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Media and Education in the Digital Age

Concepts, Assessments, Subversions

Edited By Matteo Stocchetti

This book is an invitation to informed and critical participation in the current debate on the role of digital technology in education and a comprehensive introduction to the most relevant issues in this debate. After an early wave of enthusiasm about the emancipative opportunities of the digital «revolution» in education, recent contributions invite caution, if not scepticism. This collection rejects extreme interpretations and establishes a conceptual framework for the critical questioning of this role in terms of concepts, assessments and subversions. This book offers conceptual tools, ideas and insights for further research. It also provides motivation and information to foster active participation in debates and politics and encourages teachers, parents and learners to take part in the making of the future of our societies.
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Beyond ‘beyond schools’: Young People’s Unsanctioned Digital Media Use In And Around Schools and Classrooms

Beyond ‘Beyond Schools’: Young People’s Unsanctioned Digital Media Use In and Around Schools and Classrooms

David Elliott & Scott Bulfin


School classrooms employing digital media are often romanticised as places of revolutionary, technologically augmented learning, despite often replicating the traditional processes and power structures of more typical school environments. Indeed, in order to facilitate formal curriculum objectives, digital technologies are often subject to an expanded set of constraints, limitations, and restrictions, in comparison to more traditional classroom media. These constraints are often in response to a perceived need to protect students from harmful online content, the assumption being that all young people need protecting from online ‘dangers’. In challenging this deficit framing of young people’s ‘digital literacies’, we explore two case studies of the ‘underlife’ of digital learners, in which secondary school students participating in a games-based curriculum used digital media in transgressive ways in order to merge in-school and out-of-school literacy practices. Students engaged in a kind of self-directed digital ‘learning’, employing creative and collaborative strategies in overcoming the restrictions placed on school technology. These underlife strategies drew on a range of tech-based solutions and helped students share knowledge and extend their technological expertise. We argue that this underlife, in which students employ an informally-developed repertoire of techno-cultural skills to subvert school digital regulation, have a range of potentially desirable consequences for both teachers and students.


This chapter presents two case studies of young people’s unsanctioned digital media use in a public secondary school located in a low socioeconomic area in Melbourne, Australia. It uses these cases to argue for a more nuanced examination of school-based new literacies in general, and for an increased focus on ‘digital underlife’ (cf Bulfin 2008, 2009; Bulfin and North, 2007). Research into new literacies and informal learning has shown how many young people are engaged in rich learning beyond school (cf Carrington & Robertson, 2009; Knobel & Lankshear, 2007; Marsh 2012). While much of this new literacies research has documented valuable examples of new communication practices, especially those mediated by digital technologies, much of the research is limited in the contexts it investigates (cf Bulfin and Koutsogiannis, 2012; Prinsloo and Rowsell, 2012; Walton and Pallitt, 2012). The study reported in this chapter, from which the two cases are drawn, aims to redress some of these limitations, if only in a modest way, by ← 295 | 296 → expanding the range of contexts explored by new literacies research, in particular by examining the messy realities of digital media use by students in public secondary schools. In these schools, tightly stretched funding, limited staff expertise, low socio economic status (or SES) environments and limited available technologies, amongst other issues, represent challenges which mediate how new literacies are enacted in classrooms, and constrain the ability of teachers and researchers to engage in the kind of innovative work often envisioned by new literacies research (eg Alvermann, 2010; Gee, 2010; Ito et al., 2009; Lankshear and Knobel, 2011).

In addition to recognizing the usefulness of this sizeable body of research focusing on new literacies outside of schools, we argue that there is need for a more complex and nuanced engagement with new literacies in and around schools and classrooms. By using the phrase ‘in and around schools and classrooms’ we are signaling the way that researchers and education professionals can benefit from seeing schools as multi-sited and multi-faceted spaces mediated by more than official policies and teacher intentions. Rather than assume that not much is taking place with new technologies in schools and literacy classrooms, or that what is taking place is mundane and not worthy of critical attention, more serious attention needs to be paid to young people’s use of new technologies in schools and the literacy and identity work performed through these uses. In particular, in this chapter we emphasise the importance of unauthorized or unsanctioned technological activity in understanding how young people are engaging with emergent digital media.

