Ensuring “the Internet doesn’t make our children stupid”

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This infographic on the Social Times appeared in my Zite feed the other day and it got me thinking about how we are preparing our students to use the Internet. While infographics are never definitive sources of valid information, the statistics provided leave us as teachers and/or parents with much to address. Since I’m firmly in the “The Internet is NOT making our children stupid, it just makes it easier for stupid people to show themselves to the world” camp, I’m going to put my thoughts out there in this post and address some of the points made in this infographic.

Let’s make it clear from the outset, the Internet “ain’t goin’ nowhere!” Regardless of continued fears and resistance from politicians, ‘shock jocks’, parents, teachers both young and old, and yes, even some students who haven’t had the exposure we assumed they all get, the Internet is and will continue to be the all pervasive information providing and social networking juggernaut we see every day in our lives.

Look no further than the first stats in this infographic. Regardless of the source or the overall accuracy, there is no doubt that a lot of our students do have an identity on the WWW from a very early age (90% by age 2??). My Facebook friends bombard me with countless unsolicited photos of their toddlers, photos that 15 years ago would have resided in a dusty photo album on the coffee table at their home.

Sit at any restaurant (or theatre, museum, train, hospital ward, church!) today and you will be surrounded by youngsters (50% by age 5?) blankly tapping away at smartphones and tablets so their parents can get some respite from them.

And the teens? Their whole life is online. Nearly all of them (95%?) always communicating (80% on social media?) from anywhere, anytime (49% online from phones?).

So that’s the reality we face. We do not live in 1950s Pleasantville anymore.  Therefore, keeping a curriculum shaped by leaders who grew up in Pleasantville, focussed on the 3 Rs but not technology is not facing the world we currently live in. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been teaching the Rs with great rigour for 25 years and continue to do so today. I just do it through technology  (AND ‘old school’ methods).

Now the big problem for me in all this is this misguided notion of ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’. A lot of educators and parents use this as a reason for not ‘interfering’ with their children’s internet use. “They know more than me!” is the typical response….And it’s wrong. Being ‘born’ into a culture does not make you an expert in it. Just because a 2 year old has worked out the touch interface of an iPad doesn’t mean he can select appropriate tools to learn. Just because a 15 year old knows how to search YouTube for how -to guides to learn how to use a popular Web 2.0 tool doesn’t mean she can produce a quality presentation that will educate fellow classmates. Skill ≠ knowledge and understanding. Any teenager can mechanically drive an automatic car within a week of driving lessons. As parents, we still need to teach them to drive safely and responsibly.

Our kids aren’t stupid because of the Internet. They are sometime stupid on the Internet because they’re kids. They may have been born digital, but just like the rest of their life outside of the digital, they have much to learn in the digital world. And the rules we as adults understand outside the digital world still apply inside the digital world. So let’s look at what this infographic highlights and discuss how we should address it.

Blaming the Internet for Shorter Attention Span?

It is a constant cry from teachers everywhere – my class has no attention span. Fact or Fiction, complaining doesn’t address the issue. One thing that has become clear over the years is that more and more children are identifying themselves as Visual learners. There is no doubt we are living in a Visual World. When my parents were at school, TV didn’t exist, let alone the Internet and iPads. Books and newspapers were the only way to learn so children learned that way. Children were entranced by the written word and had to use their imagination to picture a character or a scene. Today, though, we live in a world where Pixar has replaced Shakespeare as the world’s great storyteller. Newspapers are replaced by TV News which is now being replaced by Online News. It’s the reality we face. It’s not going back to the old days. It’s not the internet’s fault though. Kids have become more visual so we have to present more visually. Teachers can’t expect their students to attentively listen to them talk or read to them for 20 minutes when their life experience is visual text. We do have to change our mode of teaching. We have to be more visual.

BUT (and I’ll be using that world a lot in the next few paragraphs)… there does still need to be balance. Parents need to still make reading part of their kids’ lives from birth. Parents need to hold back the iPad/DS as babysitter/entertainer while their children are developing their minds. Parents and Teachers have to command attention from these children by engaging with them, expecting their attention and a quality response. Don’t blame the internet if we let them replace us with it.

 Bad Habits from the Internet?

