Friday, August 26, 2011

Teaching Our Children to Navigate Digital Landscapes

Way back in 2001, Marc Prensky wrote "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants" in which he argues that children born into the digital world are native speakers of a different language than their older, and less digitally-submerged, predecessors. I was 16 when this was written, so I guess I'm one of those kids that Prensky says "have spent their entire lives surrounded by and using computers, videogames, digital music players, video cams, cell phones, and all the other toys and tools of the digital age." Actually, I didn't spend quite my "entire life" with these things, but my dad was an early adopter of computers (I have fond memories of playing Zork on a Commodore 64), so--if we carry out Prensky's definition of natives and immigrants--I immigrated at a very young age. 

This is important, as Prensky points out in his second part of the essay, because studies have found that language learned as an adult is stored in a different part of the brain than language learned as a child. So, if we look at digital information as a language, I'm in the group that speaks it more like a native than an immigrant.

Prensky's ultimate thesis is that the people teaching these native speakers are resisting the inevitable change that has occurred. The digital natives learn differently (and even have different brain function) than their teachers. Taking Prensky to his most extreme conclusion would leave the inflexible unable to communicate at all with the youth around them. His call to action is for the immigrants to learn the new language so that they might impart "their still-valuable knowledge and wisdom in that world's new language."

This interesting argument is now a decade old. Many of us near-native speakers have since entered the workforce and I think we are seeing a lot of changes to the digital landscape. In my field of education, many textbooks are online. Many of the texts (electronic or print) are set up more like websites, with information that can be consumed in non-linear ways, "links" to other texts, short bursts of information, and lots of visual elements.

But the digital language is a very rapidly changing one. Even though I feel much more comfortable in digital communication than many people I know from my mother's generation (as keeping this blog would attest), I doubt I'll be as adept at digital formats as those of my daughter's. So what skills can I teach her that make her most able to navigate a landscape we can't even see yet? How do I balance the line between ensuring safety from too much media consumption too soon and still managing to get enough exposure to the language to be a fluent speaker?

I'm thinking here of a study that Prensky cites that was done for Sesame Street. Two groups of kindergartners were given the opportunity to watch TV. One group was given toys as well. The group with toys only watched the TV 47% of the time (compared to 87% in the non-distracted group). But the children were then tested for comprehension, and the scores were the same. The five-year-olds had learned how to strategically pay attention to the most important parts. This study and others suggest that the children are learning to watch TV in bursts, picking up key themes and then tuning it out until they need to check-in and make sure they still understand.

Prensky also talks about the fact that cognitive changes (and in these digital natives, those changes suggest the ability to multitask, think parallely instead of linerally, and give selective attention to digital media) require a lot of exposure to the stimuli: "several hours a day, five days a week, sharply focused attention."

So, when we limit our children's exposure to digital stimuli for fear of what it does to their brains (and I'm not dismissing this practice, I'm just interested in the full implications), are we also limiting their exposure to a language their peers are going to be fluently speaking?

And what are these digital natives losing in all these cognitive changes? Prensky suggests that it's the ability to reflect:
"Reflection is what enables us, according to many theorists, to generalize, as we create ―mental models from our experience. It is, in many ways, the process of ―learning from experience. In our twitch-speed world, there is less and less time and opportunity for reflection, and this development concerns many people."
This goes hand-in-hand with a NYT article that suggests children might not always be absorbing the intended message from child-centered media:
"Experts caution that even if an episode concludes with a positive lesson about, say, body image, the prior 25 minutes might have been filled with taunts and rough talk. Some research has shown that if parents are not present to reinforce the lesson, children may absorb little more than the negatives."
So, our children are more able than ever to take in information. They're surrounded by it, their brains are literally adapting to accommodate it, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. However, that doesn't make us, their parents, Luddites who just want to stand in the way of innovation with nothing to add to the conversation. Guided reflection, conversations about the media consumed, and sensible guidelines ensuring exposure to other forms of communication are important contributions.

What do you think? How do you ensure that your children are capable of using digital languages while still keeping them safe from over-exposure?

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