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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Nativism vs. Literacy

I have read a number of pieces recently attacking the notion of the Digital Native - Prensky's notion that there is a new generation of students who are in some way soaked in technology to the extent that it has changed their behaviour.

Stephen Marshall suggests that the concept of the Digital Native is reaching its autumnal years, and that there has been too much hype around this notion, and not enough evidence.

A recent study commissioned by JISC does a great job of analysing the characteristics that Prensky suggested (such as the ability to multi-task, and a preference for fun-style learning). The study concludes that while some aspects of the Digital Native idea do seem to hold true others are less clear. In summary:

  • Competent with Technology

  • High Expectations of ICT

  • Prefer Interactive Systems

  • Prefer visual info over text

  • Have a tendency to cut'n'paste

  • They believe intellectual property laws to be unfair (but do understand them)
  • Prefer Digital communication to Physical communication

  • Are natural multi-taskers

  • Want entertainment and fun in their learning

  • They expect to find everything on the Web, and for free
  • Have no patience for delay (want instant everything)

  • Prefer peers to authority figures

  • Learn by trial and error

  • Are expert searchers
The report also makes the point that some attributes seem to be universally true across all age groups and reflect general changes in society:
  • Want/expect to be connected all the time

  • Prefer small chunks rather than long texts
(this is greatly simplifying the report - its well worth reading the summary)

This fits in with a recent presentation that I saw by Emma Place at the recent LLAS e-learning conference. Emma noted that while there seemed to be an increased familiarity with technology, their was not a corresponding increase in the wisdom of how to apply it. For example, that students did not understand issues of evidential quality or provenance, and that this resulted in a cut'n'paste culture - information foraging that encourages shallow learning and borders on plagiarism.

In my own post advocating a new approach to e-learning tools I picked out the notion of Web Literacy from the general idea of Digital Natives. I suggested that Web Literacy was more than the ability to use the Web (that's more like Plain Old Computer Literacy), but was instead a desire to create an on-line identity, a willingness to forgo some aspects of privacy, and to embrace online relationships as the equal of real ones.

I like the notion of Web Literacy, as it explains a new attitude within the new generation, without making assumptions that the literacy is universal, or completely positive. The phrase Digital Natives seems too broad a brush, discussing literacies means we can talk separately about other factors, such as Computer Literacy and Information Literacy (which Emma might suggest is in danger of decline!), and also talk of the problems of illiteracy.

A colleague of mine, Mike Wald, has made the point that Literacy is a loaded term - that it has positive connotations, and sounds like something that we should aspire to - and perhaps he's right. Maybe Web Literacy is better used to describe some future form of this current behaviour where issues such as loss of privacy and respect for copyright have been untangled and hammered into some more respectable form - but then again, who gets to say what is respectable. Maybe these ideas should change?

Whatever terms we use I am confident that when designing the next generation of e-learning tools we should be aware that we are no longer creating applications in a virgin space, but are instead trying to build tools that fit into a person's existing digital landscape. We have to work with existing identities, interoperate with familiar toolsets, and provide an experience which matches a student's adventures on the wider Web.

And that sounds pretty positive to me.

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