I was reading Lowering Higher Education by James E. Côté and Anton L. Allahar recently and was intrigued by their chapter on Technologies. In it they discuss the concept of Digital Natives and whether or not they require a different style of teaching or have a different understanding of learning. Do Digital Natives require a more technologically oriented teaching method in order to be engaged? Côté and Allahar discuss the background of this idea and show how it is based in some misguided philosophy and assumptions, and then focus on results, showing that where universities have increased the amount of technology in their classes there is no proof of a corresponding increase in engagement.
That being said I wanted to discuss what it feels like being a Digital Native and going through, and working in the education system.
I actually dislike the term Digital Native, but as it is the one used in this discourse I’ll continue with it.
My father fell in love with computers when he was using a punch card system for it. He owned one of the first Personal Computers, and when I was growing up the first computer I remember had a small green screen, dual floppy disk drives, and no hard drive. It ran either basic or DOS depending on which disk you put in the drive. I learned to spell because many of the computer games we had required text input. I have always had a computer in my house. In elementary school we were shown how to use the new CD-Rom that the school had bought for one of their computers. We had gotten one at home the previous Christmas along with Myst.
In High School I took all of the computer classes. I learned how to do HTML in early high school, at home, and learned more through the computer classes at school. When I said I wanted my own computer my dad gave me the parts and I built it.
I was one of the first people in my university classes to bring a laptop to school to type my notes instead of writing them. By the time I went to UBC for my B.Ed. they were common.
Problems with Digital Native terminology
I have a number of problems with the term Digital Native. The biggest one is that it is used as a generational tag. It cannot be. I believe that Côté and Allahar explained this better than I can, but the simple explanation is that not everyone in my generation is proficient or even comfortable with computers and technology. Many of them know just enough to get by, some are consumers of technology without understanding how or why it works. It is unfair to those who are not proficient with technology to assume that they are “Digital Natives”.
Technology is not a lifestyle, technology is not innately understood by any one generation.
Technology as Tool
Technology is a tool. My grandfather knew everything inside his car. He knew how it ran, he knew how it was built, if he had to he could pop the hood pull something out, put something new in, fix it, change it, tune it up. I cannot.
I know everything inside my computer. I know how it runs, I know how it was built, if I had to I could open it up pull something out, put something new in, fix it, change it, update it.
I know hardware. But not everyone in my generation does. Not everyone my grandfathers age knows that much about cars. There are people who never even learned how to drive, let alone what was inside a car.
My generation brings our cars to a mechanic for everything. Very few people even change their own oil. But there were always people like that; there were always people who never changed their own oil. To consider it a generational thing is disingenuous.
I know hardware. I know software. My grandfather knew how to fix a car, and how to drive a car. Students currently in high school have laptops. There are very few replaceable parts, and they aren’t really designed to be opened up and messed with. iPads and other tablets are even worse. The current generation will have a different focus instead. They won’t be fixing their own cars, that’s what a mechanic is for. But they will be driving them. Thew wont be fixing their own computers, that’s what a technician is for, but they will be using them.
But not all of the current generation will be equally skilled at all areas. In the same way that not everyone is equally skilled at driving, or using any other tool. Which raises the question of what the job of public education is in regards to new technology, but I’ll discuss that in a bit.
On my computer I read the news, I check my mail, I go shopping, I read books, I look up product information, I talk with my friends. The tasks don’t change. The way I do them does. That doesn’t mean that I don’t do those things without my computer. I read a newspaper about once a week. I listen to the news on the radio almost daily while I drive. I check the mail every day. I buy more in physical stores than I do online. I read information sheets in the stores, and on the back of physical products. I read books constantly.
I did an experiment a few months ago. I picked up a book called Mistborn: the Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson while I was at Chapters. It was on sale, and I had been meaning to read it for a while. I finished the book and wanted to read the next book in the series. So I downloaded it from a library website and read it on my ebook reader. Then I finished that one and downloaded the final book from Audible and listened to it on my iPod.
I found that I felt almost no difference between the version I read in a physical book, and the one I read on my ebook. I did find a difference with the audio book, but that was more because I prefer to read than to listen unless I’m driving.
Driving doesn’t fundamentally change the task of traveling from one point to another, but it does make it easier. It doesn’t mean that we can’t walk or bike, but it does mean that we can live further from work, or have a more spread out circle of friends, or live in a less expensive area than you work in.
I guess I have two points here so far. The first is that not all “digital natives” are equal, and it’s unfair to them to treat them as equally knowledgeable. The second is that computers are like cars. They change how we do the same tasks we did before, but don’t fundamentally change the tasks.
Technology and Education
Now we get to the heart of it. There are many uses of technology in education. Of course there are also many uses of pens and paper. Technology is a tool, and I think that people are confused with what the purpose of technology in education is.
The specific uses of technology in education that Côté and Allahar talk about in Lowering Higher Education are: laptops, clickers, podcasts, and online classes. I’ll discuss these first, and then go on to discuss other uses of technology.
