Understanding the new digital natives

Vodafone runs Youth Technology Forum in Auckland and Wellington

Anyone with any exposure to young people knows they use and rely on technology quite differently from older generations.

They social network at a level that seems obsessive and text message furiously. They are constantly in touch.

To better understand how young people in New Zealand use and rely on technology, Vodafone last month ran a Youth Technology Forum with simultaneous sessions in Auckland and Wellington.

In Auckland, representatives from five high schools converged on the library of James Cook High School, in Manurewa, South Auckland to talk about and brainstorm issues around the use of technology at home, at school and at play. In Wellington, they converged on the Evolve Community Centre.

At least two of the schools represented ban the use of cellphones during school hours, showing the way personal technology is managed in education is very much a live one.

Vodafone CEO Russell Stanners introduced the event saying it was about a conversation; finding out what was good about technology and what was not so good, and identifying opportunities to use it better.

Introducing the main themes, comedian and writer Oscar Kightley asked if anyone had come across the dark and depraved side of the internet. No one had, or at least no one owned up. When he asked if texting was ruining the language, a librarian in the audience nodded furiously.

When he asked which technology has had the greatest impact on their day-to-day lives, the resounding favourite was the cellphone, with the internet a distant second.

Stanners, who was a student at James Cook High School himself, says Vodafone has a global unwritten policy of not marketing to kids, but “like it or not”, technology is everywhere. He was not surprised at the cellphone response. The idea behind the forum, he says, was to get a group of New Zealanders together and find out how technology and education fit together.

Most schools don’t have phones in the classroom. Classes communicate with the office and each other by sending student “runners” out with messages.

Stanners says Vodafone has helped schools use mobile technology through simple applications, such as taking the school roll on a mobile phone application and then sending absentee lists to the school office by text message. He says the immediacy of the reporting resulted in reduced absenteeism.

Bryan Smith, principal at James Cook, says the school has banned the use of phones because they are a nuisance in the classroom, but he recognises kids need them to communicate with parents. A cellphone message can allow students to be assembled very quickly, though there are issues around cyber bullying and the ability to film and photograph within the school.

He says when students go out the gate at 3.15, you can hear hundreds of phones being turned on.

Students tackled a range of subjects and communicated between the Wellington and Auckland events by mobile phone.

The forum discussion showed there is still a lack of computer facilities and quality, up-to-date technology teaching in low decile schools. Young people were also keen to see faster connection speeds and complete nationwide access.

They even went as far as to suggest technology should have priority over things such as sports and extra-curricular activities.

Young people rely heavily on internet-based social networking tools such as Facebook and Bebo, while acknowledging this has reduced face-to-face contact and even social skills.

Other topics covered centred on education, access and careers.

In education, information is processed differently — and this can be good and bad. This processing is good because of its convenience and bad because students can become lazy. Students at the forum suggested the era of the blackboard was now over and smart boards should be rolled out.

Textbooks should go as well, with information delivered on flash drives. Textbooks are heavy and cost a lot and there are limited amounts, so students have to share. Intercoms can similarly be trashed with information sent by email.

On top of that, easier net access, both from laptops (each student should have one) and from mobiles, was suggested.

Students also asked for more IT-specific courses, especially in internet technologies, and “solved” the age gap in IT teaching by asking for younger technology teachers.

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