The concept of today’s students as “digital natives” provides the major theme of this week’s readings. This concept, essentially that the younger generation has grown up immersed in technology and is inherently comfortable using it, has proved surprisingly resilient, especially among those who are members of an older generation and learned how to use various digital technologies later in life (“digital immigrants”). Nor is this concept confined to the educational profession; in the military senior officers frequently talk about how young soldiers “grew up on video games” and are those comfortable using advanced military technologies such as drones and remote controlled bomb robots.
Yet, as explored in many of this week’s articles, this concept conceals some important caveats and issues. Danah Boyd engages with these issues most directly, but criticisms of this concept are present, implicitly or explicitly, in almost every article we read this week. Boyd’s criticisms rest on two different but related levels. First, Boyd argues that teens will not become critical contributors to the digital world simply because of the date of their birth and that the ability to navigate facebook and twitter do not imply a mastery of more complex digital tools. Teens will need to be educated to achieve media literacy and technical skills. Furthermore, these two attributes must be accompanied by access, which leads to Boyd’s second criticism. Boyd (and many others) argue that the concept of “digital natives” conceals significant amounts of digital inequality within the younger generation, tied largely to access, which is in itself largely tied to socioeconomic status.
Adam Rabinowitz, in his review of his experience teaching an undergrad course heavily focused on digital tools, likewise criticizes the universality of the digital native concept, pointing out that “students can be avid users of facebook and consumers of Youtube videos and still find it very difficult to use new, often complex or non-intuitive digital tools in a classroom setting” and that students largely prefer their digital content in smaller, manageable doses than is often assumed by educators. Allison Marsh also agrees with this assessment of student skills and interests, claiming that students are not yet convinced by digital humanities and many simply want to be “regular historians.” Mills Kelly, while generally more positive on the digital skills and engagement of students, does agree with Boyd that the profession needs to take a more forward approach to teaching students how to use digital tools.
While these readings do not all completely agree on their assessment of teaching in a digital world and the concept of “digital natives” it seems clear that a more nuanced understanding of the access, media savvy and technical skills of students is critical to the proper teaching of, and with, digital tools. Educators must recognize both the variance within the generation as well as the fact that the prevalence of technology and the use of social media such as facebook and twitter does not necessarily equate to an automatic or intuitive understanding of either the conceptual possibilities or nuts and bolts working of academic digital tools. In order for students to properly understand and implement these digital tools they must still be taught their use, just as we currently teach more traditional historical skill sets such as engaging with historiography and structuring an argument (and writing the papers that Mills Kelly is so critical of).