Introducing the 1997 Digital Natives, 97ers, and their networked communities of learning

I have worked with self-taught young programmers (aged 18 and under) in Young Rewired State since 2009; and in 1997 I gave birth to my own little digital native. My passion for learning, observing and being amongst networked communities in various forms, means that I have begun to see some interesting trends and patterns that are fascinating, and I am going to write a series of things about this. Here is the first and in it I refer to the 97er. By this I mean child born in 1997 OR LATER: The true digital natives.

Educational webs

In 1971, funnily enough when I was born, Ivan Illich (a philosopher, Catholic priest and “maverick social critic”) published a book on education and society: Deschooling Society. It is available to read for free here. He was crazily ahead of his time in his thinking, but I think he was not far off in his insight into how technology could transform education, and how in turn this would change society.

I am not profound enough to offer opinion on all of his book and beliefs on society, but I am with him completely on networked learning. He believed that the future of learning lay in communities:

“… educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing and caring…”

What is beautiful about this quote is that he talks of the ‘heightening’ and ‘transforming’ benefits of the web, and that this could and should be applied to every ‘moment’. What a salve it is to read how this is a good thing, a great thing, and can be embraced not feared or controlled.

The 97ers are already immersed in this web of learning. Whether we approve of *what* they are learning or not is immaterial, but they are there playing, interacting, growing up, making mistakes, testing boundaries, making boundaries, exploring things they find interesting or funny and more importantly – sharing their discoveries.

This is not news, but it is often feared or criticised as it is not well-understood. Many people are trying to ‘harness the power of the internet’ (mainly because it is not documented or governed and has our children in its thrall – an unseen digital Pied Piper, skipping off with our children to the lilting voice of Siri).

But it is not the internet that is doing this, it is the networked communities the children find online, people stripped of physical boundaries and prejudices they face daily in school and life, an open forum of communities they can opt into or out of.

As adults we imagine Lord of the Flies horrors, with children unable to cope with this ungoverned world, and are braced for constant catastrophe. But I see this networked online space, this world wide web, as a maverick place that they are shaping and governing themselves. Creating their own rules for digital citizenship if you like.

Strangers in this place stick out, people pretending to be other people are quickly caught out. And before you “aha” me with stories of paedophiles and paedophile rings infiltrating the networks of young people by pretending to be young people themselves – yes, this happened, but it happened when this digital native crew were very young. They grew up with this, and they are very canny now, even as 16 year olds, and know what to look for and how to identify people. Not just by name.

And as they learn, so they look out for their younger siblings, whether these be actual blood relatives, or young web-dwellers. My daughter, and her friends, regularly crawl all over the social media accounts and games forums occupied by those younger than them. They look for tells and behaviour that is not natural to them or their peers and don’t dally, they delete. There is no ‘intervention’ you can delete and block early signs of danger in a way not possible anywhere else in life. If it looks dodgy, assume it is and move on. They don’t make a fuss over it, this instant gratification society that we so condemn in young people should be embraced, to some extent, because it keeps them safe in an instant online world.

We cannot beat them at this game. These children, the 97ers, are soon going to graduate into the working world, and it is for them to adapt the web to their growing experiences, not ours to adopt and govern. This is why web monitoring by “grown ups” will not work. More on that later.

Peer-to-peer learning

What we can do, is look at how we can use this incredible resource to help shape learning and education. Back to 1971 and Illich:

The operation of a peer-matching network would be simple. The user would identify himself by name and address and describe the activity for which he sought a peer. A computer would send him back the names and addresses of all those who had inserted the same description. It is amazing that such a simple utility has never been used on a broad scale for publicly valued activity.

I fully believe that the current coding movement and crisis in how to teach programming, of finding enough teachers with the knowledge to fit the traditional role of teacher standing in front of a room full of children, ready to impart all knowledge, is the tipping point away from classroom-based education. There is no way on God’s earth that anyone could hope to study to be a computing teacher and hold the knowledge necessary to teach the children all the digital skills necessary for future work, life and community.

What I see happening in Young Rewired State is peer-to-peer learning, shaped by mentors. Take the phenominal take up of the YRS/Google assemblies as an anecdotal example. We announced this project on Friday just to meet the needs of the many people asking for YRSers to share their experiences with their peers. Within 24 hours we were so swamped with young people wanting to run an assembly that we had to build a database, write auto-responders, set up a new email address and adjust our delivery plans. (You can read the stories of these young people here).

If you ask any of those young people what they value in YRS, they will always say: community. Having a community of peers and mentors who are collectively so knowledgeable that they *know* all learning and discovery can be completed and shared, within this network, is like stumbling on the oasis in the desert. It is also new, and exciting, and the boundaries have not yet been discovered, let alone tested. I am enjoying watching them race to the boundaries – I want to see where they are too.

