In his 2001 article, Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants: A New Way to Look at Ourselves and Our Kids, Marc Prensky describes digital natives. He says, ‘Our students today are all “native speakers” of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet.’ Prensky provides some other characteristics:
Digital Natives are used to receiving information really fast. They like to parallel process and multi-task. They prefer their graphics before their text rather than the opposite. They prefer random access (like hypertext). They function best when networked. They thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards. They prefer games to “serious” work.
This slide show from PEW puts the concept of digital natives, born in 1990, in a historical context.
Prensky labels older people as digital immigrants and states that “our Digital Immigrant instructors, who speak an outdated language (that of the pre-digital age), are struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language.” Many people, including Kathy Shrock and Joyce Valenza, take issue with being labelled digital immigrants. Both Kathy and Joyce are “digital pioneers.” As Kathy says, “This group of users grew up as technology grew up. This group of users has mastered both the skills (learned from years of technology risk-taking and experimentation) and the processes (learned from the real world and the online world) of information literacy and choosing the correct tool for the task.”
Of course there must be more flavours than just natives and immigrants. In her article Not just digital natives & immigrants! Anne Collier says, “Digital immigrants/natives is a huge generalization: among other things, it fails to acknowledge how very individual media and tech use is for people of all ages.”
I found some more labels for people in the digital landscape in an article titled Digital Denizens. I like these because they show that we all go through various stages in terms of integrating technology in our lives.
* Digital recluse: use of technology is a result of the need to function in the current environment, not used by choice; computers are prohibited at home
* Digital refugee, unwillingly forced to use technology; prefers hard copies, does not trust electronic resources; seeks assistance; may have grown up with technology or adopted it as an adult
* Digital explorer, uses technology to push the envelope; seeks new tools that can do more and work both faster and easier
* Digital innovator, adapts and changes old tools for new tasks; creates new tools
* Digital addict, dependent on technology; will go through withdrawal when technology is not available
So how do we close this gap? In The digital melting pot: Bridging the digital native-immigrant divide, Sharon Stoerger suggests that there are far too many variations, and that instead of focusing on the divide, we should consider a melting pot. “Instead of segregating individuals based on their skills or lack thereof, the digital melting pot is a place where all individuals, including those with low levels of competency, experience technology in a way that fosters opportunities without barriers.”
The whole idea of degrees and styles of involvement in the digital experience of course makes perfect sense, but I like the term “digital multiculturalism” (Collier cites Prof. Henry Jenkins) much better than “digital melting pot.” Melting pot seems to imply to me that we all have to end up one bland mixture. How about “digital tapestry”, where our individual talents, expertise, and creativity are woven together, and each individual strand is worthy in and of itself, but made stronger, more beautiful, and more useful as part of the splendid whole?
So are young people’s brain really so different from ours? I gained more insight into digital natives by watching Digital Nationon Frontline. What stood out for me:
a) not enough research has been done to determine the effect/efficacy of new technologies on and for learners and learning ( Dr. Gary Small, author of iBrain),
b) although the digital natives’ brains do seem to be wired differently, older people’s brains change in similar ways when they use technology( Dr. Gary Small, author of iBrain), and
c) students’ routinely over-estimate their skills and abilities to multi-task efficiently (Clifford Nassprofessor at Stanford University, director of the Communication between Humans and Interactive Media (CHIMe) Lab.)
In Digital Natives and Immigrants: What Brain Research Tells Us , Nancy K Herther cites Apostolos Georgopoulos, director of University of Minnesota Center for Cognitive Sciences. “There is absolutely no scientific basis for claiming that young people’s brains have changed in recent times or that there is such a major difference between the brain at different ages. There isn’t a shred of scientific evidence to back up these claims. This is totally unfounded.”
We as teachers see that our students are young people and individuals no matter their level of “digitality,” and who better than trained teachers to work towards meeting their needs right now.
In “Who Are Today’s Learners?” (Learning & Leading with TechnologySeptember/October 2008) Christine Greenhow says, “As good teachers we always want to know who our students are and where they start from so that we can tap into, reinforce, build on, and extend their knowledge and experiences in learning new things.” She suggests we survey our students to find out their “out-of-school technology access, conditions, and use” and use strategies to “engage” (use technologies in creative and innovative ways) and “prepare” our students for the workplace where they will use social networking and other web 2.0 applications.
Certainly we can agree that our schools don’t all meet the needs of 21st century learners, and that we haven’t kept up with web 2.0 innovations. There are changes we can make now to remove the barriers blocking our progress. Some suggestions:
Lobby for changes:
- Stop blocking access to YouTube and social media and web 2.0 sites
- Change district-wide filtering so that sites needed by high school students aren’t blocked because they aren’t suitable for elementary students
- Add appropriate technology and brain-research training for prospective teachers to teacher education programs (see March 2008 Learning & Leading with Technology: Hilary Goldmann – Preparing Teachers for Digital Age Learners)
- Build in training time for current teachers
- Fund – including evergreen funding—technology (Doug Johnson demonstrates 1 million+ tech $ saved in his district by moving to Google Apps)
- Stop using labels that limit public perceptions – like digital immigrant
- Encourage/enable/lead web 2.0 savvy teachers to mentor their peers
- Survey students to find out their technology abilities, expertise, and shortfalls
- Ask students how they think more technology can be integrated into your school/library/classes
- Give Teens the Chance to Think for Themselves -Allow them opportunities to express themselves and share with a global audience
- Have tech-savvy students create materials and lobby on your behalf, like Josh Porter
We need to be vocal, focused leaders in our classrooms, our libraries, our administrators’ offices, our parent-teacher meetings, with our superintendents, and with our legislators to ensure the above are enacted.
If we need further inspiration, I’d like to close with 10 year-old Dalton Sherman. Do you believe?