“I’m a 21st Century Digital Boy I don’t know how to live, but I’ve got a lot of toys” – Brett Gurewitz
The above song lyrics were written circa 1988, but some might say they seem even more phrophetic now. You would be forgiven for thinking that the words were written by a Luddite, but in actuality they were written by a punk rock guitarist/record label head and sung by a vocalist who has Ph.D. in evolutionary biology and teaches life sciences at UCLA.
Many learners today are digital boys and girls, and they have a lot of “toys” – cell phones/Blackberrys, laptops, desktops, Wiis/Playstations/X-Boxes, iPhones, iPods, televisions, and dvd players, not to mention accounts on MySpace, Facebook, Hotmail, gmail, instant messaging and chat sites, and so on. Prensky calls those students who have grown up with digital technology Digital Natives. Prensky goes on to relate a number of issues arising from Digital Natives’ perspectives:
“Digital Natives are used to receiving information really fast. They like to parallel process and multi-task. They prefer their graphics before their text rather than the opposite. They prefer random access (like hypertext). They function best when networked. They thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards. They prefer games to “serious” work. (Does any of this sound familiar?)”
Yes, it does sound familiar, and the first points he mentions are important to consider. The last two are problematic for me, though. It’s good to recognize that digital natives “thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards”, but it’s also unrealistic to hope that as educators we can offer those things on a daily basis. I’m not sure anyone gets instant gratification all the time, I know I don’t. Do you? And the point about liking games more than serious work – is this something new? Doesn’t everyone?
Prensky continues to inform that his “own preference for teaching Digital Natives is to invent computer games to do the job, even for the most serious content.” That is an interesting idea, and one which he seems very confident about – he explains that he can create a game to learn just about anything. But, like instant gratification, I cannot offer that option to my students. I can certainly work towards engaging them in ways that games do, but I can’t develop games in order for my students to hit all of the outcomes in my curriculum. In fact, I don’t want to, either; I don’t think playing games is the only way to develop lifelong learners, and I’m not sure that learning through games will help most students learn about “how to live”, to go back to the quote from Gurewitz. It's not that I don't appreciate positive elements found in gaming (please see my last post about that), I just don't see educators making everything into a game.
At any rate, Prensky has certainly given educators a lot to consider as far as pondering the needs of digital natives. The risk of not properly utilizing technology in schools is that we may widen the chasm between tech use in private time and educational non-tech time. If students are developing skills and interests that educators ignore, it’s possible that some learners won’t “know how to live” – or won’t know how to use some of those skills for purposes other than entertainment or personal/social reasons. Dr. Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan argue here that their brain research shows that "new technology can have both positive and negative effects on our brains. Digital natives tend to have greater multi-tasking skills, improved peripheral vision and higher efficiency using technology. However, Digital Immigrants appear to have more advanced people skills - better face to face contact, more ability to solve problems, work in groups, and express empathy". Maybe we need to recognize and remember the positive elements that digital immigrants are bringing to the equation.
Small and Vorgan also have suggested that multitasking may not be such a positive development either. In their article entitled Is Multitasking Really More Efficient?, the authors suggest that “though multitasking often makes us feel like we are getting more done when we divide our attention, we are not necessarily being more efficient. Studies show that when our brains switch back and forth from one task to another, our neural circuits take a small break in between – a time-consuming process that reduces efficiency. It’s not unlike closing down one computer program and booting up another – it takes a few moments.”
The authors also cite neuroscientists and psychologists while stating that "the bottom line is that the brain seems to work better when implementing a single sustained task than when multitasking, despite most people’s perception that they are doing more and at a faster pace when they multitask." The authors do go on to say that listening to music (if it is music you enjoy) can be helpful to thought processes.
Educators should recognize that digital learners are used to multitasking without expecting that all students will perform better doing more than one thing at a time. Perhaps there are times when listening to music unobtrusively works in the classroom or the library, but there are still times when teacher need to help students to focus on one task. If we all help drive students further towards always doing two or three things at once, I think we would be a doing a number of them a grave disservice. I would say the same about students’ preference for playing games, not to mention all of the other “toys” learners access today: what can educators do to appeal to those who are used to fast-paced environments, quick decision-making and problem-solving opportunities, collaborating with others, learning at individual rates, and so on? First, recognize that we may not be able to change students’ proclivities in these areas (as Prensky suggests). Second, I would hope that educators are already planning with these developments in mind, as well as looking toward what technology can assist these learners.For those of us who can’t create games to teach everything, one good checklist for engaging digital learners can be found at The ISTE National Educational Technology Standards (NETS•T) and Performance Indicators for Teachers.
Furthermore, on an individual and personal level, what games, applications and tools can we easily become a little more familiar with? For example, how many of us have watched or played the most popular games? Don’t many of us make time to read novels that popular with our students? If we really value games as important to our learners and recognize that there may be positive elements in many of these games, shouldn’t we learn a little bit about them? Who’s up for some research?