Saturday, 20 January 2007

Level 3 - We can't ignore the prevalence of digital technologies

Marc Prensky's articles on Digital Natives (DNs) and Digital Immigrants (DIs) raise some important issues, not just in the field of e-learning, but in education in general. If there really is a marked difference between the cognitive processing of children and their teachers as he claims, that 'today's students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach', then it follows that our current education system must be completely overhauled to accommodate this change. If we concede that DNs *do* communicate differently, act differently, think differently and learn differently, then the entire education system must 'go digital' to accommodate these changes. But are these radical changes really necessary?

In the terms of Oblinger's article 'Baby Boomers, Gen-Xers and Millenials', I would class myself as being a Gen-Xer, being really the first generation to have computers in schools and games consoles at home. This puts me in a good position to notice the difference between my parents' generation, the Baby Boomers, and the younger Millenials. The world of the Millenials, in terms of their immersion in digital technologies, compared to my own and especially the Boomer's childhood is striking: a single mobile phone can nowadays play music, games and videos, can take pictures and make films, can download information about latest news or sports events, can store data including contact details and diaries, can work as a GPS locator to help find directions, can be used as a calculator, can send SMS and get this... can even and phone someone anywhere in the world. Most kids nowadays will have all these functions at their fingertips, whereas a few generations ago, to have all these functions you would need a whole host of equipment, and pay a considerable amount for it. And this is just the phones - when you take into account the prevalence of cable TV, games consoles, internet and PCs, it is clear that for a young person nowadays, *digital is everywhere*. And yet mainstream education seems to almost ignore this reality completely.

The distinction between DNs and DIs is extremely useful in offering a explanation of these different paradigms, and why there might be tension between them. DNs think traditional teaching methods are boring and old-hat compared to the glut of cutting edge digital entertainment that they're used to; on the other hand DI teachers do not appreciate the value of digital material out there and accuse the young of being unco-operative or simply stupid when they get quickly tired of 'chalk-and-talk' teaching practices. On the whole, DI teachers make no effort to, or are simply unable to adapt teaching practices to get anywhere close to the kind of digital environment that DNs are used to. Having spent the last two years working in secondary schools myself, I have heard many staffroom conversations centred around how 'kids of today are different', 'they were never this bad!'; and while it might be argued that teachers have always complained that 'kids weren't like this in my day', even teachers who have taught for generations will maintain that the current generation is *significantly* different. This disparity is leading to a number of problems in education: teachers are becoming demoralised, students are disengaged and worst of all, an entire generation is being ill-prepared for their post-school lives.

Perhaps the hardest lesson is that it is up to the DIs, not the DNs, to change. The DNs are growing up into a world where digital technologies will become more prevalent, becoming the dominant paradigm. To embrace this development, not only must current teaching practices change, but the teachers themselves must re-learn much of what they've been taught. This is likely to be a painful task. My own rather pessimistic view is that apart from a few early adopters, the education system will not fully 'go digital', until the current generation of DNs become teachers themselves. [Research into scientific paradigm changes by Thomas Kuhn ['The structure of scientific revolutions], points almost unanimously to the likelihood that proponents of an old paradigm will rarely change to embrace the new, but will challenge it to the end. A good example was Einstein, who was lampooned by Newtonians when he introduced his theories of relativity, then went on to lambast Nils Bohr and others who presented quantum mechanics.] Prensky's appeal that we need to 'invent Digital Native methodologies for all subjects, at all levels, using our students to guide us' is absolutely necessary if we are to do our students justice, but I fear unlikely to become a mainstream reality until DNs are designing and implementing the courses themselves.

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