How is digital technology – now occupying the eyes and ears, pockets and pillows of so many children – shaping children’s personal, social and learning lives? Does it bring the collaborative and creative benefits often hoped for? And how much do the use and consequences of digital media depend on the structures and practices that have the most power to shape children’s opportunities – notably, family, school and peer group?

These questions guided my recent year-long ethnography of a multi-ethnic, socio-economically diverse class of 28 students, all 13-14-years old, called ‘The Class. Living and Learning in the Digital Age’, which I conducted with Julian Sefton-Green as part of the Connected Learning Research Network. We found that parents are often unclear about the possible benefits of digitally-mediated learning opportunities on offer, so they tend to follow the lead of their child’s school; meanwhile, schools are often under pressure to use digital media (or educational technology) for measuring, standardising and ranking children’s achievement. As a result, we concluded, at neither home nor school are alternative, non-instrumental or creative forms of informal learning sufficiently supported by digital media.

Expectations of ‘digital’ learning at home

Yusuf was the eldest of four children in a low-income, devout Muslim family from East Africa. At school, Yusuf worked conscientiously and was doing well. When we visited his home, we learned that his father had bought an expensive set of math and English programs on CD which provided a series of graded activities and tests. When a certain number of tests had been passed, the children received bronze, silver and gold certificates as appropriate. One bedroom had been turned into a ‘classroom’, with wall charts marking the children’s progress through the tests (each chart was labelled ‘Ladder of Success’). And Yusuf’s father described himself as the head teacher who ensured that the children completed their tests.

“Technology intensifies existing experiences, also generating a sense of inevitability around the imperative to gather data to fit into the database and making somehow invisible children’s experiences that couldn’t be fitted in.”

This home investment in educational technology is fairly extreme, but most parents try in some way to support learning at home, often by relying on digital media. Shane’s mother, for example, had built a ‘homework’ corner in his bedroom, with a desktop computer ready for use, although Shane himself preferred the ‘gaming’ corner of his bedroom instead. Jenna’s mother, although having few financial resources, had installed a desktop computer proudly positioned in a corner of the living room for her children’s homework.

Over and over again, we saw parents unsure just how the computer should be used – they checked how long their child used it, asked if homework had been completed, and got annoyed if they caught their child playing games or using social media. In other words, the technology was used, more or less effectively, to extend school learning into the home.

Technology was more rarely used for the kinds of informal learning that alternative educators have hoped would open up creative opportunities for children. There was little of the ‘connected learning’ that allows for collaboration among children to pursue their own interests. Little creative uploading and sharing took place, rather than downloading of YouTube content. Only a few children were encouraged by their parents to pursue alternative learning pathways to those already supported at school.

Expectations of ‘digital’ learning at school

When it came to learning at school, we saw a similarly instrumental approach. Digital media use was taught in computer science lessons, often focused on functional tasks such as managing the Microsoft Office suite. In an effort to be more flexible, teachers lent students a video camera to create a visual record of a day in the life of their school; but the editing was managed by the teacher since the resulting film would serve as an advertisement for this ‘upwardly mobile’ school.

In another effort to reach out towards alternative learning possibilities, a few teachers posted extra-curricular exercises (e.g. for math) on their blog, although few if any children visited these, professing not to know of the blogs in an effort, we guessed, to protect their leisure time.

We are not criticising the teachers here – they themselves were under pressure to achieve, to get their students to achieve, and to promote the ranking of the school within the region. So they focused on achievement that could be counted in competitive systems of rankings. In this context, we found it striking that the most effective use of digital media at school was the systematic use throughout the school day of the school information management system.

“Perhaps growing up in an intensely competitive society and facing a highly uncertain future causes young people to view the school’s highly instrumental approach to learning as offering a welcome certainty.”

It was hardly a coincidence that the kind of charts and tracking that Yusuf’s family used to track learning progress at home were implemented, on a much larger scale, at school. The digital and networked school information management system was used to encode the students’ attainment and behaviour on a continuous basis, with multiple data points entered for each child each day.

The metric was that of levels (as in levels of the curriculum), and this metric also became embedded in how teachers and students talked about learning. For instance, I once overheard a teacher ask a student, “Have you been levelled [i.e. graded according to the curriculum levels] for art yet?”, rather than, for instance, “Have you finished your painting?” or even, “What did you paint and why?”

Learning, thereby, became instrumentalised. If it could be levelled, it counted. If it could not – informal or home learning, for instance, or cultural knowledge outside the curriculum – it just didn’t count, literally. Parent-teacher evenings, for instance, became an extraordinary exercise of working out, through often-fraught parent-teacher negotiation, whether what a child had learned outside school could somehow be recorded in the system and thus valued by the school; or whether it would remain unrecognised, since it could not be measured.

Technology makes gathering data inevitable

One might say that some of this occurred also before the use of digital technology in schools, and indeed it did.

Our argument is not that technology is dramatically transforming learning; rather, that it intensifies existing experiences. It also generates a sense of inevitability around the imperative to gather data to fit into the database, and it makes invisible children’s experiences that can’t be fitted in. As we observed in ‘The Class’, the ease by which data could then be aggregated over the year or across classes was also facilitated by the technology, so that the attention of teachers and parents seemed absorbed by the database and its results rather than recognising the individuality of different children’s experiences.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Yusuf’s father liked the school’s standardised approach to learning. But so did many of the others in the class; most children could tell us what level they were for each subject. And they tended to like the system too. As Salma explained, “It’s quite good because they [the teachers] keep track… They know all your levels and they know if you have to boost it or you’re doing good. So I think it’s good that they have all that.”

We were tempted to argue that by encoding and recording student learning in quantified levels, the school imposed a relentless regime of discipline, surveillance and the standardisation of learning that reduced knowledge to test results, and that extended this competitive system into the home also, obscuring or crushing creative alternatives.

But since the families like the system, perhaps growing up in an intensely competitive society and facing a highly uncertain future cause young people to view the school’s highly instrumental approach to learning as offering a welcome certainty. And perhaps it also leads parents to take their cue from the school’s approach to learning, extending this into the home rather than exploiting the flexibility of out-of-school learning to explore alternative opportunities.

If we want to do what is best for our children, and if we are excited by the potential of digital media for making connections among new and innovative and creative forms of learning, it will be vital to respect people’s conservative desire to protect traditional interests, find better ways to undercut the pressures to compete, work with rather than against young people’s imperatives as agents, and make a more compelling case for the opportunities that shouldn’t be missed.

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