Balancing media environments: Design principles for digital learning in Danish upper secondary schools
First Monday

Balancing media environments: Design principles for digital learning in Danish upper secondary schools by Mogens Olesen

Based on a case study on pupils at a Danish upper secondary school this paper reveals that the pupils’ media experiences in school are dominated by frustrations and feelings of ambiguity. Two pupil groups with different attitudes towards digital media were identified: one ‘IT positive’ group that call for more activating uses of digital media, and an ‘IT skeptic’ group that call for less experimentation and a return to traditional teaching methods and paper books. The case study reflects several ways in which new technologies challenges our educational system. This results in schools today generally being caught between practices of the literate, book-based environment, on the one hand, and the interactive, networked digital environment, on the other. The paper uses the concept of affordances to demonstrate how different media environments shape learning possibilities differently, and that any technology elicits desirable learning outcomes as well as undesirable learning outcomes — or challenges. Essentially, the educational system faces a fundamental challenge of balancing logics and principles of digital learning with traditional, paper-based learning. On this basis, a theoretical framework is developed that sets up didactical principles — distinguishing between affordances at individual, social and societal levels — for applying digital technologies in learning contexts. The paper concludes by demonstrating the principles through a learning design case concerning the climate debate.


The IT positives and the IT skeptics: Pupils at Ørestad Gymnasium
Media as learning environments
Digital learning affordances and challenges
A framework for digital learning design




The digitalization of our societies has fostered many visions of a promised digitally enriched education system. But the logics of digital media revolution have, in general, not yet been successfully adopted into the didactical practices in our schools. While digital media have become fundamental in most aspects of our lives, it remains to be seen how schools can adapt to this, while maintaining or even improving the educational standards. By stating that “e-learning encompasses far more than the technology alone and more than educational institutional environments”, Caroline Haythornthwaite, et al. [1] effectively settle that digital media cannot simply be understood as tools to be added to learning contexts. Departing from a media ecological (McLuhan, 1964; Strate, 2006) understanding of media as environments, I argue that the educational system currently is facing a media environmental challenge. Where, historically, schooling has been developed from and shaped by the literate book-based environment, today schools are challenged by the general digitalization processes happening in our societies.

This paper builds on a case study (Flyvbjerg, 2006) collected in 2015 in a class at Ørestad Gymnasium, a Danish upper secondary school. The study examines pupil experiences of digital media in school contexts and identifies two groups of pupils. One ‘IT positive’ group called for the teachers to use digital media in more and better, i.e., pupil activating, ways. Another group had turned ‘IT skeptic’ following bad experiences with digital experiments. They long for a return to more tangible and paper-based teaching methods.

These two groups mirror the public debate on media’s role and influence on teaching and learning which tends to be distorted by media determinist perspectives. Commercial producers of digital learning systems have become an influential part of this debate by promoting positive, sometimes utopian, descriptions of how various digital tools will revolutionize learning experiences. In such cases, economic interests often tend to be masked by discourses emphasizing schools’ responsibility to deliver education that prepare learners for the future global, digital world in which most job types do not even exist yet.

Indeed, we live in a networked, digital environment, as exemplified by the way the global information structures of the internet have transformed how the financial sector increasingly operate according to the network logics (Castells, 1996; Benkler, 2006). Fundamentally, schools have a responsibility for preparing future generations for the digitized society and this cannot be done without addressing and using digital media. These points are important in the context of current public debates in Denmark where critical attitudes towards digital media have moved many schools to banning smartphones entirely. Additionally, in 2017, the Danish Minister of Education banned Internet usage at written exams at upper secondary level. Instead of imposing bans, this paper acknowledges that while digitalization of schools is unavoidable, it must be combined with the recognition that digital media should always be introduced into learning settings with a clear digital strategy. In other words, regardless of whether leaning towards an optimistic or a critical approach to digital media in educational settings, learning designers need to develop principles for digital learning. To support this claim two additional points are made:

  • Firstly, I claim that any learning context is not necessarily improved by applying digital media.
  • Secondly, I explore the idea that schools’ challenges with integrating digital media reflects that they are caught between practices of literate, paper-based environment, on the one hand, and the interactive, networked digital environment, on the other.

This media ecological approach to learning suggests that the digital environment calls for the development of new educational and learning cultures and practices, but not that digital media necessarily must be applied in any learning situation. Digital technology potentially offers exciting new learning possibilities that seem to facilitate activating and individualized learning methods (e.g., Davidson and Goldberg, 2009; Beetham and Sharpe, 2013; Bates, 2015). But simultaneously, as noted by Livingstone (2012) and Selwyn (2016), several challenges remain including the technical issue of choosing hardware and software with the problematic influences from commercial ICT developers. And, obviously, there is the pedagogical issue of developing teacher competencies to integrate digital technologies effectively. While of equal importance, social issues including digital divides and the problems of uneven domestic Internet access will not be addressed here.

