Digital literacy can boost learning

10th April 2009 at 01:00
Parents who do not allow their children to use a home computer could be impeding their progress, researchers claim

The "digital divide", which leaves children from poorer families lagging behind their technologically sophisticated peers, is a myth, according to Stirling University researchers.

Children's aptitude with technology has more to do with parents' attitudes towards it, and being from a poorer family can provide more chances to learn computer skills.

The researchers also stress, however, that any skills built up in the home pre-school are likely to stall in P1, since schools' use of technology is too basic.

"Some well-off families will have lots of technology and some will not have very much technology, and it's the same for poorer families," said Lydia Plowman, who has carried out a number of studies into children's use of technology with colleagues Joanna McPake and Christine Stephen. "The difference is that, for the well-off families, it's more likely to be an active decision not to have technology."

There was a digital divide of sorts, but it was largely related to how parents used computers and whether they perceived technology as educationally damaging. Greater wealth was sometimes a factor, but this could in fact put a child on the wrong side of the divide.

A more affluent family which buys a state-of-the-art computer tends to use it for specialist work or technologically-enhanced leisure pursuits, such as listening to music on delicately calibrated hi-fi equipment. The computer is "off limits" to their children, for fear that data would be lost or settings damaged.

Less wealthy parents, however, are more likely to use it for online shopping and games. "They don't mind their children messing around on it," said Professor Plowman.

Being from a poorer family could limit access to technology, but the reasons were varied and nuanced. One single mother looking for a job faced the choice of buying a computer or a second-hand car; she decided a car would be more helpful.

There was "no clear divide" between affluent and poorer families. Parents were more likely to be split along attitudes to technology and whether they thought it conflicted with "traditional" forms of development. "In either group, you'll get some families who are ambitious for their children and see technology as a good way to learn, and you'll see some in both economic groups who think childhood is a time for play," Professor Plowman said.

The researchers, based at Stirling Institute of Education, believe that where technology is available at home and children are aware of its uses, there is "rich potential for learning". Most children have "early digital literacy" by the time they start school. Researchers believe this can be used to support early print literacy, numeracy, and information-gathering and problem-solving.

Schools to blame for technological divide

The Stirling University researchers suggest that schools could be the problem in the use of computers, rather than the home. They have consulted experts frustrated that primary classrooms have an "impoverished range of technologies" - mainly computers - and focus too much on basic operational skills, such as using a mouse, which many children have already mastered.

The chance to use technology for more creative tasks and problem-solving is neglected, they suggest, and any digital divide narrows not because those trailing are catching up, but because the more advanced children are not making further progress.

"In this sense, all children may be equally disadvantaged when they start primary school, and it may be more meaningful to think in terms of whether schools are ready for children than whether children are ready for school," the researchers state.

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