Children's computer use at home and at school: context and continuity.


Submitted to British Educational Research Journal

Lucinda Kerawalla and Charles Crook

Department of Human Sciences

Loughborough University


Leicestershire LE11 3TU

Phone: 01509 228486






The home computer use of thirty three children aged between 7 and 11 years is described. These children and their parents were interviewed on four occasions. In addition domestic computer use was monitored for 30 days in respect of the identity of user(s) and the nature and duration of their software use. Although parents had strong aspirations that household computers should support their child’s learning and although parents main software purchases were educationally oriented, children spent most of their time on games of a sort not typically found in their classrooms. This observation was explored through a comparative analysis of the home and school ecology. Description of the school setting was achieved by engaging with pupils and teachers attending the five schools from which the home-based sample were drawn. Patterns of school computer use conformed to practices commonly reported for early education. However, this classroom context of computer use was shown to be very different to that sustained in homes. Parents took few steps to orchestrate the content or motive of children’s computer activity and they rarely become directly involved in that activity themselves. These observations are discussed in relation to contemporary ambitions to influence the interface of home and school through the mediation of ICT.








In Britain most children have access to computers in school. Moreover, a recent study by Livingstone and Bovill (1999) found that 53% of 6-17 year olds now have a computer at home. Evidently this technology is well placed to extend children’s opportunities for learning. However, computers are versatile tools: they support much more than that which is purely educational. Whatever parents who purchase computers may hope to encourage at home, research suggests that, for most children, game-playing becomes the predominant form of domestic use (Giacquinta, Bauer and Levin 1993, Downes 1999, Livingstone and Bovill 1999). The present study considers the challenge associated with recruiting home computers into the support of learning. We adopt a comparative approach, contrasting how computers are encountered at school and at home. In this way, the "ecology" of computer use can be brought into sharper focus and thereby help our theorising.

Giacquinta, Bauer and Levin (1993) have reported a similar comparative study for U.S. children. At home, they found a near absence of computer use for educational purposes. They explain this in terms of social context. They note parents’ lack of encouragement and lack of knowledge; they note poor communication between home and school, and poor communication between software companies and the domestic consumer. Parents’ accounts of their computer’s limited use invoked cost, lack of advice over what to buy, "mindless content" of software, lack of interactivity, and a perception that titles were only appropriate to children with learning difficulties.

Yet this study was conducted in 1984 and, since then, there have surely been many changes in the capabilities of both computers and educational software. Today, educational material is available in a great variety of genres for all ages. Moreover, this technology achieves considerable publicity in the form of advertising and media reviews. Finally, the promotional message of software that supports learning at home resonates with contemporary political rhetoric: in particular, with the present UK government’s concern for parental participation in children's education and for enhancing school-based support for parents (e.g. Stationery Office 1999). The UK National Grid for Learning seeks to "help British learners in schools…[and] at home…to benefit from the information age" (Blair 1998). This changing technical and socio-political climate encourages further research on educational computing at home.

Giacquinta et al’s emphasis on the social context will be followed up in the present study. Those researchers argued that any cultural innovation such as new information technology requires a compatible "social envelope". This was defined as "the configuration of social expectations or arrangements that envelop a technology" (op. cit. p.135). For the domestic computer to become an effective educational tool, existing expectations that direct using the machine as a game playing device need to be modified as the technology enters the home. This view has been adopted by Sefton-Green and Buckingham (1996) who considered secondary school pupils’ use of home computers for (educationally) "creative" purposes. They too conclude that without adequate social support, such use of home computers will remain rare.

Other more recent research into young children’s use of home computers has been carried out in Australia by Downes (1999). Her studies began in 1995 and involve over 400 children aged between 5 and 12 years in Sydney. Her purpose was to investigate the diversity of access to home computers, the range of uses, and how patterns of use relate to such factors as gender, age, and role models. Children kept diaries; these revealed that the most common home computer activity by both girls and boys was playing games. This took priority over use for writing, drawing, or forms of homework. School-related use is discussed in terms of authoring project presentations and the consultation of reference CD-ROMS. It is not clear how far these children used other educational material (such as electronic books, educational games or drill and practice software). Elsewhere, Downes (1998a) notes the range of local factors that may characterise a child's access to a computer: such as its physical location, who owns it and what rules are made about its use. She also (1998b) argues that home computers attract a variety of belief systems. Such domestic discourses may also come to be implicated in how the technology gets used by children. Yet these social features of family life that Downes identifies are considered in relative isolation. The present study aims to locate these as interdependent, and as constitutive of a system or culture of use within families.

Livingstone and Bovill’s (1999) study employs survey and child interview methods to examine computer use both at home and at school. They confirm that most home computer activity (77%) centres on games. This is so even though parents often purchased the computer with educational purposes in mind. At school, most computer work (74%) is word processing. Use of reference CD-ROMs is relatively rare but as common at home as it is at school. Drawing, design work, spreadsheets and databases are more typically experienced in school. When this survey was conducted the internet was only used by a small percentage of children – either at home or school.

Furlong, Furlong, Facer and Sutherland (2000) have recently investigated the home computing environment at a more intimate level than that allowed by survey methods. They too, concentrate on examining the context of computer use and argue that "access is a far more complex issue than mere provision of facilities" (p94). They found that, compared to school, the home environment is viewed more favourably by their child interviewees. There was seen to be more scope for exploration and "fiddling about", compared to the rigid curriculum restraints guiding what happens in school. One point made by these children was that the time schedules imposed by school could often leave pieces of work unfinished. This suggests that due to contextual differences between the home and school, there is greater potential for the home to provide an environment for more continuous, explorative and creative work than that typically found in the classroom. Our own work considers this through observations that formalise the comparison between these two settings.

