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CTEP Presents Partner of the Year Award to Northstar and Digital Homeroom Projects

May 23, 2018

One of the best parts of our jobs at the Community Technology Empowerment Project is interfacing with an outstanding network of dedicated professionals in the digital literacy community. In the last year the folks working on development of the Northstar Digital Literacy assessment and the Digital Homeroom have stood out for their additional support of our program. At SPNN’s recent annual meeting CTEP presented the award for Partner of the Year to Jen Vanek & Tom Cytron-Hysom and their fabulous team of developers for the work they have done on digital literacy tools, as well as for the ongoing training and mentorship they have done with CTEP AmeriCorps members.

There are dozens of digital literacy assessments and tools on the internet to help assess learners’ digital literacy knowledge. Unlike some of the digital literacy learning assessments out there, the Northstar project, hosted by the Minnesota Literacy Council, is a project with a lot of community-based moving parts churning behind the scenes. The team has been assiduously fundraising for the money and the people power to update the assessments, and we are now seeing the fruits of their labor play out as the updated assessments are being rolled out across the country. Their work, and that of the fabulous team of developers who have gradually updatied those assessments, are the reason that more than 2 million people have now completed the Northstar assessment modules, no small feat for a collaborative and community-based endeavor. 

Along the way Northstar has included CTEP Members in this process and has been working with a CTEP civic engagement group on testing the end-user experience of the Northstar Assessment. They even hired a CTEP alum to help coordinate the process, and another to coordinate the audio production and to be the voice of the assessment modules’ narration. (We hope our CTEP alumna will find as much fame as the various Siris!)  Throughout this process we have been appreciative of how quickly Tom and Northstar staff respond whenever CTEP members raise issues with the assessments.

For many years now Jen Vanek has also contributed a wide range of skills and knowledge to our program. Jen is the first person to provide us with links to the latest articles and information on digital literacy trends when we have needed to better understand digital literacy from a pedagogical perspective. When we were writing a grant and wanted to bounce ideas off of Jen, she immediately fit us into her packed schedule and peppered us with information ideas and trends she has been tracking in our field. When we were creating an alternative portfolio-based digital storytelling assessment Jen sat down with CTEP staff and members to help us think through the assessment processes and standards.

And Jen is there every September to train CTEP members in the basics of digital literacy instruction—especially on how to move away from teacher-centered instructional models. Jen is remarkable not only in being able to encourage CTEP members to embrace learner-centered instruction, (like “I do. We do. You do.”), but also in having demonstrated it outside the classroom through her dissertation work, where she partnered with CTEP members on a website called the Digital Homeroom. Both the product—the website—and the care she modeled throughout the process were a reminder that academic research need not be a solely extractive process from, and for, a far-off “ivory tower.” Instead, Jen used a community embedded approach to share her expertise and to empower our CTEP members, especially Madison Neece, Evan Davis, and Sarah Olander to create a research-based online learning tool to help low level English language learners more effectively learn digital skills in an open-lab setting.  We should note here that we are additionally grateful for the hard work and professionalism that the CTEP members put into enhancing students’ experiences through this project, and for the mentorship that Jen provided even when it extended beyond the bounds and timeline of her actual research.   

Working in the field of digital inclusion we know that as technology and its place in our students’ lives evolve, so must the tools that we use to teach digital literacy. Tom and Jen and their colleagues are willing to use community based approaches and research to experiment with new tools: They throw things at the wall to see what sticks, they forge ahead with the things that work, and they tweak the things that don’t. This creative approach has consistently helped bolster our program and shows that they are not “I Do” kind of people, but rather they are the kind of people that embrace the notion that professionals contribute to digital literacy best when “We Do” so collaboratively.