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Extension > Youth Development Insight > July 2011

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Social media skills are essential in a participatory online world

Trudy-Dunham.jpgSocial media have profoundly changed how we experience our connections with each other. But the connections are more than just social -- they help us to create and contribute to our world. They enable us to participate as citizens in today's participatory culture.

In a webinar this week put on by our center and PEAR , Karen Brennan drew on her research with Scratch, a computer programming language developed at MIT for use in education, to talk about the socialization-creation continuum. At the midpoint of this continuum is that space where we are most engaged and productive, doing more together than we could have achieved alone.

Several years ago Henry Jenkins and his team at the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT described that midpoint as a participatory culture, as one with "relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one's creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to the novices. ... one in which members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connection with one another."

Social media contribute to the vibrancy of such a culture today. They have become an essential tool: increasingly how we participate as citizens, how we interact with each other, and how we experience our world. As programs and professionals dedicated to positive youth development, we must ensure that youth are skilled in their effective use.

girl-phones.jpgJenkins listed 11 skills that youth need to flourish in this world, including among them environmental scanning, collective intelligence and playing (experimenting with one's surroundings as a problem-solving strategy). Jenkins' skill set draws us further into the application and integration of social media, providing a deeper understanding of how our ability to work with social media, technology and information can impact our shared social experience of living in today's world. Are we building these skills into our youth development programs?

An area I've been thinking about is the need for a new paradigm to present information and discuss issues leading to new answers. The interactions of our leaders, from neighborhoods to multinational organizations, showcase the difficulty of agreeing on facts and solutions. Our classical debate format and scientific argumentation methods are not particularly effective in educating or persuading in today's world.

Instead of pointing out the flaws or misstatements in another's argument, perhaps today's citizen needs to actively contribute to the knowledge base. Posting their experiences and ideas on an issue, reframing it from their perspective, using the iterative process of multiple posts from multiple people, connecting with each other and contributing to crowdsource our way to new insights, truths, and solutions.

As today's youth engage in civic activities that improve their communities and our world, we want youth to feel the sense of empowerment that comes from using social media to work collaboratively to solve problems and create in today's participatory culture. What are we doing, or could we be doing, to make this happen?

Trudy Dunham, research fellow

Monday, July 11, 2011

Are We Staying Responsive?

Thumbnail image for nextgen-main-logo.jpgYouth work is, and always has been, about human potential and human transformation. It is a practice that emerged 'on the streets' in response to the sometimes severe and dire needs of young people who were struggling to find their way. In New York City, as in other places in the country, smaller community-based agencies are striving to hold on to their capacity to meet young people 'where they are at.' There is concern that youth work as a humanistic, transformative and responsive practice is quietly disappearing, being replaced by more narrowly defined opportunities to learn during nonschool hours.

In my research into the developmental opportunities provided by after-school programs, the literature consistently suggests that neither younger nor older children fare well in rigidly structured programs but benefit from attending flexible programs with varied activities, supportive staff, and a recognizable product resulting from activities. When youth work becomes a pre-designed, overly structured space for reaching predetermined outcomes rather than allowing youth to voice their needs, kids can tell the difference. Youth workers who are youth centered, strive to tailor to individual youth, and use a participatory, holistic approach to meet the developmental needs of youth are considered responsive youth workers.

A group of community based youth workers in New York City recently reminded me: "We are not an extension of school." They believe, as do I, that youth work was not designed to do what school was designed to do, nor are they eager to take on that agenda. Rather, youth work is a developmentally responsive practice, one that responds to the needs of youth and families on the ground, in real time. This means that when young people voice the need for 'school' after school, youth workers provide 'school', and when young people voice the need for something else like life skills, they respond to that, too.

The value of this responsiveness was expressed recently to me by an after-school program director. A 12-year old girl in his program explained to him that state exams were scheduled immediately upon return from spring break. She was concerned that the students were given a study guide the day before break, with no further instruction or support, and she suspected no one would be studying during recess. The director responded by providing support, responding to the request by the youth in his community. In this situation and in relation to a need expressed on the ground and in real time, academic support was provided. However, to my way of thinking, regulating that this type of support becomes the norm removes community leaders' capacity to remain flexible and responsive; it also undermines their judgment calls and leaves the decision making about programming to those most removed from practice.

What do you think? Are we staying responsive as youth workers? Are we limiting youth workers' capacity to engage in developmentally responsive practice by regulating what they do, and when they do it?
Dana Fusco

York College, City University of New York
Next Generation Youth Work Coalition Leadership Council

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