Patterns of internet use by English students

February 15, 2012

Introduction

The children who participated in this research are ahead of the technology itself in some ways, demanding a higher level of performance and efficiency than it is often able to deliver. Issues such as speed, filtering (especially at school), viruses, spam, spy and other malware are seen as an irritation. Restrictions that are placed upon them at school, whether through web filtering, timetabling, access or other issues, are however tolerated and children are phlegmatic about their schools’ provision of internet services. By contrast they usually find their access at home more enjoyable, beneficial and helpful to their school-related, recreational, private and social lives.

 

According to their own report, it seems that children regard themselves as having a well-developed, sound and perceptive sense of the accuracy and veracity of the information that they commonly access from the internet. They are likely to use the design, web address and general ‘feel’ of a website to assess its potential and likely accuracy. They use their personal experiences when evaluating the accuracy of information obtained from a specific website, and will often self-filter websites that they have discovered in the past to be unreliable, inaccurate or misleading. This is especially true of wikis. Children often evaluate a website by quickly assessing the amount or type of advertising or pop-ups encountered. Websites that include excessive advertising or inappropriate (e.g. gambling) advertising are often avoided by children as they self-censor websites they encounter. This is true of both home and school usage, although the school will usually filter out inappropriate websites before they reach the students’ desktop. Children often indicated that they use effective methods of triangulation or verification when obtaining information of doubtful authenticity. Methods of verification include comparing data extracted from a number of websites, seeking information from an adult or peer or referring to books for confirmation of information.

 

Unsurprisingly, children used search engines more frequently at school than any other category of website. This was stated by them in their surveys and during interviews and was also validated by logs recording their usage. For recreation, in their out-of-school environments they liked playing games, browsing and downloading music and videos. For social communication, across both genders they preferred using instant messaging and social networks as their mode of social communication. Most children reported using the internet extensively for helping with homework and revision, with a preference for using the internet in private areas out-of-school such as bedrooms or other private living and recreation areas.

 

Both online and offline literacy practices were seen to be strongly related to internet use,  with children who reported spending significant amounts of time reading books and magazines also reporting moderately high internet use. The internet was certainly seen by children as forming an important part of their social and educational activities with words such as “accuracy” and ”learning” occurring frequently during the interview group discussions. The internet is clearly valued as a dependable source of information and as a means of social communication.

 

As has been noted in the presentation of findings, some gender differences in internet usage were observed in the survey. Girls generally indicated that they were more likely to use social software such as instant messaging or social networking sites than boys, whereas boys were more likely to use internet games for recreation than girls. Girls’ usage of social networking generally focused around keeping in touch with existing friends rather than making new ones. Children of both genders reported not only downloading music and videos as favoured activities but also the creation and publishing of music and videos as popular pastimes. They also described how they enjoyed constructing artefacts on the internet such as web pages, virtual postcards and other internet-hosted construction activities. Whilst acknowledging the possible gender stereotyping that these conclusions may imply, girls’ higher use of social networking and boys’ higher usage of games may be seen as being consistent with both genders’ offline interests. This is also supported by the apparent greater likelihood of boys undertaking more risky online behaviour than girls, such as visiting chatrooms.

 

Unsurprisingly, children generally perceived themselves as having a greater degree of freedom in internet usage out-of-school than in-school. Those children who felt they had the greatest amount of freedom also reported the highest levels of confidence in internet usage. Relatively moderate usage (up to two hours per day) of the internet seemed to be mostly appropriate, being focused on a range of recreational, social and educational activities. Relatively low levels (less than one half-hour per day)  of internet use were often associated with low levels of reading generally, whereas relatively high levels (more than two hours per day)  of internet use was often also associated with low levels of reading.  Usage at the high end was often also associated with unfocused, random use of the internet such as browsing. Those children who reported structured home supervision and the application of some usage rules also reported a balance of recreational, social and educational usage at both home and school.

 

Notwithstanding children’s observations as noted above on the accuracy of information obtained from the internet, there was also a fascination with its fallibility. Children were interested in encountering information that was apocryphal, misleading or just plain wrong and believed they were efficient and adept at uncovering such websites, although they were unlikely to revisit them for research purposes. Children also found the potential of the internet to distract interesting, depending on the context of what they found and were often intellectually engaged by stimulating diversions.

 

Many of the above observations are supported by postmodern theories. Butler (2002) and Sellinger (2004) have described the internet as being a postmodern phenomenon. Their separate pieces of research have picked out three key postmodern descriptors of the internet, namely its non- hierarchised nature, its virtuality and its mutability. These three descriptors can be related to much of the children’s use of the internet as described in this paper. Its non-hierarchised form relates to and appeals to children in the way in which they can create, share and seek information and communicate using internet-based technologies. The virtuality of the internet places sources of information, recreational spaces and their network of friends in an easily accessible and synchronous environment created by them wherever they have an internet-enabled device, but especially out-of-school.

 

These ideas are also consistent with theories expressed by other researchers. Hernwell has described the internet as being a function rather than an object and describes it in virtual terms (Hernwell, 2005). Gee (2004) expresses similar ideas, placing experience ahead of information and seeing the internet in terms of process rather than product. Again, children’s process-oriented usage of the internet is consistent with ideas such as these.  At an early stage in the  popular use of the internet, Nune was also writing in similar terms (Nune, 1995), realising quickly that the internet had no frontiers and as such was not bounded in the same way as other systems of communication or methods of storing and retrieving information. These descriptions closely match, in spirit anyway, the ways in which children spoke, sometimes naively but often perceptively about the internet.

