Technology, we are frequently told, is fundamentally transforming education. It challenges existing definitions of knowledge, offers new ways of motivating reluctant learners, and promises endless opportunities for creativity and innovation. There has been a long history of such grandiose claims, dating back well before the advent of computers. Early advocates of the use of film and television in education, for example, made similarly fantastic predictions that these media would lead to far-reaching changes in the nature of learning – and indeed that the school itself would soon become redundant.
The current push to insert computersinto classrooms is principally driven by commercial companies seeking new andpredictable markets for their products, and by governments that are apparentlydesperate to solve what they regard as the problems of public education. Bothtypically espouse a form of technological determinism, and a belief in theall-conquering power of technology. This in turn results in an instrumentalview of technology’s role in education. Technology is seen as a neutralmechanism for delivering information, and information itself is regarded as akind of disembodied object that exists independently of human or socialinterests. This has led to a neglect of basic educational issues, not onlyabout how we teach with technology, but also about what children need to knowabout it.
Despite the claims of the marketers,there is now a growing body of research that suggests that the impact oftechnology on teachers’ everyday practice is quite limited. Many teachersresist the use of technology, not because they are old-fashioned or ignorant,but because they recognise that it does not help them to achieve theirobjectives. There is very little persuasive evidence that the use of technologyin itself improves students’ achievement. Of course, some teachers are usingtechnology in very thoughtful and creative ways, but most uses of technology inschools are narrow, unimaginative and instrumental.
When faced with this evidence,advocates of technology tend to say that it is still early days, and that realand lasting change is just around the corner. Yet digital technology has beenin schools for more than a quarter of a century: the promised revolution hasnot yet happened, and there is little reason to believe that it will arrive anytime soon. Nevertheless, my own position is not one of outright opposition totechnology. I feel there has been an unhelpful polarisation in the populardebate between the dewy-eyed enthusiasts who regard technology as the saviourof education and the gloomy pessimists who believe we are all going totechnological hell. It is surely time for a different approach.
The new digital divide
As a media educator, one of myprimary interests is in the relationship between children’s everyday culturesand practices outside school and those they encounter in the classroom. Inrelation to digital technology, there is now a significant – and perhapswidening – gap between what children do in school and what they do in theirleisure time. This is what I call the new digital divide. Despite massiveinvestment in technology in schools, and despite the far-reaching enthusiasmthat has accompanied it, much of what takes place in education has remainedrelatively untouched by technology. Yet outside school, children are livingincreasingly media-saturated childhoods. Children’s independent access to mediatechnology has grown significantly, and they are participating in anincreasingly diverse and increasingly commercialised media culture – a culturethat some adults are finding it difficult to understand and control.
I am not suggesting that the olddigital divide has been superseded. On the contrary, there are stillsignificant inequalities in access to technology and in the skills andcompetencies that are required to use it, and these are inequalities thatschools absolutely must address. Indeed, we should be wary of the easy rhetoricof the so-called ‘digital generation’ – the notion that young people are allbusily communicating and creating online, and that they have a spontaneousaffinity with technology that older people do not.
Even so, when we look at whatchildren are doing with this technology outside school, it is clear that it isprimarily a medium for popular culture. Children who have access to computersat home are using them for playing games, surfing entertainment sites on theinternet, instant messaging, social networking, and downloading and editingvideo and music. Beyond doing functional tasks for homework, very few of themare using technology for anything that much resembles school learning. Bycontrast, what they are doing with technology in school is very limited. Thesubject of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is largely about wordprocessing, spreadsheets and file management – in effect, the Microsoft Officecurriculum. It offers little more than decontextualised training in functionalskills. This is not to say that these skills may not be important for somepeople at some stage in their lives, although it is certainly debatable whetherit is necessary, or even a particularly effective use of resources, forchildren to be trained in them in school.
There is now growing evidence thatchildren generally find the use of technology in school boring andunimaginative. Some are resigned to this, seeing it as an inevitable fact oflife, but others are positively disaffected, and some actively resist it.Particularly for those who are most engaged with technology in their everydaylives, and who may well go on to seek technologically-focused employment, theuse of technology in school is largely perceived as irrelevant. This is hardlysurprising. Historically, schooling has often been characterised by a blankrejection of students’ everyday popular culture – and indeed there is a kind ofparanoia about the loss of control that happens when popular culture enters thespace of the school. To this extent, what I am calling the new digital dividemerely reflects a broader historical disjunction between young people’severyday leisure culture and the culture of the school.
Addressing the new digital divide
Can we do anything about thissituation, and indeed should we? Some would argue that what children do outsideschool is not the proper concern of teachers: children get enough of thispopular culture in their daily lives, so why should they need to think about itin school, let alone study it? Many would argue that what happens in school isnecessarily different from what happens outside, that schooling is a form ofinduction into high-status knowledge, and that school learning is necessarilyformal in a way that out-of-school learning is not. While I have some sympathywith this argument, it is obviously one that sees little scope for change: itseems to assume that high-status knowledge is to be taken for granted, and itaccepts as given distinctions between high culture and popular culture that arein fact historically and culturally relative.
