Conference Talk Notes: Turning Digital Natives Into Digital Citizens

Note: I’m going to be talking tomorrow morning (with my friend Amy Hauber from SLU’s Art Department) about our use of blogs and other electronic media in the classroom and with our students. I’m going to use this post to sketch out the main ideas I want to discuss. My hope is that I will be able to offer a few brief and trenchant comments that will start a conversation. I would much rather have a dialog than present a thesis, since I don’t have a thesis but only some ideas in search of a thesis. I would specifically like to invite conference participants (as well as anyone else who is interested) to use the comment function to extend the conversation.

By way of introduction and transition, I’d just note that while Amy’s goal with her students is to get her students creating digital works, my goal is to use digital technology to investigate and interrogate literary and cultural texts of various kinds. I want to share my experience and my combination of enthusiasm and disappointment with using what we now just call “technology” in the classroom. Philosophically, I am actually suspicious of technology and its particular ways of intervening in the world and determining human experience. I don’t think it is capable of solving problems by itself and at its worst it can stand as an impediment to authentic experience by creating a mediating distortion effect between the subject and the object of his or her observation, in my world usually a text. Nevertheless, here I sit with my laptop. Nevertheless, I have been blogging now for nine years — I was a very early adopter for someone in the Humanities. So I was amused to read the Booklist review of Palfrey and Gasser’s Born Digital, our text for this conference:

“Boomers may think they’re too cool and forever-young to find themselves on the wrong side of a generation gap, but technology has created a great divide. Digital Natives, the Internet Age generation, are so acclimated to cyberspace they verge on being another species. Palfrey and Gasser, lawyers who specialize in intellectual property and information issues, document the myriad ways downloading, text-messaging, Massively Multiplayer Online Games–playing, YouTube-watching youth are transforming society. Energetic, expert, and forward-looking, the authors serve as envoys between the generations, addressing issues that worry parents and educators. . .”

I may be unusual, but my experience at Clarkson suggests that I am much more at home in the digital world than ninety percent of my students. Another way of saying this is that I am more comfortable on their turf than they are on mine — you know, the dusty and fast-fading world of print. On the other hand, when it comes to applying technology to education, there is plenty of confusion as well as some obvious failures to communicate between instructors and students. Inside Higher Ed carried a story just a couple of days ago reporting on a survey suggesting that academics are pretty satisfied with their and their institutions’ use of technology, but that students feel quite differently. When faculty were polled they responded as follows:

  • 75 percent said that their institution “understands how they use or want to use technology.”
  • 67 percent are happy with their own technology professional development.
  • 74 percent said that they incorporate technology into every class or almost every class.
  • 64 percent said that they teach in what they consider to be a smart classroom.

But when students were asked, the picture looked different. According to the IHE report,

. . . when students were asked whether their professors understand technology and have integrated it into their courses, only 38 percent said Yes. Further, when students were asked about the top impediment to using technology, the top answer was “lack of faculty technology knowledge,” an answer that drew 45 percent of respondents, up from 25 percent only a year ago. And only 32 percent of students said that they believed their college was adequately preparing them to use technology in their careers.

This would seem to support  Palfrey and Gasser contention, in Born Digital, that “the educational establishment is utterly confused about what to do about the impact of technology on learning.” I will readily assent, based on my own confusion — the result of technology’s failure to work magic as I had hoped — and the confusion I’ve observed among my colleagues in the Humanities and Social Sciences, which is dramatized as lack of interest or self-deprecating invocations of Ned Ludd. Of course my hope that technology would perform magic in the classroom runs directly counter to my previously stated suspicions, but such is the seductive power of technology and technique. But know-how is not going to perform any miracles.

We could perhaps learn from Buddhism to be interested in non-doing as well as doing. Undoing is a futile undertaking. So after using blogs or wikis in virtually every class I’ve taught over thae last three or four years, I decided this term to become a technological Buddhist –if not a complete ascetic — and do without them. Instead, this term, I asked students to use online resources and incorporate the information into their essays for my classes. I want to describe very briefly four classes I teach, the first two that I’m currently in the middle of and the other two that I teach on a regular rotation but am not teaching this semester. In all these courses, along with presenting a body of knowledge, I try to bring students to an understanding of the ways in which their subjectivity (including aesthetic responses) is constrained and conditioned, not as a way of inculcating relativism or nihilism, but in an attempt to help them understand both the power and the limits of their human agency.

