Tuesday’s ZEIT Konferenz Schule & Bildung is coming up! It’s my pleasure to host the conference’s final panel that will look at new media use in European schools. Ger Vennegoor, an educational consultant from the Netherlands, and Ola Erstad, an academic with a focus on education and media from Norway, will talk about what Germany can learn from their respective countries and how they employ technology in the classroom.
Born in 1984, I believe to be of the last generation of digital immigrants. When I went to school in the 1990s and early 2000s, overhead projectors were the prevalent kind of »technology in the classroom«. As were movie reels. In fifth or sixth grade, I was preparing a class presentation with a friend whose family had access to the internet at their house. This was a novelty for me. While the dial-up modem was playing its lovely tune, my friend’s mom urged us to print every website we’d find before reading it. There was no such thing as a flatrate back then and »going online« was a rather costly endavor. So yeah, things have changed.
To prepare our discussion at the ZEIT Konferenz, I did a bit of reading this weekend. Here are seven very basic theses I’d love to share, many of them based on work by Barbara Wege, a fellow journalist who kindly shared her research with me. Please bear in mind that I’m talking about youth in Germany (not humanity, the world, etc.).
Here we go:
1) We can’t talk about »media« withouth talking about the internet. This is a no-brainer, of course. While German students are still watching quite a bit of TV, most of their media time is spent online. 14-to-19-year-olds spend roughly two-and-a-half hours online each day, according to research by Germany’s public broadcasters published in 2012. They love it, too: 88% of 12-to-25-year-olds say that using the internet is important or very important for them, according to the JIM-Studie 2012.
2) The Digital Divide is history. Today, 98% of 12-to-25-year-olds in Germany have access to the internet in their households, again according to the JIM-Studie. True, the number goes down a few digits if we look at low-income families, but physical access to the internet is no longer significantly restricted based on income. There’s virtually nobody who’s not online at least occasionally.
3) That doesn’t mean all is well, though. Just because you have access to the internet doesn’t mean you know how to use it in a way that is empowering rather than overpowering. Eszter Hargittai talks about a Second Level Digital Divide that is no longer about access but skills. Also, there’s a difference between using the internet to edit Wikipedia and using the intenet to look at photos of cute kittens and/or naked people.
Most of us do a little bit of both, one could think. In fact, only a fraction of students‘ online time is used for gathering information (15%), while most is spent communicating with others (44%) and using entertainment services or games (41%), according to the the JIM-Studie. I find it debatable whether »communicating with others« is necessarily distinct from »gathering information«, but still …
What is more, several studies indicate that children from families that are well-off are more likely to use the internet for research and news consumption rather than only for entertainment and games. They also tend to know more about cookies, privacy settings, etc.
4) Schools have to teach media literacy. Today, more often than not, the problem is not the lack of informational resources but their overabundance. Being able to navigate the internet and to distinguish between crap and greatness is becoming more and more essential for being a responsible citizen. This seems to be widely accepted among German politicians. Which is great. But what follows from it?
In the past, the German school system has proven to be far from flawless in correcting inequalities between children of different economic backgrounds. Today, there seems to be no coherent approach to applying new media in the classroom, yet. We’re still in an experimental phase with different schools probing different attempts.
5) New media can be a great tool for teaching. In the past, teachers were supposed to help their students learn how to read and write and do calculus. Today, they also have to show them how to use new media and surf the web. Isn’t that becoming a bit too much? One could think so. However, digital technology can also be used to improve the teaching of reading, writing and math skills.
With tablet computers, a foreign language teacher can conduct a vocab test and get immediate (even anonymized) feedback on which words students got wrong. The same is true for math quizzes, etc. The teacher can use these insights to repeat what needs repetition or to speed up his or her teaching in case every student knows what they are supposed to be knowing. In-class practice can also be adjusted according to the individual student’s needs. Sweet!
6) Still, be careful what you wish for. There are infinite ways to be distracted once you have access to the internet. Guess how long it took me to write this blog posting while simultaneously checking Facebook, Twitter and my e-mail account! Knowing that tablets are devices that can be used for communication (which students love), and entertainment (which students love), and playing games (which students love), not just for gathering information (which students don’t love so much), do we really want them in the classrooms?
7) We’ll have to identify the weak links. Beyond skepticism about their potentially distracting nature, what else is keeping schools from employing tablets and other forms of new media more broadly? I assume it’s a combination of lack of funds and lack of enthusiasm on the side of some teachers.
We’ll have to talk about that at the conference. I’m very much looking forward to that. If you think I’m missing out on something crucial, please feel invited and encouraged to add a comment, send me an e-mail or a tweet. I’ll follow up on this posting later next week.