Together with a bunch of LSE Media & Communication students, I attended the “one-day international conference” on “Maximizing Opportunities for Young Learners in the Digital Age” in Oxford today.
As young learners that we consider ourselves to be, we had hoped to get an overview of the latest research regarding technology and learning. Our hopes were not entirely disappointed, but it turned out that the debate was about some bigger questions that go way beyond the role of technology. In fact, what was really at stake was the (power) relationship between teacher and student, as mediated by technology.
After writing the post, I decided to go straight into my thoughts on what was said at that conference, moving a summary of the presentations to the end.
What it was all about
To be critical, all of the presentations raised more questions than they answered. One of the reasons for this is that the research is not specific enough about what is meant by “young learners”, by “technologies”, and (most crucially) by “learning”. Just these three variables can be configured in so many different ways that generalizations seem very problematic.
The conference also left some people in the audience wondering what the debate was actually about. If you didn’t know that it was about technology and learning, you could have assumed at times that it was the entire schooling system that was up for discussion.
All arguments quickly led to questions about the nature and purpose of learning, the role of schools in learning, and even about the nature of knowledge itself. What is it that we want our children to learn and know?
What was really at stake at this debate was something that no speaker at the conference explicitly talked about: the relationship between the teacher and the student. The teacher is supposed to have the ultimate authority over knowledge. That defines his identity and professional self-understanding as a teacher.
If technology enables students to go out and discover (possible more recent or conflicting) information by themselves, the position of the teacher is undermined. Her role would have to change from preaching knowledge to guiding students in finding it themselves. Teachers would have to be accountable for what they teach and their teaching would be more transparent. Do they like that? Most of them probably wouldn’t.
I couldn’t help the feeling that some of the researchers in this field also don’t fully embrace such a change in the way the teacher-student relationship works. If we think about the many interviews they conduct with young people as a discourse (as Foucault would like it), then the patronizing undertone in their questions and the way they frame their studies possibly reinforces the powerful position of teachers and lecturers (that they are) as the ultimate source of knowledge. Those who this research is about – the young learners – are not given a loud enough voice in this discourse.
What was said
Justine Cassell, Northwestern University in Chicago, opened the conference with an intriguing presentation of the Junior Summit project, which she was involved in. In short, the Junior Summit was a global online community that was set up to be run by teenagers themselves. Given this opportunity, the young participants actually managed to establish a strong sense of community and activism. One of her findings was that adults should stay away as much as possible. “We need to build communities, not classrooms.”
Ole Erstad, University of Oslo, continued from there by questioning the notion of a “digital generation”. Teens and their media habits are in many ways quite “normal”, he suggests. He also questions any distinction between “formal” or “informal” ways of learning. To understand how young people use technology for learning, we should adopt a “learning lives” approach that focuses on learning in everyday life, across many different contexts and places.
Sonia Livingstone, LSE, gave a concise summary of current empirical research on technology and learning. Does technology improve students performance in the usual school subjects? Yes, no, maybe. There is no conclusive empirical evidence for this relationship. Maybe technology allows for new ways of learning, like experimentation, tinkering, social learning, and so on? Yes, no, maybe. The problem with empirical research in this area, she suggests, is that we don’t seem to know what to look for. “The pedagogy of the Internet has not been worked out yet.”
Finally, John Furlong and Chris Davis, University of Oxford, asked “Do young people need help in using technologies to maximize their learning out-of-school?” They made the distinction between formal, quasi-formal, and informal learning settings (that Ole Erstad had rejected), providing quotes for each of them, taken from their interview research. They suggest that adults need to better understand young people and technology in order to guide the youth.