Sunday, January 29, 2012

“Digital natives”

I recently attended a workshop at my home institution where I heard teachers confidently assert that today’s students are so adept at technological tasks that we can rely on them to help their older teachers develop important technological skills.


For more than 15 years, I’ve introduced Classics students at Holy Cross to XML markup. To build on any prior experience they might have, I routinely begin by asking who has ever peeked behind a web page to view its HTML source. Fifteen years ago, I would usually find anywhere from a quarter to a half of the students would say yes. Today, if I ask a group of 20–25 students, I will get one or two “yes” answers.

I do not know if my students were telling me the truth fifteen years ago (or today), but that doesn’t much matter for my present point. Fifteen years ago, far more students either had seen HTML or felt some kind of pressure to pretend that they had.

What does it mean? I suspect that the “digital natives” I teach have indeed grown up so familiar with information technology that they are more oblivious to it than their elders. I worry that they are also incurious, or at least need to learn to be curious about it.

My personal experience makes up only a limited sample, of students in Classics at a small liberal-arts college, but the trend among those students is very clear. Unless someone can show me better evidence, I’ll remain very sceptical about a priori assertions concerning the skills that “digital natives” will confer on their teachers.

Note: new tags

I’m using a couple of new tags on this post: “sceptical” (for obvious reasons), and “yam” [yet another meeting] to help me find posts responding to ideas I’ve gathered from yammering at meetings. I hope to post soon on a couple of additional “sceptical” topics, and several “yam” topics (since January is a big month for meetings in the academic world).


Jana Beck said...

I don't quite fit into the group of your 15-years-ago students (I'm 27), but I do remember the early days of the internet, and I've been able to muddle my way around HTML source code since I was, say, 13. I think the difference is definitely that, at the beginning, you needed to learn to poke around in the technical details to do anything interesting on the internet. And these days, you don't, at least not necessarily (perhaps it depends on your definition of 'interesting').

As a graduate student TA, I've also experienced a sometimes appalling lack of end-user skills in the undergrads I've worked with (not exactly what you're talking about, but still disturbing). The number of times I've had to explain how to make a Word document into a PDF! And a fellow TA once received a picture--taken with a digital camera--of a student's computer when she requested a screenshot to help the student troubleshoot a program.

Neel Smith said...

You can't make this stuff up.

Esther said...

I wonder if this is an issue that reflects changes in the way we interact with technology in general, and not just indicative of a generational difference. I've run across this same issue with people who are not of the current student's generation (in their mid 30s now) who actually do web design on a professional basis, who know very little HTML (!). There are so many tools out there that will do it for you (WordPress, Plugins, etc.) that many people don't ask the questions why it works the way it does or what could they do to actually have a tool that fits their purposes.