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Describing young people’s use of digital technology

Peter Twining, University of Newcastle, Australia

Scarcely a month goes by without something in the media about young people’s use of digital technology. This is often framed in negative terms related to concerns about excessive ‘screen time’. However, ‘screen time’ is a poor metric because it ignores how digital technology is being used (see for example Livingstone, 2019). While we have many frameworks for thinking about digital technology use in schools, there is a lack of adequate frameworks for describing digital technology use in informal contexts. Given that learning outside formal contexts constitutes at least 70 per cent of lifelong learning (Latchem, 2014) and that providing thick descriptions is a precursor to understanding or explaining a phenomenon (Shaffer, 2017), it is imperative to be able to describe young people’s digital technology use in informal contexts.

In 2015 the Society for Educational Studies funded the New Purposes, New Practices, New Pedagogy (NP3) research, which set out to understand what influence (if any) young people’s use of digital technology outside school had on pedagogy inside primary schools (Twining et al., 2017). In order to do this, NP3 had to develop a framework for describing that informal use of digital technology – the Digital Practice Framework (DPF).

The DPF is underpinned by a sociocultural model which was used to inform the data collection and analysis (see chapter 3 of Twining et al. [2017] for full details). Forty-four young people used digital cameras to record their use of digital technology ‘outside school’ over a one-week period; these photographs were then used as prompts in one-to-one interviews with the young people to discuss their use of digital technology. This data was complemented by data from individual interviews with the 44 young people’s parents, alongside focus group interviews including these young people and a range of their peers.

From a sociocultural perspective, learning is about identity formation; it is about becoming a member of an enduring collection of people who have a shared purpose and shared ways of working – what Wenger (2010) called a ‘community of practice’. Participation, practices and purposes are therefore key considerations that underpin the Digital Practice Framework.

‘From a sociocultural perspective, learning is about identity formation; it is about becoming a member of an enduring collection of people who have a shared purpose and shared ways of working.’

After several iterations, in which two researchers independently categorised the digital practices of the 44 young people against evolving versions of the DPF, the final version emerged (see figure 1, which includes examples to illustrate the categories within the framework).


Table with two axes labelled 'participation and purpose', with a number of subcategories and seven examples.
Figure 1: The final version of the Digital Practice Framework

Source: reproduced from Twining (2020)

The NP3 team then used the framework to enhance the analysis of factors that impacted on the 44 young people’s digital technology use. This analysis indicated that the young people whose use of digital technology fell within the same cell within the framework shared a number of key characteristics. For example, all of the young people whose use of digital technology was categorised as ‘core’ on the ‘participation’ dimension spent at least 10 hours per week using digital technology at home, were supported by a family member who was a competent user of digital technology, and they were trusted to use the internet without close supervision. This contrasted with other young people whose use of digital technology was categorised as ‘engaged’ or ‘marginal’ where these children were identified as having at least one of the following four key features.

  1. They didn’t use digital technology for at least 10 hours per week at home.
  2. Their access to the internet was restricted
  3. Their parents closely monitored their internet use (for instance, reading all of their messages).
  4. They lacked support from a family member who was themselves a competent user of digital technology.

By enabling the young people’s digital technology use to be categorised in a meaningful way, the Digital Practice Framework facilitated the exploration of NP3’s key question about what relationship (if any) there was between young people’s digital technology use outside school and pedagogy inside primary schools. (See Twining et al. [2017] for the full report on NP3’s findings.)

The Digital Practice Framework is a theoretically informed conceptual framework for describing young people’s digital technology use in informal contexts. It makes a significant contribution to the field by filling a major gap in the literature in what is an increasingly important area. (See Twining (2020) for more on the DPF and the ways in which it can be used).


This blog is based on the article ‘Making sense of young people’s digital practices in informal contexts: The Digital Practice Framework’, by Peter Twining, published in the British Journal of Educational Technology. It is free-to-view for those without a subscription for a limited period, courtesy of our publisher, Wiley.


References

Latchem, C. (2014). BJET editorial: Opening up the educational technology research agenda. British Journal of Educational Technology, 45(1), 3–11. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjet.12122

Livingstone, S. (2019, January 24). From policing screen time to weighing screen use. Retrieved from https://www.thechildrensmediafoundation.org/archives/7165/from-policing-screen-time-to-weighing-screen-use

Shaffer, D. W. (2017). Quantitative ethnography. Madison, Wisconsin: Cathcart Press.

Twining, P. (2020). Making sense of young people’s digital practices in informal contexts: The Digital Practice Framework. British Journal of Educational Technology. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjet.13032

Twining, P., Browne, N., Murphy, P., Hempel-Jorgensen, A., Harrison, S., & Parmar, N. (2017). NP3 (new purposes, new practices, new pedagogy): Meta-analysis report. Retrieved from http://edfutures.net/images/e/e7/NP3_Meta-analysis_report.pdf

Wenger, E. (2010). Communities of practice and social learning systems: The career of a concept. In C. Blackmore (Ed.), Social Learning Systems and communities of practice. Retrieved from http://wenger-trayner.com/resources/publications/cops-and-learning-systems/