 

The children’s use of and perspectives  on the internet are also supported by the ideas of Granic and Lamey (2000) who have spoken about postmodernism in terms of perspectivism, multiplicity and decentralisation and by relating  these three concepts to both the internet itself and to learning on the internet. Children’s discussion of the internet and the various viewpoints and relativism that pervades both the content and the spirit of the internet is consistent with Granic and Lamey’s, and although children did not exactly describe the internet in those precise terms, the perspectivism can be related to the points of view that children expressed and encountered on the internet,  the multiplicity related to the variety of people and information sources with which they interacted, and the decentralisation related to the hyperlinked, shared and democratic nature of their online communication and research. This is also coherent with Chapman’s description of the internet and postmodernism in terms of the multiplicity of competing and subjective narratives (Chapman, 2005). These competing narratives can also be seen in terms of how (in)formal  learning itself is seen.  Sefton-Green (2004) describes informal learning as being no longer seen in terms of being merely casual, disorganised and accidental but as being an integral part of the same learning process that occurs in more formal settings. This certainly appears to be validated by the comments by children on the way in which they used the internet informally for educational, social and recreational reasons.

 

Children discussed their use of the internet in very human and interactive terms, in turn revealing many of their values with respect to honesty, respect and other ethical issues. The revelation of these values and beliefs are consistent with the theories of Butler (2002) who has written about how technology reveals the outcome of our human values. However, and the children in the study have indicated this, the use of the internet is not a utopian state of being. There are challenges, idiosyncrasies, frustrations and blind alleys, all of which can on the one hand reduce the effectiveness of the internet for research and communication but on the other hand can help raise the social and intellectual capital gained through working through these issues. Zembylas and Vrasidas (2004) have spoken of the pedagogy of discomfort with respect to online learning and this can be translated to the postmodern context of children’s use of internet where there are unprecedented freedoms, but also challenges, new rules and new responsibilities for parents, teachers and those who care for children in both in-school and out-of-school contexts.

Patterns of Usage

There appears to be some common patterns between students’ responses to the online survey, their discussions during the interviews and the logs on internet usage. The logs show that search engines are by far the most common category of website accessed by students at school. This is supported by the results of the survey where 72% of children use the internet for obtaining information. It is worth noting that the logs indicate that there is often little use of the schools’ websites and the use that is recorded often relates to those schools that set their website as the default homepage upon logging in, with students quickly navigating away. The survey indicates that only 24% of students use the schools’ websites, which raises the issue of the purpose and role of the school website. Is it purely for marketing? Could it be used more effectively for children’s learning? Should it more effectively incorporate learning platforms, blogs, e-portfolios or other more interactive elements?  These are issues that schools may be prompted to consider.

 

The interviews yielded a large number of children’s comments on the accuracy of content on the internet, especially with respect to their learning. The interviews included much discussion about online games, and this is also supported by the survey which reported 81% of students using the internet for games. There appeared to be little variance between what children say they did and what the logs reported as actual usage.

 

I believe that the methodology chosen for obtaining and analysing the data in this paper has worked effectively. Both the survey and the interviews produced rich data that assisted my understanding of the area being researched. My positionality as a keen advocate of the internet and as a senior member of my organisation placed me in a privileged position to interpret the data made available through the methodology. At the top level of questioning, the main research question was: How do year children use the internet both in-school and out-of-school? This was broken down into four subsidiary questions.

 

In retrospect, the main question has been a little less about the children’s actual behaviour and more about their perceptions about how they use the internet, their beliefs and the way they report these perceptions and beliefs. . With respect to the question How is out-of-school internet behaviour of year 7 students similar to in-school internet behaviour? a number of conclusions can be drawn from the data and analysis in the preceding sections. Children were critical of the accuracy of information on the internet, especially with respect to their learning. This was drawn out of experiences with a number of websites that were cited as examples. They did, however, demonstrate good ways of checking and validating information, and felt the internet was a valuable resource. This was consistent with both in-school and out-of-school access.

 

Children complained about the things that got in the way of their internet use. This included their experiences with viruses, spyware and pop-ups at home, yet they also complained about the restrictions placed on them by firewalls and filtering at school. This shows their impatience with the technology and their need for immediacy and reliability of access. Children disliked things that got in the way of them using the internet when and where they liked. I believe this needs a curriculum response, educating children about skilful practices on the internet and explaining the reasons and the technologies involved for firewalls and filtering. However, generally children demonstrated a good awareness of internet safety issues. Schools could further encourage and nurture safe practices whilst providing adequate safeguards such as filtering and caching facilities. A good safety policy and code of practice is important.

 

With respect to the question  How does out-of-school internet behaviour of year 7 students differ from in-school behaviour? and its corollary If the behaviour of year 7 students differs, is this important?, there are a number of observations to be made and conclusions to be drawn. There often appears to be a different relationship between the children and their informal learning and that which occurs in a formal educational setting. Schools should look at ways of making the formal educational experience more related to and built upon that which the children bring from home. In order to do this a deeper understanding must be developed of what children do and how they interact with others online. Bringing the home and school practice together is important. This is more relevant than trying to emulate home practice at school. New kinds of learning are taking place involving, amongst other things, online exploration, collaboration and networking and this should be embraced and contextualised by schools to allow young people the opportunity to practice, enhance and apply their skills in a transferable way both in-school and out-of-school.

