The Natives are Restless

This from Michael Newman, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin on lessons learned from 6 semesters of class blogging:

“The idea that anyone born after the mid 1980’s is a ‘digital native’ is way overstated. Some students [there are still some in every class] don’t have access to a computer at home. I still don’t know how to solve the problem of the student with limited computer access (or skills) blogging less than the student who has broadband and a laptop. My sense is that this is often a class (and race) issue, which is to say it’s the product of a larger structure of inequality that makes it harder for some students to succeed in school.”

And here we go again. I’ve heard [and seen] how technology levels the playing field–opens the world to people in isolation of all kinds [through geography, disability, language, etc.] I’ve heard [and seen] how technology enables, even draws out participation from diverse individuals and groups, gives voice to scores of the voiceless across the world. I’ve heard [and seen] how it creates a sense of community, connects people, gives them the freedom to become peers, even friends, across ideologies and oceans.

But it’s not that simple.

Sometimes, especially when we are unaware/insensitive to the possibility, technology can actually intensify already staggering class distinctions. When we assume that all students have the same access, that they have the same skills, abilities, and understanding of the technologies–their norms and mores, their capabilities, their limitations–our educational use of technology [however instructionally effective and engaging it might be] becomes a perpetuation, not just a product, of the larger structure of inequality that keeps these “non-natives” out of place, out of privilege, and out of power.

These things ought not to be.

Because this whole thought was more of a passing side-note than a point in the post, let me just briefly summarize some of the lessons Michael mentions:

  • Group blogs work better than a collection of individual blogs in terms of fostering communities of practice. Make the blog into a communal space, an extension of the classroom, he says.
  • Don’t mandate the number of posts and especially comments, it’s cheapens the conversation.
  • Integrate the blog into actual class instruction; use examples from it, devote significant blocks of time to discussion of content on it, make connections to upcoming content, always with liberal doses of explicit personal praise to the author.
  • Create space for metacognition about blogging, the participatory internet, community and media in general.

8 responses to “The Natives are Restless

  1. I usually think the whole “digital natives” idea is basically a myth. The 2007 Pew Internet and American Life Project report on Teens and Social Media says that 93% of teens are on the Internet. This means only 7% are not, but that doesn’t mean that all of the “plugged in” teens are equal participants on the Internet. If 39% of teens have shared their own artistic creations and 33% of teens have created a blog or made a webpage, then 61% and 67% have not. Also, since the majority of blogs are abandoned soon after creating, I’m not sure how much having created a blog tells us about the extent of an individual’s expertise with new media.

    The truth is that being born in the 1980s doesn’t grant a person an instant facility with all things digital. The majority of kids today are not experts on blogging and new media.

  2. Very well put, as always, Kimberly.
    Looking at those statistics coupled with your observation about orphan blogs, made me wonder if this isn’t related to David’s point today about probing. He proposed that the format is most useful as a probe [putting an idea, question, opinion out to the world in the sincere hope of response] rather than simply an electronic if not exhibitionist “dear diary…” I wonder how many abandoned blogs are abandoned because they were never probes to begin with and the authors simply got tired of talking to themselves, and how many were abandoned because thoughtful, meaningful probes went unanswered–we all know how good rejection [even technologically-mediated rejection] feels.
    What does it take to truly connect to the participatory internet? What skills/experience/resources does one need to “probe” effectively through a blog? Is anyone truly “native” to that kind of electronic interaction?

  3. Lyndell Lutes

    What does it take to truly connect to the participatory Internet?

    How about: Time and a need that can’t be more easily met elsewhere?

    I admit to sometimes being overwhelmed and at the same time captivated with the vast amount of useful and interesting stuff in cyberspace. From the inception of the Internet, I have almost stood in awe of how accessible so much was. Time* is always a big deal with me. If the “funness” of something isn’t an issue, I will always opt for the fastest method. If I were a teacher, if someone would just show me how technology can improve learning for my students without complicating my life (i.e. taking more time), I would do it in a heartbeat.

    The problem is–just telling someone to go set up a blog isn’t the same as teaching and helping them to set up one. Even something easy can be daunting to the uninitiated to the point that it won’t get done unless it is required.

    *Speaking of time, I found that Neal A. Maxwell’s 1979 address at BYU captures my feelings on the subject perfectly.

    “When the veil which now encloses us is no more, time will also be no more (see D&C 84:100). Even now, time is clearly not our natural dimension. Thus it is that we are never really at home in time. Alternately, we find ourselves impatiently wishing to hasten the passage of time or to hold back the dawn. We can do neither, of course. Whereas the bird is at home in the air, we are clearly not at home in time—because we belong to eternity! Time, as much as any one thing, whispers to us that we are strangers here. If time were natural to us, why is it that we have so many clocks and wear wristwatches?”

