Just How Digital Are The Natives?

The recent exchange of comments following my look at the recent newspaper reporting of social networking sites has had me thinking. I basically inferred that by ignoring student use (and misuse) of web based technologies, teachers were risking irrelevance and would be unable to provide a decent 21st Century education. Now I'm not so sure. Education surely has greater scope than just being having relevance and providing engagement, although their importance can't be discounted. I still think that one of my original thoughts still stand - that it is impossible to do anything constructive and meaningful about the risks and dangers of the web without having some first hand knowledge of how many of our students are using the online world. How do teachers teach online ethics, identity protection, scam awareness and effective web search skills - by using a set of blackline masters from a book, by following the teachers guide for NetAlert step by step? My quoted comments in David Sly's article for Adelaide's Independent Weekly talked about a digital divide between teachers familiar and comfortable with web technology (or any computing based technology) and those who aren't aware or comfortable with it. I see it at my own school every day. But is digital information and skills an indispensable part of the teaching armoury or can high quality teaching and learning still occur without it?

Stu raised a great point that point that many skilled teachers have engaged and provided high quality teaching without being web savvy or techno lovers.

I also know plenty of teachers who are inspirational without feeling the requirement to keep up with the ideas and technologies of the new generation. And some that do and are not worth a lot as teachers.

It is true - in most South Australian state schools, most of the curriculum is delivered today without the use of computing or digital technology. Paper rules. In the primary school sector, even though teachers are encouraged and cajoled to integrate ICT into their weekly timetable, how much can be done with a couple of aging desktops in the classroom and one (if you're lucky or a scammer, two) session in the computing "lab"? Those who want to "go digital" have access odds stacked against them and when physical resources like Technology School of the Future are wound down, and the supplied internet ebbs and flows like the River Murray in drought time, then the message is that technology in education is still an optional extra. So it's easy to see that maybe all of things listed in the outcomes of our state curriculum framework can be achieved without the help of computing resources or the need to be aware of current youth culture. After all, for most of the week the scarce ICT resources have to stretch. In my own case, it's one of the reasons I don't spend time with my class on keyboarding skills or exploring CD-ROM based lessons - I have a finite amount of time with these resources and I want "value for time".

In the same way that my technology opportunities are limited in my typical week, technology has to compete with a myriad of other priorities in education today. Just as my mindset sees ICT as indispensible, other colleagues see the acquisition of another language as vital, bemoan that Arts education doesn't enjoy enough status or believe that student voice and leadership development to be the vital ingredients for today's students' future. Maybe ICT's importance is overplayed by those of us with a passion and interest in this part of the curriculum. Or are we the only ones ready to move with the times and at least try and keep tabs on changes occurring at an exponential rate?

We know most of the teaching force in this state clearly fit into Marc Prensky's digital immigrant category. Whether that status is used as an excuse to opt out of educational technology is an argument written about on blogs more informed than mine, but part of the premise for increased access to digital learning is that it is part of the students' (I love Christian Long's abbreviation, the dig:nat) world and that new generation of totally web-savvy and connected kids are going to bypass our educational offerings if we don't get up to speed fast. But just how digital are our natives? Is the generalisation too broad to be really useful? One thing I have read a lot around the edublogosphere is that we are preparing them for a future that we can't predict or know. Maybe Stu's got a point - because when have we ever been able to know what is going to be needed in the future? When I went through teachers' college in the mid 80's, I could never have predicted the situation I now teach in. Nothing in my course talked about having unlimited access to information, keeping student identities safe or connecting with other educators around the globe. Won't our students simply pick up the required skills as they need them, the same way we teachers have adapted to our new job expectations? Does teaching digital make the experience more relevant, does it create something new and unique or should we in the primary school sector be concentrating on the basics of literacy and numeracy? Can the skills and key competencies of our curriculum be successfully embedded in our students without the need for a technology gloss paintjob?

Lots of questions and so many potential answers. I am a strong advocate for the effective and meaningful use of technology in all classrooms but it is good to stop and ask some searching questions once in a while and see if those assumptions we all have can hold up in the cold hard light of day.

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3 thoughts on “Just How Digital Are The Natives?

  1. Bill Kerr

    In Schools part of the problem is that computers are often used in trivial ways. This won’t really change until we have one laptop per child, free software and enlightened pedagogy – the sort of ideas put forward by Seymour Papert and Alan Kay.

    I would see the digital revolution – the transition to “being digital” – as one that is maturing but has not really happened yet. I also see it as a “good thing”, that it is leading to people being better informed, better educated and more free. eg. We can now all own our own printing press – it’s called a blog. Some people don’t like this (it’s messy) but I think it’s great.

    All revolutions are messy – there is some good in the old and some bad in the new – and a lot of people, including some young people, get left behind. The new technology corrodes the old institutions but they don’t just adapt, they resist, all sorts of struggle is going on around the digital revolution – new and worse copyright law, media beatups about teenagers at risk, censorware (filtering), DRM as well as a lot of passive resistance and inertia

    I think progress has always been like that – messy, hard to keep up, lots of people don’t like the old ways becoming not so important, old crafts and skills become not so relevant. Horse and carriage. Monks writing out the Bible by hand.

    In the old days progressives used to be burnt at the stake or shown the instruments of torture. Today, we only have to read the instrument of torture. It’s called The Advertiser.

    There is only one thing worse than progress. That is not to have progress. Stagnation. Not moving forward.

  2. Tom Sheehan

    This is a great blog. A great teacher will always be a great teacher regardless of the tools he/she uses. A great teacher is great because they build/create a dynamic learning culture with strong leadership and caring relationship.
    Your point about the future is certainly true. Each generation has faced new ideas and developments and then gone on to create more challenges and innovations for the following generation. No one knows but who cares. Teach kids how to work as individuals, when to cooperate and when to compete and more importantly when to apply which strategy.

  3. Dean Shareski

    I agree with Tom but my belief is that while the focus should be on teaching skills like collaboration, critical thinking, etc., Technology really does change things. It magnifies good teaching/learning and bad teaching/learning. But that needs to be clearly understood. Too many are operating under the premise that we just stick technology into our current mix and we’ll be good to go. Sorry. Curriculum rewrites are critical and pedagogical examinations are as well. Both of these changes will be futile without consideration of where technology fits.


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