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Digital Natives in the classroom

by Andy Smart last modified Wednesday Dec 6, 2006 22:39

Ideas I've been having about embracing the ideas of social networking and cyberspace in the classrooom, from a school network manager.

I found ultralab while looking for more information on Stephen Heppell - I'm a school network manager and I'd just been to a presentation by Research Machines which had a small item by him and I was completely enthused by what he had to say. As somebody who spends his whole life surrounded by educational ICT the aims and ideas of ultralab naturally fascinate me so I was keen to join an online community focussed on the topic. There are loads of forums for schools IT staff, but they always look from the technical viewpoint and are about issues and problems facing those who run IT systems in schools. What I find exciting isn't the boxes and the software, it's how people can use them to deliver teaching and learning - because if the systems aren't doing that then they're not achieving their purpose.

There are loads of exciting things happening with IT in schools right now, there are learning platforms and integrated learning environments which will deliver content to classes, integrate resources, manage homework, facilitate conversation and collaboration between staff and students. There is software which deliver multimedia content which teachers and students can rely on as being accurate as opposed to stuff they find on the internet. CAD/CAM technology for the technology suite. Students learn web authoring as well as text processing so they can produce content for the Internet as well as the page, and they do flash and digital imaging and music. All this is allowing students to produce work which is exciting and interesting, and frankly a lot of them can use some of this stuff better than I can.

From a practical point of view there are issues to managing all this, we have to deploy a range of applications far beyond that asked of commercial network staff - we probably have over 50 applications of all kinds on our stations. We have to cope with the teenage desire to push the boundaries and so we need to filter and monitor our content and deal with misuse of the system of varying degrees of severity - and we also have a duty of care to protect our students from harmful or distressing material they may encounter. But the gains far outweigh the downside and there are fewer places in IT to work which are as rewarding or fun as a school.

One thing you can't escape though is that the most modern and up to date products and ideas produced for education are behind the technological world the students inhabit. These are people who are linked with friends across the world with myspace and bebo and the like, they can and do communicate with each other all the time by SMS, they're totally at home in cyberspace; they're the natives here and we just visit. We have to teach them how to use the application software, but when it comes to living and communicating online they're way out in front. I've been using online chat and the like for years, and I can manage four simultaneous conversations - my good friend V can manage seven at one time, but then again she's a 16 year old digital native not a 45 year old male digital immigrant.

As I see it the challenge for education is not only how best to use IT in the classroom, but how to harness the skills the students already have. I'm not saying we don't need structured lessons, conventional teaching and extended formal writing, but we also have to see the world from their viewpoint. Do we need to explain what life is like in the US or Australia when they almost certainly chat regularly to other teenagers who live there and with whom they know they have more in common than they differences? Why shouldn't "research life in the USSR" be as much about making new contacts on myspace as it is about using the library? If a question comes up in a lesson, why not find a way for them to use their contacts to answer it right then and there? If you're looking at the evolution/creationism debate why not find a way for student to open up online conversation with one of their contacts in the US using the classroom projector and whiteboard and have an ad hoc interview in the lesson to find out how it looks in the US?

There are problems with this, at the same time we may want them to use social networking in lessons when we want them too, we need to stop them doing it when it interferes with their work. How's this for an idea: teachers let them chat while working from books, so why would it be different to let them talk on the internet while they work at the computer as long as they get the work done and stop when told? How much of the attitudes to cyberspace that run the classroom is predicated on an adult view of it rather than a reality? Why not extend the classroom into cyberspace the way they've already extended their lives? Sure there are issues with child protection and online safety, but would educating them about this be easier if it was part of their normal school day?

Schools are looking at ways to use portals to deliver material to students who are excluded, long-term sick, school-phobic, etc - but actually the students already know how to do this, they use the technology they all know and understand. They already know how to download and save work, to email and to chat - what schools need to discover is how to use these skills.

OK, so I've rambled a bit and there are probably no answers to a lot of questions.....

But I really want to see what happens and to be part of using this new world in the classroom.

(comments and ideas are strictly my own, and in no way reflect the ideas or practices of the school where I work)

Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants

Posted by Richard Millwood at Saturday Dec 9, 2006 00:48
Personally, I am not a fan of this analysis. There is truth in it, but it also overplays the difference between generations. If you and I had the time to play with technology that kids do, we wouldn't have any trouble making sense of it as well as they do if not better.


Posted by Andy Smart at Monday Dec 18, 2006 10:48

I'm not sure I agree with you totally, though up to a point you are correct of course! There may not be the clear division between school/college age and grown ups but I believe there is a measure of familiarity breeding not contempt but fluency when it comes to I.C.T.

It's true that one of the issues is that kids do play a lot with the technology, and therefore they develop confidence and familiarity with it. I believe though that it's more than time to experiement. First off they use a lot of technologies and so they have a repetoir of transferrable skills which they can bring to new things; not of course that older people can't do this, but kids are immersed in the broader environment. I read an article by the author Douglas Rushkoff once in which he pointed out that younger people are used to processing information in a different way to adults (I can't cite this tragically, so academically it has no validity) becuse they're popular culture presents information in a manner which we find disjointed and inchoherent but which they can follow and comprehend with ease: can you watch youth televsion with ease?

I think one of the other things which contributes this is a willingness to play and experiement. Kids will press the button to see what happens, they are confident experimenters and pushers of boundaries and don't worry about the consequences so much. Whereas if you teach adult education computer classes you find that they are more concerned about what the consequences will be from their actions in a piece of software than adolescents. They want to find out but need more leading and re-assurance as they play.

I think that one of the issues for educational ICT is how to meet a happy middle ground. I see so much work which has been lost through ill-advised experimentation from students, but also so much which they achieve through that. The other side of the coin is that the teachers are, frequently, uncomfortable in that environment and seek to hold back the students from pushing the envelope. They are also snowed under with concerns about schemes of work, ofsted, curriculum targets, assessment for learning, etc - there isn't really room for them to do a lesson just to see what happens.

They want the kids to produce a poster on hadrians wall to comply with target x of scheme y in the national curriculum: the kids want to experiement with the software and see what they can achieve. How do you combine those two objectives?

How do we equip grown ups with the adolescent skills?

I was delighted the other day when my seven year old said (we were discussing cartoons) "you think like a kid" - how do we help more adults to do that?

more play

Posted by Kevin Thompson at Tuesday Jan 2, 2007 11:26
thanks for the comments Andy....a great overview!
Teachers need to be braver and realise that youngsters CAN multi task; relaise that they learn differently to 'us' as in the older generation - and that often in a classroom the kids will know far more about technology than the teacher. This is difficult for the 'old school' as many feel they have to be the expert and imparter of knowledge.....they need to realise a big change is in the wind and that learning is very differnt, working is very different too - much more collaborative on both fronts - with peer support.

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