How Chicago Teens are Conquering the New Frontier of Digital Literacy

The New Literacy

When you hear the word “literacy,” what do you think of? Reading and writing? Books? Libraries? 

These were our first forms of literacy, but as we’ve evolved, we’ve developed new forms as well.

Technology has become a huge part of our daily lives and resulted in the expansion of STEM industries (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). In order to use all this tech effectively and create new uses for it, we have developed digital literacy. 

The simplest definition of digital literacy is “the ability to use and create technology-based content, including finding and sharing information, answering questions, and interacting with others and computer programming” (Widona 2020).

This set of abilities involves an array of “complete cognitive, sociological, and emotional skills which users need in order to function effectively in digital environments” (Eshet-Alkalai 2004).

Because of the complex cognitive and social underpinnings of technology and its use, the landscape of digital literacy and STEM is a reflection of our society as a whole. The technology we create holds up a mirror to our hopes, fears, problems, and solutions. 

Many consider our technology to be the culmination of human brilliance and connection. This may be the case, but it also illustrates how ignorant and divided we still are.

STEM industries tend to be overwhelmingly white and male, and among the general population, gaps in digital literacy are split along the same lines. 

As digital skills become more necessary to navigate our connected world, closing the gap in STEM participation takes on a new urgency. Technology is progressing fast, and for the sake of our communities, we have to make sure nobody is left behind.

The New Digital Age: COVID and Beyond

Social distancing and lockdowns to handle COVID-19 have increased the need for digitization, and the pandemic has highlighted the long-standing inequalities in digital access and literacy. 

In March 2021, EQUALS, the World Bank, and GSMA announced a collaboration on three pilot programs “to give women and girls digital skills training to empower them to thrive in the digital economy.”

“With adequate digital skills, women can actively participate in a global digital economy. Estimates suggest that 90% of future careers will demand digital skills… When women can reach their full potential, they can contribute to the growing digital economy. With women digitally skilled and online, countries are one step closer to gender equality and better economic outcomes.”

As the EQUALS Global Partnership website puts it, “It is clear that without women’s participation in digital technology development and access to digital technology resources - we all lose.”

The EQUALS Access Coalition was created to address the digital gender gap that exists worldwide. Recent research has shown that across the globe, women are 12% less likely than men to use the internet. This lack of access means women are more likely to miss out on the information, services, education, health care, and economic opportunities that the digital world can provide.

Narrowing the digital gender gap also contributes to several of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, including quality education, gender equality, and decent work and economic growth.

According to EQUALS, “Each time we bring more women and girls online, we not only take one more step towards achieving gender equality, we accelerate the implementation of all the Sustainable Development Goals

The digital gender gap will not close on its own; its root causes are a complex set of social, economic, and cultural barriers. These obstacles will only be overcome through targeted intervention by a range of stakeholders. Working together, we can make significant progress in eliminating the digital gender imbalance. Because when women thrive, societies, businesses, and economies thrive.”

One ongoing EQUALS project is Gender Equitable Investment in Tech (GEIT). Although over half of Earth’s population is made up of women, they are poorly represented in the investment of the world’s assets. 

This lack of representation is an obstacle in the journey towards female empowerment and gender equality, and it’s also standing in the way of a healthy economy. 

Researchers from financial giant Morgan Stanley found that this disparity has cost the global economy trillions of dollars in missed opportunities. Research from the Boston Consulting Group adds that gender-diverse businesses have 53% return on equity, 19% higher innovation revenue, and 6% higher net profit.

The lack of equity and representation are most pronounced in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). In United States tech firms alone, improving the gender and ethnic diversity among staff and leadership could create up to $570 billion in new value, according to research from Dalberg and Intel.

As the world moves towards an increasingly digitized economy, the financial costs and pitfalls of a homogenous tech industry will become even greater. But education and equity can save us.

The conclusions of the most powerful research institutions in the world are clear: to create a prosperous future for all and ensure sustainable technological innovation, it’s vital to invest in digital literacy and STEM education for girls, women, and people of color. 

The Current State of STEM

According to a 2019 EQUALS report on closing gender divides in digital skills, “Today, women and girls are 25% less likely than men to know how to leverage digital technology for basic purposes, 4 times less likely know how to program computers, and 13 times less likely to file for a technology patent.” 

