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Informal learning with technology outside school

Julian Sefton-Green, WAC Performing Arts and Media College

The full version of this review is available to download in pdf format - see box below. On this page you'll find the executive summary.

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Informal learning with technology outside school (pdf, 503KB)

Executive summary

Computers and other aspects of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) allow children and young people a wide variety of activities and experiences that can support learning, yet many of these transactions do not take place in traditional educational settings. In fact many of these may not be considered ‘educational’ according to our conventional understanding of that term. For most of us, discussion about learning is inextricably related to formal education systems (how schools should be organised, managed and run). However, any interest in the role of ICTs in children’s learning forces the recognition that many children are immersed in ICT-related activities in their homes and with their friends. This recognition requires us to acknowledge a wider ‘ecology’ of education where schools, homes, playtime, the library and the museum all play their part. This review, then, is an attempt to map out the different approaches to understanding how young people may be learning with ICTs in a range of settings outside the school.

The particular focus in this report is children and young people’s use of digital resources that are primarily viewed as leisure activities and which, often, are viewed by formal educational establishments as outside the realm of valued educational experience. This comprises, for example, children’s playing of computer games, their use of chat rooms, their exploitation of digital media and digital television and so on, in other words, all the activities that are now mediated by digital technologies as part of young people’s social and cultural lives.

Section 1 of the report deals with the challenges and methodological issues facing research into children’s informal learning with ICTs. It highlights conceptual and political difficulties in researching an area of activity often overlooked or unacknowledged by research, policy and practices. Usually, questions about children’s learning in non-formal settings are not asked. However, an attention to informal learning, whether voluntary, accidental or embedded in people’s day-to-day lives, also makes more evident the experiential nature of learning as many accounts of informal learning pay tribute to notions of wonder, surprise, feelings, peer and personal responses, fun and pleasure. This section goes on to discuss the difficulties of defining ‘informal learning’, and the challenges for researchers of mapping where and with what resources children are learning with technologies outside school. It also highlights the fact that knowing how many young people have access to technologies is insufficient grounds for understanding how technology use might support learning.

Section 2 defines key theories of learning which have been or can be applied to observation of children and young people’s informal interactions with ICT. These learning theories are important in helping us draw links between children’s learning in these contexts and those in school, but this review also highlights how children’s informal learning is leading to the need to develop new approaches to thinking about learning in any setting. The four main theories discussed here include ‘constructivism’, which basically suggests that by reflecting on their own experiences, all learners construct their own understanding of the world. This approach is contrasted with the pedagogic theories of Lev Vygotsky. The third approach describes ‘discovery’ or ‘experiential learning’ with its associated rhetoric of learning through play. Fourth, we examine theories of ‘situated learning’ which argue that we need to understand learning as a social process and to look closely at sociocultural contexts. Finally the report describes ‘new literacy studies’ which attempt to theorise the whole range of ICT-related experiences often described as a kind of literacy (as in the populist phrase ‘computer literacy’).

Section 3 synthesises a range of academic and commercially-funded research which maps children’s ownership and frequency of ICT use in the home and debates the effect of unequal access to the technology. In very broad terms, fairly consistent trends in home ownership of ICTs amongst young people over the last five years show that PC ownership seems to be around 76% in families with school-aged children compared with around 80% for games consoles, 100% for televisions, 90% for mobile phones, 30% for digital television and around 20% for digital cameras. Around 80% of households with children have access to the internet but only about 5% of homes with children have broadband. Predictably, the key determinant influencing ownership of digital technologies is social class.

Section 4 explores the characteristics of informal learning organised in three subsections. The first of these focuses on identity, culture and social context, showing how learning transactions are intricately embedded in the immediate social worlds children inhabit. The second looks at play and interactivity focusing on computer games. This focus delineates three kinds of approaches to computer games: a focus on gaming in its raw psychological sense; an attempt to explore how game play might transform the present curriculum; and an exploration of game playing and game cultures as an original medium for learning. The third sub-section here examines the capacity to use digital media to make and design a range of new media products, and theissues around the learning involved in this new kind of production activity, particularly as it relates to software.

Section 5 offers a series of conclusions aimed at different constituencies of interest. There is a considerable body of research which shows that young people’s use of, and interaction with, ICTs outside of formal education is a complex ‘educational’ experience. We need to find ways for this kind of learning to be valued by teachers, schools and the curriculum.

We need more research examining huge areas of ICT interaction about which we know very little, around interactive TV for example. Secondly we note that most of the studies described above may shed light on small areas of young people’s learning but they do not look across domains and across experiences to show how society in general can support and sustain learners.

The evidence collected in this report does suggest that some of the public anxieties about children and ICTs are misplaced. Parents need accessible research to support many intuitions they feel about seeing children learning and playing with ICT in the home.

Teachers and other educators just simply need to know a lot more about children’s experiences and be confident to interpret and use the learning that goes on outside of the classroom.

The message for software developers is that despite the current interest in educational software, it would seem as if other kinds of product might develop learning in round-about ways. Part of the issue here is that the market for educational software is defined by the very strict limits of in-school education, whereas this report suggests a range of ways which might seek to soften such definitions in reaching the same goals.