Young Digital Makers: Visions of normality
The hallmark of a new generation of digital creators need not be grand. A sign of success will be if digital making (the idea of creating with digital technologies) becomes simply everyday – a regular pastime for all types of young people. As normal and unremarkable as kids playing sport, listening to music, reading books or playing computer games.
Nesta have talked a lot about the need for young people to get involved with digital making and try their hand at, for example, creating apps, games, websites, robots or 3D printed objects. By “mainstreaming” this activity we will be fostering a generation with the skills and confidence to tackle the social and environmental problems of the future, participate in a digital workforce, support the UK’s thriving digital creative economy and foster new means of self expression and community building.
This week, two pieces of Nesta’s work came together towards our aspirations to normalise digital making.
The need to tap into passion points
The first was our Young Digital Makers report. It gave grounds for celebration and concern in equal measures. We were hugely encouraged by the extent of young people’s interest in digital making, and the strong support from their parents. But a worrying gap was revealed between the demand from young people and the number of face-to-face opportunities available for young people to do digital making (face-to-face learning is important when introducing such a practical field).
We also uncovered some interesting findings relating to what motivates young people to do digital making, and differences between boys and girls. For example, boys are more likely to do digital making because they are interested in technology per se or want to use digital making to make money, whereas girls show more interest than boys in making their own digital music or digital art (which is less well catered for from the existing provision). But the most popular reason for making things with technology, for boys and girls, is because it’s fun. Sounds obvious, but if you’re going to do something in your free time, it probably needs to be fun. Much provision to date has been characterised by appealing to young people’s interests in technology. We now need to reach beyond the more technologically-motivated ‘early adopters’. The majority will require hooks into activity based on their passion points, such as nature, music or fashion, and projects that tap into relevant motivations beyond just a love of technology.
The BBC launch of Make it Digital is a welcome example of digital making being embraced by popular culture. What better way to engage young people than the brands and celebrities they are interested in? And what better indicator of the normality of digital making when the cast of Eastenders are talking about it? The recent Barclays Digital Eagle TV ads are another example. II hope we see more brands following suit.
A century-old hobby embraces digital making
The second news was the launch of the Scouts new Digital Making badge, sponsored and developed by Nesta. In our Young Digital Makers report we mapped organisations providing digital making opportunities for young people. In the main this is an emerging field of organisations (many of whom we have supported through our Digital Maker Awardee fund ) who are doing a grand job of providing children with their first tastes of digital making outside of the classroom. We reported on the early stage nature of these organisations and looked at some of the things that could help them scale.
The Scouts Association are a bit different – after over 100 years old, they’re not exactly a flash in the pan. They’ve got over 400,000 young people (girls and boys) as members across the UK. They decided to replace their previous IT badge – to include skills that relate to manipulating technology, as well as just consuming and navigating it – and Nesta sponsored and lead on the development of the resources. The Scouts are a trailblazer in this respect, but it’s a sign of progress to see digital making being promoted by such an established organisation that is already so much a part of young people’s lives.
Why is informal learning important?
So why, when computing is now part of the curriculum in England and Scotland, is it important to support digital making outside of the classroom in these ways?
According to research done by the Wellcome Trust, even when in full-time education, young people only spend 18 per cent of their waking hours in school. That leaves a lot of other time for influencing learning outside the formal system. As the Wellcome Trust say, “experiences outside the classroom are essential to give meaning, relevance and context to ideas”. And they provide “emotional contact, where it is possible to have a hands-on experience, be challenged or provoked, or simply enjoy the moment”. Intuitively informal learning is a critical component of an effective education.
The recent House of Lords digital skills committee reported that digital literacy should be as important as numeracy and literacy. We encourage young people to read books, not just study English. In the same way, we see value in sport and music as enriching young people’s lives and setting them up with skills and habits for later life. Digital skills need to be viewed in the same way.
That’s why I’m looking forward to the day when there is a weekend computing club in every local community, parents are complaining that their kids are spending too long in their rooms making computer games (rather than just playing them), making a website is the normal way to deliver a school assignment, and digital maker Kits (like Technology will Save Us, Kano or Naturebytes) are the must-buy Christmas present for the year.