Sue Bennett went from studying physics to doing leading research into digital literacy. Along the way she has questioned educational concepts including that of the “digital native”.
Member profile by Erica Cervini
By her own admission, Sue Bennett is an inquisitive person.
“I suppose fundamentally, I’m curious. I’m curious about how we live our lives,” says Professor Bennett, the head of Wollongong University’s School of Education.
This fascination with people’s lives prompted Professor Bennett to question her own early career trajectory. Later, she began challenging assumptions about young people’s relationship with technology, which has led her to produce a vast body of internationally-recognised research.
In the early 1990s, Professor Bennett had studied physics until she changed direction and completed a master’s in science communication. She then worked on a project “Observing the Unobservable”, a multimedia resource, which sparked her interest in educational technology. It also fostered a desire to find methods to communicate concepts in ways most people can understand.
She believes that one of the most powerful ways we learn and can communicate complex ideas is through the stories that people tell us. In her PhD, Professor Bennett’s investigated how the stories of people’s experiences in technology and design help to foster learning in other individuals.
“I was really interested in how we take something that we’ve learned in one context or something that in fact we’ve learned from somebody else and apply it to a different problem in a slightly different context,” Professor Bennett explains. “So, it’s contextual features that really interested me.”
This interest propelled her into questioning assumptions about young people’s digital literacy.
“We understandably had some pretty simplistic ideas about what that meant,” Professor Bennett says. “We thought it was really about knowing the parts of the computer, how the computer functioned on a technical level, and then the skills to be able to use it. What buttons to press and where to click.
“If we fast forward to how we think about it now, we’ve got this much deeper understanding about what digital literacy means. And that it’s very contextual. It’s highly personal, very situated.”
While examining the complexities of what constitutes digital literacy, Professor Bennett also challenged the stereotypes and assumptions associated with the concept of the digital native, a descriptor that was coined in 2001 to describe children brought up with technology.
Professor Bennett has demonstrated through her scholarly work that the metaphor “digital native” reduces the complexities and nuances involved in young people’s relationship with technology.
She has also shown that assumptions associated with the term overlook the fact that not all students are the same and therefore do not have equal “technological opportunities”.
Professor Bennett describes these stereotypes and assumptions as “dangerous”.
“When we make generalisations about a group of people, in this case, a cohort of young people, then we’re not acknowledging their diversity,” she says.
“And if we don’t acknowledge their diversity, we can’t see some of the ways in which there is inequality. So, the key thing for me, the key driver for me is to try to expose the basis of some of these inequalities in terms of technological opportunities.”
In her research, Professor Bennett has used stories backed up with meticulous research to convey her messages. For example, she uses the fictional story of the middle-class student who observes the different uses for technology in work and entertainment. Other stories are about students who are only exposed to narrow ways of using technology.
Professor Bennett says the digital divide is no longer about having the money to access technology; it’s about knowing how to use it effectively.
Professor Bennett’s appetite for asking questions extends to helping education students at Wollongong think about their own personal digital literacy and, in particular, what technological know-how they have brought with them to university.
“They’ve also got responsibility for developing digital literacy in their [future] students, “she adds. “So, there’s these two layers that are part of that conversation.”
Professor Bennett says part of this conversation also introduces education students to the idea that throughout their careers, they will continue to learn.
Professor Bennett subscribes to that concept of life-long learning herself. While her research still involves examining educational technology, it has taken twists and turns. She is now exploring – with a UK team of researchers – what university graduates, who have now started their careers, feel they have learned about technology at university.
“It’s an interesting take on digital literacy,” she says.
And, Professor Bennett is still asking challenging questions about how we live our lives and what we can learn from other people’s stories. She is working with colleagues on finding out why university students who fail subjects still persist with their studies.
“There’s been a lot of work on attrition in first year, but we’re looking at it from a different angle,” she adds.
“And, that’s really fascinating.”
Sue Bennett is secretary of the NSW Council of Deans of Education, Head of the School of Education at the University of Wollongong, and Deputy Director of the recently announced ARC Centre of Excellence for the Digital Child.