This gap isn’t present in early childhood. EQUALS’ studies of school-age children compared digital skills in boys and girls with their self-efficacy, or the kids’ perceptions of their own skills. 

They found that when kids are in primary school, “the gender gap in actual digital competence is either non-existent or reversed in favor of girls… Yet despite demonstrating promising early performance, girls had lower levels of self-efficacy even when they outperformed or performed similarly to boys on measures of digital skills.” 

As kids grow up, girls’ disconnect between performance and confidence continues, and the gap between boys’ and girls’ interest and participation in STEM subjects begins to widen.

These data indicate that providing access to technology and STEM education isn’t enough. The Field of Dreams strategy of “If you build it, they will come,” won’t solve our STEM equity problem. 

The Power of a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Cultural attitudes about what is “appropriate” for girls versus boys and myths about inherent skills of the sexes aren’t based in biological fact, but they are repeated so often that they become self-fulfilling prophecies. 

As girls grow up and experience more socialization in a patriarchal society, they perceive themselves to be less skilled in STEM subjects than they really are. This lack of confidence decreases girls’ participation in STEM subjects. As attrition rates grow through secondary and post-secondary education levels, the myth of STEM intelligence as uniquely male feeds on itself. 

These trends continue even for those who persist in their STEM education. Women who graduate college with STEM degrees are less likely to take jobs in those industries than men with the same degrees, and those who do begin careers in STEM industries often end up leaving them. 

The report states, “In the USA, women who do enter the digital sector tend to leave such employment, on average, at twice the rate of men. Women are also more likely than men to cite gender bias, discrimination, and harassment as their reason for leaving the field.” 

If the culture of tech industries remains hostile, highly knowledgeable women will continue to take their brilliance elsewhere. Dispelling the myths about gendered intelligence is vital to foster a generation of more confident girls, but also a generation of boys who are just as confident that their female classmates deserve the same opportunities as they do.

The Unfulfilled Potential of Women in STEM

The economic and social benefits of fostering digital confidence in women and girls have been documented around the globe.

Helping the women of the world increase their autonomy is a worthy goal on its own, but empowering women actually benefits everyone. Economic research indicates that powerful women consistently use their power to help the rest of the world, too. 

As the EQUALS report points out, “when women earn an income they tend to reinvest it back into their families and communities at a higher rate than men.” They go on to suggest that “Countries concerned with accelerating development should make efforts to lower digital barriers for women and encourage digital gender equality,” echoing the conclusions of research on sustainable growth by the United Nations

The inclusion of women and people of color in STEM is just as vital for innovation as it is for economic stability.

A society is shaped by the technology it uses, and new technologies are shaped by the people that produce them. In this self-reinforcing cycle of influence and innovation, diversity in the industries that develop new tech is an untapped force to increase equity in the society using that tech.

Empowering a New Generation of STEM Innovators

How can we stop wasting all this untapped talent? How can we give girls the confidence to shape the future as technological innovators? 

To inspire girls to recognize their capabilities and to repair the toxic culture that pushes underrepresented employees out of STEM industries, tech educators must find new ways to empower the next generation.

First, tech education must be sustained, varied, and life-wide: “interventions must not be limited to formal education settings but rather should reflect a multifaceted approach, enabling women and girls to acquire skills in a variety of formal and informal contexts…” 

To keep up with the quick pace of digital change, learning should also be approached as an ongoing, lifelong process. To make this process as effective as possible, EQUALS recommends methods that have been proven to help women and girls adopt new technologies, sharpen their skills, and gain interest and motivation to pursue STEM education and careers.

First, these programs must support engaging experiences. EQUALS gives the example of Girls Who Code, a program to “build a pipeline for young women to work in computing through after-school clubs and summer immersion programs that include project-based learning as well as networking and mentorship opportunities.”

Girls Who Code creates higher engagement by providing a variety of ways to interact with the program, and uses the social elements of networking and mentorship to sustain that engagement.

STEM education should also emphasize meaningful use and tangible benefits: helping girls understand all the benefits of a STEM education gives them a greater sense of autonomy and control over their lives. 

In general, explaining why students are learning something and how they can use their new knowledge is way better than a dismissive “because I said so.” Dismissing students who want to know the specific value of their education squashes intellectual curiosity, and treats learning as a compulsory exercise in obedience. 

