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Digital natives

September 8, 2010 31 comments

I’ve never been a big fan of the term “Digital Natives” that had been coined by Marc Prensky (as far as I know). Truth be told, I had never even been drawn to reading his stuff as it had absolutely no appeal to me. However, there comes a time in which you’ve got to read what everyone has been reading, even if it’s just to disagree, but now you wouldn’t only disagree because ‘you don’t like it’, but maybe you’ll have lots of other reasons for not liking it – I’ve even given Twilight a chance after so many of my students talked so passionately about it. If it’s of any interest, I didn’t like it. I guess I’m much more of a fan of Anne Rice and her Vampire Chronicles, but I can understand why so many of my teenage students were so into it.

Yet, lots of other students actually couldn’t stand it. And even those who liked Twilight couldn’t exactly agree on certain things – there’s something called ‘team Edwards’ and ‘team Jacobs’, and I guess it’s very important that you pick sides. Just the same, lots of my teenage and pre-teen students are into computer and Internet. This seems to be their favourite past time. But hold on, they know very little about anything that’s not Orkut (way more popular than Facebook in Brazil) and MSN. Yet, not all of them are into computers that much. I’ve talked to students who said they literally loathe computers and all that’s related to them. Funny, huh?!

Photo by Peter Hardy

When I think back about my own childhood, I remember I was always interested in technology. I’ve had access to my first computer in the house a lot sooner than most of my friends. It was a TK-2000, and it was basically a more elaborate typewriter. After that, I remember we had an Apple Master Plus in the house. Boy, was that fun! I even remember I started learning how to programme on Basic. This lasted until the first IBM-PC arrived. And with it, lots of games – I clearly remember when I played Prince of Persia for the very first time. Along came ‘The secret of Monkey Island’, ‘The day of the tentacle’, ‘Doom’, ‘Quake’, ‘Civilization’ and many others. I was also one of the first students in my class (should I say my school?) to have an email account – 1994. And who still remember those BBSs? Finally, I still remember using ‘Webcrawler’ instead of ‘Google’ to browse the web. I guess I can say for sure I grew up surrounded by technology.

OK, the big question is: so what? Apart from growing old without fearing computers, I don’t think it’s changed me a lot. I’ll admit that it’s come in handy more often than not, and even though I’m no expert, I can usually find my way around a computer and the Internet easily. And I find it really surprising when I talk to my students about very simple things on the Internet and many reply that their parents know a lot more than they do about computers. Perhaps it’s just because many of the gadgets still aren’t exactly affordable in Brazil – an iPhone 4 32GB would cost something close to U$ 1700,00 (at Mercado Livre, a Brazilian eBay) and an iPad 64 Gb with 3G and Wi-fi costs U$ 1650,00 on the same site. However, most, if not all, of my students have got at least one computer at home, and lots of them have got their own laptops. How come they haven’t been teaching me lots of new tricks? However, this is not even the point of this post.

Even though there are teenagers and pre-teens who spend their free-time online, there are lots of others who’d rather go outside and play football with their friends. Others would rather read a book, and others are much happier in front of the TV instead of in front of a computer screen. A lot has been discussed also in terms of learners differences and how to best cater for each one of these learners so that we bring out the best in them. Why should we value just one skill? Why should we simply categorise an entire generation as the digital natives and forget that these are people who come in all sizes, shapes and, yes, interests. If we simply put them all in the same category, how different is that from what we’ve been doing for decades in our current educational system? Sir Ken Robinson once said that our educational system aims at raising individuals bearing in mind only their intellectual value, and increasingly to one side only. We are trying to create more and more scholars, and if our kids are not cut out for it, they’ll even be given medicine to see whether or not they’ll be able to fit it. And all this is done by those who claim to have their children’s best interest at heart.

No matter how much I believe that technology has got to offer to education – and I do think it’s a very powerful tool in education – I just can’t label students, or people, according to the age they’ve been born and assume one size fits all. Digital natives, digital immigrants… the fact that we live in a world which is a lot more digital than the world of yore doesn’t mean we should label our children and ourselves. Everyone is capable of learning new tools as long as they give it a try, and once you get it going, it only gets easier – how many grown ups of your PLN have only recently started using the Internet and are already literate in anything related to it? And the more they learn, the faster and easier it is for them to navigate in this new, digital world.

Labels are made for clothes, not for people. I can’t say all my students like Twilight, I can’t say they all enjoy playing football, and I can’t say they all like Justin Bieber, so why should I label them all digital natives or even conceive of them as tech savvy? Besides, there are still a whole bunch of people who haven’t even seen a computer in their lives. What of them? Should they just be cast aside? Shouldn’t education be inclusive? Oh, but this is for another post… I’ll leave it here. Hope you got till the end of the post! :)

PS: Perhaps it would also be nice to have a look at this book, even if you don’t agree with its content. :)

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