Wednesday, 6 December 2006

Diminishing the digital divide - a need to bridge the generation gap? 

Once again, fascinating issues raised by the core articles this week. Both highlight a significant difference in the generations, characterised by familiarity with computers, the internet and technology (or lack of it). This raises important issues for educators at ALL levels, in particular how these technologies can be put to best use in order to engage students without creating a 'digital dependence' where human relationships and overall learning might suffer.

Oblinger draws up 3 general but useful distinctions between generations and their understanding and comfort with ICTs (this includes internet use): Boomers, the 40+ age group, might be classed as 'digital migrants', or those who did not grow up surrounded by computers and associated technology, but had to learn about them at a later stage; Gen-Xers (which I fall into) who were the first generation to grow up with (albeit rudimentary) computers and who are the first 'digital natives'; and Millenials, or 'digital natives 2.0' who were born after 1982, and who are completely au fait with computers, internet and associated linking gadgets such as mobile phones, iPods etc. Millenials have also been classed as Generation-C - where C stands for Content - meaning that for this generation, creation of 'consumer generated content plays a significant role in their social life, generating streams of new text, images, audio and video on an ongoing basis. These characterisations are extremely useful for educators of the older generation who wish to better understand and inform the younger generations, and to an extent vice versa.

What is perhaps most interesting for teachers at all levels is that Millenials exhibit distinct learning styles, as Clare Raines suggests in 'Managing Millenials'. Their learning preferences embrace "teamwork, technology, structure, entertainment & excitement [and] experiential activities". These preferences may be said to differ significantly to those of the Boomer generation when they were at school. And this is the challenge faced by the Boomer generation, who are currently in management positions in schools, colleges and universities: how can they tailor way that teaching and learning is presented to engage the students of the tech-generations? If they do not, there is a danger of disenfranchising large numbers of young people, perhaps even turning them off from education completely.

Teachers at all levels must therefore increasingly adopt methods that appeal to what might be termed the "information-age mind-set." As Oblinger writes, 'the attitudes - and aptitudes - of students who have grown up with technology appear to be differ from those of students who rarely use technology." She cites Jason Frand, who lists ten key attributes of this emerging mind-set: "[1] Computers aren't technology; [2] Internet is better than TV; [3] Reality is no longer real (re: potential inaccuracies of digital content); [4] Doing is more important than knowing; [5] Learning more closely resembles Nintendo than logic; [6] Multi-tasking is a way of life; [7] Typing is preferred to handwriting; [8] Staying connected is essential; [9] Zero tolerance of delays; and [10] Consumer and creator are blurring." These all combine to highlight fairly significant changes in how young people process information.

In the other core article, Monereo highlights this cognitive change. "Just as steps from oral culture to written culture and then from writing into printing had clear repercussions for forms of learning and thinking, the transition from the printed culture to this new digital culture will have diverse consequences for our cognition". In particular, point [4] above marks a giant step, where knowledge accumulation needs no longer be a principle goal of education, as information can be easily accessed and needn't necessarily be stored in an individual's brain. Monereo again, describes this distinction, writing that "technological migrants [Boomers] regard knowledge as something that they possess, something that they carry around with them; technological natives [Gen-X onwards] see it as something that they obtain through a set of applications and instruments. This distinction modifies substantially notions such as intelligence, wisdom and ability." This change also has significant epistemological ramifications.

Once again Monereo raises this issue. "For the older generation there have always been universal truths, both scientific and moral... But for the younger generation, "everything depends"; all truths are relative nd depend on who, when, how, and why they are stated; they are never independent of their utterer or their context." This is a considerable, and I think exciting, philosophical change that teachers must accommodate - teaching that knowledge is absolute will not convince our young learners; they will require to be told of the bigger picture, and then make their own minds up. [See the excellent example, again cited by Oblinger, which provides students with a broad range of documents relating to the civil war, encouraging them to view sources as a multitude of opinions, not facts, and to synthesize a broad range data to form opinions of their own.]

I also feel, although to a lesser extent than above, point [5] also presents and interesting challenge to teachers - to engage students in ways that complex problem-solving computer games, with high levels of interactivity might. Recognising and accomodating these changes will I think prove to be an important challenge for teachers over the coming years, moving away from linear, textbook-based learning, to classes that, in Oblinger's words, 'give way to simulations, games and collaboration'.

