Monday, December 11, 2006

come back all ye long departed

OK, OK, this is for all you who keep encouraging and hassling me to get back on the wagon (hic). This is something I wrote the other day for an international publication put out by the Monash University Centre for the Study of Global Movements. Just a little piece of fluff. I think the final one has been cut. I only had 1000 words. I remember when this seemed like Everest ... ah those days seem like an eternity ago.

Catching up with digital youth

The lives of young people, their education and what they do and don’t do with new technologies are never far from the daily news pages and from evening tabloid television.

We regularly read about the adverse ‘effects’ of new digital technologies: internet addiction, violent and sexist computer games, and an apparent epidemic of cyber bullying.

These issues, rightly, are a concern for many parents, educators, and others who work with young people. But how appropriate are such fears? Might these dangers represent a new spin on much older problems?

On the other hand, it is common in education and business to hear about the transformative potential of new technologies for schools and learning, with students able to ‘learn anything, anywhere, anytime’ (Perelman 1993). Such promises have proved hollow and costly for schools and teachers.

Claims about technology-induced transformed learning have joined the scrap heap with promises about the paperless office. They seemed like a good idea at the time, but real change has proved more difficult.

So how might we approach new technologies in a more productive way? Between these two extremes – moral panic and runaway enthusiasm – there is a sensible middle ground.

The snapshots from research presented here are from an ongoing study of young people, aged between 15 and 16 in Victoria, Australia. These young people come from different schools and communities but they are all living in a rather different world to the one many of us grew up in.


Reed enjoys playing computer games and if his parents didn’t put such tight restrictions on his time he would probably play more, in fact he says, ‘I’d probably go crazy for a while and then get over it’. He loves his new Motorola 3G phone, and is on the ‘$30 plan’ which his parents pay for as long as he doesn’t go over his credit limit. Reed’s first recollection of a computer in the home was at seven years old. He received his first mobile when beginning secondary school, aged 12. His MP3 player goes wherever he does and he regularly downloads music from the Internet for free. His home life is saturated with ICT, and he gives the following description:

At home we have one portable CD player, three stereo systems, four MP3 players, including an iPod, we go through them very quickly. Umm, I’ve got a minidisk player stored away somewhere, countless headphones, four mobile phones, um do electronic keyboards count?

Reed is an earnest 15 year old guy who attends an exclusive independent school in Melbourne’s inner east. He does well at school and is liked by many of his peers. He says his parents are quite strict, putting many requirements on his time and social life; his time after school is structured into hour blocks and he must have his homework finished before using the computer for other things.


Mandy has her own mobile phone, and two SIM cards. Mobiles are banned at school but she takes hers anyway; she says she can’t do without it. She also loves chatting with friends on MSN (a text based instant messaging program) from the home computer. Despite having the opportunity, Mandy had no real interest in using computers outside of school until she was about 13 and ‘all my friends were telling me about them and I wanted to use them’. Mandy has her own blog, where she posts pictures of friends and song lyrics. She listens to music on her iPod, which she also takes to school every day. At the risk of getting caught, Mandy listens to her iPod in class and ‘pranks’ other students on her mobile phone. She says,

You sit with your legs crossed under the table and you have your phone just sitting in between your legs and you prank people and have your iPod up your sleeve.

Mandy is an exuberant 15 year old girl who lives in a new growth area in Melbourne’s outer northern suburbs, an area with a large migrant population and high unemployment. Mandy attends the local state high school and seems more interested in school as an extension of her social network. Her time out of school seems pretty much her own.


Jess works part-time at the local pizza delivery joint and absolutely loves music, (‘I’m like addicted’) and would be ‘totally lost’ without her mobile. At school Jess often has her phone confiscated, and says she goes ‘crazy’ without it, as for her it represents ‘all my sense of communication’ and connection with friends. She estimates sending about 25 txts a day, often having ‘txt conversations’ with friends during school time. These are often about organising to meet up and maintaining contact through such inane stuff as ‘telling lame jokes’ and sharing bits and pieces of gossip and news. She says,

Oh, yeah, the teachers take my phone off me all the time, cause I can’t help it, like people will txt me in class and I’ll be like AHHH, I need to answer back!

Jess has seen a lot in her 15 years. She lives with her foster parents in an eastern suburb of Melbourne and attends a middle class government school. She has made her own music on a computer with a friend, mixing ready-made samples with her own recorded voice tracks. She does not own an MP3 player, but often uses her foster dad’s video iPod and prefers her stereo or radio to most other digital technologies.

Today’s young people have been given various names – digital natives, screenagers, the net-gen – but these labels ignore the complexities of their diverse experiences and obscure the various ways new technologies have and have not influenced their everyday lives. The situation is similar in their schools and classrooms. These snapshots tell only one side of a many-sided story.

So what do these snapshots suggest about how we might approach young people, technology and learning differently? How can we avoid taking an extreme position of panic or boosterism?

The proliferation and growing reach of new digital technologies and global media is not likely to slow down. So while young people’s experiences will inevitably differ in important and significant ways, they will all need the ability to engage with a world rather different from that of their parents, socially, culturally, economically, politically and certainly technologically, which is of course, part of all these domains.

They will also need to engage with the ways adults and the media industry regularly cast them as either in need of protection and therefore unable to protect themselves, or as degenerates and slackers after the next porn or video game fix. Both these characterisations are part of the same deficit, unhelpful attitude. An attitude which we need to move past.

An active, informed citizenry needs the critical capacity to engage with the issues of the day, whatever these may be. More than likely some of these will be directly related to new digital technologies and how these variously mediate engagement with the world. Schools, of course, are not the only places where young people learn these things. While some spaces for learning are closed down, unavailable, or undesirable, others open up, or need to be fought for more strongly (Bloome 2006).

Parents, educators, policy makers and those in other positions of influence would do well to recognise the value and significance of new technologies in the lives of young people and how they are using them in both ordinary and innovative ways. While there are always challenges - any new technology can be used for good or ill - there are also interesting possibilities.


Bloome, David (2005), ‘Forward’, in W. Kist, New Literacies in Action: Teaching and Learning in Multiple Media, Teachers College Press, New York, pp. ix-x.

Perelman, Lewis (1993), School's Out, Avon Books, New York.


I got some interesting feedback from a colleague about this piece. I may share it later. It really made me think about what the likely outcome (the 'so what?' factor) of my research might be. Am I just creating predictable answers to questions that are tired and lifeless? WIll I be able to provide some hope for schools and young people or will I find no generative connections or possibilities that might cause us to look again and continue our efforts?

Don't know yet. Any thoughts?


At 8:06 pm, Blogger christinA said...

Welcome back?!!! so weird, i was just going to post a comment asking where you were after all this time, and there you were! tell me, what methodology are you using in your research?

At 3:10 pm, Blogger Nat said...

Yeah, glad to see you back on board, Scott. I just posted a comment on your Baking for Baby blog, but because I'm not convinced that you're even using that one yourself any more I thought I better just alert you to the fact on this blog (sorry, but these days I'm far more interested in baby blogs than teaching blogs!)


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