The risk of ‘tech savvy’ thinking and danger of opposing it…

I have been pondering for some time the risk of this new emergence of ‘tech savvy’ thinking, or thinking that resembles the net hyperlink style, where students link at random in their learning to things that interest them (this coming from someone who thinks in what I would call a hybrid of Prensky’s ‘Digital Native’ and ‘Digital Immigrant’ {NCB University Press, Vol. 9 No. 5, October 2001}). I agree with Prensky’s premise that the way students learn today has outmoded or outdated the current educational pedagogy(Prensky, 1). Prensky points to the cultural immersion of today’s students in technology as the factor that has changed the way students learn:

They have spent their entire lives surrounded by and using computers, videogames, digital music players, video cams, cell phones, and all the other toys and tools of the digital age. Today’s average college grads have spent less than 5,000 hours of their lives reading, but over 10,000 hours playing video games (not to mention 20,000 hours watching TV). Computer games, email, the Internet, cell phones and instant messaging are integral parts of their lives (Prensky, 1)

The ramifications of this are mind-blowing. It suggests we need to overhaul the way we do teaching.

The concern I have with the new way in which students are processing or encountering and interacting with their learning is the sense of a loss of ability to follow through or engage in delayed gratification. I am no expert in this field, and claim no scientific proof of what I suggest; my concerns arise out of observing students in my classroom. This loss of ability for long term engagement was best described to me in the pages of a novel by Richard Powers, in which he describes the experience of network television and its’ fluidity as: “basking in an electrified aura of imminence that, because of the network-wide inability of home audiences everywhere to sustain concentration, will once more turn to boredom by the dismembering end? (Richard Powers, Operation Wandering Soul , 164). Powers’ quote suggests an inability on the part of the viewing audience or the consumer to ‘sustain concentration,’ but one can’t help but wonder if they are responding to or being educated to think this way by the ‘dumbing down’ of network television. It is the age old ‘chicken or the egg’ question, and I will leave it at posing it.

My concern presents itself in the example of students interacting with texts and asking questions as to where the answer is without following through on reading the chapter or section in which the answer lies. The irony comes when students are not only interacting with text based materials, but when they are also used net-based materials. There seems to be a lack of follow through or engagement with the text (be it net or text based) in terms of reading for information. Students ask quickly for instruction, guidance, ‘the answer’, when the answer to their question lies within the text they are looking. I often find that my job is to point students back to the text/ web after glancing through myself and finding that, yes, the answer is there. Is this a reflection of the ‘digital native’s ’ compressed attention span? It seems that if some students don’t find the answer they seek within less than the time it takes for mtv to run a video (I would say more within the time of a typical commercial, approx. 30 sec.), they seem to give up.

The ‘hyperlink’ style of reading also seems to bring with it cognitive gaps , as students jump from skimming one topic to the next, in a style similar to ‘free association.’ The problem is, only students who are self motivated will come back on their own initiative to fill in those gaps. As a teacher, I find I am constantly pointing students back to topics or areas on the web/text that they should’ve covered in the first place. Hyperlink-style reading is great for keeping interest and for ‘specialised reading’ (read: reading only for what interests you personally), but seems to produce a pastiche style of understanding with a lot of gaps to fill in. Unfortunately, students who are not self motivated seem to turn to the teacher for the answers, instead of backtracking and filling in those cognitive gaps on their own.

A remix on this rant is the findings of the ‘21st Century Collaborative’ blog entitled “What it means to be literate in the 21st century? in which the author notes the resistance on the part of emerging educators to examine the implications that this new form of learning have on teaching pedagogy. The author refers to David Warlick’s questions as to what literacy and learning is in the 21st century. I will paste them here for ease of discussion:

[Warlick] raises some very thought provoking questions.
• What do you need to know, when most of recorded knowledge is a mouse-click away?
• How do you distinguish between good knowledge and bad knowledge?
• What does it do to the value of information, when everyone is a producer?
• How do we address ethics, when we are empowering our students with such prevailing skills? (?What it means to be literate in the 21st century? accessed Nov.13, 05)

In conveying these questions to emerging teachers, the author found they were not interested in the implications on education:

I tried to breech this topic with my graduate level preservice teachers. They just arent seeing it. They are so hung up on meeting the standards and giving kids the predetermined curriculum that they are blind to the fact that while having a minimum standards level of academic competency is important–it isnt all there is to becoming educated or to preparing kids to be successful in the 21st century. (?What it means to be literate in the 21st century? accessed Nov.13, 05)

There seems to be a real disparity here between emerging learners and their style of learning and emerging teachers and their willingness to engage in relevant teaching within that context. Although, as mentioned above, I am finding some frustration in interacting with the ‘hyperlink’ style of interacting with learning, I am also saddened by the above quote which suggests a lack of willingness to engage students beyond the curriculum.

I will close with two quotes from Prensky that I feel communicate my response to both of these situations quite well, in spite of the frustration expressed above.

“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? ( Prensky, 2).

“It’s just dumb (and lazy) of educators – not to mention ineffective – to presume that (despite their traditions) the Digital Immigrant way is the only way to teach, and that the Digital Natives’ “language? is not as capable as their own of encompassing any and every idea? (Prensky, 6).

Full Citation of Prensky’s Article:
Prensky, Mark. “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants.? From On the Horizon (NCB University Press, Vol. 9 No. 5, October 2001) © 2001 Marc Prensky.

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