Youth workers have been using digital media and technologies for as long as these have existed. For example, at the very beginning of the digital revolution a few decades ago, some youth centres were already giving young people access to digital devices, even before the internet and computers became common household items.
With widespread use of the internet and technological devices, not only did tech gurus start to believe that digital technologies would help solve all exclusion related problems, but so too policy makers.
At the moment, we are undergoing a major global health crisis, which has accelerated the development of digital youth work, while also increasing the misconceptions surrounding it.
In fact, digital youth work is neither the magic formula for all inclusion and diversity issues, nor the backup of face-to-face youth work.
When it comes to international youth work, digital technologies were, until very recently, used mostly as a means of supporting and increasing the outreach of the activities carried out offline.
As we will see in the following sections, despite all the efforts and innovative work done, digital technologies only caught the attention of EU policy makers in the past few years.
Set under the European Union Work Plan for Youth 2016-2018, the expert group on ‘Risks, opportunities and implications of digitalisation for youth, youth work and youth policy’ provided policy recommendations, training needs and good practice examples.
While some key issues relating to digital youth work practice in Europe are covered – the report suggests using digital technologies for social inclusion and increasing participation in society – , it doesn’t, however, expand much further on this topic.
Conducted between 2018 and 2020, the Youth Partnership’s research study, Social Inclusion, Digitalisation and Young People, is the first comprehensive study at EU level on digitalisation and how young people, especially in a disadvantaged situation, experience this process.
Even though SALTO Inclusion & Diversity was part of the steering group supporting this study, this was our starting point for how digital technologies can support inclusion.
Subsequently, we became aware of organisations ensuring that digital activities and resources are inclusive and accessible, as well as of youth work using digital technology to specifically support young people with fewer opportunities.
These examples showed us that digital youth work is not only about supporting offline activities but also about using IT tools to make a change and empower young people.
All the ensuing constraints caused by the COVID-19 pandemic demanded from organisations and youth workers remarkable creativity and adaptability to enable them continue with their activities in an online format.
However, considerable energy was spent replicating online the same methodologies and processes, deep-rooted in traditional non-formal learning. This resulted in widespread digital fatigue, lack of motivation and interest, and many doubts about whether digital youth work could ever match traditional learning mobility in terms of quality, effectiveness and fun.
A desk research on social impact tools and resources showed that learning mobility and solidarity projects have a fundamental role in policy frameworks from local to European level. They have proven multiple positive benefits for participants and communities alike. They contribute to fostering civic engagement and competence development, and stimulate social impact.
The absence of cross-border learning activities, face-to-face encounters, exchanges, local volunteering projects has implications for communities and especially for the least well-off youngsters. Currently, many Erasmus+ projects remain on hold. Research conducted by the RAY Network on the impact of the pandemic on youth work showed that almost all aspects of youth work have been seriously affected:
● youth work spaces (69%)
● youth work methods (52%)
● youth work timing (47%)
● and youth work tools (46%).
Furthermore, 74% of organisations participating in the survey mentioned they had to close their office temporarily.
Besides the struggles faced by organisations and youth workers regarding access to online learning, the pandemic has increased the differences between well-off and underprivileged youth. The main factors contributing to this gap were related to:
National Agencies managing Erasmus+ and European Solidarity Corps contacted youth workers and organisations to learn how the pandemic was affecting their work and whether they were able to reach young people with fewer opportunities.
We are talking about youngsters who are hard to reach in normal circumstances. As expected, most beneficiaries found it impossible to reach these young people and could only focus on maintaining the connections with the ones they were already in contact with before. Because, even if most young people have daily access to the internet, it’s rather how the digital technology is used to reach out to and involve them that matters.
2021 marks the launch of the new Erasmus+ programme and the new European Solidarity Corps. Both inclusion and digitalisation will have to be major priorities for the youth sector in the coming 7 years.
Likewise, both the European Youth Work Agenda and the European Union’s Youth Strategy 2019-2027 highlight the importance of the strategic development of digital youth work and inclusion.
At the same time, within the network of the National Agencies and SALTO, a Strategic Cooperation on Digital Youth Work has just taken off. The aim is to create national youth strategies and policy plans on digital youth work, as well as to support the development of digital competences among youth workers and young people.
One of the core missions of SALTO Inclusion & Diversity is to provide resources for people and organisations supporting young people with fewer opportunities in international projects. If we strive to ensure that every activity is, by default, accessible to everyone, we should think in the same way about digital formats.
We developed this platform keeping in mind that youth workers need support to strengthen and develop their skills for inclusive digital youth work, especially within the context of the EU Youth Programmes (Erasmus+ and European Solidarity Corps).
Moreover, the situation we are in is a unique opportunity to learn from each other and enrich existing learning mobility models. Therefore, we developed a section featuring practices of digital inclusion, which is expandable and collaborative.
This means that anyone can contribute and help ensure that the lessons learned and that the experiences with digital youth work are shared, promoted and reflected on.
Finally, this is not a conventional publication. The possibilities of digitalisation allow us to do much more than replicate analog practices.
Therefore, we combine different formats to build a richer and more inclusive experience. In this publication you will find text, audio and illustrations, and we will keep on expanding and upgrading the publication as we get new information, results and practices.
What we are experiencing is a major transformation as far as international youth work is concerned, and even if we are still learning how to navigate through these uncertain times, in the “new normal” different activity formats will inevitably coexist, and we have to ensure they are inclusive and accessible for young people from the most diverse backgrounds.