For my part, I feel that schoolshave a responsibility to address the realities of children’s lives outsideschool – which self-evidently includes their engagement with popular culture,and their leisure uses of technology. However, we need to be wary of asuperficial response. For example, there are some who seek to celebratechildren’s engagement with computer games. They point out (quite correctly)that playing games can involve a whole series of complex learning processes.Yet they argue that it is here that the most significant learning is takingplace, and that the school is almost a lost cause. This celebratory argumenttypically entails a wholly positive, uncritical stance towards popular culture.Those who extol the benefits of computer games for learning tend to ignore thecommercial dimensions of games, and avoid awkward questions about their valuesand ideologies. They also engage in a rather ill-defined valorisation of‘informal learning’, in which formal learning is seen as something inherentlybad. This argument takes very little account of the realities of schools andclassrooms, and indeed of the very many problems that would be entailed inusing games for learning.
This approach is symptomatic of whatwe might call the ‘edutainment’ strategy – the idea that we can take elementsof entertainment and use them as a way of making the traditional curriculummore palatable or engaging, particularly for disaffected children (who thesedays are increasingly boys). This is what the media industries typically call‘fun learning’, and it is a growing market both in homes and in schools. Theidea that we can sugar the pill of education with a little dose of fun has along history. Yet it is a superficial approach that almost invariably fails.Our research suggests that children can easily see through it: they know thedifference between a real computer game and an educational game, and they knowwhich they prefer – and they also become very adept at taking the sugar whileleaving the pill behind.
Towards digital literacy
The problem with the strategies Ihave described is that they lead to an uncritical, unreflexive use oftechnology. They see technology as an instrumental teaching aid, a tool or atechnique. In the process, fundamental questions about how technologies mediateand represent the world, about how they create meaning, and about how they areproduced, are inevitably marginalised.
Many years ago, the Italian semioticianUmberto Eco wrote that if you want to use television to teach somebody, youfirst have to teach them about how to use television. As this implies,education about media is an indispensable prerequisite for education with orthrough media. I would argue that the same is true of digital media. If we wantto use the internet, or games or other digital media to teach, we need to equipstudents to understand and to critique these media: we cannot regard themsimply as neutral means of delivering information, and we should not use themin a merely functional or instrumental way. What is needed here is a coherentand rigorous conception of ‘digital literacy’ – in other words, of whatchildren need to know about these media. This is much more than a matter oftechnical know-how or functional skills. Children also need a form of criticalliteracy that will enable them to understand how information is produced,circulated and consumed, and how it comes to have meaning.
The ‘key concepts’ of mediaeducation – representation, language, production and audience – provide acomprehensive and systematic framework that can easily be applied to digitalmedia such as the internet and computer games. For example, in relation to theinternet, this approach raises challenging questions about representation –about bias, authority and ideology – that are typically neglected in accountsof information technology. It calls for a systematic analysis of the language(the grammar or rhetoric) of the web as a medium, for example, in relation tolinks, visual design, mode of address, and so on. It includes an analysis ofproduction, of the commercial and institutional interests at stake, of how webtexts are produced, and of how they relate to other media. And it looks at howall this impacts on the audience or the user, how users are targeted andinvited to participate, and what they actually do, what they find meaningfuland pleasurable. I believe this approach takes us beyond limited questionsabout whether or not the information on the web is true, or whether it can betrusted. It addresses the social and cultural dimensions of technology in asystematic and rigorous way, and it seeks to engage very directly withstudents’ out-of-school experiences – not in order to celebrate them, but tointerrogate them critically.
However, just as print literacy isabout both reading and writing, so digital media literacy should also be aboutboth critical reading and creative production. The advent of digital authoringtools has created significant new opportunities in this respect: students cannow make high quality websites or digital videos with easily accessible tools.Nevertheless, media education is not just about developing technical skills, orabout some half-baked notion of creativity. It is about developing a criticalunderstanding of cultural forms and of communication processes. Here again,technology does not precipitate change in and of itself. It needs criticalinterrogation, and its value depends crucially on the educational contexts inwhich it is used.
The end of technology?
Media education provides achallenging, rigorous and engaging perspective on technology that the subjectof ICT transparently does not. It offers a way of connecting in-school uses oftechnology with out-of-school, popular culture – albeit in a critical ratherthan a celebratory way. It raises critical questions that take us well beyond amerely instrumental or functional use of technology. I believe that medialiteracy should substantially replace the compulsory specialist subject of ICTin schools, and also be much more centrally integrated within the core subjectof English.
Digital technologies are anunavoidable fact of modern life. Teachers are bound to use technology in someform or another and the book is just as much a technology (or a medium) as theinternet. We cannot simply abandon media and technology in education and returnto a simpler, more natural time. Digital media like the internet and computergames do have enormous potential for learning; but it will be difficult torealise that potential if we persist in regarding them merely as technologies,and not as forms of culture and communication.
David Buckingham is professor ofeducation at the Institute of Education, University of London. This article isa summary of some key arguments in his book Beyond Technology: Children’sLearning in the Age of Digital Culture (Cambridge, Polity Press, 2007).