A serious question on twitter this week, which I couldn’t answer in 140 characters. So, here is the full answer.

Don’t you just love being pigeon-holed? I’m a gen Xer, who grew up on three kinds of video – game, nasty and pop. Before me, the baby boomers. And after? Generation Y – the millennials. Students in university now, and young teachers in training, are the so-called ‘digital natives’. For them, traditional teaching methods are boring and inaccessible. We need to reach them differently, through the technology they are used to. Otherwise, we are doing them a disservice.

Or are we?

Don’t get me wrong. I love a good gadget. I’ll happily tinker with internet tools for hours on end. I am not afraid of technology. I agree that, in general,  “the youth” are more techno-literate than the old. But not all of them. And more importantly, not necessarily in the ways that we understand.

The myth of the generation gap

I know, I know… you can prove anything with statistics. And who knows how reliable these are? But it does seem that a lot of online social networking is being driven by those who should be old enough to know better. A third of tweeters are over 45 years old. The largest single group of facebookers are in the 45 – 54 age group. And yes, we can see that the very young are becoming more involved… but the so called digital natives who are supposed to be permanently plugged in? Not so much….

Where are you?

Of course, it could be that we digital immigrants are looking in the wrong places. We are getting all worked up about our brand-new web 2.0 when the kids are already on 4. The statistics which are most easily accessible are for North American teens in mainstream education contexts. But that is not who I am teaching – and if you are reading this, probably not who you are teaching either. Facebook means very little to my students. Twitter, even less. That is not to say that they are not using technology, but they are unlikely to be using the same technology as English speaking teens, or old people like you. In Japan, the most popular social software is mixi, and there is probably something similar in your local context. However, that in itself is a very limiting view of “digital nativism”

What does it even mean to be comfortable or proficient with technology?

Being comfortable with technology and willing to use it spreads far beyond internet tools, and the boundaries are blurring all the time. As online applications become more difficult to categorise (what is a ning?), so does the hardware which supports it. If you can watch movies on your computer, listen to music through a usb in your dvd player, and send emails from your mobile phone, what kind of crazy mixed up world are you living in?! But the mistake we make is to assume that all young students will be equally capable across the gamut of technology. This is simply not the case, either on a global to local scale, or within a classroom.

On a global to local scale, Japanese students do not react to technology in the same way as (for example) British students. I have never seen an interactive whiteboard (in use) in Japan. Wireless access is still quite uncommon. The mobile phone is quite a different animal, and the true technological and communications hub for the average Japanese person.

Critics of the technophiles often point out the unfair disadvantage that poorer nations have in educational technology, but Elwood and MacLean’s (2009) comparative study of Cambodian and Japanese students and their attitudes towards technology demonstrates that the relative strength of the economy does not necessarily correlate to techno-proficiency. Although availability and opportunity and age are factors, they are not the only factors.

Within the classroom differences are equally marked. In the academic year just gone, I had students who routinely recorded class discussions on their mobile phones for review, and used their phones to post to the class blog. I had students who put together very impressive powerpoint presentations without my input, and some who independently uploaded documents to the internet for classmates to check between classes. We made videos and animations together, and wrote online book reviews. On the other hand, I had students who could not format a word document correctly, who couldn’t send an email online without help, who couldn’t download pictures or comment on blogs. I thought the young people were supposed to be fluent… aren’t I supposed to be the one speaking with an accent?

A quick look on google scholar will toss up a number of interesting articles about “digital natives”, and the uncritical acceptance of the idea that “all kids are good with computers, so we should cater to them”. To be fair to Marc Prensky, who coined the concept in the first place, he himself has more recently talked of a cross-generational “digital wisdom”. Perhaps the best of the rebuttals is Bennett, Maton and Kervin (2008), who talk of the ‘moral panic’ of this generation gap. Teachers who don’t join in are lazy, out of touch or scared. True? Some of them, yes. But not all of them

So why use technology at all?

It is fair to say that not all young people are comfortable with all technologies. We might assume that they will become so after time, and as teachers we need to keep up. However, the rate of technological change and the demographics of uptake suggest that, now and in the future, most teachers and students will adopt new technologies at about the same time – when they make the mainstream TV news. People who are more adept at new technologies, and absorb them into their lives, may have an edge…. but why is it my responsibility to introduce such tools? I am an English teacher. Just an English teacher.

In a tweet? My answer is this.

It is wrong to assume that my students can only respond to technology, just because they were born in 1990 in an economic powerhouse.

Bennett, S., Maton, K. and Kervin, L. (2008),  ‘The ‘digital natives’ debate: A critical review of the evidence.’ British journal of educational technology Doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.200700793.x

I’m not sure where I sit in the whole digital native / digital immigrant scheme of things.  I am old enough to remember my parents having a serious discussion about betamax and VHS video. And when the VHS arrived (my father would point to his prescience) it was linked to a ‘remote’ control by an eight foot lead.  I also grew up with a 48k ZX spectrum, later upgraded to the 128k with built in cassette deck (!), and spent many happy hours listening to the high-pitched screech and whine of ‘Jet Set Willy’ loading up.

Does this make me a digital native, or an immigrant? Am I of a strange generation which could go either way? What worries me is not that future generations will be different (it was ever thus), but that I myself am changing. I’m sure I used to be able to concentrate for longer, I used to get more done….

I’ve spent the afternoon re-joining twitter and beggering about with it to get it synched up to various other blogs, feeds and whatever else. Why? I’m not exactly sure. I have a feeling I’m missing out on something but the constant drip-drip-drip of information might not be what I need. So I thought I might jot down a few ideas about unplugging…

Turn off your wireless connection.
I used to type my essays with an electric typewriter. If I hadn’t been such a lousy typist and hadn’t spent so long waiting for tippex to dry, I would have stuck with it. The temptation to play urban dead when I turn on my computer is almost overwhelming. But whelm it I must….

Listen to records.
I didn’t even have to dust off the record player – it’s never been out of service. CD’s started the problem of the twitchy finger, mp3’s made it worse… now I struggle to listen to a whole song. But put on an LP and sit in a comfy chair and listen to the entire album, getting up once to turn it over and you will have time to absorb some of the things you’ve been cramming into your head.

Read books.
The ones made of paper.

Leave your phone behind.
Sometimes it happens by accident, and for the first half an hour it’s terrifying. But then, nothing much. I even know people without a phone, but that’s taking it a bit far.

Get a clockwork alarm clock with brass clappers.
Because using your phone as an alarm clock leads to all kinds of midnight mischief. You wake up in the night and take a quick peek to see what time it is and before you know it you are checking the football results.

Drink more tea.
I know it’s full of caffeine, but it still seems more civilised than coffee. Especially if you sit down and drink it whilst looking out of the window, reading the paper or doing a crossword.

There is more to know now than at any point in history. Tomorrow, there will be even more. Don’t even think about next week. Do we really need to know all of it? I’m sure I’ll be playing with my phone on the train to work tomorrow, checking tweets. I might even learn something useful. But I’m not putting away my record player just yet.