These recent studies each serve to suggest a tension between potential and actual practice. They suggest a gulf between parents’ aspirations to create another site for learning and the reality that home computers typically service game playing - games that have little connection with the agenda of school. It is helpful that recent research furnishes these snapshots of how the technology is currently being used. In the present study we expect to confirm such observations. However, we intend here to probe more closely the domestic ecology of computer access: the context within which patterns of use are set. Like the study by Furlong et al (2000), we intend to gather rich participant accounts through repeated interview. However, here we shall go further: monitoring computer activity directly such as to gather reliable records of who uses the technology, at what times and for what purposes. In this way the contrast between home and classroom might be brought into still sharper focus.

There are good reasons for exploring the nature of this dynamic in such detail. From other research, it has been claimed that the impact of cognitive resources encountered in school is greatly moderated by the status of those same resources in the learner’s local community and home. For example, studies concerning the cognitive effects of learning to read and write stress the significance of these continuities. Heath (1986) makes this point in relation to her ethnography of children in "Roadville". Here, domestic literacy practices fail to prepare children for the way in which classrooms invite repeated scrutiny and discourse around written forms of knowledge. The practices of school map poorly onto the forms of literacy encountered in Roadville homes. Comparable tensions may be found in respect of information technology. For here also there are potential continuities and discontinuities between the school and the home as distinctive sites for engaging with computers.

We shall adopt particular methodological and theoretical positions. Theoretically, we shall echo perspectives guiding such work as that cited above on literacy: namely, a cultural psychological orientation (Cole, 1996). Methodologically, we shall draw on personal accounts of how this technology is experienced and we shall document computer use itself through logged activity of the system, rather than through users’ self-reports.

The perspective of cultural psychology emphasises that learning is a mediated social activity: something that always takes place within a broad cultural context. The context for learning is not conceptualised as separate from and surrounding the learner. Instead it is viewed as being constituted by the physical actions and the social interactions of people present. These, in turn, are mediated through primary artefacts (such as the computer) and secondary artefacts (such as rules, roles and institutions). This approach implies shortcomings in the 'social envelope' concept discussed above. For that concept utilises the metaphor of 'that which surrounds', instead of 'that which constitutes'.

Different contexts for a given activity can afford different physical actions and different social interactions. This is illustrated well by Cole (1996). He describes how children behave quite different when undertaking similar computer-based tasks in an after-school club versus in a library. The differences are analysed in terms of the contrasting institutional contexts in which the mediating technology is encountered. We thereby notice that schools and homes may also furnish very different settings for children and hence may give rise to different systems of activity - say in relation to computers. Scrutiny of these varying ecologies may help understand why forms of schooled computer use are difficult to import into the domestic environment.

In the present study we focus on a cohort of children aged between 7 and 11 years and consider their computer experience both at school and at home. Our contact with the school setting will be less detailed (as these children’s experiences conformed to a well-documented pattern of classroom IT use). However, that contact will be close enough to establish a useful benchmark for our (more detailed) examination of computer use at home.



This study considers both school and home computer use. Four primary schools and one infant school in an East Midlands market town were selected to represent the broad social and ethnic mix of this region. Seventy seven children (39 boys and 38 girls) from school years 2 (mean age 7 years 5 months), 4 (mean age 9 years 4 months) and 6 (mean age 11 years 5 months) were randomly selected for interview from class registers.

All children in these classes took letters home which invited families to participate in a home computer study – if they owned a PC. Approximately 500 letters were dispatched and 62 families volunteered. This was a respectable response rate, given that class interviews indicated that only around half of families owned a computer at this time. Moreover, a number of these would have owned a Macintosh, or the Acorn computer still common in UK schools. Thirty-six children were randomly selected from the volunteers, to include an equal number of boys and girls and 12 from each of the above age groups (7, 9 and 11 years). Three families (all of them with 11-year olds) had to withdraw from the study and could not be replaced. Thus, findings from 33 families are discussed.

Materials and Procedure

In schools, pupils were interviewed by the same interviewer, using a semi-structured schedule which enabled flexible responses to emerging themes in the conversation. All children approached offered to help the interviewer "find out about how computers were used" in their class. These children were individually taken to a convenient quiet area. Where possible they were interviewed alongside a computer so that some replies could be typed into a word processor. This activity and its visible record seemed to relax the interview, encouraging more reflection and elaboration of responses. All interviews were audiotaped. Patterns of computer use in school were noted through informal discussion with both head teachers and class teachers. In addition, all of the 25 class teachers were asked to complete a brief questionnaire; 15 completed questionnaires were returned. The pertinent collection of questions posed to both pupils and teachers is presented in Table 1.

- Insert Table I about here -

The home-based field work involved interviews and computer system logs. Our interest in learning how children liked to use computers at home was explained to both parents and children. A document reinforcing these purposes and explaining the intention to monitor computer activity was jointly signed. To record these patterns of computer use, two programs were used. One identified the current user(s) at each session. At startup, it required any user present to check a box next to their name. The window of names was customised for each family according to their advice. It was also accessible on the desktop in order to register within-session changes of user. In addition, Omniquad’s "desktop surveillance" software was installed to record the caption, the onset time, and the duration of engagement for all application windows given input focus by the user. Families were visited at home on four occasions. During the first visit notes were made of their computer’s specification and all software owned. The logging software ran for the period between the first and second home visits (mean 30 days). During the second, third and fourth visits the target child and the parent(s) were interviewed separately by the same interviewer using a semistructured interview schedule (see table 1). These interviews lasted between 30 and 60 minutes. To allow advance reflection, the parents were told the broad subject area that would be covered a few days in advance. All interviews were audiotaped. Not all the interview data will be discussed in this paper: thus Table 1 details only those questions relevant to the current topic.

