Learning in a Digital World

Our children's affinity for technology changes the learning landscape.

My 7-year-old downloaded an app on his iPod. 

When I was 7, the words “download,” “app” and “iPod” didn’t even exist. When my children first got their iPods and they asked me how to download an app, I was stumped. It was a foreign concept to me. In fact, my son was able to do it within seconds, while I was reading the instruction book looking for directions about downloading apps.

This concept of our kids being able to easily handle technology and parents being uncomfortable is not a totally new concept.  In fact, Marc Prensky, author of “Don’t’ Bother Me Mom—I’m Learning," coined the terms digital natives and digital immigrants. Our children are digital natives. They have been exposed to and immersed in a society where technology has always been present—they have grown up with it, so to speak.

Their lives never existed without cell phones, computers, Internet, GPS systems, or even something as archaic as a microwave. Even video game systems barely resemble the video games of the 1980s—forever changed as now the game is being played interactively by gamers around the globe. 

The majority of parents of this generation are comfortable with technology, but not like the digital native. Prensky refers to this group as digital immigrants.  Think of it as an immigrant coming to a new country—having to learn a new language, new customs, and how to just function in that society.

Gone are the days of hand written letters, or even paying bills with checks. Who belongs to this group identified as digital immigrants? I definitely do, and so do many of my friends.  It is safe to say that pretty much anyone who grew up before the ‘90s is considered a digital immigrant.

In the classroom this shows itself in a different way. At home, children have everything at their fingertips: computers, internet access, and countless opportunities to interact. If they want information about something—BAM—they can get it. 

In school, the lack of technology is limiting just how far their learning experience can go.  There is one teacher and 25 to 30 students in a classroom.  Where is the ability to have instant access to other resources?  Where is the ability to learn more and become a self directed learner if the technology is limited?  Where is the ability to keep these kids in school, engaged and interested, when they know they can connect and learn on their own, outside of school,  in a way that meets their personal needs better?

It is not that technology is  magic tool.  Prensky researched and found that one major difference between the technology of video games/computers and learning in a classroom is that computers and video games have one primary goal: to engage the user. It's designed to keep the user engaged for 30, 60 or even more hours.

The disconnect comes from the primary goal of education in general. The goal of education has always been to instruct and get the information across. It is suspected that students who do spend so much of their time plugged into technology will not accept learning that is “boring”  as compared to what the possibilities are. 

Recently, a graduate course I took stated that, nationally, 30 percent of high school students are dropping out.  Some of those are the reasons you would think, like pregnancy or having to support a family.  But the majority leave because their need to be engaged is not being met.

The needs of the 21st century learner—their brains are a bit different than the brains of kids just 20 years ago. We can thank technology for that.

Think for a second even how much our news programs have changed.  The constant stream of words across the bottom of the screen (Or updates on your Facebook page) is there because we, as a society, want to know more than one thing at a time and want to know it now.  I know I love the ticker on the news channel, especially when the weather scrolls across the screen.  It is much more convenient than waiting for the weather man to pop up on the screen only at his slotted time. 

It is what it is.  There is no going back.  But we can continue to adapt, and learn, in this new digital world, my fellow immigrants. With the way technology is moving, we honestly have no clue what the possibilities are.


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