A proposal about digital natives


The video below, via Wes Fryer, gives a pretty good synopsis of the entire notion of “digital natives” and how they should be taught — if you drink the kool-aid believe the arguments of people who believe in digital natives. It’s 7:40 long, so take a deep breath and make some popcorn:

Sorry, but I’m just not buying it. This is just the same old closed-system, content-free, jargon-filled cheerleading that the the entire digital native crowd has been throwing around for years. When the citations for the claims you make — such as the common proposition that students today “learn digitally” — boil down to slogans on t-shirts, out-of-context quotes from a single unnamed high school student, and the single word “richness” from Bill Gates, then you can’t expect your ideas to be taken seriously.

It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that “digital nativist” thinking about education is more of a belief system, or wishful thinking, than it is the result of serious inquiry about learning. Let me propose this instead. Let’s have a serious, well-designed scientific study to investigate each of the following claims:

  • Schoolchildren today are immersed in technology. The assumption is that this means ALL schoolchildren. But is that true? Or is it just the ones at the top of the socioeconomic ladder? Just the ones in urban and suburban areas? Just the ones in a particular geographic location?
  • Schoolchildren are expert in using technology to process information in meaningful and nonroutine ways. This is the hidden assumption behind a lot of digital nativist thinking — something to the effect of “Many people use cell phones today; therefore people know how to use cell phones really well” or even “therefore people know how to use cell phones in nonroutine ways”. it’s not at all clear that this is so. I use the telephone every day; but it does not follow that I know how to do anything more than just punch some buttons and talk into the receiver.
  • Children today learn digitally. First of all, we have to define what this means. That will be challenging enough. Then, assuming we can come up with an objective working definition of “learning digitally”, let’s test this hypothesis through rigorous psychological experimentation. It’s been done before.
  • Children today learn digitally because they are immersed in technology. Even if the first two claims are in fact true — which is not at all certain — the main claim of the digital native crowd is this implication, that their learning style is due to their supposed immersion in technology. It seems that the digital nativists accept the truth of the hypothesis (“Children are immersed in technology”, which is not certain for all students) to imply expert-level use of that technology (even less certain) and then to imply that students learn via technology (still less certain).
  • The use of technology engages students. What do we mean by “the use of” technology? And how do we measure “engagement”? It seems that “engagement”, for now, just means happy feelings. Is it supposed to mean anything beyond subjective emotion?
  • Teaching will be more effective if we use technology. How do we measure this? By measuring the level of students’ happy feelings? By making sure they’re “engaged” and not “enraged”? Or shall we do it against a backdrop of real learning outcomes that can be objectively measured?

I’m getting tired of the jargon and the evangelizing. If my students really are digital natives and learn digitally, let’s put some data on the table and prove it.

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6 Comments

Filed under Education, Educational technology, High school, Social software, Student culture, Teaching

6 responses to “A proposal about digital natives

  1. mrc

    From what I’ve seen, with my high school students, they have a much greater familiarity with social networking, text messaging, and so forth than adults. They also generally have no idea how to use email, how to learn the interface of a new program, how to search for things on Google, or even sometimes how to get to a web site given the URL. High school. So my experiences also lead me to be very skeptical of this whole “digital native” rhetoric. I think there is still very much a divide between haves and have-nots when it comes to technology, and just because every kid has a myspace page that doesn’t mean every kid really knows how to use the web — let alone how to use it for learning.

  2. EB

    I’m a college student (at Robert’s school), so as a “digital native” myself, here are some quick thoughts:

    1. Nobody I know uses a cell phone for anything but calling people and, occassionally, text messaging. (Heck, we rarely even text message, because it’s not free in most of our payment plans.) Cell phones, to us, are in no way learning tools. I don’t know if my experience is different from others’, but it seems to me that it’s way too early to use cell phones as tools for learning.

    2. My experience as a “digital native” has been this: People my age learn to use technology on our own, for our own purposes — and we’re great at it. But that doesn’t at all mean we can apply that to anything else. I’m amazed how many of us can’t — mrc’s observations seem spot on.

    3. If you sit us in front of computers, two-thirds of us will either be on Facebook or checking e-mail. Robert has some interesting views on this — on the fact that college students pay for a product yet go out of their way to get as little as possible for their money. My frank, off-the-record and for-CO9s-only response is this: Most of us are jackasses. If we don’t find the class we’re in valuable (defining “valuable” is a discussion for another day), we’re not going to fake it. And instead of leaving us to sit wallow in our own boredom, the internet gives us an actual distraction, something else to do, that leaves us wholly disengaged.

    4. If a professor asked me how I would recommend computers, cell phones, et cetera, be used to help me learn, I wouldn’t know what to suggest. Take that for what you will.

  3. EB-

    Your responses are exactly what I would have expected from a person in your situation – in fact, you have strengthened my position greatly!

    Because you and those of the “Digital Generation” can learn to use technology so quickly, then teachers need to start using technology more in their teaching.

    Furthermore, if a teacher were to use technology (such as cell phones or IM or blogs, or whatever) more in teaching a subject, don’t you think that it would make the curriculum more engaging for you as a learner?

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  6. Hi Robert, I included a link to your blog in one of my most recent blogs. I really enjoyed this post as it brought me back down to Earth in a sense. As a new-comer to the edublogging sphere as well as digital learning, it’s easy to get caught up in the hype and forget to ask the most important questions. I’ve been trying to maintain a healthy level of skepticism while simultaneously remaining open to new ideas and possibilities for learning.

    I have to admit, the videos on YouTube that throw a bunch of new terms, quotes, and statistics at me paired with compelling music tend to captivate me in a way which makes me forget to be skeptical. Anyways, good luck in your search for finding ways to reach today’s students.