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Towards a Digital Sociology of Schools

Written by: Edward Falshaw
8 min read

Academic interest in digital technologies in education has been growing for a number of years. Whilst mobile digital devices and other technologies have become an entrenched feature of our everyday social and working lives, they are now also a well-established feature in UK secondary schools in one shape or another (Marres, 2017). As in the wider world, technology in education is now seen as ubiquitous, resulting in an ‘intense conflict and struggle’ (Selwyn, 2017a, p. vii) to understand what education is, could and should be. Technology is subtly changing the way people interact with each other. With virtual reality and artificial intelligence positioning themselves as the next big edtech developments, the call for greater understanding, through research, of the impact that digital technology is having on socio-technological relations, in what is now increasingly known as ‘digital sociology’, is more relevant than ever before (Lupton, 2012). More specifically, a greater understanding of socio-technological relations in schools will help teachers to more effectively harness the power of digital technology for learning and personal development outcomes.

Opinions that UK education has failed to embrace new technologies, and about how the current ‘factory’ system is outdated and has developed little in 50 – or even 100 – years, continue to grow (Coleman, 2017; Seldon, 2018). But we must remember, in the classroom, that the teacher remains the key driver for a child’s education, and not technology. It is difficult to escape the notion that whilst technology has been on the brink of revolutionising education for some time, it has still to make the leap. Government direction, such as the UK Digital Strategy 2017 (DCMS, 2017), has failed to provide schools with the clear steer of how to facilitate a demonstrable impact on teaching and learning. Whilst technological advances may feel or appear to many like a revolution, the reality when examined closely is far removed from this (Seldon, 2018; Sproat, 2017). One reason for this may be the lack of understanding relating to the social impact that technology has on classrooms in the UK, an area that has received less attention from academic studies. In undertaking a more social approach to the use of technology in the classroom, a better understanding of the social personality of technology can be explored, which would prove instructive for future technology use in schools (Young, 1984).

As Selwyn (2018) points out, there is a need to gather accounts of schools and the digital worlds in which they are working in order to further our understanding. However, discussions around digital technology in schools often centre on how it could and should be used, rather than how it is actually being used. The focus therefore tends to be on the technology itself, which often sounds impressive, but lulls many into false assumptions about what it can help students to achieve. Often teachers underestimate the impact of technology on the dynamics within their classrooms. A textbook-based lesson is very different from the one that has technology at its heart. The routines, the monitoring and checking of progress with set exercises all change significantly once technology is introduced. Even the teacher view when looking at a classroom of laptops is a huge change. Exploring these impacts will be revealing and could help to inform future pedagogy involving technology.

Furthermore, research has examined the impact of technology on the brain and cognitive development and whether it is helping or hindering student progress (Greenfield, 2014). Another recent study makes the case for technology making students ‘dumber’, but calls for a greater awareness of the impact that technology is having on young people (Clement and Miles, 2018). Conversely, others paint a bold vision for the future of technology and how it will provide opportunities to live, learn and grow in the modern world (Couch, 2018). As it is apparent that technology is here to stay, we now need a concerted effort to change the way it is viewed in our schools and classrooms.

Schools are social spaces, which survive and thrive on daily interaction. A greater awareness of the impact that digital technology is having on the sociability of our students would support both Selwyn and Sterne’s assertion that the most basic questions about technology are social questions (Selwyn, 2017b; Sterne, 2003). Understanding these relationships could also help teachers to better understand the dynamics in the classroom. Technology has a high propensity to create distraction. If there are distractions, is this always the technology or are there other variables at play, such as the construction of the lesson, the software or the application being used? How many times have you seen a student open a textbook and weep? It happens with laptops, when students open them up to see there is no charge. Being more aware of relationships with digital technology is becoming more important than ever, because in certain classes the technology is the conduit through which the student–teacher relationship is facilitated. It therefore needs cultivating and nurturing if the very best outcomes are to be achieved. Next time you are using technology in the classroom, look at your students’ behaviour and see what differences you can see from the norm – it is an interesting exercise. If you see technology as the gooseberry or ‘third wheel’, cutting it out of the relationship may be your preferred option if greater progress is to be made.

As long as studies of technology continue to focus on the outcomes and the learning rather than seeking to understand what is actually happening and why it may be happening, we will not see a technological revolution in our schools. As teachers, we can begin to look more at our classes and the technological as well as human relationships taking place. Technology can detract from behavioural observations, and inadvertently these crucial observations of socio-technological relations go unnoticed. Do not take anything for granted and treat the technology in your room like you would an additional student or TA. Focused and critical research will help to address the call to explore technology as being socially constructed, by examining how it plays out in situ, scrutinising what is taking place as it happens (Selwyn, 2010, 2013).

At present there is limited information available as to socio-technological relationships in schools, which means, at this stage, that strategies to deal with the modern digital technology at our disposal are only beginning to emerge (for example, in a laptop or iPad lesson, how and where do you seat your students?). It presents a challenge, not only for researchers but also certainly for teachers in the throes of the organised chaos of day-to-day school life. It will be hard for teachers to observe the subtleties of their students’ relationships with technology, as it can be hard enough to understand the subtleties involved with day-to-day peer group relationships. Whilst phones as the tech of choice are gradually being removed in many schools, the laptop, iPad and PC remain, and their relationships with our children are just as important and need our attention. Another explanation as to why we have limited research in this area is the nature of the evidence as being time-consuming to gather. Whereas we can collect masses of quantitative data, observing and noting what is taking place is time-consuming and potentially fraught with difficulties, not least one of interpreting the evidence gathered. Yet it is precisely the time and devotion to the qualitative aspects that would yield the most in terms of our understanding the new relationships that the majority of the population battle with every day: the relationships with digital technology.

By asking questions such as, ‘how do teachers and students experience and explain digital technology in the classroom?’ and ‘what does the use of digital technology in school look like?’, we will be able to gather rich qualitative data to help understand what is actually being played out in our classrooms. This starts gradually in the classroom, with teachers who are using technology regularly. By having a new awareness and perhaps viewing the technology and their students differently, these subtleties will begin to emerge, meaning that a dialogue can be opened through which our understanding of technology will be enhanced. Furthermore, by being more imaginative with our methodological approach, we can begin to deepen these observations. Research relating to the haptic and the olfactory elements of education could take this in a new and imaginative direction, from which we could learn enormous amounts, although this is not for now (Selwyn, 2017b). Mixed methods would provide an ideal way forward, as with powerful statistical evidence from devices such as school laptops, combined with in situ observations in and around the classroom from teachers on the ground, along with a sprinkling of imagination, a greater understanding of our students’ relationships with technology will be gained. By understanding the social experiences of students and teachers with technology, where the focus is less on the devices and the impact on learning and more on the practices and meaning associated with them, a picture can be built to inform future technology use. In short, an attempt to look beyond the learning is needed (Selwyn, 2010).

Further research targeting what is happening in the UK classroom with technology, not from a pedagogical or learning perspective but from a sociological angle, is needed. It would help our understanding of human relationships with technology in a school context, where the battle between the traditional and the technological is more prevalent than ever before. Given the pace of technology, it may provide evidence through which to comprehend future technological relationships, in particular artificial intelligence, and how students will form relationships in school with the technology that will surround them beyond the classroom. If we accept that our young people are ‘digital natives’, then understanding the native behaviour in their natural habitat seems a logical step. With this core understanding firmly in place, perhaps then the foundations for an edtech revolution will be laid.


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