Digital Native Students are More Consumers than Creators

OK, friends– it’s time to get over it. You might call young people “digital native students” but there are severe limits to their ability to turn that geekdom into real learning. The persistent myth of modern digital native students connotes for many that millennial students have a natural fluency with digital tools that previous generations did not. However, studies consistently show that today’s students are much better consumers of content than creators of it, and that this consumer orientation doesn’t translate into empowered learning.

Most students read Wikipedia, but few edit it.

Most students watch YouTube, but few make their own videos.

Students can easily find websites, but most do not build websites.

Students can easily navigate an iPad and use different apps (really, who can’t?) but we shouldn’t take that to mean that they are fully empowered to express their thoughts digitally.

Using Technology to Support Learning

Findings also show that whether you’re young or old, “digital native” or “digital tourist”, using technology to support your learning is a developed skill that very few possess.

The findings show that many young students are far from being the epitomic global, connected, socially-networked technologically-fluent digital native who has little patience for passive and linear forms of learning. While the use of technologies is limited in terms of the range and the nature, there is some evidence that younger students use some tools more actively than the older students, but neither of these two groups uses these technologies to support their learning effectively. (Margaryan & Littlejohn, 2008)

What does it mean to “use technology to support your learning?” For one thing, it means that simply using technology to replicate passive pre-digital tasks like note-taking, reading, watching videos, or making calls is not an end in itself. The true power of technology is to help us to engage in critical thinking tasks that would be otherwise impossible without tech. Paradoxically, there is evidence that technology is actually inhibiting our ability to critically analyze information.

We need to start separating all the dazzling activities we can do with our computers and smart devices into two main categories– “passive” and “active.”

Active tasks are ones that map directly to one or more Bloom’s taxonomy verbs for critical thinking or that lead to active meaning-making. Sure, your kid can shoot some video on their smartphone and add music– that’s great– but they can do that task entirely without analyzing, synthesizing, or even understanding the meanings of the texts they’re working with. A central idea in project-based learning is that the work artifacts students produce need to show evidence of student learning. Whatever external form student work takes (video, presentation, hand-coded video game), it also needs to clearly show that students have successfully mastered the learning content you are trying to teach.

Active tasks also let students engage in deeper and richer learning interactions than would otherwise be possible, such as iterating an idea through multiple revisions with a peer group and instructor, or getting targeted feedback from a remote expert. Using a Google Doc is not an end in itself, but it can help students verify each other’s answers, ask questions of a text, or build a design with outside collaborators. In all these cases, the tech plays a supporting role, but the learning task itself is what’s really transformational.

By contrast, passive tasks are all the other techie activities that seem to get so much attention without actually impacting learning. Young people, by virtue of their age, will be always immersed in whichever new set of tools are trending among their peers. Often, they don’t even use the full functionality of any of the tools in their repertoire– think of all the features packed in MS Word that you don’t know how to use. They don’t know them either. They might bring an iPad to class instead of a laptop, but their internet research skills are no better for it.

See the Meaning-Making through the Tech

In short, don’t let yourself get dazzled by the surface differences in the ways you and your students work. Instead, be on the lookout for evidence of active meaning-making and critical thinking. Learn to see through the technology to the ways your students are seeing and thinking about the world, then work with them to develop that process of understanding.

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Written by

Ted Curran is a Learning Experience Designer/Developer for Autodesk. He is committed to empowering educators and learners to create transformational change through effective pedagogy and technology integration. You can follow Ted on Mastodon, LinkedIn or learn more at my 'About" page. These thoughts are my own.

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