Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Using Digital Devices in Classroom Learning: A Complexity Theory Perspective

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posted on 2021-12-09, 10:38 authored by Rana Daoud

Using digital devices in primary classrooms has become a common practice in many schools around the world. A considerable amount of research has explored this phenomenon. However, the majority of studies published in highly ranked educational technology journals have focused on the effectiveness of interventions related to using digital devices in primary classrooms and few studies examine students’ use of digital devices during learning which reflects a dominance of the reductionist approach in studying classroom environments. While there is rich literature addressing the outcomes of using devices, much is still unknown about the use itself. The present study aimed to understand how students use digital devices in classroom learning activities. It explored the ways of use, the factors that shaped these uses, and how the uses contributed to the purposes of learning activities. Approaches used to study phenomena in open recursive systems, such as classrooms, should be different from approaches used to study phenomena in closed systems under controlled conditions. Therefore, Complexity Theory provided a framework to understand the socio-materiality of digital devices in classrooms learning. In addition, Actor-Network Theory was used to study the phenomenon in action and Biesta’s (2009) framework of the functions of education to understand the contribution of the uses to educational purposes. This multiple case study was conducted in New Zealand within two schools where two teachers and seven upper-primary students participated in the study. Data were collected across six months through observations, semi-structured interviews, group interviews, informal conversations, student think-aloud interviews and artefacts from learning including video screen-captures. Data were coded and analysed using the thematic analysis and an abductive strategy. From a synthesis of the findings a ‘Using Devices for Classroom Learning’ model was developed in which seven patterns of use were identified. The children used their devices as a source of information, means of communication, production medium, external personal memory, collective memory coordinator, trial-and-error learning space, and as a research tool. Interconnected factors shaped these uses which were related to the educational system, school and classroom environment, teachers, students, and digital technologies. The findings showed how the seven uses contributed to the educational purposes of classroom learning which were classified into students’ qualifications, socialisation, and subjectification. However, some of these uses led to undesirable influence on students’ learning. This study provides theoretical and practical contributions to the field of using digital technologies in education. Complexity thinking, as a holistic approach, sheds light on blind spots of the educational process and acknowledges the complexity and uncertainty when using devices for learning in social complex systems such as classrooms. What emerges in classrooms does not result from separate factors but from a network of relationships and interactions of interconnected factors. The model developed provides an analysis tool for researchers and assists educators and policymakers to understand and anticipate the role of digital devices in classroom learning.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline


Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

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Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Education


Starkey, Louise; McRae, Hiria