Inside Higher Ed featured one of those every-so-often articles about the awesomeness of the demographic subgroup of the moment, this time Athur Levine’s panegyric about “digital natives”, who “grew up in a world of computers, Internet, cell phones, MP3 players, and social networking,” and how they’re too cool and tech-savvy for current universities:
They differ from their colleges on matters as fundamental as how they conceive of and utilize physical plant and time. For the most part, universities operate in fixed locales, campuses, and on fixed calendars, semesters and quarters with classes typically set for 50 minutes, three times per week. In contrast, digital natives live in an anytime/anyplace world, operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, unbounded by physical location.
There is also a mismatch between institutions of higher education and digital natives on the goals and dynamics of education. Universities focus on teaching, the process of education, exposing students to instruction for specific periods of time, typically a semester for a course, and four years of instruction for a bachelor’s degree; digital natives are more concerned with the outcomes of education — learning and the mastery of content, achieved in the manner of games. which is why an online game pro will never boast about how long she was at a certain level, but will talk about the level that has been reached.
Higher education and digital natives also favor different methods of instruction. Universities have historically emphasized passive means of instruction — lectures and books — while digital natives tend to be more active learners, preferring interactive, hands-on methods of learning such as case studies, field study and simulations. The institution gives preference to the most traditional medium, print, while the students favor new media — the Internet and its associated applications.
And so forth. While I do appreciate the shout-out to Union’s glorious past, the article as a whole is a bunch of crap– a collection of intemperate praise that is essentially meaningless.
More to the point, though, I have yet to see much evidence of these “digital natives” that Levine is so smitten with.
It’s absolutely true that the students I teach in the intro physics courses are way more comfortable than I am with certain forms of technology. They can do things with cell phones and Facebook that I didn’t realize were possible.
But the students I see are not comfortable with computers in any fundamental way. A few of them know how to do useful things with Excel and Word, but if you try to go beyond what they already know, they freeze up completely, and demonstrate no ability to figure out how to make these programs work (which, to be fair, is often inordinately difficult). Many of them regard the idea that they should learn how to use the tools at their disposal to, for example, create properly formatted equations in lab reports as a grossly unfair imposition.
The students I see are not comfortable with using the Internet to gain information beyond the most superficial sort of searching. When asked to obtain information on their own, they generally default to Wikipedia, and if the fact they’re after isn’t in the first page or two of Google results to their first query, they give up. The idea of trying multiple search strings, or digging beyond the top level of references is foreign to them.
I do agree with Levine that I see a lot of students who “are more concerned with the outcomes of education — learning and the mastery of content, achieved in the manner of games,” provided the game in question has cheat codes. They seek only to “level up” to the next course– they want a passing grade, as quickly and easily as possible, and if it’s possible to get through the exam by pressing up-down-up-down-left-left-A-B in rapid succession, that’s the route they want. I see very little concern with useful mastery of content, as opposed to learning just enough to get a B and move on to the next course.
Now, to be clear, I’m speaking of students in the introductory physics courses, here, the vast majority of whom will go on to major in something else. And by the time they graduate, most of these students have vastly improved, both in terms of their technical skills and their attitude toward education. Our seniors, in their majors or outside their major, have moved significantly closer to Levine’s ideal of the “digital native.”
But that motion comes through a more traditional process of education. They learn to master content in the same way every other generation has– by grinding through the hard work of regular problem sets and lab reports and research papers, not through some airy unstructured exploration of things that interest them.
There are some students out there who fit Levine’s description– there always have been. Every discipline has its tales of self-taught prodigies who needed only access to a library to learn everything they needed to make significant contributions. But those students are a tiny minority of the population, and I see no sign that they are any more numerous in this digital age than they were at any point in the past.
Of course, there is a group that may have expanded in modern times, which is students who think they have the ability to learn everything they need on their own. They have always been far more numerous than the actual autodidacts, but modern technology makes it easier to acquire a superficial sort of knowledge that lets people deceive themselves about their ability to learn on their own.
Sadly, it also allows them to deceive retired professors of education.