 

Children mainly used the internet at home in private or other designated areas, whereas at school, usage was more public and exposed. However, children believed that teachers were less likely to know what they were doing on the internet at school than parents were to know what they were doing on the internet at home. Videos and games were favourite activities for children at home, whereas search engines were favourites at school. Children unsurprisingly preferred using the internet at home, mainly due to the privacy and freedom afforded to them. Those who spent the most time on the internet at school also tended to spend the most time on the internet at home.

 

The use of the internet by young people differs in informal, formal and non-formal settings. However, there are perpetual and changing overlaps between these settings, and the contexts will be largely determined by the learners themselves. In this sense, although we might aspire to a framework for learning with the internet, it is a framework that itself is in perpetual beta form. Children develop self-organised learning practices (or contexts) using the tools which are sometimes taught in schools and sometimes learnt informally. It is apparent that children bring informal learning to school. Schools should use this, but not necessarily appropriate it. This has also been commented upon recently by other researchers (Green and Hannon, 2007).  Schools should also however, look at ways of developing context-based models for learning, and seek to understand ways in which informal and formal learning can be realigned. Children should also be encouraged in the school setting to be creators of content as well being articulate and discerning consumers. This is consistent with trends observed in the 2007 Ofcom report on the communications market where the most notable impact of the internet in recent years was seen to be the conversion of consumers into content producers (Ofcom, 2007, p. 97). It is also consistent with recent research into the CBBC online game ‘Adventure Rock’. In 2008, Gauntlett and Jackson conducted a case study on ‘Adventure Rock’, a virtual world for children aged 8-11 (Gauntlett and Jackson, 2008). This free, downloadable program from CBBC provides creative studios where children can draw pictures, animate cartoons, choreograph dance, compose music and construct machines. CBBC has taken up the challenge of providing safe and appropriate social networking and interactive games for children in this age group. At the time of writing, Adventure Rock is the latest in a series of virtual worlds, created specifically for children in the past two years. Others include Club Penguin, Nicktropolis, Moshi Monsters and My Tiny Planets.  Gauntlet and Jackson describe eight types of players in these virtual worlds: explore-investigator, self-stampers, social climbers, fighters, collector-consumers, power users, life-system builders and nurturers, all engaged in a series of online activities ranging from solitary to sociable. Gauntlett and Jackson found a number of benefits to be apparent in children’s usage of Adventure Rock including the creation of mental maps, rehearsal of responsibility and self-expression. Research such as this is important in informing the future appropriation of in-school and out-of-school online experiences for children.

 

Schools need to listen to children and their use of the internet, and develop strategies to bring together the richness that both informal and formal learning can provide. Schools also need to provide the opportunity for children to practice the skills that they bring from informal learning and enable them to use those skills in a range of contexts and settings. In doing this, schools should not attempt to mimic out-of-school use, but concentrate on enabling responsible and effective use of IP-based technologies by students. The development of a set of ethical, safe and critical approaches to the internet is crucial. However, it also apparent that children already have some good critical skills in finding and analysing information, and that they are good at verifying and validating information found on the internet. On the social aspect of the internet, there is a need to further develop safe practices with respect to social networking, blogging, e-portfolios and other online activities.

 

Given children’s frequent interest and participation in internet games, there is further scope to explore the educational possibilities available through these activities. The fun elements of the internet greatly appeal to children of this age, and the appropriation of creative and constructivist activities continue to be a desired outcome for children. Teaching children to be disciplined users is important too. My research showed that those who spent a lot of time just browsing were often those who had unrestricted use of the internet at home. The encouragement of supportive, responsible parental supervision is important and schools should have a role in promoting this. Where the response from home is apathetic or negative, schools should look towards the education of parents and the provision of the internet during out of hours time in the form of after school, or homework clubs where good out-of-school internet behaviours and habits can be demonstrated and developed.

 

Informal learning using the internet often appears as self-motivated with a strong sense of ownership both of content creation and social networking. It is often generated by a real purposeful need by the children themselves, often with the assistance of their peers.

 

Schools should be places where literacy in new media can be developed. The sample of schools in which children were consulted in the research represents a broad set of demographic profiles across England. As the sample was restricted to children at year seven, responses from other year levels would most probably have shown a different set of responses. This is especially likely with respect to the ownership of social networking sites. Older children may be more inclined to use the internet for communications, to explore and test boundaries and to behave in a more independent manner.

 

All the students included in the sample were from schools with good internet provision and it also appeared that children were also generally immersed in the internet in their out-of-school contexts. In this sense, perhaps the internet is a non-issue, being such a natural part of their lives that it holds no awe or surprise for them. This contrasts with my own response, where I am still easily impressed by new internet-based applications. The danger is that school and home practices will diverge to the point where school provision of the internet becomes increasingly irrelevant to children’s lives, especially if a significant gap between teacher and student competencies emerges and grows.

 

Perhaps a more longitudinal study is required, following the patterns of usage over a number of years and possibly examining other types of ICT usage such as mp3 players, mobile camera phones and emergent technologies.

