The Mobile Paradox

Mobiles form “the center for peer interaction and communication, identity work, and media consumption”, at least for the high school students at Freeway, the object of study in The Digital Edge: How Black and Latino Youth Navigate Digital Inequality (New York UP). The term “mobile” is used here to cover all forms of hand-held digital devices; these ranged from flip phones over iPods to tablets, but smartphones were the ultimate goal.
“For a number of youth in our study, the consumption of media takes place early in the morning and late in the evening, in school and out of school — in other words, anytime and anywhere.” When we talked about this in our seminar, it would appear that students at CAU Kiel are as bonded to their phones as the Freeway students. Almost everyone admitted to using WhatsApp, Instagram, googling, listening to music, mainly out of classes, but sometimes within. Anytime, anywhere: when they go to bed, when they travel, when they’re at uni.

The American students in the study emphasized how important their devices were for them, personally, and that they often had them with them in class, even turned on. Although the school district authorities had ruled against the use of mobiles in school, several instructors encouraged their classes to use them during lessons, and not only in such classes as one could suppose would be directly connected with digital devices. Nothing would become between them and the Internet in their hand. Isn’t that the perfect premise to embark on online learning adventures? Isn’t this the stuff the dreams of education policy makers and digital learning companies are made of?

However, and that is the central argument of the study, the widespread attachment to and enthusiasm for smartphones does not necessarily translate into (equal) opportunities when it comes to online learning. Rather, the study sees a “mobile paradox: “On the one hand, the adoption of mobile phones and the mobile Internet among African Americans and Latinos suggests that they are early adopters and mobile trendsetters in the United States. On the other hand, the conditions that shape black and Latino teens’ mobile practices suggest that they continue to grapple with the social and economic challenges associated with life in the digital edge.” Due to financial straits, for example, many families found it difficult to ensure that their children had continuous access to the web, and to adequate technology. Thus, many students often had to be inventive as to how they achieved access to the Internet and also gain access to more than just a phone. This could take the form of sharing access on a friend’s gadget, for example. The paradox is that although the Afro-American and Latino teenagers in the survey were usually equipped with a mobile gadget and were very competent in the use of them they were not always able to make full use of them in terms of learning.

In Kiel, students constantly use their smartphones, too, in and out of class. However, only a minority seemed to use their phones for creative, let alone “academic-related purposes” purposes. Indeed, academic-related issues appear as the exact opposite of what the students are looking for in their smartphones: socializing, gaming, communicating, entertainment. Interestingly, all students in our course had at least one other device at their hands which they preferred for said “academic-related purposes”: a laptop, a tablet, a PC. The problem that the computer (once called a marriage between a typewriter and a TV) offers opportunities for work and leisure in equal amounts was solved by the students in Kiel through allocating work and play to different devices. Quite clearly, those who can afford to have a variety of devices at their disposal are in an advantageous position.

Studying wholly at home, as in the current situation, means an enormous amount of self-control to actually sit down and do the lesson whereas classes on Campus force one out of the home – and into an intercommunicative position with similar minded. To focus on learning, it seems, is even more difficult, if work and play do not only take place in the same space, but on one single device.

Separating work and play through the use of different devices, however, might also obstruct the path to new forms of learning, rather than trying to replicate traditional teaching methods online. The researchers of The Digital Edge are fully convinced that smartphones will significantly transform the current situation at schools: “Learning is largely constructed as an experience that is bound to the four walls of a classroom and composed of worksheets and the consumption of facts. The transformational potential of mobile—real-time data collection, locative storytelling, place-based learning, augmented reality, multimedia production, citizen journalism, and, of course, anytime and anywhere engagement—will revolutionize how and where students learn.” Come the revolution, it will be the task of students, teachers and curriculum designers to make sure that these new forms will be put to emancipatory purposes.

A laptop of one’s own – is that all we need?

At the moment, the conversation about digital distance learning seems to be mostly about technology, about terminals, platforms, software etc. Sometimes the discussion touches on new methodologies of teaching, but that is mostly limited to explaining software features; the training offered to lecturers at the CAU is almost entirely devoted to technical assistance. Even less, in fact very little we hear about adequate contents, about aims and goals, let alone the deficits and insufficiencies of online learning. “Digital first, Bedenken second”, indeed.

Maybe, within the constraints of the current situation, there really is no alternative to seeking pragmatic solutions. However, the current urge with which digital distance learning is implemented, and the enthusiasm with which the university board greets this development, should not lead to a point of no return where we have skipped every discussion about the place and use of digital distance learning entirely.

Whatever else, the concentration on technical solutions appears to reveal a severely restricted understanding of learning, one that happens between instructor and student only, whatever medium they use: teacher and student must have a room of their own to learn, and a computer to connect them, that’s all. What is lost between distance learning and remote teaching, however, is the fact that learning – e-learning or not – takes place in a real environment, within a specific place and time, with other people – and not in some virtual cyberspace devoid of social constraints.

