How can children exercise their agency?

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As you read this article, data on millions of children are being gathered and curated by countless people and organisations. Photos and videos collected by families are shared on social and communication platforms. Performance scores from apps, e-books and games are stored by private companies. Test scores collected on educational platforms are owned by schools, libraries, and governments. Health records may be gathered even before children are born. And most of the time, children have little control over this, or even any information about who collects their data, for what purpose and how long the data are stored.

Algorithms and automation

With all this data collection, much of it automated, children’s agency – their freedom to make well-founded, thoughtful choices – may be under threat. We have relinquished control and choices to technologies. More personal information than ever before is being collected, and the algorithms that process these data are so sophisticated that products can be personalised for each individual. This threatens everyone’s agency, but young children are at particular risk.

“Algorithms, such as those used in educational apps, are most useful when they adapt the content to individual children.”

Algorithms process digitised information according to pre-determined rules. In the learning context, algorithms, such as those used in educational apps, are most useful when they adapt the content to individual children, personalising it to meet each child’s needs. Today’s algorithms work with a huge amount of information, allowing for very precise personalisation. This is useful for designing a specific intervention or motivating reluctant learners by providing content that matches their interests. However, when recommendations are produced externally, through algorithms, rather than internally, through the individual’s mind, children are not given the chance to exercise their agency.

The personalised offers and recommendations of modern technologies are so seductive that they often override the choices of even the most self-determined adults. Easy-to-use smartphones and almost constant internet access make it possible for algorithms not only to influence, but even to determine individual choices. Hand on heart, who has not succumbed to the nudging of personalised advertising? When offered a discount voucher for a yoghurt you like, wouldn’t you buy it? The effect is similar when you are using a learning app and a personalised achievement certificate pushes you to the next level.

Agency through technology design

The field of education has a long history of participatory research, in which children actively contribute and help to shape the design of technology. However, some companies that claim to involve children in their technology design instead treat them as young producers and future customers. A much more ethical way of honouring children’s voices, in my view, is to position them as co-researchers. Indeed, many educational technology researchers involve children in a transparent and collaborative process of co-design. 

“Many educational technology researchers involve children in a transparent and collaborative process of co-design.”

In the ECHOES project, for example, 5- to 7-year-olds and their teachers co-designed a technology-enhanced environment for autistic children. The International Children’s Digital Library project, too, involved children in the design of the library’s website.

The Open University’s Children’s Research Centre, in which I am involved, is a world-leading example of how developers and designers, as well as teachers and parents, can work with children as co-researchers. The Centre has developed certain principles for engaging diverse groups of children as expert participants who explore topics that affect their lives. One principle is intergenerational co-research: Children join with adults to reflect on and ask why a given product does or doesn’t work. The children collect their own data, and make pictures, videos, notes, or drawings to document and evaluate the process. Together with adults, they use their data to improve a product or practice.

“What is most important is for children to have the opportunity to reclaim their agency.”

Through this design process, children make informed choices about things that may affect their lives. The final product can be a piece of technology, and there are lots of great examples of technology design giving children choice and control. But the form of expression is of little importance – even non-technological activities such as crafts can help children exercise the freedom to make informed, thoughtful choices. What is most important is for children to have the opportunity to reclaim their agency.

As you read this article, data on millions of children are being gathered and curated by countless people and organisations. Photos and videos collected by families are shared on social and communication platforms. Performance scores from apps, e-books and games are stored by private companies. Test scores collected on educational platforms are owned by schools,…

As you read this article, data on millions of children are being gathered and curated by countless people and organisations. Photos and videos collected by families are shared on social and communication platforms. Performance scores from apps, e-books and games are stored by private companies. Test scores collected on educational platforms are owned by schools,…

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