Challenges to Studying Developmental Processes in Voluntary
Afterschool Programs
Michael Cole
Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition
UC San Diego
(Prepared for AERA, April, 2001)


In the other papers presented at the symposium, and in a considerable literature gathered by both the present symposium participants and a good number of other researchers in recent years, the academic value of participation in organized afterschool educational programs which include a significant educational component have, I believe, been established beyond a reasonable doubt (Blanton et al., 1997, Cooper et al., 1999, Danish et al., 2000; Meyer et al., 1999).

This generalization does not by any means indicate that no significant challenges remain in educators' efforts to create and sustain effective programs, or that the problems of evaluation of effectiveness have been solved in a general manner. They have not. Significant problems remain in how to provide convincing evidence of the effectiveness of programs that operate within the informal sector of institutions outside the school system where participation is voluntary and institutional resources for documentation of student achievement are limited. However, I believe that enough progress has made on these difficult achievement-related documentation issues that I can permit myself to address issues which often go un-noticed because they do not fit neatly within the framework of educational psychological research which has been the focus of most attention (for a summary source of existing standard evaluation materials for the Fifth Dimension-related projects I refer listeners to the website maintained by Bill Blanton on behalf of the Mellon Literacy Consortium which can be found at Instead I will focus on the challenges that have preoccupied me for the past couple of years as the 5th Dimension activities have expanded in the San Diego area.

As described in the organizer's exemplary introduction and summary of this symposium published in the proceedings and on the web page, the strategy for providing afterschool enrichment for children embodied in the 5th Dimension model consists of a few, key, elements

A 5th Dimension is a joint project between a university/.college and a community institution. The university provides supervised undergraduates to the community institution as labor while the community institution provides necessary space, equipment, and supervision of the activities.

The activity is a mixture of "leading activities" including affiliation, play, learning, and work which implement a cultural-historical approach to learning and development; in a sense, each 5th Dimension implements a zone of proximal development at the institutional level.

Participant structures are designed to minimize power differentials between the participants, particularly the undergraduates and the children with whom they work.

Heavy emphasis is placed upon the value of mediated communication in a variety of media including computers, conversation, and writing in the service of solving goals that are provided within the activity setting

Participation by children in the activity is voluntary.


Prior papers have emphasized the latter 4 of these elements and added elements of their own. The challenges that face us in these regards involve fidelity to the model that focuses almost exclusively on activities that take place within the 5th Dimension activities "themselves." I want to focus my remarks on the difficulties associated with the relationship between what goes on within the 5th Dimension activities conventionally understood and their institutional contexts. I have chosen this focus because I have come to believe that the biggest challenge to sustaining 5th Dimensions does not come from our ability to implement and evaluate the "activities themselves." I will restrict my comments to my own university situation and the institution with which I have worked for the past 15 years, a local Boys and Girls Club.

The great virtue of community-university arrangements as exemplified by the 5th Dimension is that they allow a pooling of resources that results in a win-win situation. That is, the university is provided unique facilities for the education of its students who are generally denied laboratories in which to study the relationship between learning and development that is at the core of the process of designing effective educational environments. At the same time, community institutions, which generally suffer from spotty and uneven funding have at their disposal a large pool of supervised undergraduates who provide highly motivated role models as well as apprenticeship labor in the process of creating the activities.

However, these same beneficial factors come at a cost. Some of these costs are pretty evident. Others are generally discovered only over time.

The Problem of coordination. As sociologists and economists would remind us, collaboration between institutions entails transaction costs, and these costs often go unnoticed in our focus on running and evaluating the activities at the community sites. For example, UCSD, runs on a quarter system so even though the university course is offered three quarters a year, there is significant "down time" from the perspective of the Boys and Girls Club during which it is impossible to run the 5th Dimension, but community participants are still likely to want access to the computers, space, and supervisorial resources needed to run some kind of program for the children. Moreover, the Club, which runs all year long, adjusts its programming and staffing to the schedule of the local school system. So, from the point of view of the community, UCSD's schedule is a problem to which special attention must be given. And of course, UCSD personnel are expected to help solve these problems even though they do not directly involve education of UCSD students, which is the major justification for the University to provide a professor and Teaching Assistants to run the class.

The problem of within-institution continuity. This is a problem that pertains to both the community and the university sides of the partnership which fuels the 5th Dimension programs. The Boys and Girls Club has only a few full time employees who might serve as supervisors of the 5th Dimension activity; remaining employees tend be to young people who work 15-25 hours a week for wages that approximate the minimum wage. This circumstance engenders two sources of discontinuity. First, there is relatively rapid turnover of these employees which means that there is relatively rapid turnover of staff who are trained to conduct the 5th Dimension; what one is likely to obtain instead is someone who does not know about computers, would not know a zone of proximal development he or she fell over it, and who is likely to run a low maintenance, generally uneducational activity called, "playing computers." (The genius of the children to undermine the educational intent of various educational and edutainment games is one of the major reasons why implementation of a theoretically motivated system like the 5th Dimension is useful in the first place).

But discontinuity, low wages, and lack of training do not exist exclusively on the community side of 5th Dimension programs. Building and sustaining continuity and

training on the University side of the equation is a serious challenge as well. 5th Dimension courses must be taught all year every year. This constraint implies that more than one faculty member must be involved or eventually there will be burnout. And even if the faculty member remains enthusiastic to teach the course year in and year out, their colleagues, who plainly see that the form of teaching is actually fun for the faculty as well as the students, and that in some sense the faculty can conduct research even as they teach, may balk at the inequity of such arrangements.

When we encountered these sort of problems at UCSD, Olga Vasquez and I began systematically to take turns teaching the course and to involve temporary faculty in the teaching process. We sought continuity by creating a manual which laid out in great detail how the course was to be taught. And, we were around to offer help when it was needed.

Sometimes this arrangement worked out quite well, but it involved us in garnering support from three different academic units. Within these units, staff turnover was relatively high and the pool of qualified temporary people to teach the course varied from year to year. These sources of intra-institutional discontinuity at UCSD led to a situation last year where inexperienced staff in one program with very high enrollments and strong student demand to take the 5th Dimension course resulted in that one program garnering almost all the student slots for the course. But a different academic unit was providing the temporary faculty member, e.g. "paying for the course." It did not take the chair of that department long before he proposed dropping the course from his curriculum since his own students could not take it.

This discoordination coincided with assignment of a temporary faculty member to teach the course who had never worked with children before in his life and who was busily trying survive as a freeway flyer, for whom coordination with the Boys and Girls Club which provided the laboratory setting for his class was definitely not a priority.

The immediate consequence of this set of arrangements was that I had to step in to teach the class jointly with the temporary faculty member for a few weeks until he learned what he was supposed to do and had jury-rigged a system of patches that would allow the class to be taught. But it did nothing to maintain either the desire of the affected department to continue the course nor to maintain the high quality of education that the course had habitually offered.



Blanton, William E.; Moorman, Gary B.; Hayes, Bobbie A.; Warner, Mark L.

Effects of participation in the fifth dimension on far transfer. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 1997, 16 (4):371- 396.

Cooper, Harris; Valentine, Jeffrey C.; Nye, Barbara; Lindsay, James J.

Relationships between five after-school activities and academic

achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 91 (2):369-378.

Danish, Steven J., Ed; Gullotta, Thomas P.; Ed.(2000). Developing competent youth and strong communities through after-school programming. Child Welfare League of America, Inc, Washington, DC, US.

Mayer, Richard E.; Quilici, Jill L.; Moreno, Roxana. What is learned in an after-school computer club? Journal of Educational Computing Research, 1999, 20 (3):223-235.