My role as a Leading Teacher around the area of ICT provides me with the opportunity to work with other teachers to help facilitate various technologies being used effectively in their classroom. One thing that I find particularly frustrating and unhelpful has been the way some teachers have latched onto Prensky’s ‘digital natives’ vs. ‘digital immigrants’ dichotomy and almost cling to it as an excuse for their lack of awareness/knowledge/skill around the use of computers or anything technological.
Before I go on, let me qualify this by saying that I appreciate that a lot of teachers have found Prensky’s theory helpful and have felt that it has made sense of their experiences with new technologies. I can fully understand that view, but overall I think that for someone to consider themselves a ‘Digital Immigrant’ and their students ‘Digital Natives’ is unhelpful and simply not accurate.
My main frustration, and one that constantly reoccurs in my role, is that as a ‘young’ teacher I am expected to know “all about that stuff” (ICT) merely because of my age. I am a ‘digital native’, and therefore technologically literate.
This brings me to the main issues I have with Prensky’s theory.
Firstly, I find this idea insulting. I work hard to gain the knowledge that I have around new technologies, as do many other ‘young’ teachers (and a lot of more experienced ones too!) I do an immense amount of reading every night and spend many hours ‘playing’ with new programs to figure them out and work out how they might fit best into a classroom. I did not get to where I’m at because of hours playing Kings Quest and Prince of Persia on our family 286 growing up.
Secondly, this idea that students are ‘digital natives’ is most unhelpful in my role as someone who tries to help teachers understand the skills students need to be taught in the digital age. Teachers that are happy to be resigned to the idea that their students “know more about this stuff than I do” are showing a distinct lack of understanding about where our students really are at.
Just because our students are able to use Google to find free games on the net, use a Myspace, download music, or even use proxy servers to look up rude stuff while at school, it doesn’t make them ‘digitally literate’.
In fact, the opposite is often true. Our ‘digital natives’ are often severely lacking in many key digital literacy skills. Yes they can Google information. But how many of them give any time to questioning the sources they grab the information from? How many of them even check that the information is relevant to the task at hand, other than having the same subject heading as their project topic?
Once I set a student the task of finding out the answer to a question. The topic we were studying was World War 1, the question was: “When did the war end?” To find this out she promptly typed “when did the war end?” into Google and clicked on the first response. The web page she landed on had black and white pictures, talked about war, and contained a date – this was enough to check all the boxes in her mind and she scribbled down the date ready to hand to me.
I believe our students are, more often than not, very poor uses of technology. They know very little outside of what they use for their own entertainment or social life, and even in this area their knowledge is often very limited. They are lacking in critical literacy and ‘thinking’ skills, have little or no knowledge of networking in an intelligent and purposefull way to obtain information, and even struggle with basic skills, such as emailling (beyond fowarding mindless chain letters to each other.
The following is taken from an article by Bennett, Maton & Kervin (2008):
“…questions must be asked about the relevance to education of the everyday ICTs skills possessed by technically adept young people. For example, it cannot be assumed that knowing how to look up ‘cheats’ for computer games on the Internet bears any relation to the skills required to assess a website’s relevance for a school project. Indeed, existing research suggests otherwise. When observing students interacting with text obtained from an Internet search, Sutherland-Smith (2002) reported that many were easily frustrated when not instantly gratiﬁed in their search for immediate answers and appeared to adopt a ‘snatch and grab philosophy’ (p. 664). Similarly, Eagleton, Guinee and Langlais (2003) observed middle-school students often making ‘hasty, random choices with little thought and evaluation’ (p. 30).”
25 years after computers first hit schools, there’s no way any of us in the teaching profession should still be hiding behind the “I didn’t grow up with it” excuse. I didn’t grow up with the technologies I’m using in the classroom either. None of us did. Most of them have only been around for a couple of years, at most.
No, instead, if we are serious about educating children and preparing them properly for life after school, we all need to put effort in to stay up with the latest technologies. It’s harder work for some of us that may not be naturally interested in these sorts of things, but that isn’t helped by labels such as ‘Digital Immigrant’ being invented and proglamated.