Perspectives: Newsletter of the College of Arts & Sciences

Crossing the Digital Divide

There was a time when only trained journalists produced stories for public media, with those stories vetted by editors and fact checkers. Not anymore.  So how do consumers decide what sources to trust? What is the role of journalism in our democracy? And how can individuals join the discussion, providing their own content?

SDLI Summer Institute students view photos.
Institute participants Danait Yemane and Marii Beshir review
some of their recent photos. Photo by Chantal Anderson.

Since January 2011, local teens have explored these and related questions through the Seattle Digital Literacy Initiative, a program that brings media experts to Seattle-area high schools and youth programs. The Initiative also offers a week-long summer institute for teens on the UW campus.

“Young people are born into a media-saturated world that is innovating at light speed, yet they are rarely given the conceptual and hands-on tools to understand and navigate today’s new media landscape,” says Sarah Stuteville, Initiative director and lecturer in the Department of Communication. “We’re teaching them both where media comes from and how to be producers of media. We want them to see it as something they can make and shape.”

The Initiative was developed by the UW Department of Communication, the UW Master of Communication in Digital Media (MCDM), and the Common Language Project (CLP), working in close partnership with educational, nonprofit, and private organizations.  The Initiative built on CLP’s existing relationships with local teachers—many of them working in underserved communities—and has led to more than 60 classroom visits at a dozen high schools and youth programs.

Visiting KUOW radio station.
Abdullahi Mohammed, above, was among the students
who interviewed staff at KUOW radio station.
Photo by Chantal Anderson.

“It’s been really fun and really exhausting,” says Stuteville, who recruited UW graduate students as well as trained instructors from YMCA Metrocenter and CLP volunteer interns for the classroom visits. Related activities have included a teacher training through the World Affairs Council and a half-day brainstorming session with other organizations involved in youth media issues.

The end of the school year provided no respite as the Initiative prepared for its first summer institute, which involved about two dozen teens, many of them from underserved populations.  

“For a lot of those kids, there’s a real digital divide,” says Stuteville. “People assume all young people are computer literate, that they’re just born into it. But that’s not true. A lot of these kids don’t have computers at home. A few are homeless.”

During the week-long program, working in small groups guided by a knowledgeable mentor, students learned all aspects of audio slide show production--photography, capturing audio, exporting digital files, editing sound and images--using equipment loaned by the Department of Communication. “All of the kids were so respectful of the equipment,” says Stuteville, who reports that the week’s only casualty was a lost lens cap—misplaced by a mentor, not a student.

"We're teaching them both where media comes from and
how to be producers of media. We want them to see it as
something they can make and shape."





The group also reviewed audio slide shows produced by youth across the U.S. and discussed what worked and didn’t work. They learned interview techniques, then tested them by conducting interviews during field trips to KUOW, UW Farm, the University Food Bank, and the Seattle Fandango Project.

“One thing I’ve noticed, working with young people, is how excited they are to be given a license to ask people questions,” says Stuteville. “I told them, ‘As a journalist, you can ask anything you want. Anything is fair game.’ They got pumped about it. That’s one of the most exciting things to watch—to see them follow their curiosity.”  Stuteville offered herself as a guinea pig, allowing students to interview her to hone their skills. “They asked how much I earn. They asked all sorts of personal stuff,” she recalls with a laugh. “I guess I set myself up for that.”

SDLI Summer Institite participants.
Seattle Digital Literacy Initiative summer institute faculty and students pose for a
group shot. Photo Lucas Anderson.

The students also interviewed each other, sharing their cultures, dreams, and fears. Given the group’s diversity—including refugees from East Africa, first generation students from Mexico, Vietnam, and Turkey, homeless teens, a Native American student, and other underrepresented minorities—that was an eye-opening experience for many.

“I definitely learned about other people’s lives,” says participant Cris Torres. “It made me less ignorant. In the past, if I saw someone wearing a head scarf, I had a negative take on that. But I learned so much during that week. One girl who wears a head scarf said that the whole world treats her as a terrorist. I felt so bad. It made me really see things differently.”

Adds Hamziye Ahmed, who immigrated to the U.S. from Ethiopia just a few years ago, “Not everybody’s been through what you’ve been through in life, but you learn that there is still stuff you can find in common. It’s good to know that even if you’re from different places, you can connect through things that are similar.”

By the end of the week, the teens edited their photos, interviews, and music selections into audio slide shows. The projects were presented to the entire group at a final showcase that celebrated their accomplishments.  “I think making things for an audience is really important,” says Stuteville. “It changes the students’ sense of accountability when they know other people are going to look at it. I’ve seen that in other courses I’ve taught. You see students really step up.”

Above are two slideshows created by students during
the Seattle Digital Literacy Initiative's summer institute. The top
video is by Cris Torres; the bottom one is by Meagan Nelson.
To view these in a larger format or to view other participants'
slide shows on YouTube, click here.

Some of the projects highlighted programs introduced during the field trips, like the UW Farm and the Seattle Fandango Project.  Others covered more personal topics, from bullying to stereotypes about Islam to people’s relationship with their shoes.   (See two examples, below.) Participant Meagan Nelson chose to focus on diversity. “I saw it as an opportunity to work on a project I’m really passionate about—teaching the world about other cultures,” she explains. Her emphasis was diverse cultural traditions, which she explored through interviews with her fellow students. “Everyone was warm and friendly, so interviewing them was a lot of fun,” she says.

Ahmed was among those interviewed by Nelson—and by several other classmates. She may, in fact, win the prize for the most featured student in the audio slideshows. “Watching them, I was just laughing,” recalls Ahmed, “because it was me and me and me all over. But I didn’t mind all the interviews. Everybody was really nice, so it was like talking to a friend.”

Stuteville was impressed by what the students accomplished in one short week. She would love to offer more sessions next summer, possibly adding a second week for students wanting to learn more advanced techniques, but that will require additional funding.

“We’re applying for a number of grants,” she says, “because we’d really like this to grow. It’s exciting to see its impact.”

Meanwhile, Torres is looking for funding of a different sort. He had done some photography in his early teens but had lost interest. The institute renewed that interest, and now Torres is itching to buy a good camera.

“I tried to trade in my Xbox 360 for an SLR camera,” he says, “but those cameras are pretty pricey. I’m still hoping to save up for one.”

To learn more about the Seattle Digital Literacy Initiative, visit The Initiative is also on Facebook at

Return to Table of Contents, September 2011 issue