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The secret surfers

Research suggests that children spend time on computers doing more than playing games. Bridget Somekh says these skills can be used to make homework more creative

There is plenty of evidence from research that many young people are spending a lot of their time at home using powerful computers to access digital resources from the internet and CD-Roms. Yet, they are not telling adults much about what they are doing and many teachers and parents assume that "all they are doing is playing games" and wasting their time. So what are they doing on the PC in their bedrooms or the family computer in the alcove under the stairs?

Our research group in ICT, Pedagogy and Learning at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) has been finding out over the last three years in two projects funded by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) and British Education and Technology Communications Agency (Becta): ICT and Home-School Links, which reported in autumn 2001, and ImpaCT2 (with the University of Nottingham and the Open University), which will be producing a three-part final report towards the end of this year.

Pupils between the ages of 7 and 16 give accounts of exploring a wide range of websites, including teenage magazines, sports clubs, museums and anything that might come up if you put a question into search-engines such as Google or Ask Jeeves. Many regularly visit websites to follow their own specialist interests that cover just about everything you can think of from breeding rabbits to playing the Stock Exchange. They download music - and pictures - and visit chat rooms, such as Habbohotel, where you don't just write text messages to people, but engage in an interactive environment inventing a new personality and interacting with others in role. It's fun, hugely informative and is giving young people a whole new set of communication and social skills that are part of 21st century culture.

In ImpaCT2 we used a simple form of concept mapping to find out what young people aged 10 to 16 know about the role of computers in today's world. Pupils at key stages 2 and 3 were asked to "communicate with the researchers through drawings rather than writing" and use lines to link the drawings to show connections. KS4 pupils were given the option of using words in boxes instead of drawings if they preferred. We collected around 4,000 of these maps and they told us much more than we would ever have found out from the same number of written answers. The two printed here (above right and front cover) tell us a lot about their author's knowledge of digital technologies.

Brian's map (right), drawn in June 2001 when he was in Year 6, shows his fascination with advanced technologies. On the top left-hand side, a powerful Pentium 4 computer is linked to the whiteboard being used by three people, one of them possibly sitting on a chair. Taken together this group presumably represents school. The flat touch-screen monitor is placed close to the Pentium 4, but without a link, possibly indicating radio connectivity. A re-writable CD player, a MiniDisc and a digital tuner are in the top right hand corner. A DVD player is linked to wide-screen and an internets TVs, which in turn have a long link to a video camera.

Emma's map (see front cover), drawn in June 2000 when she was in Year 10, is more about her own experience of using computers. The internet cafe in the right-hand bottom corner is where she meets friends, sends emails and drinks coffee. In another corner, the emphasis is on personalising the computer and creating music, films and "own backgrounds". The word "internet" is close to the central image of a computer, surrounded by energy rays linked to "emails", "chatting online with friends", "keeping in contact with Alec in South Africa" and "meeting people in cyberspace". The map is full of energy and action. There is a small area dedicated to school with a global internet icon, "different subjects" and "general research" linked to "homework". The eye is drawn to the image at the top left-hand corner where a heart-shaped internet icon emerging from a computer screen is labelled "the world is better with computers". ICT is clearly an important part of Emma's sense of identity and peer culture.

What seems odd is that young people's knowledge of ICT and computer-based activities is kept separate from what they are doing at school. This is largely of their own choosing. They often class all these activities as games. If you ask them to tell you about what they are learning from using the internet at home, they think "curriculum".

This separation of the world of school and home is a socio-cultural construction, created by the expectations and practices of teachers, schools, parents and kids. Maybe it would be possible to do something about this. Parrs Wood Technology College in Manchester was one of the case study schools from the ICT and Home-School Links project. It now audits all pupils and provides the small number without a home computer an old machine to link to the school intranet as a "dumb terminal". The school's parent-teacher association tops this up with some funding for telephone links.

With 100 per cent home access to the internet, teachers can feel good about asking pupils to use computers for homework, which has opened up lots of new opportunities. The great of these is to capitalise upon the motivation that young people have for exploratory and creative uses of networked ICT.

Using ICT to enhance home-school links and the interim report from ImpaCT2 are at and

ImpaCT2 Final Report, part 3, Learning with ICT: Pupils' and Teachers'

Perspectives will be published by the DFES in November 2002

Bridget Somekh is Professor of Educational Research at Manchester Metropolitan University's Institute of Education

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