Young People & Technology

Preparing young people for a constantly changing 21st century labour market is a core part of the Archer Academy’s vision and ethos. We recognise that whilst traditional approaches to teaching and learning might have been adequate for the way things used to be, but they aren’t going to work in the future, if we want to compete in the global economy of the future. So we’ve built a strong emphasis on developing creative and critical thinking skills into our curriculum and offer a range of enrichment opportunities designed to inspire young people and support employability from age 11 onwards. One important part of this focusses on technology.

Despite the huge amount of tech-focussed stuff going on in the UK (and particularly in London, where we’re based) we’ve found it hard to know where to go, who to talk to and who can help us offer exciting, engaging and appropriate ways of engaging our students with technology. So, as my stock response to this type of challenge, I took to social media seeking the advice of my well-informed and well-connected networks to see what help they could offer. The response was fantastic. So I thought I would share the insight and wisdom offered to me, in the hope of helping others with similar challenges, to cut through the fluff. Here’s what I was got back…

I also got a lot of personal contacts, people sharing my request for help, passing it on to others and people offering support – which is amazing – but I’ve not posted them here as I wasn’t sure they’d appreciate being offered out as a source of support to anyone reading this blog. But I wanted to mention it as individuals who are prepared to help very definitely part of the story!

I’m sure this is a far from definitive list of groups and organisations interested in supporting young people to engage with technology in interesting, creative and inspiring ways…so feel free to add more suggestions to the list (post a comment and I’ll add any suggestions to the list).

I’ll try and let you know how we get on at the school – we did have a very good coding club (and no, it wasn’t called that Warren…it was a Minecraft Club but it was all about coding!) last term but we want to do much much more. And I hope that we’ll get some of the students sharing their experience on the topic too – I’ll be helping them set up their own students blog in a couple of weeks.

Thanks to all of you who offered ideas and insights. This post proves yet again the power of social media!

Links to tech and young people orgs [nb not all of these are doing work in schools or specifically with young people…but might still be relevant]

Make Things Do Stuff –

Facebook policy team –

Young Rewired State –

Mozilla Foundation –

Apps for Good –

Audioboo Teach Computing Podcast

STEM Clubs –

Coderdojo –

Code Club –

Fire Tech

Technology will save us –

Treehouse –

Code Academy –

Suffolk Creative Computing Club –

Khan Academy –

The Hour of Code –


Raspberry Pi Starter Kit – Pimoroni

Little Miss Geek


Making politics and elections more engaging and sociable

How to make local government elections more exciting was the challenge explored in an interesting post by A Dragon’s Best Friend (aka @puffles2010). That topic chimed with me and I certainly share the desire to see more high quality debate about issues and policies that engage people. We’ve heard for many years the anguished cries of academics, democrats and campaigners about the crisis of our democratic deficit. [Wikipedia suggests the term was first used in 1977!]. And yet for all the consternation and angst Party membership continues to fall, voting levels are at historically low levels (forget the occasional mini-revival, the overall trend is only in one direction) and politics remains a ‘minority interest’. I have all sorts of things to say about the consequences of a professional class of politicians, problems with limited political parties and the idea that we get the politicians we deserve…but I’ll save those for another day. The focus of this post is how social media could – and should – be opening up politics to a wider audience.

One of the highlights for me of the last general election was following the leadership debates on twitter whilst watching at the same time. The debate was in equal measure, insightful, intelligent, humorous and ‘real’. I wonder whether we’re missing a trick to simply shift the debate online, rather than seeking ways of bridging online and offline (face to face) debate?

At the launch of the 2010 general election there was lots of talk about the role of social media in campaigning. Remember Labour’s ‘viral’ animation that was shown at their campaign launch?

No? I’m not surprised. It was, in view, about as ‘viral’ as my home video clips of my children’s school assemblies.

We were told that social media would be a key election battleground as the Parties took a leaf out of the Obama campaign’s sophisticated use of social media to mobilise support. The reality was that all the Parties demonstrated a complete failure to understand how social media works, seeing it simply as an extension of traditional broadcast media. So we got lots of tweets and posts blasted out from on high to an unsuspecting audience, with very little active debate, meaningful engagement and interaction. All the main Parties continue to cling on to an outdated model of engagement and communications which seek to control the message and fail to understand that it is the ‘social’ in social media that makes it so exciting. I’m yet to see any evidence that this is view is changing, though I do accept that there are individual MPs who do ‘get it’ (Stella Creasy, Louise Mensch and Tom Watson all spring to mind).

Since millions of Britons use social media (though by no means everyone – and it’s important that those of us who use social media don’t fall into the trap of assuming everyone else does), it makes sense to take the debate to where people are at. On this basis it’s worth remembering that Facebook use still far outstrips Twitter and other platforms and so i’d be inclined to think about how best to use FB first (despite my own personal preference for the twitter over FB any day).

Thinking about local government elections, I’m sure there’s a role for hyperlocal websites to play here – where they exist – as they offer a natural constituency for those seeking to represent an area to engage with the community. Whilst the coverage of hyperlocal websites is still far from universal, the number of new sites is growing quickly and there is plenty of support available to people who want to set them up.

