Nick Hudd: Utilising Digital Technologies in the Delivery of Youth Work
The youth work sector in Wales has been slow to respond to the unprecedented accelerated rate of technological advancement and as a result is not utilising the digital sphere as effectively as other forms of education. Instead of associating these technologies with opportunities; a new way to do things, there are those who see this digital evolution as a threat; competing for young people’s time and attention and accelerating the demise of face to face youth work practice.
Whilst the sector seems to now actively use these platforms to communicate or disseminate information; that seems the limit of our ambition and restricts the benefits of tools that have the potential to offer so much more. In a time when youth work is suffering from the effects of austerity, with reduced budgets, resources and staff; the digital world, at the very least, offers the opportunity to look at new solutions to old problems. These technologies could be used to increase engagement and ensure youth workers are accessible to young people where no physical presence exist in their communities. They afford them the opportunity to actively participate in decision making processes, with direct access to decision makers. The wide spread use of applications such as YouTube by young people implies they are no longer merely consumers of information, they are broadcasters in their own right. Using these technologies just to improve communication and disseminate information ignores the abilities, desires and ambitions of those we aim to serve, to embrace what is their new reality.
That being said; commentators who draw attention to the potential dangers and risks of allowing those who control the associated budgets to utilise such technologies as an alternative for, rather than enhancement to the current youth work offer, are right to do so. It is also worth acknowledging that adopting a strategy that involves more proactively utilising these technologies must first tackle the problem of digital exclusion. Addressing such issues effectively and meaningfully will inevitably mean allocating the necessary resources. It is however worth pointing out that young people themselves have skills in this area that can be utilised to serve such a purpose. A utopian concept for some, for others an opportunity to employ youth work principles; encouraging young people to share their skills, empowering them in order to help shape services, seeing them as part of the solution rather than the problem.
Whilst the youth work sector have debatably been slow to respond to the new emerging digital era, other education providers in Wales have not. The use of systems such as Google Education, Hwb and Moodle imply formal education in schools and universities have embraced this new world and expanded their offer and engagement. With those in social housing and who are unemployed being amongst the main groups to experience digital exclusion, there is a real risk that the people who benefit the most from these systems will predominantly be the more affluent in society. For those who do not fully subscribe to such theories an alternative argument is just as alarming; these technologies are reserved for those whose learning styles suit a formal construct.
It is not only partners in other education sectors that have been quick to realise the potential opportunities. The commercial sector has established a large monopoly on this virtual environment, which has commoditised the time young people spend on such platforms. For them a dichotomy exists between protecting young people on one hand whilst exploiting the economic benefits they offer as consumers. If the youth work sector are to have a more proactive presence online, offering young people; advice, support, guidance, information, sign posting to other services and social activities, it must arguably understand the role and responsibilities it has in working with partners from the commercial sector in ensuring this age group is safeguarded.
As a sector that prides itself on aiding young people make the transitions from dependence, to interdependence and independence; even aiding them transition into employment, training or further education, surely embracing and utilising such technological advancements has longer term benefits in helping youth workers to equip young people to function in the emerging digital landscape and global economy.
If the youth work sector in Wales are to act, it needs to act soon. The ever increasing advancements in digital technologies, the way young people are engaging with this new world and the skills needed to keep up, are evolving fast. The sector is being left behind and the commercial partners are filling the void. Other forms of education have responded faster and more effectively to the emergence of these technologies, which has had a knock on effect of further accelerating the development of the online offer. Those who feel threatened by exploring increased use of this virtual world should look at the examples set by all other sectors already embracing such change; this should not be a choice between either or; between traditional forms of youth work and a contemporary vision, where money is saved through digital offers. We have an opportunity to expand provision for young people, complement the existing offer but work in different ways. Young people are already present, active and engaging in this digital sphere, ignoring this is to ignore their needs have changed and the sectors responsibilities to change with it.
Nick Hudd is currently a Senior Youth Work Practitioner for Pembrokeshire County Council and has been a fulltime youth worker for the past 16 years, both for statutory and voluntary sector organisations. Nick is a JNC qualified youth worker and has a BA(Hons) in Youth and Community Work from UWTSD.