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Revisiting the Digital Divide: Collective Responsibilites and Individual Responses

On September 1, 2017 I was privileged to present the key note address for the Working Group 3 panel, part of the DigiLitEY COST meeting held in Bologna Italy. The presentation was comprised largely of video excerpts from studies in my lab concerning shared reading with ebooks as well as some charts from our published papers. I cannot post those here obviously but I am posting a copy of my remarks with links to the relevant papers and sources and hope that readers of this blog will find it of interest.

The most common attitude to digital media that is projected in the public sphere at present is one of moral panic, especially with regard to digital media use by children. However, it is evident that that digital technologies have been integrated – or, depending on your view, one might say they have intruded – into every sphere of adult activity (a point illustrated by this YouTube clip of Mauril Bélanger introducing a bill into the Canadian House of Parliament during the late stages of his struggle with ALS). We now use tablets and laptops and smart phones indoors and outdoors, for work and for play, alone and with others, for teaching and for learning, for solitary entertainment and for communicating in new ways and with more people than we ever did in the past. These technologies allow us to solve problems that were previously intractable although I admit they introduce many new problems that perhaps we have failed to fully anticipate.

I can repeat this idea somewhat more formally with this concept map: digital digital tech concept maptechnologies facilitate communication by and with diverse people, thus enhancing inclusion and participation by more segments of our society. Furthermore, these technologies connect us to the material world in new ways, permitting more precise control of our environment. Jointly, these two aspects, inclusiveness on the one hand and empowerment on the other, lead to better problem solving. So, these benefits of technology combined with the sheer ubiquity of these mobile devises in adult life mean that we have no choice about teaching our children to live in this technology rich, or if you prefer, technology-laden, environment.

How do we prepare children to live out in the world? One tool that parents and early educators have is shared reading. Although picture books present situations that children are unlikely to encounter in real life (fairies, monsters and talking bears), they provide opportunities to identify familiar emotions and to talk about solutions to problems that arise from differences in perspective. Kathrin Rees, in her doctoral dissertation, indicated that shared reading necessarily involves shared attention by the child and adult to the reading medium. Furthermore the adult and child also share a common script for the exchange – in our research we found that there was some variation among families in how they managed the shared reading interaction but each dyad adhered to a well-practiced script. The child typically accepted their role which was surprisingly quite passive, even for those children who were rather chatty; they knew when it was their turn to listen and their turn to speak and these turns were largely coordinated by the parent. Another aspect is the way that the close proximity of the adult and child creates a safe cocoon for exploration of difficult or frightening realities. For example, in our recordings of parents and children reading “The Big Bear Hug”, we were surprised to find that all of our Canadian research participants, with the exception of one indigenous child, were unfamiliar with axes. Their parents clearly considered the ax to be an unsafe object that should be kept away from their children; however, shared book reading provided a safe environment for exploring the concept, not to mention the encounter with the large bear. Many of the share reading sessions that we recorded in my laboratory began with the parent encouraging the child to come closer, no matter how close the child was to start with. With words and gesture ‘come closer’ was the cue that shared reading was about to begin.