Two kinds of digital people?

This post is what I would have written as a comment on Nicholas’s post Listen2Learners: 1 but it got a bit big. So is this post.

The following lines of his post sparked my attention

I impressed upon Peter the extent to which the online world of web 2.0 is one in which people are just doing it for themselves, with all the tools available for free online – YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, widgets, mashup platforms like Google Maps and on and on. And that doing things like building mashups on Google Maps or learning stats by competing for Dream Team points could really turn kids on.

But I went on to say that the worst thing one could do if one agreed with what I was saying would be to spend time and money skilling up teachers to teach this stuff.  They wouldn’t want to – or many wouldn’t and they wouldn’t be any good at it.

I suggested instead that those students who were enthusiasts could teach others, and spread things that way.

This is educationally a good idea for lots of reasons. Students tend to perform better at things they think they are good at, for one thing. Students whom teachers think are bright also tend to come up to the mark, no matter their starting point, for another. Being picked out to teach other students suggests that the teacher thinks you’re bright.

Vygotsky, the educationalist, talks about ‘zones of proximal development’ by which he means roughly that the things the other students around a learner are doing profoundly influences that learners view of what is learned and capacity to learn it. The approach of students teaching students enhances the creation of ‘zones of proximal development’, so it’s a good there as well.

In addition it has certainly been my experience that teachers can be very disinterested in Web 2.0 applications, or indeed software for learning.

However, I also think this observation of Nicholas’s falls into what I think of as the ‘Prensky trap’.

The ‘Prensky trap’ obscures the question of what it is that students are doing that enables their mastery of Web 2.0 that teachers don’t do or don’t have access to, and what it is that teachers do with teaching that students don’t have access to.

Prensky was the author of the idea of ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’.(1) (2)  The ‘Prensky trap’ is to think there are two kinds of people.

Now most theories that suggest there are ‘two kinds of people’ get attacked on the basis that the idea of two kinds of people is both simplistic and divisive.  This has certainly been the case where other ‘two kinds of people’ divisions have been examined.

The origins of feminism lie in systematically demolishing the idea that men and women were two kinds of people, Humtington’s “Clash of Civilizations” was roundly attacked by Edward Said on the same basis and Prensky’s assertion that in the world of the internet there are two kinds of people, the ‘digital native’ and the ‘digital immigrant’ has also been subject to similar criticism.

For example, Bennet et al  (3)  argue,
“It is claimed these young people’s use of ICTs differentiates them from previous generations of students and from their teachers, and that the differences are so significant that the nature of education itself must fundamentally change to accommodate the skills and interests of these ‘digital natives’ (Prensky, 2001a)…. though such calls for major change in education are being widely propounded, they have been subjected to little critical scrutiny, are undertheorised, and lack a sound empirical basis. “

There has been a long argument around the issue of ‘binary oppositions’ in critical theory, structuralism and post structuralism, which suggests either that it is a form of cognitive bias we have to live with which makes us happier if we divide stuff around us into a thing and its opposite; or whether a crisp distinction between categories is a useful analytic tool. So my impulse is to complicate these binary categories on the argument that the world is a complicated place.

It is also true that reifying people into ‘two kinds’ suggests that this is how they are and there is little that can be done about it except to avoid the ‘wrong’ kind.

My interest here is in Prensky’s claim, also because he has pervaded the zeitgeist. As a result of his binary opposition, we understand students to be techno savvy and to be pushing boundaries and laggard teachers to be holding back educational progress.

Bennett et al again, on Prensky.
“He claims that this section of the population, which includes most teachers, lacks the technological fluency of the digital natives and finds the skills possessed by them almost completely foreign. The disparity between the technological skills and interests of new students and the limited and unsophisticated technology use by educators is claimed to be creating alienation and disaffection among students”

Counter to this it is argued, (4) (5) first, that there is some evidence that first year students don’t deal as well with online aspects of education as do people, including teachers, who have been working with it for a while.

Second, according to the ALTC study, (5) students are more interested in technology for information gathering than for learning and tend to prefer face to face interaction.

These are significant criticisms but I believe we should also look at how and with whom teachers and students spend their Web 2.0 learning time.

