Perspectives on technology and vulnerable young people (1/4)
In this brief series, Terry Waller talks with four leading researchers to gain some personal perspectives on the role of technology in the education of vulnerable young people. The interviews aimed to provide an insight into existing practice, research gaps and potential future areas of investigation, highlighting the challenges and opportunities provided by the internet.
There are a number of barriers to be considered when looking at how technology can be used to support young people at risk of becoming NEET. In many out-of-school settings there is a wide variation in levels and uses of ICT, partly due to the cost but also attitudes. Those working with young people who are NEET often feel they have fewer skills in using the technology than the young people themselves, although there are notable exceptions.
Some support workers, including social workers and youth workers say that technology gets in the way of the ‘real’ work of engaging with the young person, developing a trusting relationship in which to address their problems. There is not yet currently enough convincing evidence available to youth and social workers who support young people who are NEET (or at risk of becoming NEET) on the ways in which technology, including the Internet and managed social environments (social networking and social media spaces), can be shown to make a difference.
It may also be argued that there is a need for wider recognition of what young people can bring to the table and contribute. Examples from research in Sunderland, where young people with poor basic skills were able to create high-quality multimedia CVs, illustrates what they are capable of doing but this is not always recognised or appreciated by providers. Employers tend to be quite traditional in their approach, typically asking for electronic CVs as a convenience for delivery, rather than using technology more creatively to demonstrate ability through the application process. This disadvantages young people who are creative but may be limited by their writing skills.
Communities, although increasingly embracing technology, tend still to do this in a rather passive way and there is still some way to go to see a more fully developed digital culture which may be more effective in engaging young people. Currently radio and TV (these broadcast items that young people ‘receive’ rather than directly engage in) are still common forms, which does not encourage expression and other forms of activities that allow people to develop, grow and cooperate online. Young people who are challenged by traditional ways of engaging with civic society and their local community may be more likely to do so if there was a more mature digital culture.
There are isolated examples where technology is used to support young people who are NEET and is making a difference. For example, in Cumbria the Educational Welfare service was using technology some years ago, in a non-formal setting, to help develop the literacy and numeracy skills of young people who did not attend school. However it was a form of integrated learning systems that was used, rather than the Internet.
There can be a mismatch between helping young people find different solutions to learning barriers, and the way in which providers try to support them. If text has been a source of frustration and reinforced failure in school, it is unlikely to be viewed favourable – whatever setting it is encountered in. The route to engagement for many young people who have disengaged with school, is through their interests and what motivates them; and through that, finding a pathway that supports their learning. There is a dearth of age-appropriate and relevant material for young people with literacy difficulties. Developing and delivering these online would also potentially remove the barrier many have associated with the printed word.
For some young people the employer/employee concept is just not right for them. Typically these young people are motivated by their interests, rather than the idea of earning money even, while for some they are able to develop in a way that leads to them being paid for their work – but this is not what drives them.
Humans are inherently social animals, but some people have barriers to effective social engagement and often these relate to behaviour and emotional issues. Technology can provide a real solution for some young people where this becomes a barrier to learning, by providing social interaction but at a distance, both in terms of physical distance but also of time. Technology (especially in the form of simulations and virtual worlds) can also be an effective context for young people who are NEET (or at risk of becoming so) to practise making choices and identifying consequences. Games have potential but this has not yet been fully realised, and although there have been some interesting pilots, few have been sustained.
There is a need to consider how to use different technological approaches for different circumstances. Those young people who are creative and motivated by the creative arts are often poorly served by an unfortunate lack of understanding of the global online creative arts industry by those who support them. There may well be opportunities for online activities that focus on peer support as well as access to those with expertise and willing to champion the work of these young people.
There have been big educational changes during the last twenty years with educationalists expected increasingly to be not just a teacher but also be able to address both social and psychological aspects that affect young people’s lives. The expectations are there but it is questionable as to whether policy has fully addressed the link between training and these increased expectations. Whilst there has been some progress there is still a need for more effective data sharing and a breaking down of professional barriers. The professional sector and the community and voluntary sectors need more to access and share good practice, and to agree on what that looks like in terms of using technology. There is a real need for these aspects to be built more fully into training as well as a focus on the pedagogy, and an increased awareness of what works – which needs to include the use of technology.
For young people who face multiple barriers – physical as well as cognitive, social and psychological – technology can often enable access to learning but this is often restricted to more formal learning spaces, and education may not be the primary issue that needs to be resolved to support these young people. Mobile technologies are often popular but there still exist barriers to their learning use. Some are likely to need intensive support or a better informed industry in order to take full advantage of what online learning can offer.