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Is your youth program keeping up with technology?

By Kari Robideau

Young people in our programs do not remember a time without computers. They are adept at interpreting face-to-face interactions and web-based experiences. As social networking becomes the number-one activity on the web and teens increasingly own cell phones, young people expect to communicate instantly. For them, e-mail is sooo yesterday.

Is your program keeping up with the pace?

Over the past year, my 4-H colleague Karyn Santl and I have worked on a project to answer that question for eight northwest Minnesota 4-H county programs. We set three objectives:
  1. To determine communication needs for county 4-H programs.
  2. To increase knowledge and skill levels of 4-H staff, volunteers and members to use communications technology. We are working with counties that demonstrate interest, infrastructure capability and staff capacity. In February I facilitated a team of youth and adult leaders from Clearwater County through the POST (People, Objectives, Strategy, Technology) Method to create a prototype county 4-H program Facebook Page. That team will reconvene in the fall to review the POST strategy, evaluate impact of this page and make any necessary changes.

  3. We are in this phase now, beginning to train and support teams of youth, adults and staff to develop communication plans.

We are focusing on 4-H program staff, youth, adult volunteers and parents. Through focus groups and an online survey, we have made three key common-sense discoveries:
  • "Jumping in" to social media communication tools, such as Facebook, without established interest and a strategy is not a good idea. The audience must have interest in and ability to use the technology. That includes program staff.

  • Mail and email are the top two ways county programs currently communicate with 4-H families. They are also the preferred delivery modes for the recipients overall. However, youth were more likely to prefer social media. Your communication strategy should consider using different modes for different age groups.

  • Lack of technology infrastructure in rural areas can pose a barrier to web-based communication in youth programs. Limited access to high-speed Internet and the quality of cell phone coverage are two of the barriers noted in northwest Minnesota

Karyn Santl and I will present the process and findings of this project so far in a webinar at 11:30 am-1 pm (US CST) on Wednesday, May 11, "Communicating with the Net Generation."

Work on the third objective will focus on training and implementation. But we continue to ask questions. Have you used technology to communicate about or within your youth program? Which ones?

What barriers do you see to keeping up with the pace of change in communications technology? Tell me what you are seeing where you are. 

-- Kari Robideau, Extension educator, educational design & development

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  1. Thanks Kari for the challenge and ideas of keeping up with technology in youth programs. One challenge for youth programs is to keep up with technology in communicating with youth and families.
    Another challenge is to design ways to use technology in our programs as an integral part of the experience. We are exploring ideas for using iPads in programming during the non-school hour learning opportunities. In essence we are asking is there an app for that where the that is exciting hands-on learning opportunities in environmental sciences.
    A third challenge is in the creatrion of content by and with youth. I had the pleasure recently of visiting YouMedia, a teen center at the Chicago Public Library that is designed to let young people, hang out, game out and geek out. It is driven by opportunities for youth to both consume media and create it. (Learn more at ).
    Not sure where all this leads but the journey should prove very interesting -- especially for those of us who started using IBM punch cards!!
    Dale Blyth

  2. Kari – You make a very important point. When designing and developing youth programs and curriculum, it’s critical to communicate directly with key audiences (including youth!) to assess needs and ensure your program meets them. And the technology used to accomplish this could be a key factor in how successful you are in gathering the information you need.
    The 4-H marketing team and I are also one year into a statewide marketing and communications effort to guide and support 4-H staff, volunteers and youth across Minnesota. I am interested to learn more about your project and how it might inform our larger communications work.
    It would also be interesting to learn if there is any research or thinking about how technology is impacting youth program development efforts. Are you aware of any?
    - Wendy T. Huckaby, Extension Center for Youth Development Communications Manager

  3. Dale - you outline the multi-dimensional challenges and OPPORTUNITIES technology offers our youth programs! Thank you for extending the conversation beyond communication-only to programmatic implications of engaging our young people by meeting them where they are at in their world with technology as a norm and way of life.
    I appreciate the link you provided to the Chicago-based program - it lead me to their Blog where there is a research-based conversation about young people and their use of technology. Asking, is online time making youth lazy or smarter? I am always searching for studies that are considering impacts (both positive and negative) the world of growing up with technology has on children and youth, as well as how programs can connect them to innovative, educational and experiential venues to capitalize on their time spent with technology.

  4. Oh, Kari, you struck the "old high school English teacher" in me. Yes, young people -- and a lot of older ones too -- want it all quick. How do we strike a balance between communicating ideas quickly (and often in verbal short-hand) and writing well? This challenge seems even more important for young people who can only benefit from practicing good habits of spelling, complete sentences and good grammar.
    Email job applications, resumes and inquiry letters that would never pass muster in a basic English class circulate everyday. Many are disregarded precisely because they lack the attention and care with language that convey the writer is a careful, thoughtful, serious person. Perhaps we need to recognize the language of social networking is really a "second language."
    So what's that mean for us involved in youth programs? Probably that we have to really be on our grammatical toes, always mindful that we set the example for what good communications via technology looks like. I've heard the argument that the message is what really matters, but I can't stop believing that the way the message is conveyed says a great deal about the sender!

  5. Hi Kari –
    I am interested in the needs assessment results. Given the economy, I wonder of households that have Internet access and/or live in areas with cell phone coverage, how many are suspending their Internet service or reducing the number of cell phones in the family as ways to reduce expenses.
    Did that issue come up in the focus groups or online surveys?
    - jennifer

  6. Kari,
    What catches my attention in studies such as yours is the difference in infrastructure across the state. For most of us, high-speed internet is taken for granted. Even when we are not in our offices or homes, we can look across the street and find a cafe where we can get online. As we consider online efforts we need to keep in mind that when it comes to internet accessibility, not all communities are quite ready--at least not yet.

  7. Thanks Kari for leading opening a dialogue to help those in youth development work think about communication to youth audiences. We often fall back on the "lack of access" to hold us back , but in the lives of youth they have mastered access to the technologies that keep them connected. That includes the beginning of a migration away from "land based" internet access (high speed or dial up) dependency to internet access over the airwaves (cell phones) and communication methods that do not require being connected to a computer system as we know it.
    Those of us who live in Rural America deal with "pockets" of access limitation in the cellular world, but even that can be circumvented with youthful creativity. I put this to the test in 2008 on a trip to Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe area (BWCA) where there are no cell towers, Hence no access right? Well I was able to prove my self wrong, I learned that by climbing to a high point in the in the BWCA, at least on the route I was on, even without "bars" on the phone, I was able to successfully send and receive a text message.
    According to Michael Wesch, Faculty at K-State, who has been following trends of this generation of learner, their expectation for the design for learning in both the formal and non-formal environments, needs to begin developing frameworks and environments that take the following into consideration:
    >From Anywhere
    >At unlimited speed
    >All kinds of devices
    >About everything
    >Towards Ubiquity-
    You also bring up some challenges we must plan for including finding the right "multiple methods" of communicating so we remain inclusive and open to all youth and families, and helping our audience become safe and smart users of the various communication mediums.

  8. I worked with Kari on this project along with the 4-H staff in my region. Joe you brought up one of the issues I believe the 4-H staff struggle with - finding the right "multiple methods" of communicating so we remain inclusive & open to all. As well as not making more work for staff that are already spread thin.
    Using the process we did helped staff think through what, how & who they communicate with & what methods might be the best.