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Educating Digital Natives

A new book by John Palfrey, a Harvard law professor, examines digital natives.

Harvard law professor John Palfrey's new book examines the lives of digital natives.

The first generation of “digital natives”—those born after 1980 into a digital, online world—now influences everything from pop culture to politics, and much research suggests that this generation of young students thinks, works and learns in a very different way from previous generations. These factors in particular have implications for nearly every aspect of society, from parenting to education. In their recent book, Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives, law professors John Palfrey and Urs Gasser present a thorough study of the digital native generation, based on analyses of existing research as well as hundreds of interviews with digital natives and the teachers, librarians and psychologists who educate and observe them in the United States and around the world. Palfrey is Henry N. Ess III Professor of Law and vice dean for library and information resources at Harvard Law School, as well as faculty co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, a Harvard research center dedicated to the study of the development of cyberspace, in addition to Internet law and policy. We spoke with him about the ways in which digital natives learn and absorb information, online safety concerns for students in the digital age, and the implications for K12 school administration.

Q: Describe the stages digital natives go through as they absorb information.

JP: This topic is an important and fast-changing area of scholarship. The first stage is “grazing.” Instead of sitting down every morning to read the paper, for example, digital natives go through the day absorbing information, via a Yahoo reader, RSS feed, Facebook and the like. A subset will take the second step, the “deep dive,” where they are looking for further analysis by clicking on a hypertext link, hearing a podcast, or seeing what their friends think. This stage is like actually reading a newspaper article instead of just the headline. The third step is the most engaged, the “feedback loop,” where they engage the information on a deeper level, critique it and share it by posting it in their Facebook profile or on Twitter.

The fear here is that students will only use these tools to go through the first or second step. Students getting the most educational benefit and absorbing the most information are going through all three steps.

Should this three-step process be replicated in schools, putting the focus on this methodology and not on the technology itself?

JP: That’s true, and I think that’s crucial when we think about technology. The technology should not dictate to us how we use it. We should instead ask the questions: “What do we want to accomplish in the classroom?” and “Can this technology help us?” And if so, we should use it. The schools that figure out how technology informs pedagogy are going to have the most success.

The schools that figure out how technology informs pedagogy are going to have the most success.

You argue that some digital natives are able to discern the quality of information online while others are not. Do you see schools playing a role in helping young people do this?

JP: Absolutely. This is one place where you can also bring in librarians. Historically, the job of a school librarian is to select high quality information, to include that in a collection, make it accessible, and help students find it when they need it. That same series of tasks is even more important in the digital era.

So you believe that librarians are more important today, not less? Some may find that idea counterintuitive.

JP: I do. I’ve heard a line many times, that because of Google, librarians are obsolete in the digital age. That couldn’t be further from the truth. There in fact is greater need for librarians to play a key role in giving students access to the best information and, more importantly, in giving students the skills to do this themselves.

Do the tools of the digital world enable this generation to be more creative?

JP: It would be a mistake to argue that kids today are more creative than in the past. What we are seeing now are some very interesting ways to be creative, for kids to tell their own story. It’s more YouTube and less Disney. The generally accepted hypothesis is that in the digital environment there are possibilities for student creativity that weren’t there before, but it’s unclear whether this is the case or is just the hope of academics. Frankly, in our research, we found fewer examples of this than we hoped. In many respects there is a pathway [to greater creativity] there, but it is not happening on its own. The role of administrators needs to be pointing out the technological tools for creativity and encouraging their use.

What steps can or should schools take to address digital safety issues like cyberbullying or identity theft?

JP: One crucial aspect of what schools need to do is to start a conversation grounded in real practice, to find out what young people are involved with online and get them to talk about it. The same rules about bullying apply to cyberbullying. It’s more complicated in some respects because these environments keep changing. Nevertheless, the process needs to be one where adults are listening to young people, understanding their practices, and helping them to be smarter about how they go about their lives in cyberspace. Most of the time, things are no different in the digital space than they are in the physical space. What’s changed here is the context, not the basic issues. The online practices that young people are engaged in are not as foreign as they may seem initially to educators.

You also describe information overload and multitasking as downsides of the digital world and as impairing learning. Is there a solution to that problem?

JP: I don’t see information overload as acute of a problem as others might; I think the amount of information available is more of an opportunity than it is a risk. Multitasking is a slightly different matter. I think that using distracting tools—checking e-mail during class, for example—is a bad idea. It may well be that students today have lesser attention spans. So having them pay attention and focus on the task at hand is something to work on structurally. I don’t think we should ban certain devices necessarily, but we should decide where these things belong and where they do not belong and structure our schools accordingly.

Are digital natives really learning authentically from some of these new technologies? Edugaming, for example?

JP: The answer is “They can,” of course, and they do. But it’s not necessarily sufficient. Research illustrates lots of interesting ways young people are learning from gaming and social media. I personally don’t think games are the answer to reforming education; there are people that go much further on that continuum than I would. But I think we can learn a lot from the success of game designers, many of whom have created incredibly effective ways to engage young people and to get them learning while having fun.

What is your view of mobile learning technologies—the use of smartphones and other such devices in schools?

JP: I don’t think of it as “mobile learning”; I think of it just as learning with a device that happens to be a handheld. Yes, their use can change how young people learn, but I wouldn’t just aim for a world of mobile learning. I would ask if there is a way to extend our pedagogy to include these devices that so many young people are using, rather than the other way around and just using them because they exist.

There tends to be a “Gee whiz!” factor with so much technology. We might say, “Isn’t Twitter amazing?” but the fact is, not that many young people are using Twitter. So why are we thinking about using it in school? Its use in the classroom is very limited.

Do you see a trend for the future with regard to how digital natives will be using technology in schools?

JP: That’s a great question. I see an overall trend of teachers, librarians and administrators quickly getting much smarter about how to use technology and where not to use it. This is happening before our eyes, and I’m very positive about the changes I’ve seen in the last few years, in talking to K12 educators and seeing how adeptly they are responding to the challenges and the opportunities of the 21st century. I think it’s absolutely going in the right direction, but there is still much more work to be done in understanding youth media practices and then figuring out what the implications are both inside and outside the school environment. The adaptation is under way, but we need constant vigilance to what the data are telling us. Researchers are essential to this process, and we also need a mode of translating that research into education policy as we go.