International Perspectives: Researching digital childhoods in a Nordic context
23 Nov, 2022
Why this interest in Nordic childhoods? I have asked myself this question when being approached by international colleagues and when publishing with international journals and publishers. They ask me to frame my research within a Nordic context. However, do we have a common understanding of what the Nordic is, and how it can be relevant in other cultural contexts in the digital age? Despite considerable research activity on education and childhood in the digital age in the global North, it is not clear to what extent this represents a coherent Nordic perspective.
In this blogpost I want to reflect on these questions based on activities within a Nordic network of researchers from Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Iceland, including some Baltic colleagues, which has existed since 2012. The work has been organized around a series of workshops as part of two research networks with Nordic funding that have resulted in several publications – one on ‘Learning across contexts in the knowledge society’ (Erstad, Kumpulainen, Mäkitalo, Schrøder, Pruulman-Vengerfeldt & Johannsdottir, 2016) and more recently the ‘Nordic Research Network on Digitalising Childhoods’ (DigiChild) that ended up with the open access book ‘Nordic childhoods in the digital age’ (Kumpulainen, Kajamaa, Erstad, Mäkitalo, Drotner & Jakobsdottir, 2022).
The motivation behind this collaboration has been both internal – with self-critical reflections on how we as Nordic researchers conceive commonalities and differences and how these change over time in light of digital transformation, and external – as researchers from around the world refer to the Nordic as an ideal for social development, digital transformations, education and the position of young people.
It has been emphasized that the Nordic countries stand out from the rest of the world with respect to their welfare and education policies based on the principles of universalism, social rights, and equality, as well as access to technologies and digital citizenship (Miettinen, 2013).
However, today this Nordic model is under pressure, and there is more diversity both within and between the Nordic countries now than before. This is mostly due to immigration, more political instability, more privatization of school systems, and terrorist attacks during the last two decades. Still, most people living in these countries would be able to identify distinct similarities across the Nordic countries that signal some sort of unity along the dimensions mentioned above.
Based on the research presented in the books mentioned above, covering different topics and age groups, I will address three common themes that link to childhood and education in the digital age.
- Agency of children using digital media. The Nordic model is known for granting children a great deal of autonomy and agency in their life worlds, encouraged by family rearing practices as well as institutional and policy level efforts that are stronger than in many other countries. (See Kumpulainen, et al., 2022, p. 2). The Nordic emphasis on children’s agency and participation in society is also reflected in educational efforts towards child-centeredness and less restricted accountability measures underscoring children’s initiation, interests, cultures, activities, and knowledge. Further, the traditional ideals of the Nordic model also celebrate childhood and children in their own right. Our research in these publications also point to tensions, complexities, and controversies between the imaginaries of Nordic childhoods and their everyday realisation in today’s world.
- Digital competences and Bildung. Where many countries define digital skills narrowly and in instrumental ways, the Nordic agenda opens up to broader aspects of digital competence and citizenship embedded in conceptions of the German term Bildung. Even though the term in a traditional context has been criticized for being elitistic and too individualistic, it has seen a renewal in a digital age referring to notions of self-realisations within communities and collectives online and offline. (Erstad, Kjällander & Järvelä, 2021).
- Digital lives. The digital is viewed as an integral element of contemporary Nordic childhoods. In the publications mentioned above and in my own research we have shown how connections between formal and informal have become more important in a digital age where the digital mediate different experiences in different contexts. In education this is traditionally emphasized by a focus on project work linking school and local community.
One example is the emphasis on educating children to care for the environment as reflected in the richness of outdoor education programs, and efforts to promote environmental education as a cross-cutting curriculum theme (Kumpulainen, 2022: 41). A manifestation of this in a Nordic context is also the way a young climate activist in Sweden sat down outside the Swedish Parliament and eventually mobilised children on a global scale to strike from school on Fridays in protest to current climate policies, and how the use of social media has facilitated political participation among young people (Solli & Mäkitalo, 2022: 131).
My main argument in this post is that the Nordic context has had a special meaning internationally when understanding childhoods and education, and even though the values and practices which this is based on are changing on a social level, there are still certain key characteristics that stand out as common aspects of childhoods in a digital age across the Nordic countries.
The Nordic research agenda referred to here has shown that it becomes difficult to define ‘Nordic childhoods’ from the outset, but rather to view the notion as a social construction, a materially, culturally, and socially defined life space of children. In doing so, it is possible to draw a complex and dynamic picture of Nordic childhoods in the digital age by shedding light into its various manifestations, developments, and tensions in the social and communicative practices of children living and learning in the Nordic countries in a specific time and space. (Kumpulainen, et al., 2022, p. 214)
Erstad, O., Kumpulainen, K., Mäkitalo, Å., Schrøder, K.C., Pruulman-Vengerfeldt, P. & T. Johannsdottir (Eds.) (2016). Learning across contexts in the knowledge society. Rotterdam: Sense.
Erstad, O., Kjällander, S. & S. Järvelä (2021). Facing the challenges of ‘digital competence’. A Nordic agenda for curriculum development for the 21st century. Nordic Journal of Digital Literacy. 16(2), pp. 77–87.
Kumpulainen, K. (2022). Bridging dichotomies between children, nature, and digital technologies. In Kumpulainen, K., Kajamaa, A., Erstad, O., Mäkitalo, Å., Drotner, K. & S. Jakobsdottir (Eds.) (2022). Nordic childhoods in the digital age. Insights into contemporary research on communication, learning and education. London: Routledge. pp. 41-50.
Kumpulainen, K., Kajamaa, A., Erstad, O., Mäkitalo, Å., Drotner, K. & S. Jakobsdottir (Eds.) (2022). Nordic childhoods in the digital age. Insights into contemporary research on communication, learning and education. London: Routledge.
Miettinen, R. (2013). Innovation, human capabilities and democracy: Towards an enabling welfare state. Oxford University Press.
Solli, A. & Å. Mäkitalo (2022). Young activists. Engaging with global climate change in a networked society. In Kumpulainen, K., Kajamaa, A., Erstad, O., Mäkitalo, Å., Drotner, K. & S. Jakobsdottir (Eds.) (2022). Nordic childhoods in the digital age. Insights into contemporary research on communication, learning and education. London: Routledge. pp. 131-141.
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