Research results in a nutshell



Chasing the digital skills gap

In youth work, writing “digitalisation” with a black marker on a green moderation card and sticking it on a white flipchart gives us endless joy: our collective love for the analogue knows almost no boundaries. But the hopeful colour of the card cannot betray that we have a colossal problem.


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Every new training gets its own Facebook group – of course. The first few days are hyperactive: everybody misses everyone after what has almost always been a great time. It quiets down after a while, shows a few sparks of life in the days before the next application deadline, and then dies the same quiet death as so many Facebook groups before it. Rinse and repeat, throw in the occasional hashtag, and you have the digital strategy of Europe’s youth sector in a nutshell.

We of course all know that this cannot be the ultimate wisdom, and this logbook and the conference it is based on are proof that we have at least started to have a more earnest conversation about what we should be doing instead. But don’t let these occasions to talk and a handful of examples of good practice deceive you: by and large, youth work has simply slept through the first wave of digitalisation.

Youth work has simply slept through the first wave of digitalisation.

How much so, we can learn from the data of RAY, short for Research-based Analysis of Erasmus+ Youth in Action, a network of 33 research and policy partners that conducts frequent surveys of project participants and project leaders, complemented by thematic qualitative studies.

In its last round of surveys alone, more than 25.000 project participants and nearly 5.000 project leaders shared their opinion on the projects they were involved in within the context of the Erasmus+ Youth in Action programme.

So what does the data tell us about digitalisation and youth work?

Around 18% of all surveyed project participants say, for example, that they have learned something new about media and/or information and communication technologies in their project. Not so bad at first sight, you say? True, true, but the actual problem is hiding in the details: this percentage decreases swiftly with age. In other words: younger participants learn substantively less about media and technology. This is Problem Number 1.

In their surveys, the RAY network also asks project participants whether they have improved their skill to produce media content on their own (printed, audiovisual or electronic). 20% of project participants strongly agree that this is the case. Again, not so very bad. We also ask project leaders, however, how much they think project participants have developed that skill. A little meta, I know, but sometimes these double loops tell us a story. In this case the story is this: 40% of project leaders strongly agree that participants have developed that skill. In other words: youth workers severely overestimate how much their projects contribute to the development of media and technology skills. That is Problem Number 2.

Younger participants learn substantively less about media and technology.

For the majority of youth workers, digitalisation remains Neuland

There are more than just these two problems, both visible from the RAY surveys and the network’s thematic studies: that many organisations in the sector have no consistent approach to working with digital tools and spaces, and that many youth workers are increasingly afraid of the widening skills gap between themselves and young people – to name just two more.

The overall picture is a clear, though not a cheerful one: for the majority of youth workers, digitalisation remains Neuland, and at the moment, the programme does not sufficiently address their digital learning needs. The recent focus on digitalisation – in conversations such as the Digital Youth Work Conference as well as in funding priorities of Erasmus+ – will certainly help, but at the moment (in early 2018), it still looks like far too little to catapult the entire sector into the digital age.

And this is, if we are honest, what we will need to do: we have to stop creating tiny digital graveyards all over the internet, and start – within and across communities, organisations and networks – to work consistently, casually and cleverly with digital tools and move into digital spaces. We need to learn, train, experiment, build and rebuild, every hour, every day and every week.

The good news is: we can do all that with the occasional marker in hands, card on knees, and flipchart on walls, because digital tools and spaces are not the contradiction to offline learning environments that we often make them out to be. On the contrary: weaving the two together, in our own patterns, is the best part of it all.

Let’s finally get started, shall we?

by Andreas Karsten (2018)

Andreas Karsten leads the team of the Berlin-based think-do-and-disrupt-tank Youth Policy Labs and is part of the transnational research team of the RAY Network (Research-based Analysis of Erasmus+ Youth in Action).

Photos: © Juha Kiviniemi and Interkulturelles Zentrum


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