The ‘Everyday Schooling in the Digital Age’ project involved an in-depth ethnography of the realities of digital technology across three contrasting Australian high schools. In the first of two posts, researcher Dr Selena Nemorin explores some of the main findings, including differences between digital media use inside and outside the classroom and communication difficulties between home and school. The next post will look at some potential solutions. Selena Nemorin is a lecturer in sociology of digital technology at the University College London. Her research interests include critical theories of technology, surveillance & society, data/IoT ethics, and youth and new media/technologies. [Header image credit: B. Flickinger, CC BY 2.0_09]

It is widely accepted that the more parents/carers participate in their children’s educational experiences, the better their children perform at school. In order to enable this involvement, reliable communicative strategies must be put in place. Parents and students need to be able to use digital tools in ways that are meaningful for them and in a manner suited to their circumstances.

While digital technology clearly provides many benefits to schooling, our research shows there is a disconnect which can be found most clearly when exploring the relationship between parents and schools in terms of use of these technologies. Tools that are familiar to teachers, and the decision-makers mandating them, may impose burdens on students at home and at school.

The promise of digital schooling

Schools around the world are making ever increasing use of digital technologies. Students are encouraged to ‘bring their own devices’ to school, classroom activities and homework are monitored online, and teachers are expected to innovate with flipped classrooms, personalised learning, and learning analytics.

Yet despite these developments, arguments are still being made that school uses of digital technology remain peculiarly insular – often bearing little resemblance to students’ uses of digital media in the rest of their lives, and primarily catering for the institutional needs of the school rather than the individual interests of students and their families.

This raises several questions for parents and schools alike:

  • How is ‘school’ technology distinct from young people’s uses of digital media at home?
  • What issues should parents and families be aware of?
  • What can schools do differently to better bridge the gap between classroom and home?

 The ‘Everyday Schooling in the Digital Age’ research project

To explore and answer some of these questions, we set out to investigate the everyday realities of school technology use. Based on ethnographic studies of three contrasting Australian high schools (Mountview, Lakeside, and Middleborough), our investigations explored a variety of reasons underlying the inconsistent impact of digital technologies on schooling. The fieldwork saw three of us take residence in these schools over a 25-month period. This involved the research team doing all the things implicit in classroom research and school ethnography, including over 300 site visits, 500 hours of observations, interviewing, and general ‘hanging about’.

We participated in lessons, meetings and other school activities, took photographs, and made video and sound recordings. We also explored the schools’ online systems and other digital spaces. Wherever possible, we tried to participate in the life of the schools, and to observe social interactions around digital technology. These activities generated a substantial corpus of empirical data – much of which related to student engagement with ‘school’ technology in home contexts.

Home and school technology …. what we found

After three years of field work it was evident that, while some students were engaging with school technologies as a deliberate means of not working, the majority were indeed using these tools to do their work, but they were also often using digital technologies in self-directed, informal, and collaborative ways.

Although teachers encouraged students to use in-house educational technologies in particular ways, the most imaginative and vital engagement with technology seemed to be happening through independent, student-led learning.

The Internet, for instance, was used to find creative ideas for presenting assignments, access alternative views and opinions, clarify content that was difficult to understand, and even to acquire information used to challenge teachers’ opinions. Students would also record lessons for absent friends, use collaborative Google Docs to share the burden of notetaking, and generally work out innovative ways of using digital media to help them ‘get by’ and ‘get on’.

It also became clear that while digital media provided many benefits to teaching and learning, they also raised challenges particularly in terms of the communicative relationship between home and school. Two contrasting vignettes offer practical illustrations of this.

When technology goes wrong: Two stories…

Vignette #1 Flame Academy

The story begins innocently enough when a Year 11 student at Lakeside Secondary School sends his Maths teacher an email on the Friday to tell her he had misinterpreted the requirements for the assignment due that day, and he isn’t sure what to do. As he has already completed an assignment based on what he thought he was supposed to be doing, he is hoping he could submit that one instead.

As it turns out, the teacher does not receive the student’s email. On the Sunday night, she sends the student a message stating that if he does not submit the correct assignment by end of night, she will fail him. The student responds immediately as he is using his computer at the time. He tells her he had emailed her on Friday but she had not replied. He had been waiting for her guidance before acting.

The teacher is also still on her computer. She replies that she has checked her inbox and there is no email from him. She requests that he resends the message. The student emails back to say that he does not have the sent email as he does not keep them. He again asks if he can submit the assignment he has already done as he has put a lot of work into it.

The teacher replies immediately with a ‘NO’. She tells him that as he is in Year 11, he needs to know how to read assignment criteria properly. The incorrect assignment will not suffice.

