Deborah Silvis

Soon after starting her doctoral dissertation fieldwork at the University of Washington, Deborah Silvis (PhD ‘18) visited a family to observe their use of digital media.

The family's 12-year-old daughter had her heart set on getting a dog, and her mother suggested she research which breed she wanted. Her daughter jumped into the task, spending hours on her laptop, watching videos to learn more about various breeds.

When Silvis arrived at the house a few days later, she noticed an injured duck on the porch of the house. The young girl sprang into action, getting water for the duck and expressing concern for the animal’s well-being.

“It struck me that she was developing an identity of somebody who cares about animals and was consolidating her research to use that knowledge,” Silvis said. “She was partly influenced by her mom, who encouraged her to research, but also by the technology that she had available in her house.”

That interest in how children interact with digital media and technology, and how knowledge becomes valuable for both individuals and society, is driving Silvis’ studies at the UW College of Education. 

Before pursuing her doctorate in learning sciences and human development, Silvis worked as a teacher and education director at Family Star Early Head Start in Denver, a field site for several research collaborations with Denver-area universities.

Silvis helped expand her school’s curriculum into a home-based model for families with very young children, and it was this project that sparked her desire to study family dynamics and young people’s learning in informal settings, while also learning how to do research, not just participate in it.

In her current research study, Silvis observes how children use digital media in their homes. By studying how they improvise in these learning spaces, she shows how everyday knowledge is put to use by young learners.

“I think that looking inside these everyday moments of learning can tell us a lot about how we can support and strengthen kids to see themselves as interrelated with all the parts of the world,” Silvis said.

Earlier this year, Silvis received the American Education Research Association’s (AERA) best graduate student paper award in Media, Culture, and Learning for her paper, “Community Technology Mapping: Inscribing Places When Everything is on the Move,” which shares findings from studies of children creating digital maps of the places they go during their everyday routines.

“When kids are asked to consider the places they go with technology, they have to make those places visible to us,” Silvis said. “They must form coherent memories of those places and make them mobile, in terms of digital mapping. As researchers, that allows us to see something that is usually invisible about learning: how learning activities are spatially and temporally organized, which is a critical part of the development of digital and spatial literacies.”

These research interests developed into Silvis engaging with kids who were playing Pokémon Go, a popular smartphone application which was released while she was involved in fieldwork last summer. After observing kids’ immersion in the game and trying it herself, Silvis realized that it could be applied to her research into digital-spatial literacies. In the future, Silvis hopes to continue using learning sciences perspectives to show how kids are making sense of their relations to new socio-technical and socio-ecological environments.

“Once we see the knowledge that kids are forming, whether it’s of Pokémon Go or taking care of a duck or a dog, we ought to consider how that information was technologically informed,” Silvis said. “When kids experience learning through their use of technology, it may help them better understand interdependencies between the material world and their part in it.”


Dustin Wunderlich, Director of Marketing and Communications