Feedback and evaluation

U Siemachy Association used a number of ways of gathering feedback and evaluating the project. We collected necessary information in a formal way, with the use of both quantitative and qualitative methods (also in cooperation with other INCLUSO partners). We have realised online questionnaires for youngsters, traditional questionnaires for the staff (both tools desinged by the Dutch partner, Verwey-Jonker Institute), focus groups interviews for the participants, individual interviews for the youth workers and content analysis of the social software tools (messages, pictures, movies, chat conversations etc.). However, we also gathered information in a less structured and formal way: through ordinary, frequent conversations with the youth workers and young people themselves, through observations when participating at events or workshops etc.
The data we gathered is more of a qualitative than quantitative nature. We have collected numerous opinions and reflections of young people and adults involved in the project. There are plenty of lessons learned from the realisation of the INCLUSO project. Here are the most important ones (quite numerous, in fact):

  • There is no perfect social software tool. The existing ones are incomplete and sometimes disappointing. It does not change the fact that they provide plenty of great opportunities for successful work. It is better to go for existing tools than spend a lot of time and money to create our own tool, which, in the end, will be anyway worse than Facebook or Picasa.
  • Using social software is not difficult and it does not require a lot of technical knowledge or special skills. They are quite intuitive. It is not the technical side, which makes it hard to implement social software on the work of social organisations. The problem lies on the patterns we follow in our professional lives; in our habits and our minds. The social sector needs a paradigm shift to acknowledge and respond to the new reality, including virtual world.
  • We shouldn’t expect social software to be an answer for everything. The existing social software is designed to allow users for having fun. Expecting that it will be good eg. for educational purposes is wishful thinking.
  • Even if social software was good for educational purposes, it wouldn’t be used by young people in this way from the very beginning. First we need to attract young people by something which provides excitement, then we can think about keeping their motivation for more serious things. When beginning with social software – combine work with fun. Do not get too serious!
  • Social software is not yet perceived as a regular method of work; rather as leisure. It needs more recognition and support. If possible, get a VIP involved in your project, it will help you to convince the unconvinced (management of your organisation, social servants, social workers, maybe local politicians) that social software is worth using.
  • Successful activities require management support. If members of the management (of all levels) are not convinced that social software serves the young people’s benefit, they will not provide circumstances allowing for this kind of work.
  • A motivated adult is a clue for a successful project. In our pilot we faced a lot of crisis situations due to the fact that adults were not motivated enough. It is the best, if a teacher/tutor/educator volunteers to participate in the project. If he/she is appointed, make sure that he/she is interested in working with social software or open enough to experiment. Otherwise the project will become a disaster.
  • It should be remembered that using social software should be treated more as a METHOD of work than a separate PROJECT (even if we use the term “social software project”). We can successfully keep the same activities that we used to perform offline everyday, but with the use of new, online tools. You do counselling? Try using additionally MSN for that. You went for camping with a group of young people? Except for watching the pictures together once after the camp, use Picasa to share them online and watch as often, as you want. You ran a workshop for young people living in various locations? Keep their relations by creating a social software network on Ning or Facebook. Your youth theatre group is organising a show? You cannot replace rehearsals, but maybe it is worth trying chatrooms and Google Apps to plan the event right instead of doing that face-to-face?
  • There is no perfect model of implementing social software in a social organisation. There are far too many tools and far too many ways of using them. Thanks God! Social organisations may keep creative in helping young people at risk to find their successful way of living.
  • Whatever you do, remember that young people should decide how they want to use social software. You will never succeed in forcing them to follow your ideas. It should be the other way round. If you insist on your ideas, your activities, your tools, young people will drop out.
  • Online world provide opportunity for young people, who are not the most promising in face-to-face contacts. When being online different personal features and skills are needed. Using social software helps those people to build up their self-confidence, develop communication and even leadership skills. Given just that, it should be enough to make use of social software.
  • When working as a group, young people value face-to-face meetings very much. Switching from 100% offline to 100% online activities would be a mistake. Offline contacts must not be forgotten.
  • Begin to love the word “small”. Take small steps. Very developed and complicated activities are demotivating for young people (see: the difference between online organisation of a big ecological event and small flashmobs). Small successes help to build up motivation. When working with groups: it is better to gather a small one. Big one will be hard to handle. Big age differences in the group, especially in the beginning, do not work in a favour of social software work. A teenager has got other ideas and things to discuss than a 20-years-old; a 12-years-old boy has got different problems than a young 18-years-old man. A small age difference of 2 or 3 years is just enough.
  • Young people do not need as much training as we think. They are familiar and comfortable with social software tools. Even if they no not know a particular one, they learn to use it pretty fast simply by doing and experimenting. Adults need a lot more attention and training that young people. However, young people should be well informed about online safety and privacy rules. They should also know basic legal rules regarding their activities in the Web.
  • Some services are paid, some are not allowed for children under 13, some make you agree to use your own photos by the service providers. Pay attention to codes of conduct and all rules given with social software tools. It determines the youngsters’ and your own safety and comfort.