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Friday, February 10, 2012

Digital natives my #¤%!

(Update and explanation: This post was originally published as part of my 'Sick of Gurus' series. Several people read it (I have good information that this included people who read it of their own free will and were not under the influence of mind-altering substances at the time) but no-one commented. Partly because this is a topic I have taken up with a couple of my sociology classes, I re-posted this as a class exercise in English, getting the pupils to comment as we discussed the art of internet comments. I was so impressed by my pupils' contributions that I have now done it again here, simply re-cycling the post.

In the time since the original post, however, I have wondered if things are changing. Is there a culture change afoot amongst teenagers? Interestingly enough, after I had published a more positive post, Ann Michaelsen, who works at my school and is far more gung-ho about teaching with Web 2 than I am, published a post surprizingly in line with my original, more sceptical one.)

Overestimation of how plugged-in our pupils are.

If we repeat “our pupils are digital natives” often enough, will it become true? This is part 2 of the series “Sick of gurus”

I feel left out of much of the discussion on the web (and at conferences). The party line just doesn’t match my experience in the classroom.
Our students are citizens of the 21st century. They read, communicate, collaborate, socialize, work, explore, and learn with personal technologies. They are the Millennials, who share ideas and dreams on social networking sites, follow streams of information from web page to web page, and use technology, reading, writing, and critical thinking skills in almost every aspect of their lives.
This is an extreme example, but the web is full of this ‘digital native’ stuff. I’m sorry, it just isn’t so. It seems to me like a classic case of the Bellman’s fallacy (from Carrolls’ The Hunting of the Snark’) : “What I tell you three times is true”. Cut off from the classroom, the gurus just keep repeating this kind of thing to each other until they believe it. I’m sorry, but while my pupils are literate, media-interested, highly privileged, at-least-4-computers-at-home, online 24/7  types, the large majority of them do not use social networking to learn anything or collaborate and they certainly aren’t out there using ‘critical thinking skills.’

They don’t use cloud computing, they don’t use social bookmarking, few of them blog, very few of them have ever uploaded anything to YouTube. They read Wikipedia, but don’t know what a wiki is and have never contributed to a wiki, looked at a history page or subscribed to changes. None of them know what a podcast is. They may know what RSS is, but almost none of them use it on their own. They don’t tweet. They don’t even use stuff like Digg.  They just don’t use modern technology for what we would like them to and even resist adults trying to get them to approach digital and social/digital media in the ways we think are productive.

My pupils are plugged into ‘Web 2.0’ (asked if they have FaceBook accounts, they look at you strangely - it’s a bit like asking if they have noses) but they use it for social connection, not for collaboration. Their approach is fundamentally passive. Their use of things like wikis and YouTube are good examples – these things are deeply embedded in their everyday lives, but in they don’t use or approach these things the way I do (or - aha! - the way I would like them to).
For me, wikis are one of the watersheds in human history: the emergence of massively collaborative systems for organizing information. You read the Encyclopedia Brittanica, you participate in Wikipedia. My pupils read them and use them in the same way.  
I am starting to love services like YouTube and its imitators and spin-offs. The ease of embedding content all over the place is another real watershed.
embed_codeMy pupils, however, do not share my mania for mashing it up. They just like the access to pictures and music that the modern web affords.
It’s also interesting that, while many of them know what RSS is, they don’t use it. For me, this is again a fundamental change in the way the internet fits into my life: what I am interested in comes to me. This isn’t an interesting approach, it seems, to a generation that has grown up zapping their way around.

We don’t like it, but the most popular Norwegian social networking site for teens ( I teach in Norway) is this. (Don’t click if you’re squeamish or easily depressed – it’s the Norwegian version of 'Hot or Not') I know that the ages of contributors on the first page are high, but don’t be fooled. What teenagers are doing here is indeed uploading and sharing content, but this isn’t what I think of as collaboration or useful learning. They are posing – and competing for attention and approval. They also seem to be participating in their own objectification.

