Inclusion will be the main topic of this fourth and last post in of our series about online youth work. We will also discuss how to host online activities in an effective way. You can find episode 1 (about structure and approach),  episode 2 (about interaction) and episode 3 (more interaction: games and videogames) clicking on their names. Consider subscribing to the blog, to get updates whenever a new post is out, so you will not miss next episodes!

We keep telling since episode 1 of this series, that being online is a mostly visual experience. Now try to think for instance about a participant with some kind of disability affecting sight – how could we assure their full inclusion in our activities?

This is not an unknown scenario – actually the opposite: we should be used to always design activities which can assure participants’ inclusion, either in person, in youth clubs, during summer camps, in youth exchanges… and of course online, too. But is this really happening? Can it really happen? There is a number of steps to be taken, and costs to be covered, to be sure to offer the most possible inclusion while being online.

From one side, many hardware supports are nowadays available to help typing, clicking, reading etc what happens on a screen. Digital inclusion starts from very little steps, like adding alternative descriptions for images when creating your online content, or sharing slides and texts in advance when hosting activities, to allow participants’ specific inclusion tools, as voice readers, to be tested and adjusted to your content – and of course, inclusion can get great support from specific hardware devices. Many of them have been used and developed for years already, like the Braille displays: they can cost thousand of euros, but many specialized institutions could rent you some, and in my opinion this is the case where exceptional funds of European projects should be fully available, to cover this kind of costs.

digital inclusion : a usb braille display
a USB Braille display to be connected to every laptop

Inclusion applies also to apparently easier to solve problems, like translation: you cannot have a multilingual group online and rely to the next participant, to whisper in the hear of the needy a fast translation of what has been said in a language they do not understand… because being online, there is no next participants!

Of course you can go fully bilingual, but imagine the waste of time (and the boredom of hearing everything two times!). Many platforms anyway offer chat systems, also individual ones, so a translation can be provided writing there, for instance. If there is a need for a more specific translation support, ie Sign Language, the translators could be connected from their home in this case, and provide translation from the webcam: it will cost you quite some money, but this way would save you travel and accomodation costs for the translators anyway – let’s try to remember this also after this coronavirus time.

Hardware and software support for inclusion has made giant steps during the last years, so ask your local associations and institution supporting people with different disabilities, look up online, ask participants themselves… and you will discover a lot of fantastic ways to include people with disabilities in your activities, even online.

But moreover, when talking online activities, we should increase our concern, and start worrying about how to have people get online with us, in the first place.

Digital Divide: inclusion costs money

Digital divide is an old topic, often left on the background when considering digital activities. The scale we faced being forced to move everything online, finally showed us how big this topic is.

It is a great idea to transform so many activities in an online activities, but… what about participants who can’t be online? The ones who are without connection, or serious data plans, or even without devices?

Data plans: who decided we should pay mobile data by consumption?

It is difficult to get proper stats about these people, but in Italy for instance they appear to be at least a 10% of youth population: youngsters from less privileged areas, living in families with older or no devices, with low bandwidth connections, with poor data plans etc. who simply disappeared from the radars when schools and youth work activities moved completely online. Can we really afford to loose so many youngsters? to loose especially these youngsters? and what solutions could we adopt?

This is still really about national policies, funds, rules and regulations… but it is anyway finally (self-)evident that when internet activists were campaigning for one head / one access, back in the 90s of last century, they were talking about us, today.

Those were really interesting times for the net, when the first police crackdowns against online communities (as the infamous Italian crackdown of 1994) were igniting a new generation of internet activists… including me. Those were also times when the urge of sharing and spreading information and knowledge about the online world and how to get there, were the main effort of so many people. I could see that approach resurfacing during the so-called Arab springs, and… also nowadays, during Covid19 outbreak, when the inclusion of as many people possible in online communities and activities has finally become a priority again – and we even started talking about a communitarian internet again!

inclusion : disassembling a laptop at athens hackerspace
Disassembling a laptop @ hakerspace.gr in Athens

In order to help youngsters getting online, surely there is a need of specific policies to improve connectivity infrastructures, reduce connectivity fees, provide devices to school students and youth clubs etc. – but (meanwhile?) the many makerspaces and hackerspaces all over Europe could be a valuable asset: they are community spaces supporting individuals and groups to own technology once again, to share knowledge about devices and network tools, to install free opensource softwares, to fix old computers which appear not to be working anymore or to assemble new ones from parts and pieces coming from here and there… – here is a list with quite a few of them, to check if you have one close to your place. Or you can always set up your own… 🙂 and maybe grant some more youngsters a way to get online with you, learning something valuable meanwhile.