Data Analysis

Four kinds of data are discussed here: survey responses from teachers, interviews with pupils in class, audiotaped child and parent interviews at home, and logs of home computer use. Teachers’ answers to survey questions were coded and statistically summarised. Interview tapes were digitised and analysed with the search-and-annotate software "Kit". Coding was defined in relation to the central theme raised by each interview question. Where comments were made in addressing one question that seemed to refer to the issue raised in another question then, again, an appropriate code was attached to this section of the conversation. Each of the substantive themes discussed below were then explored by systematically re-visiting appropriate sections of the audio files and collating relevant material through annotated transcription.

The digital logging records were visually scanned and systematised by hand. Sections of the system log corresponding to the child’s usage were separated such that the content and duration of that child’s activities could be calculated from the time-stamped logs. Periods where a child was working alongside another person were also identified such that frequencies of these joint activities could be calculated.

Results and Discussion

First we characterise the pattern of children’s time allocation to various classes of software, as recorded in their homes. Home software is distinguished here in terms of varieties of title that would be found in class, against those that would not. Then, the circumstances of use at school and home will be compared in respect of the following issues: where the computer is located, how access for its use is determined, how software resources are acquired, how the choice of activity is governed, whether use is collaborative, and what happens to any products arising from use. For each of these issues, the prevailing situation in school will be sketched first, followed by a more detailed consideration of practice at home.

1) Profiles of children’s computer use

Seven varieties of software were found in schools. The full range of resources available in the 25 classrooms suggested the following classification of software, examples of which may thereby be considered to illustrate "educational status". (1) Reference (searchable hypermedia archive), (2) drill and practice (curricular question and answer cycles), (3) educational game (reasoning problems embedded in a narrative), (4) electronic book (page-turning frame for illustrated text), (5) internet resources (e.g. web browsers) (6) generic, creative tools (e.g., text and image processors), (7) control technology (e.g., programming tools controlling floor robots),

Pupils were asked to recall all applications that they had ever had experience of using, irrespective of frequency of use. The most commonly reported activities were word processing (83% of pupils), educational games (62%) and reference CD-ROMs (56%). Art packages had been used by 44% of children, drill and practice software by 31%, internet and email by 17% of pupils. Use of databases and spreadsheets were experienced by 15% of these children. The children’s teachers confirmed that most computer time was dedicated to word processing and graphics packages.

In homes, all of the above software categories were found with the exception of control technology (category 7 above). In addition, these families owned entertainment-based (as opposed to educational) games. Here, this eighth and rather large category is simply termed "games": they are those items that experience and consultation suggests would not be found in school. Of course, some classroom-type software deployed at home may not be used there in ways that it would be used in school. This applies particularly to generic, creative tools and the internet. Our classification of use in this report is entirely on the basis of an application’s potential status in school. If, for example, we record here that children use creative tools at home, there is no implication about the content of that activity - that the goals and style of this use conforms to what would be expected in class.

On average, 20 CD-ROM titles were owned by the families (range 2 – 66). The mean percentage of these that were classroom CD-based software (i.e. in categories 1-4 and 6) was 64%. Analysis of variance revealed no relationship between the child’s year group and the number of resources owned. All families had installed the standard suite of Microsoft Office or Lotus generic tools and 42% had internet access.

Logging data from home computers revealed that most time (66%) was invested in playing entertainment games (category 8 above). Generic/creative tools represent the next most common domestic category, although these only account for an average of 14% of computer time. Educational games occupied 9.8% of time. The number of game titles owned was only weakly and non-significantly (r = 0.3) correlated with time actually occupied in these games. While children’s activity is dominated by software not typically found in school, it is clear that parental purchasing is not cleanly matched to this. Considering only CD-ROM titles, we find that 64% of those purchased are representative of school material. Yet these attract only 27% of the total time that is given to using CD-ROMs. Taken together these observations reinforce findings from those studies discussed earlier: most domestic computer time is given to playing games of a kind not typically found in class.

Yet our observations also emphasise that this does not reflect purchasing decisions made by parents. Most material that is available for home use celebrates educational concerns – while it attracts relatively less investment of time by the children themselves. Indeed when these parents were asked about their reasons for purchasing a home computer, 73% cited a desire to help with their children’s school work. Only 36% made any reference to needs associated with their own work or leisure interests. In remaining sections of this report, we intend to illuminate this tension between aspiration and use by considering differences between home and school in terms of the general ecology of use.


2) Locating a computer in school and at home

In school, computers were generally found incorporated into the core of classroom bustle: they were physically aligned with the corporate activity. Of those 25 classes from which the children were sampled, 22 had a computer in the room, 2 had access to one in the corridor and only 1 had access in a separate room (the school library). Three of the classrooms had 2 computers. All schools had ‘spare’ machines on trolleys or stored away.

At home, computers were found in many locations. In discussing how they had reached the decision of where to put their computer, parents invoked two sets of concerns. The first defines a dimension of central-peripheral placement. Families wished either to make contact with the computer in an easily accessible place (make central) or they wished to locate it less visibly and on the household margins (make peripheral). Forty four per cent of computers were positioned in a central family room. The second placement dimension raises an issue of public-private. In this case, families were concerned with the social traffic that would be surrounding the user. Forty seven per cent of computers were positioned in a space that protected the privacy of the user. These dimensions are not completely orthogonal, although there is a strong tendency for private spaces to be on the household periphery. However, the distinction is to clarify location in terms of reasons more than in terms of rooms. These reasons aligned with the dimensions are summarised next.

The central/peripheral dimension. The notion of "centrality" being important arose in two particular reasons parents used to explain location decisions. First, twelve families referred to a central position in relation to equity - ensuring fair patterns of use: "I wanted it to be a family computer, so I wanted it somewhere where we could all have access". Second, a central location was associated with visibility. Four families had an empirical position on this issue, reporting that the computer appeared to get more use when it was "downstairs". One father said that "if the kids are watching something on television and if one of them gets bored they will get up and have a go on the computer…so they probably use it more than if it was somewhere completely removed from everybody else".