Thus, it seems counterproductive to assume that digital technology inevitably will revolutionize schools for the better. Instead, it is worth questioning whether the educational sector automatically needs to transform at the same pace and to the same extend as other sectors. If we think of the emergence of digital media in parallel to the emergence of motorized, private transportation, we can define the new information structure as a new kind of traffic situation in the schools. Thus, the invention of cars did not make us use automobiles every time we needed to go somewhere. Often we ride our bikes, or walk, or we run for the sake of exercise or simply to immerse ourselves in and enjoy nature. Nevertheless, cars fundamentally transformed traffic infrastructures as roads and gas stations became mainstay parts of urban and rural planning, and subsequently also our general perception of time and space.

Media ecological literature has stressed the importance of striving for media environmental balance, whether in terms of time-space balance (Innis, 1951), sensual balance (McLuhan, 1964), or producer-user balance (Rushkoff, 2010). In learning contexts, environmental balance is achieved by consciously combining traditional and digital learning. Following such perspectives, schools should beware of making swift, sweeping changes to their teaching principles in a search for digital, networked communication logics. On the contrary, schools must recognize that one of their core functions in a digital environment is to also introduce the pupils to practices of the paper-based, literate media environment. Books and teacher-centered activities train still relevant competences, such as immersive and deep-focused practices, which are imperiled in the often noisy digital environments. The challenge is to pinpoint which traditional competences are still valuable and when digital practices are more relevant.

In the following, the main findings from the Ørestad case study are presented. Then the differences between literate and digital learning environments are explored and analyzed through their ‘affordances’ (Gibson, 1979; Olesen, 2016); a concept that has been increasingly used in educational research (see Bower, 2008; Arenas, 2015). It is noted that different media environments are characterized by different sets of affordances for teaching and learning and that affordances can lead to undesirable as well as desirable outcomes for learning.

Turning the attention to the digital environment I argue examining affordances are central for developing digital strategies. Drawing from the case study and other studies I highlight three digital affordances — interactivity (at individual level), connectivity (at social level) and personalization (at societal level) and then note how each affordance holds potentials as well as challenges for learning. For instance, whereas the Internet affording interactivity invites for active, personalized learning activities, interactive possibilities are seldom compatible with the traditional lecture format leading to attention problems among the pupils.

On this basis, I develop a framework for applying digital technologies in learning. Three types of assignments are specified which correspond to each of the three types of digital affordances and challenges. A learning design example on the climate debate concludes the paper demonstrating a balanced combination of digital media environment learning affordances with traditional paper-based learning affordances.



The IT positives and the IT skeptics: Pupils at Ørestad Gymnasium

The Ørestad Gymnasium (ØG) is a newer upper secondary school, located in the new Ørestad City close to Copenhagen. It is particularly famous for its untraditional architecture consisting of lots of open spaces that aims to support open communication and flexible and innovative work practices. ØG brands itself as “a modern high school with a media profile” [2]. In the attempt to be a digital frontrunner they introduced exclusively digital education: no papers or paper books, only computers, smart boards, tablets, and smartphones.

The case study was performed in one 3.g class [3] at ØG in which I undertook observations, teacher interviews, and did a survey on the pupils focusing on their digital practices and experiences in school. The survey revealed widespread frustrations among the pupils but also different attitudes towards digital media [4]. The survey led me to form two focus groups of four pupils each: an ‘IT positive’ group consisting of pupils who answered that digital media improve learning and called for more active digital use, and an ‘IT skeptic’ group believing digital media was impeding learning and called for less digital use. It emerged that despite ØG’s digital profile the lecture format was still widely used in this class and the following quote captures the pupils’ frustration over the way the technologies had been integrated in their education.

If the teacher is standing by the blackboard during the entire class, I am on the social media the entire class.

The quote is symptomatic of an attention problem, a widespread phenomenon in classrooms with computers (Tække and Paulsen, 2013). It illustrates that pupils often find it difficult to focus on the teacher and the subject when they have immediate access to computer-based services such as the Internet, computer games, news, chat, etc. If a chat message is received during class, it is often very difficult to resist reading and answering it. The quote came from an ‘IT positive’ pupil who is clearly opposed to traditional, blackboard-centered teaching methods. Because that is:

Some of the worst, and this is where the computer comes into force somehow. This is where you can do all kinds of other things and do anything other than teaching.

