Digital Natives?

Our Digital Landscape: Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, Digital Refugees, and Digital Bridges

In the Google+ group, Shannon Sanchuk shared “The dumbest generation? No, Twitter is making kids smarter” from The Globe and Mail. I found it incredibly interesting to rethink the role of writing in the lives of people today, especially those younger than myself who are often called Millenials or digital natives. I, too, have found that at least some students are using less formal communication, not always in ways I find appropriate, but the fact that they are writing more had not really occured to me. Good food for thought there!

The concept of the “Digital Native”, on the other hand, is one that always catches my attention, mostly because I see time and again just how misleading it can be.

Like the author, Clive Thompson, I agree that in many cases, those students who we assume are fluent in “digital” are significantly less fluent than we think. Yes, they may own smart phones and regularly use software and hardware in their daily lives. YouTube may be a staple, texting may be their normal form of communication, Tumblr may be how they express themselves. Sure, they can seemingly intuitively use a new gadget or post images to the internet. That does not, however, mean that they are comfortable with all tools or necessarily know all the ways they could make the tools work for them (Google search is the example Thompson uses).

There are different levels of fluency and, if we choose to use digital tools in our classrooms, I think it is worth really considering how that impacts our students. If a student does not already know how to use a tool or use a tool the way we expect them to use it, what happens? How do we support that? Are we prepared to support it? While I may be willing to just go explore a new tool myself, poke around, read help files, look up tutorials, our students have rarely been prepared for more formalized use of many of their tools.

At a presentation I attended by active learning. I know many of us in EC&I 831 are being put in this sort of position, to go out and learn and explore with technology we may not find comfortable or familiar. I’m in that boat with Google+ although I am used to exploring new technology so the discomfort is minimal. Students, on the other hand, are often not prepared for what to do if nobody tells them how to do it. Yes, some will confidently explore and bring back more than we ever imagined. Those students can make great peer-learning resources. What about the others, though? What about the ones who barely understand the concept of a URL? The ones who don’t know how to use Twitter or don’t know why that online activity won’t work on their computer?

Being digital natives can mean something very different for our students. Some of them are savvy in ways we may not give them credit for. danah boyd shared some interesting thoughts on teen privacy and use of social media from a PEW study. She highlights that many teens have accepted the lack of control and privacy they have and so create privacy their own way, using codes and vague references, understandable only to those in the know. We can learn a lot by talking about how our students use the technology they use rather than assuming they can use everything equally well.

It is not just that students “still need formal instruction in how [tech tools] work,” as Thompson suggests, either. The issue with the blanket assumption that our students are “digital natives” is that these students may not all be as comfortable using the tech tools or have access to them. Not all students have smartphones. Not all have a laptop, tablet or desktop computer. Some of them would admit, if asked, that they are barely able to use the internet. Sure, they can do the tasks they want to do, if they have access, but beyond those tasks they may feel at least as baffled if not more than older generations.

It makes sense to me to spend time talking about the tools as tools. What does social media accomplish? What are we doing with Google Docs? What concerns are there? What do we do if it isn’t working? The creativity and ingenuity, the ownership of learning that many are now saying we should be inspiring in our students, starts with us. Not just in giving freedom to use tools but in talking about those tools themselves. Why we choose to use them, why students should or should not accept that. We need to discuss how to access these tools and be prepared for students who cannot do so or who need more help. Maybe some of the students can help with that. We can also admit what we are learning, where our knowledge gaps exist. Being learners along with our students in any landscape, be it digital or non, is useful modeling of the behaviour we wish them to exhibit.

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