Students firstly have some discretionary choices about whether to get involved with Facebook and Twitter and the like. They also have time to practice or they steal time from when they should be doing their homework. They learn how to master Web 2.0 tech in an intensely collaborative atmosphere, often physically looking over each other’s shoulders or passing mobile phones back and forth.  They are absolutely merciless in letting each other know when they think one of them has committed some kind of online faux pas. And most important, students rehearse and rehearse through what is effectively play. Two very important features fostering distribution of cultural practices are in my view, imitation and practice. Students can, through copying and play, do both of these with ease when it comes to Web 2.0 learning.

Now think about teachers. Hmm, yes, they don’t look over each other’s shoulders. They rarely sit on trains in groups passing iPhones back and forth.  In fact they end up, through time pressure and social expectations, pretty Balkanised. Learning how to use technology for them is an exercise of sitting alone in front of a computer screen frustrated because the thing won’t do what it said it would and you can’t understand the ‘Help’ instructions because they use language which is different from how you think about the problem, so you don’t understand what it means. (What is about:config again? Where do you find it?  Someone said you could change privacy settings in Facebook but where the hell do you do it?).

Imitation in groups is not available as a learning tool. Playing is out of the question so practice is pretty short on the ground. Teachers have no zone of proximal Web 2.0 development.

Teachers however do, or should, bring one thing to learning that students don’t. A pedagogy or at least a sense of what should be achieved. If Web 2.0 tools are going to be used for teaching something content driven and not just for their own sake then you need a clear idea of what that something is, and how you will achieve it using these tools. This means, in fact, understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the various Web 2.0 tools for teaching purposes; no mean feat.

The best example I have come across of this was someone who used email and discussion groups as an adjunct to face to face teaching not because it was new technology and not because it was mandated by her school , but because it slowed things down. She was concerned that in the role plays she was running, students were not stopping to think and read before they made an intervention so she shifted to running her role play online because asynchronicity made reading before responding possible.

The same thing can be said of blogging. I certainly don’t talk like I write! Blogging makes you slow down and think things through. It gives you an opportunity to look things up, should you choose to use it this way.

My point though is that she would not have thought of this unless she had been an alert teacher. A student showing someone how to use Facebook is passing on technical and online social skills but not pedagogical direction. She on the other hand was able to detect what are sometimes called the ‘affordances’ of the technology. ‘Digital immigrants’ have their uses.

So by all means get kids teaching kids but know what part of learning they can enhance and don’t neglect forming ‘zones of proximal development’ for teachers so they can guide students and select software which best enhances their ultimate pedagogical ends. And avoid hidden assumptions about ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’.

(1)    Prensky, Marc. Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants Part 1. On the Horizon (Emerald) 9, no. 5 (2001a): 1-6.

(2)    ———. Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants Part 2: Do They Really Think Differently? On the Horizon (Emerald) 9, no. 6 (2001b): 1-6. doi:10.1108/10748120110424843.

(3)    Bennett, Sue, Karl Maton, and Lisa Kervin. 2008. The ‘digital natives’ debate: A critical review of the evidence. British Journal of Educational Technology 39, no. 5: 775 – 786. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2007.00793.x.

(4)    Ellis, Allan, and Diane Newton. 2009. First year university students’ access, usage and expectations of technology: An Australian pilot study’. In Proceedings of World Conference on E-Learning in Corporate, Government, Healthcare, and Higher Education 2009. Vancouver, BC, Canada: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE).

(5)    Kennedy, Gregor, Kerri-Lee Krause, Karl Maton, Andrea Bishop, Rosemary Chang, Jenny Waycott,, Terry Judd, Kathleen Gray, Sue Bennett,, and Barney Dalgarno. 2009. Educating the Net Generation: Implications for Learning and Teaching in Australian Universities. Australian Learning and Teaching Council (ALTC).

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9 Responses to Two kinds of digital people?

  1. Ken Parish says:

    There’s a bloke who frequently writes letters to our local paper, who regularly repeats the same joke (which, for some strange reason, they keep publishing):

    There are only three kinds of people: the Irish and people who wish they were Irish.

