Government proposals last week suggesting that children should learn how to use the social networking website Twitter, as well as blogs, webcams and podcasts, may appear to be a radical education overhaul but it may also offer an opportunity for brands to communicate better with British youngsters.
Under the plans drafted by Ofsted’s former director of inspections, Sir Jim Rose, the current school curriculum – from primary school upwards – should be replaced with a “new hi-tech” version helping children to “develop an understanding” of different ways to communicate online.
Academics have complained that the plans are “overly radical”, but according to Dr Jeffery Cole, a media futurist and director of the Centre for the Digital Future at the University of South Carolina, the plans fit in with a new group of digital-minded youths known as Generation Z.
“It’s interesting to hear of these proposals as it reflects research we have done on youths and their online habits. We call the main group Generation Z, the 12- to 24-year-olds who will be driving media consumption in the future,” he says.
According to Nielsen Online, the use of Twitter has risen 1,689% in the past year, with 1.78 million users now registered. Dr Cole argues that Twitter and other technology will be fundamental to Generation Z pupils, as they will do the majority of their learning online.
“Generation Z teenagers are unlikely to read newspapers; they will use the internet for research or to find out the latest news. So being able to speak, write and broadcast using technology is a valuable skill for them,” he says.
The news on Twitter
“For example, the Mumbai attacks and the Amsterdam aeroplane crash were both reported on Twitter first. Advertisers should work on monetising this – it’s an opportunity for brands to engage with the users,” he says.
Chris Ward, UK commercial director of Microsoft Advertising, agrees: “We are using Windows Live Messenger and the MSN portal in new ways to engage with young audiences. An example of this is our recent Jive Brows viral campaign, allowing users to film their own version of the Cadbury’s Dancing Brows TV ad and gaining hundreds of responses from intrigued teens.”
Dumbing down or looking forward?
Sceptics of the government plans say the reforms will “dumb down” the curriculum. The report says schools must still explore local and global issues, such as climate change and recycling, as well as how to speak, write and broadcast online.
Dr Cole suggests that, rather than dumbing down, as the 21st century continues to progress, youths will become more dependent on the internet for their media needs.
“We will begin to see a greater shift towards video-on-demand than we already are. We will have very different demands from what we have today. The micro-blogging that we see on Twitter now will also be more mainstream, as youths begin to explore new ways of sharing their lives with each other from any location. Learning this at school will just fuel this,” he predicts.
These hi-tech plans have the potential to reform the ways that children communicate with their friends and the way that brands engage with them. It will have to be done with responsibility and transparency if it is to avoid falling foul of regulations. But those companies that can understand how young people are using social media may well learn a thing or two themselves as these techniques become mainstream.