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Online youth work has been an obscure topic for years, with a bunch of weirdos (yes, proud of being one of them 😉 ) trying to figure out how to do it the best way, and almost everybody else criticizing the very concept. Well, then Covid19 arrived, and now here we are everybody, with a whole heap of experts popping up everywhere and telling that they have been dealing with this for years. I never realized we were so many, but anyway, here are some advices, ideas and hints I collected and I would like to share too.

This series of posts should have been an article for an e-zine but… you know me, when I start writing i tend to never stop, so the result was something like 4 times more than the space I should use. Nevermind, here it is for you, my dearest 25 readers (*). I decided to divide it in two (or even more) episodes to help you digest it more easily. Enjoy!

I do not know if this happened to you too, but in my social media bubble I have seen a flood of posts advising lists, collections of resources, webinars, guides, instant books etc. lately, about this same topic of doing online youth work activities, so I will start saying that it would be simply impossible to give you a complete overview of what you can do and use.

By the way, I briefly recreated part of the team behind #ExploringDigital, hosting with Juha Kiviniemi at the end of March one of the first online Q&As exactly on… online youth work, that you can still find online here. More activities like this are being planned while I write, and meanwhile I have also been supporting my fellow Italian youth workers in their online youth work meetings during the last month.

It’s not only about the platforms

In a complex situation like the one we are living it is quite common, but not less pointless, to ask for a readymade solution that would solve every problem: so I see tons of questions and comments about which would be “the platform” to use for online youth work, as I used to get tons of questions about which apps we could recommend to do digital youth work, when we started our training course Dig-it Up! in 2015. Moreover: lists and collections of platforms and apps tend not to age very well and to become irrelevant quite soon.

Let’s be clear about it, then: it is not only a matter of platforms.

First of all, platforms come and go: new, independent ones grow popular and widespread, then they may get acquired by big brands (often only to be shut up, to stop taking away users from the big ones) and newer ones pop up and become the next-big-thing, probably to end up in the same way after a while…

For this reason we will not start yet another platform war discussing whether we should embrace Zoom or Jitsi or Discord or whatever else. Before discussing platforms and tools, let’s spend some time discussing the purpose for which you are considering to use these tools.  

You want to create non formal learning activities online. The first tip would be starting from how would you design your normal activities.

I would say, let’s start from the general approach.

 Online youth work: approach and structure

Sitting in front of a screen is mainly a visual experience: so we should go for something in which activities, tools and instruments with a visual approach are preferred. Some of them have been part of our non formal toolbox for years indeed, and could just be transferred online with some creativity.

For instance, live graphic recording could be done during an online session and shared from time to time – maybe not continuously, because distant participants also enjoy feeling together when seeing each other. Participants could also be asked to draw something on a shared board online, or, since drawing with the computer mouse or trackpad is quite difficult, to draw something on actual paper and then simply show it at the camera.

online youth work : drawing and then sharing on zoom.
Italian youth workers drawing with actual pens & paper and then sharing their masterpieces online. Guess whose birthday has just been celebrated online?

Other visual activities that we normally have in our toolbox for standard sessions are for instance creating and filling maps to record where participants are: this can be easily done with online tools too (My Maps function of Google Maps does the trick), and it is interesting when hosting online activities, to make all the different positions visible.

In the same way, every kind of axes and grids can be shown and shared on some interactive board (ie Miro or Google Jamboard, just to say a couple names), asking participants to draw a sign / write their name / stick a virtual post-it, place an emoji in some position where they feel they belong, according to the questions which would come with the grid itself.

online youth work : Miro
brainstorming with Miro

Many online conferencing tools include (or can be integrated with) some kind of online whiteboard where drawing or scribbling is normally allowed to every participant, so figuring out how to use this in your program could surely help to keep the activity more on the visual plan.

Other interesting and simple requests to participants that could improve the visual experience could be encouraging them to play with background images, if the platform you are using allows them, or with their avatars and/or their looks. You could also set up a dress-code for the meeting, and spend some time in commenting the results!

online youth work : playing with backgrounds
Me and my lockup beard using Minecraft Dungeons background, during an activity for 12yrs kids about social media behaviors

Talking about setting and spending time in activities, we should consider that timing in online activities should be handled quite differently. For many people, interacting with others online is still a completely new territory and the amount of energy and focus being put in an online session is generally more than the one you would spend in a face to face situation. For this reason, consider making short sessions, and not being afraid to be too short. One hour online with a group could already be a lot of time for someone, and two hours are generally too much for everyone. To give insight about how much time is passing, you can consider sharing your screen from time to time, while having a big timer / stopwatch on – for instance, using this online service.

It is better to plan more connections in different moments, even in the same day if necessary, than to keep people online for long times all together. A possible way to handle this is the one being used in many (innovative?) online formal-education approaches, as in flipped classroom, where students / participants receive a task before the session, or at the end of one session, and then meet later to present the results of their individual or group work, share and discuss them with the class/plenary. Quite a standard procedure in many non formal education activities, so why not to embrace it online too?

online youth work but real coffee :)
Online youth work – but real coffee breaks please 🙂

Talking about time, what happened to breaks? We all know the importance of stopping from time to time during the activities, to re-energize, grab some drink or food, have a little walk… so why so few online activities plan breaks for their participants? As we wrote, timing should work differently when online, so breaks and time off-screen are even more needed, making them really important to include in your plan. To keep the online “room” open and give a feeling of being anyway connected, you can stream some music while everybody is taking their time off, or prepare some funny slide-show to cover the break time, or whatever else could help to keep people anyway in touch even while having a coffee or a cigarette by the window.

Another quite standard procedure to be encouraged when hosting online activities is allow check in and check out time for participants. It could be a few minutes of informal chatting and meeting while you wait that everybody is connected, or even better some structured activity to help everybody say something about how they are joining / leaving the activity, but since people are physically far away, and online meetings do not allow bodies to meet each other, to shake hands, to see all facial expressions and fully get people’s emotions, energy levels, nonverbal language etc, this can be really helpful to set the mood for what follows.

Next episode(s):
2: Interaction 3: more interaction: games and videogames4: Inclusion – Hosting – Conclusions.

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(*) obscure reference to an overrated Italian writer from XIX Century.