Digital Natives and the Snark Syndrome


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Paper supporting presentation given at BTG09 discussing images related to digital natives and related research

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Digital Natives and the Snark Syndrome

  1. 1. Digital Natives and the Snark Syndrome Simon Lorimer Presented at: Bridging the Gap, Yokohama International School, Yokohama, Japan. November 19-21, 2009 Table of Contents Digital Natives and the Snark Syndrome.....................................................1 Introduction...................................................................................................1 Why is this an issue?.......................................................................................2 Some of the evidence.......................................................................................3 So where does this leave us?.............................................................................6 Bibliography..................................................................................................6 Introduction 'Just the place for a Snark!' the Bellman cried, As he landed his crew with care; Supporting each man on the top of the tide By a finger entwined in his hair. 'Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice: That alone should encourage the crew. Just the place for a Snark! I have said thrice: What I tell you three times is true.' In 1993 Eileen Byrne published an influential book discussing women in science (Byrne, 1993). She used the term ‘Snark Syndrome’ to describe ‘received wisdom… based on assumption, belief or prejudice’. This refers to Lewis Carroll’s famous nonsense poem quoted above and suggests that the beliefs discussed had no basis in sound empirical research, but had simply been repeated enough times until they were internalised by educators and policy makers. In a recent web posting, Mark Bullen resurrected the term to describe what he 1
  2. 2. saw as a similar effect in discussion about ‘the net generation’. Here he questioned empirical research that supports the terms and concepts often used in debate and called for a more evidence based approach to policy and pratice in this area. (Bullen, 2009) As an example, Bullen noted a piece in the New York Times (Lewin, 2009) stating ““Kids are wired differently these days,” said Sheryl R. Abshire, chief technology officer for the Calcasieu Parish school system in Lake Charles, La. “They’re digitally nimble. They multitask, transpose and extrapolate. And they think of knowledge as infinite.” In the article, these bold claims were used to justify a future for education ““We’re still in a brick-and-mortar, 30-students- to-1-teacher paradigm,” Mr. Habermehl said, “but we need to get out of that framework to having 200 or 300 kids taking courses online, at night, 24/7, whenever they want.”” We need to consider if this is where we think education should go and if this is really what the evidence tells us works. Heeding the call for a more evidence based approach, I would like to review some issues that might arise from an uncritical adoption of the terms and concepts and look at some sources of empirical evidence and the sorts of questions that we should expect answers to from educational research. Why is this an issue? There are a lot of labels that have been used to characterise different generations. One of the most powerful is the concept of a net generation comprising digital natives, taught by a group of digital immigrants. Such labels clearly resonate with us and may become the basis for teaching and policy decisions. I would summarise the principal concerns with the uncritical adoption of this characterisation as being: It suggests that children are a homogenous group, all equipped with the same set of technology skills and preferences. This suggests that all we need to do is to let the children loose. In reality we see as big a range in skills and preferences in children as in adults, leading to complex classrooms which defy simplifications. 2
  3. 3. The image of ‘digital immigrant’ suggests that teachers are not suitably qualified to teach with and about ICT use and that interventions by immigrants will not be in the native language. In reality we see innovative design and expert use frequently represented by supposed digital immigrants. It also leads to the suggestion that technology preferences that have developed in a social setting would also be the preferred (and best) technology use in an educational setting. In research we can often see different preferences for communication in different settings and concerns exist about border crossings between the social and educational realms. (Muller, 2008) Some of the evidence I would like to review a few sources in some detail that discuss these claims. The first is a critical review published in the British Journal of Educational Technology by a group of Australian academics (Bennett, Maton, & Kervin, 2008). This article notes that initial assertions related to digital immigrants ‘put forward with limited empirical evidence or supported by anecdotes or appeals to common-sense beliefs’ have been ‘ subsequently referenced, often uncritically in a host of later publications’ (p. 777). They raise the concern that generalisations on whole generation focuses ‘attention on technically adept students. With this comes the danger that those less interested and less able will be neglected.’ (p. 7) On the notion that ‘young people think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors’ (quoting Prensky, 2001), the authors note that, even when there is evidence of people processing information differently in a social setting, it is common not to see processing preferences as static and certainly not generalisable across a whole generation. Research is cited saying that ‘students change their approach to learning depending on their perception of what a task requires’. Thus evidence of processing preferences in a social setting does not provide evidence for preferences in an educational setting. The authors also note concern about the nature of the debate about the net 3