 

Both internet use and reading are popular activities and seem to be related i.e. children who like using the internet also like reading. This clearly links internet use as being a literacy activity. Games, homework, browsing and instant messaging are favourite activities and the literacy activities associated with these are worthy of exploration. As internet use and reading are closely related, literacy is a key skill for internet use and also a key way of improving and practicing that skill. The motivational level for activities such as these is high, as children enjoy the levels of engagement that are afforded by use of the internet.

 

There appears to be a mixed set of rules for home usage, and education of parents is important, especially if their skills and understandings of children’s social practices on the internet are low. Because of children’s high levels of confidence with the internet (66% think they are good users), rules for both school and home usage should perhaps be constantly reviewed.

 

There is a bigger gap between those with access and those without access for boys and girls, and this inequity of access should be explored further. Certainly, the research shows that more emphasis is needed on reading for boys. Girls’ interest in social networking applications also demands a curriculum that teaches responsible use. My research shows that social networking owners are more independent, less likely to look at recommended websites and although children are quite aware of safety issues and can recognize dangers, we must continue to equip them with the necessary skills. The use of resources from Childnet International and the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre is to be encouraged.  Resources outlined by the Cyberspace Research Unit’s 2004 report (O’Connell, Price and Barrow, 2004) into emerging trends amongst primary school children’s use of the internet has been taken up by many schools and local authorities. This trend is also to be encouraged and cascaded into the family homes of children. As noted previously, boys tend to use the internet more for chatrooms, games and music, possibly partially because they have less strict rules at home than girls but possibly just because this is what boys enjoy doing anyway. A curriculum response that teaches responsible use is also required here.

 

The role of the internet in schools certainly needs constant examination. Students generally don’t see its usage at school as being as relevant as might be hoped. Indeed, Lankshear and Knobel describe how “…much classroom appropriation of new technologies is ineffective, wasteful, and wrongheaded. For a start, they [educators] are likely to see that effective use of the internet calls for sustained continuous periods online with minimal constraints” (Lankshear and Knobel, 2006b, p. 258).

 

A response is required to address this relevance, possibly through further research into teachers’ perceptions and usage, and there is arguably a need to revisit professional development models for the use of internet applications in the classroom for learning and teaching. Much of what the young people appear to do on the internet is play, not just with respect to online games but playing with video, music and social networking. The institutional rationale for the expense of providing the internet in schools is primarily for the transmitting of information to learned. This is how the cost can be justified. The dichotomous nature of the internet for play/learning is managed by young people, although ‘play’ is still the key word. This is consistent with Sandvig’s view of the internet as a place for ritual and play as well as for information retrieval and work (Sandvig, 2006). Again, Lankshear and Knobel “…do not advocate turning schools into ‘playgrounds’ for new literacies at the level of popular cultural engagement, Educational practice is distinct from and different to popular culture. The day we give that distinction away is the day we give formal education away” (Lankshear and Knobel, 2006b, p. 259).

 

Some authors speak of the necessity of engaging children with the use of the internet (Pritchard and Cartwright, 2004). Most children who responded to my research were soundly engaged, with the engagement being a natural and embedded part of a child’s habitus. I believe that the issue here relates more to giving children the critical and ethical capabilities to use the internet more skilfully.

 

Lack of access to the internet at home by children can mean exclusion from a range of social, creative and constructivist skills. Children not using the internet for communicating with friends, music, games and homework are missing out on a great deal. Perhaps this is a future role of schools’ internet provision, not just as an enabler of access, but also a promoter of innovative practice. Teachers employing strategies such as personalised learning, formative assessment and other contemporary approaches to education may find in the usage of the internet mechanisms by which children can become more independent, directing their own curriculum and managing their assessment for learning. Internet tools such as learning platforms require teacher engagement at the same time as letting go of the locus of control. The negative side of increased online engagement is that excessively heavy use of the internet is often related to music downloading and chat room use and the dangers of internet addiction should be an area of future concern both for parents and schools. Children who use the internet for more than two hours per day could be prone to internet addiction, and excessive internet use should be monitored by parents and teachers, as has already been noted by researchers (Yoo et al, 2004). The issue of internet addiction is also explored by Cao and Su who found that, certainly in China, young people with internet addiction possess different, and often disturbing psychological features when compared with those who use the internet less frequently (Cao and Su, 2007). The reality at the time of writing of this paper (2006-2008) is that a significant proportion of children use the internet to watch videos and claim that they are more likely to use the internet than television to learn about things (Ofcom, 2007, pp 94-95). As they get older (and approach the age of my sample group) they are also more likely to use the internet to keep in touch with other people (Ofcom, 2007, p. 96).

 

Both parents and teachers need to listen to and observe children’s online behaviour whilst at the same time respecting their privacy. Byron talks of how “in terms of adult input with the young person and technology, this is a time to move towards collaborative management” (Byron, 2008, p. 38). Zembylas and Vrasidas discuss the principles of Levinas’ view on ethics and how they relate to internet use. Internet use has an ethical significance which all parties must discover on a journey together. The ethics will evolve through a sensitive and sympathetic partnership (Zembylas and Vrasidas, 2005). With respect to the education of both parents and students, parental and child use of the internet together as a shared experience could improve the effectiveness of parental monitoring. This is supported by the findings of Wang et al (Wang, Bianchi and Raley, 2005). This also is supported by other writers who stress the importance of understanding parents’ and children’s interaction with the internet at home (Valentine and Holloway, 2001).