Left under trained, yes our so called ‘Digital Natives’ will fall victim to these bad habits. We could say that the proliferation of social media with its unlimited threads of comments, links, polls and information is breeding a generation of skim readers trained in reading 144 characters and nothing more. Keeping track of 1000 Twitter followers and  Facebook friends can often lead to missing important content amidst all the mindless guff. And doing all this while listening to music and replying to text messages can tax even the best multitasking minds.

BUT….

What are we as adults doing to teach them a better way? Knowing this is their natural way, teachers need to teach digital literacy skills so they know how to handle this information overload. Reflection through blogging or curating through social bookmarking needs to be part of the educational environment for these kids. Expectations for and lessons in detailed reading need to be commonplace. Just like we taught students how to read encyclopedias and textbooks in the pre-digital age, we have to TEACH them how to read the Internet. It’s not the Internet’s fault. It’s just a MUCH bigger version of the old reference source. It takes a different approach. And too many of us in schools haven’t recognised that yet.

Internet Blamed for Poor Research?

No denying this is an issue. Copy and paste, Google as reference in bibliographies, Wikipedia plagiarism, relying on poor quality links on Page one of 200,000 are all commonplace problems in the classroom.

BUT….

Is it the Internet’s fault? Are kids stupid because the Internet is full of rubbish or are we stupid because we haven’t taught kids how to access the most comprehensive source of information in existence? We are not doing a good job of teaching students how to research in the digital age. It’s a big job and just setting research assignments without spending a large chunk of our literacy program teaching them how to search for credible sources on line is not helping. How much do we as teachers really know about how Google works? What are we modelling to our students? Are we teaching them how to use Wikipedia responsibly or just banning its use because we don’t have time to show them its benefits. When have we shown them how to research through interviews, surveys, searching for primary sources online ( they are everywhere if we can get past Answers.com!), organising excursions/field trips, inviting/seeking out experts as guest speakers? Do we teach left/right wing bias that is found in textbooks and literature past and present or just blame the Internet for all the misrepresentations of history? We’ve got a lot of work to do as teachers to prepare our children as the Internet continues to exponentially grow in size.

Plausible Solutions?

I’m not doubting the issues raised in this infographic are not real. And yes, the Internet is a factor. But it’s not the Internet’s fault. We, parents and teachers, are responsible for how our children develop. They are growing up in a world foreign to the one we were kids in. As adults we have to be proactive in helping them not become stupid on the Internet.

I like the four points at the end.

Limit Internet Use and Encourage other interests. At home and school. Children need balance and variety in their lives. This needs to start early. Much to his dismay, my son, unlike all his mates, was “denied his natural right” to a video game console until he was 11. During these years of trauma, he learned to appreciate reading, Lego, role playing, puppetry, history and geography as well as the necessary doses of football, cricket and basketball. Like his sister, whom he is very close to, he developed an ability to concentrate for long periods of time and entertain himself without technology. They still got their dose of the internet regularly, with and without Dad, but the word boredom has never been in their vocabulary.

At school, we need to get the balance right too. Don’t over rely on the Internet. Entertainment value does not always equate to educational value. Sometimes some left over cookies from Camp can engage your students in learning fractions more than a whizbang ‘interactive game from the internet’ projected onto a whiteboard screen. Expose students to old school and digital age. The natural world can still be a wonderful experience.

Emotional Intelligence and Active Role. The Internet and the iPad should never have replaced parents as entertainment options. Kids today who have bad attention spans are the result of lack of human interaction. If we don’t talk to our kids, they won’t know how to communicate. We should be the first port of entertainment, not technology. Same at school. This current push in some circles to replace teaching with technology is ridiculous. Humans must interact with humans to grow up as humans. Nothing more to say on that.

And as for this Digital divide between the natives and the immigrants – get together, old and young. It’s a multicultural society we live in. Get on the technology with each other. Adults, learn some of those new fangled Web 2.0 tools and enjoy them with your kids instead of making excuses. Kids, let Mum and Dad in on your online experiences. Just like families used to enjoy time together before the digital age, make the effort to enjoy online time together.

Adults, we have to be part of the solution. Don’t blame the internet. It’s not making kids stupid. We’re letting it. Don’t let it happen.