This sort of judgement had prompted some families to re-locate their machines from a more peripheral position upstairs.

The notion of "peripherality" arose in relation to location decisions in three different ways. First, it was identified with issues of security. The purchase of a computer was a considerable financial investment for many families and often this sizeable object was placed where it would be inconspicuous. Often this would be an upstairs room where it was felt to be safer: "[downstairs] you could see it through the window and people passing would think ‘oh there’s a computer’". Second, some families considered that as an object, their computer had an aesthetic quality that required relegation – from the centre of family of life to somewhere less visually obtrusive at the periphery. When asked why their computer was not in the lounge, one mother replied that "its officey, it’s a work piece not a piece of furniture…dad uses it for work, the kids use it for homework, I don’t see it as something that is necessarily fun". Another parent said "I wouldn’t want to bring any type of office stuff into the living room". Third, the computer was placed at the periphery for similar but more positive reasons: in some families the technology suggested a need for seriousness of use. One father commented that to put it in the lounge would mean it would "become an everyday object that gets mucked about on". He wanted it to be regarded as a "useful tool to be looked after" and hence decided to put it at the household periphery - in the parental bedroom.

The public/private dimension. Where the reason for a location decision was expressed in terms of its "public" nature this was often because of a parental desire to supervise or monitor access. Five families cited this consideration. For example, parents commented: "it’s quite easy to stick your head round", or "we can see what they’re doing and if they want help". A related reason for a public position might be not so much the potential for management or support but, more simply, the corporate nature of the experience. Although only one family cited this issue. Here the mother remarked: "it used to be upstairs in our bedroom but we never got to see each other…now its downstairs we can still sit and talk in the evenings".

However, being in a public position does bring problems of interference from parallel activities. Three families reported that a private location was important in order to deal with problems of distraction both for and by the users: "if it’s a noisy computer program like Grand Prix, then you have to turn the computer down or off". This potential problem was recognised by 7 other families who decided not to put their computer in the main living area of the house: "it’s not in the lounge because when you’re working on it people can still watch the television…and if the children are doing homework they can concentrate".

We indicated that the private/public dimension concerned the social traffic associated with space. This raises questions of how far computer location in socially private or shared locations created interpersonal tensions. There were 6 families with computers in owned public spaces such as a father’s office or a mother’s art studio. Only two of these families mentioned that this caused problems. One father said that his use of the computer takes priority which sometimes meant asking his children to stop using it. Another parent felt that the position was not ideal but was a compromise where she had had to "sacrifice space and privacy" so that the rest of the family had access to the computer in her space.

All but one of our focal children had a least one sibling. Where families had decided to locate the computer in children’s bedrooms, tension might be expected if siblings had separate rooms. This arrangement was obtained in four families: the computer was in the bedroom belonging to just one of the children. Consequently, there was potential for sibling argument over access. Yet, in discussion of arguments arising from computer use, this particular issue was not mentioned by any parents or children in the relevant families.

The sociality of location in the sense described here does not appear to influence usage. Comparing families with computer in public versus private spaces, no significant difference was found in time spent on any type of activity (t(30) = 0.2).

3) Rules for access

In school, computers are scarce and teachers are under a pressure to maximise access within limited allocations of time. So, perhaps contrary to popular belief, access during lessons is both brief and infrequent. Pupils own impressions of access was that it was limited to between once a week and once a month. Additional, informal access was also arranged in some of these schools; with children allowed to use computers during lunch and break times to practice typing skills, to use the internet, or to play educational games. In one school the children had to ask a teacher before using the computer out of lesson time whereupon they were issued with a badge indicating permission. Pupils reported that arguments over access to the computer at school were very infrequent, because turns were closely controlled by the teacher. Computer usage took place in a disciplined environment where scope for conflict is reduced as the teacher "chooses you and we have to take turns". Occasionally a child may try to get an extra turn by "put[ting] their hand up when it isn’t their turn to go on it" but they thought this was a rare occurrence.

At home, the situation differed in both frequency of use and in the surrounding rules and arguments. Computers were used much more often: on average 3 times a week and for a mean of 2.6 hours per week. Yet access is a complex issue and there were several ways of regulating it. Rules concerning when and how to use the computer were often reported. We have identified seven concerns that give rise to forms of regulating usage. They are identified as a group of four "behavioural" concerns (more focussed on regulating the child, and three concerns of a more "security" kind (focussed on care of the machine).

(1) Making access complementary with family routines. As indicated above, many of these children used their computer quite often and for quite long periods of time. The rule that most (48%) families cited was one that access should not allow the computer to interfere with other valued aspects of domestic life and so sessions should be scheduled with respect to these. One mother said "I did get to the stage when I banned the computer before school, otherwise he was getting up early [to use the computer]and end up being late to school with no breakfast". Other families allow use when other obligations are complete e.g. "if you’ve done your music, done your homework then yes you can go on it" or "if [my mum] wants help in the kitchen then I help her out, then go on it". (2) Sanctioning recreational choices. Embarking on a session of use might also attract a permission rule simply by virtue of a general practice of parents to monitor recreational activity. So 24% of families identified a requirement to ask permission for computer use – consistent with those parents’ general desire to be aware of how their children were spending time. (3) Session length rules. 15% of families mentioned a rule for the setting of time limits on sessions of use. Permitted times ranged from 30 minutes to 2 hours and were often set in the interests of controlling compulsive use. Although this rule might be set for various other reasons: such as to avoid arguments and ensure all siblings have equable turns: "they’ve been quarrelling over it so I gave them half hour turns at a time…so it was fair". Health concerns were an issue for another family: "if he is on it for ages we ask him to get off…at 2 hours one starts to worry...we start to worry about their eyesight and radiation" and having access to a broad range of recreational activities was an issue for another family: "I don’t like him being on it for too long…he’s got to have other interests". (4) Censoring software choices. Only a small number of families (9%) operated a rule based on the appropriateness of use. Typically, some games were judged "mindless" or "pointless" such that access was controlled either by time limits on their use, or by parents refusing to buy them. Parents might even hide offending programs: "they only want to play on Treasure Island so we helped them by removing it and hiding it…they didn’t bother to read the story, all they did was play the various shooting games"

