Through the readings I have carried out for my MA module on internet cultures I have been thinking a lot about how the digital world operates, how students access it and about lessons teachers can learn to enhance their lessons. The articles by Neil Selwyn on Digital Inequality and the research paper by Bachel et al on Civic Engagement both had many important points to make, so I am going to sort of haphazardly mash their ideas together!
What comes up regularly is the idea of top-down regulation from Government on policy regarding technology in education and attempts at sorting out the digital divide; I alluded to this previously arguing that students who aren’t used to autonomy might suddenly become revolutionary, but it is more likely if an idea is planted in their head or if their educators alert them to ways in which they can start to help things evolve. As many colleges are pushing a ‘student voice’ agenda in how the college operates, then it is only right that we encourage students to have their say on how technology can be utilised to support them best. As Selwyn writes, we may see a reduction in ‘digital inequality…if genuine efforts are made to empower young people to use ICTs for what are truly their own modes of participation in society’. This means putting the students at the top of the agenda.
What Selwyn finds is that the better-off, the white, well-educated, urban-dwellers are the ones enjoying better quality of technology. This was argued in Brereton & O’Connor’s paper on DVD add-ons too; when they studied the ways in which three sets of students from different types of schools used DVD extras, it was the more prosperous, urban school that used them with the most benefit. From this I considered that ICT inequality mirrors inequality in life and so any interventions from Governments or other agencies will need to approach the digital divide in a way that can reach out to the less prosperous. One way of doing this was a more informal approach to digital inclusion – interventions that have happened in petrol stations, youth centres and shopping centres. Unfortunately, Selwyn wrote this paper in the heady, pre-crash days of 2006 before youth centres, libraries, community centres and so on were faced with funding changes or closure. It seems that when something approaching a useful solution was found, it was snatched away pretty quickly. However, one area which might be safer and more successful in bridging this digital divide is the internet itself where Government and other agencies were able to develop ‘online communities of young people clustered around common interests such as education, the environment and political representation’ (Selwyn, 2006).
Coming to the research paper on civic engagement, I noted that a stumbling block was that young people were seen to think that citizenship comes without duties but also comes with many rights. This concept of rights without responsibility is a dangerous one and apathy or disinterest is the likely outcome of that frame of mind. A remedy for the decline in civic engagement, which I believe connects closely to digital inequality, was the creation of websites that gave young people the tools to volunteer, know about voting, and join in other aspects of civic participation. While the research paper by Bachen et al was produced in America, there are areas of similarities and issues in both the U.S and Britain regarding youth involvement. From this paper, I realised again that young people will not simply engage because a website exists, rather, a number of teaching techniques and website features need to be in place to capture the imagination of the young and get people wanting to do something. An example I found of this sort of website is the Labour Party website in the UK. They have a “Campaign Engine Room” website that breaks down the actions people have taken, with a current total 59,000 actions from 40,000 people. What actions did people carry out for the campaign about NHS frontline resources?
- Signing an online petition
- Sharing information on Twitter, Facebook
- Emailing information to someone
- Downloading campaign resources
Will those examples inspire young people to get involved? Perhaps not, as these are mostly simple activities that require a few minutes of requisite anger before being able to say “I took a simple action” and moving on. Bachen et al singled out websites in the way that they allow people to engage, the websites that allow you to control the content you see, through links and options or the websites that allow you to take part in human-to-human communication. As both papers are now a few years old, the Labour website includes both the ability to filter and the option of human-to-human communication.
Despite Labour’s social media activities coming across quite well, I can’t feel entirely confident that the site isn’t just an information hub with fairly sophisticated social media add-ons. The public are encouraged and given opportunities to get involved but these contributions are secondary to the information the party wants to deliver. The website directs people to a page where they can learn how to use Facebook and Twitter for campaigning, and also buy a domain name for a campaign. People are able to set up their own campaign, but equally people can then report the campaign for being inappropriate. I did a search to see if there was a hub for young people who wanted to blog on issues – and have it somehow connected to the Labour site (with the usual caveats about Labour not being held responsible for the content) but what I found was another website called Labour: Central where users could link to and share blogs from Labour figures, but it seems that within the Members area, non-members are able to blog. To me, this all seemed a bit complex and did not seem designed to really grab supporters immediately though youth membership for £1 and allowing non-members to have an account in the members’ area are certainly steps in the right direction.
An area of interest in the Bachen et al paper was around sites that used active teaching techniques and they found the most effective websites were the ones where real opportunities were embedded into the website:
Consistent with their missions, the sites offered opportunities for young people to address real-world problems, express their opinions to others, take part in discussions online, and participate in some type of civic activity… in other words, they supplied opportunities for youth to develop civic skills. Most of the high-scoring active pedagogy sites also involve youth in designing or providing the editorial content.
What we can take from this is that if websites really want young people to get involved more, the way they construct their websites should change quite dramatically. As Selwyn notes, people blindly assume that ICT is empowering, but I see ICT as empowering only if you want it to be or you have access to the tools that can make ICT empowering in the first place. One of the main issues Selwyn picks up on is that ‘only a minority of young people are creating and maintaining their own websites, authoring and updating their own blogs and actively contributing to virtual communities’. He goes on to highlight that many youth use ICT in a way that has no ‘real purpose or overtly empowering outcomes’, things such as downloading games and films, Facebook and instant messaging.
When Selwyn concludes his paper, he argues that part of the problem is that a social problem of young people not being particularly interested in civic engagement cannot be solved through technical fixes alone and that the problem should be solved through social solutions. However, he sees that Government websites and plans allow for ‘top-down and one-way delivery of services’.
In 2012, Michael Gove stated that ICT lessons were not fit for purpose and had this to say about using technology in school:
While things are changing so rapidly, while the technology is unpredictable and the future is unknowable, Government must not wade in from the centre to prescribe to schools exactly what they should be doing and how they should be doing it.
We must work with these developments as they arise: supporting, facilitating and encouraging change, rather than dictating it.
Despite Gove being a divisive figure, his BETT speech sounds promising; he wants the focus to be on teacher training and helping teachers make the most out of technology, not a stream of new technology appearing in the classroom when teachers can’t make the most of it. His entire argument was one of reform that moves away from top-down edicts, and one that moves towards giving ICT teachers the chance to teach the students how they see fit. This may well be a disaster, but it could help many students who want to move beyond making spreadsheets for a business they’ve no intention of running, or sending letters to clients they don’t have. Perhaps engaging students in making apps, learning coding, understanding how the technology industries in Britain work and a more vocational approach is what is needed. My only concern here is Gove’s comments on how teaching should go back to basics…yet at the same time he’s encouraging people to be more forward-thinking. Let’s just hope he can allow innovation to blossom.