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The View From Here: Designing Technologies for Marginalized Children

By Juan Pablo Hourcade, Natasha Bullock-Rest, and Heidi Schelhowe

When designing technologies for children, we are designing for a small minority of the world’s children, mainly those belonging to dominant social, economic, and political groups. According to UNICEF, most children are not so fortunate. Half the children in the world live in poverty and not just in developing nations. Marginalization can also occur in rich countries. In the United States, roughly one in five children live in poverty, including about one-third of black and Hispanic children. The result of marginalization is that these children will grow up with restricted opportunities to fully participate in economic, social, and political processes.

Information and communication technologies provide great opportunities and challenges for marginalized children. Digital technologies can provide a boost to children’s education and economic prospects. This makes it easier to develop the skills necessary to participate in the knowledge economy and in civic engagement, including digital-age literacy, inventive thinking, and effective communication. Projects like One Laptop per Child have sought to accomplish this by providing children in developing regions with unprecedented access to information, as well as the tools to create their own digital content.

In three workshops on Digital Technologies and Marginalized Youth, we have seen many examples of projects focused on positively impacting the lives of marginalized children both in developed and developing regions. Here are four lessons learned from these projects:

  1. Reach marginalized children by engaging with institutions already working with them. It is challenging to reach marginalized children in effective and helpful ways without the right connections. Most successful projects have partnered with existing institutions that already provide services to marginalized children and are accepted by them and their families. In developed regions this often involves working side-by-side with community-based organizations. An alternative that has been particularly effective in developing regions is to partner with schools.
  2. Provide meaningful access by combining structured activities with individual use. While access to digital technology can potentially narrow the gap between marginalized children and those from dominant groups, if not used in a positive manner, it can also have negative effects. For example, a recent study by Vigdor and Ladd at the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that unsupervised Internet access in the home can negatively impact children’s math and reading scores. It is crucial that marginalized children be provided with enough structure to increase the chances that they will use digital technology in a positive manner. At the same time, it may often be beneficial to enable children to use digital technology in creative, unstructured ways. The key is to avoid technology-centric approaches, where providing access to digital technology is the sole purpose of a project. Instead, provide access to digital technology with specific goals, and structure activities around those goals. Likewise, it is important to link the use of digital technology to children’s existing interests and activities.
  3. Empower members of marginalized communities to participate and lead future efforts. Most efforts geared at bringing digital technologies to disadvantaged children are led by researchers who have much more affluent lives than those they are trying to help. While this is often a necessary first step, it is important to include adults who come from the same community as the children and enable them to lead future efforts. Local leadership can improve the sustainability of projects by providing greater credibility within the community through ownership and cultivating the human resources it needs to help itself.
  4. Design technologies targeted at dominant groups with the goal of reducing the causes of marginalization. Most work aimed at reducing inequality targets disenfranchised groups themselves. However, dominant groups can play a role in reducing marginalization. There is something to be said about fostering digital relationships between members of both marginalized and dominant groups, which can help change attitudes and actions toward non-dominant groups. Members of privileged classes and cultures can play a role in reducing the social distance felt by the children in those communities.

In the end, helping children in marginalized communities is all about providing equal opportunity to all the children in the world. We hope our views on this topic will open new perspectives, provide new insights, inspire, and inform future work.UX

Juan Pablo Hourcade is an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Iowa. His main area of research is human-computer interaction, with a concentration on technologies that support creativity, collaboration, and information access for a variety of users.

Natasha Bullock-Rest is a research assistant in the Speech and Psycholinguistics Lab at Brown University. She was previously a research assistant at the University of Iowa conducting research in human-computer interaction with a focus on technologies for children.

Heidi Schelhowe is a professor at the Computer Science Department of the University of Bremen and member of the Center for Computing Technologies. Her main research is in the design of digital media for youth and adults’ learning.

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This article was originally printed in User Experience Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 1, 2011.
http://www.usabilityprofessionals.org/upa_publications/past_issues/2011-1.html.

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