Is digital upskilling the next generation our ‘pipeline to prosperity’?

My notes on Davies, H. C., & Eynon, R. (2018). Is digital upskilling the next generation our ‘pipeline to prosperity’?. New Media & Society, 20(11), 3961-3979.

It’s so rare for a paper to have such a wonderfully informative title. Huw Davies and Rebecca Eynon interrogate this assumption that “teaching young people digital skills and literacies will help advanced market economies compete with their rivals and deliver prosperity” (3961-3962). Computer Science is now part of the Natural Curriculum for all children in England aged 5-14 after a campaign by a range of actors, underscoring the creative dimension of computing alongside its importance to the economy and status as a life skill. Through doing so, “the creative use of technology was assimilated into a ‘set of capacities’ or skills that professionals acquire in order to participate in the labour market” (3962). Digital skills are framed as the “primary antidote to economic decline” and coming disruptive shocks, with the pipeline becoming “the default metaphor in policy discourse to suggest the economy is a machine that feeds on a fixed, constant supply of digitally up-skilled youngsters” (3692). These skills are presented as a way to enhance social mobility, incorporating digital skills into a particularly narrow and nationalistic  understanding of economic need. In the process, caution Davies and Eynon we see a “highly problematic co-option of important intrinsic or civic benefits of digital engagement into economic discourse” (3963).

Their study was undertaken in two deprived areas of Wales, withe fieldwork in two schools effected by similar inequalities, one in a former mining town and the other in a deprived area of Cardiff. Their questionnaire was administered to one year 9 and one year 10 class each school and one year 12 class in the Cardiff school (the other school had no sixth form). 15% of respondents reported parents who had been to unviersity and around 70% of these parents worked, typically in the manual or service sector. These questionnaires were then supplemented by workshops undertaking as ICT classes in a year 9 and a year 10 group at each school. These activities focused on gaming practice, marketing games and asking students to draw mind maps to represent their digital ecospheres. I thought this was a particularly interesting method and I’ve been thinking recently about how to use creative methods like this to explore people’s platform imaginaries. For the year 9s ICT was compulsory whereas it had been deliberately chosen for the year 10s. The third method was semi structured interviews with 10 students from each year group at each school (n=50) with questions about digital practice, motivations, ambitions and skills. These were used to build a typology of the ways in which young people talk about their technology practice, drawing on the interview and workshop data initially supplemented by additional data from the survey.

The cyber kid discourse seen as the start “tacitly assumes young people’s motivations and the class of conditions that influence these motivations are (or should be) universal” (3966). it goes hand-in-hand with a tendency to homogenise digital technology seeing it in more or less uniform terms. This is belied by their finding that “Digital technology’s multifunctionality is mobilised by young people who have different personalities and socially shaped motivations, incentives and constraints guiding them” (3966). These are the categories they developed for the taxonomy:

  • Non-conformists: mostly young women, experienced a sense of estrangement from the school’s prevailing culture yet were able to find interlocutors online. The majority were in the 15 years old group and were “using social media as a resource to develop their identity” (3967). Their orientation to digital opportunities was entirely on their own terms, including the possibility of entrepreneurial activity through these means.
  • PC gamers: mostly young men, with a passion for gaming and the technical skills that went with it. This included hands on experience building PCs, with CPUs adequate for the intense graphical demands of modern games. Their interest in PCs came from their experience of the limitations of consoles. Interestingly, many reported that it had initially been a way to spend time with their fathers but as they progressed it became a peer-to-peer activity, suggesting game as male sociality. Furthermore, their fathers were more likely to be technical or professional than other children’s, suggesting a vector of class reproduction. The coding they had been presented to them at school was largely unappealing, yet they engaged in highly technical pursuits ranging from the aforementioned PC building through to YouTube channels, writing games in C++ and some minor consulting.
  • Academic conservatives: mostly female, with a shared commitment to formal education which they saw as more important than digital technology. They framed it as a distraction from these much more important ends. They used social media but were measured and controlled in their digital practice, not having friends who they didn’t also know online. Their aspirations lay in what partisans of the digital future would see it as quintessentially 20th cnetury jobs.
  • Pragmatists: their use of technology was restricted to specific purposes, tending to see it as a means to an end rather than end in itself. For example social media would be used to arrange meet ups or reminisce about those that had taken place in the past. They had often experienced digital exclusion (e.g. “limited money for games their friends played, lack of home access to the Internet, feeling behind in terms of digital skills, or having constrained access to the Internet for safe- guarding purposes” 3972) and their pragmatism could be framed as a response to this.
  • Leisurists: the largest group, tending to see the internet primarily for entertainment and cultural consumption. For them technology is a way of pursuing their interests, often happily leaving them within walled gardens and synchronising devices with parents and family. These activities “tended not to translate into pursuing a passion or developing skills that could be monetised in the digital economy” (3973).

The digital skills discourse suggests (a) a convergence between the needs of the economy and the needs of young people which can be met through digital skills (b) a denial of alternative motivations for young people that may not feed into this (c) the lack of structural constraints upon where digital skills can take them in the labour market. Their paper is a challenge to “the deterministic discourses that tell young people learning to code would be an act of economic self-interest that will, in turn, defibrillate the economy” (3976). The fact of having coding skills won’t lead to some magical capacity to transcend structural conditions, particularly for young women in a overwhelmingly male dominated industry.

 

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