  4. 4. generation. They describe arguments couched in dramatic language, declaring educational states of emergency. The authors characterise this discourse as academic ‘moral panic’ – a term used in sociology to describe a sensationalist form of public discourse. They note that strong boundary divides are evoked and also note the creation of a divide between ‘those who believe in the digital divide and those who don’t. Teachers who do not change their practice are labelled as ‘lazy’ and ‘ineffective’ (citing Prensky). ‘Those who refuse to recognise what is described as an inevitable change are said to be in denial, resistant and out of touch and are portrayed as being without legitimate concerns. Such devise language is seen to close down effective debate and limit the possibility of understanding the phenomenon. As the authors note ‘ neither dismissive skeptisism or uncritical advocacy enable understanding of whether the phenomenon of digital natives is significant and in what ways education needs to change to accommodate it.’ (p. 781) The OECD’s Center for Education and Research Innovation have started an extended research project on ‘New Millenium Learners’. Amongst the documents and discussions produced is ‘The New Millenium Learners: Main Findings’ (OECD, 2008). This report notes concern about a few important issues: Gender issues: The report notes wide disparities in ICT use between boys and girls. ‘Boys use computers and the internet more than girls, have wider computer experience, spend more time online, report greater interest in and perceive more positive attitudes to computer-related activities. Boys also appear to be more motivated to learn digital skills. Contrarily, girls seem to be dominating in the communicative field of ICT, like word processing, text messaging on cell phones as well as email and blogging’ (p. 6). This is important as we should note that innovations are likely to favor a gender and that a knowledge-based society would in the end become a male designed model of society. Interestingly the authors note that the notion that girls are falling behind would only be valid ‘if we consider boy’s use of technology the norm and representative of the actual goals to reach’ (p. 6). 4
  5. 5. The Matthew effect: The term ‘Matthew effect’ derives from the gospel of Matthew and the idea that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. We might assume that most of the students at our school come from advantaged backgrounds and have ample access to ICT outside school. The report notes, however, the emergence of an additional digital divide related to differences in use. The report notes that home access to ICT is often a more significant indicator of improved educational performance than school use. This again challenges the notion that we have a homogenous generation of children and suggests that educational practices and policies need to be sensitive to the range of experiences and expectations that our children have. The report notes a significant need for further research in this area. The OECD/CERI report also reviews available evidence on the role of technology in cognitive skills development. While noting that ‘(a)t least potentially, digital media contain features which provide opporunities for enhancing various cognitive skills’ (p. 8) it notes limited and inconclusive research in this area. Issues that may be particularly important include the transfer of skills to new contexts – how easy is it to apply skills learned or developed using ICT to other contexts. On a similar theme, Selwyn (2009) notes concerns about a possible reduction in cognitive skills associated with net use, lamenting a generation of ‘intellectual kleptomaniacs de-powered and incapable of critical thought’. Here we see that net use can lead to both empowerment and dis-empowerment. Direction from teachers may be the critical factor here. A further significant area noted in the report is the role of ICT in the socialisation process and in social behavior. Stereotyping of women and the enforcement of violence in video games have raised concern about the effects on identity and social development. Also raised, but inconclusive, is the question of impact of using digital media on young people’s skills for building and maintaining social relationships. These are areas where further research is needed as they are areas of great potential harm. A major research project in Australia led to ‘Educating the Net generation: A 5
  6. 6. Handbook of Findings for Practice and Policy’. (Kennedy, 2009) Though mainly targeted at higher education, it may be worth noting some of its main findings as summarised here: 1. The rhetoric that university students are Digital Natives and university staff are Digital Immigrants is not supported. 2. There is great diversity in students’ and staff experiences with technology, and their preferences for the use of technology in higher education. 3. Emerging technologies afford a range of learning activities that can improve student learning processes, outcomes, and assessment practices. 4. Managing and aligning pedagogical, technical and administrative issues is a necessary condition of success when using emerging technologies for learning. 5. Innovation with learning technologies typically requires the development of new learning and teaching and technology-based skills, which is effortful for both students and staff. 6. The use of emerging technologies for learning and teaching can challenge current university policies in learning and teaching and IT. I would particularly note the notion that innovation is effortful for both student and teacher and the need to align ICT use with other approaches and that even the supposed digital natives need guidance at incorporating their skills and approaches into the educational setting. So where does this leave us? The above represents a selective review of a small part of the evidence that would be associated with discussion about the influence of technology use on the future of education. Both policy and practice need an evidence base and at this stage that base seems to be inconclusive. In considering future policy and practice the first step would likely be to consider what questions we would want educational research to provide us with – here is where we Bridge the Gap. In the meantime I think it is important to note that the introduction of ICT leads to an additional dimension of complexity in the classroom to go with the existing mess of strands – language, culture, aptitude and attitude to name a few. It is important that we recognise this as ‘effortful’ from the outset to weave this additional strand into the fabric of the classroom, to borrow an image from a previous BtG presenter, Allan Luke. (Luke, 2004) Bibliography Bennett, S., Maton, K., & Kervin, L. (2008). The 'digital natives' debate: A critical review. Brtitish Journal of Educational Technology , 39 (5), 775-786. 6
  7. 7. Bullen, M. (2009, July 29). The Snark Syndrome and the Net Gen Discourse. Retrieved September 28, 2009, from Net Gen Skeptic: discourse.html Byrne, E. M. (1993). Women and science: The snark syndrome. Bristol, PA: Taylor and Francis. Kennedy, G. (2009). Educating the net generation: A handbook of findings for practice and policy. Melbourne, Australia: Australian learning and teaching council. Lewin, T. (2009, 8 9). New York Times. Retrieved 10 16, 2009, from: In the future text books are history: _r=2&scp=1&sq=Digital%20Textbooks&st=cse Luke, A. (2004, 10 04). New basics, pedagogy, futures. Singapore. Retrieved 10 15, 2009 Muller, J. (2008, 12). Three scenarios for the future – lessons from the sociology of knowledge. Retrieved 10 29, 2009, from Beyond Current Horizons: lessons-from-the-sociology-of-knowledge/ OECD. (2008). New millenium learners. Initial findings on the effects of digital technologies on school-age learners. Learning in the 21st Century: Research, Innovation and Policy. Paris: OECD/CERI. Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon , 9 (5), 1-6. Selwyn, N. (2009). The digital native - myth and reality. Aslib Proceedings , 61 (4), 364-379. 7
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