Confinement and digital education: what can we learn from social change?

This pandemic has jumped up as a surprise exam in digitalisation.

By Liliana Arroyo

We are all now experiencing how digitalisation is impacting on the social, work, political, economic and emotional aspects of our lives. Digitalisation now reaches the most mundane and innermost areas of family life.

We may have already imagined such a future, but as we have virtualised almost every facet of our lives, we realise that the digital education of our children goes far beyond mere technological literacy. It requires the acquisition of new knowledge and skills, and represents a profound cultural change.

As schools are reduced to a screen, they merge more closely than ever with family life, and we need a new approach for these spaces of primary socialisation.

In many schools, students still leave their phones outside the classroom, but examples of good practice are beginning to emerge in which mobiles are used as learning tools.

As schools are reduced to a screen, they merge more closely than ever with family life

This pandemic has jumped up as a surprise exam in digitalisation, and it forces us to deal now with a challenge that we already faced: namely, how do we accompany our children in their digital education? In many homes today, we see children eager to discover the world from their mobile phones, but we can also find disorientated parents in the same home.

If we look at the digital lifestyle of most families (leaving aside those families who are completely marginalised by information technology), we can trace a continuum that reflects the ability of parents in digital education.

At one extreme, we find overwhelmed adults, those who are not on networks and do not wish to join. At the other extreme, we find families that launch the digital fingerprint of their offspring by netcasting ultrasound images months before they are even born.

However, uncertainty is a homogeneous element throughout this spectrum. If we ask what type of education is needed, and for what type of world, the answers reveal insecurity. We see, for example, that 65% of primary school students are expected to work in occupations that do not yet exist. This uncertainty is heightened by doubts as to which economic activities will recover after covid-19. The feeling of staring over a cliff edge has significant social costs and creates a breach in intergenerational trust.

Computer family help
Children between 9 and 17 often help older family members who have difficulties using the internet (Photo: Padraic Spencer/Twenty20)

The latest EU kids online report refers to the concept of "reverse mediation." Children between 9 and 17 say they often help older family members who have difficulties using the internet. This reinforces the metaphor of "digital natives" versus "digital migrants" as coined by Mark Prenski in 2001.

However, defining children as experts makes them vulnerable, because we assume that experts need no help and do things we cannot understand. Educating and accompanying children from this position is difficult.

In a previous study on the same network, parents were interviewed about their digital education strategies, and a significant proportion of parents assumed that children knew how to handle themselves online without help. The analogue equivalent would be letting children play in the street as soon as they can walk and run, without explaining that they must watch the traffic lights.  

Defining children as experts makes them vulnerable, because we assume that experts need no help

Another difficulty is that devices, apps and platforms require increasingly less knowledge from users. It is not even now necessary to know how to write your name to access your favourite cartoon channel on YouTube. This is something that many parents are amazed to see a three-year-old child achieve.

However, knowing how to turn on the light because you know how the wall-switch works, does not mean you understand how electrical circuits work. And there is the twist: our digital natives are really naive experts driven by curiosity. In some ways, we "abandon" them, while continuing to watch from afar.

This is how we come to believe that children are "hooked on their mobiles" (as if we adults were different). The most worrying aspect is that we rarely ask why they do what they are doing, or what they understand. Sometimes, it is too easy to judge the influencer our children are trying to imitate, because his or her actions do not match our adult preferences, while forgetting that this is an opportunity to grasp what our children seek from that influencer.

Sometimes, it is too easy to judge the influencer our children are trying to imitate

This is where a proposal inspired by trends in social innovation comes into play. How can you address these new educational challenges in schools and families? A key may be in education based on cooperation.

Let’s imagine digital literacy under the prism of teamwork, where each party contributes from their own strengths – meaning there are no experts and beginners. Some of us provide the curiosity and skill in handling, while others provide criteria, experience and context. In this way, the door opens to an approach in which recognising what you do not know is a virtue, and letting yourself be helped is clearly part of the teaching role.

Learning becomes a joint exploration, where knowledge is shared, communication bridges are established, spaces are opened for asking questions and bonds of trust are strengthened. From this position, it is much easier to ask, empathise and become allies during an adolescence that must be both face-to-face and digital. Such familiarity is even more important today, with accelerating digitalisation and a perimeter of action limited by the walls of our home.

All written content is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.