Thursday, 31 January 2013

Response to Prensky’s (2001) Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants

Prensky’s article is relatively old now (2001) and many of his ‘radical’ technological determinist contentions have been overtaken by reality. Back in 2001, it may well have been the case that ‘Today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach’ (page 1, para 1), but education has moved on since then. Here, I will use Prensky’s terms Digital Native and Digital Immigrant for the purposes of response to his article, though I do not believe (now in 2013) in the clear existence of either.

On page 1, (para 4), Prensky asserts that ‘today’s students think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors’. He presents no evidence for this. Neither is it clear that students’ ‘brains have changed’. Prensky also assumes that only students have been changed by the digital! We must remember that many lecturers have been dealing with the digital reality for as long (or longer) than their students. Prensky might now (in 2013) have to admit that many lecturers are ‘digital natives’. Many of us do not print out our emails, nor do we use ‘the phone’ more than email, blogs, twitter, the web, youtube, digital production tools or distribution media.

The language of the pre-digital or Digital Immigrant Instructors is not necessarily outdated as Prensky contends (page 2, para 4). Much of that ‘pre-digital age’ language is called ‘human learning’ – it contains lessons going back to The Stone Age. Naïves (students, some lecturers, politicians and business people) often make such simplistic techno-determinist assertions when confronted with new technology – thus Bill Gates contends that Khan Academy is ‘the future of education’ etc.. The reality is that society must retain (and continue to provide) the best learning and lessons from the past. Without these lessons, humans at the very least are stuck in rather pointless and fruitless ‘reinventions of the wheel’. As Peter Lunenfeld (2011, p132, top para) contends ‘technologies are introduced as social or commercial ‘revolutions’ without being slotted into an overarching narrative of general progress’.

Much of what Prensky discusses about the supposed learning styles of Digital Natives has a certain validity, though reality is more complex than his technological determinism will admit. Attention spans decrease and ‘twitch speeds’ increase as humans are exposed to digital media. However, humans will engage with tv, internet and games for unhealthily protracted durations. Facebook, twitter, Youtube, skype, text-messaging et al do modify communication, and not all for the best. As Peter Lunenfeld (2011 p.82, top para) points out ‘as keyboards, screens and even lenses get smaller and smaller, discourse tends to revert to the text-messaging level.’ Referring to the digital and the internet as the information-depositories of a ‘culture machine’, Lunenfeld (2011 p. 60, para 2) also points out that ‘deep reflection is by no means a default setting given the immediacy of the culture machine’s archives’.

Some of Presnsky’s other assertions are pretty offensive. Lecturers no longer assume (page 3, para 3) ‘that the same methods that worked for the teachers when they were students will work for their students now.’

Prensky does make good arguments about what needs to change in education. On (page 4, para 4) he asserts that ‘“Future” content is to a large extent, not surprisingly, digital and technological. But while it includes software, hardware, robotics, nanotechnology, genomics, etc. it also includes the ethics, politics, sociology, languages and other things that go with them.’ This is very much an argument for the ‘repurposing or remastering’ of ‘old’ or existing learning.

Prensky gets to the reality of modern education on page 4 (para 5) ‘As educators, we need to be thinking about how to teach both Legacy and Future content in the language of the Digital Natives. The first involves a major translation and change of methodology; the second involves all that PLUS new content and thinking. It‟s not actually clear to me which is harder – “learning new stuff” or “learning new ways to do old stuff.” I suspect it‟s the latter.’

This is our current and future reality. Using technological tools or media changes the way we do things, but core human needs, activities and behaviours persist. Education must change how it does its business, whilst preserving, repurposing and remastering the best of what it has always done. A user determinist approach is still appropriate – we are still in charge and pedagogy should always drive technology. Users (both lecturers and students) still make choices about how (or how not) to use technology. In the face of the digital tsunami, I do believe in the human necessity for what Peter Lunenfeld (2011) calls ‘Info-Triage’.

However, blindly resisting the utility of at least some educational technology is very definitely making a problematic statement. Change happens. We must make use of some (not necessarily all) change.

In conclusion, many of Prensky’s assertions have, since 2001, been overtaken by changing reality. Some people continue to resist change, but they do not represent all in society or all in education. If demarcations did exist between Prensky’s ‘Digital Natives’ and ‘Digital Immigrants’, I believe they’ve been feathered away to inconsequence.
Prensky’s assertions are interesting. I will now read some of his most recent writings.

Lunefeld, P.,(2011) Secret War Between Downloading and Uploading : Tales of the Computer as Culture Machine. MIT Press: Massachusetts

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