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.