The chapter is in two main parts. First, we briefly sketch a theoretical framework for understanding young people’s ‘digital underlife’ in schools. Second, we present the two case studies. The first case study, involves secondary school students playing the computer game, Minecraft. Here we argue that students’ underlife practices highlight significant challenges associated with the use of digital media within the formal curriculum, highlighting the complex and fraught educational work involved in negotiating spaces for informal digital literacies within the secondary school literacy classroom. The second case study shows students’ attempts to subvert, hijack, or remove restrictions imposed on their use of technology in school through a range of approaches, including LAN connections, proxies, and TOR browsers. We argue that these restrictions on the use of new technologies within schools often limit a range of learning opportunities, and are likely to negatively impact the skills students can develop in relation to digital media technologies. We conclude the chapter with some discussion of the cases, again highlighting complexities not often addressed in research focused on digital literacies and schooling. ← 296 | 297 →

Digital underlife in schools

This chapter draws on a framework developed by Bulfin and colleagues (Bulfin, 2008, 2009; Bulfin & Koutsogiannis, 2012; Bulfin and North, 2007;) and used to describe ‘practices of negotiation’ and tactical ‘ways of making do’ employed by some secondary school students when using digital technologies within educational settings to assert alternative forms of identity and underlife. While located across work in the new literacies studies (cf Gee, 2010) and work focused on the ‘sociology of educational technology’ (see for example De Vaney, 1998; Johnson, 2009; Monahan, 2005; Picciano & Spring, 2013; Robins & Webster, 1989; Selwyn and Facer, 2013), this research also has resonances with approaches to the sociology of education which emphasize the difficult mediating role schools play in the construction of young people’s identities (cf Youdell, 2011).

The concept of ‘underlife’ as developed by Goffman (1962) in his work on asylums and other ‘total institutions’, can be understood as the activities (or ‘information games’) individuals use to indicate that their identities are different from and more complex than, the identities assigned to them by organisational roles within various institutions (cf Brooke, 1987). Goffman argues that all people employ underlife practices as part of their identity-making activities and everyday life-coping strategies. Schools, for instance, offer students particular schooled identities and require compliance with these before success is bestowed. But clearly schools are not places where people always willingly accept institutionally assigned identities. Goffman (1962) notes:

Whenever we look at a social establishment … we find that participants decline in some way to accept the official view of what they should be putting into and getting out of the organization and, behind this, of what sort of self and world they are to accept for themselves. Where enthusiasm is expected, there will be apathy; where loyalty, there will be disaffection; where attendance, absenteeism; where robustness, some kind of illness; where deeds are to be done, varieties of inactivities. We find a multitude of homely little histories, each in its way a movement of liberty. Whenever worlds are laid on, underlives develop. (pp. 304–5)

Underlife practices allow for the take-up of critical, playful and irreverent stances towards expected roles and indicate (display or perform) this alternative position-taking to others. Importantly, Goffman observed two forms of underlife: disruptive and contained. Disruptive forms of underlife are those ‘where the realistic intentions of the participants are to abandon the organization or radically alter its structure’ (p. 199). Contained forms of underlife attempt to fit into or operate within ‘existing institutional structures without introducing pressure for radical change’ (p. 199). Goffman found that contained forms of underlife were more ← 297 | 298 → common in those sites he studied. Literacy studies researchers have also found that contained forms of underlife are common in schools (Finders, 1997; Gutierrez, Rymes and Larson, 1995; Larson and Gatto, 2004; Sterponi, 2007). These studies indicate how underlife practices in schools are employed by young people and adults in a range of subtle ways, not always in prototypical defiance to an oppressive power. The potential of underlife concepts in educational contexts becomes clearer when they are framed as orientations which young people might choose to employ during their time in schools and classrooms. Such orientations potentially allow young people to engage in practices of resistance, recontextualisation and solidarity (cf Dyson, 2003).

Work by Bulfin (2008, 2009) has developed the idea of ‘digital underlife’. A study of 15–16 year olds across five secondary schools in Melbourne, Australia, indicated that young people employed digital underlife practices in schools for a variety of purposes. Three main underlife practices observed. First, students imported unsanctioned technologies, software and literacies into school. These imported practices and technologies represented challenges to school literacies by unsanctioned technologies and practices. Second, students devised tactical workarounds when confronted with school practices, hardware, software, rules, blocks and obstacles which restricted their engagement in unsanctioned practices, or which made it difficult to use technology in ways restricted by the school. These workarounds used knowledge and practices ‘borrowed’ from across different domains and from different sites, (re)introducing techniques from other contexts into the school. Third, students deliberately subverted school practices with sanctioned technologies available in the school. That is, they used technologies readily available in schools to engage in underlife behaviours which challenged traditional school practices and literacies. In effect, these students inverted school-authorised technologies and practices and used them against school ways of doing things.

In the case studies and discussion that follow, we explore this digital underlife framework with fresh data generated by Elliott in a study of secondary school aged young people using computer games in a literacy class in a low-SES school in Melbourne, Australia (see Elliott, 2012; 2013; forthcoming).