(5) Care for equipment. Safety of the computer was a concern for 30% of families and led to rules over how to be a good user. For example, operating rules mentioned included that shut down and start up must be carried out following the correct procedure, that the screen should not be touched, and that no food and drink should be placed nearby. These rules covered general good computing practice, as in the case of keeping drive space free "we’re not allowed to save stuff on the computer cos its only a very small hard drive". Sometimes the domestic regime was strongly enforced as for the child who intoned: "don’t mess it up and don’t do anything without asking dad if you’re not sure of what to do, if anything messes up you have to pay for it". (6) Economy of use. Issues of expense were made quite explicit by 24% of parents, particularly in relation to internet use. Such access was usually managed through time-of-day rules. One child reported: "I’m only allowed on the internet after 6 o’clock". For some families, paper and ink use was an issue: "I ask before I use the printer and they come and have a look at what I’m printing". (7) File space privacy. 24% of families had to govern access to personal files: "my mum’s got this bills one [folder] and I’m not allowed to go on that".

Access at home can be regulated less formally. One family used a rota to control access. This was a written list pinned on the wall next to the computer. As it happens, their children subverted this plan with their own version: "we’ve made a new one…I’m at church on Tuesday and dance class on Thursday so my day is Friday, so I’m allowed to say ‘I want a go so get off’…[one brother] has it on Wednesday and [my other brother] is on Monday …at weekends we don’t have priority, we just have a time limit". However, it was apparent that this rota had not been filled in for a few days.

Other more improvised methods are also used to govern access such as age which might determine priority: "because first we, we go biggest to smallest and then we say like, you’ve got one hour, you’ve got one hour, and you’ve got one hour on it. And then if you’re bored, you just let the other person go on." One child explained how computer use is also embedded in broader daily organisation schedules such as making use of it whilst other family members are out: "on Saturdays my brother normally has it first because I normally go dancing, so my brother has it first, and then he goes out to do what he wants to do at town in the afternoon, and then I have a go on it". Organising access through computer desktop structuring was not particularly common. However, two families created personal desktop folders for their child which contained shortcuts to all their applications. One father said that "I load the software on, basically so they can get to them when they want them, I created a little folder called [child's] games and I put all the shortcuts in there so they know how and where they can get to them".

Inevitably, access rules invite workarounds from the children and some children were active in devising ways to get a turn. One girl complained that "my brother would grab me and drag me as far away as he could, then just run upstairs to the computer". Others recalled opportunities to sneak in and take over: "she went to the lavatory and then I had a few more goes". Hiding a sibling’s CD-ROM’s is another way of extending your own turn. One child said that "I went to look for my CD’s and found them under my brother’s bed". Equally devious, a turn on the computer can be drawn out if you "choose a game that’s got levels on it, ‘cos it keeps going"

Such observations echo accounts of sibling disputes centred on other items of household media (Dunn, 1988). Every child with a sibling at home said that they have, at some stage, argued over access to the computer. Children sometimes solve these disputes themselves but they also report parental interventions with rulings such as: "you’ve had enough time, now you can get up and let [someone else] have a go". Using a rota system to alleviate arguments is not always successful. In the words of one child, "we tried a system of an hour each but it goes on to two and a half hours for [my older brothers] and I get fifty minutes". Arguments may also concern what the computer is used for when children use it together: "she wants to do a story and I want to play a game. Then we have a bit of an argument over what we do first". This child stated that she usually "gets so fed up with arguing that I go and do something else". One child said that arguments occur when he asks his older sister for help and she "takes over" . A similar tension was identified by the parent who said problems arose between his two sons when "one of them knows the game very well and the other is trying to learn it, the other [one] keeps on saying ‘you must do this or you must do that’ when [the other] wants to do it themselves".

4) Acquiring resources

In schools, some software was provided as a package with the hardware. Otherwise teachers might bid for school funds to acquire individual items, often seeking advice from the designated IT coordinator on staff .

In order to ascertain how accessible and available software was to the families at home, a quick survey was carried out in the shops in the local town centre. A well- known newsagent in the central shopping mall stocked many computing magazines and on the particular day surveyed, 9 of them had educational/creative software packaged with them. Such titles included creative software for desktop publishing, music creating and a typing tutor as well as a guide to sharks, an encyclopedia and Dorling Kindersley’s The Way Things Work. There was also a shop that specialises in computer games, which had over 150 educational and creative titles on the shelf. These ranged from pre-school to A level in many subject areas. Four other well-known high street shops were visited and all had various titles for sale. This wide range of products and prices suggests that, in this town, software that supports learning at home is widely available.

To explore how purchasing decisions are made, parents were asked about the last item of software that was bought for their child. Twelve parents said that their last purchase was educational software, while 21 parents bought a game. Fourteen of the children said that they had a degree of choice in the purchase, either choosing it themselves or agreeing to a suggestion made by a parent. The remaining 19 children had no role in the decision making (8 because it was a birthday present).

