Mind the gap - research

10th November 2000 at 00:00
Over the last five years we have seen a huge rise in computer ownership in homes. In those families with children, in particular, we see computer ownership in 70 per cent of households. But what does it really mean when children have these technologies at home? What do these digital households actually look like? Two examples spring to mind.

Last year I visited a family who had had a computer for three years. When I asked where it was they directed me to a small cupboard under the stairs. There, in the semi-gloom, was the computer - a large grey box entwined with cables and covered with dust. It was surrounded by cardboard boxes and the keyboard was invisible under a mound of clean washing waiting to be ironed. It was six months since the computer was last connected, 10 months since the printer, scanner and sound card worked and a year since they had last tried to connect to the Internet. This dusty grey box was the last remaining evidence of the promise of the information revolution entering their home.

This computer, like many others around the country, was bought with good intentions, with a view to helping the kids learn, making sure they get connected, get prepared for a future world of digital work. And yet, three years later, it's just a box.

Shift scene to another household I visited in rural England earlier this year: Upstairs in the spare room the network hub hums quietly, talking to the three other computers in the house. Downstairs in the sitting room the PC is being tested to the limit as 14-year-old Simon plays network games against opponents in the US and Australia. In the room next door, his sister, in a mad last-minute panic, is ransacking digital encyclopedias to get her homework done. In her bedroom, Mum is plugging in her laptop to the network for an extra hour's work before dinner. Dad meanwhile, is back up in the spare room, tinkering with the technology, developing his own programs to get the computers ever more entwined, ever more communicative, ever more efficient. Computer use in this home is diverse, ranging from no use at all to intense, complex reworkings at the edges of technological development. It ranges from sophisticated understandings of network systems to deep anxieties about the fragility of computers basd on long hours attempting to get through to help desks when faced with a blank screen.

In families around the country parents and children are working out what it means to invite this digital stranger into the home. For some, the computer is another way of keeping the kids safe, keeping them indoors when it's dark without giving them the skills they will need to survive in the modern world. For others, the computer is a tool to be explored, exploited, challenged, manipulated like a particularly complex toy - home networks are springing up and parents and children are drawing on all available resources to push back the boundaries of technology use. For the majority, however, the computer is rapidly becoming another domestic appliance - like the washing machine and the TV. It is becoming embedded in the patterns of everyday life, for leisure, for work, for information, for communication.

I have now seen a 10-year-old programming in C++ learnt from books from the library; a 12-year-old using a medical encyclopedia on CD-Rom to look up the illness that her father died from; a 15-year-old saying he's too interested in electronics, cars and girls to spend any time being "a sad computer boffin"; a 14-year-old sitting flummoxed in front of dialogue boxes and coils of cable trying to get her computer connected for the first time.

Learning in the home, whether learning to use computers or learning to cook, to read, to communicate, to watch TV, is a highly contingent activity: children and families seek out help wherever it is available and whenever it meets their needs. But they do so only when they already have an interest in learning something, when there is a purpose, when there is a need that can be met through learning. The tragedy for many families spending hundreds of pounds on computers is that they are not yet sure what they want them for, apart from an as yet intangible sense that computers are the future so they'd better keep up. With this as the only basis for computer purchase and use in many homes, there will be a growing number of dead grey boxes sitting under the stairs and piled with washing ready to iron.

* See news story, page 4

Keri Facer is a lecturer at the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol

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