Keynote Presentation

Everyday digital practices: the opportunities and challenges for learning

Guy Merchant
Sheffield Hallam University

Early images of computing depict lab-coated scientists – usually white males – in room-sized environments surrounded by large cabinets, spools of tape and coils of wire. In recent years the development of powerful and affordable pocket-sized devices, such as smartphones, has been remarkably rapid. And so, the idea of the computer, processing huge databanks of information, housed in a room, in a place one went to, has given way to the seemingly straightforward everyday social and portable use of technology. The ubiquity of these portable devices often numbs us to their novelty. Practice theory (Schatzki, 2002) offers us a language of description for the ways in which mobile devices have been incorporated into day-to-day life. Using this perspective, and ideas from post-phenomenology (Ihde, 1993; Verbeek, 2005), this keynote presentation will look at the take-up of digital technology in both social and educational contexts. By exploring how educators have begun to use mobiles in educational settings, I will illustrate how new communication technologies present both opportunities and challenges to the ways in which we organise, conduct and assess learning.

In general, schools and other educational institutions have tended to appropriate a small sub-set of everyday practices, recruiting them to perform familiar routines within existing curricular structures. This is as true for technology as it is for literacy – a field in which this phenomenon is perhaps better documented (Heath, 1983; Dyson, 2008). The result of these appropriations is that the seemingly arbitrary selections from everyday practices that are made tend to favour students from already advantaged sectors of society. This is perhaps unsurprising when we consider that the enterprise of education, although often egalitarian by intent, is organised, maintained and serviced by the same dominant groups that succeed in it. Yet it has been repeatedly been argued that if educators place ‘a stronger focus on students’ everyday use and learning with Web 2.0 technologies in and outside of classrooms’ (Greenhow, Robelia & Hughes, 2010:255), more appropriate, inclusive and advantageous approaches are possible. The very same argument is now being made for the use of mobile technology (Parry, 2011).

Through case studies that explore of the ways in which schools are grappling with the challenges and opportunities of new technology, and particularly the use of portable devices, this paper argues that we are rapidly approaching the time for serious decision-making about the future of our formal institutions of education. I characterise the key debates in terms of three possibilities: deletion, re-construction and reform. These possibilities, or positions, play out as:

1. Deletion – schools as institutions are increasingly irrelevant. As social structures strongly formed by modernist thought, they perpetuate a factory model of education, which attempts to prepare the young for a world that has long since disappeared.

2. Re-construction – schools as they are currently conceived are incapable of delivering the kinds of understandings and skills or cultivating the habits of mind that will produce 21st Century citizens or a 21st Century workforce. A new vision of schooling is required that incorporates the new literacies and is responsive to emerging patterns of social organisation.

3. Reform – schools are out of step with society and need to capitalise on the new literacies that children and young people engage with on a daily basis. Extensive professional and curriculum development is required to align our education systems with the lives of young people.


Dyson, A.H. (2008). ‘Staying in the (curricular) lines: Practice constraints and possibilities in childhood writing.’ Written Communication, 25. pp. 119-159.

Greenhow, C., Robelia, B., & Hughes, J.E. (2010). ‘Learning, Teaching and Scholarship in a Digital Age: Web 2.0 and Classroom Research: What Path Should We Take Now?’ Educational Researcher 38:4 (pp.246-259).

Heath, S.B (1983). Ways with words: Language, life, and work in communities and classrooms. Cambridge England; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Ihde, D. (1993). Postphenomenology: Essays in the Postmodern Context. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Parry, D. (2011). ‘Mobile Perspectives: on teaching mobile literacy.’ Educause Review March/April, 2011. Available at: Last accessed 16th November, 2011.

Schatzki, T.R. (2002).The Site of the Social: A Philosophical Account of the Constitution of Social Life and Change. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Verbeek, P. (2005). What Things Do: Philosophical Reflections on Technology, Agency and Design. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Click here for the audio recording of this presentation


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