The twelve parents whose last purchase was educational software typically were concerned with the product’s degree of appropriateness for school. They discussed this in terms of age suitability, national curriculum compliance, SATs compatibility, or whether it had been endorsed by the school. For 75% of these parents, the cost of the item was mentioned – indicating that the purchase had been favoured for its competitive price. Direct contact with the item was rare: just one family had advance use of their purchase (at an exhibition). Acting on reviews and opinions was also infrequent. One family had read a magazine review, one had taken advice from other parents. Useful advice is felt hard to find. A parent, who invested relatively heavily in educational software had started to telephone software companies to seek their advice: " I ring and say that this is the kind of thing that she likes, can you recommend anything? They’ve been very good".

The 21 families whose most recent purchase was a game were less concerned with specific content, except one family who were looking for something "constructive and non-violent" . For eight of them the main guidance on choice was an expressed preference from their child. Two cited outside personal advice, two had tried the item elsewhere. One family were upgrading an item already owned. Otherwise these purchases were improvised on a fairly whimsical basis.

With regards to place of this most recent purchase, a variety of locations were identified: shops dedicated to computer games, hardware shops, a software company representative hosting a home purchase ‘party’, from a school book-club, PC fairs, from the cover of magazines, from an advert in a newspaper, a supermarket and from a mail order catalogue. This suggests a considerable fragmentation of the outlets for domestic software; the consumer seems not yet clearly oriented to established marketplace niches.

The tendency towards purchasing more educational software mirrored the dominant motive parents reported for buying the PC itself – to support their children’s education. However, in only one of these families has the initial motive been followed through to the extent that they "have only ever bought educational type games for [the children]". Equally unusual is an attitude that is suspicious of importing school activities into the home. However, one family who have been relaxed about purchasing decisions reported that they had "… given [the boys] a lot of freedom in choosing…they get a lot of education at school and at home they get to choose what they do". Most families expected that their children would converge on game playing and now adopt a policy of purchasing educational software in order to resist, as one parent put it, children "spending hours and hours and hours playing games".

5) Selecting activities

At school, the selection of computer activities was typically determined by an issue of integration with some background context of class activity. Teachers and children reported that computers were most often used for an activity that was closely related to the main classroom activity at the time: such as turn-taking to type out a poem for some collection, or entering data into a shared database. Only occasionally would computers be used for an activity unrelated to the mainstream, such as playing a maths game to fill in time released by work finished. Most classroom computer use was planned and current. At any time, the teachers were aware of who was using it and what they were using it for. In comparison to this, children's use of home computers seemed more dis-located: not needing to be integrated with any shared household agenda.

Selecting computer activities in a school context is largely in the hands of the teacher. It is also led by curriculum constraints and lesson plans so that choice becomes formalised and, therefore, very unlike choices made at the home. As indicated above, the profile of home use indicates relatively little engagement with school software. It appears that the educational aspirations articulated by many computer-purchasing parents are not easily followed through: "it’s a bit like exercise machines, you have great intentions but the reality’s a bit different". Most families seemed to have discovered this and accepted it quickly. Every parent, with only one exception, said that beyond suggesting using the computer as an activity when their child is bored, or directing their child to a CDROM reference item when they ask a question, they did not encourage any specific educational use of the computer. They generally left it up to their child to decide what activity to choose. In fact, many parents actively resisted dictating what their child should do. To some extent this was associated with doubts about the appropriateness of encouraging educational computer use. So, one parent said that " I leave it up to her. I think she’s too young to be pressurised. School can provide what she wants at the moment". Another argued "The kids come home from school, they’ve been at school the whole day, what they don’t want is to come in and for me to say ‘now go and spend an hour doing your SATs tests’". Some parents recognised the problems of drawing children into activities that were not intrinsically engaging: "the software has to stand on its own merits, it has to be chosen because its fun and interesting". Two of the parents interviewed observed that the more formal atmosphere at school makes a big difference – but that this was not an atmosphere that children would easily tolerate being imported into the home: "…they might be more likely to use it [educational software] at school if the teacher says ‘you are doing this one’…we don’t do that [at home], if we did then they might not do it…".

One set of parents did endeavour to orchestrate a predominant use of educational material: "we just tell him that he can’t have his go if he doesn’t do something educational". But this was not easy. The child found ways around the ruling: "he’s very crafty though… I set him up and tell him to do his bit, then I tend to leave them alone, and you come back in and he’ll have put on whatever he wants and turned the volume down so that we can’t hear it. Not only that but he’ll load and unload stuff, he’ll install it, play it, and take it off".

6) Social context: collaborating at the computer

In schools, teachers reported that children used the computer both on an individual and a shared basis. This was borne out by the children. They were asked how they carried out the computer activities they could remember in the current academic year: 65% reported having worked both alone and with a partner. Twenty per cent of children said they had only worked with a partner or group, 4% only with a teacher or classroom assistant and 11% said that they had only ever worked alone.

Fifty seven percent of school children report that they preferred working with a partner or group. Reasons given for this included the sharing and comparing of ideas, using each other for help with problems, having a friendly competitor when playing games, enjoying the company, being involved in something 'good' like sharing, being able to share the blame for mistakes and getting work done more quickly. For example one child said that he preferred to share with someone "’Cos you can share your thoughts with them, and you wouldn't be lonely and if you didn't know what to do the person next to you might know what to do". Yet 43% of children did state that they preferred to work alone. A commonly cited advantage was "’cos you get more done,…if someone else helps you then they will…they distract you. You try and get on but they're telling you all the words when you know how to do it yourself, so I like doing it by myself". Pupils offered other reasons for preferring to be alone: these included the prevention of copying, more autonomy over the end product, the prevention of arguments and accidents such as deletions of work, less interruption, less peer criticism, a reduction in the stress associated with working with someone more able than yourself as well as a reduction in noise. Teachers noted that pupils needed to work with a partner in order to assure that computer-based work was completed by everyone in a large class within the allotted time. The children stated that they are usually left to work at the computer uninterrupted but that seeking (teacher) help was part of the typical working practice. Pupils acquired teacher help by calling out, queuing at the desk or otherwise attracting attention.

