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How Can We Harness the Power of Learning Beyond the School Day?

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Kids play with new technology unveiled at the first mobile van event in Columbus Park, Chicago. (Michelle Lytle/Courtesy of Chicago City of Learning)

Discussions of learning tend to focus on what happens in schools, but many students are learning lots of important skills outside of school through extracurriculars like sports, music, art, politics or any other passion. Often students don’t get recognition for the learning they pursue on their own, and many times they don’t even see their passion as learning at all. The Chicago City of Learning project is trying to meet that need by helping connect youth to resources that support their interests and provide validation for the hard work that goes into learning outside the academic setting.

Chicago City of Learning started in 2013, growing out of a prolonged teachers strike that prompted the city to think about how it could connect its youth to non-school constructive activities that they might be able to get credit for later. At that time, city official realized there was no centralized place for youth to discover opportunities related to their interests and no way for the city to keep track of the hundreds of organizations offering programming. Chicago City of Learning was born as a mayor’s initiative, but was soon taken over by partner organizations.

“It was the first time we had a centralized database where someone could come and search for a program connected to their interests,” said Sybil Madison-Boyd, learning pathways program director for the Digital Youth Network. Madison-Boyd has been actively involved in launching the program and helping it grow in response to feedback from youth and the organizations themselves.

At first the program focused on the summer months, when kids are out of school and looking for opportunities to fill their time. Now that the program is more mature and has seen some success, the database has proven to be a powerful way for the city to catalog participating organizations, the programs they offer and the geographic diversity of that programming.

Often a kid will be connected to an organization that does one specific thing, say, visual arts instruction, but if the kid decides he’s interested in music, that organization might not know where to send him. Now both adults and students can search the Chicago City of Learning website by interest, neighborhood or category.


“We can begin to see neighborhoods that don’t have any programs,” Madison-Boyd said. Or, maybe a neighborhood has sports programming, but nothing in the arts or sciences. With a centralized network of programs, the city is beginning to see where it needs to do more work and how left out some communities have been.

The digital network has also shared feedback and search data with program providers to help them craft programming that appeals to changing student interests. Madison-Boyd says coding and music programs are always popular, and recently fashion opportunities have been in high demand.

Another big part of the City of Learning project has been to help students get recognition for the passions they pursue outside of school. The MacArthur Foundation got involved in the project and recommended digital badges, one of its areas of investment. Youth can develop digital portfolios, called “digital backpacks” by Chicago City of Learning, that represent their personalities, interests and achievements beyond school.

“We’ve helped partner organizations to design badges to articulate the knowledge and skills the kids have developed,” Madison-Boyd said. And she and her colleagues solicited feedback from a youth council representing a diverse group of student interests, ethnicities and geography.


“They really want to know how the badges related to jobs and college,” Madison-Boyd said. Youth are often balancing the desire to pursue their passions with summer jobs and other commitments. They weren’t interested in badges that didn’t mean anything to anyone else. If badges aren’t taken seriously, most youth said they’d rather take a job and earn some money.

Sample badges.
Sample badges. (Michelle Lytle/Courtesy of Chicago City of Learning)

“The idea of a badge has tons of potential,” said Hope Jernigan, now a sophomore at University of Illinois, Chicago and a former member of the Youth Advisory Council. She and her fellow students held focus groups with their peers to collect feedback on the City of Learning program and offer recommendations on how to improve it. Badges were a big part of that feedback.

Jernigan said her own experiences with the programming offered through City of Learning was excellent. Over the winter she participated in several programs, including an Art Institute of Chicago program where she got to pick a work of art she liked, write about it and share it on Tumblr.

“It was more of you as an individual going out there, finding something you like, and doing it and exploring it,” Jernigan said. “I liked that platform and dynamic of learning, rather than the classroom where someone’s telling you what to do.” She felt the program inspired her own creativity and voice, something she didn’t often experience in more formal academic settings.

Jernigan said badges have the potential to bridge the gap between extracurricular activities like those offered through the City of Learning network and the in-school learning that students are compelled to do daily. She’d like to be able to come back from an experience and present a “critical thinking badge” to her teacher, but she says the system is not set up right now to support that kind of collaboration and validation of learning outside the classroom.


While badges and digital portfolios are far from mainstream, Sybil Madison-Boyd says the program is trying to strengthen its relationship to Chicago Public Schools and its teachers. She’d like to see teachers using badges as a way of learning more about student passions and leveraging that knowledge to strengthen relationships and individualize classroom learning. This year Chicago City of Learning is trying to elevate the idea of the “digital backpack” as a meaningful representation of learning that school administrators and employers take seriously.

All 400,000 CPS students have Chicago City of Learning accounts waiting for them, but only about 60,000 accounts are active. Madison-Boyd sees buy-in from teachers as a crucial way to engage students and raise the program’s profile.

The Chicago City of Learning team is also trying to use feedback to improve other aspects of the program. They’re highly aware that the resource they are offering is only available online, which brings up the access issues that plague all tech-based solutions.

“We’d always been concerned about the fact that the primary communication mechanism that we have is the website,” Madison-Boyd said. “We’ve always been trying to think of ways for kids and families who cannot easily connect to get connected.”

To begin addressing this problem, City of Learning ran a mobile van with 30 laptops and Wi-Fi, which visited locations on the south and west sides of Chicago where there weren’t a lot of opportunities for design, making and coding. The van offered a curriculum loosely focused around computational thinking and engaged a cohort of youth at each location. Once a day for five weeks, the same kids showed up to mess around with computer programming, prototype projects and fix things.

The mobile vans used in the summer of 2015 to bring computational thinking programming to neighborhoods without access.
The mobile vans used in the summer of 2015 to bring computational thinking programming to neighborhoods without access. (Michelle Lytle/Courtesy Chicago City of Learning)

“Youth love the van coming to where they are,” said Amy Eshleman, who manages the Mobile Van Initiative. “That’s been really important to address the opportunity gap in Chicago.” The van also traveled to different street fairs, farmers markets and other public events to provide a fun way for youth to learn about Chicago City of Learning and all the opportunities found there.

“It’s so important that we’re popping up in places where kids are hanging out and then hopefully activating them to Chicago City of Learning as a resource for things they really like to do,” Madison-Boyd said. The long-term question is whether users signed up in this fashion remain actively engaged with the site.


Chicago City of Learning has engaged 90,410 youth over its two years of existence, enough proof to engender similar programs in Dallas, Washington, D.C. and Pittsburgh. Now the initiative, largely sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation, is getting even bigger with the launch of Cities of LRNG, a program and platform  to connect young people to experiences all over the country.

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