Monday, October 27, 2008

Update on digital students

When I last lamented the challenges presented by technology-infatuated Millennial generation students, several of our astute commenters were skeptical (perhaps understandbly) that this group of students really does bring a coherent set of attitudes or abilities to their academic studies.

So here's one for those skeptics: In an article 'Generational myth' (Chronicle of Higher Ed), Siva Vaidhyanathan tries to pour cold water on the claim that a generation of tech-savvy students exists:

A tidbit from the article:
I have been hearing some version of the "kids today" or "this generation believes" argument for more than a dozen years of studying and teaching about digital culture and technology. As a professor, I am in the constant company of 18- to-23-year-olds. I have taught at both public and private universities, and I have to report that the levels of comfort with, understanding of, and dexterity with digital technology varies greatly within every class. Yet it has not changed in the aggregate in more than 10 years.

Every class has a handful of people with amazing skills and a large number who can't deal with computers at all. A few lack mobile phones. Many can't afford any gizmos and resent assignments that demand digital work. Many use Facebook and MySpace because they are easy and fun, not because they are powerful (which, of course, they are not). And almost none know how to program or even code text with Hypertext Markup Language (HTML). Only a handful come to college with a sense of how the Internet fundamentally differs from the other major media platforms in daily life.

College students in America are not as "digital" as we might wish to pretend. And even at elite universities, many are not rich enough. All this mystical talk about a generational shift and all the claims that kids won't read books are just not true. Our students read books when books work for them (and when I tell them to). And they all (I mean all) tell me that they prefer the technology of the bound book to the PDF or Web page.

Much of what Vaidhyanathan proceeds to say strikes me as sensible: that generalizations about generations are dangerous and imprecise; that they tend to overlook diversity, especially economic diversity; that it would be unwise to upend well-established educational practices to fit the learning habits of a few students who are technologically sophisticated. I would also add that I think we need to make the case for the limits of digital technology and technology generally — that there's a reason to read the Republic rather than watch the movie.

At the same, though, Vaidhyanathan hits on exactly what I think is hard about integrating technology into our teaching. Students, even the technologically sophisticated ones, know little about how to use technology to learn. Oh, students can use technology a thousand different ays. But what we should be worried about isn't whether they know HTML. It's a matter of whether they can distinguish reputable WWW sources and unreputable ones, for example. It's a matter of whether they can watch a YouTube video on a controversial ballot measure and decode it rather than being swayed by its misleading suggestions or imagery. It's a matter of whether they take advantage of the awesome power afforded them by modern word processing technology to actually revise their work. It's a matter of being able to communicate meaningfully in a digital forum beyond "I agree with that." And if we expect students, whatever their level of technological know-how, to learn through technology, then these are the things we need to emphasize, not knowledge of programming languages.

Maybe James Lang will help us out with these issues on Wednesday!


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