I reviewed several draft blog posts, and they definitely fall under the category of Grumpy Old Lady rants. Some are of them are of the “you didn’t think of that you young whippersnapper” variety. Others, however, are more serious as they take on inaccurate ideas or practices that have become embedded in the culture of edtech and seem impossible to shake. That makes me grumpy because I feel like people doing the work of ed tech should know better and do better.
Case in point: using the term digital native as a factual concept and the basis for using technology with them in the classroom (“the kids are all using it and love it so teachers have to use it to appeal to them”). I was a little surprised to hear it being bandied about during a recent webinar on AI in K-12 education having thought the community retired it some time ago. I tried a little pushback via a question about equity and access, but the bandwagon had already left for the parade, so the commentator badly paraphrased my question and the speakers mostly dismissed it.
In case you missed it, digital natives, in contrast to digital immigrants, was a thought experiment from 2001 proposed by Marc Prensky, who famously, or rather infamously, suggested that young people were not only naturally better with technology but their exposure from an early age had changed them into fundamentally different human beings. The rest of us were digital immigrants who might learn to eventually speak the language but would always have an accent. The article was pretty quickly debunked and continues to be questioned. But, despite that, the concept evidently lingers.
Admittedly, part of the reason it does so, is because it resonated in 2001 as we were making the big shift from analog to digital technologies. It did seem like young people were more comfortable with digital technologies, with the kids often being the ones to program the VCR or set up the printer. In fact, the first Internet provider in Middlesex County where I was teaching built on a bulletin board network set up by two brothers, both in high school. When I asked them to give a presentation during my technology class, they were in front of their old middle school teachers. Prensky’s article in the flesh just a year or two before it was published.
Then, however, I remember the fourth grader who was on a panel with me and some of her classmates in 2012 or so at a regional conference. We wanted to hear from these “digital natives” and talk with them about how they used technology both in and out of school. One young woman, when asked about her use of tech at home, smiled and said, “I don’t use technology when I’m not in school. I like to be doing things outside.”
I also picture my 89-year-old dad editing digital video for his church and using Bard, Google’s AI bot, to write song introductions to use for the parties he leads at the retirement community. He is also teaching others how to use it, excited about this new frontier.
That neat dichotomy starts to get blurier, doesn’t it?
And then there’s me: a denizen of the analog world who seems able to navigate digital technologies with no problem, often in the position of teaching those much younger than I how to use tech professionally and personally to be more effective and efficient. How did I get where I did considering my frighteningly advanced age?
Support and access:
- a scientist for a father who encouraged exploration and education with gifts of a chemistry set, a model airplane and an early Atari;
- friends in college willing to show this English major how to access the mainframe computer to type her papers;
- a quick transition from a typewriter to a desktop computer during my first job out of college; and
- early access to a personal computer via my prized Tandy 1000.
All this access made me comfortable and ready to tackle the computer in the English department office when I began teaching high school in late 1980s. There were also a few desktops available in the library for student use. We were able to do basic work processing and early desktop publishing via The Print Shop software. In a first attempt at technology integration, I helped my students make reading schedule bookmarks to guide them as we read Romeo and Juliet and Great Expectations together. In 1988, I did my first technology workshop when I taught my colleagues to use FrEDWriter.
But, there needed one final step: I married a computer scientist who had early access to this new thing called the Internet. (That’s only one of the reasons I married him.) I was able to leverage the knowledge I gained via his connections to get a grant to provide access to my middle school students in 1996, just as the World Wide Web as we know it was taking off. Many of my students, living in a rural, lower to middle class community did not have gaming systems much less computers and, of course, not the Internet. It was about five years before Prensky described digital natives with this very age group in mind. Perhaps their children would fit the description, but for now, their lack of access kept them from the digital transformations he imagines.
I am neither native nor immigrant, but someone who was fortunate to have support and access to technology, which allowed me to explore and gain comfort and experience with it, leading to my lifelong pursuit of and passion for learning and teaching about educational technology.
Sadly, what Prensky was really describing was the birth of the digital divide. Students living near Cambridge and Palo Alto were able to get the kind of early access that I had that they could leverage to their benefit. Meanwhile their counterparts in less affluent areas often had to wait until they left home for college or jobs to get similar access, playing catch up in this new digital world.
Digital natives has its appeal as do most such generalizations. They are shorthand for larger concepts, glossing over any complexity or potentially varied perspectives. In the webinar, the speaker did not define or explain the term, using it in a way that assumed not only a shared understanding of the concept but, and this is more important and potentially dangerous, a shared belief in the rightness of the concept. Decisions about everything from curriculum design to technology purchases to professional development are being made based on an inaccurate concept. It is an idea that, in the end, can further widen the digital gap by masking inequities.