My point is: if we want a generation that “shares and collaborates” on the web and that “uses critical thinking” in its interaction with media, we’re going to have to work hard to produce it. The idea that technology produces these things by itself in some magical way is so hopelessly out of touch with reality I’m amazed I’ve managed to write so much about it here…


  1. I can only partially agree here. Most of our generation is mainly using Internet passively. We're only on YouTube to watch or listen, not to upload. But people are still actively using sites like Facebook and Twitter to organize events, spread awareness and collaborate on projects. It's not completely one-way connection, even though it's mainly that way.

  2. Good article! You have alot of good points, but as @Harald says it's not completely one-way. I for instance use twitter alot to tell my followers what is going on.

  3. I agree with @Harald, not every teenager is like this, but some of the aspects are defiantly reality. Also i believe this is the page everyone is wasting their time on.

  4. I agree with most of what Harald said. It is really food for the mind because I truly believed that we were "digital natives" as described earlier in your post. Exceptionally well written as well.

  5. @Harald I must agree with most of what you say, but I think how the internet is being used is very different for social groups.

    For the topic at hand, I believe gamers are a lot more involved in the use of internet. Wikis are not only used for reading, but also adding information of their own experiences and knowledge. This might be because they have a burning passion for getting acknowledgement for their accomplishments.

  6. You seem to be drawing a parallel between contributing (by uploading videos or commenting in this case) and thinking critically while on the web. While I agree that this generation isn't adding a lot to the internet as of right now, I think that a lot of us can think critically while using it even though we don't share our thoughts.

  7. nice article, but I disagree! I don't think our generation are bystanders, I think we just like to share in other ways than blogging, mostly because of facebook, we like to be anonymous and maybe just post a comment or join in on the threads on 4chan or reddit because no grown ups likes to interract with kids on the internett. when we grow up, I think we will be much more involved!

  8. This article is a reprint of something I wrote earlier. At that time, Deiligste was the largest Norwegian site used by teens. This may be different now - I don't have recent data.

  9. I think blogging has an extremely bad reputation in teenage communities, because of the so called "rosa bloggene".

  10. I have to say that I disagree with a few of your statements. Using "they" about your students when discussing what your students use the media for is very general. For example ;" They just like the access to pictures and music that the modern web affords." In my opinion, and from my experience - this varies from student to student. Many students I know, including myself, use the internet to learn and to share what they know. Of course there are many who are passive, but this includes adults as well as youngsters.

  11. Twitter is used by teenagers, entrepreneurs, celebrities and politicians to connect with a network of people who are interested in certain subjects. Personally I edit Wikipedia several times-a-week.
    Twitter will never be a web service for critical thinkers, Wikipedia though should change their wiki so that users may share articles and ask the community for help.

  12. I can say that I agree with @Harald, he got a point. Our generation use the internet very passively, but that is just in general. More teenagers learn to use the internet to share and collaborate, information and knowledge. Like @Felix said he uses the internet to more than just hanging out on Facebook and listen to music on YouTube. I think we are in progress and in a few years the general teenager will use internet more to collaborate and interact with the media.

  13. I agree with you on some of your points. Our generation are using internet mostly to get information, and not so much the other way around. But as @Harald mention, on facebook, blogs and twitter for instance people are posting things and telling what they are up to, so it not all just to get information.

  14. Good article Simon! I found it really refreshing to hear what the adult generation think we should be doing on the internet, and not only the usual "You are spending to much time on Facebook, go read a book!"
    When it comes to wikis, I remember that we where taught to read but not so much as think the thought of editing anything. That "command" is still stuck in my mind, so I find it unnatural to add to or change someone else's work.

  15. I'm glad I published this again and again coerced young people into reading and commenting. As always, young people surprise and challenge me - that's why it's a privilege to work with them.

    @Iver - I certainly don't think of contribution and critical thinking as the same thing but it's a good point that my polemic style here conflates these things. However, I've always believed that truly developing critical thinking requires getting some experience in production/creation.

    I'm also very interested in what Karoline writes. The whole education system may be doing young people a disservice by continuing to introduce them to text as fundamentally a one-way deal.