Digital Natives, Immigrants and Pioneers

January 25, 2009

I’m a Digital Immigrant according to Marc Prensky’s description. I wasn’t born into a digital world and none of my early school experiences included the use of technology. However, I’ve been a public school teacher for over 23 years with a deeply entrenched belief in social constructivism; the belief that students learn by connecting new knowledge to previous knowledge as well as by discussion and interaction with teachers, mentors and peers. So just knowing  my students’ interest and engagement with technology, plus my own interest, made me want to explore using technology as a teaching tool. I followed the work of digital pioneers like Kathy Schrock (who defined the term digital pioneer) and Jamie McKenzie for over 15 years and that allowed me to understand how by using good questioning and inquiry learning strategies , students can develop critical thinking skills while improving both  skill and ethical use of technology.

A deluge of books and information has become available on our new generation of students, dubbed “Digital Natives” by Marc Prensky. The ubiquitous nature of today’s technology and our students’ continuous use have resulted in today’s students thinking and learning differently.  Here’s TeacherTube’s Top 100 Video – Pay Attention which explains the nature of the digital immigrant in a school setting. Chances are you’ve already seen it.

TeacherTube’s Top 100 Video – Pay Attention:

and here’s a glimpse into how Marc Prensky thinks including some insights into how teachers and students can partner to teach each other.

Marc Prensky@ Handheld Learning 2008

In Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants Prensky calls for radical changes to education; a “major translation and change of methodology” to meet the needs of today’s students.

Most recently I’ve become aware of the work of many, many other digital pioneers in the education world developing new insights and understandings of what is important for today’s students. Examples of this work are found in exemplary standards defined in the ISTE National Educational Technology Standards and Performance Indicators for Students and  Teachers . I’m now also following the work of  Web 2.0 digital pioneers like Joyce Valenza, Vicki Davis and Darren Kuropatwa who are able to demonstrate that their students are meeting ALL the ISTE Indicators for Students AND that their students are also engaged, interested and having fun!

I couldn’t be more thrilled with the recent release of the AASL Standards for the 21st-Century Learner. One look at the common beliefs and I’m hooked:

  • reading
  • inquiry
  • ethical behaviour needs to be taught
  • technology skills are crucial
  • equitable access

So why are changes happening so slowly in education? One obvious answer in my situation in an adult high school is that not all our students are Digital Natives. Some of the students are older than me. I also found insight into these questions in the 2008 publication of Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser.

born-digital

What I like best about Palfrey and Gasser’s discussion on learning in the digital world is that they dismiss the debate about whether technology is creating a dumber generation by stating there is “no definitive evidence that Digital Natives are smarter or dumber than other generations, they are simply coping with more information” (p. 244).

The authors also assert that the radical transformative changes advocated by Marc Prensky and others to meet the needs of Digital Natives are not necessarily wise. Rather learning and teaching have enduring qualities that have nothing to do with technology, such as students learning by dialog, questioning and exchanging views. The authors emphasize that it is the “participation gap” that educators need to pay the most attention. This includes those students with the least access to technology outside of school that need to somehow gain the technological skills needed to participate in today’s society.

This prompted me to reflect on the students in my unique setting. As Christine Greenhow asserts in “Who Are Today’s Learners?” [Learning and Leading with Technology, Sept/Oct 2008 ] it’s important to know our students out-of-school access to technology. Just two years ago I conducted a survey with the students attending my school and one of the indisputable findings was the varying levels of access to internet accessed computers by the students in our different programs. These are the results when comparing out-of-school access from least to most:

  1. English as Additional Language Program
  2. Basic Ed. program (gr. 1 – 8 )
  3. Intro and Advanced Courses (gr. 9-11)
  4. Grade 12 Courses

The implications for me and my school staff seem clear. We need to provide more opportunities for students with the least amount of access to technology outside school.

I can plan and make changes in my own library program:

  • I’m happy to report students will be able to access the internet on their own laptops by the start of next semester, which should free up more of our school networked computer workstations for those students without their own laptops.
  • I can continue to advocate for  increased access to computers in the library.
  • I need to continue to help promote rich and meaningful opportunities for online research as well as provide students with the means to verify information.
  • I need to begin helping students better learn to organize the increasing amounts of information coming their way by using RSS feeds and social bookmarking.

I can appreciate why many advocates for educational reform are calling for dramatic and radical changes. Today’s students don’t freeze in time while their teacher’s take the time to discuss today’s changing needs. I also appreciate that care and balance is necessary for educators to learn and plan how best to meet students’ needs.

For now I take inspiration from Palfrey and Gasser in Born Digital:

“There’s never been a greater need for reference librarians than there is today, when Digital Natives are relying so heavily on Google, Wikipedia, and the places to which those sites point them.” (p. 252)

and

“The role of libraries is increasing, not decreasing.” (p. 253)

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