 

Looking back on my own research process in examining these areas, I can see issues relating to the time sensitivity of the data. The internet has changed significantly during the time of writing of this paper (2011) and in a short period of time the internet will further mutate and children may become engaged in a range of online activities that are yet to be invented. Activities described in this paper may be discarded by children in favour of new technologies affording fresh opportunities for leisure, for learning, communicating and collaborating. In this sense, this paper is an artefact representing a snapshot of the state of children’s internet usage during 2011.  

 

Further work will certainly need to be undertaken to ensure that we are constantly revising our own practices as educators, parents, builders of schools and collaborators with children’s online and offline worlds. New theories will in time emerge to support these and we must constantly reflect not just upon what is happening, but on what new ideas could emerge from future research.

References

BUTLER, C. (2002) Postmodernism: a very short introduction. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

BYRON, T. (2008) Byron Review: Children and New Technology. London, DCSF.

CAO, F. and Su, L. (2007) ‘Internet addiction among Chinese adolescents: prevalence and psychological features.’ In Child: Care, Health and Development, 33 (3) pp. 125-132.

GAUNTLETT, D. and JACKSON, L. (2008) Virtual Worlds: users and producers (Case Study: Adventure Rock). London, Communications and Media Research Institute, University of Westminster.

GEE, J. (2004) Game-like learning: an example of situated learning and implications for opportunity to learn. Madison, University of Wisconsin.

GRANIC, I. and LAMEY, A. (2000) ‘The self-organization of the internet and changing modes of thought.’ In New Ideas in Psychology, 18 (1) pp.93-107.

GREEN, H. and HANNON, C. (2007) Their Space: Education for a digital generation. London, Demos.

HERNWELL, P. (2005) ‘Children and 21st century challenges.’ In Childhoods 2005 Children and youth in emerging and transforming societies. Oslo pp. 47-53.

LANKSHEAR, C. and KNOBEL, M. (2006b) New literacies, Buckingham, Open University Press.

NUNE, M. (1995) ‘Baudrillard in cyberspace: internet, virtuality, and postmodernity.’ In Style, 29 (22) pp. 314-327.

O’CONNELL, R., PRICE, J. and BARROW, C. (2004) Emerging trends amongst primary school children’s use of the internet. University of Central Lancashire, Cyberspace Research Unit.

OFCOM (2007) The communications market 2007. London, Ofcom.

PRITCHARD, A. and CARTWRIGHT, V. (2004) ‘Transforming what they read: helping eleven-year-olds engage with internet information.’ In Literacy, 38 (1) pp. 26-31

SANDVIG, C. (2006) ‘The internet at play: child uses of public internet connections.’ In Journal of Computer-Mediated Communications, 11 (4) pp. 932-956.

SEFTON-GREEN, J. (2004) Report 7: literature review in informal learning with technology outside school. Futurelab series. Bristol, Futurelab.

VALENTINE, G. and HOLLOWAY, S. (2001) ‘On-line dangers?: geographies of parents’ fears for children’s safety in cyberspace.’ In Professional Geographer, 53 (1), pp. 71-83.

YOO, J. Y., CHO, S. C., HA, J., YUNE, K. Y., KIM, S. J., HWANG, J., CHUNG, A., SUNG, Y. H. and LYOO, A. I. K. (2004) ‘Attention deficit hyperactivity symptoms and internet addiction.’ In Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 58 (5), pp. 487-494.

ZEMBYLAS, M. and VRASIDAS, C. (2004) ‘Emotion, reason, and information and communications technologies in education: some issues in a post-emotional society.’ In E-Learning, 1 (1) pp. 105-127.

 

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Bubbles, white noise and why it all seems so familiar

October 7, 2011

As the postmodern storm clouds gather on the social media
horizon, partially fuelled by research by such eminents as Turkle and Pariser,
I am inclined in my middle years to reflect on my own social media bubble and to
nostalgically reminisce on my interactions with technology and how it was in
some ways ever thus; up close and personal with the technology.

As a child in working class London we had a valve radio,
a thing of great beauty and resonance and I used to sit with my ear pressed up
against the musty cloth of the speaker listening to the Clitheroe Kid,
oblivious to the domestic hum around me. Whatever happened to that valve-driven
beauty, resplendent in its walnut cabinet? Its sound was warm and inviting, the
glow behind the dial alluring as my eyes gazed upon the exotic places listed on
its circular face; Paris, Luxembourg, Munich.

Then television hit. And it hit hard. Sharp edges, tinny
sound, primal, violent Warner Bros cartoons. Always going out of tune, replaced
with visual and aural static that also captivated me. Alone in the lounge room,
Bugs Bunny and the white noise alternating as the station went in and out of
tune in time with the London buses that passed our basement flat. The static
fascinated me and in time I suspect I became the only person who actually
bought Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music and listened to it late at night whilst
studying. But I am getting ahead of myself.

The first record player I got was a portable, blue
machine best suited to playing 45s. I saved up and bought Sergeant Pepper and
as a 10 year old I was terrified, fascinated and thrilled by what seemed like
music from the abyss, albeit played on a machine ill-suited to the purpose.

Then I got my first stereo and things became even
weirder. A cheap, plastic artefact with a cool, smoked lid I put on the White
Album and was transfixed by the sinister voice of Revolution 9 passing between
the speakers. For my birthday I received a pair of cosy, padded headphones and
for the first time was able to recapture the in utero warmth of the valve
radio, albeit with the “Number 9” loop passing from one ear to the other via my
brain. This was my first truly immersive technological experience.