Study context and methodology

The two case studies discussed below are drawn from a larger ethnographic study conducted by Elliott during 2012 which explored the use of a computer game-based curriculum at a low-SES secondary school in Melbourne, Australia. The study was conducted in a literacy / language arts classroom over six months and ← 298 | 299 → involved a curriculum developed around Minecraft, a PC game currently popular with many middle school aged students. The study involved 17 participants between 13–14 years of age from one class who were completing their second year of secondary school (‘Year 8’). The study school is located in the outlying northern suburbs of Melbourne (15km from the centre of the city), the second largest major city in Australia. It is bordered on one side by an extensive public housing zone, and by middle-class suburbs on the other. As a result the student population are drawn from a diverse range of SES and cultural backgrounds. This diversity has been the source of tension within the school community, with anxieties being raised about the impact of low-SES students on the academic performance of those from more affluent families. A majority of student participants were active users of new technologies regardless of economic background, with most owning an internet-enabled smartphone.

The computer game-based curriculum was developed in conjunction with the classroom teacher, Cynthia, who provided background on students, suggested strategies for shaping curriculum towards the needs of individual students, and acted as a liaison and broker between the school administration and Elliott. Multiple forms of data were generated. Initially, students were asked to complete a questionnaire dealing with both their in and out-of-school technology use. Weekly focus group interviews were held where students were encouraged to discuss their experiences with the game-based curriculum, with technology in the school, and with their own use of digital media outside of school. Detailed one-on-one interviews were also conducted with selected participants. In depth interviews were also conducted with selected teaching and support staff, and the school principal, with topics ranging from the challenges and complexities of using digital technologies in the school, to the challenges of departmental school funding models. All interviews were audio recorded. Artifacts retrieved from the study site included print and digital objects, ranging from written documents to photographs taken from inside Minecraft, to copies of actual digital content generated in the game by students.

Minecraft as an alternative literacy curriculum

Minecraft is an independently produced PC game which has received attention by teachers and researchers (Goetz, 2012; Lastowka, 2012; Moore, 2011; Short, 2012). The open-ended and relatively unstructured nature of the gameplay has proven very popular with young people, many of whom use it as a tool of collaboration and creativity. A growing number of informal accounts of Minecraft’s pedagogical potential have already been recorded, with teachers from a range of disciplinary ← 299 | 300 → backgrounds reporting that the game has been useful in strengthening some formal learning outcomes, and providing digital alternatives to legacy-based teaching approaches. While these informal accounts tend to be overly positive, for students, even those only partially engaged in digital cultures and gaming, Minecraft seems to offer a bridge of sorts between the digital literacies used beyond school and the formal learning outcomes being pursued by formal and mandated curriculum. The study reported in this chapter used Minecraft in a literacy / language arts classroom as a way of heightening engagement with school-based activities, and providing a digital alternative to a legacy media-based curriculum. Rather than building curriculum around the more commonly used print texts such as novels, newspapers, poetry, plays and short stories, this game-based curriculum allowed student digital literacies to be mobilised as part of a formal classroom curriculum through new media texts, including video games. The study generated data regarding the ‘underlife’ of study participants, as they demonstrated a complex array of practices and skills through their formal and informal uses of the game.

The computer game-based curriculum employed a combination of designed and free-play pedagogical approaches, in which the strengths and affordances of Minecraft as a new media text were combined with the necessarily designed nature of secondary school curriculum. This approach did, however, necessitate a careful and sensitive integration of Minecraft into the unit, with a view to ensuring that the game’s structure was not adversely affected by the surrounding curriculum, and to support the game’s out-of-school cultural profile. The curriculum was non-linear, and was designed around the prediction of activities that students may engage with while participating in the Minecraft unit, with assessments and links to policy embedded in the curriculum design. Using this non-linear, ‘activity matrix’ approach, students were given autonomy, and were able to participate in a curriculum that was largely ‘negotiated’ (cf Boomer, Lester, Onore & Cook, 1992). The formal aspects of secondary curriculum design – assessment, feedback, scaffolding, and the positioning of staff expertise in terms of student needs – were able to comfortably co-exist alongside a text that is emergent, participatory, and duologic. Class activities ranged from creative design, with students working together to build houses, farms, factories, towers, and town centres, to ‘farming’ and the generation of a sustainable ecosystem in which students’ characters could live in the game, to questions of economics and law, as students designed their Minecraft community’s rules of engagement, punishments for transgressions, and a tradeable currency based on the scarcity of in-game elements.

