Why You Don't Need Consensus to Value Youth Voices

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People like to make generalizations about youth, and, in 2018, those declarations often pertain to the ways they use the internet and technology. What's true, and what's just a stereotype? For 90 minutes on a hot afternoon in Baltimore, 11 local youth—four women and seven men ranging in age from 18 to 25—joined two IYF staff members in a focus group to talk about their online habits, learning preferences, and needs.

Living Classrooms Foundation, a Baltimore-based organization that shares IYF's commitment to positive youth development and with whom IYF has worked before, hosted the focus group. It was the latest installment in an ongoing process IYF staff are conducting in cities including Nashville, New Orleans, and Chicago to engage young women and men and get their insights for the design and development of a forthcoming online course optimized for mobile phones.

"I go online with my phone every day, everywhere," said Brianna, a young woman enrolled in Power52, a local training program geared towards careers in the clean energy field. The other participants agreed, but noted that depending on the activity—filling out a job application online, for example—they might prefer a laptop or home computer.

“Doing user-driven research challenges us to step back, listen, and reflect on what the young people we serve really want and need,” Sheerin Vesin, IYF’s Director of Product Strategy and Commercialization, explained.

Learning as an activity that happens in a classroom where a teacher lectures to students at desks no longer makes sense for many young people, and several youth present said they have taken part in online learning in the past. Some participants expressed a preference for learning from a teacher, others said learning at their own pace—using an online platform, for example—would work better for their learning styles, while still others agreed that a hybrid experience, one that provides the solid foundation a live teacher could provide with the added flexibility and variation in how, when, and where they acquire new knowledge and skills, would be ideal. Everyone in the room shared that they often turn to YouTube to learn new things or figure out how to do something.

In response to a question about what they'd want in an online course, Rodney, a 25-year-old father of two, said, “Variety keeps things from getting stale." Many of his peers agreed that they'd prefer an assortment of learning options including games, readings, videos, and more.

Overall, the conversation revealed myriad perspectives, and a consensus was not always reached. But, that’s not a problem—that’s the point.

“I learn so much from each of these focus groups, and am continually surprised and inspired,” IYF's Lara Henneman, Director of Product Development, explained. “Direct conversations challenge our assumptions, inform our planning, and connect us with the hopes, dreams, and barriers of our users and students. Each conversation is unique, expansive, and valuable.”

Valuing and listening to youth voice is critical for IYF's programs and educational products. “The most important thing,” Rodney added at the close of the session, “is to keep it real."

Authenticity and real engagement are what youth-serving organizations like IYF should strive for every day.

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