The student cc’s his father on the next email he sends to the teacher. In this one he explains that he had spent the day in sports training and is tired. He is willing to do the new assignment but not that evening. He asks for an extension, to which the teacher says no.

The back-and-forthing continues, now between the father and the teacher. With every email, the exchange grows more heated. Personal attacks begin to fly to the point where the father eventually cc’s the school’s Head of Innovation (as this particular teacher is also the student’s teacher for Accounting and the father is familiar with him).

The parent accuses the Maths teacher of being aggressive, inflexible, lacking understanding, and, worst of all, he claims that her behaviour is a form of harassment. The Head of Innovation sends an email addressed only to the Maths teacher. He advises her to stop emailing the parent and student as the dialogue has become inflammatory. He then emails the father to advise him that he will schedule a meeting with the Principal to further discuss the situation.

Looking back, the Head of Innovation places much of the blame on technology. In his eyes, the instantaneous nature of emailing had led to an angry interaction: there was no pause between emails, so no time to reflect properly on how certain words might be interpreted by the other party.

The Principal and Head of Innovation were clear that they considered the teacher to be in the wrong. Not only was it an invasion of the student’s personal time to send him a battery of emails on a Sunday night, but she should have also realised that emails are not the best form of communication when engaging with a disgruntled parent. The Head of Innovation offered this as an example of how communication with parents can go awry when mediated by digital technology.

Vignette #2 Mobile phones in the classroom

As mentioned previously, we spent a lot of time simply hanging around and observing everyday classroom life. On occasion, we would catch sight of students’ non-mandated uses of technologies to both support learning and to alleviate boredom. In classes where teachers did not expect or want devices to be used, students would sometimes use various forms of digital technology regardless. For example, Chinese language classes in Middleborough were facilitated by a teacher who focused on the basics of pronunciation, listening, and script-writing. While he was against using new technologies in class, students would surreptitiously use their smartphones to make sense of learning content.

As far as school authorities were concerned, student smartphones were less of a learning opportunity and more of a logistical challenge – not least students’ use of personal devices for family contact. It was clear that during lessons students responded to text messages and occasionally took calls. These communications were most often initiated by parents.

School administrators and teachers acknowledged that policing these practices was an ongoing challenge. That said, the schools were not opposed to using SMS as a means of communication. Indeed, communication between school and home was often conducted through automated SMS messages sent to parents if their child was late, failed to attend classes, or did not meet deadlines for submitting homework. Although staff considered these messages to be a boon, the system was clearly fallible and often affected parents and students in negative ways.

As one Year 11 student explained, the automated system would often make mistakes, and the unthinking nature of its messages to parents sometimes had disastrous outcomes that led to disagreements in the home, which resulted in students and parents texting and phoning each other to resolve issues during school hours.

The SMS system was configured as a unidirectional means of communication, and not intended to spur interpersonal communication activities which interrupted classes. However, when automated messages were sent to parents by mistake, this led to feelings of anxiety, anger, disappointment and frustration which some parents seemed to think had to be addressed immediately.

But erroneous messages were not the only cause of students using mobile phones in the classroom. Mobile phones made general contact between parents and students in class convenient. More often than not, parents would bypass the traditional practice of going through the school office to communicate with their children.

As a Middleborough Assistant Principal described: “The parents think they can call their kids at any time, even during class. They don’t bother going through us. They call the student directly. Sometimes students call their parents and tell them they’re sick and want to go home. We’ve had the occasional student go home without telling anybody.”

While the three schools were reluctant to impose outright bans, they also felt obligated to discourage parents and students from contact. School newsletters and websites would carry reminders and warnings after notably disruptive incidents (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: ‘Please do not call or SMS your child’ (Year Seven newsletter, Mountview)

All told, an underlying concern for school leaders and administrators was that student devices were allowing families to ‘bypass’ official systems. As one senior teacher put it: “They’ve got to go through the correct channels.” However, despite wishes for things to be otherwise, the general consensus across school staff was that the issue was largely unresolvable.

How might things be otherwise?

While digital technologies certainly bring benefits, they also have the potential to create tensions between the home and school. As the two vignettes have foregrounded, a disconnect exists in the communicative relationships between parents and schools when using technologies implemented precisely to facilitate better communication.

With any areas of potential conflict, the key to problem solving is developing awareness and understanding. Identifying and making sense of challenges can then lead to discussions toward meaningful solutions. The importance of building a strong bridge between home and school where knowledge is being shared respectfully in both directions is clear. But where to begin?

In the next post, published next week, ‘Digital technology in school fails predictably – but is mandated anyway. Part 2: Towards a solution…’ I will outline preliminary steps that schools and families might take in order to address the challenges observed during our research on digital technologies in school.

This post gives the views of the authors and does not represent the position of the LSE Parenting for a Digital Future blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.