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Digital Natives Are Still Humans

Posted on Monday June 11, 2012 by Michael Keathley

Who could forget the Best of Both Worlds Part I cliffhanger on Star Trek: The Next Generation when Captain Jean-Luc Picard approaches the screen converted into a Borg and says: “Resistance is futile. From now on, you will service us.”

Although this third season finale of the show aired over two decades ago (18 June, 1990), it remains one of the creepiest moments in television history for me. A human being/computer and Commander Riker’s equally robotic command “Fire!” still give me chills. The mechanical focus on “digital natives” and “digital immigrants” within education today gives me a similar feeling.

Why is there an assumption that all younger students and most older students are either native or immigrant Borgs? Why is less attention being given to students’ human side?

Digitals Defined
As this video clip explains, ‘digital natives’ are those students born after the start of the Information Age, around the late 1980s. ‘Digital immigrants’ are those who were born before. The first group grew up connected technologically—a bit like being born a Borg. The second group had to adjust to being wired in—like Captain Picard.

The general impact for educators is that most of us tend to be classified as digital immigrants, but we are teaching an increasing number of digital natives. Just as the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise had difficulty communicating and understanding the Borg, we digital immigrant educators may have a communication disconnect with our digital native students who, as the above video shows,

• Live in a world dominated by cell/smart phones, text/instant messaging, and social media.

• Tend to be active, visual, non-linear learners who demand to know the relevance of the information being shared.

• Need to be connected by collaborative activities and global connections.

Initially, there was a tendency to do what Commander Riker did and “fire” upon these students with anti-technology classroom policies containing statements like: “No cell phones in the classroom.” However, technology can’t be stopped nor the Information Age slowed down.

Resistance Is Futile
Technology is clearly here to stay, and it’s playing an increasing role in education. Recently, D.A. Barber provided an overview of the “5 Higher Ed Tech Trends for 2012,” which includes the following points:

• E-textbooks that are rapidly evolving into “digital learning environments” take students beyond the traditional words on a page—I mean, screen—by incorporating images, videos, websites, simulations, gaming, adaptive learning activities, etc.

• Open resources that largely mean the digital learning environments will be offered free to students and faculty in their electronic formats. Print copies will cost a modest fee.

• Online classes and virtual options will increase, but in different ways than our current view of online courses. The growing trend is for course designers to create a dynamic learning context within which professors will facilitate student learning that is more collaborative and self-directed.

• Campuses will be utilizing cloud technology on an increasing level to reduce costs, provide greater accessibility, and expanded content (9 January, 2012).

Clearly, the Information Age dominated by these digital native/Borgs and their need to be connected will continue to dominate education. Educators must adapt.

Service Us
The idea that educators must meet the needs of their students is nothing new. However, this trending focus on digital natives vs. digital immigrants and all the accompanying technology is not the only thing today’s students are looking for or all that they need. George Williams once posted a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled: “Digital Natives? Naïve!” based largely upon the increasing research that shows this trend of emphasizing technology and serving Borg-like students is somewhat misguided (9 March, 2010).

Part of the problem with this rush of technology is that there hasn’t been time for much empirical study of its effectiveness. New technology is being voraciously incorporated into education, and institutions are moving forward under the premise that digital natives exist and that they are different than all learners who have come before them. Williams says the assumption that all students are tech-savvy at the same level raises three chief concerns:

• “As a result, opportunities for teaching critical skills will be lost.

• Also, by overlooking the factors that can hinder a young person’s digital proficiency–which are largely the same factors that hinder traditional literacy–we overlook the inequities our students face in their upbringing, their education, and their communities. As a result, we overlook opportunities for correcting those inequities.

• And finally, feeding our students the myth of “digital natives” gives them a false sense of confidence about their use and understanding of their digital environment” (9 March, 2010).

Simply expressed: Students need educators to remember they are human.

Oh, the Humanity!
A quick read through the comments to Williams post begins to reveal part of the concern:

• Jonathan Dresner: “My students can’t navigate the library website to find journal articles, or check the course blog on a regular basis.

• Alec Hosterman: “even though DNs know how to use the tech, they don’t know how to harness it effectively.”

• Laura: “I’ve yet to have a class where more than one or two students know what RSS is or who use an RSS reader on a regular basis. Even fewer use bookmarking tools. Basically, most use Facebook, watch YouTube/Hulu, and text, but have no idea about the deeper uses of technology.

• Dr. Virago: “We shouldn’t be assuming a higher level of knowledge of it from anyone, even if they do have a higher level of comfort with it, just as we don’t assume our native English speakers don’t need to take composition. If we want them to become truly literate, proficient users of technology, we need to teach them.”

• R. Geurtz: “My high schools students are digital natives only in the sense that they are comfortable PLAYING with technology (Facebook, games, YouTube watching, downloading songs) – I want to clarify -it is important to play. When it comes to using technology to create educationally or commercially viable products, they are, in fact, at a disadvantage compared to digital immigrants.” (9-10 March, 2010)

Lowell Monke, assistant professor of education at Wittenberg University, predicted that “in the rush to place a computer on every desk, schools [would neglect] intellectual creativity and personal growth (“The Human Touch.” Education Next, Fall 2004). He also reminds us that the first teacher we humans have is our hands and our senses that allow us to fully experience our world and to make connections in ways that no computer simulation can (“The Human Touch.” Education Next, Fall 2004).

When I watched that classic Star Trek cliffhanger years ago, I couldn’t wait for season four to begin so I could find out if Captain Pickard and his crew would still be human. I sometimes wonder the same about education.

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