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Call for Papers n°12: Digital Technologies and Learning

Special issue edited by Cédric Fluckiger (CIREL, Lille University) and Vinciane Zabban (Experice, Sorbonne Paris Nord University).New deadline for abstract submissions: January 22, 2021

One is not born, but rather becomes, a “digital native.” Social sciences and the humanities describe how individuals discover and experiment uses of digital technologies, undermining the essentialist conception of this popular metaphor. Their scientific program is to study how such uses are constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed. Any use of digital technologies happens in a context and requires both technical and social learning. Whether this learning takes place implicitly in networks of sociability or explicitly in institutions such as schools, it appears as an essential component of socialization processes.

Acculturation to new tools, new uses, and new norms concern all stages of life cycles.

Children are obviously actors of such learning. There may be a tension between the expectations regarding digital cultures carried by the school and those shared between peers or transmitted within families (Fluckiger, 2008). Pupils entering school are faced with “school-based” devices, that art part of a pedagogic program run by a teacher (tablets, digital boards, learning software, etc.). These instruments are studied by a vast literature in education sciences (see Baron and Depover, 2019 and Fluckiger, 2020 for a panorama) or psychology (Amadieu and Tricot, 2014).

Moreover, the introduction to cultural consumption in the early adolescence (Octobre et al., 2010), is now accompanied by new supports and individualized communication devices. Individual access to a cell phone at the start of middle school is a good example. Universities confront students with new needs and uses (use of university platforms, e-mail), while first professional experiences come with new tools, or the renewed use of already familiar tools. Moving in together and perhaps even more so parenthood may once again require a readjustment of media practices, and change in the mobilization of digital tools. Other areas of private life such as leisure, artistic, playful, creative practices, or even health, give rise to occasions of learning that involves digital technologies, as shown by research on “quantified-self” practices (Dagiral et al., 2019). External constraints, such as the recent lockdowns, or mobility and interaction restrictions due to the COVID crisis, may further reinforce the use of digital technologies as a tool for work, communication or entertainment and force or encourage new uses.

This special issue proposes to question the way individuals articulate, accumulate, build and transpose their devices, tools, knowledge and skills related to digital technologies over time, in the private and professional domains. In particular, we wish to question moments of transition, and to focus on the interweaving of social and biographical paths with the use of digital technologies.

Such a program calls for contributions from various disciplines (anthropology, history, sociology, education sciences) and research fields (internet and digital studies, youth culture, leisure studies, life stages, cognition or conceptualization). This call for papers therefore welcomes proposals from all social sciences built on empirical methods that contribute to furthering our understanding of the links between digital technologies and learning. Proposals are expected to explicit the theoretical frame and the concepts they mobilize, as a condition for any discussion of the reciprocal contributions of theoretical approaches.

Contributions may correspond to at least one of the following areas: 1) Representations and incorporation of digital techniques, 2) Communities of practice, digital technologies and peripheral learning, 3) Digital technologies and learning: new relationship to knowledge.

This issue also welcomes contributions that would highlight failures, or difficulties in the social and technical dimensions of the learning processes.

Representations and incorporation of digital techniques

Studies showed as early as the 1980s that digital learning was not limited to its cognitive dimension. The uses of digital technology are practical activities, and as such they involve a considerable practical dimension (Lelong, 2002, p. 273): one essentially learns by doing and practicing. Admittedly, the use of everyday digital devices does not require as much learning as what David Sudnow (1983) observed about expert electronic game player’s skills in the 1980s. However, as a 2001 AOL advertising campaign says, it is at the very least necessary to know how to “click” in order to navigate on the Internet. The design of the most common equipment follows a long-term trend to hide the technical aspects of digital tools. Graphical interfaces and the closed environment of mobile apps make users feel that they are acting directly on tangible objects and lose the sense of the instruction-process-result chain that was evident when these uses were made through command line interfaces. To build on the reflection of Claude Pair (1996), we may say that the evolution of computer science itself has undermined the motivation to understand and learn its technical nature. Nevertheless, any use of a digital device also gives rise to some kind of representation of its technical functioning. Grugier (2016) shows, for example, that nursery school pupils confronted with screens in the classroom (tablet, TNI) not only develop a form of “practical familiarity” but also formulate questions and conceptions about the functioning of technical objects. Other works have shown the joint evolution of manipulation and conceptualization activity with digital objects in elementary school students, both on computers (Gianoula and Baron, 2012), programmable robots (Spach, 2017) and humanoid robots (Bugmann and Karsenti, 2018). The dual dimension, both physical and conceptual, of digital learning, has also been observed for students using everyday tools in an educational situation (Fluckiger, 2016), but also for teacher-researchers using e-mail (Millerand, 1998), etc. Learning often also means breaking with habits: forgetting one’s reflexes with certain interfaces in order to learn how to manipulate new ones (for example, switching from an Apple operating system to a Microsoft system), or withdrawing from certain body techniques in order to develop others (Sudnow, 1983). The question of learning processes may thus be related to the issue of innovation, for instance when considering the phenomenon of path dependency described by innovation studies which highlight the process of the establishment of norms and standards in relation to professional uses. Preexistent structures of learning are , for example, an important feature in the development of standardized keyboards (David, 1998), or in the design of user manuals (Akrich & Boullier, 1996).

