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Embracing Digital Reality



Digitalisation of society is evident everywhere around us, and the youth work field is seeking to embrace this new reality.  The following is a glimpse into a Digital Youth Work Conference, that was held in Vienna on 27th to 30th November 2017, where almost 100 youth work practitioners gathered to tackle the challenge.


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Digital youth work has seen a massive surge in interest over the last few years all around Europe. Many national policies and trainings based on those policies are emerging, and international cooperation on the subject is growing. Many events now focus on “digital youth work” and several strategic partnerships on the topic are ongoing. These all have the shared aim to forge an understanding of what digitalisation means for the field regarding tools, structures and competencies, and our conference was contributing to this search.

There was a sense of an sometimes overwhelming speed of developments and thus worlds colliding, and this is also what is happening within the youth work field.

Building a digital event

As digital youth work trainers, we are firm believers in learning-by-doing. Whenever we plan an event, we try to incorporate as many digital tools as is practical in the flow of the programme. These tools should preferably be inexpensive (or free) while also being straightforward to use. Our chosen approach was already evident during the enrolment to seminar workshops, where we used  Typeform that is well operable on mobile devices that young people mainly use. Likewise, we brought the digital world into the very first group activities by having participants introduce themselves via the apps on their phones on arrival day. We also implemented digital badges using Badgecraft platform during the conference.

Of course, an event on this scale couldn’t achieve its goals by practical activities alone. That’s why we built the programme around a balance of hands-on learning, theoretical collaboration and expert inputs. After a light arrival day programme on the 27th of November, the stage was set for three days of mutual learning.

Worlds colliding

We had several opening speeches by the Austrian National Agency of Erasmus+: – Youth in Action, the Austrian Federal Ministry for Families and Youth and the Youth Department of the City of Vienna – the hosts of this conference. One theme was recurring for all of them, and it highlights how we tend to approach new technology: our visitors referred to their past experiences of being exposed to video games, online environments and the internet in general. There was a sense of an sometimes overwhelming speed of developments and thus worlds colliding, and this is also what is happening within the youth work field. Such a collision brings with it both challenges and opportunities.

Our very first keynote speaker was Barbara Buchegger , who was the chair of the Expert group on youth and digitalisation. The expert group – as well as other actors in the field – attempted to define digital youth work as proactively using or addressing digital media and technology in youth work. Digital tools can often be misinterpreted to have intrinsic value on their own, but new tools or approaches should always be assessed in relation to the youth work context it is going to be used in.

Barbara also reminded participants that digital youth work can be either a tool, an environment / activity or the content of youth work itself. What is needed for youth workers, according to the expert group, is an agile mind-set, basic digital skills and organisational support. Digital youth work is not a separate form of youth work but can rather be implemented into any existing youth work setting, whether online or face-to-face, either with groups or individual youngsters. After her input we tried to wrap our minds around the introduced concepts in a World Café that was looking at what already exists and what could be done. We then started our afternoon with another key note by Konstantin Mitgutsch and Lena Robinson from Playful Solutions, who aimed to inspire participants to use gaming in a positive and purposeful way in their practices.

A plethora of approaches

While structures and theories are essential, it is also vital for practitioners to get a chance to try out new tools and viewpoints to see how they fit in their own realities. In our conference we had reserved space for practical workshops that revolved around, for example, Actionbound (a GPS-enabled adventure app), mBot robots (building kits to teach kids electronics and coding) and using smartphones for creating engaging visual content. All of these can be valuable tools for youth work, but the hardest part was still left in the hands of participants: how can these approaches be implemented back home?

But the hardest part was still left in the hands of participants: how can these approaches be implemented back home?

There is something to be found for every young person and youth worker in any local context.

In another part of the conference, participants were invited to showcase their own approaches and methods. The contributions ranged from youth participation and e-learning platforms into 3d-printers and online alternative narrative in the field of radicalisation/extremism. There were also open agenda discussions ranging from content creation and youth worker training into existing project examples. This shows how complex and multi-faceted digital youth work can be. While it can be daunting, it can also be taken as a positive: there is something to be found for every young person and youth worker in any local context. The excitement stemming from the mutual exchange of ideas and insights was palpable in every session.

Getting local

In any international event, it is good to have a glimpse of what is done on a local level. In our program, we had dedicated a sizeable amount of time to field visits, including a local hacklab,  a gaming house, and a media centre for young people. This provided a nicely varied set of options to choose from. While the field visit spots had different areas of focus, they also had very common goals: providing young people with the means, guidance and facilities to fuel their creativity while simultaneously allowing for their skills – whether technical, social or even citizenship – to grow and flourish. We used the Padlet online tool to collect participants’ experiences and impressions from the field visits in the city of Vienna.

The most important resource

On the final stretch of the conference, we again shifted our focus on the organizational side of implementing digital approaches. A joint keynote on Strategic development  illustrated some of the upcoming policies and the tools available to make applying them to practice easier. Anu Pöyskö from wienXtra shared her extensive experience in implementing strategic tools in local organisations, which is often no easy feat. One of her central messages was how planning youth work strategically really unlocks a whole new level of development. This is, however, only made possible by the most important resource of digital youth work: the youth worker that is innovative, resourceful and not afraid to make mistakes.

What was left to our participants was the task of taking home everything they had learned during this three-day marathon and trying to sort out what they could put into practice. The general feeling was that participants were quite happy with what they had learned, and the formal feedback echoed this as well. Time will tell what kind of new local approaches – or even joint international projects – will come out of this shared experience, but we are confident on the abilities of our new ambassadors in the field of digital youth work.

by Juha Kiviniemi, Nerijus Kriauciunas & Alexandra Beweis (2018)

Juha Kiviniemi is an erasmus+ trainer and a planning officer at Verke, the Finnish Centre for Expertise on Digital youth work.

Nerijus Kriauciunas is a  freelance trainer in the field of international youth work involved in various projects on digital approaches for youth work.

Alex Beweis
Alexandra Beweis is involved in youth work since 1994 and currently working as project manager for poywe and freelance trainer/facilitator.

Photos: © Juha Kiviniemi


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