1) In my freshman writing course, I have asked students to use selected websites that deal with scientific subjects, as well as the New York Times archives — these students are currently writing about the future, what they think the world will look like in fifty years. I’ve asked them to research news stories on a particular current problem or issue — environment, genetics, population and demographics, education — and project it into the future. We’re reading Margret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake, in which she portrays a near-future North America depopulated by environmental disaster and the hubris of corporate science. I have not yet seen the final work on this assignment, so I can’t report the results; but if my experience with their earlier essays (which asked them to respond to literary texts withut reference to outside sources) is an indication, they will have a difficult time representing the views of others into their thinking — at least in so far as their thinking is revealed by their writing. Students in this course routinely impose their own views on a given text without seriously encountering the language and context of whatever they are reading.

2) In my poetry course, I have asked students to use two online resources in their written discussion of the course materials, the Oxford English Dictionary, which Clarkson offers online, and the Modern American Poetry site, which presents brief passages of criticism on a large number of poems. Perhaps unsurprisingly, only the students who show their engagement in class discussion have incorporated these materials into their writing, producing an extended discourse that develops a multi-voiced relationship with the primary text; other students, with access to the same resources and encouragement to consult them, have produced essays that don’t rise much above personal reaction.

In these two courses, currently underway, the digital natives have not convincingly demonstrated an ability to make their way around the precincts of their own city. They’re home playing video games, perhaps. As previously noted, I’m not using anything very interactive in either of these courses, though I am using Turnitin’s Grademark system to read and comment on their papers. From my perspective as a digital elder, this is a great convenience; for some of the digital youngsters, though, using the software has proved difficult. They have had technical difficulties because they do not know how to save a file in plain text, for example. I like the Grademark software enough, however, that next term I am going to expand my use of it by incorporating its peer review functions.

Now I’d like to describe two courses I’ve taught multiple times — both designed with the needs and tastes of digital natives in mind:

3) Understanding Vietnam: I teach this course as a lecture / discussion and use a great deal of media: my own images from years of working in Vietnam, documentary film, powerpoint-illustrated lectures, and dramatic films. I have also usually had a weblog for the course, on which I post my notes, additional links, and questions designed to elicit comments and discussion. [Here is one example.] The results have been mixed, with occasional bursts of real online engagement amid great spans of superficial and vague opinionating that usually focuses on trivialities. The primary block to really engagement in this course is that students seem to have been conditioned to believe that any serious disagreement, especially political disagreement, is to be avoided. I attempt to meet this issue head on by including a statement in my syllabus that explicitly lays out the need for discussion of and disagreements about controversial issues. I then discuss this on the first day of class, with further reminders as we go through the semester. They give up their agency in the service of a tepid sort of comity.

4) The Literature of American Popular Music: Another media-intensive course in which I have used a blog, with mixed success. If the digital natives in my other courses have failed to fully engage digitally out of a lack of confidence about the material and the means by which we study it (which I suspect is true), the natives in this course are so confident they are masters of the material that they are virtually incapable of seeing the ways in which their own subjectivity is conditioned by the forces of commerce, history, and mythmaking. Their own biases in the realm of popular culture are almost completely invisible to them; their own use of cultural symbols in terms of dress, music, etc. seem completely naturalized and unexceptional, even uninteresting, to them. Among other things, this course attempts to get them to see their own culture — and recent American popular culture — as strange. I ask them to do a sort of self-ethnography. To this end, I use film and audio and try to get them to reflect critically, which they find increasingly difficult as we approach nearer and nearer to their own time-period and their own mythos, though they don’t have a particularly easy time seeing John Henry or Stagolee as mythic figures at the beginning of the course either, despite all the images we look at and narratives we read and songs we hear and blog comments we write about them.

When I was first asked to participate in this conference, I misread or misheard the title as involving “digital citizens,” not “digital natives.” (In fact, I think that Palfrey and Gasser use the terms more interchangeably than I would.) In any case, as these authors note, we still don’t have a very good fix on how students’ learning is changing in the digital landscape we all now inhabit, some more comfortably than others. Realizing my mistake, I began turning over the differences between natives and citizens. That Booklist review I quoted earlier goes on to talk about “global citizens,” but that’s obviously just the rhetoric of marketing. I particularly started toying with the geographical metaphor of being native to a place and how that might differ from citizenship. I went to the OED and found that natives appear to not be as enfranchised as citizens and that the word native frequently has been used in a derogatory way.

You have to go to the third definition, second part, for the word before you find native equated with citizen. Of course, you can’t prove anything with definitions, but they are suggestive of the ways people have thought about certain important distinctions and differences. Natives inhabit a place, but citizens, to a greater or lesser degree, own it and know its history and geography. Our students are certainly digital natives and they have the tendinitis in their thumbs to prove it, but most of them are not yet citizens of the digital world. Most are not yet really literate, either in the old print world, nor in the new world of ever-shifting media landscapes.