This special issue thus welcomes contributions that question the learning of digital technologies themselves and their representations, in their cognitive dimensions as well as in their incorporated forms. A biographical perspective could, for example, allow us to identify these processes in moments of transition or rupture. How valuable is the learning of digital technology (computer use or programming for instance) in a biographical trajectory? How can these skills circulate between school, professional or amateur contexts? Finally, this first line of research invites contributions to address the question of the particular difficulties that rise up in technical learning when it is imposed on individuals. In many professional fields, for instance, the introduction of digital technology induces profound transformations of the activity and consequently of professional identities. What forms of articulation (Strauss, 1992) and organization work are involved, both individually and collectively, in these learning activities?

Communities of practice, digital technologies and peripheral learning.

Beyond the question of their technical mastery, digital technologies allow mediatized access to specific social universes. Furthermore, each social context can encourage or discourage the use of specific instruments or require specific habits and norms in the use of digital technologies. For example, how do young employees enter into professional life via digital tools, in relation to their previous uses, whether personal or academic, that may have prepared them (or not) for these new social codes?

Ways of knowing and doing closely articulate technical, social, political and moral skills. The free software movement is quite exemplary in this respect (Flichy, 2001): built on a singular relationship with computer knowledge, based on the slogan “information must be free” (but not just any information), it often has been presented as the development of a true ethic, i.e. a practical morality (Himanen, 2001). Here, belonging to the collective is strictly associated with both the acquisition of technical skills and the development of a particular relationship to learning (Raymond, 2000). We can thus question the identities and ways of knowing and doing things that training in digital technologies transmits, as well as the environments and contexts of technical uses that they help to promote (Vicente, 2017).

Referring to the socialized dimension of digital practices, the concept of community has been particularly successful in designating online collectives whether as an indigenous or academic use. In this respect, the latter have notably drawn on the concept of the “community of practice” which was developed by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger in the context of their work on situated learning (Lave & Wenger, 1991). This notion became a major reference to the field of research that developed around Computer Supported Collaborative Learning. We may wonder if the potential of Lave and Wenger theoretical tools are not, however, still underexploited. Research that builds on this notion often investigates the social participation linked to the concept of community of practice rather than the learning in itself, although it is described by Lave & Wenger as the primary modality of participation.

Research drawing on their work, on the situated nature of learning and the extent to which it is likely to be transposed and valued in other spaces (Chevallier, 1996; Delbos & Jorion, 1990, Brougère, 2007, 2008), still need to be pursued in the context of digital uses. Indeed, digital spaces have been analyzed as informal learning environments or frameworks for non-formalized learning (Berry, 2007). Building on Dominique Pasquier recent work on the working class and lower-middle class uses of digital technologies, we could question the mobilization of online resources for learning as a possible (academic or social) remediation or “catching-up” (Pasquier, 2018). Furthermore, this line of questioning pursues analysis of “tiny knowledge” (Pasquier, 1999, 2002), and invites us to question the forms of learning linked to biographical transitions that rarely lend themselves to formalize transmission, but can find support in media practices that expose individuals less directly to the judgment of their entourage (learning about feelings or sexuality, for example).

Digital technologies: new relationship to knowledge

We find again the notion of communities in works that raise the question of new forms of supports for the construction of knowledge (Dagiral & Peerbaye, 2016; Heaton & Millerand, 2013; Méadel, 2010). Works conducted on epistemic communities or cultures place more emphasis on the way in which political issues (such as the tension between experts and amateurs) are reflected in the specific IT infrastructure and form that support the construction of knowledge than on the question of learning. However, they also show that so-called “profane” knowledge can be characterized and valued in relation to expert knowledge by its empirical quality, which is often linked to a particular biographical background (Broca & Koster, 2011). Contributions in this area could, for example, question the singularity of the information and communication devices of digital technologies: wikis, forums, databases, videos (streaming, tutorials). As some analyses of Wikipedia, for example, may have suggested, do these particular devices contribute to renewing the forms of learning and the relationship with the knowledge that they carry and build (Cardon & Levrel, 2009)?

One possible theoretical entry—among others—into the question of a new relationship to knowledge and digital technologies is based on the concept of literacy, particularly in the anthropological sense that has been given to it by Jack Goody (1977). Like writing, digital technologies can be seen as a “technology of the intellect” that affects the relationship of humans to the world: “digital is a new medium that has revolutionized our societies by making it possible to approach and process all types of content” (Bachimont, 2012). Rather than referring to individual “skills” or “abilities” (as do, for example, the OECD definitions of literacy, see OECD, 2000), the literac y approach makes it possible to think about the transition to a digitized society, in the same way that Jack Goody was able to study the transition from oral to “scripturalized” societies. More specifically, these approaches highlight the fact that practices are socially, culturally and historically situated, that they “are shaped by social institutions and power relations, and that some literacy is more dominant, visible and influential than others” (Barton and Hamilton, 2010).

Other theoretical approaches are possible in this area, where are welcomed works that question the place of the relationship to knowledge and the world and pay attention to the institutional place of digital uses, as well as to their social or temporal variations. These perspectives can indeed invite us to think about how, at different stages of life, digital uses alter the way individuals perceive the world.

Practical information

The abstracts (500 words maximum) are due by January 22, 2021. They should be sent to the following addresses:


Cédric Fluckiger:

Vinciane Zabban

The abstracts will be reviewed anonymously by the issue coordinators and the members of the editorial board. Authors of submissions selected at this stage will be asked to e-mail their full papers by May 17th

Important dates

Deadline for abstract submission (500 words maximum, plus references): 22/01/2021

Responses to authors: February 2021

Deadline for full papers (6,000 to 9,000 words, plus references): 17/05/2021.


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