Going native

At work today: one of our periodic, inevitable, spirited conversations about the oft-ridiculed yet oft-cited notion of a “digital native.” We revisited Marc Prensky’s 2001 framing of such (first hit on Google, for all you “digital natives” searching for yourselves) called “Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants” — a piece festooned with dancing italics of another era, and blithely free of proof. The “singularity” is near or already here, brains are changing even as we text, and “the single biggest problem facing education today is that our Digital Immigrant instructors, who speak an outdated language (that of the pre-digital age), are struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language.”

Look! There goes one now! Posted by cole007 on Flickr.

It’s quite easy now to push back on such millennial hyperventilating from a number of perspectives. Digital multitasking is distracting and dangerous; scanning, sampling, and mashing are destroying deep thought; the internet presents to children any number of emotional and physical risks. From my own perch in libraryworld, I’ve long been skeptical of concepts like “Net Generation Students,” which can lead to embarrassing institutional lunges into quickly expiring playpens, even as I applaud many of the service advances that get marshaled under such banners.

The most typical marketing is “revolutionary” — it were ever thus. Meanwhile the hungry sheep stay hungry. But now that we’re all sober and nostalgic for the good old virtues — close analysis, deep thought, transcendent expression — now that we’re virtuously skeptical about the effects of technology on real learning — I feel like pushing the other way a bit. I would never want to end up in a corner where intellectual worth was measured by detachment from the stunning shifts in communication of our day. That’s too often a stale corner, I think of it as full of Causabons, where ignorance or even fear is sanctified.

Hence, a couple of completely anecdotal observations, ala Prensky, though I’ll lay off on italics.

Even at this late date, some students wash into my classroom with a timorous attitude towards “computers.” Whether or not this is an affectation, a discourse of detachment from technology persists with some amount of vigor, even (or especially?) among “digital natives” at highly selective colleges. And yet the student so loath to do something new with computers in a course setting is tricked out — you can count on it — with a phone of some degree of smartness, an overactive Facebook account, a laptop, a digital music delivery system, and a cherished, variously organized, and promiscuously shared media library juggled between devices.

So perhaps we should set aside the easy binaries — digital native, displaced digital immigrant — and focus more on local competencies (whoops! italics!). The challenge, often, is to apply facility within one kind of digital environment to another — to bring what’s lively and engaging about community discourse in Facebook, say, into a new and different application, as defined by an instructor. Faced with a course blog (say), students are rarely starting from scratch, just as they’re rarely truly innovative users of the environment right out of the gate. They’re somewhere in the middle: endowed with some skills from their ‘other’ life, a life that can seem at once more playful and more serious than what’s going on in the classroom — skills that may or may not pertain to the effort at hand. We can’t assume that this pertinence will be discerned and exercised.

The question of local technical competence and portability thereof is a version of the larger question hovering over the classroom: what is the relationship of what’s learned here to the outside, impervious world? How can we know that classroom skills will really apply out in the field?

The good news for educators, I think, is that “digital natives” come into the room used to figuring out local rules and expectations: ready to be guided in that way. They’ve figured out how to get through so many various environments, and through a certain plasticity and perhaps even detachment (the world is full of strange games) they’ve succeeded. If playing to the “twitch speed” of this generation (a particularly unfortunate Prenskyism) leads education into the shallows, we might better address the adaptability necessarily cultivated by anyone who wants to think with or write to others today.

If “sustainability” is a touchstone du jour, the emphasis of any number of academic courses and programs, my quick claim, backed up by no data whatsoever, is that “adaptability” will be much more important to “digital natives.” When it comes to communication technology hurtling towards who knows where, no skill set is sustainable below a level of purely abstract values — and the effective persistence of such values (critical thought, intellectual honesty) pretty much depends on transference of skills between worlds. “One dead / One powerless to be born,” a burnt out “digital immigrant” might say of these worlds. “O children, what do ye reply?

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