The Elusive Digital Native

Inside Higher Ed featured one of those every-so-often articles about the awesomeness of the demographic subgroup of the moment, this time Athur Levine’s panegyric about “digital natives”, who “grew up in a world of computers, Internet, cell phones, MP3 players, and social networking,” and how they’re too cool and tech-savvy for current universities:

They differ from their colleges on matters as fundamental as how they conceive of and utilize physical plant and time. For the most part, universities operate in fixed locales, campuses, and on fixed calendars, semesters and quarters with classes typically set for 50 minutes, three times per week. In contrast, digital natives live in an anytime/anyplace world, operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, unbounded by physical location.

There is also a mismatch between institutions of higher education and digital natives on the goals and dynamics of education. Universities focus on teaching, the process of education, exposing students to instruction for specific periods of time, typically a semester for a course, and four years of instruction for a bachelor’s degree; digital natives are more concerned with the outcomes of education — learning and the mastery of content, achieved in the manner of games. which is why an online game pro will never boast about how long she was at a certain level, but will talk about the level that has been reached.

Higher education and digital natives also favor different methods of instruction. Universities have historically emphasized passive means of instruction — lectures and books — while digital natives tend to be more active learners, preferring interactive, hands-on methods of learning such as case studies, field study and simulations. The institution gives preference to the most traditional medium, print, while the students favor new media — the Internet and its associated applications.

And so forth. While I do appreciate the shout-out to Union’s glorious past, the article as a whole is a bunch of crap– a collection of intemperate praise that is essentially meaningless.

More to the point, though, I have yet to see much evidence of these “digital natives” that Levine is so smitten with.

It’s absolutely true that the students I teach in the intro physics courses are way more comfortable than I am with certain forms of technology. They can do things with cell phones and Facebook that I didn’t realize were possible.

But the students I see are not comfortable with computers in any fundamental way. A few of them know how to do useful things with Excel and Word, but if you try to go beyond what they already know, they freeze up completely, and demonstrate no ability to figure out how to make these programs work (which, to be fair, is often inordinately difficult). Many of them regard the idea that they should learn how to use the tools at their disposal to, for example, create properly formatted equations in lab reports as a grossly unfair imposition.

The students I see are not comfortable with using the Internet to gain information beyond the most superficial sort of searching. When asked to obtain information on their own, they generally default to Wikipedia, and if the fact they’re after isn’t in the first page or two of Google results to their first query, they give up. The idea of trying multiple search strings, or digging beyond the top level of references is foreign to them.

I do agree with Levine that I see a lot of students who “are more concerned with the outcomes of education — learning and the mastery of content, achieved in the manner of games,” provided the game in question has cheat codes. They seek only to “level up” to the next course– they want a passing grade, as quickly and easily as possible, and if it’s possible to get through the exam by pressing up-down-up-down-left-left-A-B in rapid succession, that’s the route they want. I see very little concern with useful mastery of content, as opposed to learning just enough to get a B and move on to the next course.

Now, to be clear, I’m speaking of students in the introductory physics courses, here, the vast majority of whom will go on to major in something else. And by the time they graduate, most of these students have vastly improved, both in terms of their technical skills and their attitude toward education. Our seniors, in their majors or outside their major, have moved significantly closer to Levine’s ideal of the “digital native.”

But that motion comes through a more traditional process of education. They learn to master content in the same way every other generation has– by grinding through the hard work of regular problem sets and lab reports and research papers, not through some airy unstructured exploration of things that interest them.

There are some students out there who fit Levine’s description– there always have been. Every discipline has its tales of self-taught prodigies who needed only access to a library to learn everything they needed to make significant contributions. But those students are a tiny minority of the population, and I see no sign that they are any more numerous in this digital age than they were at any point in the past.

Of course, there is a group that may have expanded in modern times, which is students who think they have the ability to learn everything they need on their own. They have always been far more numerous than the actual autodidacts, but modern technology makes it easier to acquire a superficial sort of knowledge that lets people deceive themselves about their ability to learn on their own.

Sadly, it also allows them to deceive retired professors of education.

Comments

  1. #1 A.P.
    June 16, 2010

    In my experience, the “digital natives” have a short attention span and are compulsive multitaskers. *AND* I have to show them how to Google. :)

  2. #2 george.w
    June 16, 2010

    As a tech support person in a college of business, I can assure you these digital natives are completely, utterly screwed if they have to deal with a file system in any way.

    They probably buy refrigerators that are are only one foot deep so everything is visible standing there looking in the door.

  3. #3 becca
    June 16, 2010

    *yawn*

    As opposed to intemperate criticism that is totally meaningless, as well as mind-bogglingly unoriginal?

    “Of course, there is a group that may have expanded in modern times, which is students who think they have the ability to learn everything they need on their own. They have always been far more numerous than the actual autodidacts, but modern technology makes it easier to acquire a superficial sort of knowledge that lets people deceive themselves about their ability to learn on their own.”

    “The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have
    no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all
    restraint. They talk as if they alone knew everything and what passes
    for wisdom with us is foolishness with them.
    (emphasis added, quote from Heisod, 8th century B.C.)

    Yeah yeah, get off your lawn.

  4. #4 onymous
    June 16, 2010

    which is why an online game pro will never boast about how long she was at a certain level, but will talk about the level that has been reached.

    This reads like one of those instances where someone tries to show familiarity with the kids these days and ends up just sounding weird. Like when Archie Comics explains what ‘emo’ means.

  5. #5 Lurker #753
    June 16, 2010

    Your undergraduates arrive from a system that rewards the correct answer, not the method of inquiry. They’ve spent years jumping through standardised hoops, and of course it takes them a while to wake up and engage. It’s a miracle that most of them actually do.

  6. #6 Nick Novitski
    June 16, 2010

    Selection bias. The people you’re looking for don’t waste money on universities.

  7. #7 HP
    June 16, 2010

    @ becca #3: Oblig. Phaedrus.

  8. #8 nlindig
    June 16, 2010

    I definitely agree with the sentiment. Sure, digital natives can use iphones, but it’s not like there’s suddenly a generation of hackers.

    …on a side note, I’m pretty sure you need the Konami code (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Konami_Code) to get an A on the exam. up-down-up-down-left-left-A-B is just button-mashing!

  9. #9 Eric Lund
    June 16, 2010

    I see very little concern with useful mastery of content, as opposed to learning just enough to get a B and move on to the next course.

    I have never known a time when this attitude was not widespread. I once had the misfortune of TAing the first half of the Physics for Premeds course at my graduate alma mater, and I saw many students in my lab sections who were treating their physics classes in exactly this way. See also Feynman on the humanities courses he had to take as an MIT undergrad in the 1930s. I suspect, but cannot prove, that this sort of attitude is prevalent among people who are enrolled in course X because some requirement somewhere says, “Thou shalt enroll in and pass course X.”

  10. #10 Perkee
    June 16, 2010

    Many of them regard the idea that they should learn how to use the tools at their disposal to, for example, create properly formatted equations in lab reports as a grossly unfair imposition.

    Talk to Aaron Cass. When he started teaching Algorithms, he made LaTeX a requirement for all written work. People bitch about it in the beginning, but then realize that it’s the only good way to put math on paper.

    But yeah, working at CS Help Desk, I found that just about every male in the Gen-Ed science CS classes would immediately ask me to hold their hand through a homework assignment. For whatever reason, the women would look things up for themselves most of the time.

  11. #11 Paul
    June 17, 2010

    I agree, the article is a complete hogwash.