Teen ServicesVocate 4.0 February 2018

Connected Learning, 21st-Century Skills, and Working with Teens and Technology

Jessica Snow

While teens actively use the Internet through social media, applications, gaming, etc., they may not be as savvy as we may think in terms of their technology and digital literacy. Research shows that 92 percent of teens go online each day, but most of them use the Internet to view media outlets and to communicate with friends through social media applications. Online, teens are not more digitally literate or skilled than adults. Most teens have not been exposed to the tools they need to boost their careers, such as writing, web design, or content production.

Among library staff who work with and for teens, it is often accepted that teens can navigate in the digital world. This thought is supported by teens who can access and navigate their social media world, but the truth is that they are lacking digital citizenship and have not acquired 21st-century skills they will need as it relates to the digital environment. How can young adult/teen services library staff help teens navigate their digital world and learn those crucial skills? Teen librarians, in particular, can teach and empower teens to learn some of these skills that many schools are not focusing on or are unable to incorporate into the curriculum.

Technology Frameworks and Concepts

The Education Reform website provides a lengthy definition of what those 21st-century skills are, including information and communication technology (ICT) literacy, media and Internet literacy, data interpretation and analysis, computer programming, research skills and practices, interrogative questioning, creativity, artistry, curiosity, imagination, innovation, and personal expression.

Connected learning, 21st-century skills, digital citizenship, and even makerlabs are just some of the trending words many have probably seen and read about, but some could still be trying to understand what they mean. While it’s good to know what’s being written about teens and technology, it can be overwhelming to keep up with and try to determine what is fleeting and what is here to stay. A simple search on Google to see how many makerlabs are in libraries produces an exhaustive list. There is so much technology available to teens and the concepts and frameworks are ever-expanding. How do you sort through these concepts and frameworks to assess what is necessary information?

Libraries Taking the Lead

A number of libraries across the country are teaching teens to navigate better in the digital world and prepare for their next phase, whether that is continuing education or beginning a career. Some libraries offer internships or paid opportunities for teens that introduce them to software. The teens then develop and implement programs for teens and/or adults incorporating some of what they have learned.

The San Diego Public Library, the Boston Public Library, and the Oakland Public Library offer the following programs featuring the skills that libraries are trying to help teens build, and may give you an idea about how to replicate the programs or aspects of them at your library.

San Diego Public Library

The IDEA Lab Teen Tech Team has a focused internship for students at the Civic High School, attached to the library. This is a unique opportunity for both the library and the charter school to collaborate on building a program in which the students participate. The teens are taught new technology skills that they solidify by sharing with their peers. One of the Tech Team’s proudest accomplishments is a video they filmed and edited about teen services at San Diego Central Library. They learned basic filming skills (complete with a fun boom mic) and how to edit using Adobe Premiere. Once the film was complete, staff and teens were invited to a film screening during Teen Tech Week, in which the young filmmakers were available for a Q-and-A session. This model has been employed by other libraries and youth organizations.

Oakland Public Library

The Ready, Set, Connect! program is a thorough and comprehensive paid opportunity for youth ages sixteen to twenty-four. Over an eight-month period, Ready, Set, Connect! participants learn how to use web design, social media, and graphic design tools, in addition to receiving professional etiquette training, information about internship opportunities, and mentoring from technology company employees. Upon completing the program, the young adults graduate with a web portfolio, a resume, and a LinkedIn profile. The participants practice their skills while assisting the Oakland Public Library with program outreach and digital tutoring in the computer labs. The program provides needed opportunities for young adults in technological areas while also filling a community need to have its members become more proficient with technology.

Boston Public Library, Teen Central

The library hosts two programs: the Teen Tech Mentor (TTM) program and the Teen Gaming Specialist (TGS) program. They are both paid opportunities for four teens (two per program) for eight months during the school year. The TTM program trains teens in many of the software programs in the Lab—the digital makerspace—and, in turn, the teens develop programs that they implement for other teens in the space. Both programs focus on input from teens who use the space about the type of programs in which they would like to participate. Throughout the year, both the TTMs and TGSs participate in career readiness workshops to expose them to possible careers, as well as teach them resume and interview skills. There are four field trips scheduled throughout the year to the Facebook office in Boston, the MIT Media Lab, and to the South End Technology Center to connect the students to technology companies and organizations, allowing for networking opportunities. At the end of the program, they cull their learned skills and knowledge in a Prezi presentation with the idea that they can use it to showcase their work when applying for jobs or for school.

Putting It All Together

All of these programs have one thing in common: at the core, they all look for ways to empower teens with practical skills that they learn and, in turn, teach to others. The idea is that the skills they are learning will be applicable to school and career, and this is the crux of what all of these concepts (connected learning, 21st-century skills, digital citizenship, and digital navigation) embrace. The memorization of facts and procedures is not enough for success. All of these concepts state that teens in the 21st-century need to be able to critically evaluate what they read, express themselves clearly both verbally and in writing, and understand scientific and mathematical thinking. They need to be able to take responsibility for their own continuing, life-long learning.

Are you interested in replicating one of these programs in your own library? These programs actively incorporate connected learning, 21st-century skills, digital citizenship, and digital navigation and rely upon the incorporation of these to make the programs successful. Get to know these concepts and frameworks, embrace them, and find out how they would work in your library, with the teens you serve, and how you can best help prepare your teens for their next phase in life, whether that is school or a career.


Shulman, Robyn. “Digital Citizenship: The Crucial Call to Educate and Prepare 21st-Century Learners.” HuffPost. November 5, 2017. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/robyn-shulman-/digital-citizenship-the-c_b_12798284.html.

“21st Century Skills.” The Glossary of Education Reform. August 25, 2016. http://edglossary.org/21st-century-skills/.

“What Is Connected Learning?” Connected Learning Alliance. https://clalliance.org/why-connected-learning/.

“Using Technology Appropriately.” Digital Citizenship. 2017. http://www.digitalcitizenship.net/.

Rendina, Diana. “Defining Makerspaces: What the Research Says.” Renovated Learning. April 2, 2015. http://renovatedlearning.com/2015/04/02/defining-makerspaces-part-1/.

“Makerspaces in Libraries.” Libraries and Maker Culture: A Resource Guide. July 9, 2015. http://library-maker-culture.weebly.com/makerspaces-in-libraries.html.

Tong, Monnee. “Idea Lab Tech Team Internship.” Case Studies: Real-World Examples of How Libraries Are Re-Envisioning Teen Services. http://www.ala.org/yalsa/sites/ala.org.yalsa/files/content/YALSA%20Case%20Study%20SanDiegoPL.pdf.

“Ready, Set, Connect!” Oakland Library Teens. https://www.oaklandlibrary.org/teens/events-programs/ready-set-connect.

“Teens.” Boston Public Library. http://www.bpl.org/teens/at-the-bpl/teen-room-central/.

Jessica Snow is the teen services team leader of Teen Central, the still relatively newly renovated (2015) teen space of the Boston Public Library. She is an advisory board member of VOYA and a YALSA Board of Directors member 2017-2020. Snow is also interested in outreach services (library services and programs to the underserved and underrepresented) and writes regularly and has presented on her work. She has been in teen services in public libraries for over fourteen years.




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