*I refuse to use stock photos of children using technology to support this post. Only because I grow tired of stock photography.

Study, Technology, and Social Interaction

I have issues with this study (and the journalism that reported it) that linked smartphone use and improved test scores in at-risk secondary school students, but I don’t want to ignore what they are trying to do. Basically, the study outlined the results of a program that did the following:

  1. identified at-risk, low-income (not always synonymous) students
  2. gave them smartphones (presumably with some instruction and pre-installed educational applications)
  3. students connect with their peers and receive additional instruction (need to know more about this additional instruction)
  4. over the course of time, test scores on standardized tests (math sections) improved by 30%

Although one must look at the role of Qualcomm in this study with some discernment, kudos to them for giving it a whirl. I have tended to avoid the “give them technology” approach to development projects (and this is most certainly an educational development project, like many in ICT4D, regardless of its location in the US) as the technology often supplants the system (formal education) it was meant to support or the project is designed in a way that has remains a perpetual PR pilot project (never scales and when the funding is drawn out, it dies). Either way, I won’t fault Qualcomm for doing what they can; good on them. Opportunity is opportunity and access is access and good on them for acknowledging that the socialization that the technology allows for is more important than the technology itself (although they can’t inherently be separated).

Technology as Anointing of Interest

But what interested me when I read this post was the role of the introduced technology as motivator itself. I am curious to see more studies on this, but the introduction of technology essentially acts as a signifier (for both the student and the society at large) that this individual is

  1. worthy (of being chosen)
  2. being acknowledged (as in being paid attention to)
  3. has now received implicit expectations of improvement

So, the technology becomes an artefact of sorts, a social bestowing of interest onto the individual student. It means something to both society and the individual. Rather than what the technology can do for the student (and it can do considerable things), I fear it is quite difficult to isolate the variable of what the technology itself actually means to the student rather than what the technology itself can do. To receive a ‘gift’ from society (as represented through the school or the outside agency administering the project) is to enlarge the projection of significance on/of the individual. They broaden their social identity from mattering merely to their families, teachers, and their friends (if they are fortunate) to a larger, largely unseen society. That effect is profound, but incredibly difficult to observe and identify.

Imagine these gifts (a smartphone no less) sort of raining down from heaven directed towards my development. Why me? I must be special or have something. What should I do? Prove I was worth it. The incredible learning capital of social expectation. So, I am curious to learn more about how the introduction of foreign technology (ie, not previously existing in the context under observation) influences the expectations of that context. The technology certainly provides something for sure, but there is a social issue here that is at play in these types of studies.

By Michael Gallagher

My name is Michael Sean Gallagher. I am a Lecturer in Digital Education at the Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh. I am Co-Founder and Director of Panoply Digital, a consultancy dedicated to ICT and mobile for development (M4D); we have worked with USAID, GSMA, UN Habitat, Cambridge University and more on education and development projects. I was a researcher on the Near Futures Teaching project, a project that explores how teaching at The University of Edinburgh unfold over the coming decades, as technology, social trends, patterns of mobility, new methods and new media continue to shift what it means to be at university. Previously, I was the Research Associate on the NERC, ESRC, and AHRC Global Challenges Research Fund sponsored GCRF Research for Emergency Aftershock Forecasting (REAR) project. I was an Assistant Professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (한국외국어대학교) in Seoul, Korea. I have also completed a doctorate at University College London (formerly the independent Institute of Education, University of London) on mobile learning in the humanities in Korea.

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