Classroom use is therefore quite social – although children may be ambivalent about this arrangement. At home however, logging data reveals that children were alone on average 72% of the time that they used their home computer. There was no difference in degree of solitary working across the three age groups (F(2,31) = 0.7). Certainly, none of these children seemed in need of practical help over basic computer operations. One mother explained "she can switch it on and everything on her own, she's fine, no problems at all so she has access to it whenever she wants really, no problem". Where use was shared, this was with a sibling (on average, 12% of total usage time), with a friend (7%), with a parent (4.7%) or with a combination of these people (4.3%).

Evidently, direct parental involvement is scarce. Yet this may be dictated by the children themselves for, 72% of parents said that their child would not like it if they were often there when their children used the computer. Seven of these parents simply explained this by invoking a preference to be independent: " he says ‘I can do it myself…I know what I’m doing!’" . Two said that they would be unwelcome because they do not have enough knowledge to help the child. One mother said that her child feels that parental attendance when using a single-user game is unnecessary. Another claimed that it always led to arguments: "there’s arguments when we do sit with him, he tells [dad] what to do and [dad] tries to tell him what to do…he doesn’t like being told what to do, even though he can’t do it, he’d rather sit down and struggle through it rather than ask you for help". A further 19% of parents said that their child would like continuous company but this was more to show what they could do – rather then to initiate collaboration or tuition: "he does like it when you can observe what he’s doing, he does like to show what he can do".

Parents often gave more than one reason why they did not regularly sit with their child at the computer. The first was typically because their child would not like it (see above). Fifty three percent of parents said that their own needs prevent them from joining in; for example, not having enough time (25%), getting impatient at not getting a go (9%), wanting a break from using a computer after using one all day at work (3%) and finding it boring watching children’s games (16%): "they’re not very interesting for adults…maths sums for a nine year old are boring". Another said that "at the moment the boys are wanting a completely different sort of game that I or [my wife, or daughter] would be interested in…it’s the interest that keeps us apart". Thirty two percent of parents said that the software that their children use is not conducive to use by more than one user and that most is only suitable for one gender and age:"…if you have different age-group children they’re using the computer in such a different way, you cant have them sitting down side by side because they’re doing different things, they’re playing at different game levels and different educational levels…and boys want to do boys things and girls want to do girls things…".

Thus there is considerable difference in the social conditions of use between school and home. Most computer use at school is collaborative and naturally linked to the support of an adult (teacher). Most home use is solitary with occasional involvement of siblings or friends and very infrequently involving the engagement of an adult.

7) Social context: audience

The social context of computer activity is not only a question of interpersonal exchange at the moment of use. It also encompasses shared relationship to the products of computer activity – perhaps encountered some time after use. In school, a striking feature of the classrooms visited was their display of children’s work. This made work visible to peers and parents. It also serviced a reward system: for sometimes winning a place on the wall is constructed as a signal of achievement. The type of display products that both teachers and pupils mentioned were labels designed for drawers and cupboards, Easter cards destined for home, newsletters for the school library, calendars, stories to take home, word processed titles for wall displays, lines of a play printed out for memorising and material for a class assembly. Pupils reported that other computer generated products such as scores achieved within educational games are not shared but are usually lost when the session is over. The children claimed that their teachers often did not know how well they had done on such games.

At home, there was much less social celebration of computer generated work. Although most children had at some time saved their work to a file. Two homes did not own a printer at the time of the study. Only three families reported that their child’s computer based work was currently on display in the house (in the kitchen, father’s office and child’s bedroom respectively). But nonetheless the logging data and the interviews reveal that computers were used to make lasting products such as cards, banners, posters, invitations, place settings, letters, emails, book marks, booklets to distribute amongst friends, and signs for bedroom doors. One family had used large fonts in a word processor to produce lettering which was then traced onto the bathroom wall, spelling out French words (e.g. salle de bain, chaud) which were then hand painted. One child used his computer to make slide shows for the family. Game scores are a more transient form of product although one child wrote down scores on paper stuck to the computer's monitor for siblings to challenge. Only one mother reported that she knew her child's score on a maths game.

The wide range of material products that were being produced were more often taken to school: products such as the poems, stories, booklets and signs for the classroom door. It is this physical transfer of computer generated paper products to and from school (also in the form of homework) that forms the largest part of the current computer-based link that exists between home and school.


General discussion

When discussing why they had acquired a home computer, three quarters of the families participating in this study referred to support for their children’s work at school. Moreover, they followed up this motive through their preference for purchasing educationally-relevant software. Given the importance of this technology to the curriculum and to classroom educational practice, such favourable parental aspirations should provide a strong climate for cultivating links to school learning at home. Yet this is hardly what we find. System logs of computer use reveal that two thirds of time is spent on the kind of games that would not be found in a school context. Even the lively educational games widely marketed to parents (and which were very commonplace in these families) attracted less than 10% of the children’s computer time. It is not even clear that much of the remaining time (mainly spent with generic tools and internet) was continuous with school concerns. Where there was such continuity it appeared to be associated with delivering formal homework tasks.

Whether or not such findings represent an aspirational disappointment for parents, they surely indicate a serious challenge facing politicians who regard information technology as a lever on the home-school interface. We have explored this shortfall through a comparative analysis of the ecology for computer use – as we found it in the classroom and at home. Unpicking this ecology has entailed attention to issues of how the technology is physically located, the nature of rules for access, and the social context of use. We thereby notice that, while parents may invest in the basic resources for supporting learning (the PC and associated software), they are hard pressed to re-create that broader ecology of use that characterises schooled life.

