Just what are we to do with digital media in schools?

The trouble with schools is they just don’t know what to do with mobile phones.   I’ll say from the outset; I am against banning the use of mobiles in schools.  I often have people (including my wife) say to me – “Why don’t you just ban them from the school?  Lots of other schools do.”   For me, this is an easy solution.  It would make it far easier for teachers and results might even rise.  However, I think this is wrong and goes against what I believe is the purpose schools i.e., educating and preparing young people to function effectively in society and flourish in their adult lives. We need to design schools around the needs of pupils, not teachers. 

I read an interesting book recently called “The End Of Absence” by Michael Harris (2014).   It was the first line that grabbed and scared me most: “Soon enough, nobody will remember a time before the internet. ”  It’s a sentence I’m thinking about just now having just prised my daughter off her phone, pleaded with her to close down YouTube, Facebook and Instagram on her computer and questioned why she needs to listen to blaring music while she studies for her A Level mock exam.  

It’s also a sentence I’m thinking about just now because in the time it has taken me to write this, I’ve picked up my phone twice and put it back again, successfully managing to stave off the temptation to open it and check on all the latest information I don’t really need.   

Okay so I’ve admitted I’m failing as a father when it comes to helping my daughter manage her digital devices, and I’m pretty useless as an individual in terms of self-control, so how can I possibly hope to do any better as a headteacher?  It’a question I constantly ask colleagues; what’s the answer?   For the past ten or so years now, It’s become harder with each passing month or even week and I become increasingly alarmed at how little we are doing to address the digital tidal wave that is sweeping over us.

Like it or not, mobiles, tablets and the web are part of our lives now, it’s too late to go back and introduce these devices and the world wide web in a different, better-planned way.   As schools, surely we have a major responsibility to focus on those aspects of life and society which have a major influence on the quality of our lives – positive and/or negative.   We do it with literacy and numeracy, and with wider subject areas such as science.   We half-heartedly as a nation (UK) educate young people in other areas which can have a major impact on their lives, such as health & drugs, sex, and careers education (these take a back seat to the major subjects however) and right at the end of the topics queuing to have a place on the curriculum, is appropriate use of digital media.   We teach students how to use information and communication technology and we do some education around safe-use, but even the latter is sparsely taught as a topic.  

If I was, to sum up our education of ‘safe use on the internet’ in schools across Britain, it would be: “We’ve done ‘safety on the internet’ for this year – TICK! Now let’s move on to something else.”  Rather than allowing safe use to be embedded into all our practices in schools, we spend lots of money locking everything down by using good filtering systems.   Wouldn’t it be far more effective to allow open access to all websites in schools and spend the money on very good monitoring systems, which pick up on inappropriate use?   

This would open up opportunities for school staff to discuss (and if necessary apply sanctions) with regards to the inappropriateness of certain sites, the dangers of giving away personal information or just as important – procrastination.   Trouble is I’m not sure if parents would agree to their child having open access to everything in school.   But then looking at it another way, isn’t it better this happens in a school which is a relatively safe environment and where inappropriate use can be picked up on and discussed (real-time education!)?  I believe this is preferable to your child gaining access in un-monitored environments (which they will), without them being educated. 

The same principles apply to usage and inappropriate usages such as being on a game during a lesson or study time.  If we simply ban our children from using mobiles or such like, then we only postpone the inevitable day, when they are in work with no good habits or skills to resist the dopamine fuelled rush, which occurs when they open a new screen.  

There’s rarely a week goes by when a politician or someone in the public eye writes something online which can’t be taken back or is caught on camera texting, while they should be engaged in their work.   Photos don’t stay private, every keystroke recorded forever, and stories exaggerated with every new Tweet.   One survey states that 1 in 10 young people are now rejected from job interviews due to the content of their social media profiles.  Another survey claims that over a third of employers have sacked someone for overusing personal email in company time or accessing inappropriate content.  

Working with young people to develop good habits with regards to appropriate and controlled use of digital media can only happen effectively when in possession of a device.     There is no point in trying to tell a young person how to use a digital device appropriately if their use is banned.   Part of this education has to include self-monitoring and regulation, so that good habits and self-control can be developed.    Take the device away and all the young person is left within their ears are dire warnings, which over time turn into a meaningless nagging drone for the young person.  

“Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari, is a history of the development of homo sapiens. In it, Harari describes how as humans transitioned from being hunter-gathers to farmers during the agricultural revolution, there could well have been a point when humans suddenly stopped in their tracks and said, “My God what have we done?”  Technology had advanced, but at what cost?  Longer working longer hours, more disease, wars, dictators, rules that restrained, less time for creativity and leisure.  The world is in the midst of a digital information/communication revolution.   Just as farming brought huge benefits to the human race, digital media is bringing huge benefits in terms of ease of access to information and making many aspects of our lives easier and convenient.   However, just as farming also brought with it many disadvantages, digital media brings with it, chronic eye strain, sleep disturbance, wasted hours, online harassment (much easier than the old face-to-face approach), identity theft – the list goes on.  Acknowledgement of this demands that we give much more time and thought to educating the inheritors of this revolution.  

I will in part 2 of my digital media rant, look at possible ways to manage digital media in schools, but for now, I’ll finish this section with a quote I read recently which is doing the social media rounds: “Never before has a generation so diligently recorded itself accomplishing so little”.   Schools have the potential to change that and should create the capacity to do so.

2 thoughts on “Just what are we to do with digital media in schools?

  1. Spot on opinion. What’s that saying? “80% of the jobs that people will be doing in 20 years time don’t even exist yet.” This technology is here to stay and depriving children of it will only put them at a disadvantage in a globalised world where competition for jobs will not only become more intense but is pan national in nature.

    Let’s teach the appropriate use of technology, it’s role in our daily lives and how to use it as a positive. Before the internet, the same debate revolved around the television and how it would ‘rot young people’s minds’ and ‘give them square eyes’. Yet used appropriately, it can be a fantastic learning tool. We have infinitely more (learning) power in our pocket now that the most sophisticated mainframe computers of 20 years ago, it would be a pity to deny young people access to it.

    As for games, don’t we all learn better when playing a game or carrying out a task, rather than focusing solely on the educational aim? Can we harness the fun and appeal of digital gaming in a classroom situation to further our understanding of young minds and utilise its appeal to make education more fun?

    To prepare them for this brave new world, we could harness this technology to show young people that education is a mutual (and multiple) learning process, that as they go through the rest of their lives they will continue to learn from others and vice versa. If we are prepared to listen, we could start today and see if young people can teach their ‘educators’ a thing or two about technology they surely understand much better than those responsible for policing it.


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