The game-based curriculum adopted elements of a multiliteracies stance (cf Mills, 2011; Pahl and Rowsell, 2012) during the planning and design phases. Rather than look to text-based responses, such as essays and short response questions, ← 300 | 301 → as metrics for evaluation and assessment, multimodal content was acceptable as assessable material. Minecraft levels, photographs and images, written text presented via blogs, audio and video content, and objects created using Minecraft’s in-game tools were all used to evaluate the effectiveness of the study curriculum in terms of student learning, and allowed a deeper understanding of how the game-based curriculum contributed to meeting formal objectives mandated by the school and State curriculum objectives.

There were, however, complex questions regarding the nature of ‘free’ play of the game during classes, and how we as researchers might come to understand the presence of ‘underlife’ practices in the case studies presented below. From a student perspective, the curriculum offered the opportunity for some forms of ‘free play’, in that students were not instructed or required to complete a set list of linear, scaffolded and assessable tasks, beyond a self-directed group project, and a self-directed formative assessment task. Student activities in-game were both peer-led with interference from both the participant teacher and the researcher minimised.

This kind of in-class ‘freedom’, however, was still bound by various restrictions imposed by the school. Student laptops remained the property of the school for instance, and were subject to numerous layers of filtration, a kind of technological mediation that was often perceived as overly invasive by students, and student behaviour in both the ‘real’ and virtual spaces was expected to retain the school’s core values of respect, tolerance, and inclusivity. The play of Minecraft could be described as ‘free’, in the sense that students were permitted to participate in self-directed ways which fell within the confines of Minecraft’s ludology – students were not permitted to hack the game, exploit or cheat, or manipulate Minecraft’s code, and the restrictions imposed on the laptops as a result of school policy was intended to police this. Similarly, students were expected to follow the broader behavioural policies of the school, and would be disciplined if they destroyed the work of others, attacked other students, abused or ridiculed one another, or used Minecraft to disrupt their class, or the classes conducted in the surrounding rooms.

These conditions of use and play indicate some of the complexities in how the study conceptualised ‘sanctioned’ and ‘unsanctioned’ activities. While useful, this binary is not representative of the nuanced and complex policy environment of the study school. Certainly, it may be interpreted that Minecraft became a ‘sanctioned’ text the moment it was introduced into the classroom, even as a part of an ‘alternative’ or trial curriculum with the participating class, but we argue that this is a position which rejects the complexity of school policy, Government policy regarding technology, and of the highly unstable and unpredictable nature of teacher ideology. In this sense, Minecraft was a sanctioned study text as it was attached ← 301 | 302 → to a piece of formal curriculum, but at the same time, it presented a kind of unsanctioned text as the highly restrictive nature of this school’s internet filtration, and the broader regulation of the school laptops, required a deliberate breaking of mandated policy in order to allow the game to function at all. In order to become a ‘sanctioned’ study text, it was necessary for it to simultaneously become an ‘unsanctioned’ study text in order for the technology to function at all. This kind of activity was seen by many staff members as subversive, and potentially dangerous, cultivating a transgressive environment which made some within the school community uncomfortable.

As Minecraft’s status as a ‘sanctioned’ text became increasingly contested by the technological restrictions of the school, questions regarding the sanctioned and unsanctioned nature of student participation were raised, and were often equally ambiguous. Students were not compelled to engage in specific tasks during the games-based curriculum, but they were expected to be bound by the behavioural standards set by the school for offline behaviour. They were also expected to respect the technological limitations imposed on their laptops, and to ensure that they do not exploit the relative freedom afforded to them by the alternative curriculum by using it for ‘inappropriate’ behaviour.

Below, we present the two case studies and explore some of the nuances and complexities of how digital underlife manifests in each example and what the cases might mean for thinking about digital literacies in schools. We position digital underlife as the product of the messy business of formal schooling, and as multiple practices which manifest across a range of policy/curriculum architectures in different ways. In pursuing these nuances we explore the thinking invoked by language which is oppositional—sanctioned/unsanctioned, free/restricted—and suggest that digital underlife can be observed in a variety of shapes and contexts, and often stems from seemingly contradictory, ambiguous environments. All participant names in the following case studies have been anonymised.