Kids get more out of their education when they receive the message that learning is an opportunity for exploration and discovery. In fact, creativity and fun are vital components of good education.

Fun isn’t frivolous, because human brains are built for it. We naturally seek novelty and innovation, so when educators honor those tendencies, engagement and knowledge retention skyrocket

The fun can come from the gamification of learning and inclusion of video games and other multimedia experiences, and from the social aspects of education. As such, good STEM education will encourage collaborative and peer learning, and promote role models and mentors.

Chicago’s Own STEM Pioneers

Here in the Windy City, strategies to increase digital literacy and STEM participation also bring together education, community, and fun. The power of this three-part approach inspires and motivates kids from under-represented communities. 

Digital Youth Network

Dr. Nichole Pinkard is currently a professor of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University. She’s used her knowledge of digital literacy and learning environments for underrepresented groups to inspire Chicago kids to conquer the digital divide. 

Dr. Pinkard is a co-founder of the Digital Youth Network (DYN). She created this connected learning ecosystem with support from the MacArthur Foundation, the Gates Foundation, and the National Science Foundation.

Dr. Pinkard wanted to address the digital divide faced by students on Chicago’s South Side, providing kids from any income level with access to the latest technology and empowering them to become savvy consumers and producers of digital content. 

The DYN started as a set of after-school programs, and has expanded into collaborations with formal school education settings and experiments with brand-new kinds of library spaces.

The DYN operates on a “badge framework,” designed by Dr. Pinkard to identify “important dispositions, skills, and knowledge sets demonstrated by learners in the context of their experiences.” 

Disposition badges are for “behaviors and attributes that are valued by the community and reinforce social norms and practices.” These badges reward learners for approaching digital literacy as a collaborative effort and using technology as a set of tools for communication and connection.

Knowledge badges are given when learners integrate a “specific and important body of information in meaningful and lasting ways.”

Skill badges recognize increasing levels of competence, and allow learners to reflect on how their skills build on each other.

Showcase badges are for the ability to demonstrate these skills for a larger audience: they “highlight a learner’s efforts to share their progress and skills to valued audiences, promoting a sense of pride, ownership, and identity.”

This badge framework is designed to guide learners with the values of connected learning: it provides them with perspective on how they’ve grown and reminds them of how their new skills can connect them to their communities and to future opportunities.


Another DYN initiative that’s taken on a life of its own is YOUmedia. This teen library space is dedicated to multimedia creation and the development of technological and digital literacies in teens. 

It began as an experimental program at Harold Washington intended to guide teens through “progressive levels of participation in traditional and digital media.” Against a framework of social interaction and support, teens would first become adept consumers of digital media, and then, guided by the tech they were most passionate about, become creators as well.

The experiment was a massive success: in addition to the original YOUmedia center at Harold Washington, the program now includes 22 other Chicago Public Library locations that allow teens to “engage in projects across a variety of core content areas including graphic design, photography, video, music, 2D/3D design, STEM and hands-on making.”

The built-in community of YOUmedia is just as important as the technology it provides: the centers are just for teens, creating a sense of safety and facilitating peer-to-peer collaboration with the help of librarian mentors.

YOUmedia’s makerspaces, recording studios, computer labs, and selections of books and comics foster an environment that doesn’t distinguish between learning and freeform creation. Teens can self-direct their tech journeys, and hone the digital skills that call to them most strongly. 

But the centers also provide more structured options. After-school clubs and events provide even more technical and social specialization, including a chapter of Girls Who Code

These spaces and programs give every young Chicagoan a space to grow the skills to participate in the digital economy and provide the social support to network and share their innovations with confidence. 

As these teen innovators explore new technologies and create their own, they’re forging supportive networks and honing valuable skills for themselves. They’re also building a brighter future for all of us. 



To learn more about Dr. Nichole Pinkard and the initiatives started by the Digital Youth Network, visit the DYN website.

To find a YOUmedia center near you and check out all the programs they offer, visit their page on the Chicago Public Library website!

At Conquer Life, our goal is to build a community that celebrates those who work hard and follow their passion, to remind each of us that we have the power to do the same. To inspire, motivate, and empower.

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