computers, classroom, climbing, etc.

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…