Digital Media and Learning – what’s missing in our curriculum documents

cartoon from www.weblogcartoons.com

Cartoon by Dave Walker. Find more cartoons you can freely re-use on your blog at We Blog Cartoons.

Credit goes to John Elfrank-Dana for posting an article on Schoolbook titled “Wanted:New Standards that Embrace Technology” that has inspired me to reflect a little deeper on my understanding of this topic.

It seems that many countries are in the midst of new curriculum documents being introduced. In the time between the last and the latest, personalised learning and student-directed learning have been positioned at the forefront of contemporary teaching and learning. What has also accelerated over that time is technology possibilities in schools. I use the word possibilities deliberately here because, while everyone seems comfortable with the theories and pedagogies behind personalised/student centred learning ( even if it hasn’t quite come to fruition just yet), in many schools great numbers of leaders and teachers are still behind the 8 ball on what can be achieved with technology in their classrooms. Sadly, our new curricula, still appears to be as well.

Elfrank-Dana, in the post credited above, laments that the USA’s new Common Core standards hasn’t addressed the impact of new media. Likewise, in my country Australia, our new National Curriculum, which comes into effect in 2013, is also struggling to show a deep understanding of digital technology and its role in learning. Yes, it often includes the phrase ‘with digital technologies’ and ‘media texts’ in many of its content descriptions but to me they stand as add ons to the more specific literacy or numeracy skill they are referenced with. We are yet to have a National Curriculum for Technology and are still stuck with state level documents that were written “pre-Google”(let alone have any relevance to the Web 2.0/social media of 2012 and beyond).

So it is left up to individual schools to push the boundaries of digital learning until our curriculum writers catch up with the pace of change. If we are going to be true arbiters of change in schools, we need to be aware of the skills that aren’t listed in our curriculum but are vital for developing learners who can cope with the fast changing world they are growing up in. That’s why I was grateful to find in the article above the white paper on Digital Media and Learning by Henry Jenkins et al from MIT, titled “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century” (downloadable as a PDF if you want to read the whole 72 pages!)

This part of its summary really caught my attention:

A central goal of this report is to shift the focus of the conversation about the digital divide from questions of technological access to those of opportunities to participate and to develop the cultural competencies and social skills needed for full involvement. Schools as institutions have been slow to react to the emergence of this new participatory culture; the greatest opportunity for change is currently found in afterschool programs and informal learning communities. Schools and afterschool programs must devote more attention to fostering what we call the new media literacies: a set of cultural competencies and social skills that young people need in the new media landscape. Participatory culture shifts the focus of literacy from one of individual expression to community involvement. The new literacies almost all involve social skills developed through collaboration and networking.These skills build on the foundation of traditional literacy, research skills, technical skills, and critical analysis skills taught in the classroom.

The new skills include:
Play — the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving
Performance — the ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation and discovery
Simulation — the ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real-world processes
Appropriation — the ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content
Multitasking — the ability to scan one’s environment and shift focus as needed to salient details.
Distributed Cognition — the ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand mental capacities
Collective Intelligence — the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common goal
Judgment — the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources
Transmedia Navigation — the ability to follow the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities
Networking — the ability to search for, synthesize, and disseminate information
Negotiation — the ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative norms.

Fostering such social skills and cultural competencies requires a more systemic approach to media education in the United States. Everyone involved in preparing young people to go out into the world has contributions to make in helping students acquire the skills they need to become full participants in our society. Schools, afterschool programs, and parents have distinctive roles to play as they do what they can in their own spaces to encourage and nurture these skills.

While the skills listed above rarely reference digital media specifically, it is clear that all of these skills are both developed and needed in using digital media for learning. While it is true that many of these skills have been and can be developed with traditional media and teaching practices, it is clear to me that they haven’t been in may cases and need to be addressed for all of us to succeed in what the Jenkins refers to as today’s Participatory Culture, one that is awash with digital technologies.

So how do we address each of these skills with digital learning as the focus? I’m going to give that a try.

