Upriver in Search of the Myth of the Digital Native


I was reading Michael Wesch online over the weekend. He's the professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University who drew so much attention for his video, "Web 2.0...The Machine is Us/ing Us", which had millions of views in several versions on many sites.

In the post I was reading, he's commenting on [mis]interpretations of his video from this semester, "A Vision of Students Today."

It opens with a quote from Marshall McLuhan (below) and another from John Dewey - "Students learn what they do."

“If students learn what they do, what are they learning sitting here [silently in straight rows facing a speaker at the front of the room?] In the video I suggest that they are learning to sit in nice neat rows and remain quiet while the information/knowledge is delivered to them by an authority figure standing at the front of the room. They are learning to absorb knowledge from an authority, regurgitate that “knowledge” on exams, and follow along."

"...Nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives--he called them enemies!--hidden out of sight somewhere." (Conrad)

It's a "silent" video with students in a lecture hall holding up signs with statistics and comments on "how they learn, what they need to learn, their goals, hopes, dreams, what their lives will be like, and what kinds of changes they will experience in their lifetime."

"But while teaching has not changed, learning has. Students are learning to read, navigate, and create within a digital information environment that we scarcely address in the classroom. The great myth is that these “digital natives” know more about this new information environment than we do."

I agree. Reading his post made me think of a presentation I did at a conference in October 2006 that I titled "Heart of Darkness: Entering the Land of Digital Natives." That's not so long ago, but when I look at the post about it now, it seems like such basic web stuff. Yet, I recall that almost no one in the audience had used any of the tools I talked about, and that the few teachers that had used them didn't do so in their classrooms.

"But here’s the reality: they may be experts in entertaining themselves online, but they know almost nothing about educating themselves online. They may be learning about this digital information environment despite us, but they are not reaching the levels of understanding that are necessary as this digital information environment becomes increasingly pervasive in all of our lives. All of the classic skills we learned in relation to a print-based information universe are important, and must now be augmented by a critical understanding of the workings of digital information."

Following my Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness presentation theme, I (as Marlow) headed up river to visit the villages of the digital natives with those teachers. Scary places like YouTube, MySpace, Second Life and Wikipedia. The presentation went well, in that they were very interested in all these places that I had access to (accounts), but ultimately failed because my sense was that I had not convinced [m]any of them that as teachers they had to visit these places.

"He was obeyed, yet he inspired neither love nor fear, nor even respect. He inspired uneasiness. That was it!" (Conrad)

It wasn't because I believed that the sites all had genuine educational "value" but because I believe that teachers need to know the world of their students. In loco parentis, we need to at least guide them towards better use of these tools. (Tip of the blog hat to Norbert Elliot)

How much has changed since I did that presentation?

"In the immutability of their surroundings the foreign shores, the foreign faces, the changing immensity of life, glide past, veiled not by a sense of mystery but by a slightly disdainful ignorance." (Conrad)

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