In this context, the word ‘teaching’ is associated with the lecture format. The ‘IT positives’ want digital media to be used for more pupil activating methods. They enjoy new working practices in which the pupils not simply receive information but collaborate on creating content. One pupil even claims to be incapable of learning without digital media. Although the point is probably somewhat overstated, the digital preference is obvious:

If I only had paper, it’s 100% certain that I had just been sitting, staring out in the blue not paying attention, and I would not have understood any of what was being said.

The ‘IT skeptic’ pupils are not blind to these perspectives, and some had a positive view when they began at ØG. But bad experiences have made them develop a ‘back-to-basics’ attitude preferring less pedagogical experimentation and more traditional methods with more tangibility and teacher control. They find, among other things, that computers interfere with teaching and that there are frequent Wi-Fi problems. They prefer paper books and taking notes by hand as reflected by this quote:

I think I understand the texts much better when I have them in print in front of me and can write on them.

Whereas the ‘IT positives’ long for more activating usage of digital media, the ‘IT skeptics’ express their frustrations as a longing for using paper. It is noticeable that the skeptics are very concerned with possibilities for taking notes. They tend to judge digital media in terms of how well they can be used for taking and managing notes. This indicates that the IT skeptical pupils hold a largely traditional conception of learning which emphasizes passive reception and taking as much input from the teacher as possible. This understanding of learning is based in a traditional, literate learning environment influenced by behavioristic and cognitivist perspectives.

Tække and Paulsen [5] describe the digital development as an educational revolution affecting norms, work habits, and social structures but the task is further complicated by the contextualized nature of the issue. What are the best solutions are inevitably influenced by factors such as the subject, pupil age and background, and the pedagogical preferences, competences, and resources of the teacher and the school. At ØG you need, for instance, to consider both the ‘IT positive’ and the ‘IT skeptic’ pupils’ experiences as all of them contribute to the way digital media are assigned meanings in the learning practices at ØG.

Generally, many ØG pupils express that they are confused, and both pupil groups call for clearer rules and framing of the digital activities from the teacher. Even though this suggests that ØG has been guilty of too much digitalization too soon, these are very common challenges experienced among Danish upper secondary schools attempting to implement digitalization (Bech, et al., 2012). The ØG case illustrates several ways in which the digital environment puts huge demands on the pupils, the teachers, and the educational system in general. Attaining the often mentioned digital promises of more active, varied, individualized, and generally improved learning is a huge challenge and will take a considerable amount of time and corporation. Firstly, there is a need to develop the technical aspects such as Wi-Fi infrastructure and finding the right digital hardware and software. Secondly, the teachers face the pedagogical challenge of having to recognize the development and experiment with technological potentials and simultaneously ensure that the technologies are used towards educationally viable ends. This reveals a need for developing teachers’ digital skills and competences which, in turn, calls for school leaders to set up facilities and practices that support teachers in exchanging experiences and developing practices.

Thirdly, it is obvious the pupils need help to navigate in the digital environment. Buckingham (2015) is one of many who criticizes the idea that today’s youth form a “digital generation” or are digital natives that — simply because that have been born in the digital age — somehow are automatically competent and reflective users of digital media. The pupils at ØG are all more or less experienced digital media users in social and entertainment contexts. But in educational contexts they generally only hold intuitive ideas about digital learning potentials and how to use them constructively in the school practices. They express confusion and ambivalence and it is significant that they directly call for teacher guidance and restrictions. As one ØG pupil puts it: It helps when the teachers are a little strict. This reflects that pupils not necessarily find such boundaries negative. On the contrary, they call for well-defined guidelines in an otherwise borderless and overwhelming media environment. Additionally, following the principle of seeking a balanced media environment, schools not only need to train digital competences and literacies but also traditional literacies and skills like individual contemplative reflection, dialogue, categorization, and even rote learning. Essentially, in addition to not having the benefits being digital natives, today’s youth also face the challenge of not being analogue natives.



Media as learning environments

As indicated in the ØG case, schools today are caught between two media environments as they try to adapt to the digital environment and its logics for social interaction. When a new media technology emerges and becomes popular, it is comparable to placing a foreign animal species in an ecosystem. The ecosystem then has to adapt to new species (i.e., new threats, hunting habits, foods) resulting in a different and altered ecosystem or environment. Originally, public education was born in the literate environment which emerged with the invention of the printing press (Eisenstein, 1979; Ong, 1982). This was an information environment characterized by mass media that facilitated one-way information structures (e.g., from author to reader) and that was reflected in traditional schools’ teacher-centred lectures. In many senses, the digital media environment contrasts to the mass media environment of the printing press, radio, and TV. Digital media are characterized by interactivity. This is particularly demonstrated on social media where users participate and create content rather than only receive mass communicated content (Gauntlett, 2011; Rainie and Wellman, 2012). Users have become produsers (Bruns, 2008).

