Digitally Connected Families

Mal Lee and Roger Broadie

(This is the first of four short blogs on the work we are currently undertaking on the impact of the digitally connected families of the world on the 24/7/365 digital education of the young, in the period 1993 – 2016.  For years the focus has been on the schools. We are strongly suggesting the world needs to better understand the lead, and highly laudatory roles of the young and their families, and their 20 plus years use of a highly successful laissez faire learning model.)

The digitally connected families of the world over the last two decades have played a remarkably successful, yet largely unseen, role in enabling their children to secure an ever evolving 24/7/365 digital education.

In researching a forthcoming publication on the impact of personal mobile technologies on the digital education of the world’s young, since the advent of the WWW the role of the family rapidly became clear. It is the young with their families outside the school walls that have primarily provided the requisite digital tools and education – not the schools.

In 2016 3.4 billion plus people (ITU, 2016) – half the world’s population – accessed the networked world.

Well over a billion were likely young people.

Few had learned to use that current, mainly mobile, digital technology in schools. Rather that understanding had been acquired in the developed, developing and underdeveloped worlds with the monies and support of the children’s families.

It is time the world – and particularly the parents, the young themselves, educators, policy makers and governments – recognised, and built upon that remarkable achievement.

Critically it is also time to understand that those families employed – unwittingly but naturally – a laisse faire model of learning and teaching fundamentally different to the traditional highly controlled, structured and sequential school approach. Vitally they have used an approach appropriate for a rapidly evolving digital and socially networked world. Schools in comparison are still very largely using an educational model from the Industrial Age.

The education in using digital devices from the outset occurred outside the school walls. For the parents this happened in a completely laisse faire, market driven, naturally evolving environment where government had no voice and provided no support. For the young it enabled learning from incidental opportunistic moments to in some cases very focused and intense self-driven learning. It was the young with the monies and support of their families who took control of the learning. Critically it was parents who believed in the educational importance of the digital for their children who funded the technology, and empowered and supported their children’s largely unfettered use.

It is – as most are aware – an informal education, largely self – directed, highly individualised where the learning is invariably non-linear, seemingly chaotic, dynamic, undertaken in context and just in time. It is an approach the young found highly appealing, exciting, relevant and intrinsically motivating. From 1993, the advent of the WWW the learning started to take place 24/7/365, and by the early 2000s the evolving technology allowed it to happen anywhere, anytime.

Ironically from the outset the role of the young and the family was bolstered by the schools’ insularity, their worldwide retreat to behind their cyber walls and their purported desire to protect the children from the dangers of the Net.  The young and their families were left by default to fend for themselves in that 80% of learning time available annually outside the school walls.

Disturbingly today many, if not most schools still work behind those walls not recognising, supporting or building upon the out of school digital learning and education. The schools that are notable exceptions to this are engaging with families and supporting the children’s independent learning because of their own drive to do so, often battling education authority regulations and systems.

Free of the constraints of formal schooling and government, the young and their families took charge of the digital education, continually growing their capability as the technology grew in power and sophistication.  Internet uptake figures globally reveal the families of the young led the way (Lee and Winzenried, 2009). In 1999 a comprehensive study of the use of computers in Australian schools concluded:

The majority of the students who have the basic skills developed them at home (Meredyth,, 1999, pxvii).

That was happening naturally and largely unseen globally.

As the young evolved their digital capability and facility to readily use of all manner of current technologies so too did their parents, as evermore used the technology in their work and came to rely on the increasingly sophisticated mobile technology.

In 2008 Pew Internet released a study entitled ‘The Networked Family’ (Pew Internet, 2008) which noted the US had reached the evolutionary stage where the new norm was for all within the family, the parents and the children to base their lives around the everyday use of the digital. They were working within a digital and socially networked mindset, normalising the use of all manner of digital technologies in every facet of their lives.

….this survey finds that couples use their phones to connect and coordinate their lives, especially if they have children at home. American spouses often go their separate ways during the day, but remain connected by cell phones and to some extent by internet communications. When they return home, they often have shared moments of exploration and entertainment on the internet (Pew Internet, 2008).

The Pew findings, coming as they did around the time of the release of the iPhone in 2007, correspond with our own which saw in the period 2007 – 2009 those families becoming the norm across the developed and increasingly the developing world.

The authors and the 50 plus eminent observers interviewed in our research, have concerns about the title ‘networked family’ conscious of the ambiguity that comes with the physical networking of organisations and homes.

The strong preference is for the term ‘digitally connected families’, aware that it is the all-pervasive connectedness provided by the digital that has allowed both the nuclear and extended family to employ the technology in all facets of their lives.

Digitally connected families are those where the parents and children use the evolving suite of digital technologies naturally in every desired facet of their lives, that employ a digital mindset and which have – or nearly have-  normalised the use of the digital.

A key facet of the digital mindset (Bhaduri and Fischer,2015) is its acceptance of the rapidly evolving nature of the technology, and the transformation it has and will continue to occasion. This is widening the gap between the young’s experience of learning in and out of school

They created a home environment where the new norm was for all the family – the children, parents or increasingly the grandparents – to naturally, almost unwittingly contribute to the on-going digital learning. How often does one hear – dad, you can do it easier this way?

In the decade after the release of the iPhone and the touchscreen technology the educational capability and leadership of the digitally connected families grew at pace. As the parents normalised the use of the digital, became more digitally empowered and embraced the mobile and app revolutions, the Net Generation parents’ children entered school and the families of the developing and underdeveloped world employed the technology in ways unbounded by Western educational traditions so the gap between the digital education provided in and out of the schools grew ever wider – with most schools lagging ever further behind the societal norm.

The capability of the digitally connected families of the world has been exemplified in the last 3-4 years as the pre-primary children from two to three years of age have embraced the mobile touch screen technology. As the 2015 European Commission study (Chaubron, 2015) of eleven European nations attests the families of the young have very successfully guided their children’s learning with the technology.  They have, like the other digitally connected families of the world led the teaching, well before most schools and decision makers understood that the pre-primary children of the developed and increasingly the developing world would enter formal schooling having normalised the use of the digital.

We are not suggesting for a moment that everything is perfect with the 24/7/365 education provided by the digitally connected families of the world.  There is a substantial gap between families in their ability support their children’s astute application of the digital.  As Ito and her colleagues (2013) attest in a laissez faire environment, like that of many schools, the educationally advantaged continue to be advantaged and the disadvantaged possibly further disadvantaged.

Rather the desire in this short post it is to

  • highlight the importance of recognising their immense achievement of digitally connected families
  • flag their use of a dynamic, freewheeling learning and teaching model which has successfully educated the world’s young in the use of the current technology, at no cost to governments
  • highlight the ease with which the model has accommodated rapid digital evolution and transformation – at a time when most schools struggled and remain in a state of evolutionary equilibrium
  • begin the thinking on the implications of this historically important development.

In the next post, we’ll address more fully the digital leadership of the digitally connected families and the opportunities that flow.