In the land of the blind …

My wife and I were talking about students and technology today. There is this common perception that kids today are great with technology. “Digital Natives” they are called. We hear things like “There's no doubt that the latest generation of students has grown up with technology, understands it, and makes very good use of it.” (sorry to pick on Gail Carmichael but she’s the most recent one I’ve read say this.) While I don’t doubt that the latest generation of students has grown up with technology I don’t believe they either understand it or make very good use of it.

Some years ago I was working a book sale at school and a father of an incoming student started telling me about how tech savvy his son was. “Probably knows more about it than his teachers” he said. I ignored the comment because I realized that his son probably did know a lot more about technology than his father. To the father that seemed like a huge gap and he assumed that other adults were as far behind his son as he was. That was not quite the case though. People see others with more knowledge than they have and want to believe those people have some special and exceptional knowledge.

I’ve watched students using technology for years and have been amazed at what I have seen. Some exceptionally advanced things for sure but that is relatively rare. I’ve heard from students explaining to a teacher that there was “nothing about cloning on the Internet.” Search experts? I don’t think so.

Another thing I see often are students who claim to be experts at spreadsheets but use calculators to calculate the values that they enter into the software. Or students who add line feeds to skip to the next page of a document in word processing software and have to go page by page to correct page numbers they entered manually. I see email messages and documents that were written on computers but never spell checked. People keep telling me that the reason they don’t need tools as powerful as those of Microsoft Word or Excel are because no one uses or needs them. My reply is that these features would make people more productive and far better content creators and knowledge users. The problem is not that people don’t need these feature but that people are not learning (or teaching) them.

Sure students can all send text messages. And they can send email even if they seldom do. Plus they can keep multiple IM sessions going at the same time. But big deal. The amount of knowledge required by those things is trivial. The way these things work though may as well be magic to most students.

The problem with the talk of “Digital Natives” is that it assumes students are more advanced then they are and that schools don’t need to teach them more about the technology.  It reminds me of when I left first grade as a student. I had entered school with one goal in mind – learning to read. At the end of first grade Mission Accomplished! Or so I thought. Fortunately my parents and my teachers knew better and several (17 so far) years of schooling followed that first year. The problem with “Digital Natives” is that they still need a lot of help to fully take advantage of technology.

Of course a lot of teachers are not ready to do that teaching. I hear mixed results about new teachers entering the classroom as well. I hear talk of tech savvy teachers but I also hear about teachers who seem to see teaching as a field that will let them avoid technology. When I was a high school technology coordinator there were teachers who were interested in in-service on technology but many more were avoiding it as much as they could. Scott McLeod talked about this attitude last recently at "I'm not good at math." "I'm not very good at computers."

Teachers are smart people and they could catch up and pass their students in computer/technology in many areas very quickly if a) they want to and b) they get some good training. That’s really something we need unless we are going to be content with our “digital natives” staying “digital adolescents” their whole lives.

Note: I tagged this post “rant.” Feel free to rant back at me.

Comments (5)
  1. sean williams says:

    Brilliant! The whole digital native thing is getting more and more played and a weaker excuse all the time.

  2. ben says:

    amen! we seem to be forgetting that digital natives is a social/cultural designation, not a marker for knowledge or expertise. why not call my generation Clock Setters instead of GenX simply because we were the first to program our parents VCRs?

  3. Claude says:

    I’ve had a theory that my students really are not good at technology.  I find it akin to my father or better, my grandfather who was alive when the car came into production.  Everyone who owned a car knew how to fix it.  They knew how it worked, what all the parts were called etc.

    Today, how many people change their own oil, or know the difference between and exhaust manifold and a distributor cap?

    I was born in 1970.  Computers came to me around the age of 17.  I learned them in their relative infancy and with each major advance I learned the computer its self.  I have built my own computers from scratch (as were a large portion of my peer base)learned word originally as Word Perfect and watched the metamorphosis of internet with VAX and PINE to my current in home network.  Thus I learned all the in’s and out’s.

    Today, most of my kids don’t know what a CAT5 cable is.

    I wonder if this is more of an expression of the times in which the technology was generated more than any other factor.

  4. Leigh Ann says:

    Perhaps its not the skills that we are listing that make the difference between digital natives and digital immigrants.

    Having worked teaching digital natives I can tell you they are less afraid of new technology (of breaking it) than the immigrants. They also are better at integrating a technology into their lives.  Their adoption cycle is faster and their integration of social media, not just in the "sign up for and play with" but in the "make new lifelong friends" sense.

    I’m not saying these skills make them "better" or "smarter" than the immigrants, we just see a different pattern of usage, and a different way of thinking about the computer.  I liken it to the concept of gender in some languages.  Being a native english speaker it is hard for me to think of objects with masculine or feminine gender – but thats completely natural for people who grew up in those languages.

  5. Ben Chun says:

    I’m in full agreement that many adults have made a grave mistake in judgment (or failed to observe closely) in adopting this "digital natives" perspective on kids and technology.

    On the other hand, the point Leigh Ann makes is well summarized by Randall Munroe:

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