The emergence of digital user-generated and network-based communication has broad consequences on our societies, and inevitably also on education. Beetham and Sharpe point out that digital “technologies represent a paradigm shift with specific and multiple impacts on the nature of knowledge in society, and therefore on the nature of learning” [6]. In a fundamental sense, the global network structure of the Internet affords perforations of traditional communication barriers. In educational contexts these emerge as challenges to the barrier between teacher and pupils, between inside and outside the classroom, and between different subjects. Hjarvard [7] describes the changing preconditions for teaching and learning brought about by digital media as part of a general mediatization process in our societies. The mediatization perspective highlights the fact that digital media are not just tools to be exchanged as required, but that learning takes place in an entirely new context with new communication structures and practices. Hjarvard points out three digital consequences that affect educational settings: 1) users have better control of how we present ourselves and interact with others; 2) users can be present in more than one social situation at a time; and, 3) users can create virtual spaces which among other things may extend teacher-pupil interaction beyond the classroom and allow for new ways of integrating external resources in learning situations.

Because the digital environment affects basic educational infrastructures in a way that promote more flexible communication and working patterns we need to rethink pedagogy and learning. This involves far more than simply transferring teaching activities from the black board to digital platforms. Livingstone (2012) suggest that a more fundamental transformation is possible because:

the potential of technology is that it may liberate teachers and pupils from the rigid hierarchies which have locked them to their desks, curricula and assessment straitjacket, mobilizing multiple activities as mediators of learning — not only reading and writing but also creating, designing, performing, searching and playing. [8]

The networked infrastructure that characterizes the Internet and social media sets the stage for learning activities in which the pupils on their own and in collaboration with other pupils or external resource persons collect information and participate in the creation of knowledge. Christiansen and Gynther [9] recommend a “Didaktik 2.0” characterized by learning designs in which the teacher includes pupils as active and didactical co-designers. This means the teachers change from the one-way communicating lecture role and instead function as supervisors and guides. This creates opportunities for closer and more constructive teacher-pupil relations that normally is expected to reflect positively upon pupil engagement and motivation (Ciampa, 2014). In order to look more closely into how digitalization processes alter the learning environment we need to unfold the affordance concept.


J. J. Gibson’s concept ‘affordance’ was originally coined to explain how objects’ material properties condition agents’ possibilities for action. In The ecological approach to visual perception, Gibson (1979) describes the mutual relation between an animal and its surroundings and define affordances as:

[...] something that refers to both the environment and the animal in a way that no existing term does. It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment. [10]

Hereby he argues that nature offers a range of potential affordances for action. But the actual affordances depend on the animal. For instance, water affords support to a water bug. But to other, heavier animals water affords sinking or swimming (Gibson, 1979). This simple example illustrates how affordances define object or environment qualities that allow or perhaps prompt an organism or individual to perform an action. Importantly, affordances are not properties of the object or of the agent; they are both. Affordance is what emerge in the interactive relation an agent takes to an object or its environment.

The affordance concept gained prominence with Donald Norman’s (1999; 1988) more functionally informed usage within the fields of human-computer interaction and design. Norman introduced a useful distinction between ‘perceived’ affordances (all the possibilities for action that an agent assumes from perceiving an object) and real affordances (the complete set of action possibilities that the object potentially enables). He explains that poor design often is down to lack of correspondence between the perceived and the real affordances. This would be the case if, for instance, a door that opens by being pushed (real affordance) has a handle that leads the user to pull it (perceived affordance) (Norman, 1999). The affordance concept has been increasingly applied in media studies to explain how media technologies shape our possibilities for acting and communicating (e.g., Nagy and Neff, 2015; Bucher and Helmond, 2018). Media affordances are often thought of as configurations of possible functionalities, exemplified by boyd’s argument that “understanding the affordances of a particular technology or space is important because it sheds light on what people can leverage or resist in achieving their goals” [11].

In learning contexts, the distinction between real and perceived affordances can help to conceptualize the educational challenges emerging from the fact that most pupils tend to think of digital media as tools for entertainment or socializing (perceived affordances). From this perspective, the educational task is to make the pupils discover learning enhancing potentialities of digital media (that is, more of the real affordances) [12]. Thus, building digital competencies is about making pupils aware and capable of utilizing a wider range of the digital affordances. In the ØG study, this is demonstrated when some of the pupils report they have worked a lot with source criticism and becoming better at focusing Google searches.

