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The Leadership Deficit

Teens & Technology

I do a lot of work with youth employment and training programs. One of my major clients is Job Corps, which operates mostly residential training programs for economically disadvantaged youth all over the country. I've also helped design U.S. DOL-sponsored youth training programs in local areas working with smaller, community-based organizations.

Teen_tech In the years that I've been working with youth programs, I have been consistently saddened by the lack of training in technology that's provided to these kids. There seems to be a pervasive belief that they just need to "learn a trade" because they are not capable of something as "complicated" as technology. It seems enough to these programs for their students to learn how to send e-mail and how to use Word to type a resume. Yet if The World is Flat is to be believed (and I think that it is), this means we are  preparing many of these students for lives of economic hardship because we are failing to equip them with the skills that they need to be successful in a knowledge-based economy.

One of the reasons for this failure, I think is because the staff who work with these students are often themselves not particularly tech savvy. Compounding the problem, I've found, is a need to be "in charge," that for whatever reason seems to be particulary strong when staff are working with disadvantaged youth. Maybe it's the fear that if the staff person isn't in control, the sage on the stage, then the kids are going to take over the class. Or maybe it's a feeling that these kids can't have much to bring to the table. I'm not sure. What I do know is that they are not getting the same education and advantages that their suburban peers enjoy.

I thought of the issue this morning as I was doing some surfing and stumbled across this great project just started by Jeff Scorer.  Jeff has  launched Teentek with a group of 19 middle school students to explore the use of new media by having students talk about cool technology using Web 2.0 tools.  As he wrote last year when he was considering the idea:

"The class would consist of everything 2.0. Really bring all these new tools into the hands of the students and let them experiment with them. At this point I envision a blog with a title Tech for Teens or something like that. The students would create podcasts about technology tools, do how to screencasts for teens, talk about research skills  and other sites besides Google to use for researching homework. I would love to have a weekly video podcast doing like a CNET style review of the latest teen gadgets. The new cell phone, the new mp3 player, or the hottest new online game."

The project is now up at TeenTek and based on what Jeff has found, his kids are loving it. I think that, in part, it's because he's teaching them what he calls 21st century skills--how to USE the technology in ways that are meaningful for a new world:

"Skills like learning to comment appropriately. Writing for a worldly audience, producing content for others to use. We talked about how students will respect information if you give them the power to “own” the information. When you hand the power of information over to students and you have the discussions that come with the power of information you eliminate a lot of your problems."

For most of us, technology is a vehicle for expressing yourself, which is something all young people want and understand. Creating opportunities for them to learn technology, information gathering, writing, speaking, etc. in the context of exploring what interests them offers real opportunities for both teachers and students that I find are often lost on many of the youth programs with which I work. They're so focused on teaching kids a "trade," that they lose sight of the more global skills of thinking, problem-solving, communicating, etc. that would actually move these disadvantaged youth to a better life.

I know that there are programs that do focus on these skills, but there aren't enough of them. I also believe that there are ways to integrate these ideas into every youth program that are not being explored.

Several years ago I was working with Lehigh University on a project and we pitched the idea of running a summer youth program on careers where we would have young people assess their interests, values, etc. and then identify careers that interested them. They would then go out and produce some kind of product--a newsletter using desktop publishing software, a website, a video--to research the career from their perspective and to share what they'd learned. Sadly, we didn't get funding for it, but it's something that I think is even more viable with today's technology.

It used to be that cost was the limiting factor, but when you can get a digital camera  or microphone for less than $100, a digital video camera for less than $300, a laptop for less than $1,000 and you can store and share your creations for free or a pittance, cost should be much less of an issue. At this point I think the barriers are human--a lack of vision, lack of staff skills and an unwillingness to move out of traditional ways of teaching these young people. Even more than that, I'm afraid that there's a sense that these youth simply are not capable of learning these skills because if they don't have a high school diploma, how can we expect them to learn how to use a camera?

I think this is shortsighted thinking, having found that these kids are DYING for a reason to learn. A few years ago I designed a Job Corps program using the technology they have--PowerPoint--where students had to produce a presentation on the career they were considering. They had to present their career and were videotaped doing it. Next to the social entrepreneurship program we designed for them (a story for another day), this was their absolute favorite project. We had kids who, within a week, went from knowing NOTHING about PowerPoint to embedding audio and video and using all the slide transitions they could find. Not always the PRETTIEST work (a slight sense of nausea was an occupational hazard as we watched some of these), but the kids were expressing themselves in ways they never had, and learning technology in a flash. And they LOVED to share the video--the looks on their faces when they saw what they had produced brought us close to tears on many occasions.

Why don't we do more to tap into what they love, using that as an opportunity to learn these kinds of skills? I'd love to see a youth program that was teaching young people how to write their own blogs or do their own podcasting. Or a summer program where they designed their own vidoe game. Think about how cool that would be and for once, I don't think you'd have to pay kids some kind of incentive to show up every day to the program.

So a very long post to say this--I think that technology offers some amazing opportunities for all of us, but in particular I think that we should be doing more to use Web 2.0 tools with the young people in our programs. I know that many non-profits are serving youth and I wonder how they're using these new technologies to expand young people's skills and equip them with the skills of the 21st century. I'd love to do more with this, as it's one of those things that's near and dear and I can't seem to find enough organizations willing to travel the road with me.

Photo courtesy of Circulating



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