Typecasting ‘Digital Natives’

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There are a number of posts about the ways in which ‘we’ use social media that puts us into ‘categories’. What I think adults often miss is that young people (not us) are using social media to strengthen their existing friendship networks, not necessarily to widening them.

Educators who are forming new personal learning networks have the life experience to see professional value in it, to deem it as beneficial. These networks create new friendships.  However, the majority of adults (parents) use them as young people do – as friendship networks. They use Facebook in largely facile ways and if anything the depth of conversation and interaction between people is eroding down to 140 characters or less as they abandon email communication for more sporadic Facebook updates and Tweets.

There are countless educators who are masters at their craft, currently employing an array of exceptional instructional strategies, and I think that attacking them for not adopting Web2.0 technology is counter-productive to education. We live in times where group unity and diversity is more powerful than any single solo performance. I think that there is an educational perspective that questions the whole Web2.0 debate and are viewing social media as un-sustainable professional practice. Few schools are bringing sufficient scale to adoption and so quite rightly, teachers stick with what they know has worked in the past, and works in the current assessment systems.

I talk with (to) classroom teachers who are often interested in widening the ‘learning experience’, but struggle scale their innovation beyond a few classrooms. They may introduce a wiki or a social network, perhaps collaborating over a few schools with a few like minded teachers to look at some issue – beyond the text book. But I wonder if talking to an adult who has just experienced some high or low in their life via Skype adds any real depth to their understanding, unless of course they are sure of what students already think, feel and understand.?

If students  do use technology to strengthen existing relationships, then focusing on the student-teacher relationship is more authentic to them than talking to a politican over Skype. It is comparatively more interesting and innovative – but how do we know it is better? Is this new, or have instructional teachers been doing this for decades – with technologies of their time.

I can read about the Somme, I have photos of relatives who died there, and whilst at school attended remembrance parades and talked with veterans who came into the school. We didn’t have the internet or Skype but never the less, my instructional, industrialist History teacher (Mr. Key), did more to focus it that give me a text book and an exam. I was aware of the wider-issues and had empathy and understanding of the events but it was not until years later, when I visited the graves of my relatives (that I never knew), that what I had ‘learned’ about became personally relevant.

I wonder about the transference of understanding. Is it improved with technology or simply an alternative (which may be just as valid), or is the transference between Skype and GTalk, WordPress and Facebook – like adpting from Halo to Warcraft. What are the metrics being used not just to assess the attainment of student in relation to standards and outcomes, but to measure the engagement in deeper learning though the focus on ‘soft skills’ though Web2.0.

Antimacassar on a rail carriage seat

Image via Wikipedia

Perhaps to know the answer, we need to focus on the individual teacher-student relationships. How are  communicating to them: where they are; where they might go; and their attainment levels. A-E and marking merely classifies them to suit our measurement strategies.

We should be allowing them to use digital text as they see fit by understanding more about their ‘types’.

Is the student a ‘pioneer’ who has been psuedo-blogging before the phrase had been coined, using discussion boards and forums.. Are they creative producers building websites, posting movies, photos and music to share with friends, family and beyond? What is their motivation for doing this?. Are the simply everyday communicators, making their lives easier through texting and MSN  or perhaps Information gatherers using Google and Wikipedia addicts, ‘cutting and pasting’ their way though school as strategic surface learners.

I think that young people are very conscious that some activities were more worthwhile than others and are highly tuned into ‘teacher enthusiasm’. They like teachers who are motivated and provide interesting learning opportunities, but at the same time are also conscious that in school – over use of technology will label them as ‘geeks’. We should avoid identifying good ways or bad ways of using technologies because young people move between these ‘types’ constantly. They should be selecting the modes and moving fluently between them.

The problem is that teachers are still the decision makers who shape the way that digital technologies are used in the system and who set them up to limit their use and role in everyday life. ‘Don’t bring that game to school’ and ‘Put away that mobile phone’ co-exist within classrooms who are ‘Skyping out’. I don’t believe in ‘technological determinism’ in today’s schools and don’t think young people are interested in ‘social media’, just interested in using it. In student co-horts, I have always found a ‘leader of the pack’ – a pioneer, often not the student who demonstrates interest in technology in the classroom.

The current generation of young people will probably reinvent the workplace, just as the current one has and in turn this will change society, regardless current policy. For schools, pedagogy is central to relevant curriculum, and relevance is directly linked to understanding student motivation and interests.

In designing effective learning frameworks, we need to get used to the idea that collaboration, participation and co-production has happened for today’s young people, and they are comfortable with friend networks.

What I think teachers need to be acutely aware of is that in order to ‘widen’ their interest, they first need to establish how they are going to add value to ‘their networks’ though a two way flow of knowledge. Teachers don’t know everything and perhaps rather than try to ‘create authentic learning’, they need to simply ‘go with the flow’ of what young people are doing – and build upon what they know, not what we think they know – or think they want to know – by building stronger relationships, not wider experiences – though pedagogy.

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5 thoughts on “Typecasting ‘Digital Natives’

  1. Dean, you talk great sense! Effective teachers are the ones who truly connect with their students no matter what the technology of the time. They make the learning real by connecting with their students and making the learning significant and relevant. A teacher’s relationship with their students, their pedagogical style and their enthusiasm for their students and the content they teach, can make all the difference.

    As a mother of teenagers, I know that social media tools are a means for students to connect with their friends. It is all very much seamless and everyday. It is a very thin line to not look like a ‘geek’ – the emphasis is on connectiveness.

    Where does that leave educators who want to be relevant to their students? I liked your perspectives…it all comes down to good pedagogy…good teaching. The tools are really secondary…today’s students are living in a connected world…how can we embrace this perspective & fashion learning activities to be relevant to them? How can we capitalize on this way of working? How will the tools help?

    You’ve given me the chance to ask more questions about teaching & learning in our school, relevance & the use of technology to assist learning. Thanks again for your thoughts!

  2. Like you point out, making primary sources available and bringing the real world into the classroom is important (and always was). New technology can make this somewhat easier, but it still needs to have a teacher who is building these experiences and resources into a big umbrella idea.

    I think we could also say that a teacher’s role is also to build student-student relationships as well, but directed at academic purposes.

    So, if you want to Skype an expert, that’s great, but maybe the kids should be doing the work of finding, contacting, interviewing, setting up the connection, troubleshooting the technology, recording it, sharing it with others, reflecting on it, etc. They should be working together to figure these things out and make meaning out of the experience.

    Lots of teachers who are having these fabulous Web 2.0 experiences and learning a lot themselves are rightly excited about their own learning and want to share. But then are pre-chewing it for kids.

    Bringing the students in as full actors in every part of the equation allows them to make choices and shape the learning activities to be more relevant to them.

  3. Dean, this post has made me think (again) about what I try to do with technology in my classroom and whether it is transforming anything to do with learning. For example, a lot of well versed edubloggers have written that student blogging needs to connect students beyond the classroom in authentic ways – but kids can’t automatically do that on their own. They need a teacher to stage manage that, find the connections and where’s the authenticity in that? What I did find out was that my students created their own community via their blogs as it opened new channels of communication focussed on their learning. Commenting became the currency of goodwill, feedback and self improvement – so the comments from some of my network for a specific curricular focus was a bonus, but not a replacement for the affirmation and constructive feedback of their peers.

    So, I think there is value in social media tools in the classroom but never just for the sake of the tools. Strategically used, these tools can facilitate learning that has its own brand of uniqueness that complements but is not necessarily superior to the other innovative methodologies used by the non-Web 2.0 “masters of the craft” you referred to earlier.

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