Learners and Technology: 7-11

Nov 14, 2008

Miles Berry

Terry Freedman and I are busy using google docs and skype to plot our presentation for the BCS at BETT on ‘What are they learning whilst you’re not looking’. I’m really enjoying using this as an excuse to read up on some of the academic research into the, for me, fascinating field of young people’s informal learning and use of technology away from school. My most recent find being a paper produced for Becta in March with the above title by Sue Cranmer, John Potter and Neil Selwyn.

Cranmer, Potter and Selwyn conducted a mixed methods survey of some 612 Key Stage 2 children in five English schools, with findings that, whilst they might not come as much of a surprise for those working in primary schools, suggest that, although there is something a digital divide between use of technology inside and outside school, the picture of use at home isn’t nearly as exciting as we might have hoped or which other studies that focussed on secondary age pupils would have led us to expect.

There’s a useful review of some of the background, making reference to the hope held out by Web 2.0, the need to pay more heed to learner voice in these days of personalisation, the increased provision of technology in school and at home, as well as a great quote from Impact2, which I plan to follow up:

“schools and homes have more to learn from each other about the ways in which ICT is being used in each context … schools could usefully examine the ways in which ICT is being used in other contexts and whether these have any potential in the school environment”

Impressively, the authors set up a website to allow KS2 pupils in the sample schools to submit their own ideas about how schools’ use of technology could come closer to their own experience out of school, using open text, pictures and video, which I though really rather cool, and a clever way to capture authentic learner voice. Turns out though that hardly any of the children used this because a) “I_t was not a part of the culture of any of the schools in the sample to compose online content in either blog or wiki form_”, and b) the filtering in place wouldn’t let the children access the site from inside school! I’m not clear why there wasn’t more content uploaded from outside school networks, but I suspect relatively few of the sample were sufficiently motivated to do this given the negative impressions produced by the above factors. The researchers did, however, go a long way towards capturing young people’s own views through some clever methodology such as pupil-led focus groups (despite the observation that “pupil-led talk is not necessarily the norm in schools at this point in time”), use of drawings and short video interviews/diaries.

With 86% having access to a computer at home, the differences between home use of the Internet and use in school are interesting. They found not much tech-enabled communication (email or chat) happening in school. “Learning”, both school related and otherwise, happened more at school than home. There was relatively little creative use of the net, either at school or at home.

“Use of computer games, digital cameras, and making pictures were all more prevalent in the home rather than school context. Conversely, use of computers for writing, presentations, spreadsheets and databases was more likely to be school-based. ”

Comes as a shock, doesn’t it, that children aren’t making spreadsheets and databases in their free time. Similarly, when asked their favourite activities, there was little evidence of children picking creative and collaborative work at home or school, although MSN, Email and Club Penguin took 3rd to 5th place in the home use question.

The digital divide between home and school that’s Received Wisdom now (see eg Cuban 2001 and Buckingham 2007) was born out in their interviews:

“pupils’ accounts of their uses of ICT within school were subdued in relation to the passion with which they talked about their out of school activities.”

In terms of how pupils saw learning with ICT most positively, there were interesting observations, including the pleasure of writing stories with Word, justifications for game based learning and, importantly, for language learning in relation to languages other than English spoken in the home. Three quarters had given thought to e-safety issues, although pupils’ perceptions here included keeping water away from keyboards, not tripping over cables, and getting lost on the Internet. Perhaps not surprising that 63% wanted help from teachers in staying safe online. Further ideas for what teachers could do included letting pupils use computers when they wanted (61%), allowing access to home email accounts (52%), not filtering access (49%) and allowing use of mobile phones (38%). I liked the idea of one of the Year 6 boys about making lesson podcasts available so that “he could listen to them as he went to sleep” – although this could be taken two ways, I think.

All in all, a less than wholly encouraging picture:

“Many primary pupils’ actual engagement with ICT to be often perfunctory and unspectacular – especially within the school setting… Home internet was dominated by online games, watching video clips and, to a lesser extent, chatting and using social networking sites… it was notable that creative and collaborative uses of so-called ‘Web 2.0’ applications were not prevalent either inside or outside school, with passive consumption rather than active production the dominant mode of engagement. “

Assuming the authors’ findings are sound, what then is to be done?

Well, it’s not simply a case of allowing pupils to use tech in school just as they do at home, if their use at home is so impoverished compared to what they could be doing. I remember thinking back at CAL 05 that the game-based stuff we were hearing so much about was all well and good, but how was it likely to contribute to a greater public good. Personalised learning is fine, but one looks for a benefit to society and the community beyond that of individual fulfilment, yes? The role of schools in this is to broaden our pupils horizons to the opportunities for active engagement that the Net presents, of opportunities for social and collaborative working which go beyond the, I fear, generally trivial level of chatter to something in which genuine learning takes place.

Surely primary schools still have, close to their hearts, a belief in children’s creativity and a high regard for learning through being part of a collaborative classroom community? Given how central these things are to the ethos of many (most?) primary schools, shouldn’t our use of educational technology reflect this? An ICT curriculum (and access policy) which limits children’s use in school to Office skills and passive access to or scripted interaction with pre-approved content, is unlikely to cultivate a passion for genuinely imaginative, creative, participatory use of new media outside of the classroom. A model of learning platform provision which concentrates on the delivery of learning objects, no matter how interactive, and doesn’t provide the forums, wikis or blogs in which children can learn together, from one another, will perpetuate a use of technology that focuses on passive consumption rather than active creation.

The priority has to be giving children a passion for learning: this can come from school or home, but once it’s there, it seems likely (although not certain) that this passion would carry over from one context to the other (umm… room for a bit of empirical research here?). Conveying that passion at school will mean providing authentic learning of the intrinsically exciting sort, having teachers and school leaders themselves passionate about learning and making the best use of the tools for creativity and collaboration that we have.