In an attempt to develop a more consistent terminology, Evans, et al. (2017) make a useful distinction between the features, affordances and outcomes of an object. Take for instance a smartphone camera. The camera is a feature of the smartphone. The camera affords recordability which can lead to different outcomes (e.g. social actions like taking selfies for self-representation on social media or, in school-related contexts, actions like visually documenting usages of metaphors in slogans, or recording a short movie). Essentially, affordances are dynamic qualities, while features are static. Consequently, the learning value of a given technology cannot be generalized. What might be a successful solution with one media technology often might not be so in other contexts with other media. Rather than defining whether a medium is good or poor for learning, we need to be concerned with defining good or poor designs for learning. This calls for a contextualized approach which essentially asks the question of how technological affordances are applied in relation to learning activities in specific learning contexts.

This paper applies the affordance concept as a tool for developing didactical guidelines that take into consideration both traditional, literate skills and competences and digital principles. Figure 1 contains a rough comparison of some of the most noticeable practices afforded by the traditional book-based and the digital environments. It illustrates that both environments facilitate outcomes that are desirable as well as outcomes that are undesirable in relation to learning.


The literate as well as the digital media environment afford activities that usually help encourage learning, but also activities that often may hinder learning
Figure 1: The literate as well as the digital media environment afford activities that usually help encourage learning, but also activities that often may hinder learning.


Bates [13] identifies a range of learning enhancing potentials in digital media, such as access to more content, new ways of structuring, creating, and presenting content and new ways of communicating. In this paper, the digital functionalities are presented as three basic digital affordances: Firstly, the interactivity of digital media allows for active, creative learning activities. Secondly, digital connectivity enables networked collaboration and access to vast amounts of sources. Finally, digital media afford personalized learning through the vast amount of online information that enable pupils to choose individual learning routes and subjects through content curation and management. Essentially adaptive learning systems (Verbert, et al., 2013) which design the learning course based on the pupil’s responses are automatized versions of this personalization affordance. In general, digital technology offers temporal as well as spatial flexibility by affording synchronous as well as asynchronous communication, and the possibility to supplement or substitute the physical classroom by use of mobile devices and virtual spaces.



Digital learning affordances and challenges

While the Internet allows pupils to learn more independently, studies indicate that today’s youth (not to mention adults) generally rely on digital competent teachers for building their digital literacy (Bjørgen and Erstad, 2015; Gee, 2012; Fraillon, et al., 2014). This involves training in navigating the digital information flows finding, selecting, organizing, assessing, and contributing to this information. The Danish Ministry of Education reflected this need in a reform legislation from the summer of 2017 defining digital competencies at individual (e.g., seeking and producing information), social (e.g., online norms, netiquette) and broader societal levels (e.g., participating in online communities):

The digital competencies of the pupils must be strengthened by learning them to take a critical approach to digital media, including the consequences of e.g., sexual harassment. They need to learn to seek information and to exercise source criticism, as well as to make independent digital productions and learn to participate in digital communities, as well as learn to reflect on their selection of digital tools in different contexts.

Drawing from the ØG study and others studies like Tække and Paulsen’s Social media education experiment (2013), this section focusses on the digital environment and introduces an affordance-based framework (Figure 2) which illustrates that the pupils’ learning experiences are shaped by technology and demonstrates how the affordance concept can effectively assist learning designers in deploying digital learning activities that promote desirable learning outcomes while simultaneously moderating or avoiding undesirable learning outcomes. The framework highlights the importance of considering media qualities and developing digital competencies and, in specific, correlates the three main digital learning affordances presented in the previous section with the three levels of digital competencies I identified in the Danish ministerial reform. Hence, the three digital affordances are defined as 1) interactive possibilities for the individual user; 2) connectivity eliciting the emergence of new forms of social network relations; and, 3) personalization based on the temporal and spatial flexibility that provides new options for transferring school activities into surrounding societal contexts.


Digital affordances and outcomes in three levels
Figure 2: Digital affordances and outcomes in three levels.


The framework also illustrates the dynamic qualities of affordances, potentially producing both desirable and undesirable learning outcomes. Thus, digital media facilitate progressive learning activities, but also create obstacles for learning if not considered properly. The teachers need to exploit the digital interactivity that allows the pupils to work and research more independently. Simultaneously, they need to set up well-defined norm rules for what is allowed and what is not during teaching situations (e.g., defining when it is ok for pupils to check their mobile phone and define when services like Facebook and Google may be used). Moreover, they are faced with the challenge of defining when and how the virtual media spaces may be able to contribute constructively to the learning activities.