If we continue in the UK to try to retrofit traditional education formats to programming and computing, digital skills these natives do need to have – we know the result is going to have to be tempered to delivery restraints unseen beyond this subject. And so there will be no choice but to flip the classroom.

If we could really embrace the flipped classroom methodology, encourage young people to learn outside the classroom, from networks of people immersed in subjects, then bring that learning back to their lessons and share this learning in a more formal environment, where the teacher can curate the conversation and bring together the information strings – how much more engaged, relevant and testing would the learning be?

I know this seems like a pipe dream because it requires such a monumental shift in the way we ‘do’ education now, except for the home-schooled, but when a 97er becomes Secretary of State for Education, with another ’97er in Number 10 – it will happen then. I hope it doesn’t take that long.

(Read the next blog post on the 97er and Identity)

… and the third one just published on social activism

For those used to assuming that this applies to GenY, or The Millennials, here is a clarification

97ers and work

Young Rewired State 2014

So this year Young Rewired State (YRS) is six years old, believe it or not! We are still wholly focused on those young people aged 18 and under driven to teach themselves how to code, introducing them to open data and a community of their peers.

Of course the campaigning we at YRS and Rewired State have championed and supported to encourage more people to learn programming has meant that there are many more opportunities for learning now. Kudos to all the many organisations such as Code Club, Apps for Good, Decoded, TeenTech and Coder Dojo (to name the ones we know well and love).

This means that the YRS community has grown at an incredible rate over recent years, as it helps other young people learn from and teach each other. They hone their skills through building apps, websites and games, writing algorithms and parsing data – more often than not, solving real problems and challenges they experience.

This year we are doing three big things…

ONE: YRS/Google assemblies

We have a great community of hundreds of young people, most of whom do not go to the same school. They come alive when they talk about their skills and the community – and so we have teamed with Google to offer every person in YRS a sponsored assembly.

The YRSer will be helped by a dedicated YRS mentor to prepare an assembly, using slide decks, videos and YRS and Google schwag.

The point of these assemblies is for the young people already in the YRS community to tell their peers about what they have done, what they can do, and the support from Google shows how important their talents are to a multi-National brand every child will know (and probably want to work for because of the beanbags, slides and The Internship movie). It also challenges the familiar media view of nerdy, often male, programmers.

The videos I have used in this post are the videos we have made specifically for this project

Two: The Festival of Code will be International & the finale weekend will be held in Plymouth University

Every year we run the Festival of Code in multiple centres across the UK. This year we are including the centres outside the UK. This means that the festival now includes all the young people who have taken part in a Young Rewired State: Everywhere (YRS{e}) weekend around the world, and the community reaches across borders and Nations. This is the point of YRS – to create a networked community of young people worldwide who have grown up with open data and peer-to-peer learning.

Plymouth University have been incredibly generous in their offer to sponsor part of the cost and host the Festival, and house the YRSers over the weekend, meeting their challenging Wifi and power needs – and enabling us to continue to run the Festival now that many hundreds, tipping over a thousand young people, take part. Thank you so much!

(Travel to Plymouth will be arranged!! Planes, trains and automobiles will be activated – maybe holding the finale in Plymouth will encourage the YRSers to invent the flying car we were all assured in the 70s was going to be the vehicle we would be using in the 21st century).

Register as a centre, mentor or young person for the Festival of Code here: (it costs nothing to register or attend, it is funded through sponsorship. Feel free to apply to be a sponsor: emma at rewiredstate .org)

Three: YRS Hyperlocal and Rewired State/ly

We also announced that YRS Hyperlocal will happen in centres across the UK post the Festival, where the YRSers will be able to work, in the Festival centres that choose to opt in, with each other and mentors to take their Festival prototypes to product. At which point we will hand them over into the safe hands of partners we trust (morals/ethics).

We also announced Rewired Stately: a free Rewired State event that is happening in the last quarter of 2014 for programmers aged 50 or over, whether these be newly minted programmers or life-long, at which we will introduce them to open data and the rest of the RS/YRS community.

For more information on either of these programmes, email

Please note: we do not teach kids to code… we bring together those who can code, from rudimentary knowledge to poly-codal, and take them forward to the next challenge – solving the real world problems 

Get in… Funded by “The People”

So today we are celebrating. Today we reached/exceeded our target of £20,000

I had promised myself that I would save up the blog post I wanted so much to write about crowd-sourced funding until after we had actually achieved it. So within minutes of the target being reached – here I am.