Cassette players became part of the scene and along with
them the commodification of music as we swapped albums, copied them onto
cassette, made mix tapes and innocently engaged in music piracy. All those
years ago.

The CD revolutionised everything. All of sudden, gone was
the crackly, hissy warmth of co-constructed worlds of popular music. Replaced
with precision, minimalism, exactness without authenticity. We listened to each
and every instrument without hearing the whole piece. We painted by numbers and
bought CDs which demonstrated the clinical excellence of digital recording,
mixing and delivery.

My first computer was a VIC-20. I wrote programmes in the
middle of the night. I was thrilled by the control the new technology offered
me. When, in the mid-80s, I used an acoustic coupler to hook up to my first
bulletin board I was amazed at the seeming possibilities. “Hello”, I wrote and
then could not think of anything else to say.

My first laptop gave me portability which was in fact no
portability at all, and my first skirmish with the internet made me realise that
the world was about to irrevocably change.

In rapid succession came the WAP phone, broadband, the
Smart phone, the iPod, the iPhone and now the iPad and I eagerly consumed each
one until before I knew it I was hooked, linked into a world of tweets,
messages and emails that were starting to resemble the static and the white
noise of early television. Lou Reed would be proud.

Last night I was trawling iTunes on my iPad looking for
episodes of the Clitheroe Kid. The bubbles change but the song remains the
same.


YouTube and the Death of Nostalgia

February 10, 2011

Given my chrono/geodislocation I am particularly drawn to a time and geography that I am mythologising in the context of my current identity. Let me explain. I am an expatriate Australian who has lived in England for the past 11 years. I am also a child of the 1970s. As I reach the transient point of no-return I am drawn to the Kodachrome memory of Australia at that time with its colonial naivety and modernist sensibility embodied by the era of the triple-fronted-brick-veneer-nuclear-(free)-family.

I think with remembered adolescent affection about that Pre-Dismissal era of Nation Review, Gough Whitlam, Barry McKenzie, Auntie Jack, Pre-outed Patrick White, Moomba and the sample bags of the Royal (?) Melbourne Agricultural Show. How to revisit those times?

Ebay, YouTube, Flickr and Wikipedia let me revisit/reinvent these shabby romanticised times which of course is covered by the eternally ironic cloak of Edna Everage. I can even virtually and literally buy back the rusty toys of my childhood.
In the future, the past and present will be perpetually connected by the umbilical cord of social media, removing the spatial and temporal dislocation which nostalgia feeds on. Perhaps the only nostalgia we will have will be for nostalgia itself. Future generations may live as T.S. Eliot describes in Four Quartets.

“Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.”

Who would’ve thought that a modernist poet could be so postmodern. I relish the fact that social media happened during my middle age. I relish the gap between “What might have been and what has been”. It gives me a nice warm feeling. And listening to the theme song of ‘The Adventures of Barry McKenzie’ still makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. I look fondly back to an imagined time of Carl Ditterich, Sunny Boys, Happy Hammond, Zoot and Polly Waffles. Australia grew up and I never even noticed. But I can relive my past through YouTube on an endless loop. Social media in an intravenous feed. A place where I am doomed and blessed to recapture the mythologized past. Future generations don’t know what they are missing. For them, nostalgia may already be dead.


Is ICT a myth?

September 2, 2010

Whilst watching  a TED broadcast by Ken Robinson the other day, I noticed his remark that 15 year olds do not wear wristwatches because they do not see the point in using single-function technology. Several years ago, I asked a group of year 9 students if they used e-mail to which one replied, “no but my granny does”. To a large extent, ICT is a mythical construct perpetuated by people from my own demographic (middle-aged, male, overweight and geeky). This of course is to grossly over-generalise and I am being deliberately mischevious in doing so although some of the more interesting observations in recent years have come from a less stereotypical position. Turkle, Byron, Livingstone, Marsh, Davies, boyd et al have focussed more on the social, cognitive and constructivist aspects of the digital landscape and seem less obsessed with the artifacts of digital culture. Read Turkle’s “Evocative Objects” for a particularly beautiful depiction.

In a time when we are still obsessing over large, meta-technical “solutions” (heaven help us), young people are doing interesting things with that which is personal, portable, wireless, networked and social. Yesterday I talked with someone whose developmentally delayed son was doing astonishing things using adaptive communication apps on an i-thing. Talk to any child about ICT and they may look at you blankly. The modernistic labels of information, communications and technology suit the language of education systems very well (and remember, school itself has been described as a technology) but really. Do we honestly think that these structures truly reflect what (we may kid ourselves) is educationally and technologically cutting-edge. Becta has gone. Children are deserting ICT as a subject in droves. Despite the third paranthetical attribute with which I described myself in the first paragraph, I am reminded of Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man”; something is happening but you don’t know what it is…...


Six Impossible Things

June 22, 2010

“Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Alice Through the Looking Glass

“… the grand narrative has lost its credibility, regardless of what mode of unification it uses, regardless of whether it is a speculative narrative or a narrative of emancipation.”

