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Childhood in the digital age
Childhood in the digital age

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1 A pyramid of digital engagement?

Young children learn about the world in a number of different ways. Sometimes they think through a problem and work it out, sometimes they try out different solutions until they find something that works, sometimes they learn best by watching and imitating others and sometimes by talking with the people around them, who can guide and support them.

One way of thinking about children’s learning in the digital world is to consider their actual engagement with it. How is this different from traditional ways of learning information?

Wheeler’s ‘engagement pyramid’ of digital learning (Wheeler, 2013) suggests that the majority of screen activities online involve a similar progression to those offline, from passive activities of watching, ‘lurking’ and reading to more active processes of making and collaborating. We could argue that all learning follows a similar pattern, whether online or offline. Children start to learn initially by simply watching and listening to absorb what’s going on, followed by internalisation of the process to the point where it can be used creatively. Language, maths, science, philosophy – they typically need a passive phase followed eventually by creativity and finally by ‘curating’ the individual’s own ideas.

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Figure 1 Wheeler’s engagement pyramid of digital learning.

If you consider Wheeler’s pyramid, this pattern becomes clear. The wide base of the engagement pyramid suggests that a great deal of children’s digital engagement is fairly passive. For example, simply ‘watching’ or ‘lurking’ in the background. Children in this category are primarily absorbing content, like blogs, videos, podcasts or status updates, by observing others. They gather information in order to take decisions or to learn from others; or else they are looking solely for entertainment; or they want to be part of the social space where learning occurs.

Now consider the upper layers of the engagement pyramid (commenting/discussing and creating/inventing). It is only here that children actively engage with their online environment in ways that can expand their thinking, through creating, editing and communicating ideas. Children who respond to others’ content, for instance through comments on blogs, news stories, status updates or reviews, are actively participating by giving support or contributing ideas. They are also actively creating or inventing by writing and publishing their own content, for example on blogs or sharing sites such as YouTube or Tumblr. These platforms are not only about learning but also about generating revenue through placed advertisements, both for the platform owners and the content creators. The so-called ‘kid influencers’ or ‘kid YouTubers’ generate considerable amounts of money by promoting toys or clothing on their social media accounts. One might argue that their online persona diversify the family income (or significantly boost it) but one might also argue that from an extremely young age, these children are thrown into a world where success and achievement are measured by dollars and the number of views and followers. What is your view on this? Discuss or write down your answers.