    The digital literacy duality is equally spurious. From 10 years experience of establishing and developing CDU’s online LLB programs I can say with absolute certainty that Gen Y students are NOT in any general sense extraordinarily digitally literate. Some certainly are, and most are very good at texting each other, using Facebook, stealing music online, using YouTube and swapping photos etc on their iPhones. But their digital competence mostly doesn’t extend any further than that, and their facility with those things doesn’t necessarily translate into mastering new technologies any faster than older students who may be almost completely digitally illiterate at the outset. Assuming that school leaver university students will be digitally literate is a major mistake.

    Nevertheless, as you and Nicholas agree, a constructivist approach is certainly the way to go with learning and applying new technologies in education. As you argue, however, the scaffolding role of the teacher/facilitator is indispensible even though learners may learn most of the practical skills from their peers through an apprenticeship/community of practice approach. At CDU law school we rely heavily on collaborative group learning approaches, but it’s been a trial and error process despite familiarity with all the constructivist literature. We’ve certainly found that the teacher’s role remains critical, as does careful structuring/scaffolding of learning through selection and training of more senior peer mentors to work within student groups. It requires teachers who are willing to learn and adopt a whole new approach to teaching and learning, but certainly not to disengage and imagine that just leaving it to the kids to teach each other is going to achieve anything very much*. However I’m sure that isn’t what Nicholas meant. It’s OK for teachers to be conscious of their own technological limitations but not OK to disengage from the entire learning process, even in the specifically technical areas Nicholas mentions.

    Of course, that is a real problem given that quite a few teachers, both at secondary and higher education levels, are temperamentally somewhere between technophobe and neo-Luddite. At CDU law school we’ve been doing it for long enough that the technophobes have selected themselves out over time. With 90% of our students studying wholly online from all over the world they don’t have any choice but to engage with online technologies, although 60 year old academics still occasionally get stressed with creating rich multimedia content in programs like Adobe Presenter, or driving breakout rooms and online polls in virtual classrooms. Moreover, even when we get students teaching each other (say) to collaborate using a wiki or Google Wave (for the short time it was generally available), the lecturer still needs enough familiarity with the tools to facilitate students then using them for online class presentations etc.

    *I strongly suspect that a major reason why kids’ “hands on” knowledge of Facebook, iPhone and YouTube mostly doesn’t generalise to other areas is precisely that those skills were learned ad hoc through a completely unmediated peer learning process, without the carefully structured and sequenced learning steps, with appropriate “formative” and “summative” tasks to reinforce and contextualise learning that only a good teacher can provide. The teacher doesn’t need to know anything much about “widgets [and] mashup platforms” to be able to do that.

  2. Mark Heydon says:

    There are 10 types of digital people, those who understand binary and those that don’t.

  3. Slim says:

    Great to read this post and the listen2learners post which inspired it. I’m a digital immigrant gone native working with these issues in my DEECD school, so it is apposite.

    Personally, I subscribe to the view that there are two kinds of people in the world – those who classify people into two kinds and those who don’t.

  4. Julia says:

    Thanks Ken for an interesting and, may I say, constructive reply.
    I would be very interested to know how your academics actually learn to

    “(create) rich multimedia content in programs like Adobe Presenter, or (drive) breakout rooms and online polls in virtual classrooms”

    . I get the impression that while great efforts are taken to thoughtfully and consistently implement constructivist pedagogy when teaching students (online or F2F) that the approach is different for staff.
    In terms of the technical ‘what to do’ rather than the pedagogical ‘how to think about it’, there are some nifty little flash video “How to’s online on a number of university websites and clearly lots of interesting and timely training sessions as well as text based help documents to assist staff to learn this stuff, but the learning method of choice for academic staff themselves seems to be ‘at elbow support’ as I have occasionally heard it called. That is, when you have a problem or knowledge vacuum, you call in the nearest person that you think might know something about it and say “how do you do this?”
    In a way this replicates what kids do on trains when they all get their heads together to look at what one of them is doing on their phone or other device, except that for academics there are only two people involved.
    I’d like to know whether any university or other setting for that matter has managed to replicate the sort of group peer teaching that kids use amongst themselves in order to use it to teach adults to use technology.

    And I cannot resist adding another ‘kinds of people’ joke. There was a ‘world’s funniest joke’ competition that was held a few years ago. The joke that won wasn’t, but the Belgian section was won by this.

    “There are three kinds of people in the world, those who can count and those who can’t.”