As the ØG study demonstrated, the introduction of digital media caused not only new possibilities but also a range of challenges. Two pupil groups with quite markedly different attitudes towards digital media in their education was identified. But before we look at solutions, we need to explore the three general digital challenges in more detail and how they can be dealt with through learning designs.

Attention challenges

With Internet-connected computers the teaching situation is no longer bounded by the four walls of the classroom, and the interactivity afforded by these computers poses an attention challenge to the pupils. Computers almost urge us to use them and the obvious risk in this new situation emerges when blackboard-based teaching competes for the pupils’ attention with chat services, games, social media, and other enticing Internet services. In such cases the blackboard and the teacher easily lose. Similar to the ØG study, Tække and Paulsen (2013) observe that this new educational situation generates insecurity among both teachers and pupils. They note that many pupils feel powerless, defining themselves as media addicts and that the teachers lack strategies for handling the new information space in which they teach.

In lack of better alternatives teachers tend towards extreme solutions by either banning digital media entirely or by avoiding any regulation of the pupils’ media uses. Tække and Paulsen [14] argue that both strategies are unsustainable. Both strategies fail to support the pupils in developing a reflective approach to media. Banning digital uses seems out of step with the media environment and risks creating resistance from the pupils. In contrast, helping them to build methods to deal with the many distractions in the digital media environment could diminish the pupils’ senses of insecurity.

At ØG the teachers apparently did not have a general regulation strategy and did not provide sufficient support towards helping the students deal with the attention challenge [15]. This is critical as it was clear that both the ‘IT positive’ and ‘IT skeptic’ pupils rely on basic elements like structure and organization. One ‘IT skeptic’ pupil states that computers make you lose concentration faster, which reflects the earlier mentioned pupil quote about being on the social media the entire class. It is apparent that being able to pay “attention to attention” (Tække and Paulsen, 2013), i.e., being able to reflect and act upon how technologies affect our habits and our ability to focus, is becoming an increasing important digital competence for the pupils. A more balanced media use relies on teachers more positively and consciously choosing when to apply media, but also when it makes more sense to shut down the technologies. If anything, it appears that the free-flowing, networked qualities of the digital environment have only increased the importance of having clear rules.

Network challenge

The pupil answers from ØG also reflect a network challenge. They proudly explain how they use Google Docs to comment on each other and collaborate on written assignments. They are less proud when they explain how they use the Web to find résumés instead to reading entire texts, when home work is replaced by quick googling for answers in class — what we could call ‘just-in-time’ preparation. Hence, it is far from all aspects of their Internet behavior that the pupils deem to be relevant in educational contexts. Digital affordances for searchability and networking seem to have an effort-diminishing effect on the pupils. They frame such activities as lazy:

If you receive a long text and think that I don’t want to read that. Then you make a quick search on the net. A small résumé of the text, and then you think that now I know the main points in the text. At least, I often do that.

You also become more lazy when it comes to taking notes from the blackboard. Because you think, well, I missed something there but it’s fine. I will just search for it when I get home. So you become a little complacent.

Clearly, using the Internet to find information just-in-time during class (because you have not done your homework), to read résumés instead of full text, and the sharing of answers among pupils, will normally be considered cheating at schools. The two quotes exemplify the attention, network as well as motivation challenges from Figure 2) and indicate a lack of media methodological reflectivity among the pupils necessary for utilizing the digital affordances in learning effective ways. In their eyes, the Internet primarily affords easy and quick access to information and without much guidance, it is not surprising that pupils now and again resort to such methods.

Indeed, from a digital environment perspective, some of these actions could be interpreted as intuitive exploitations of the network affordances, practices they are used to from their mundane media uses. You could argue that by taking these kinds of shortcuts and “cheating” from home work, they are actually demonstrating digital skills and competences which are often completely legitimate methods in working contexts where collaboration and speedy work flows are standard. Even among teachers themselves Internet-influenced work processes such as online networking is becoming increasingly common [16].

Essentially, by describing their practices as complacent and lazy, the pupils are applying traditional school logic. The fact that pupils deem these activities to be incompatible with acceptable learning methods seems to reflect that ØG, despite heavy investments in digital technologies, has not managed to apply digital logics and competences into their didactical practices and their general school culture.

