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decision makers

The series: We look at decision makers among mid-sized organizations who took successful action in a competitive global digital economy.

Operating in more than 130 countries, the Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award challenges more than 1.3 million young people from across the globe to develop their skills, self-esteem and leadership abilities. And now, a smartphone application is boosting its appeal.

Established in 1956 by Prince Philip, the award welcomes 1,800 people between the ages of 14-24 daily, where they will spend anywhere from six months to a year and a half working in four distinct areas: community service, practical and social skills, physical recreation and an adventurous journey.

Along the way, young people log their endeavours into a record book, which is validated by mentors over the course of their journeys to either a bronze, silver or gold award.

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Duke of Edinburgh's Award participants use the organization’s digital program to log their

Eight years ago, award administrators decided to modernize the process, adopting a digital record book, allowing participants to log on to a desktop computer to submit their efforts, thereby removing the potential for mislaid logbooks.

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A screen grab of the new smartphone app, which allows young people to instantly record their achievements.

“We just realized that we are missing a trick here,” says John May, secretary-general for the Duke of Edinburgh International Award Foundation from London. “The opportunity for young people to have a great non-formal education was being stopped by the bureaucracy that we were using.”

That process took another leap 18 months ago with the launch of a smartphone application, allowing participants to record their progress on the go, uploading pictures and videos from their journey.

The launch of the app could potentially allow the global award to operate better in more remote areas of the world. Mr. May says that in areas of sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, getting information delivered by traditional mail is still quite challenging. The launch of the app has the potential to be a feasible work-around.

“We know that access to smartphone technology particularly is something that has moved very fast in large parts of the world. And, indeed, what they’ve done is they’ve jumped the desktop technology,” Mr. May says.

But while the use of technology can help to improve access to the non-formal education the award provides, it also allows the roughly 500 full-time award staff across the globe to collect data on participants’ activities, and the amount of time they spend on them.

For example, if a young person embarks on a beach cleanup program in Prince Edward Island, and logs the hours they spend doing that work, then they are making a commitment to their local environment. But if the award is able to aggregate all the time that participants engage in beach cleanup around the world, it helps to paint a clear picture of what the award really means.

“That, for me, is an astonishing step in the way in which we empower young people to make a difference to their world,” Mr. May says.

In Canada, the app is being gradually rolled out, while it has been up and running for some time in Australia. Stephen de-Wint, the award’s national executive director for Canada, says that provinces such as British Columbia and Alberta, where the app hasn’t fully launched yet, are willing to wait until it is available because they want their award education delivered by smartphone.

That kind of strategy is perfectly in sync with the plan to expand the Duke of Edinburgh’s International Awards.

“I think the expansion and Canada’s focus on digital technology is only going to work in harmony with what we’re trying to do,” the Toronto-based Mr. de-Wint says.

The digital emphasis makes perfect sense for an educational organization such as the Duke of Edinburgh International Award, says Joseph Wilson, an educational technology consultant and former high-school teacher based in Toronto. Not only are there cost savings, but it is also convenient to put technology in the palms of participants, and can potentially increase the reach of the program to remote communities.

However, he cautions there is a risk of losing some of an organization’s identity in the switch to the digital world. “The thing with digital infrastructure, especially in education, is the infrastructure has a habit of creeping in to drive the learning experience,” he says.

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The award is known for its emphasis on the outdoors. Now, online joins the outdoors as administrators modernize their educational program with digital

Mr. Wilson says the key for the Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award is to keep the online portion separate from the actual engagement. For instance, if participants are on a hike, there is a time and a place to log activity that doesn’t take away from being in the moment and living through the experience.

Mr. Wilson advises educational organizations to put priorities in place for whatever program it is offering, before adding technology to the process.

“Always lead with the learning goals,” he says. “You start with the education, the pedagogy, the learning goals and then you work backwards, and if technology is appropriate to enhance those learning goals, then you use it.

“The worst thing any organization can do is to start with technology and then just say, ‘Well, how can we jam this into the program?’ ”

For an organization such as the Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award, which relies not just on the efforts of global youth but also a team of volunteer mentors to guide the participants along their journeys, streamlining the process on a smartphone application should boost its appeal, he says.

“If you’re involved in a program and you’re expecting people to do administrative work essentially, that needs to be convenient and pain-free, and certainly young people would expect that to be on their phones or on their laptops,” he says. “So I think it’s a must-have.”