Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Digital Natives or Immigrants - who speaks and how?

James Lang's column "A Brain and a Book" from today's Chronicle of Higher Education addresses the question of teaching and learning styles and to what degree teachers should digitize their classrooms to meet students where they are -- the notion being that the majority of today's students are largely more technological savvy than the majority of their professors.

As part of his argument, Lang quotes from and responds to Marc Prensky's "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants" from On the Horizon (NCB University Press, Vol. 9 No. 5, October 2001).
Prensky's main claim seems to be:
Our students have changed radically. Today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach. (Prensky's emphasis). Today’s students have not just changed incrementally from those of the past, nor simply changed their slang, clothes, body adornments, or styles, as has happened between generations previously. A really big discontinuity has taken place. One might even call it a “singularity” – an event which changes things so fundamentally that there is absolutely no going back. This so-called “singularity” is the arrival and rapid dissemination of digital technology in the last decades of the 20th century.
According to Lang, then, Prensky's conclusion is radical:
"Digital Immigrant teachers," he explains, "assume that learners are the same as they have always been, and that the same methods that worked for the teachers when they were students will work for their students now. But that assumption is no longer valid" (Prensky's emphasis).

That means, [Prensky] argues, we have to jettison our old assumptions about everything in education, including the very basic content and skills we teach. Prensky distinguishes between "legacy content," from the predigital era, and "future content," from the digital one.

Lang thinks this radical cognitive change among students ressembles the oral/written change discussed by Walter Ong:
A few decades ago, Walter J. Ong argued, in Orality and Literacy, that writing was a technology that changed thought; the shift from oral to literate cultures wrought a deep and permanent change in the way we reasoned as a species. Prensky seems to be making a similar argument about the role of digital technologies today; they have already changed the thinking of our students, it seems, so now we have to refine our teaching techniques in order to accommodate that transformation.
Lang concedes the value of technology to teach some subjects, but for the teaching of English (he teaches at Assumption College), he suggests that sitting with actual books (gosh!) is still valuable. And he clearly wants to reassure teachers that they can/should(?) resist the pressure to digitize their classrooms. While Lang is writing today, Prensky's work was published in 2001. How has the digital revolution changed teaching since then? Here at OSU, our English department Technology Committee has worked hard to add enhanced teaching technology to our classrooms, and most professors and instructors are using and appreciating the advantages this equipment brings to enhancing student learning. And Lisa Ede's class ENG 595: Language, Technology, and Culture, not only uses new technology but does just want Prensky and Lang (and Ong) discuss: lead students through understanding of how knowledge is constructed and shared digitally, where the power of words lies now, how the Read/Write Web 2.0 enables (or potentially enables) everyone (who has access to Internet) to have a voice.

It seems clear to me that the undergraduates in first year composition and business writing don't read as carefully as I would hope. But it is also clear that technology makes teaching many concepts much easier. And for writing for the workplace, practice with writing with technology is essential. I guess what I would like is both less guilt about not being on the cutting edge (if Laura Gurak of Into the Blogosphere says she feels behind the curve, then I am back in the dust) but also more ideas and "best practices" for using the technology we have more fully.



Blogger John said...

My problem with Lang's essay is that while he, like too many others, fails to recognize books, pencils, and blackboards as technologies, so he creates a false dichotomy between them and "technology" such as computers and software. Having established this dichotomy, he positions books, pencils, and blackboards as things we teach with and digital technologies as machines that teach without human agency: "But can a computer program teach careful reading skills more effectively than a great teacher working with books, pencils, and a blackboard? Maybe a properly designed program could do it more effectively for some students, but probably not for all of them."

If we're going to nod to Ong in discussions like this, we ought to also understand that digital technologies are tools just as books, pencils, and blackboards are tools. While our use of technology changes us, we use the technology. We have the agency. All best practices need to emerge from this understanding. :)

10:22 AM  

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