Marc Prensky, in “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” delineates the divide between the students of today and the students of yesteryear who are now teachers themselves. For these “wired” students who watch twice as much TV as they read books, “modern” schooling is both a bore and an anesthetizing waste of time, in many cases. Why would teachers force students to spend time searching through dusty textbooks when they can pull up the information on their smart phones in a tenth of the time, in other words? Prensky makes a strong case that the education we are providing today’s youth (whose brains may have literally been altered by their consumption of media and instant knowledge-gratification) is both outdated and stifling…but he doesn’t stop there.
I think it is a wild stretch and gross overstatement on Prensky’s part, however, to say that the gap between digital native students and digital immigrant teachers is the “single biggest problem facing education today” (2001, p. 2). This comment shows a naivety on Prensky’s part, or at the very least, an oversimplification that attempts to gloss over the very real and pressing issues that are at the center of our problems with education in America, namely: poverty and income stratification. When PISA test scores come out each year and the U.S. turns in a dismal showing, no one talks about the *fact* that America’s middle-class and affluent students perform just as well as any students in Singapore, Finland or other “high performing” countries. Income inequality and unequal educational opportunities are doubtless far greater risks and problems than the “digital divide” between teachers and students. It doesn’t even seem like a close race.
In the end, for all of his overstatement, Prensky does evince the importance of altering our current methods and topics (and mindset!) to better suit the interests and trajectories of today’s youth. Increasingly few students are going to find themselves needing the lessons taught in “shop” class at work, for instance, but nearly every kid in every context will need knowledge of the internet, productivity and word-processing software, and media (social and otherwise).
I consider myself a (mostly) Digital Native. I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s, and by the time I was in high school, the internet was a constant companion for entertainment and learning. I taught myself the guitar and piano, Spanish and statistics…all with the computer and the web. I often found myself bored in classes where tasks were outdated or the content uninspiring when I literally had the *world* at my fingertips. I taught for three years in a school where 90% of teachers, if not more, were…”senior” members of the Digital Immigrant population. Many of them struggled with simple tasks such as uploading an Excel sheet grade-record and sending via email, despite this being the method we used every six weeks, year after year. There was definitely a “divide” between the students who (thanks to Mayor Bloomberg’s myopic policies on the issue) dropped off their iPhones and Sidekicks at the metal detectors, and the teachers who were scared to delete desktop icons for fear of erasing entire programs.
These observations tell me that Prensky was surely on to something (despite his overstatement): we do need to better consider the world which our students inhabit—and have lived in all their lives, knowing nothing else—when we design instruction and educational activities and programs. Standing at the board and lecturing for 45 minutes is a sure-fire way to lose the attention of these digital-age students so accustomed to quick cut-aways on the TV and hypertext that lets you bounce from topic to topic as the urge—or need—strikes. There is a very real need to align the interests and habits of today’s youth with the education they receive, which unfortunately, still too closely resembles the Industrial Revolution conveyor-belt style of schooling that should have been left behind decades ago. The real challenge is to find a balance between the needs of the Digital Natives and the beliefs and habits of the Digital Immigrants…a heady challenge, indeed.