Gippslandia #8 - The VRI - Young Sparks

Young sparks.

After my first teaching rounds on the outskirts of eastern Melbourne, I decided that I’d still complete my teaching studies because I hate to leave things unfinished, no matter how painful teaching seemed. I never wanted to be a teacher. But never is a strong word, and learning from our youth via teaching and The VRI is a joy.

My second round was at Lowanna College, Newborough, and it was a positive experience. When I’d completed a project and was looking for my next thing, I heard about a temporary fill-in teaching position there. It seemed like a perfect short-term role while I worked out what I would do next. Nine years later…

Turns out that I really enjoyed teaching. It was one of my favourite jobs. I learnt so much. The youth of the Latrobe Valley is really interesting, as many come from diverse backgrounds.

Prior to teaching, I’d worked on a Y2K-related project providing unprecedented access to the Internet and technology. Yet at home, I could only afford four hours on a dial-up per month. It’s hard to believe now, but when I started teaching, many teachers weren’t using these technologies. Sometimes I’d send an email to a colleague and never get a response!

In saying this, it was my scheduled IT classes with students where I gained more of an education in technology. When I got stuck with a tech-related problem, there was always a student who knew how to solve it. Technology is a trial and error learning experience. Young people seem more inclined to take risks with tech, which helps them to gain confidence faster, and they rose to the occasion when given challenges they cared about.

When MySpace was popular, many of my students were using the site. I was intrigued, but I was also worried and unsure. I didn’t want to be an alarmist, so I started a blog myself. After blogging pretty consistently for 10 years I learnt a lot.

By the time I left teaching Myspace was just a distant memory for most students. I was still overcoming my awkwardness about the online world and technology. There was, and still is, so much to navigate. But I missed the interactions over technology with students so much that in 2013 we began the LV Digital Shed, in partnership with Lavalla Catholic College at Traralgon Neighbourhood House. The first group of Lavalla students helped us to crowdfund for the establishment of The VRI project in Traralgon as well. Our youth have been present at every stage of The VRI: from the crowdfunding to co-designing workshops, to our working bees and building our courtyard. The students teach us how to use mobile phones more effectively, or just how technology can make life easier. They’ve provided individual assistance to people in our programs who are struggling with technology. They continue to contribute their ideas, energy and resources to the space.

Young people’s attitude to try and fail quickly is a strength. Older people were punished for getting an answer wrong when they were at school, so their attitude to failure with technology is different. The older people coming to our programs were not all trained to use a keyboard or a mouse — that’s often the first new skill they need. Many of them have completed a course at the Neighbourhood House, but have forgotten a step or two in a process or they’re tired of asking family for help. They want to know the right answer, but if the machines don’t respond, they stop trying. Failure can frustrate them and this obstructs their progression. Thankfully, the students assisting in our programs are patient, kind and acknowledge the courage it takes to learn a new skill. Perhaps they’ve had to teach multiple family members before!

Many young people have kindly assisted our programs. Thomas Crosbie, who started a social enterprise giving away computers to people who need them, came in and shared his story. Steven Heller outlined his inspirational career in making games. Ian Gumby Mitchell has taught a class on animation, and this year brought in ‘ENZBOTS’, a game that he’d made for students to test. We have drones, Google Goggles and other tech toys for people to play and experiment with. It’s a continually engaging space as we watch everyone investigate these devices.

I’ve seen our local youth run successful music events at The VRI with only the slightest outside support and guidance. Last year, our Alt_Art team filled the calendar with exhibitions, workshops and events, such as a 24-hour film festival and spoken-word open mic nights. Their willingness and creativity delivered memorable occasions in the space. The likes of PollyannaR, Steph Shields, Grace Ware and Catherine Webb have assisted with upskilling many people via their robust knowledge and energetic leadership.

Matilda Lappin has built a business through macramé workshops at The VRI, recently opening a retail store in Morwell, The Bee and the Spider. It’s home to a range of artists’ work and classes. It’s a community education hub that she’s built through her consistent efforts, making her a young social entrepreneur to watch.

By working on the Binary Shift Conference I’ve reconnected with past students, including leading mixed-reality artist Marco Ryan and DXC’s Associate Chief Technologist, Phil Matheson. Phil was even named the Australian Computer Society’s Young ICT Professional Of The Year at their Digital Disruptors Awards. My learning from students continues as I look forward to hearing from them, and PollyannaR’s adventures in technology, at this year’s conference.

I leave you with a question, if you don’t have young people in your organisation, why not? It may appear to be a favour or that you’re giving them a hand, but the truth is that you’ll gain as many benefits in return. Pay attention and they’ll teach you plenty. Their willingness to launch into problems with a fresh perspective, overcome early failures and persist until they succeed can bring much-needed innovation to your business or projects.

Our youth need opportunities to demonstrate what they know and what they can do. If you don’t know where to find them, feel free to contact me.

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