Laptops in education are just like any other tool, just more so. Not only do they help with the quick creation of professional looking documents, aid in the formatting of proper notes (I prefer OneNote myself), and allow students to quickly find facts and evidence to back up their conclusions, but they also help students ignore the teacher during class, pass notes to each other, and think about that great party that’s coming up on the weekend.
So in other words laptops help students do exactly what they were doing before, just quicker. They are both a productivity boost and a distraction. A friend of mine teaches grade seven. They are starting a laptop program with the class where each student has a laptop, all work is done on the laptop, and all assignments are e-mailed to the class. The idea is to create a paperless classroom. Now, he doesn’t believe that it will actually be paperless, but he does have some good ways of ensuring that students pay attention when they are supposed to. Students close their laptops when the teacher is talking, and open them when it’s time to work on assignments. Other than that it’s just standard classroom management – have the students create or agree to a standard of conduct with the laptops, set appropriate guidelines, and be active in monitoring students who are not paying attention. Everything that is done in a normal grade seven class.
The school is not blocking out websites that they might be using to waste time (though they are of course blocking out inappropriate websites), as that would only cause them to waste more time trying to get there. Instead he will keep an eye on what students are doing on their laptops the same way he would without them, by moving around the class and watching.
Cheating can of course be a problem, but it’s a problem with a simple solution. There has always been cheating, and the best way to catch it is to compare an essay written at home with an essay the student wrote in class. This of course requires a smaller class size, as university professors with several hundred students can’t do that, but most of the problems with technology, and in my opinion most of the problems with student engagement in general, stem from classes that are too large.
I have actually never been in a class that used clickers. I feel that it is a product of trying to shove as many students as possible into a classroom, which I do not believe is the best way to educate. You may be able to train students in such large classes, but education requires more two way communication than what amounts to an easy and quick way to quiz students.
I listen to podcasts. Generally about history, or literature, or technology. But I never enjoyed listening to a podcast of the lecture I just heard two days ago. I believe that podcasts, when just of the class lectures, are a neutral technology in education. They don’t hurt, and they don’t really help that much, they just are. If a student misses a class it’s a great way for them to catch up on the lecture, but if they were already in the lecture it only functions as a refresher, which they could get from reading their notes instead.
Podcasts for extra information, however, are a good idea. If a teacher or professor wants to use this technology I recommend that they have a list of recommended podcasts in their list of extra readings. They may find that busy students are more likely to listen to a podcast while driving than taking the extra time to read something physically. This is a technology that I don’t see of being much use below the university level though.
I hate online classes. I hate online classes because I find I get more out of face to face interaction with my instructor and with moderated in class discussions. The only thing I hate more than online classes is mandatory online participation in a standard class. That being said, the systems for online classes have improved over the years. When I first started university online class programs had more bugs than would be expected, and generally were not worth the hassle, but by the time I finished university the programs were functional. That being said – online classes have their place. They are a perfect replacement for distance education. They allow students to take classes that they couldn’t take otherwise due to scheduling or transit. But blended classes remain something I dislike. I enjoy class discussions. I enjoy talking with the instructor after class. I do not enjoy having to rehash everything I said in class on an online forum when I would rather be doing my readings or homework. I had one instructor who had an optional online component and that worked well for students who were shy about talking in class. The requirement was that if you didn’t talk in class you had to post in the online section so that everyone could say their part about the readings. Everyone was required to have logged in and read any posts before the next class. That ensured that everyone was on the same page. It was a good system.
I propose a rethinking of how technology is used in classrooms. I think that it should be an optional tool for students rather than either being mandatory or ignored. If students need to do a project allow them to use a blog instead of a paper journal, or making a film instead of doing a class presentation. When I was teaching grade ten I gave my students a project. They had to do a group presentation to the class in some medium. They could present directly, they could create a PowerPoint presentation, they could film themselves any format. Now many of course did the standard class presentation, but some groups used various technologies. It was up to them and the ones who felt comfortable with the technology used it. I had another project where they did journals from a novel characters perspective and again some did traditional ones, some did blogs, one even did theirs in tweet form.
I think that if educators of all levels thought of technology as just another tool, though a powerful one, it would help everyone. Remember there will always be someone who doesn’t want to learn how to fix a car.
This brings up a problem though: what to do with people who don’t understand the technology. I suspect that more than half of students currently in grade twelve do not know the first thing about fixing hardware. And they don’t need to. But they do need to know how to use software, at least a bit.
I think that schools need to look into having basic computer classes at all levels of education so that everyone can take advantage of the powerful tools. But I don’t see that as replacing traditional education. If an undergrad program requires all students to pass an English test or take an introductory English class why can’t the same be done for technology? Ensure everyone is at least at a certain level in their ability with technology. Ensure everyone knows how to use an online journal database, or how to set up for APA or MLA in Word.
And finally: I don’t believe that increasing the use of technology in our classrooms will increase student engagement. I believe that it is important to allow students to use the tools they feel most comfortable with, and computers are very powerful tools, but it’s just that: a tool. If you want to increase student engagement I would recommend smaller classes, and more instructor-student interaction. As Apple has shown us time and again it’s not about the technology, it’s about building a relationship with people. If you do that they will engage themselves.