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Schools' fuddy-duddy and censorious approach to new media is just turning young people off, says David Buckingham. In fact web surfing and chat-rooms can teach vital informal lessons

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 chat-rooms 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 for pupils; and many employ filtering systems that turn web-surfing into an obstacle course. Most formal information and communications technology 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 by the use of ICT in schools. For them, the net is primarily 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? Some have argued that schools should harness people's enthusiasm for digital media.

Government adviser Lord Puttnam wants to use digital technology to transform Britain into the "Hollywood of education". Government learning technology adviser BECTA is investigating the educational applications 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.

If we want to bridge the new digital divide, 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 broad "internet literacy".

To date, most arguments for teaching such literacy have focused solely on online safety: being aware of potential abusers and so on. But most children understand the rules of safe surfing very quickly. We need to take a much broader view.

For example, research suggests that children do not necessarily recognise the commercial interests shaping what is on the internet - 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.

Likewise, children need to develop scepticism about the information and views they find on the internet, 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.

Yet students should also be able to use the medium to create their own statements, and to represent their own experiences and concerns. As the internet steadily becomes more commercialised, we need to preserve and extend free, public spaces in which young people can communicate with each other and the wider adult world.

More fundamentally, we need to accept that these new media - like other areas of popular culture - offer children opportunities for play. Of course, play is not just about learning, and it should not be judged solely in terms of whether it is educationally worthwhile. But in playing with these new media outside school, 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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