Saturday, September 12, 2020

About Those Digital Natives

Now that so many schools are leaping back into the ed tech abyss with both feet and a few other limbs as well, the term "digital native" is turning up again, and it's just as silly as ever. Everyone who is scared about facing off against the digital native tribe in the digitized computerized distance learning world needs to take a deep breath.

The term was coined by Marc Prensky, a writer who began his career as a teacher and who wrote an article about the topic in 2001.

On the one hand, he has a bit of a point. When a culture transitions from one medium to another, there are bumps. Go back to when a culture moves from oral to written, and you'll find a bunch of old farts complaining about how Kids These Days don't have any of the old skills and they can't tell stories and they don't remember things as well. The transition to a digital world is going to have some transitional problems of the same sort.

Still, I taught digital natives for years, and they have become gradually less and less tech-capable. Mostly what most digital natives know is how to work their favorite phone apps.

This is the normal trajectory for new tech. When automobiles first emerged, everyone who owned one also owned a tool box and work gloves, because if you were going to have a car, you needed to be able to service it yourself, often. If you owned a personal computer in the 90s, you can tell stories of all the crap you had to work around (ah, blue screen of death, how nobody misses you). But as the tech improves, it becomes more user friendly, meaning that the average user doesn't need to know much more than how to turn the thing on and operate the few clearly marked switches.

There will always be those who want to pop open the hood and see what's going on in there, and improved tech makes their lives easier. Once upon a time, computer users worried about doing something wrong and creating (or erasing) a mess. One of the few advantages that digital natives have is that they are relatively fearless, both because of their age and because it's much harder to create a computer super-disaster. Non-natives can still be too chicken to just try stuff.

But those who want to look under the hood and hack around are a small group. The larger group are those who have figured out that computers are not smart, and therefor its not hard to figure out how to trick them, like the most dull-witted babysitter you ever had. That's how we get stories like the middle school kid (and his mom) who fully pwned the Edgenuity grading algorithm. 

Prensky's examples of digital immigrant "accents" (those who are, you know, older and less computer-savvy) include things like people who print out e-mails, calling someone to see if they got your email, and looking for a manual rather than expecting the program to teach you how to use it. But it also includes printing out a text to edit it--something that my digital natives did all the time. In fact, I assigned a great amount of texts in on-line versions, and a not-small percentage of my students preferred to print the texts out rather than read them on line. Remember how we were going to be living in a paperless society? Hasn't happened.

This transition seems difficult. I used on-line assignment formats with students; things like create an online presentation about some of the characters in Spoon River Anthology, grouping them by themes and showing connections between characters. What I invariably got was regular old linear essays, one paragraph per screen page, with one exit from the page, taking you to the next paragraph. Forcing them to take a non-linear approach was hard (the trick, I learned, is to create an assignment with an unmanageably large number of parts).

And there are aspects of digital natives that, I think, Prensky got wrong, like his insistence that digital natives want input fast and can multitask. But the research on multitasking keeps saying the same thing-- almost nobody can really do it, and when they try, they do a worse job on all the tasks. As for their reliance on the internet? I must have said roughly six million times in the years after my school went 1-to-1, in response to a student who asked a general information question, "Gee, if only you had a device at your fingertips that allowed you to quickly search the collected wisdom of humanity..." But then, most of my students weren't very good at googling, either.

Prensky thought there would be legacy content and future content, somewhat echoing the whole 21st century skills thing. He thought that the legacy stuff (reading, writing, arithmetic, logical thinking, understanding the writings and ideas of the past, etc.) would still be taught, but would have to be taught in new ways. His main idea was designing computer games for teaching.

I think Prensky seriously over-estimated how different the digital natives would actually be. Of course, I'm a digital immigrant, a 63-year-old relic of the old days when we had to push our data to school through the snow, uphill, both ways. But I took my first computer programming class (BASIC, on punch cards) in 1979, and I like to think I've gotten fairly comfy with the tech side of life.

But if you are worried about dealing with your computer and your internet-connected digital natives, here are some things to keep in mind:

1) Computers are not smart or magic. They just do what they're told. They just have great speed and infinite patience for repetition. But they are dumb as rocks.

2) Do not assume your students are computer whizzes. The fact that they can quickly edit a photo and place it on Instagram does not mean that they know how to work, well, anything. It was a few years before I finally realized that many of my students had no idea how to do an effective search, and that I would have to teach them.

3) The best way to get good at a piece of software is to sit and play with it. It's a massive time suck, and schools suck at providing sufficient time for it, but it's mostly unavoidable. You can practice fumbling around with the settings for a program on your own time, or in front of the students. Those are the only two choices. Note: if the software is at all interesting, the students will play with it and get comfortable on their own. You don't want to let them get too far ahead of you.

4) The nature of knowing, understanding, comprehension has not changed.

5) Tech tools can be useful, but do not let them drive the bus any more than you would let a textbook run your class.

6) If you are an actual digital native (they're old enough to be teaching now) and you have the strange feeling that you're supposed to have all sorts of digital wisdom that you don't actually have, that's okay, too.

1 comment:

  1. My students are actually sweetly amazed that I can write apps and run a web-site. They generally think that only highly trained professionals can do such things.