Monday, 12 March 2007

Level 9 - Diminishing the Digital Divide revisited - Games to bridge the Generation Gap

Articles by Prensky, Oblinger and Squire, a recently published Demos article entitled 'Their Space: Education for a Digital Generation' (Green and Hannon, 2007), plus several other commentators, all highlight a significant difference between current generations in terms of their 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. One way of engaging both students *and* teachers with digital technology is through games - and it is a potential that games have to bridge this divide that I want to explore further here.

To recap briefly on this digital disparity, 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 Boomer generation who wish to better understand and inform the younger generations, and to an extent vice versa.

If responsibility to adapt rests with one generation more than another, it must surely be more with teachers than with students (though teachers will probably disagree), as digital proficiency is becoming the dominant paradigm. When pupils enter the job market, a large number of roles (in developed countries at least), will involve some basic technological know-how. So for teachers to do their job well nowadays, it's becoming more necessary to adopt methods that inform and 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 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. Charles Monereo (The virtual construction of the mind: the role of educational psychology, 2004) explains this cognitive change well. "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". As Prensky has also recognised, DN's cognitive processes have been moulded by their immersion in a digital environment.

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 (see Gee 2003 on *distributed knowledge*). 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 and 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 want to explore the bigger picture, and then make their own minds up. [See the excellent Civil War History Game, 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 that Frand's point [5] above, 'Learning more closely resembles Nintendo than logic', also points to a growing problem that teachers face - how to engage students in ways that complex problem-solving computer games might, with high levels of interactivity, a compelling narrative and a multimedia experience. 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'. To address this problem, teachers must recognise that Millenials exhibit distinct learning styles, as Clare Raines suggests in 'Managing Millenials'. Millenials' learning preferences embrace "teamwork, technology, structure, entertainment & excitement [and] experiential activities", which differ significantly to those of the Boomer generation when they were at school, which reflected an older paradigm of individualism, knowledge acquisition and rote learning. And here lies a challenge faced by Boomers in management positions in schools, colleges and universities: how can they tailor the way that teaching and learning is presented to engage the students of the tech-generations, while also inspiring teachers of an older paradigm? If they do not, there is a danger of disenfranchising large numbers of young people, and teachers too, perhaps even turning them off from education completely.

If we look closely again at the learning preferences of both generations, we can see them mirrored in the qualities of a well-designed game, paticularly ARGs. *Good* games will often involve teamwork, technology, entertainment, excitement and experience, but *will also embrace* individualism and knowledge acquisition. For examples of such games see The Go Game, Futurelab's Savannah and MIT's Augmented Reality Games, and for a clear example of individualism and teamwork combined, see this BBC article about the winner of Perplex City. Games therefore have the potential to appeal to learning preferences on both sides of the divide, so long as they are well designed. And while gaming is never likely to be the primary pedagogic methodology, games have the (in my limited view) unique potential for uniting both natives and immigrants in a digital and non-digital cause.

But as Squire writes (Changing the game, 2005), 'as challenging as it is to design a good educational game, it may be more challenging to design a good educational system for an educational games to flourish in'. Changes are likely to be slow, but as Green and Hannon point out (2007), change is becoming more necessary. 'In an economy driven by knowledge rather than manufacturing, employers are already valuing very different skills, such as creativity, communication, presentation skills and team-building. Schools are at the front line of this change and need to think about how they can prepare young people for the future workplace.' Squire (2005) also comments on this need for change (citing Gee, Hull, and Lankshear 1996; and Reich 1990), writing that 'learning to identify problems and then devise solutions across several domains is uncommonly found in school, but precisely the kind of skill valued among knowledge workers in the new economy'. With business influencing much of school policy decision-making nowadays (which is another discussion altogether), it is likely that schools will be pushed into better preparing students for this 'new capitalism' or knowledge economy. And the great news for students, which teachers must eventaully recognise, is that digital games appear to instill precisely the qualities that knowledge workers require.

[The UK government recognises the skills required for enterprise which is a step toward the skills mentioned above. See the Determined to Succeed initiative for Scotland's answer to encouraging enterprise, team-working and ambition]

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