'The idea that young people are digital natives is a myth'

17th September 2014 at 14:01

Angela McFarlane, chief executive at the College of Teachers, writes:

Myths, by their very nature, are powerful things. For many years, the schools in Bristol were among the lowest performing in England. Despite many initiatives and much hard work by schools and the local council, they remained firmly at the bottom of the league tables.

A national survey of secondary-school-age young people revealed an interesting difference about the youth of Bristol. More than any other group, they believed that they would do well in life but that school would make little contribution to their success. It seems that they all knew of someone who had a cousin who had a mate who spent all their time playing video games and now made a fortune making them. Or had been discovered in a shopping centre and was now a top model, a reality TV star or had won the lottery. The idea that success and hard work were now uncoupled is a very compelling one and, it seems, one that had taken root in Bristol with far-reaching effects for the school system.

Another myth which it seems is playing havoc with our thinking about effective schooling is that of the digital native. The idea that anyone under 25 has some innate mastery of all things digital is almost taken as fact. Admittedly, we do have a very technologically savvy generation of teenagers and, compared to their older teachers, they may well be more confident with a wider range of tools and services. Or at least some of them will, not least as they have more time to spend using them. But a willingness to spend time and confidence do not necessarily add up to mastery. While there are young people who are doing remarkable things with digital technology, many, probably most, are rarely progressing beyond the trivial and banal.

During two long-term studies, which looked at learners who had personal connected devices or were using a powerful online learning community, we found that many users struggled to operate the basic tools. Those who were more active users, rather than somehow miraculously working it all out for themselves, in fact belonged to groups of active users among both friends and families. It seems that learning to be a competent user of technology is a social and cultural experience.

However, even where the learners were competent users of the device or service, they were not naturally effective learners using technology. Simple things like arranging their work so they could find it again was a challenge and there was no evidence of working iteratively, incorporating feedback from teachers or fellow learners. Searching skills were pretty rudimentary. They did enjoy drill and practice exercises and referred to these as “games” which they “played”.

The minority who did use their devices more did also revisit work they had done earlier, including a few who referred back to relevant work in primary school following transfer to secondary. Being able to create, save , share and rediscover their work via a personal device was a game changer for the few who found out how to do these things – but they were a minority and they had help from home and friends, which made the difference. Not much evidence of the “digital native”.

Ownership of connected devices among school-age learners is very widespread, so why aren’t such practices more common? We know that iteration with feedback is a very effective learning strategy and that digital technologies make this a practical proposition in many ways. However, it is not a way of working that is intuitive, and arguably it is not one that individuals can adopt alone.

The feedback element must come from fellow learners and teachers, which necessitates some buy-in at the class, if not the school, level. Some schools are doing this with impressive results but many are not.

Top of the list of challenges is poor connectivity – fast broadband to support effective wireless access at an affordable price is far from universal in schools. Management of devices is also regarded as problematic – few schools can afford devices for all and the complexity of a bring your own device model can be daunting.

More important than these perhaps is that the culture of teaching and learning in the school does not include an articulation of the use of technologies to support effective student learning. There is much talk of the pedagogy of technology enabled learning, which may be a distraction. Perhaps there is no unique pedagogy, rather it is that well-established effective models such as collaborative, resource-based, constructive and constructionist learning become manageable realities in a digitally enriched context. But all of these approaches require an induction – the research evidence makes this clear.

You have to learn how to be an effective collaborator, researcher and builder of knowledge and so on. You also have to learn how to manage such learning. There is no one, magic bullet and we certainly know from the research evidence that simply giving teachers and learners expensive technology without a vision of the culture of teaching and learning they are intended to unpin and the training needed to make the vision a reality, does little if anything to improve learning.

So it seems that, just like the youngsters in Bristol who dreamed of a glorious future without the hard work, we need to recognise that the fruits of digital technology-enhanced learning will not simply drop into our laps. Young people will not miraculously transform into effective digital learners without help any more than they spontaneously learned to read or write because they were surrounded by text-based technologies. We will only see the real value of technology in schools when teachers and learners are given the necessary time, resources, support and vision. It won’t happen on its own.

Angela McFarlane’s latest book, Authentic Learning for the Digital Generation, is published by Routledge. www.bit.ly/1sYWT9g


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