Evidently, the kind of computer use visible in classrooms is seldom activity that has been spontaneously devised by pupils themselves. Such activities are coherent with an underlying curriculum, and they are orchestrated by the adults readily to hand – the teachers. The momentum of what gets done by pupils surely depends on this embedding in an institutional framework, as well as on this human support. The environment designed within families attends mainly to the provision of raw materials. Family life does not generate some integrated agenda that demands problem solving of the kind required in classrooms. If there is a relevant agenda it is furnished by the projects temporarily imported by children from school (their homework). Indeed, most parents interviewed revealed a surprising uncertainty about the child’s school curriculum and classroom practice. Decisions about the location of a home computer were rarely connected with creating a setting that would spontaneously motivate activities of the kind fostered in class. Parents did not report taking active steps to control or direct the content of their children’s computer use. Some doubted their ability to influence this and others doubted the wisdom or desirability of such disciplined management.

Yet children might still chose to engage in computer activities continuous with school work, and many of them did to some limited extent. Thus, there were opportunities to reproduce another feature of school culture – the organised support and tuition furnished by a classroom social context. Yet home computing is usually a solitary activity for these children. Siblings and peers were occasionally implicated but parents rarely were. Parents did not report any strong inclination to pursue this kind of involvement. Perhaps the windows of opportunity were too scarce to register. Although some parents reported an active resistance from children to what they perceived as tutorial interventions. The idea that such scaffolding might be sometimes unwelcome at home is worth further consideration. Neither was the local ecology socially supportive through incorporating the products of children’s computer use into shared visibility: unlike schools, children’s achievements were not on display.

Some of these discontinuities might be remediated by consideration of educational policy. A reasonable interpretation of how the parents here went about supporting their children’s education through ICT is to say that they acquired the basic resources and generally assumed that schools themselves would motivate and process the domestic computer work that could follow. Arguably, this is a perfectly responsible position. Yet it may do little to extend the reach of the school into the home. It may place more burden on the educational establishment to create the optimal conditions for such possible continuities to thrive. A survey carried out by the Parents Information Network (2000) has investigated the state of home-school ICT support in all types of school. This research finds that the majority of ICT support offered to parents is reactive in nature and is not initiated by the school. In addition, support is highly varied which "indicate[s] that schools are doing their own thing, showing a piecemeal pattern of ad hoc projects…" (p.4 italics in original). Moreover, only 4% of primary schools have included ICT in their home-school agreements. The report concludes that there is a "clear need for awareness-raising and guidance for school management teams" (p.5). This is cause for concern, especially as the schools surveyed were those that had contacted the Parents Information Network (PIN) in the previous 18 months for ICT advice for parents. This is happening in a climate where more than half of children in the UK have access to a computer at home and where the government is trying to promote the home as being a site for lifelong learning. It suggests that parents want support but that what is offered is unsystematic and patchy in its delivery. PIN conclude that this "raises a serious issue about the extent to which schools are considering the impact of ICT as a shared resource between home and school" (p5).

Yet progress at this interface is possible. Successful links have been fashioned in the UK e.g. Highdown School in Berkshire who utilise the internet (Frost 1997), and in Drew Primary School in London whose children carry palm-top computers from home to school (Times Educational Supplement editorial 1997). There are also success stories in the USA. e.g. the Buddy System Project in Indiana (McMahon, and Duffy 1993) and the Partners in Learning Project in New Mexico (Fullerton 1995). These relatively isolated success stories suggest that with a lot of determination and with the right training and funding in place, computers (either home-based or portable between the two environments) can be used to motivate both children and parents to forge greater home-school links and, in some cases to improve children’s attainment levels. Research needs to guide such intervention. Our own findings draw attention to the considerable gap between the ecologies of learning sustained at home and school: this should provide pointers for the design of greater continuities in the future.

















Table I: Interview questions and questionnaire items used in schools and homes.

Interview questions for school children:

1 Do you use the computer to do work in school?

2 Lets make a list of all the things you’ve done?

3 When did you last use the computer in school?

4 How often do you use it?

5 When you do these things (on list) what happens to the work when you’ve finished?

6 Look at the list and tell me whether you did each one by yourself or with someone else

7 Which do you like best:with friend or by yourself?

8 Did the teacher sit with you or help at all?

9 Do you think that your class computer is in the best place? Why?

10 Do you have a computer at home?



Questionnaire items for teachers:

1 Please list all the software you have used in your class during this academic year and assign a rough percentage of total computer time spent on each.

2 Please list all the computer-generated products that your class have made and describe what happened to them

3 Please describe how computers are encorporated into your lesson plans and how access is organised

Interview questions for parent/s at home:

1 Why did you decide to put your computer where it is?

2 What are the advantages/disadvantages of it being there?

3 What CD-ROM’s do you currently own?

4 Are you connected to the internet?

5 What was the last piece of software that you bought for your child?

6 How did you decide to buy that one?

7 Where did you buy it?

8 Do you encourage use of any particular software?

9 What do you think about parents encouraging children to use educational software at home?

10 Do you have any rules about using the computer/internet?

11 Do your children argue over using the computer? What happens? What do you do?

12 Do your children argue over access to a siblings bedroom to use the computer (where appropriate)?

13 Lots of adverts show a family crowded around a computer (show pictures). Does this happen in your house? Why do you think it doesn’t happen?

14 Does you child ever call you over to watch/help?

15 Would your child mind if you sat with them?

16 What gets saved or printed out and what happens to it?

17 Do you keep track of game scores?

18 What’s your position on children having homework?

Interview questions for children at home:

1Do you argue over who uses the computer? What do your parents do about it?

2 Are there any rules about you using the computer?

3 Do your mum or dad ever sit with you when you’re using the computer?

3 Would you like it if your mum or dad were to sit with you every time you use the computer?

4 What was the last piece of software bought for you?

5 How was this one chosen?

6 Do you use the PC to make things? Where do they go?





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