international film festival. Students spent nights and weekends on the project, getting very little sleep, and even prioritizing completion of the film over their regular class time and homework. The project had become a community, with some graduated alumni returning to the club as mentors. Moreover, led by one of TCH’s Latino teachers, this project was also a supportive space for Latino/a students. Much of the group’s leadership was filled by second-generation Mexican immigrants and students expressed gratitude for the opportunity to access technology and learn skills typically unavailable in other spaces throughout the school and their community.

The question of why and to what extent opportunities for connected learning and digital media literacy are limited for certain students, particularly those from low-income and racial/ethnic minority backgrounds, is central to our study. When we began our fieldwork a year ago, we knew it would be important to complicate existing discussions of the “digital divide”–one in which digital inequality gets framed primarily in terms of technology haves and have nots. Our research has been interested not only in issues of unequal access to technology but also in how cultural capital shapes students’ opportunities for and practices of creative learning. Yet what we lacked was a clear picture of how racial inequalities continue to infringe upon students’ creative opportunities after they have already acquired digital media production skills. While analyzing the data gathered over the past year, our team has started thinking about the educational and technology curriculum at TCH as well as the racial dimensions of the academic tracking system that shapes the future opportunities of students. TCH students interested in digital media, while gaining access to technology and learning experiences, commonly talked about their skills acquisition as a step toward employment in creative and technical industries. Whereas it is common for students from middle class backgrounds to leverage their creative interests and achievements for admissions to four-year colleges, students involved in TCH’s media production club often regarded the project as an apprenticeship and channel into career pursuits immediately after high school. We see these differences as connected to the ways race/ethnicity and class are applied by schools to sort students into separate tracks– academic and vocational.

The rise of digital media and its implications for learning includes the potential to change traditional measures of tracking students with positive potential for students who have been historically marginalized within and by schools. However, these changing ecologies are further complicated by students’ perceptions of how their own social disadvantage fits in with both their structural realities and larger cultural narratives about success in the United States. Many of our students face extreme challenges–poverty, housing instability, and even violence. Yet few have talked directly about inequality or broader social justice, instead insisting that success will be possible through hard work and training. In our focus group, three out of four students were Latino/a and at one point they all pointed to “Latin culture” for their parents’ lack of involvement in their educational trajectory at TCH. Despite understanding language as a barrier, students faulted their community as generally disinterested in education. By contrast, a white female student participating in the focus group was quick to explain her parents’ lack of involvement as caused by their busy work schedules and preoccupation taking care of her younger siblings. 

How does the curriculum at TCH, academic tracking, digital media and learning, and  racialized narratives of culture and success affect non-dominant students as they pursue opportunities after high school? Schools such as TCH have taken strides to provide digital media production spaces for minority students that might otherwise be unavailable. But a major challenge that remains, and something our research is interested in pursuing further, is: what is the role of education and, more precisely, digital and non-digital forms of learning, in supporting the ability of low-income students to develop the knowledge and competencies that support their ability to thrive in future classrooms, workspaces, and civic spheres?


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