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Surf's up, but not for learning

A fuddy-duddy and censorious approach to new media in the classroom is just turning young people off, says David Buckingham

There has been much discussion of the "digital divide" between rich and poor. But a new divide is emerging in education that is perhaps even harder to bridge: a divide between what happens outside and inside school.

What are children doing on the internet out of school? They are in chatrooms and exchanging instant messages. They are seeking information about hobbies, sports and leisure interests. They are playing games, sometimes with others in distant parts of the world. They are shopping, or at least window shopping. They are downloading pop music and Hollywood movies. Above all, they are visiting sites related to pop culture - Britney Spears, Hollyoaks, Big Brother, The Tweenies, and so on. What they are not doing is engaging in the purposeful pursuit of education.

Meanwhile, what do young people do on the internet in school? In most cases, very little. Few schools offer unrestricted access and many employ filtering systems to turn web-surfing into an obstacle course. Most formal classes cover just the rudiments of information retrieval, word-processing and simple spreadsheets. Some teachers offer web-based homework assignments, but these are often restricted to visiting prescribed sites.

Of course, there are some good reasons for these limitations. But it is not surprising that many children are bored and frustrated. For them, the net is a medium for entertainment and accessing youth and pop culture - much of which is inaccessible or incomprehensible to adults, including their teachers.

This is the new digital divide. So how do we bridge it? Lord Puttnam wants to use digital technology to transform Britain into the "Hollywood of education". Becta is investigating the educational applica-tions of computer games. But what often emerges from these initiatives is a form of "edu-tainment" that lacks appeal for young people. Indeed, compared with computer games and entertainment websites, most educational materials on the web and CD-Rom are visually impoverished, lacking in interactivity and thin on engaging content. Putting a veneer of "fun" on multiplication tables is a strategy that most children quickly find boring.

We need to find ways of teaching children about new media that relate to what they do outside school. We need to acknowledge what they do and help them to do it better and more critically. In short, we need to teach "internet literacy". To date, most arguments have focused on online safety: being aware of potential abusers and so on. But most children understand the rules of safe surfing. We need to take a much broader view.

Research suggests that children do not necessarily recognise the commercial interests shaping what is on the net - including many "educational" sites.

They need to know how this material is produced and distributed, how it is targeted at audiences and what the commercial gains are.

Children need to develop scepticism about the information and views they find on the net, and the motivations of those who put it there. As with any other medium, they need to debate the social issues and values that are promoted; and to reflect on the pleasures and attractions the medium provides.

More fundamentally, we need to accept that these new media - like other areas of popular culture - offer children opportunities for play and in so doing a great deal of informal learning is going on - learning that teachers would do well to recognise and value.

David Buckingham is director of the centre for children, youth and media at the Institute of Education. His book "Education, Entertainment and Learning in the Home" (co-authored with Margaret Scanlon) was recently published by Open University Press.

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