Jean-François Lyotard

After 14 years of service to education, the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) is being retired.  Becta was the government agency leading the national drive to ensure the effective and innovative use of technology throughout learning. According to their website, Becta’s remit included:

  • raising educational achievement
  • narrowing the gap between rich and poor
  • improving the health and wellbeing of children and young people
  • increasing the number of young people on the path to success
  • improving the skills of the whole population throughout their working lives
  • building social and community cohesion
  • strengthening the Further and Higher education systems.

Many thousands of educationalists across UK, and indeed the world, have valued the support and advice that Becta provided over the years, and the decision to close it down means that educational institutions and communities will need to find new and creative ways to embed deep thinking into their decisions about learning technologies, ICT and e-learning. These decisions about the use of new technologies in education will inevitably focus on the raising of educational standards, whether through improving attainment, progression, engagement, enjoyment or by making educational institutions more efficient. But something else will also emerge.

I will always be grateful for the resources and support that Becta provided and for their contributions to the educational discourse that now allows so many individuals and organisations to embrace current and emergent technologies with confidence and ambition. But we must now pick up new challenges, one being to question the way in which the models of ICT support have been traditionally presented. We have the opportunity to challenge the old, modernisitic models of large, centralised support. As Stephen Heppell has said

…we need to see the opportunity presented: we are in a world where, as I have often said before, instead of the old 20th century model of “building big things that did things for people” we now have a world of “helping people to help each other…we’ve said all along that ICT empowers autonomous and collaborative learners. Now is the time to prove that these learners include ourselves too.

Now is an excellent time to encourage and work with the many online collaborators who provide inspiration and support for others. Many communities of practice exist that are well placed to take this debate forward. The online community will ensure that Becta publications and services will survive if there is a demand for them but we may also be entering an era of new opportunities. This has been signalled for some time by writers such as Clay Shirky and Charles Leadbeater. Some of the clubby, old, paternalism that has guided our thinking about ICT for so many years may be swept aside as impatient, younger influences become more dominant in education.

Many writers have opposed universal solutions, meta-narratives, and generalisations. More so than ever, some ‘universalist’ claims have been challenged in areas relating to knowledge and technology. Lyotard in his 1979 report on knowledge argues that our postmodern era is characterised by an ‘incredulity towards meta-narratives’. These meta-narratives are grand theories and philosophies such as those that characterise the inevitable progress of history and the infallibility of science. Lyotard argues that the world has changed and that these sorts of narratives may no longer stand up to scrutiny. We have to embrace individuality, diversity, conflict, local knowledge and context, and encourage smaller strategies that have meaning and relevance to those who own them. Lyotard signposts the diversity of smaller communities and the multiple collaborative and conflicting systems which create their own meanings and their own rules.

Becta served and helped shape our views of ICT and e-Learning admirably and was instrumental in moving both technological and pedagogical discourses away from the technocrats and into spaces inhabited by teachers, parents, pupils and the wider community. The challenge for us all now is how to create new discourses about ICT, not just through membership organisations and formal bodies but through informal spaces which are increasingly attracting collaborators, inventors and innovators. The technologies are there to support these spaces and the old argument that puts pedagogy ahead of the technology is sounding tired. The boundaries between the two are blurring and young people know this. We need to do six impossible things before breakfast.

Becta had a Business Plan which set out its work for 2010-2011 which identified six priorities:

Priority 1: e-enabling institutions

Increasing the numbers of schools, colleges and other providers using technology to improve outcomes for learners and deliver value for money.”  Building on the work that Becta undertakes in the next twelve months, we need to take Stephen Heppell’s vision forward and each in our own way make a point of connecting up with each other through informal and formal networks to encourage, collaborate, celebrate and help each other to raise and meet expectations on the use of ICT in education.

Priority 2: Delivering Home Access and improving services for learners and families

Increasing the numbers of learners able to access learning materials, the school and wider services through technology” Many schools are already technological hubs of their communities. By opening physical and virtual doors to their ICT resources, schools are well placed to take this forward. By opening up provision of cloud-based resources through learning platforms, e-learning and other resources schools are increasingly positioning themselves to lead in supporting their communities through the use of ICT.

Priority 3:Supporting the frontline to achieve savings through technology

Achieving savings through better procurement, management and interoperability of ICT and improved operational efficiency”. This is possibly the hardest of the “impossible six” to achieve. Again, the key is collaboration. Procurement frameworks and the creation of ICT contracts that meet local needs will need to be well coordinated. Where the motivation is financial, there is greater motivation to collaborate. We can look forward to commercial strategic partnerships, regional procurement frameworks and other entrepreneurial and innovative methods of procuring and achieving interoperability. If the foreseeable future is to be based on personal, portable, wireless, networked, interactive devices then we can expect interesting times indeed.

Priority 4: Propositions to achieve future productivity through new operating models

“Developing propositions to policy makers, local authorities and system leaders on new models” Whether schools become academies, free schools or remain within Local Authorities, new models of operating will emerge. There is much to be excited about, as both educational structures and technologies will change rapidly over the next year. The challenge will be whether or not leadership models respond strongly enough in both reactive and proactive ways.

Priority 5: Supporting leaders and developing system leadership

“Ensuring commitment by education leaders to a strategic vision for technology and its implementation” This priority is inextricably linked to the previous one. To refer back to Stephen Heppell, we need to revisit our grand, strategic visions and focus on autonomy and collaboration.

Priority 6: Organisational delivery and reducing administration costs

Managing the organisation efficiently, effectively and reducing administrative costs.” The coalition government has stated that it is committed to giving schools more freedom from unnecessary prescription and bureaucracy. ICT will continue to play an important role in the management and administration of schools in increasingly efficient ways.

