What has changed in the two decades since we launched Youth Voices might be described as a digital transformation of tools into platforms. In a recent book, two researchers point to this kind of change as one to welcome in order to grow The Digital Mindset we need to thrive today. “The rapid scaling of computational power means that digital technologies have migrated from tools that people use to platforms upon which they interact,” (p. 34) Leonardi and Neeley write, and Youth Voices might be cited as an example of this shift that they are identifying.
Our challenge is to understand how what we ask our students to do on a platform could include a greater range of discourse than what we normally invite with a tool—such as a blogging… or a podcasting… or a video dialoguing… or a content management… or any other such digital tool. Platforms contain many tools and are constantly adding (or finding ways to embed) new ones. The significant difference is that platforms put tools into the context of interdependent thinking, connected learning, and collaborative problem-solving.
Youth Voices is an example of a digital platform that has migrated beyond that of what teachers sometimes see as another tool vying for time in an already packed curriculum: Should we have them create an audio post with a gallery on Youth Voices? Or create VoiceThreads?
Instead of just asking what tools to provide based on the affordances of those tools (and, yes, we still need to ask these questions), we can now also ask how a platform can give students the ability to interact with each other across time and space using these tools. Teachers could start asking: Who will my students be working with and alongside online with this or that tool? What platforms will allow my students to learn from the visibility of each others creative and communication processes when using digital tools at all levels of ideation, drafting, revision, collaboration, production, publishing, and discussion?
Broadcast platforms change the game.
These are exciting times, and this expanded mindset that takes advantage of the power of “broadcast platforms” like Youth Voices could also change what we invite students do—and who to do it with—online and in the classroom. According to Paul Leonardi, one of the researchers cited above, “Broadcast platforms change the game by making tasks and projects visible beyond one’s regular collaborators.” (Leonardi, 2021). When youth are invited to check in, journal, reflect on their learning, draft, provide feedback, revise, produce, publish, collaborate, and engage in dialogue on a daily basis and all on Youth Voices, then they can be seen playing—expressing themselves, crafting, and composing for audiences—across the entire digital discourse or “symbolic scale.”
Oh, the places you’ll see your students go on platforms like Youth Voices. Imagine what earlier generations of educators would have thought of our ability to capture and see so much of our students’ composing and learning processes—and for them to see each others.
In Coming on Center (1981), James Moffett calls for students to be given “an emotional mandate to play the whole symbolic scale, to find suspects and shape them, to invent ways to act upon others, and to discover their own voice.” Youth Voices, which started as a tool for students to publish blog posts and podcasts in 2003, has evolved into a platform where we can entertain Moffett’s vision for “teaching the universe of discourse” (1968). Youth on our platform can now capture and make visible their digital play across the whole symbolic scale, and it’s up to us to give them the time, inspiration, support, direction, and invitation to create anything they can imagine on the Youth Voices platform.
Since we are all about conversations, we are primed to reap the benefits of a broadcast platform.
Before, beside, between, and beyond blogging, here’s a list of a dozen ways the voices of youth are heard on Youth Voices:
- quick status updates, each of which can include a photo, slideshow, quote, GIF, file, video, audio, or link
- multiple ways of responding to images, videos, and text in social annotations on NowComment (which collect through RSS feeds to students’ walls on Youth Voices)
- private and gradually more public entries in a writer’s notebook (where revisions collect in an accessible history)
- carefully composed comments and replies in threaded discussions with peers who often have common interests
- use of guides that template and clarify rhetorical moves they might use in commenting and replying to each other’s work, in responding to literature, art, poetry, and non-fiction, and in writing about research inquiries
- both short and long-form blogging and media projects over time about issues that matter to the writers and producers and their communities
- multimodal blog posts using WordPress blocks that include a careful crafting of images, galleries videos, texts, audio, and links that call readers to action
- published poetry, short stories, plays, open letters, shadow boxes, slide shows, podcasts, infographics, and any genre that can be imagined
- multimodal publications on the site: literary magazines and zines in digital flip books and Google Stories that include limitless animation and media
- digital awards and portfolios that connect the work to Habits of Mind through reflection
- use of playlists of activities that detail what we are inviting youth to create on the site and metadata (categories, tags) and side bars that connect students posts with each other and with the assignments that invited the work.
- a wall for each student where a stream of his/her/their activity on both Youth Voices and NowComment collects and is organized with tabs and bookmarks
This list might be understood by referencing the folktale of “The Blind Men and the Elephant.” If the Youth Voices platform is the elephant in the story, those of us whose students use the site tend to be like the blind men, inviting our students to use specific tools on the site often without appreciating (or giving students enough time to use) the whole communication network that the platform provides. And this matters because when students can be seen by each other emoting, speculating, drafting, creating, responding, commenting, replying, questioning, collaborating, interacting, joking, producing, publishing… all collected on the same platform (and in ways that are easy to access and bookmark) new levels of cross-school team-building, interdependent thinking, and collaboration open up for youth.