Local hustings or ‘question times’ with candidates are often held and can sometimes go beyond the usual mud-slinging and point scoring. But they are attended by very few people (relative to the size of the whole electorate) and generally by the already engaged. Rarely do they attract people who are unlikely to vote or ‘turned off’ by politics. Can we find ways to open up the debate in ways which fit more readily with the way people live their lives and in terms which are more directly relevant and meaningful?

For me the solutions are in connecting the power of social technology that growing numbers of people use regularly with the traditional methods of face-to-face politics. I may not want to go to a political rally, a public meeting or a local hustings, but that doesn’t mean I’m not interested.

Surely there are some social tech people who might usefully turn their attention to helping our political parties become more sociable in the interests of democracy and political engagement?


Community Sector Tales & Social Reporting

David Wilcox, who has been doing social reporting with John Popham as part of the Big Lottery Fund’s People Powered Change programme, asked me to write something about our ideas and experience for the Social Reporters blog. Here’s what i came up with….


People power change is what we do at Urban Forum. Supporting communities to play a leading role in what happens within their communities. We believe that improved local outcomes must be based on citizen’s own vision for their area and that with a bit of support and some creative thinking a huge amount can be achieved. That does not, in our view, mean that communities should be abandoned by the state – far from it. Even with the spending cuts in the public sector, it’s worth reminding ourselves that we still spend a huge amount of public money in the UK. If we can align resources to be more responsive to local needs and ambitions public bodies can play a hugely important enabling role and support co-design and co-production.

Urban Forum is also very interested in social reporting and as an evidence-based organisation we see knowledge as one of the most important assets for ourselves and for communities. However knowledge comes in many different forms and resides in different places. We, like many organisations conducting research, have traditionally relied on distilling the findings from surveys, interviews and focus groups and presenting them in reports. Whilst we might feel we present this information in a more accessible way than most, we still tend to do it in a fairly traditional way. With the technological advances of recent years and the explosion of social media and multimedia use, we feel the time is right to find new ways to conduct research and present evidence.

‘Community Sector Tales’ is our first foray into the world of digital curation. We’re are inviting our members to share their experience and views of life in the local community sector today, with their photos, videoclips, audio, drawings and written words. We’re using the hashtag #VCSTales to curate content from across the web. We then plan to use this to create a montage of content depicting the community sector today, which we also plan to use in a report that the Office for Civil Society have commissioned us to produce on Big Society and the community sector.


Here’s a taster from Chorlton Good Neighbours – Pumpkin pie, and spotted dick for pudding 


With Urban Forum’s 900 members engaged in such a wide range of exciting and valuable People Powered Change, we think these stories and images will help build connections and inspire us to learn and share across the sector. We all know how powerful a picture can be, so it seems appropriate to start incorporating this into how we work.

We hope that our experience – and that of the many visual artists, storytellers, social reporters and other people and organisations using creative ways to present information – can help others to explore these ways of working. Perhaps Big Lottery Fund might like to think about accepting evaluation reports in the form of a video or photos? Or there might be ways they could help people powered groups to gain skills and confidence to begin using these approaches? If we start by accepting the benefits of using more visual ways of presenting information, then ideas about the ways to support them will, I suspect, flow quite naturally. First we need to overcome some cultural biases about the value of pictures and stories – a theme I picked up in a recent blog.

I’ll leave the final word to the Nobel-winning scientist Peter Debye: ‘I can only think in pictures…’s all visual’.


How Charitable Trusts can use social media

Here i am being interviewed by John Popham (as part of his role doing social reporting for the Big Lottery Fund), at the Association of Charitable Foundations’ seminar on using social media.

I was speaking at the seminar – hosted by City Bridge Trust – along with Big Lottery Fund CEO Peter Wanless [you can see John interviewing Peter here –] about ways that Charitable Trusts and Foundations can use social media.



John has also written a report of the event which you can find here –

My presentation – which covers; what is social media, why bother, the benefits, challenges and tips – is available below – but be warned….it may not make much sense without some words to accompany the pictures! 🙂

Turning off the social media brain whizz

I just read an interesting post by A Dragon’s Best Friend on how social media makes his mind whizz and asking the question ‘when does it ever switch off’. I can empathise with a number of the issues raised in this excellent post. I started to write a comment in response…but as I typed, the comment got longer and longer, until it felt like it was really worthy of a post in it’s own right…so here is my reflections on the questions he raised:

Is social media affection our attention span? I just started reading ‘The Shallows’ which starts with the premise that the internet (& other tech) is changing how our brains are wired – not just how we behave but physiologically too. I’m only half way through it (as I got distracted reading the Social Animal….also well worth a read. Oh dear… I realise that may simply prove my own lack of concentration?). I don’t have a problem with this concept…technology constantly changes society and our physiology (doesn’t it?). Sportsmen and sportswomen are faster, stronger and quicker – at least in part because of advances in sports technology. It happens… I’ve noticed that most of my writing these days tends to be around the 1000 word mark. When I’m asked to write substantially longer articles I find it much harder. But when I was at college I was more accustomed to writing longer essays (and the difficulties writing them was not down to my writing habits…more to do with alternative things to do). Do we need to worry about it? I’m not panicking yet.