Tække and Paulsen (2016) discuss a comparable issue about hidden “illegal” pupil networks in which pupils share written assignments with each other. Such practices are labeled as cheating and plagiarism in schools but, as Tække and Paulsen argue, the very same practices (i.e., collaboration, sharing, and recycling content) are often viewed upon as progressive and beneficial at many work places in the digital media environment. They note two fundamental points that complicates the network challenge. Firstly, it is extremely difficult to eradicate illegal Internet-based networks. Pupils can easily form groups on social network media where they can freely share content without the school knowing about it. And as a further consequence, the ease of cheating often has negative effects on pupil ambitions and motivations.

Secondly, Tække and Paulsen [17] stress the need for developing a more nuanced understanding of the so-called illegal networks. Regrettably, in many cases the networks are formed to bypass the school demands. But in other cases the pupils’ use of these networks are based on a wish for honoring these demands. Instead of simply banning such practices, schools need to teach the students to consciously differentiate among work methods and consider their strengths and weaknesses. By focusing on such differences you become better equipped to decide when taking ‘lazy’ short cuts may be illustrative or useful and when more thorough methods are necessary.

Motivational challenges

Lastly, digital affordances for personalization relates to the generally flexible digital functionalities which hold potentials for making the school activities seem more relevant to the pupils, for instance through situating learning activities outside the classroom. Research on personal, authentic, or situated learning (Kearney and Schuck, 2006; Lave and Wenger, 1991) indicate that such learning methods improve pupil motivation. In a digital environment where pupils use media in increasingly active and personal ways, generally blending their online and off-line lives (Baym, 2015; boyd, 2014), it seems appropriate to design digital learning activities that relate to and draw upon the pupils’ own vast media experiences and builds on their existing competences and interests. Failure to do this might result in a ”parallel school“ (Tufte, 1998), meaning a lack of interaction between the pupils’ media experiences in school and their mundane media habits. In a general sense, a “parallel school” lacks authenticity in the sense of “learner perceived relations between the practices they are carrying out and the use value of these practices” [18].

I argue that lack of personalized and authentic learning has caused frustration and a motivation challenge among the pupils at ØG. They struggle to relate the media practices in school to their experiences outside school. Both pupil groups find that only a few of their teachers are able to meaningfully integrate digital media, and that is mostly because they manage to use them in a structured way (once again, the pupils’ concern with structure and note taking is prevailing). Especially the ‘IT positive’ group express frustrations with the limited digital activities in school. Their own computer experiences have given them a somewhat unspecific sense that they hold unfulfilled pedagogical promises. Some stress the importance of using computers in ways that reflect the job market to some extent:

It’s just very good to have experience in using a computer, to work seriously with it.

It’s the future so we might as well learn something.

The study only revealed few signs of assignments incorporating elements from the pupils’ media experiences. An ‘IT positive’ pupil acknowledges one teacher for using iPad games and also having them:

Make emojis from a book ... [It is] special but in a way also relevant as we use emojis every day.

While this is only a very simple case, the quote seems to indicate that the interaction between school and the everyday life motivates the pupil. The following demonstration of the affordance framework explains how a more expansive utilization of the digital affordances for personalization, including flexibility in time and space, holds potentials for increasing pupil motivation.



A framework for digital learning design

We have described how the digital learning environment offers new kinds of possibilities for activating the pupils, letting them collaborate with each other and with external partners, as well as transferring school activities outside the classroom. But also, simultaneously, that this gives rise to attention, networking and motivation challenges. Rather than prohibit or, conversely, avoid regulating pupils’ “illegal” or distracting media uses, schools need to consider how and to what extent these digital media could be embraced and integrated. First of all, this requires well-defined teacher guidelines ‘from above’ about which kinds of uses and forms of collaborations are allowed, and in which learning situations. Such media-conscious rules are fundamental for building digital literacies, strengthening pupils’ ability to reflect on how digital media can be applied most constructively in their learning situations.

As part of their “Didaktik 2.0”, Christiansen and Gynther (2010) point out the need for rethinking the traditionally very common assignment type which in some shape or form asks the pupils to find and reproduce facts. The increased, immediate information access offered by the Internet often reduces such tasks to triviality. Instead, they argue that teachers ought to develop assignments that focus on managing information. Teachers need to consider in which ways pupils are asked to: 1) acquire factual information? 2) be able to apply this knowledge in similar cases? and 3) be able to evaluate and relate this knowledge to new contexts? [19]

Inspired by these questions, Figure 3) develops the framework from Figure 2) by adding three assignment types: appropriating (of individual media uses), collaborating (in social networks) and contextualizing (by relating schoolwork to real-world issues in society). The assignment types present three general principles of introducing and utilizing digital affordances on three levels and are exemplified in the following section.


