How Youth Organizations Use Tech to Build Student Social Capital

Helping students develop their "social capital" — the people and environments they have access to, including caring teachers, tutors, mentors, coaches, friends, who can help them thrive — isn't just a job for those present in their lives face-to-face. According to a non-scientific online survey, many organizations are looking for ways to help young people (those ages 14 to 24) expand their networks too, according to a new analysis by the Christensen Institute.

The institute heard from 96 organizations that shared information on the populations they serve, the programs and tools they have in place to support student relationships and related topics. An article by Julia Freeland Fisher shared 10 findings, including these: that the tools for tracking or measuring the quality of relationships are homegrown, if they exist at all, and that there could be "an untapped market" for learning materials these organizations could use in helping their young clients build their social capital.

Freeland is the co-author of a new book, Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations that Expand Students' Networks, published by Jossey-Bass, that examines the innovations emerging that can help students connect to resources that would otherwise be out of reach to them, such as experts who can provide virtual mentoring, deliver enrichment experiences and expose them to fields and careers "beyond their radar."

In the survey, the three most common kinds of relationships a majority of respondents said their organizations focused on helping young people develop were adult mentors (cited by 74 percent), peer cohorts (65 percent) and industry mentors (62 percent). The least likely to be mentioned were job coaches, guidance counselors, hiring managers and senior citizens. These "weak ties," she wrote, can offer "potentially high payoff" for job opportunities or other kinds of life-building information.

Most of the responding organizations (89 percent) also reported that they "aim to teach networking and relationship-building as part of their program." Among those who provide lessons on relationship building, most also reported that they created their curriculum in-house.

Technology in use was also disparate. Respondents listed a collective 26 different platforms used for maintaining relationships, from phone calls (71 percent) and text messaging (64 percent) to Slack and Snap Chat (just above and below 20 percent, respectively).

The greatest obstacle organizations mentioned in their social capital efforts was figuring out how to measure the quality of those relationships (50 percent) being brokered and how to keep track of them (47 percent). Of the 41 organizations that reported tracking relationships, more than half (22 of them) said they use measurement tools they've built themselves and another nine said they're currently building tools to do so.

Freeland Fisher suggested that there was a "clear appetite emerging" in organizations for tools that could help them track relationships and measure their quality, and possibly for some kind of canned lessons on relationship-building that could be used with youth audiences. Also, she noted, perhaps more research could be done on which technologies do the best job in combination of brokering connections, communicating with students, tracking relationships as they unfold and measuring the quality of those relationships over time.

The fuller analysis of the survey results is openly available on the Christensen Institute website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.