I become apprehensive when I hear people tell me about how our students are all “digital natives.” My hesitation stems from the fact that some educators have twisted this buzzword beyond its original definition into a dangerous catchall. For some, the phrase is used to define our students as a monolithic group of tech gurus. At best, I think this tends to obfuscate students’ dearth of practical technological skills, and at worst, it leads to a conception that all students are technologically savvy.
This year I taught a very tech-intensive US history class. Students worked on wikis, Google Sites, Twitter, Evernote, Google Docs — in other words, a pretty comprehensive sweep of tech tools. Throughout the year, what struck me was not how much my students already knew, but how much they had to learn. From downloading and installing programs to search techniques on Google, it continually surprised me how little tasks would need to become mini-tutorials. Admittedly, it surprised me how much I had to teach these “digital natives.” What is useful in the Facebook, texting world is not necessarily fungible in the academic world. Using Facebook is not the same as utilizing Facebook. Things like collaborating to make plans or to compete in a game do not necessarily translate into collaborating academically.
Sometimes I fear that when we call students “digital natives”, we forget that there will always be a good amount of students who dislike technology. No matter what the technology, there will always been some who find it difficult to learn these skills. I had a significant number of students who had real antipathy toward using technology as a vehicle of assessment. I would be the last one to give these students a “pass” on learning technology skills, but if we as educators forget that they are there we could be doing them a real disservice. Planning lessons and activities assuming a uniform tech-friendly group of students is a mistake I have made myself. This rather obtuse, yet oft-employed, assumption makes results in inefficient classroom teaching. Perhaps more dangerously, we also risk students turning away from technology as a practical tool, which could severely hinder them in the 21st century world.
Getting students to think about social media and technology from an academic or “life skills” perspective is something we must consciously teach and not assume they bring to class as digital natives. Students are neither totally apathetic nor uniformly excited about technology. They are diverse in their outlook and capabilities. This is no different from any other skill we try to teach in class. Differentiated learning must expand to technology skills, just as good teachers apply it to core objectives.