Just about the time the first digital natives were born, mass media critic Neil Postman published Amusing Ourselves to Death, in which he postulated that television would lead to the downfall of intelligent interaction.
If only he were writing today. I would love to read his take on the shift from a TV-dominated world, in which we passively consumed static information, to the current one, in which we consume and share interactive information online.
Will educators embrace this interactivity imperative, or will they ignore it at their own (and their students') peril?
"Digital natives" have grown up surrounded by technology and immersed in online communities. They are "native speakers" of the digital language of computers, mobile phones and the Internet because this is the only world they've known, and they tend to live publicly. Routinely sharing opinions on everything from where to go to what's for dinner is as natural to them as breathing. Their comfort and facility with digital technologies also empowers them to be prolific content creators and remixers.
The market research firm Capgemini found that for an increasing number of young users, content is more valuable when it's consumed and discussed collectively. Such online community dynamics are altering traditional patterns of trust, with young consumers in particular having more confidence in peer-generated or "crowd-sourced" content.
And yet, many educators are reluctant to employ socially mediated learning. Perhaps they fear a loss of independent thought or inappropriate use of "social" technologies that might lead to the oversharing of personal information or cyberbullying. But we can't unring this bell or remove from digital natives their expectation of interactivity in all they do.
Educators who fail to leverage interactive learning in the classroom are failing to fully engage digital natives as learners. Worse, they're missing an opportunity to participate in these activities in a safe, moderated environment.
Today's teachers must get to know this generation of learners and move past negative assumptions that they are spending too much time socializing and not enough time thinking critically and independently. Better still, teachers should channel this desire to collaborate and comment openly into learning activities that challenge students to do what they do best in an educational context. Teachers must realize that the majority of today's students:
Live publicly online: Andy Warhol's "15 minutes of fame" has evolved into "Everyone will be famous to 15 people." Accept it, and find reward mechanisms that leverage this tendency.
Share knowledge: For youth today, knowledge shared is power. Enable collaborative learning to maximize productivity and engagement.
Are always connected: This generation works and plays at all hours (often at the same time). Provide in- and out-of-classroom access to online activities for anytime, anywhere participation.
Believe transparency yields trust: Given their socially networked lives, young people will perform better for those they view as trustworthy members of their community.
Are interested in 24x7 interaction: Digital natives perform better when they have input on everything from an assignment itself to the process of achieving it and the evaluation of its outcome.
Those teachers who understand and accept how digital natives think and work best are uniquely positioned to help shape the constructive use of socially mediated interaction in the classroom. This, in turn, will better inform the work these students (and the rest of us) do along the way.
For more insight on the traits that make digital natives tick, check out these resources:
- Digital Nation: Life on the Virtual Frontier, a project of FRONTLINE and PBS: pbs.org/wgbh/pages/front line/digitalnation
- Digital Natives: Youth and Media, an interdisciplinary project of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University: youthandmedia.org/projects/digital-natives
- Digital Native Nick: digitalnativenick.com
- Online Schools: State of the Internet 2011: onlineschools.org/state-of-the-internet
Michelle Manafy is the director of content for FreePint, a provider of publications and resources to support the information industry. She is also the co-editor and a contributor to the book Dancing With Digital Natives: Staying in Step With the Generation That's Transforming the Way Business Is Done.