Meet... Zowi Vermeire

Which impact does the digital world have on how youngsters view education? That is one of the questions youth researcher Zowi Vermeire occupies herself with. She researches how youngsters' online activities have changed how and what they learn. “I use online environments as a source of inspiration to look at regular education differently.”

What is your PhD research about?

“As a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences, I submerged myself in a number of online learning communities on YouTube, Twitch and TikTok in which youngsters are active. For that, I interviewed youngsters and observed them. When we think of learning, we usually think of school. But I instead look at how youngsters learn in their leisure time when they are active on social media. How are these platforms used to develop in a different way than in school? Then, maybe other ideas can come about on what it means to be a ‘developed’ person. Maybe they'll think: ‘I don't need school degrees anymore, I can compile my own degree in a way that I like.’”

Your research is not complete yet, but do you already have some findings you can share?

“In an online community of ethical hackers on Twitch, youngsters help each other to learn to program in order to build tools with which they legally hack companies to help them get their security in order. Within that community, a university degree is almost trusted less than gaining online knowledge. This is because according to them, regular education is behind the times when it comes to these online insights. Another example is gamers on Twitch who live stream how they can complete a game as fast as possible, so-called ‘speedrunners’. That goes wrong regularly and they often have to start over. In schools, youngsters experience much pressure to perform these days: there is no room for failure. Online, they see that there is and that's how they can escape this pressure in this online environment.”

Young People Learning in Digital Worlds is a bigger project which your research is a part of. What would you like people to get out of your research?

“The tone about social media and youngsters is quite negative, but if youngsters didn't like it there, they wouldn't be spending this much time online. The online risks such as securing privacy and data storage shouldn't be downplayed. But I think it's also important that we don't lose sight of the fact that many youngsters gain fun and value from online environments. That's why I think it's important for lecturers in education, but for parents too, to take youngsters' online experiences more seriously and have conversations about them. By listening to what actually appeals to youngsters online, we might learn how would they like to be taught. That's more than occasionally showing a YouTube video in class. It's about ways of learning that change because of technology. There have always been technological changes that change education, and it's good to then look which components you want to use or not.”

What would you like to research later and which interdisciplinary collaborations would you like to enter into?

“I would like to do more participant research, as in together with youngsters. I can then return the knowledge I gain from observations of groups of people to those demographics and have conversations with them about it. Besides that, I think it would be cool to collaborate with computer-science researchers. They have more insight in the technological, underlying mechanics of the online world. It's then especially interesting to connect the technological part to this current research within the social sciences and my background in the humanities in order to gain new insights.”