Case study 1: Collaboration and invasion

Setting up a game-based curriculum at the study school proved far more challenging than originally anticipated. From the beginning, the logistics of fairly straightforward tasks such as co-ordinating student logins were complicated by the highly regulated school internet. Provided by the state education department, the restrictive internet connection made it very difficult to deploy Minecraft on the school laptops. Minecraft uses a network of authentication layers, each one needing to be unblocked at both the school and education department level—a task ← 302 | 303 → requiring extensive planning and negotiation with school and department personnel. The particular incident described here occurred a fortnight into school-based data generation. Students were able to run local versions of the Minecraft client on their laptops but could not connect to servers beyond the school, and were thus incapable of authenticating their client, an essential part of completing the installation of the game. Fortunately, Minecraft features a LAN (local area network) function, enabling computers to connect to each other via wi-fi, bypassing the need for an internet connection. One machine operates as a simple server, and others can connect to it provided they are connected to the same network. In planning the game-based curriculum this option had not been considered, but on this particular afternoon a student, Paul, showed both Elliott and the classroom teacher, Cynthia, his laptop screen, revealing that he had created a Minecraft LAN server, and ten boys from the class had already connected to it.

During the game-based curriculum unit, the more or less settled social dynamics of the class changed, as students formed new groups based on their objectives in-game, with students who had rarely communicated in the past now working in collaboration. Paul had already built a large structure on the server—a wooden house set into the side of a mountain beneath a waterfall, and a group of other boys were adding to it, building stairs, windows, cutting into the mountainside to divert water. When asked by Elliott if they could build something from scratch in order to display their collaboration process, they immediately established a rally point in the game, began to delegate tasks, and set to work. As the group worked to develop a new structure, discussion about gameplay focused on analysing the group’s strategic and design decisions. Their digital avatars swarmed around their in-game construction (in this case, a warehouse) as they requested materials from each other, delegated roles as needed, and engaged in peer-led evaluation of their colleagues’ performance. Students demonstrated project management skills, discussed the question of ‘ownership’ and virtual objects, collaborated on designs, negotiated both function and form of their collaborative creations, and worked with both their hardware and software to maintain the Minecraft LAN server’s performance. This was a sophisticated and layered set of largely self-generated and self-sustained activities, which incorporated intensive skill development for some students (not all Paul’s collaborators in this instance were similarly skilled at the game). Many of these skills are much in demand in the typical mandated curriculum that students would normally be working with, but these skills were much more clearly on display in this instance. Such a display, it is worth bearing in mind, was facilitated partly through a piece of software, a game, which, required a temporary suspension of regular school policy in order to be used as a part of the alternative game-based curriculum. ← 303 | 304 →

During this same classroom session, a group of users, not recognised by the group, and not operating within the classroom appeared on their server. The Minecraft server which the group had set up and which was running on a LAN network, could be joined by anyone within physical proximity of the host machine. The group interrogated these ‘invaders’ via text chat, demanding to know who they were. Without responding the ‘invaders’ proceeded to collect the resources necessary to create both ‘flint’ and a set of ‘fire-burning torches’ (both virtual objects that can be made or crafted in the game). They then set the group’s constructions alight. Paul’s original structures, as well as the new buildings that had been the results of collaborative effort between the group, were ablaze. It was clear that these anonymous attackers were not in the classroom, but the boys had suspicions as to who the invaders may have been. Cynthia, the classroom teacher, responded to this instance with a mixture of amusement and horror, as the classwork completed by the boys, in the form of their Minecraft structures, was virtually burning to the ground. After the group explained how such an invasion was possible, Cynthia investigated adjacent classrooms in an attempt to track down the source of the incursion. The group, however, self-organised and began a kind of emergency response operation—re-routing water from nearby mountains to douse the flames, delegating roles for the speedy reconstruction of damaged buildings, and debating the best course of action for removing the invaders from the LAN server.

Despite the levity and unpredictability of the situation, the instance above illustrates a potential site of skill and knowledge development typically prized by formal curriculums. Students demonstrated an eagerness for engaging in high level digital and spatial literacies, requiring them to: think and act collaboratively, to manage resources, to delegate tasks and to negotiate responsibilities in the service of a group agenda, to think geometrically and mathematically. In effect, they were required to imagine their participation in an emergent and real time in-game narrative (cf Gee, 2007). The ‘invasion’ required the group to re-assess their task distribution to quickly respond to the invading students and, while beginning to rebuild, reimagine their designs as a means of repairing the damage done by the attack.