Like you I do find myself often buzzing with ‘stuff’ from interesting conversations on twitter (mostly twitter…not always, but for me, it’s far more common to provide a stimulating discussion than other platforms). Personally I do still feel fairly able to switch things off though. Maybe that’s because it is the ‘off’…the creative outlet for thinking that makes me relax….rather than the ‘must do’ pressure that work can generate.

I also think that my brain has something of an in-built safety valve….as i reach the point of needing to switch off, i see my tweets becoming more jovial, pithy and less serious…and my conversations become less thought-provoking and more relaxing. It’s obviously not the same as ‘switching off’ totally, but it does slow down the brain-mania a little.

Another interesting issue you mentioned is expectations….how often you tweet, blog etc etc…

I’ve got contradictory thoughts here – several far more successful bloggers than me that I know all swear the way to build up your blog is to post every day. Little and often is there mantra – if the goal is to generate increased regular traffic….but my brain and my diary don’t work like that. I have periods of heavy twitter use and then days (usually ones where I’m looking after the kids) where I barely tweet at all. I’d love to blog more frequently than I do, and often I get as far as having something to say which never makes it out of my head – I would say that about 20% of the posts I ‘think’ ever make it onto my blog. then there are other times where I just feel a bit uninspired to write anything…and so I don’t. I don’t feel too much pressure to post during these times (though I do get irritated with myself for not converting thoughts into postings…that’s my bugbear!)

Essentially I think it really depends on what you’re looking to get out of blogging, or tweeting or whatever. For me (and I’ve never really thought about this much, so I’m grateful to you for posing the question!), I guess it’s partly about my work – wanting to maintain a profile and reputation for the work I do (and thinking is part of this), partly it’s social – connecting with people (some of whom I know, others I don’t…except through online chatter). And partly it’s about writing for my own pleasure – whether that’s venting my spleen over issues that make me angry, exploring ideas that are floating around and probably half baked (as a way to clarify my thinking). Sometimes – like this – I read something which makes me think and I just want to respond. I often don’t know where I’m going to end up….i just start with a thought and see where it takes me.

Like writing this post, which was only going to be a comment on your blog, but somehow ended up being a bit long for that…so it became a post in its own right!


Social media helps knee to knee

Cormac Russell of the renowned Asset Based Community Development Institute (and by his own admission ‘a social media newbie’) asked whether people were suggesting that online communication augments, replaces or substitutes “knee to knee connections”. [I have to admit, I do like ‘knee to knee’…will have to adopt that one!]

This followed a lively debate in the comments on my earlier blog on communication and the community organisers programme.

Cormac’s question is an important one and I thought it warranted a quick blog in response in it’s own right….so here goes. [Part two of my response to recent community organising debate will have to wait!]

Nothing replaces face to face (or from now on, knee to knee!) communication. It’s the basis of society and civilisation and has been since, well, since we invited language. Social media is not and cannot be a replacement to the benefits of meeting to chew over the fat with each other. However I strongly believe that social media does bring something new to the party…

1)      Social media allows us to communicate with people we cannot meet face to face with. It allows people to interact who otherwise would not be able to, or may not even know. The comments from Garry Garrilla are very interesting and add things to the debate I would otherwise not have known. I’ve never met Garry…I don’t even know who he is or where he lives. Clearly debating online has enhanced my experience by allowing me to connect with others with similar interests.

2)      Another thing I think that social media does to enhance debate and complement discussions in person, is the fact that (for the most part) it takes place ‘in the open’. Even if people wish not to post comments and directly participate in the debate, it allows them to follow what others are saying. This obviously gives a degree of transparency that would otherwise be impossible – a report of a meeting, event or discussion, is not the same as it is always produced through the eyes of the author. It offers more than transparency though, as it also provides a record of what people said that can (and should!) be used to hold them to account.

3)      Online may be a neat way to describe all the internet has to offer, but it’s not really a single thing….and that’s another thing I like about social media. The current debate about community organisers has taken place across numerous blogs, on twitter, via email (I speak for myself here), on Nings and no doubt countless other platforms. Some is instant and conducted in realtime – much like a conversation – others are more linear….one person posts something, and then later someone else responds. And others still, mix the two. As anyone with even a cursory interest in participation will know, people like to participate in different ways and through different methods. This is as true for online participation as it is for offline participation. So, the fact that social media adds numerous different platforms and styles of communication is great.

Of course social media cannot replace face to face contact, but it can, augment it and enhance it. When I meet someone who’s participated in this recent discussion, we will pick up where the online discussion left off. Then, afterwards we will no doubt return to online interaction – probably involving a range of other people.

We don’t yet know, as Clay Shirky has eloquently said in ‘Here Comes Everybody’, what the implications of all this technological development are on society. But I for one, am determined to give it a go and see how we can use it and have fun finding out!


Toby Blume
Chief Executive 

Urban Forum