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A proposal about digital natives

April 12, 2007, 11:30 am

The video below, via Wes Fryer, gives a pretty good synopsis of the entire notion of “digital natives” and how they should be taught — if you drink the kool-aid believe the arguments of people who believe in digital natives. It’s 7:40 long, so take a deep breath and make some popcorn:

Sorry, but I’m just not buying it. This is just the same old closed-system, content-free, jargon-filled cheerleading that the the entire digital native crowd has been throwing around for years. When the citations for the claims you make — such as the common proposition that students today “learn digitally” — boil down to slogans on t-shirts, out-of-context quotes from a single unnamed high school student, and the single word “richness” from Bill Gates, then you can’t expect your ideas to be taken seriously.

It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that “digital nativist” thinking about education is more of a belief system, or wishful thinking, than it is the result of serious inquiry about learning. Let me propose this instead. Let’s have a serious, well-designed scientific study to investigate each of the following claims:

  • Schoolchildren today are immersed in technology. The assumption is that this means ALL schoolchildren. But is that true? Or is it just the ones at the top of the socioeconomic ladder? Just the ones in urban and suburban areas? Just the ones in a particular geographic location?
  • Schoolchildren are expert in using technology to process information in meaningful and nonroutine ways. This is the hidden assumption behind a lot of digital nativist thinking — something to the effect of “Many people use cell phones today; therefore people know how to use cell phones really well” or even “therefore people know how to use cell phones in nonroutine ways”. it’s not at all clear that this is so. I use the telephone every day; but it does not follow that I know how to do anything more than just punch some buttons and talk into the receiver.
  • Children today learn digitally. First of all, we have to define what this means. That will be challenging enough. Then, assuming we can come up with an objective working definition of “learning digitally”, let’s test this hypothesis through rigorous psychological experimentation. It’s been done before.
  • Children today learn digitally because they are immersed in technology. Even if the first two claims are in fact true — which is not at all certain — the main claim of the digital native crowd is this implication, that their learning style is due to their supposed immersion in technology. It seems that the digital nativists accept the truth of the hypothesis (“Children are immersed in technology”, which is not certain for all students) to imply expert-level use of that technology (even less certain) and then to imply that students learn via technology (still less certain).
  • The use of technology engages students. What do we mean by “the use of” technology? And how do we measure “engagement”? It seems that “engagement”, for now, just means happy feelings. Is it supposed to mean anything beyond subjective emotion?
  • Teaching will be more effective if we use technology. How do we measure this? By measuring the level of students’ happy feelings? By making sure they’re “engaged” and not “enraged”? Or shall we do it against a backdrop of real learning outcomes that can be objectively measured?

I’m getting tired of the jargon and the evangelizing. If my students really are digital natives and learn digitally, let’s put some data on the table and prove it.

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