  4. Loved all of the insights, Sarajoy,Kimberly, Lyndell! Very thought-provoking! I guess when I read Sarajoy’s comments, I thought of those students in other countries who do not enjoy the easy access to technology that we do in the U.S. ‘Perpetuating the privileged’ seemed to equate more to that setting. I agree that that ‘ought not to be!’

    As to the issue of time, I whole-heartedly agree with Elder Maxwell’s sentiments! I greatly look forward to the time without time that will come! Have a great night, gals!

  5. Yetters

    I do think that digital technology has the capability of leveling the playing field when there is access. But in what ways do we define leveling? Just because there is access, doesn’t mean there is full and aligned participation, as you pointed out. Part of access is education as to the use of the technology. Also, I think that those who have had access for a while and who use technology to alleviate lack of education and resources in other countries, can help with the leveling. That means all of us, in some way or another, can positively affect change through some some simple uses/application of technology.

  6. In Friedman’s book, The World is Flat, he talks about the 10 flateners. He argues that these flatteners have leveled the global playing field. My observations is that it has leveled and shaped the political and economical playing field but not our school playing fields. I find it interesting that with all of this political and economic leveling out , why hasn’t our educational system seen the benefit of this flattening? and if these flatteners are opening up the global world, why is there still a digital fragmentation. Some say it is a class (race) issue and I am sure that this contributes to the fragmentation but are there other issues at work and what are they?

  7. technologymavin

    First, a comment in response to what Cheryl said (why our educational field hasn’t been leveled). Academia is a slow moving behemoth. It is cumbersome and not fleet of foot. It is encumbered and interconnected to so many things (i.e. to students/parents wanting good grades so the student can get a scholarship or entrance into a prestigious university, to assessments, to teaching strategies, to a nation’s expectations of what constitutes education . . .).

    The economic world is faster to respond to change because if it doesn’t it doesn’t make any money!

    Not so with education. The shiny white tusk of attempted educational change is outnumbered by the grey bristles of entrenched educational practices.

    Now, a comment about digital natives and digital immigrants. Marc Prensky was the person who coined these terms. You can read his article on is website. There is a link to the pdf article on this page:

    Mr. Prensky does not equate digital ‘native-ness’ with access to technology. It is more that they have grown up with technology and the immigrants haven’t.

    He goes on to discuss issues such as natives being able to learn more (or differently) and immigrant teachers having a totally off-base teaching methodology.

    It’s also good to understand that his remarks were not about folks living in third world countries but about education in the US. While the term digital native could be applied to folks in Canada and Europe, I do not believe it is fair to encompass the Third World countries — because that is where the access issue comes in to play.

    At a conference I attended last year, one session speaker said that true digital natives (again, in the US) are those that are currently in the 4thh grade. They are the ones who have grown up with technology in their lives. They do not know a life B.T. (before technology).

    This is something that sometimes surprises university professors. They expect university students to ‘know’ technology. Know everything. And students do — to an extent.

    Students’ knowledge is at times spotty. The areas of technology that they know (cell phones, iTUnes, etc.)they know very well. Yet, there are other areas that they may hardly know (e.g. the inner workings of Exel or PowerPoint or something as simple as changing the icon for a folder on their computer.

    So, we (in our class) are all digital immigrants. To see a true native, look to your little 8 year old sister.

    (Whew! My how I pontificated here . . .)

  8. Thanks everyone for “probing” back!
    The clarifications you offered, Nina, were quite helpful–and I think you’re absolutely right. Not only was the term never intended to encompass the Third World, I don’t think it CAN. Based on [albiet limited] experience, I don’t think there are ANY “digital natives” in the Third World. Even those living on the upper crust of society experience a very different digital landscape than even recent digital immigrants here. Issues of technology in terms of international development are important, but separate from the idea of “native-ness.”
    Still, I don’t think it’s fair to say that access issues are not in play in the US. Certainly someone whose only time in front of a computer is a 1-hour block in the lab at school, who uses a 5-year old cell phone with a broken screen and who would only have an iPod if they stole one can’t be expected to have the same familiarity and facility with new media [or have the same thought processes and mental models shaped by electronic interaction] as my 16-year-old brother.
    Given all of this, I think I’m inclined to agree with Kimberly that the whole “digital native” thing is a bit of a myth [or at least must be defined by something more than birth year…something that takes into account the influences of class etc.]–or, as Nina pointed out, the real digital natives just haven’t really hit the scene yet…

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