Sunday, January 25, 2009

Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants .... Sticky Labels for Uncertain Times

I first heard about Prensky's argument about Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants from a teacher in Winnipeg who heard about it from a vice principal who heard about it in an administrator's meeting at the Board Office. I thought the notion of Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants was interesting - and tried to look at my students in this new light. Yes, they had grown up with the technology - many couldn't imagine a world without google, texting, or social networks. Without having read the article, I thought Prensky was likely onto something good.

Then I read the article.

Like Kathy Schrock in Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, and Digital Pioneers, I "bristled" to be called a "Digital Immigrant." I found Prensky`s portrayal of immigrants (digital and otherwise) to be offensive. He completely disregarded the prior knowledge and experience that immigrants bring to their new worlds. My distaste for Prensky's article goes beyond simple semantics, however, as I found the entire tone of the article was demeaning to educators. Prensky wrote:

"It's just dumb (and lazy) of educators - not to mention ineffective -to presume that (despite their traditions) the Digital Immigrant way is the only way to
My response, I'll admit, was to do something unscholarly... I googled: "against Prensky's digital natives," and found a very interesting response: an article called Digital Nativism, Digital Delusions, and Digital Deprivation by Jamie McKenzie. He sums up Prensky's work in the following manner:

"In a rather shallow piece lacking in evidence or data, Prensky offers the terms "digital natives" and "digital immigrants" to set up a generational divide. His proposition is simple-minded. He paints digital experience as wonderful and old ways as worthless. He lumps people together by nothing more than age and exposure, spending little time on differentiating or understanding. He offers
learning with video games as a digital Nirvana that should replace forms of learning that he claims are now outmoded."

Mckenzie also provides a different point of view that I think educators must contemplate:

"Being born into a culture saturated with things digital is not a complete blessing despite the eager claims of digital drum majors and pied pipers.
Neither is such immersion an automatic state of grace."
I'm reminded not to generalize, and not to expect students to know innately how to manage their learning in a digital world....teachers still have an important role to play, even if that role is evolving.

Still, though, I concede that their world is different (not better, not worse), and that the way they are learning is different. I want to be able to understand what it means to be a student growing up in the digital age. . . I want to know if I really need to adapt drastically how I do things in the classroom, or the library, or even how I work with my own children at home.

Born Digital - A Glance at Learners

I found the direction I was looking for in Palfrey and Gasser's portrayal of digital learners in their book, Born Digital. This text is thought provoking and much more sensible than Prensky's article. Palfrey and Gasser do an excellent job of explaining the concerns that adults feel for their digitally saturated children....while at the same time, they explain the digitally born student's perspective. Thankfully, the authors walk the line between both worlds with a certain grace that does not resonate of Prensky's fear mongering. They write:

"There are no hard data to suggest that Digital Natives are smarter than anyone who came before them. Neither is their any sign that kids are dumber, or in any way less promising, than previous generations of kids. Digital Natives are doing the same things their parents did with information, just in different ways. While they may not be learning the same things through the same processes, it's not the case that Digital Natives are interacting less with information. They are simply coping with more information, and that information comes to their attention in new ways -offering new possibilities for engagement." (p. 244)
So, how are Digital Natives learning? According to Palfrey and Gasser, they "graze" (skim the headlines and read brief summaries, etc.) , "deep-dive" (examine longer articles, watch video-clips, listen to podcasts, etc.),and "feedback loop" (add comments, respond via blogging, create own podcasts, etc.) (p.242-243).

This cycle reminds me of the Guided Reading approach. Students look at the title and pictures, and make predictions about what the book will be about and teachers provide necessary background information that will help to spark an interest in the book (grazing). Then the students read the text (deep dive), and finally they will discuss the book to check for comprehension (feedback loop). This may seem too simplistic a comparison, and perhaps I have misunderstood the learning cycle that Digital Natives undergo. But maybe Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants are not so unalike after all?

Still, the book, Born Digital provides a realistic, practical, and perhaps conservative approach to technology that I found very interesting. The good news is that they feel,

"[w]e don't need to overhaul education to teach kids who are born digital. . . . [l]earning will always have certain enduring qualities that have little or nothing to do with technology." (p. 246)
The authors go on to suggest that we do not need to use technology because it's cool and it's what the students are using outside of school. They remind us that we need to "figure technologies can support our pedagogical goals," (p.246), and I believe that a time will come when the flow between technology and curriculum will become seamless.


chris the teacher said...

Well done. My recent post pointed out some problems I had with Prensky as well. Thanks for the info from Born Digital, I'm going to have to pick it up.

Carol N. said...

Thanks Chris, I thought it was important to have a little rant about Prensky as many educators quote him without a full awareness of where he's coming from. I think I did this too, based on what I'd heard from others. The conversation is a good one to have, but this reminds me of the saying "a little education is a dangerous thing" (at least I think that's a saying - perhaps I made it up).