The instance highlights issues related to ‘contained’ forms of digital underlife (cf Goffman, 1962): those which attempt to fit into or operate within ‘existing institutional structures without introducing pressure for radical change’ (p. 199). Students in Cynthia’s classroom were using a game that had effectively been recontextualised within her classroom for the purposes of the alternative game-based curriculum. The game was an unsanctioned artefact that had been temporarily designated a space within Cynthia’s classroom. Within the classroom, students were using the game to practice and perform the kinds of skills and understandings valued as part of ‘digital age’ practice. Without Minecraft being given ← 304 | 305 → temporary sanctioned status, these digital age practices are effectively be banned from the classroom, or at least from being exercised through an artefact such as Minecraft. Beyond this particular classroom, the game of course continued to have other meanings for other students (the invaders, for instance). Hacking into someone else’s Minecraft server when you’re not at school, has a certain cultural capital associated with it. Contained forms of underlife are therefore highly contextualised, shaped by the situations and institutions in which they are enacted and performed. Practices designated sanctioned in one room, can be non-sactioned in the adjacent room. The digital complication in this instance is that students in both rooms can be operating in the same gameworld simultaneously, but have their actions make meaningful in different ways.

Case study 2: TOR and school internet filtration

Internet filtration is an ongoing and contentious issue in schools (cf Deibert, Palfrey, Rohozinski & Zittrain, 2008; Hope, 2008, 2012; Rosenberg, 2001; Wells & Lewis, 2006). In Australian public schools, internet use is regulated across multiple levels of policy. Due to the complex methods of filtration currently employed it is often difficult to accurately pinpoint the parameters of acceptable internet use. State and regional education department variations, along with regulation at an individual school level, has led to a confusing and unpredictable system of filtration and blocking for both students and staff. Such systems can often have unintended effects on the use of new technologies in classrooms. Many new media texts, such as video games, wikis, and social media platforms, are subject to regulation and can often be blocked and banned from school computers even when they contain educationally useful material and activities.

Students at the study school had created a range of ‘workaround’ solutions to the problem of internet filtration, and had used available hardware and software to ameliorate what they generally saw as unfair censorship of the internet. These workarounds included:

  • using the HTTPS prefix, an SSL prefix, in place of a traditional HTTP address
  • using external internet proxies
  • installing VPN software, such as Hotspot Shield
  • using Google Apps to run a proxy server from their home PC.

A smaller group of students were using a particularly potent technique for subverting internet regulation via the Tor browser (The Onion Router), an encryption service originally sponsored by the US Naval Research Laboratory, before being ← 305 | 306 → financed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Through Tor, user anonymity is protected, and internet activity is shielded from external monitoring. Tor is often used for the transmission of digital content by activists and dissident movements in oppressive regimes, by journalists and whistleblowers and also by law enforcement professionals. Because of the software’s ability to anonymize online activity is has also been co-opted as a tool for sharing child abuse material, and for the illegal trading of drugs and firearms.

The presence of Tor in the study school was troubling because of the notoriety some Tor user communities have for operating in dangerous and lawless environments. The discovery that some students were using Tor within the school was an ethical conundrum for Elliott, requiring serious reflection on the nature of internet regulation, and to questions about the limits of student underlife when engaging with genuinely dangerous software.

Sophie and John

Sophie was a student who had demonstrated an aptitude for design when participating in the games-based curriculum. After being asked to demonstrate some of her Minecraft creations, Elliott noticed the Tor browser installed on her laptop. When asked what the software was, she immediately took her laptop away in alarm. She insisted that it was ‘nothing’, and that she ‘didn’t know what it was’. Below is a follow up exchange where Sophie gives a part-explanation of why she uses Tor:

Sophie:It lets us use the internet properly
Elliott:Where did you get it from?
Sophie:John gave it to us
Elliott:Did he?
Sophie:Promise that you won’t say anything to our teacher. She’ll take it away.

The exchange highlights the difference Sophie sees between the ‘proper’ internet and the ‘school’ internet. Here, Sophie defines ‘using the internet properly’ as having access to an ‘unregulated’ connection. This awareness of the limitations of the official, regulated school internet is crucial in understanding how students perceive the integrity of the online environment, and value the kinds of unregulated access which they often experience outside of school. As noted above the incident raised important ethical responsibilities for Elliott as a teacher-researcher, which while needing to be observed challenged many of Elliott’s assumptions regarding unregulated student access to the internet. Leaving students with unmonitored access to the Tor network could place them in a potentially harmful situation, with the possibility of a student unwittingly accessing child abuse material, or ← 306 | 307 → material dealing with the trade of drugs or firearms. Cynthia was unaware of Tor, and suggested that the majority of the school staff would be similarly unfamiliar with the software. Later, the school’s ICT co-ordinator confirmed that she had no knowledge of Tor.

John, the student who had initially distributed the Tor software to fellow students, was taken into Cynthia’s office for a meeting, where he was asked to explain his understanding of Tor. He became immediately distraught, insisting that he didn’t mean to do anything ‘wrong’, and that, similar to Sophie’s claims, he believed that Tor was simply a web browser that allowed him to use the internet ‘properly’. He explained that a lot of his fellow students were angry and frustrated about the restrictions of the school internet, and that Tor was able to restore the internet to an acceptable level of functionality. John became increasingly upset as the potential dangers of Tor were explained to him. John was counselled and asked to not pass the software on to any other students. After school, Cynthia rang John’s mother to let her know about the situation.

