In the digital age, approaches to learning increasingly are influenced by “digital natives”—those who have grown up with the computer and utilize the internet, social media and an array of digital devices as a primary means of communication, entertainment, financial transactions, and education. Digital learners are not simply students or workers to whom traditional instruction is delivered online, but tech-savvy internet pros who construct and manage their own learning environments online, develop their own learning strategies, and define success on their own terms.
The relevance and reach of the internet and the growth of social media create this reality, resulting in a generation of learners who use and apply new methods and criteria to the learning process:
- Speed – The average digital learner focuses attention in 10-15 minute chunks, compiling and assimilating information that is readily accessible and relevant to the immediate task at hand. Information must be available 24/7 and readily accessible for reference or re-purposing as needed.
- Simultaneity – To acquire relevant information quickly, digital natives use multiple strategies: simultaneously browsing, sampling, analyzing, cutting, pasting, socializing, and otherwise manipulating data to get what they need.
- Networking – Digital learners actively make and maintain networks that allow them to search beyond their own immediate resources by connecting them to people and information anywhere. In the digital age, everything is connected. To digital natives, connections are more important to the learning process than sources.
- Control – To learn something new, a digital native checks Google or Bing to get an idea of what’s available and dives right in, using the search capabilities of the browser, the voluminous resources of the Web, and a range of social networks to explore a topic or develop a skill. For digital natives, the learner—not the instructor or the course—is the center of the learning environment.
The impact of digital learners on twenty-first century learning environments—including the traditional classroom—highlights the changing role of teachers who, in teaching digital natives, discover that the learners appear to have taken control of the learning process.
In responding to these changes, what is expected of teachers? Will they simply pursue the traditional model—ignoring their learners’ overnight forays on the web—and assume that time and patience will restore the conventional roles of teacher and student? Perhaps they attempt to master the new technologies themselves, believing they can (or should) equal or even surpass their students’ expertise in navigating online learning environments. Or will teachers and learners together negotiate other possibilities for teaching learners in the digital age?
Recent discussions around the subject of teaching digital natives suggest there is a clear pathway through the dilemma. Teachers can take a series of strategic actions that adapt the traditional roles of teacher and student to the learning opportunities of the digital age. In brief, these strategic actions can be described as follows: leave the stage, learn from your students, and lead the revolution.
Leave the Stage
For centuries, teachers have been the acknowledged experts in the classroom. As a result of their training, experience and innate abilities, teachers have been the source and arbiters of information while learners have been the recipients. Even with the introduction of outside sources of information over the centuries, including books and various media, teachers have remained the experts. Understandably, this model of teaching and learning has been often been designated “the sage on the stage.”
In the past decade, however, the introduction of personal digital devices and a range of new web-based search tools and social media have woven a bold new thread into the discussion of “expertise” in the classroom: namely, the appearance of digital-native students who imagine that their ability to conduct extensive online searches, grab and store what they find, and rapidly share the information with each other qualifies them as experts, too.
In fact, today’s digital natives are experts in a certain sense. A two-year-old digital native can operate an iPhone and a seven-year-old can surf the web and create online identities. More importantly, digital natives are also adept at using these technologies to quickly navigate a deluge of information. They gather information in bits and quickly share, store and use the pieces. They thrive on communication and reach out to each other at a rapid pace with simple text or instant messages throughout the day.
Whether students’ mastery of digital environments qualifies them as “experts” in the traditional sense is less important to 21st-century teachers and classrooms than the realization that digital natives experience the world differently, and inevitably bring those aptitudes and experiences into the classroom. In the place of expertise developed by years of study and training, today’s learners have the capability to search and socialize massive amounts of up-to-date information, and collectively weigh the probability that the information may be pertinent to the topic of the day—before they ever get to class.
With their technology skills, communicative learning styles, and online networks, students bring collective expertise to the classroom. And it is the opportunity to draw upon this expertise for the sake of learning that draws the best teachers down from their stage—without abdicating their responsibilities for learning and learner outcomes.
Learn from your students
The primary benefit for teachers in “leaving the stage” is the opportunity to learn from their students. Learners in the 21st century do not arrive in class as “blank slates.” Rather, they arrive fresh (in a manner of speaking) from an evening or morning of searching and sharing information on the web, some of which will pertain to the topic of the day. Teachers who suspend their status as “sage” soon discover that students in the digital age already possess information that will be useful and relevant to the learning objectives for the day.
Of course 21st-century students will not learn what their teachers have studied and taught for years simply by searching and circulating information on the web the night before class. They lack the historical perspective, the judgment and the breadth of understanding to fully evaluate the information they find, regardless of the text chats, links, and emails they’ve exchanged with their peers.
Nonetheless, students in the 21st-century classroom will have surveyed a great deal of information in a short time. And while the information they’ve collected may not yet qualify as knowledge, it is current—as recent as the past hour’s news—and frequently draws upon research and commentary published over the past century. Prior to any given class, it is reasonable to assume that your students, collectively, have encountered a significant amount of information on the web that pertains to the topic of the day, and have circulated the information among their peers.
Learning from today’s students begins with valuing what they learn outside of class. But understanding how they learn, and incorporating their web-based learning strategies as key components of the instructional process builds a genuine teaching-learning partnership between teachers and students. By assigning students the role of bringing their technological expertise and their aptitudes for learning in digital and social networks into the classroom, teachers who step down from the stage, in effect, invite their students to join them on stage.
Lead the revolution
Teachers who lead realize that the 21st-century classroom requires them to keep pace with their students’ learning approaches while still taking responsibility for the students’ direction and their outcomes. Gandhi, seeing his followers at a distance, once remarked, “There go my people: I have to go and run and catch up because I am their leader.”
Leading the learning revolution in the digital age suggests that teachers, like Gandhi, perhaps, recognize that their students have moved off in a new direction and that, as leaders, they must “run and catch up.” By familiarizing themselves with the learning techniques and technologies of the digital age, teachers will be better prepared to do what they do best: take responsibility for the learning environment and learning outcomes; delegate responsibility to the students for incorporating digital learning strategies and information they uncover into the classroom; and hold students accountable for those expectations. Mark Prensky, who coined the term “digital native,” suggests that “we should not be blown away by our students; we should be expecting even more from them.”
The maxim for teachers readying themselves to lead the learning revolution in the digital age could simply read: “Take Responsibility. Delegate. Don’t Abdicate.”
- Take Responsibility
Familiarize yourself with web-based search techniques and social media environments. Incorporate them selectively into your own work and personal life. Search Wikipedia, for example, and critically assess the quality and value of the sites. Note the references and judge their reliability. Discuss your perceptions with students to help them learn to evaluate the information they discover.
Digital learners say they would rather find answers on their own than be told where to look and what to learn. Take them seriously, assigning them the responsibility to find materials that are relevant to a particular topic and requiring them to share their information and their processes with the class.Always think about questions you can ask students to guide their discovery rather than what you can tell them. Reframe topics or information as a series of questions that students research and explore, rather than a series of answers they memorize.
- Don’t Abdicate
Remain the teacher: create and ask challenging questions, provide context from your own research and experience, foster critical thinking, require diligence, and expect quality.
In this first decade of the 21st century, digital technologies have affected teaching and learning practices in the traditional classroom. Learners have unprecedented, independent access to digital data that according to some estimates doubles every eighteen months, and they possess the tools and skills to search and share that data in minutes. This reality has begun to change how teachers teach and learners learn. Yet in the digital age—especially in the digital age—the value of teachers helping students transform information into knowledge has never been more important.
- Prensky, Mark. Teaching Digital Natives. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2010
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