Becta had established each priority with both one and three year targets. It will be the challenge of schools and other educational providers to take these priorities and reinterpret them after March 2011. By collaborating and contributing to the national and international discourses on ICT in education we can embark on a new era of creativity and innovation in education.

Following the Alice in the Looking Glass quotation on Six Impossible Things, we would do well to remember what the Sheep said later in the same chapter: “I never put things into people’s hands — that would never do — you must get it for yourself.” Now is the time to start getting things for ourselves. How many impossible things can we dream before breakfast and then make real?


Evocative Objects by Sherry Turkle

August 6, 2009

Sherry Turkle’s latest book, Evocative Objects takes the concept of “things we think with” both as its theme and its subtitle. Building upon ideas explored in both her previous landmark books “The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit,”published in 1984, and “Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet,” from 1995, and also developing the ideas underpinning Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms, Turkle curates a serious of essays that explore how everyday and  extraordinary objects can act both as intellectual and emotional catalysts. The essays are provided by talented and creative thinkers, many of whom are associated with MIT where Turkle is Director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. The essays are linked with sometimes ironic and sometimes profound quotations from other authors, amongst whom the French postmodernists are prominent.

Reading the essays is a privileging and moving experience as the authors reveal the nakedness of their evocative objects, exposing the inner thoughts and feelings to these touchstones of material objects including ballet slippers, a vacuum cleaner, a Melbourne tram, a rolling pin and slime mould. Turkle acts as curator to these essays brilliantly, allowing brutal honesty and exposure to the pieces, which often read like private journals. Reading the essays brings both the subject matter and the authors’ thoughts to life, evoking the smell, the mustiness of time, nostalgia, joy, regret, guilt and inspiration.

The essays exude invention and creativity often tinged with sadness or emptiness but always effervescing with the humanity of the writers. These talented people become very ordinary through their evocative objects and this ordinariness becomes extraordinary as layers of meaning are unpeeled to expose the exceptionality and the singularity of the simple, the loved and the mundane. The objects are also often ordinary but become precious and sacred as they expose the intelligence, soul and vocation of their stewards.

In her book, Turkle describes and illustrates the way in which technologies are more than just tools, often manifesting themselves as evocative objects: things we think with. She invites the essayist to discuss personal objects that often come to exist with lives of their own. Turkle poignantly illustrates how the aesthetics, design and technology behind evocative objects is directly related to understanding human emotions, thoughts and experiences and the manner in which we reflect upon them.  Through this, objects themselves often take upon a fetishistic or totemic quality.  

The humanity of the essayists’ interaction with their objects also reveals the ghost in the machine, the spirit that moves us to see objects as more than just the sum total of the parts of which they are comprised, although there are glimpses of a generational difference as we see younger figures moving in the background and interacting with technology in a far more self-assured, fluid and natural way than the often older essayist. does

Turkle has had a long-lasting fascination with objects and relics and the way in which we interact with them. She has a background in technology stretching back over 30 years, and spent some time in Paris studying French philosophy and psychoanalytic thought. By bringing together these two contrasting areas, Turkle views technology in a uniquely philosophical way.

That most quintessential piece of technology, the computer, she sees as being an evocative object and a “companion to emotion, and a provocation to thought.” She not only perceptively analyses the computer as a tool for the advancement of society and individual growth, she also sees it as a object which profoundly affects us, and changes not just what we do and how we feel, but more essentially who we are.  With previous publications that cover a wide range of themes including sociology and technology, she has also investigated the way in which the computer can be a means of creating and expressing identity, a way of creating new virtual worlds and a way of learning, creating and communicating.  “Evocative Objects” is a natural extension of this thinking, taking a similar approach to shed light on more mundane things. Everyday, simple objects take on a new meaning when they are seen through the eyes of anthropologists, sociologists and pyschologists.

All these dusty, nostalgic and magical objects together bring to life the philosophical passages that preface each of the essays and provide another lens through which the ordinary, simple and seemingly uninteresting emerge in new and vibrant colours.

Turkle’s daughter brings her own evocative object into the book: a patchwork quilt made by her recently deceased paternal grandmother. We learn through Turkle’s narrative a lot more about the quilt and the people who have touched (and been touched by) it. Turkle’s evocative object is pregnant with meaning for all concerned. It conveys many thoughts and feelings and is a relic of a very personal life history. As an historic and representational item, it is (more than) a reminder of the life and the passing of the grandmother as well as being an object of grieving and remembrance. Most importantly to us, it is an artefact, a gift from and for loved ones.

Gifts and relics are important to givers, recipients, investigators, archaeologists and theorists alike. The essays demonstrate how these objects come to life, imbued with meaning from the past, the present and future and how they can tell a story, not just a shared story within a family or between friends, but a story for wider sharing, one that can be passed down through the ages until it turns into tradition, folklore, myth or legend. The stories that are shared through Turkle’s magnificent anthology have already been committed to history through their publication in “Evocative Objects”. It is a comfortable setting for the many characters, events and objects that populate the collection and brings to life the personal stories that have been so generously shared in the public domain.

Although the stories are told through words and pictures, you can almost see, hear, feel and smell the precious things as they are so beautifully animated as objects to think with. Turkle has compiled and edited a truly remarkable collection of writings.


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