In 2018, the results of a two-year ethnographic study conducted in a high school located on the suburban fringes of Austin, Texas, was published under the title The Digital Edge: How Black and Latino Youth Navigate Digital Inequality (New York UP). The conclusion of the study highlights two points: “first, that a technology-driven solution to the education crisis is a solution that is certain to fail; and second, that a substantive remake of education requires engagement with broader social and economic forces.” Why do officials, the researchers ask despairingly, “put more faith in the acquisition of technology than in the development of rich curriculum and instruction?”

The American study focuses on students from low-income groups and ethnic minorities. For these, a room of one’s own is often out of reach. “Black and Latino teens go online often”, the study emphasizes, but “from a variety of places — school, libraries, community tech centers, home, and via mobile devices.” On the one hand, this was due to technological constraints: “home broadband Internet adoption was irregular and intermittent for many in our study”, thus, “access to Internet media (had to come) from a variety of places, including schools, after-school settings, and home”. Indeed, for many school “was the only place students could access the hardware and software that enabled them to join in robust forms of digital media learning and participatory cultures.” On the other hand, however, the multitude of places where learning took place, this rich geography of education, did not only reveal a deficit in terms of housing and access to technology. It also brought into focus a different understanding of education and learning, one that leaves behind the old dream of a room and a computer of one’s own.

A geography of learning that looks beyond the (class-)room highlights “informal learning environments” that escape a techno-managerial understanding of education. “Freeway”, the high school under consideration in the study, is not only a vehicle for instruction, but “a crucial source of community, offering access to peers, teachers, mentors, and a cluster of media makers that helped students transform the school into a place that, at times, was relevant and inspiring. In short, Freeway was a source of human capital, techno-capital, and social capital for many students.”

In too many courses, online or not, the study found out, “students are generally required to passively consume and memorize information”. But, the study emphasizes, in order to “develop the skills and the disposition to use technology to intervene in the world around them”, “learning should be networked, experiential, production centered, and marked by a shared purpose between students and adults.” Therefore, „access to technology, we argue, is no longer a sufficient measure of success, better learning futures, or digital equity.” It is simply not enough to make sure that everyone has a laptop and broadband at their disposal. “Rather, those on the ground [lecturers] or designing policy to enrich the lives of young people [administration] must seek to create spaces, resources, and learning opportunities that empower young people to participate in the making of new social, civic, and economic futures.”

Back in Kiel, most of the students I asked appear sufficiently content with the new set-up of distance learning/remote teaching. Almost everyone seems to have a room of his/her own as well as the necessary technology at their disposal. Of course, access limitations to university education mean that young people from low-income households (which often goes hand in hand with being part of an ethnic minority) get to go to university less often than their peers from better-off families; consequently, issues of access are less often a problem than they would be at a primary or comprehensive school. It could also be the case, however, that students would not admit that they don’t conform to the “a laptop and a room of one’s own”-class.

At least in front of me, students don’t seem to have an issue with working from a so-called home office, although, as “most of you know anyhow: there is no »home office« despite what everybody claims. There is just the home, your or our home, two rooms and a kitchen, for sleeping, for cats, for eating, for cleaning up, for children, making the beds, for watching TV, for relaxing, wait no, no relaxing, not anymore.” Only one student, sharing a place with six others, admitted to having difficulties with the lack of spatial differentiation: “The places I miss the most really are the seminar rooms and lecture halls, because standing up and actually going there motivates you more than being able to decide when you want to listen to the lecture audio file.”

Most interestingly, and, I have to admit, somewhat shockingly, many students did not see much of a difference; for them, studying in the peace and quiet of their home is normality anyway. And now they don’t even have to take the bus to go to lectures. Only very reluctantly students came up with places of learning other than the (virtual) classroom: “the pub?”, someone suggested only half-jokingly, “the common room at the English Seminar?”, “the corridor?” They miss meeting their friends, for sure, but do they miss opportunities for learning?

A discussion about e-learning, about digital distance learning and remote teaching, therefore, is a discussion about what we want the university to be. Is it a place where we transfer knowledge and information, prepare students for examinations and academic progress, using the most efficient methodologies – online or not? “As a result of our fieldwork at Freeway,” the above-mentioned study about The Digital Edge concludes, “we pose a different challenge: rather than preparing students for today’s jobs (career readiness), why not support their preparation for the social, civic, and economic uncertainties of tomorrow (future readiness).” One thing’s for sure: if we don’t establish the university as a multi-layered space for communal learning, for shared purposes and interactional opportunities, no one will miss it when everything goes online.