What children understand about the digital world


Since the start of the 2016 school year , it is planned that primary school and middle school will provide computer science education. This may seem paradoxical: aren’t all children already confronted with digital tools, in their leisure time, from video games to tablets, and, to a lesser extent, in their school life, since the development of digital boards? interactive and digital workspaces?

The paradox is in reality only apparent. If the image of “digital natives” persists, born in a connected world and therefore particularly comfortable with these technologies, researchers have long shown that the simple use of computerized tools does not necessarily lead to an understanding of this that happens behind the screen.

This is all the more true as the evolution of digital tools, making their use intuitive, has led to the underlying IT processes being hidden. The vast majority of adults and children alike use computers, tablets or smartphones without ever reading or writing a single line of code, or even being fully aware that behind the texts, icons to click, applications to download, posts to “like” on a social network, there are computer algorithms.

Assessing children’s digital literacy

A report from the Academy of Sciences entitled: Computer science teaching in France – It is urgent to stop waiting, pointing out the growing gap between the importance of computer science in our daily lives and the understanding that in have the citizens. After several years without real support for IT by schools, this awareness led to its reintroduction into teaching programs .

Students must therefore learn content concerning technology (knowing how a computer works, memory, what happens when an email is sent, etc.), the uses of digital tools (creating an account on a site, sending an email or even, since we learn handwriting well, learn to use a computer keyboard) or even some notions of algorithms (what is a loop, a variable, etc.).

The IE-CARE research project , which took place from 2018 to 2023, sought to finely describe these new conditions for computer science teaching. One of the objectives of the project was to better understand the digital culture of children and to better understand how what is taught in class nourishes, completes or possibly modifies this digital culture.

In particular, the question arises of what children understand about the digital world around them, as explained in the thesis, defended in November 2023, around digital culture and school learning of computing . Do children recognize digital objects, can they name them or explain their role?

A study on the digital culture of children in an end of primary school class (CM1-CM2) in the Pas-de-Calais mining area was carried out. It is based on classroom observations, interviews, a questionnaire and focus groups with students as well as a board game invented to bring out their representations. This detailed description differs from large quantitative surveys, which, when they include children and do not lump them in with older children, can only capture the possession of digital tools or declared uses. The important thing was to see in detail the methods of access to digital tools: what is the control exercised by parents, what are the places and durations of use, etc.

Digital technology, an issue for family negotiations

The first observation that emerges from this survey is hardly surprising: children reveal that they have access to a variety of digital tools, like Julien who lists “a PS4, a switch, a computer, a tablet, a ps3, a TV” . Almost all of the children we met mentioned at least one game console among the digital devices they have. The majority of children (more than nine out of ten) in the class have access (whether through the provision of the device within the home or personal possession) to both a computer and a smartphone , and a game console.

Children are therefore multi-equipped, which confirms the results of large quantitative surveys: the national Junior Connect’ survey conducted by Ipsos in 2022 showed that the terminal most owned personally by children aged 7-12 is the game console, followed by the smartphone, the tablet then the computer.

However, it must be taken into account that children largely mention sharing these digital tools with other family members. Ethan says “I have a personal telephone […] there is also a PC for everyone”. Yassine also has a computer “for everyone”.

Maëlys also has access to a personal device and a shared device. She specifies “I have a Switch for me, the PS4 but it’s for everyone”. Thus, having a computer tool is one thing, but being able to use it is an issue of negotiation within the family: negotiation with parents, who impose time or schedule limitations, negotiation with brothers and sisters when several want to use them.

Play activities occupy an important place in children’s daily lives. But school also leads to uses at home: almost all groups of children spontaneously mention doing homework at home when asked what they do with these tools.

The technicality of digital objects hidden by screens

Using digital tools, children develop practices, knowledge, tastes, shared values, in short, what we can call a children’s digital culture. But to what extent is this culture also a scientific and technical culture?

If we look at what children know or understand, we see that the knowledge relates mainly to the use, in particular of social networks, and very little to the operation of devices. It is striking to note that when children talk about digital tools, they talk about screens. This is not surprising but goes in line with the idea that what makes digital objects technical is hidden from children, who only see what is most visible. We can say that the screen shields the formidable complexity of digital objects.

A few rare children develop a more “technical” relationship with computers. This is the case, for example, of Charles. But here again, awareness of technicality stops at what is material and visible. For him, repairing a computer means taking an interest in the connections and the different components of the computer:
“when you repair, for example it is broken and you have to change the cables inside, see if they are detached, cut, you have to buy cables and then put everything back. Afterwards, it’s possible that the brain of the computer that controls all the wires is broken so, as a result, you have to go buy one in the store, take it out and put it back in.”

Thus, Charles is aware of the existence of electronic components underlying computers, but we can notice that his way of naming them remains imprecise, without technical terms (“the brain of the computer which controls the wires”).

Above all, the fact of seeing some notions of algorithms at school, by programming educational robots (which involves programming using keys to carry out a journey) or in a programming environment for children (Scratch) is not enough for these students to connect what they have learned and how the digital world around them works.

Ultimately, we can say that computer science education is necessary, because children do not spontaneously develop, in their daily uses, a technical culture allowing them to fully understand what is happening behind the screen.

But this school computer knowledge can only help them with this technical understanding of the world if it is linked to the objects with which they are confronted on a daily basis. Only then will younger generations have the means to take a reflective look at the way in which digital tools are transforming and will continue to transform their world.

Author Bios: Cédric Fluckiger is Professor of Educational Sciences, computer science teaching and Isabelle Vandevelde is a Doctoral student in educational sciences both at the University of Lille