Digital youth in brick & mortar schools

‘Real-life’ studies of school technology use in situ are few and far between. Education researchers tend mostly to focus on case studies of classrooms where noteworthy forms of technology use are being enacted. Such studies are interesting enough, but tell us little of how these situations might be replicated in other classrooms, in different schools, or even across school systems. One recent exception to this trend is Craig Peck and colleagues’ study of digital technology use across two high schools in the southeastern United States (soon to be published in Teachers College Record). This qualitative study takes an in-depth, ‘warts and all’ look at technology use, raising some insightful and important issues to take forward into our own investigations.


One of the key themes to emerge from this study is the ‘duality’ of technology use in school. On one hand, the researchers note how digital technology “had induced only partial change in instructional practices” (p.4). For sure, digital technology “had become a more essential part of teachers’ instructional and professional practices” (p.13), yet mostly in ways that were far from innovative or ‘game changing’. The researchers were surprised to find many classes still relying on paper-based work-sheets and weekly examinations. Even when technologies were being used for school-work this largely reinforced the traditional teacher-centered setup. Assignments were exchanged via email, and student coursework tended to involve web searches and the production of PowerPoint presentations. This was hardly the stuff of the dynamic ‘twenty-first century classroom’.


On the other hand, the researchers noted a number of technology-based changes that appeared to be taking place through students’ unauthorized uses of their own technologies. Personalized media devices (PMDs) were prohibited in both schools, although students were bringing such devices into class nonetheless. Social media, texting and web surfing were popular practices throughout the school day for many students, often in ways that supported their studies. In this sense, it was the students’ own uses of their devices (rather than any institutionally approved uses) that made the schools appear in any way ‘digital’:

Ironically, then, it was not the infusion of classroom ICT that made these otherwise traditional high schools into essentially digital domains, but rather the devices that students brought with them in their hands, book bags, and ears” (p.15)


Perhaps the most promising instances of technology-based education involved elite groups of (often female, often white) students who were encouraged to engage in online courses for accelerated learning, such as advanced math, advanced Chinese and AP computer science. These students were described by the research team as “independent, self-motivated eLearning Pioneer[s]” (p.20). In contrast, the study also highlights groups of students who were not being similarly empowered through their engagement with technology. One such example were the students described as ‘Digital Rebels’ – “students who utilized their PMDs as means to rebel, overtly or surreptitiously, against school and teacher rules” (p.15). Less obvious still were the ‘Cyber Wanderers’ – students who were so immersed in their engagement with social media and online environments that they appeared almost ‘overwhelmed’. These students were described as being in danger of “find[ing] themselves thoroughly lost in electronic worlds while being inattentive to the formal curriculum” (p.19).


Perhaps most concerning of all was both schools’ uses of “computer-based remedial courses” for struggling students who had been placed in ‘credit/course recovery’ and therefore facing one ‘last chance’ to gain sufficient credit to graduate. Here, digital technology was described as a ‘problematic academic lifeline’ – oftentimes offering little more than ‘an electronic dead end’ (p.20) for these students, while providing school authorities with a visible means of dealing with these glitches in their otherwise efficiently performing institutions.


All told, Peck’s research leaves readers with a set of timely (although not altogether surprising) reminders about the realities of schools and schooling in the digital age. These include the tendency for technological promises to be compromised by ‘institutional preferences and needs’ (p.22); and the tendency for schools and teachers to adopt largely ‘reactive’ positions to technological changes. As such, the authors give due credence to the (much) earlier work of Larry Cuban and Ken Tyack on the ‘grammar’ of schooling in foregrounding many of these current findings.


The take home message of this research is, however, not wholly downbeat and defeatist. The study retains a glimmer of hope that digital technology might lead eventually to the improvement of teaching and learning: “in some ways, our findings from the two high schools support the idea that a nascent transformation in student learning may be simmering” (p.24). Yet any transformation is unlikely to come from the ‘top down’ but from students (such as the ‘eLearning pioneers’) who the researchers note ‘ironically’ constituted the primary “proactive [technology] change agents” within both schools (p.22)


Finally – from an education research point of view – it is worth highlighting Peck’s lament over the lack of similar in-depth investigations, despite the obvious merit of such an approach. Clearly there is much that can be gained from not simply looking at education and technology along the lines of ‘what works and why?’. In this spirit, we are pleased to be working along similar lines …

 Though relatively uncommon in educational technology research, the kind of intensive site-based inquiry we conducted here can provide valuable “real world” insight into the dynamic intersection of technology, education, and change. Returning regularly to our sites to interview and observe participants as well as to shadow students through their entire school days provided us with sustained opportunities to witness educational stakeholders’ typical [technology] practices and authentic PMD interactions. We encourage future researchers to consider the idea that extended site-based research, though time consuming, can produce fine-grained, informative details that will help enhance and augment the broader understandings of school technology usage currently gained through survey-centric studies and other more global research approaches” (p.26)



Peck, C., Hewitt, K., Mullen, C., Lashley, C., Eldridge, J., & Douglas, T. (2015). Digital youth in brick and mortar schools: examining the complex interplay of students, technology, education, and change. Teachers College Record, 117