With respect to my previous posting, in which I suggested that online learning was not well suited to learning environments in which f2f social interaction played a key role in learning outcomes, I'd like to reconsider my position. On the one hand, online and distance education may not be suited for younger learners (say up to 24), but on the other hand, if these internet related functions are playing such a significant role in young peoples lives (as Oblinger et al suggest), teachers should really adapt practices to accommodate these changes and preferences. This might be done in traditional classroom settings, with homework involving internet-based projects. And statistics of web use among young people (at least in USA) would support this: 94% of school age pupils use the internet for school research and 78% believe the internet helps with schoolwork [quoted by Oblinger]. From my own personal experience, having delivered many courses on learning styles and methods with S1 pupils, in a list of differing methods of learning: from reading books, group work, experiments, projects, TV, internet, watchin a teacher, listening to the teacher, looking at pictures, listening to CDs, library, etc., the 3 most popular choices every time are TV, CDs and the Internet. While these obviously form the most common channels for entertainment, and are therefore likely to be regularly used by kids, teachers must recognise these preferences if they are to fully engage students. Linking back to a previous posting, they must understand and make use of the media with which their students are most at home.

But the concern from the parental generation is that pupils' overall welfare may suffer as a result of, amongst other things, over-immersement in technology. There is much debate on so-called toxic culture, spear-headed by Sue Palmer's book 'Toxic Childhood' which raises cautionary concerns about causes of children's angst and disillusionment. This prompted the signing of a letter from 110 child experts and authors which was sent to the Daily Telegraph (article), detailing how 'a sinister cocktail of junk food, marketing, over-competitive schooling and electronic entertainment is poisoning childhood'. While there are obviously many contributing factors to this apparent malaise amongst the young, over-use of technology is often cited as one of them. Spending a great deal of time in schools, I often see rows of friends playing hand-held computer games or with their mobile phones, instead of interacting in other ways. This over-immersement is surely damaging to their ability to communicate and empathise with others.

Monereo also devotes a section to his paper on the psychosocial risks of exposing students to ICTs. He cites our old friend Dreyfus's key concerns about epistemological relativism, the limiting of interpersonal skills, and how 'the vulnerability of the self, the need to take precautions, the need to show respect for, and commitment, to others, the responsibility for one's own actions and the ability to distinguish between what is fundamental and requires effort and what is trivial and can be ignored - break down and vanish'. As I have argued in a previous posting, while I share many of Dreyfus's concerns, they present a double-edged sword in that these concerns may also be experienced as benefits to some.

Monereo also adds other concerns about over-use of ICTs taken from research and reflection in the socio-educational setting, namely: "the curse of excess" [Alfons Cornella] relating to an over saturation of information; 'infoxication', or the 'difficulty... of extablishing credibility... of a certain piece of information; informalisation of education; and what he calls 'educational infomercantilism', where packaged educational courses become a kind of 'data fast food' which is not taken seriously. All of these are valid points, but I feel they shouldn't necessarily warn us away from ICT usage completely, but rather should highlight potential implications of sustained ICT use, and how any negative consequences might be recognised and avoided. [See Adbuster's Media Empowerment Kit as a potential tool for improving children's understanding that information is not always as it seems].

The unavoidable reality is that such technology exists, and is popular among the young. Older generations may gripe and groan, but are also likely to be spending a large amount of time in front of a computer themselves. And it's not as if those who grew up post-war were growing up in an age of enlightenment. There was poverty, hardship and other perhaps more severe concerns for children of that day. [See Catherine Bennett's response to toxic culture concerns]. And there are also arguments that internet and technology use actually *improves* relationships with others. Stats cited by Oblinger show that 60% of college students believe the internet has improved their relationships with classmates, 56% believe it has improved their relationships with professors. Likewise an enormous number of school-age children are well-versed in social-networking sites such as MySpace, Bebo and chat systems such as MSN - this points to a large capacity for communication. Evidence from developing countries also points to mobile phone and internet use helping to bring communities together [see work of Daniel Miller].

In conclusion, much of the same priorities arise to those stated in previous postings. As Monereo writes, we must 'explore the relative merits of face-to-face and virtual teaching environments and to determine contexts inwhich one is preferred to the other.' We must work on a pragmatic analysis of opportunities that ICTs and internet use might bring, and weigh these up against some of the potential downsides. We must be prepared to let go of out-dated teaching methods and develop new ones if need be. And we must, in Monereo's words, '[promote] the acquisition of a set of essential skills for surviving [and I might add, *flourishing*] in the Information Society'. Carrying out these suggestions will be vital if we are to engage the learners of tommorrow, while helping to safeguard students' overall psycho-social wellbeing.

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