Most who use Youth Voices would probably be surprised by the extent of the list, above, of a dozen discourse opportunities. We tend to stay in familiar channels on Youth Voices, inviting students: to write daily journal entries in YV Docs (3), or to post once-a-week blogs about a current events article (6), or to occasionally publish poems and short stories from creative writing units (8), or to annotate short stories, plays, and novels on NowComment (2), or to write literature responses as part of an independent reading program (5), or to do research projects, publishing weekly updates on important questions (6), or to comment on favorite posts by students outside of your school every Friday (4), or to create digital portfolios using Google Stories (10), or to…
Perhaps the point is clear. We each involve our students in our own ways on the site, using the tools we are familiar with. And there is everything right about this. Youth Voices has always had—and will continue to have—powerful, easy to use tools for digital publishing and conversation.
It can also be more. By giving students more time and asking them to give more attention to the digital collaboration tools on Youth Voices—the activity streams on their own and each other’s walls, notifications, threads of comments and replies on discussion posts—the site can become a connected learning platform similar to the business platforms that Leonardi describes: “platforms upon which employees use various tools to interact, watch others interact, and gain a deeper understanding of where knowledge lies.”
Youth Voices has grown into a platform similar to the ones in Leonardi’s research. We also have tools [that] “are designed to help people work together and learn from one another by creating threads of conversation and places to exchange information.” And his “research shows that those platforms’ primary benefit for collaboration goes beyond knowledge sharing: They provide a window into who knows and does what in the organization, and into how people make decisions and do their work.”
What if teachers, along with their students, began to see the current users on Youth Voices as geographically dispersed colleagues in one large organization that is seeking to reap the benefits of the collaborative tools of a “broadcast platform”? Because we have always prioritized conversation at Youth Voices—in the form of comments and replies under blog posts—teachers and students who use the site are well primed to migrate along with the technology to the digital mindset that welcomes the shift of tools to platforms.
Youth Voices could be the “attentive host” that youth need to learn collaboratively online.
Kenneth A. Bruffee’s College English article that I read when it was published in 1984, my first year as teacher, “Collaborative Learning and the ‘Conversation of Mankind’ ” has always served as a touchstone and a theory of action for Youth Voices, and perhaps in this era of broadcast platforms, it still can. In fact, I think Bruffee would appreciate the power of the collaborative tools that students can access on a platform like Youth Voices, and he would remind us to pay attention to the “community life that generates and maintains conversation” (1984).
Bruffee’s words can remind us why we ask our students to engage in conversations with their peers from around the country on Youth Voices. We want them to keep strengthening the habit of interdependent thinking (to use the language from Costa and Kallick’s Habits of Mind). This quote by Kenneth A. Bruffee has been within eyeshot my entire career as an educator:
To think well as individuals we must learn to think well collectively–that is, we must learn to converse well. The first steps to learning to think better, therefore, are learning to converse better and learning to establish and maintain the sorts of social context, the sorts of community life, that foster the sorts of conversation members of the community value.
It’s easier to say why conversations are important for learning, than it is to actually support students to engage in meaningful dialogue with one another. It take’s time and intentional practice in our classrooms, and it’s even more difficult to inspire online conversations between youth who don’t know each other. Conversations, including the ones we ask students to have about each other’s blog posts on Youth Voices, are easier to have and become more meaningful when the youth know some things about each other—both academic and non-school related interests and topics. Leonardi, again in a business context, found that “when employees had discussions about food, sports teams, movies, and fitness, they became more likely to ask one another work-related questions too.”
What has changed on Youth Voices in the past two decades—the digital transformation of a tool to a platform—is that we are now a site where students can learn to think better by conversing about their first thoughts, emotions, ideas, plans, revision strategies, disappointments, joys, confusion, disagreements, production problems, questions, anxieties, pride, pleasure, pain… and so much more with each other. Unfortunately there’s a gap between what’s possible on the site and how it is mainly used. Most students on Youth Voices still see only the products of each others’ work — discussion posts, comments and replies — “but not all the thinking and decision-making that went into producing those outputs. At best,” Leonardi writes about similar problems in companies, “we end up guessing at what was done (if we give it that much thought). At worst, we fail to see the richness of insight and expertise that our colleagues have and that could be available to us if we only knew to reach out.”
Youth Voices has the collaborative tools students need to see and learn about each other, follow a network of friends, and build a social context and community life, like Bruffee describes, that fosters the conversations they value. Students have profiles with walls where an activity stream collects everything they do on the site and on NowComment. And each item in the stream (e.g. Paul annotated a document on NowComment or Paul and Marina are now friends.) can be clicked to go to the original work. Students can comment on each item on their own walls or on others’ walls. Messages can be left or a Habit of Mind can be awarded. Tabs and a filter make it easy to survey all the different types of posts or comments each student has created. And bookmarks allow a student to highlight specific items on their walls.