The three assignment levels
Figure 3: The three assignment levels (appropriation, collaboration, and contextualization) exemplify ways of integrating digital media into education.


A climate debate learning case

I conclude the paper by demonstrating the principal ideas of Figure 3 on a teaching case about the climate debate. Space only permits a simple description but the case exemplifies how the three assignment levels present three ways of managing the digital media environment. Appropriation assignments take departure in the individual pupil’s own media experiences with the aim to help them distinguish between leisure usage and more focused and constructive uses for school contexts. In this climate debate case, the teacher begins by addressing the triviality related to fact reproduction with a “just-in-time” task that gives the pupils very limited time to collect information and outline the central issues and attitudes characterizing the climate debate. Thus, the pupils are activated which should minimize the attention challenge. Initially the focus is not on forming independent opinions but simply on applying those habitual swift, superficial practices that the ØG pupils labeled as lazy.

As the next step, the teacher sets up collaborative assignments in which the pupils discuss, compare and reflect upon how they sought and reused Internet content. This assignment trains their abilities to evaluate their practices and the collected information. The teacher guides their discussion — in class or on an online discussion platform — by applying advanced searching skills and source criticism methods. Depending on the context, this can lead into copyright discussions, thereby strengthening the pupils’ reflections on, and norms surrounding, “remixed” content. By discussing and presenting on online platforms like Google Docs, the pupils experience how the Internet affords collaborative learning.

The contextualizing assignments seek to address motivation challenges through open, analytical, and evaluating tasks (Gynther, 2010). In the climate case the pupils can use the collected and collectively discussed information to develop, with teacher guidance, their own, personalized project in which they contact an external resource person working with or affected by the climate debate. The pupils might choose, for instance, a meteorologist, farmer, representative of a company or a local politician and then use smartphones for documentation and recording interviews with them. In any case, the local, practice-oriented aspect is likely to make the topic appear more authentic to the pupils. Additionally, as a favorable side-effect of such individualized, student-centered learning tasks, the network challenge of plagiarism is diminished, given that such tasks are normally not easily copied.

The didactical approach taken here has focused on defining and using digital affordances to inform the use of digital technology, while also adhering to an ideal of media environmental balance (represented by the two pupil groups at ØG). This ideal ultimately prescribes learning that combines digital literacies with traditional ones like dialogue and reading. The climate case addresses traditional competences for instance during class discussions and when developing their personal projects the pupils train categorization and focus. Additionally, the teacher might insert analogue “pockets” in class such as text readings or dialogues, in order to train concentration.

This paper has given a brief introduction to a learning design framework that contains principles for applying digital technologies in learning contexts. In practice, the framework is inevitably expected to be applied in different ways and to different extend, given the contextualized condition of learning. And, like any theoretical framework, iterative feedback tuning from empirical practice is needed to strengthen its usefulness as a guide for developing digital learning designs. End of article


About the author

Mogens Olesen is an associate professor, Ph.D., at the Department of Nordic Studies and Linguistics (NorS) at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.
E-mail: olesen [at] hum [dot] ku [dot] dk



1. Haythornthwaite, et al., 2016, p. 3.

2., accessed on 9 November 2018.

3. Corresponds to twelfth grade in an American high school (senior high).

4. Out of 21 pupils, nine believed digital media improve learning, five believed they impede learning, while seven were neutral.

5. Tække and Paulsen, 2016, p. 116.

6. Beetham and Sharpe, 2013, p.4.

7. Hjarvard, 2010, pp.35–36.

8. Livingstone, 2012, p. 17.

9. Christiansen and Gynther, 2010, p. 52.

10. Gibson, 1979, p. 127.

11. boyd, 2014, pp. 10–11.

12. The affordance concept is still relatively disputed. As Evans and colleagues (2017) discuss questions remain regarding how we list affordances. How do we agree upon the definitions of new affordances that emerge with new media technologies?

13. Bates, 2015, pp. 242ff.

14. Tække and Paulsen, 2013, pp. 55–57.

15. Since this case study in 2015, ØG has developed a module on multitasking in the attempt to increase attention to the attention challenge.

16. Gynther, 2010, p. 19.

17. Tække and Paulsen, 2016, p.128.

18. Barab, et al., 2000, p. 38.

19. Gynther, 2010, pp. 62–63.



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Editorial history

Received 29 January 2018; revised 17 November 2018; accepted 21 November 2018.

Copyright © 2018, Mogens Olesen. All Rights Reserved.

Balancing media environments: Design principles for digital learning in Danish upper secondary schools
by Mogens Olesen.
First Monday, Volume 23, Number 12 - 3 December 2018

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