  5. conrad says:

    “I’d like to know whether any university or other setting for that matter has managed to replicate the sort of group peer teaching that kids use amongst themselves in order to use it to teach adults to use technology”

    This happens to some extent where I work for many things (e.g., statistics help, technical computing things, teaching technologies,..) , although not everyone cooperates with each other so it doesn’t work very well. One reason it doesn’t is that everything is micromanaged so much that people often won’t help if things don’t get on their workloads (and since this sort of stuff essentially relies on ad-hoc meetings, that means it won’t get on any workload models). It’s also problematic because a small number of people tend to have all the skills, and so it becomes unfair on those people who get little reciprocity.

  6. Ken Parish says:

    Hi Julia

    CDU law school does indeed (in an organic way) use the “at elbow support” method for academic staff learning to drive technologies (like Adobe Presenter etc). We’re a small staff (10 academics) all with offices on the same floor, and we also have an IT support officer “embedded” on the floor. He’s right across the corridor from me so I can (and do) holler whenever I have a problem and need instant tuition. Similarly we all help each other in our respective areas of practical expertise e.g. I’m the expert on virtual classrooms and (very basic) web design), Andrew next door knows all about online tests and surveys etc etc, and we call on each other to supplement each other’s strengths. There are central university staff who are expert in these things but they are remote from our School and so not really very useful.

    However, this is also mediated by weekly formal teaching and learning meetings where we focus on pedagogical issues in a range of different ways, regularly brainstorming and workshopping each other’s teaching approaches. That is assisted by the fact that we also have a specialist teaching and learning academic “embedded” with us, also with an office on the same floor. It’s the combination of “at elbow” support in learning how to drive the technologies and the structured approach to applying them in pedagogically sound ways that makes it all work. The one without the other would not be anywhere near as powerful.

  7. Julia says:

    Conrad, Completely agree about the workloads issue and the unfair reliance on a few who know. I originally trained as a kindergarten teacher and so carry with me teaching ideas that never really made it further up the education ladder. One of these is that we were formally taught to look for opportunities for what was known as “incidental teaching”. This means that for instance, if a kid flicks mud, you can discuss the velocity and adhesive properties of mud along with the social injunctions against flicking it while scraping it off the child and those around him, because you have just been presented with an opportunity for teaching. The difference between this and peer teaching amongst academics is recognition of both the fact that it occurs (the teaching not the mud flicking although the metaphor might be apt) and the time it takes to do it. I think it would be really interesting to see informal and incidental learning recognised for the potential power it has to help academics with learning and teaching online as well as with technology.
    Ken. Again in furious agreement particularly with your last observation about the necessity of combining technical skill with a pedagogical framing of how to use it. I think it is a perfect living instance of how information alone is not enough. Or to put it another way it shows up the billiard ball theories of information-passing-itself-around as a fiction. Meaning in context is really important.

  8. Nicholas Gruen says:


    I’m travelling and can’t really get the time to respond properly, but I wasn’t really positing that there were ‘two kinds of people’. And I’m getting on myself, so it’s not in my interests to be arguing that us digital non-natives are a hopeless bunch of klutzes.

    More simply, and perhaps as a journalist might ‘follow the money’ I was suggesting that teaching should follow the enthusiasm. Whereever it is. And here it was with Ben.

    Your division between what students and teachers bring to the table is highly theoretical. I expect there’s a fair bit in it, but I’m wary of too great a reliance on such abstraction. A lot of what kids get taught in schools is very practical – and often the kind of thing that actually doesn’t need to be taught – kids got taught to type and then taught Word until not so long ago. One can pick that stuff up in no time if one needs to. But I would like to see kids being able to easily acquire practical skills in how to eg. do a mashup on Google Maps, and generally get around web 2.0 in a useful way.

    But certainly I’d agree that it’s naive to just expect that this kind of thing can be handed over to students. I think of 14 year old Ben and if he’s going to be useful helping other kids learn what he’s learned, it’s highly likely he’ll need support of various kinds. But my experience of large systems is such that if you wait till you sort all that out, you get nowhere because people plan to have a plan and then various doubts or perhaps just hesitancies arise somewhere in the organisation and nothing happens.

    So I think it would be good if people had a crack at trying to do something and then see what practical (and more theoretical) developments look like they’re necessary to make things work.

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