This example presents a challenge to educators and researchers working in the media and technology space. While Elliott had considered himself an opponent of censorship, and had concerns about experiences of internet filtration expressed by staff and students, during the study he had been placed in a situation which prompted him to immediately act as a censor in shutting down Sophie and John’s digital underlife activity. This seemed to run contrary to his original intention as a teacher-researcher—to invite informal digital literacies into the classroom space and allow them to be mobilised as productive classroom identities and activities. Students’ use of the Tor browser, despite the fact that no illegal activity was seen, complicated Elliott’s teacher-researcher intentions by generating a response that conflicted with his original, and possibly evangelical, positioning of digital media as a useful school literacy resource.

As Bulfin (2008, 2009) argues, digital underlife activities in schools can often be defined as engaging at least three primary practices: the importing of unsanctioned software and literacies into school, the use of tactical workarounds to combat efforts made to regulate technology use in school, and the use of sanctioned technologies in order to subvert school practices. Sophie’s description of the Tor-enabled internet as ‘proper’ internet can be similarly viewed through this analytical frame. She used underlife practices to ‘restore’ what she perceived to be a modified, inauthentic school internet, by using a combination of sanctioned (laptops, the school’s internet connection) and unsanctioned (Tor) technologies.

In using Tor to engage in underlife activity, however, students weren’t simply challenging reductive school policies, or having benign ‘fun’. Without their ← 307 | 308 → knowledge, their use of the technology had placed them in a space that was potentially dangerous, and represented a digital environment which arguably is not appropriate for school-aged young people. Elliott’s challenge, then, was to reconcile this tension, and to unpack the potential incompatibility between his own anti-censorship stance, and a necessary intervention given his status as an invited guest, researcher, and teacher with a clear duty-of-care to students. At the core of this tension are questions of legality versus taste. While it could be argued that he was acting as a kind of censor, the source of that censorship was not based in aesthetics, or in taste, in social or political framings of online content, or as a response to the perceived threat of digital media in a legacy classroom.

For teachers and researchers working in the media and technology space, several complex questions might be asked: what are the limits of digital underlife in school contexts? How might researchers and educators begin to navigate the complexities inherent in offering students relatively unregulated access to digital spaces? In answering these questions, Elliott first found it necessary to be aware of the legal implications of the media being accessed by students. The ‘undesirable’ content which he felt it necessary to regulate was content which could result in legal problems for the students, teachers, and the school itself. This was not a question of perspective, and just as any illegal materials are not permitted on school grounds, the same restrictions must apply to digital objects of an illegal nature. The tensions between the intentions of the study and Elliott’s response to the presence of Tor, then, do not only raise questions regarding censorship, but raise questions regarding consistency in how educators and researchers conceptualise illegal materials. Just as students are not permitted to bring weapons or drugs into schools, Tor gave students potential access to the trade in these materials via a digital space, and as such were subject to the same necessary restrictions placed on illegal objects in physical spaces.

This case serves to highlight some limits and complexities of digital underlife in schools, and presents an example of a key element of research on digital literacies: educators and researchers need be aware of the potential uses of new technologies, and need to be able to navigate the complex philosophical space in which material is assessed and help their students do the same (cf Buckingham 2007).

Discussion and conclusion

The two cases presented above point to some of the complexities related to young people’s use of digital technologies in and around schools, and in particular, those which tend to be less frequently discussed in the research on new and digital ← 308 | 309 → literacies. In both cases, students’ understanding of and interaction with the internet is mediated through a complex network of social and technical regulation so that student experience of the internet is confined to a domesticated and schooled space; in the students’ terms a ‘pretend’ or ‘fake’ experience of the internet. The forms of digital underlife visible in the cases question the parameters and reach of school-based technology regulation, and challenge assumptions about the ways that formal education contexts typically frame student access to the internet (eg Hope 2012). Both cases can be seen as student attempts to replicate the less restricted nature of internet access which they enjoy during their out-of-school lives. In the first case, the kinds of activities which students often engage in informally beyond school—construction and design, collaboration, and conflict with other groups—are introduced into the classroom through both contained and partially disruptive forms of digital underlife, demonstrated by the study participants, and the invading students. In the second case, students attempt to reclaim the ‘proper’ internet by working around blocks and restrictions of online material.