These tools are the newest ones on Youth Voices and the least utilized. If we want students to use Youth Voices for meaningfully conversations, collaborative learning, and a the building of acknowledge community, like I do, then we need to carefully, creatively, in stages, and persistently invite students to engage with each other using as many of the collaborative tools on Youth Voices as possible. For the our site to reach its potential as a broadcast platform that engenders collaborative knowledge building, teamwork across different locations, and a sense of being a community of scholars together, students need to have a daily presence on the platform—anything from the list, above, of a dozen discourse options—and they will need time to stay up to speed with the activity streams on one another’s walls from day to day.
Without this dayliness, it’s difficult to imagine how students will be able to develop an accurate sense of what their peers on Youth Voices bring to the table, to get potential collaborators to say yes to requests, and to establish common ground (Leonardi, 2021). It will probably take some time for students to put up enough information and content on the site to become known by each other. We will have to be patient and encourage students any time we see an opportunity for them to engage in both low-stakes, informal conversations—such as leaving messages on one another’s walls, replies to annotations on NowComment, liking posts or comments—and more formal conversations, such as carefully composed comments and replies on discussion posts.
We know that building community in our classrooms comes through personal disclosure and mutual sharing by youth—in safe spaces, over time, and in structured activities that are designed for getting to know and trust each other. Similarly, on a platform like Youth Voices, students will more readily reach out and collaborate with peers outside of their schools if they are given opportunities to use the collaborative tools “to share and learn non-work-related information” and “turn distant colleagues into sporadic collaborators.”Leopardi uses a metaphor of strangers meeting at a party to suggest why we need these tools:
Starting new relationships is hard. Think about going to a party: It’s much harder to strike up a meaningful conversation with someone if you know nothing about them; it’s much easier if the host tells you that the two of you are both soccer fans and love the same team. Broadcast platforms serve the function of the attentive host in the digital workplace.
Our students can’t wait to meet the youth in your classes!
I turn now to a call to action. We want you and your students to join us on Youth Voices, and we would welcome you and your students at any level of participation. The prologue to this invitation sets out an ideal that I stand by. The closer you can get to a daily use of the site and the more collaborative tools you can invite your students to use on Youth Voices, the greater will be the benefits for all that come from a robust use of a broadcast platform. However, computers may not be available to your students as often as you wish, your curriculum or your use of other tools may not have much space left, and perhaps you are happy with using just one or two of the options available on Youth Voices. We want to welcome you and your students into our community even if you can’t—or you don’t feel ready—to jump in with both feet.
The logistics for enrolling your students are pretty straightforward. All we need is a list of your students’ first names and their email addresses, just two columns on this data sheet. I will fill in the rest, and get everything set up on Youth Voices and on NowComment for your students. Whether you are new to Youth Voices or an old friend, please use this process of bulk uploading from a data sheet to get your students on the site this semester.
Once we have set up accounts for your students, giving them access to everything Youth Voices and NowComment has to offer, you are (of course) welcome to use these sites in any way you wish. We hope you will add your project ideas, guides, and assessment strategies to the mix next to your students’ delightful, surprising, and moving posts!
We do have a few recommendations for how to get started. Over the last few years, as we have been adding the tools of a more full-fledged platform, we have captured the first set of moves that many of us ask students to do into two “playlists.” A playlist is a select group of activities, written as invitations to students, asking them read, write, and create things on Youth Voices and NowComment. A playlist also includes examples and both written and video-tapped step-by-step how-to’s.
In the case of the two playlists we are recommending here, they are intended to give students introductory experiences with the main discourse modes, collaborative tools, and social practices at their disposal on Youth Voices and NowComment. In addition, these playlists have invitations for youth to introduce themselves to the Youth Voices community by uploading profile pictures, adding initial updates on their walls, journaling with YV docs, commenting on posts of interest, and composing, revising, recording and publishing a multimodal bio that includes audio, image, and text.
When they have finished Profile Setup and Making Your Mark, your students will be familiar with what they can do and make on Youth Voices and NowComment, and they will have begun to provide information about themselves that leads to conversations and collaborative learning with other youth on the site.
We can’t wait to introduce your students to ours. Let’s see all the places they will go together!
Bruffee, Kenneth A. “Collaborative Learning and the ‘Conversation of Mankind’.” College English, Vol. 46, No. 7 (Nov., 1984), pp. 635-652 (18 pages) Published By: National Council of Teachers of English https://doi.org/10.2307/376924, https://www.jstor.org/stable/376924.
Leonardi, Paul. “Picking the Right Approach to Digital Collaboration.” MIT Sloan Management Review, vol. 62, no. 3, 2021, Reprint #62302.
Leonardi, Paul M., and Tsedal Neeley. The Digital Mindset: What It Really Takes to Thrive in the Age of Data, Algorithms, and Ai. Harvard Business Review Press, 2022.
Moffett, James. Coming on Center: English Education in Evolution. Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1981.
Moffett, James. Teaching the Universe of Discourse. Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1968.