Young ICT talent highlighted in awards

YMedia and Smith brothers finalists in the Young ICT category

Web 2.0 technology’s ability to help good causes spread their message is behind one of the two projects that have made it to the finals of the Computerworld Excellence Awards Young ICT category, sponsored by Eagle Technology. The other project involves the use of online tools to aid those learning a foreign language

YMedia is the organisation behind the “good cause” project. It was set up by former schoolmates Pamela Minett and Adele Barlow, who both worked for community groups. They saw an opportunity to use new web-based technologies while concurrently filling another need: giving young people IT work experience.

Meanwhile, brothers Craig and Shane Smith had also perceived a youthful need: for students to improve how they learn foreign language vocabularies — something teachers say is the hardest part of learning a foreign language.

YMedia sees the good

Consultant Janet Mazenier, a former digital programme strategy manager for the Ministry of Economic Development, worked with Minett and Barlow on the yMedia programme. She says that across the world people are waiting for government or whoever to encourage young people to enter the ICT professions, but the pair have shown leadership regarding how this can be done.

The work experience yMedia provides is valuable both in leveraging young people into jobs and in helping community organisations make the most of new technology.

“These women made it happen. They convinced the Microsofts and others to sponsor it on one level, which is no mean feat. They grasped the problems and looked for a solution,” says Mazenier.

YMedia initially involved 12 ICT students and six not-for-profit organisations. Students volunteered their time to take part in a two-week challenge aimed at getting them to understand the not-for-profits’ core business and then implement Web 2.0 technologies to help them.

Minett says Web 2.0 technologies such as Facebook and Bebo offer a free or low-cost resource to such groups to either promote themselves or to upgrade their own skills. ICT students are seeking relevant work experience, so putting the two together made sense and it was also a way of “giving back to the community”.

Following a Digital Futures Summit, Minett won backing from the Tindall Foundation for the project, which helped give her credibility when it came to seeking funding and mentoring support from other businesses.

The project involved students choosing a not-for-profit they wanted to help, and yMedia and its mentors then came up with a project for them to implement over the two week “challenge”.

For example, the students noted that one not-for-profit chosen, YouthLaw, which gives legal advice to young people, had a website that was aimed more at older people than youth.

Office co-ordinator Jennie Richards says the “two guys” helped YouthLaw develop Facebook, Bebo and YouTube entries.

As a result, YouthLaw learnt it had to deliver messages in more “bite-sized” pieces. This also gave it insight into the need to make its website more youth-friendly.

The result is more young people are now being referred to the organisation from the website and the other youthful social networking initiatives. YouthLaw is also now training its youth workers online.

YouthLaw is still being helped by the two students, says Richards. She adds that “there are so many free tools for NGOs (non-government organisations) and you can do fantastic things with them.”

Making students' Language Perfect Brothers Craig and Shane Smith have created a “dynamic, platform technology” called Language Perfect. The online language software was originally developed for the French language, and has now been extended to German, Spanish and Japanese, with Maori and Chinese on the way. Craig says his former Auckland school, St Kentigern College, gave him some very hands-on computer skills. At the same time, he had noticed that students had problems learning languages, especially vocabulary. He teamed up with his programmer brother Shane — who was studying medicine — to create Language Perfect. The interface was developed using Adobe Flash with an SQL database back-end. Over the past 6 months the software has been thoroughly tested by schools across Dunedin. It was recently released at the NZALT Language Conference in Wellington, where 60 schools signed up to trial it with their students. Over 1500 students are currently using Language Perfect. It has picked up several awards including winning the $40,000 Audacious Business Plan Competition 2007, to take home $22,000. Dunedin’s Upstart Incubator is backing the project and Otago University plans to start using the software in 2009. Behind the friendly interface is a solid business structure, that the brothers feel will support large growth as they take their software to international markets. “The key is the platform,” explains Craig. “We can easily expand the software to any curriculum, any language… anywhere in the world. And we’re ready to grow."

Jane Wheatley, head of languages at St Hilda’s School, Dunedin, is using the interactive system to tutor language students to NCEA levels 1, 2 and 3. It tests them on various French words, which the students have to reproduce on their keyboards.

Only when they get it right consistently can they move on. The words can also be rendered in audio-sound, and students either spell out the French translation, or the program gives them the word in French and students type out the English translation. “The kids really love it and they are actually learning. Each student has their own log-in and I can check their progress,” she says. Test scores have improved from a typical 12 or 13/20 to 19-20/20. Wheatley adds that Craig Smith refines the system based on student feedback, which gives the students ownership of the software and fuels their enthusiasm for it.

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