Seven points for successful youth technology programs

Last month I attended a conference on Youth, Partnerships, Employability: From Innovation to Scale, hosted by the International Youth Foundation. I moderated a session on “The role of technology in helping youth at risk gain access to information, skills and resources.” This session centered on a presentation by Javier Lasida who had conducted an evaluation of IYF’s Entra21 program. Javier’s findings echo many of ours at TASCHA, and in summing up the session I made the following seven points about successful youth technology programs.

1)  Technology has become a threshold skill when it comes to job seeking. Employers expect you to have basic skills, whether or not they are used in the actual job. In TASCHA’s Latin America research, for many youth the certificates they received in training programs were very important in establishing their credentials to potential employers (p. 66).

2)  Technology is a hook. In this same research, we found technology (23%) is second only to sports (26%) in drawing youth away from violence (p. 41).  There’s an aspirational, 21st century quality about technology that people want to be part of.

3)  The best youth programs treat technology as a “21st century basketball” as TASCHA research Joe Sullivan calls it. They make it fun and engaging, not like a formal classroom activity. The lunchtime showing of the video created by Jamaican youth was a perfect example. The youth learned technology skills to produce the video, and it was on a subject that engaged them. Joe’s research on Boys & Girls Clubs found similarly meaningful activities—digital arts competitions, blogging, music videos, etc.

4)  While technology is the hook, it is the non-tech benefits that are often as or more important. Teamwork, positive relationships with adults, confidence and self-esteem, for instance, are all skills that youth (especially those at-risk) need.

5)  Social networks are key. Javier’s main finding was that social networks were essential for connecting youth with both trainers and employers. Entra21 used both human networks (community managers visited and developed relationships with potential employers in the communities), and social media (Facebook) to nurture the networks. I would underscore the importance of f2f networks…too often overlooked with all the attention on Facebook, Twitter, etc. TASCHA’s research on immigrant women in Europe makes this point as well.

6)  Importance of social spaces. This is particularly important for at-risk youth since physical centers also provide a safe space from violent life on the street.  Javier found that learning in a group setting was very important to the success of the program.

7)  The people. Arguably the most important point. From vulnerable populations to people who are simply not familiar with technology, it is people (community managers, trainers, librarians, infomediaries, etc.) who play an essential role in assuring that the intended beneficiaries actually benefit from technology programs. In Entra 21, community managers and trainers created a nurturing learning environment for the youth, made connections with employers, and all around functioned as coaches and mentors. ICT4D’s infatuation with the latest mobile app is cool, but we consistently find that people make the difference.