In addition to challenging these particular school practices, students’ digital underlife points to some broader tensions and issues relating to young people’s use of digital technologies in school. We discuss two points briefly here: (1) the complex situated nature of digital underlife; and (2) the useful distinction between technologies, text and practices.

In Cynthia’s classroom, Minecraft as a game was a provisionally sanctioned text (or set of texts), in the sense that it had been given a kind of temporary ‘visa’ to travel in this particular classroom space for a time. The kind of gameplay characteristic of Minecraft was also sanctioned. The game (and some aspects of its gameplay) were, however, simultaneously an unsanctioned’ text, as both school and departmental policy have not authorized the use of the game in other classes and areas of the school; indeed the formal technological architecture of the school is configured to prohibit the use of such games. In order to ‘make’ Minecraft a sanctioned text, certain technological and social/relational conditions had to be negotiated. First, internet filters blocking unauthorized online content must be temporarily disrupted and school laptops configured to ensure that filter disruption can be maintained. Second, students and staff must be vigilant in reporting the multiple possibilities for the reblocking of content, such as the censoring of authentication layers, and the revoking of access to Windows system files which allow the game to be modified. In addition to these technical negotiations, which are of course social in nature too, a set of negotiations and provisional understandings needed to be established with teachers and other staff, students and parents. Teachers and the school principal, for example, gave tentative in-principle support for the game-based curriculum despite reservations about how a ‘games’ curriculum ← 309 | 310 → might be seen by parents to be less rigorous and serious than regular curriculum and classroom work. This in-principle support was always provisional and was based on the smooth and trouble free progress of the game-based curriculum with the class. The ‘invasion’ incident, with the multiple shaping contexts of its two different groups of users suggests that the sanctioned (and the unsanctioned) nature of Minecraft was heavily situated and context dependent. The place of the text was often contested by other students and staff, who seemed puzzled by the less regulated space that had been established inside the school for the game and the alternative game-based curriculum.

In the second case, understanding student use of Tor as digital underlife activity is also context dependent, and illustrates the useful difference between object and utility (or for example ‘game’ and ‘gameplay’ as above). Tor is, in itself, not a dangerous piece of technology. It is a browser with expanded anonymising functionality, allowing users to bypass many kinds of online filtration and regulation. In a secondary school context, however, potential problems are raised by the presence of Tor—questions of safety, of the responsibility of staff to provide a harm-free and supportive environment in schools, and of the internet’s position as a potential threat to student welfare. In this particular context, with these kinds of issues being raised by the presence of the software, Tor becomes conceptually weaponised, and regardless of the ways in which students are actually using the client, it is constructed by teachers and administrators as the kind of potential threat which necessitates the filtration which drove students to it in the first place. Sophie’s use of Tor, however, is in the context of a ‘broken internet’—one which is so different to the internet she has experienced outside of school—and the browser is not an attempt to disrupt, but is instead an attempt to negate an existing disruption in the form of her school’s filtration attempts. Attempting to tease out the technologies, the text/s and the practices, is one way of attending more closely to the significance of use, rather than to make a fetish of devices. There is, of course, a duty of care issue at work in the second case, and while Tor certainly can be used for illegal activity, just as knives are not in and of themselves dangerous, their application in specific scenarios certainly can be. If we are to accept that the digital and ‘real’ worlds should be bound by the same freedoms, the same opportunities for choice, and the same abilities for self-direction and consumption, perhaps they should also be bound by similar attempts to ensure that environments are as safe and inclusive as possible. The challenging question is about how this safety and inclusion might be democratically produced.

Cases such as those above encourage researchers to engage with more complex understandings of the social, cultural and political dimensions of digital literacies in and around classrooms and schools. Engaging with this complexity means ← 310 | 311 → moving beyond the common narrative in which informal and out of school digital literacies are seen as rich, engaging and colourful, in opposition with the sterile, lifeless, archaic literacies of traditional secondary school education (cf Bulfin and Koutsogiannis 2012). The notion of a student digital underlife in and around classrooms and schools worth paying attention to (to say nothing of a teacher digital underlife) is an encouragement to move beyond the ‘beyond schools’ argument: that researchers should look beyond schools for clues as to the real future of education. These two ‘underlife’ cases illustrate the limitations of digital technologies as they are often manifest in schools, but the cases also suggest that resolving these issues is not as simple as looking elsewhere (or in eliminating all online regulation from schools). A more complex and nuanced approach is needed, in which a sensitive and granular understanding of the relationships between young people and digital technology is brought together with a realistic sense of the responsibilities of educators and the often limited opportunities which exist for the kinds of ‘transformative’ digital pedagogies espoused by techno-evangelists.


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