Firstly, thank you so much to everyone who either donated or promoted our call for funds. Part of the reason I was so excited when I happened to catch a tweet about the launch of (PFI) was that we had found a way to involve the people who have been such a huge part of Young Rewired State (YRS) over the years and have really wanted to contribute, even if it was only a fiver, and I hated having to just go for corporate sponsorship – which is its own special nightmare.

It’s the crowd, man

I know that Kickstarter exists and is excellent, but have always been confused as to whether UK organisations could apply – and still am – so PFI appeared at exactly the right time: just as we were cranking up the calls for participation for YRS2012 we had a way of including the community that champions what we do.

It is so important to me and to what we are doing with Young Rewired State, that this is something that can be truly community-based, and community-funded*, and I really do feel that the people who have chosen to pledge money to YRS are as much a part of this as we are. I will work hard to ensure this happens as we race towards August, and to celebrate this at the festival of code itself.

But the pledgers were not only individuals, some were start-ups, some start-ups founded by YRS alumni, others were small businesses who really know how important this peer-to-peer interaction and learning is, and have benefitted directly or indirectly from it.

I will come back to this point in a mo…

It was hard work

Believe you me, this was not a case of submit the information, set a target and sit back and let PFI/twitter do the work. Sure we had an early high with those who were already bursting to be involved in some way pledging their cash, then a lull during which time Stephen Fry tweeted about it, as did Martha Lane-Fox and other luminaries – this rarely translated into money donations, but it did certainly raise the profile and we won in a different way by more kids signing up to come along – which is just as brilliant. I asked PFI to send a timeline of donations, it’s here if you are interested! (Thanks Jake!)

It took a *lot* of hard work and time. I became horribly mercenary, everyone who wanted me to do something or talk somewhere would be hit by a request from me to donate! My poor, poor social networks were reminded pretty much daily that they could contribute, through a variety of thinly veiled pointers to the donation site. My family did not escape, in fact my poor Mum – who had worked out how to pledge through GoCardless, then cancelled the pledge when she later looked at her online banking and did not recognise the direct debit – is still insisting on sending a cheque. Rewired State events were hijacked by pleas for donations to YRS and friends with rich friends mercilessly ‘reminded’.

But £20,000 is a LOT of money. Maybe not in bubble world, but in the real world, it is a huge sum. And ten weeks is not a long time to raise it. No matter how good the cause or idea, it needs to be relevant and there has to be value for money.

So this is a massive and resounding success, and I am just so pleased that it worked out.

Peer to peer funding

So as much as peer-to-peer learning is key right now, so it seems is peer-to-peer funding. But there is a missing element to this.

When Young Rewired State first started in 2009, we were sponsored £23,000, mainly from government if I remember correctly. Once the weekend was over, we had £5,000 left and so we looked for somewhere to donate that money. We gave it to Jonty Wareing and Hackspace, they had not found premises and needed a small lump to help them.

It was a perfect transaction, we had it spare, they needed it and they were providing something that would help the YRSers of the future.

This year the Real Time Club got in touch with us, after being pointed in our direction by the fabulous Simon Peyton-Jones and the Computing at Schools network (yes I blasted them too!), they had a similar situation with some excess money at the end of their year that they wanted to put towards a good cause. I went to meet them and explained about YRS, they talked to me about it and agreed to donate some money. Not only this, but one of the people I was introduced to there took me to the school for which they are a governor: Anson Primary, a remarkable school, doing wonderful things and now a YRS centre. Win!

It would be nice to think that as this crowd-sourced funding jag becomes more popular, so the circle continues. It would be nice if as the community funds projects, so the projects, once they become successful or if they end up with excess, helps the funding community. What a way to encourage individual enterpreneurism? What if a reward for pledging money to a community project or any project for that matter, came with a promise to assist anyone who was thinking of starting something themselves.

Just as YRS is a real example of P2P learning, so we can learn from the actions of the alumni, who all come back, year on year, to help support and assist the newbies coming through. It would be good to see this fostered in P2P funding and next year when I do this again (oh yes I sill, sorry gang) I will find a way to do just that.

Finally a HUGE thank you to the people at People Fund It, they have been hugely helpful and supportive and of course, those YRS alumni and mentors I have stumbled across working at GoCardless!

*Post Script

The PFI £20k is not the total sum we are having to raise for YRS, we are having to raise further funds through traditional sponsorship. This is to cover the costs of the event itself on the Friday and Saturday. The money raised using community funding is for the kids, hardship funds for travel, believe you me this will be hammered this year!, and anything else they might need during the week – it is a very specific amount and a very specific purpose that feels right to be funded by the community. Other costs such as toilets, marquees and AV can be funded by the corporate sponsorship we raise. If you want to know the total amount we need to raise for YRS this year, it is £50,000 (including the PFI £20k) – and if we don’t use it all, we will be donating it back to other social projects, naturally.