This idea of fiddling and tinkering with digital devices has become a trend of digital youth work itself lately, and my friend Juha Kiviniemi curated a whole publication for Verke, to explain how makers activities could be offered as youth activities. It is about time to try! 🙂

Inclusion: what about us?

Inclusion does not mean only having a device and a connection to go online; it also means putting every effort in designing activities which could unlock the full potential of participants, having them fully with you and fully engaged, even being online. Be careful of digital divide on the side of activity designers too! In order to achieve this level of inclusion, you should know what opportunities are offered, which limits you will have (hint: almost none), and how difficult it is to achieve which goals. And once again, there is only one way I know to make it: try and fail, try again, fail harder… and then you will learn!

You hear me? Yes, and you? can you hear me? You see me?

One of the best, even if a bit brutal feedbacks about our ability to include our participants, comes obviously from youngsters themselves. Never found yourself in an online situation where after a brilliant explanation, you ask something and they are supposed to answer, opening their mics and… all you get is that uncomfortable silence?

Well, good for you it’s silence – because if that silence could speak, you would hear that brutal feedback: you are boring! this is not the right way to design an online activity! you are not really trying to include us in this! Find a better way!

So… well, keep that silence, and think about it 😀

Hosting online activities

The way you host an activity is also very important, and it is no surprise that many good trainers and facilitators have experiences in theatre, music, or anything able to teach you how to ride a stage 😎 in an effective way.

Nonverbal communication is so important when working with groups (says the Italian in me… 😀 ) and many studies agree on the importance of its basic ingredients, coming with the complicate names of proxemics and… body language 😀 (well, it is kinesics, but come on).

Edward T. Hall studied how distances are connected to different kinds of human relations.
He has surely never been on an Italian beach in mid August.

In a nutshell, the way you get closer to someone or someone else, the way you move your hands and body etc., the way you look at people, can hint to participants that you may want to hear specifically from them and not the rest of the group, or you would like to engage (or to not engage!) specifically them in some activity, etc.

I got a question about how to replicate this effect while online, and well Dan 😉 , honestly I think this is really very difficult. But once again, I would say you can play with the visual experience you are offering to your participants, for instance hinting at their clothes, colors, postures instead of getting closer or looking more at them, when you want to attract their attention or ask them for a reaction. Since we wrote a lot about inclusion before, this element should anyway also be taken into account!

Possibly, an evolution of the platforms we are using will help us simulate this attitude online too, and the amount of feedback platforms are getting, during these months of online-everything, will surely contribute. Something new is already surfacing, and I guess we can expect more interesting stuff.

We already discussed the lack of bodies during online activities, so I think a host, apart from keeping time, having maybe a second screen to prepare contents to share etc, should try to find every possible way to invite bodies in the activities: you want to ask a yes/no question? what about asking to stand up or hide below the table, instead? You realize that your group is not so vocal, probably being hold back by a bit of shyness? what about providing the side possibility to write in the chat, or to use some online board?

Conclusions

This long series of posts made me think a lot and was very helpful to focus and consider so many sparse ideas and methodologies, as part of a common effort. It also helped to remind me once again the power of trial and error, and how failing harder is still something to write on the walls.

I am afraid the lockdown situation, with different levels, will still be ongoing for the next months, so I guess there will be chances to test all this and to share your opinions and results.

I really hope this work can be helpful to you too, and I really would like to read even more feedback and comments, here or on the Facebook page.

…and if you really, really liked it, you can always buy me a coffee or a beer 😉

Previous episodes: 1 – 23.

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