Play — the fact a 2 year old can master the basics on a iPad quicker than her mother suggests that students already have the Play skill down pat. It also suggests that our students can learn a lot through play, which can be undermined by the “chalk and talk, drill and test” pedagogies still prevalent in many (certainly not all) classroom environments. We need to let children learn through playing more, something that is hard to do with just words on paper or a whiteboard or from a teacher’s mouth. Digital media offers the opportunities to explore preferred media sources. It also allows students to work at their own pace and level by choosing their entry and exit points to a learning task delivered through digital media, rather than sitting through 10 minutes of teacher lecture about content they already know. It also teaches them to think about possible solutions and strategies rather than always calling on the teacher instantly. On the creation side, being able to use digital tools allows the student to explore the possibilities of the software, restart quickly if the original idea didn’t work, try out the vast array of tools available and do it all independently IF we give them the opportunity to play with it (instead of giving then a narrow focused teacher tutorial based on our ideas).

Performance — As teachers, we ask students to connect with opposing points of view , people in history and characters in stories. Traditional drama and role play has an impact here but digital media offers the students opportunities to role play independently. Setting up Facebook type profiles of historical figures or novel characters allows them to use their communication model of choice to explore relationships and share each other’s interpretations. Twitter can be used in a similar way to have dynamic, realtime comversations as adopted characters. Adopting avatars to communicate provides introverted students the ability to communicate their ideas behind closed doors yet still get to perform. Using a web tool like Xtranormal lets them create and view re-enactments or conversations in an attention grabbing format that exceeds listening to a shared reading in a traditional model.

Simulation — Once the domain of the highly trained tech geek only, now children can use a myriad of web, tablet and computer based software to make sense of their world. From simple programming tools like Scratch, 3D modelling with Google Sketchup to Animation packages like iStopmotion and data crunching software to create real time graphs of statistics, students are no longer restricted to interpreting visual representations of information but also showing their understanding of it through creating simulations in a form they respond to – visual.

Appropriation — There is so much content on the Internet today that Google alone cannot sort it out for you. A big part of participatory culture now is curation tools. People all over the web are taking responsibility for collecting relevant websites under topics of their choosing and sharing them with the world. Tools like Scoopit, Pearltrees, Pinterest and Diigo can be searched as alternatives to search engines as the curating has been done for you. It’s not a easy skill though as many just grab any site they find and don’t sort through what is worth keeping. This has to be taught. This is a great way for collecting media content for class research as well and an alternative to boring, wordy bibliographies.

Stories can be told by pulling content from your social media feeds through tools like Storify. Emerging web tools like Meograph lets you publish compelling stories by combining video, audio, images, maps and text, creating multimodal texts that appeal to this generation and replicate the multimodal style of non text references we work with today.

Multitasking — the ability to scan one’s environment and shift focus as needed to salient details. An important skill in today’s busy environment, students need to develop skills in handling multiple tasks. Digital learning used well allows us to keep track of all of our work, giving us the ability to move in and out of different work spaces online or stored on our personal hardware choice. Organised digital media makes it easy to locate multiple sources, if we’ve worked on our appropriation skills.

Distributed Cognition — for me, this is the result of mastering all of the other skills in the list.

Collective Intelligence — Social bookmarking tools like Diigo, collaborative tools like Googledocs, sites like Edmodo and blogs where students and teachers can interact with each other purposefully will develop the idea that we work and learn best when sharing with each other, the antithesis of standardized competitive testing and comparison.

Judgment — Probably the most important one on the list. When I was a child, I had two newspapers, a couple of channels we watched the news on and Encyclopedia Britannica. We didn’t have to make many decisions about whether the information was accurate or not. Fast forward to today and our students are confronted with 59 million results for a Google Search, limitless cable news channels of varying bias, opinion based blogs, millions of YouTube videos and a combination of gossip and factual news coming from Twitter and Facebook feeds. If there is one thing we do with our students in time at school it is to teach them how to sort fact from fiction. Explain that just because the site appears first on Google doesn’t mean it’s the best. Tell them the difference between .org, .com, .gov and .edu. Show them the importance of checking the references on Wikipedia. This should be the number one skill in any curriculum for today’s schools.

Transmedia Navigation — I think I covered this in appropriation but suffice to say that most of the media today is awash with varied media types. Students need to learn how to disseminate.

Networking — The important skill needed to work with collective intelligence. In a global world, networking is vital and we can’t lock kids away in their classrooms and hope they learn how later on. This leads on to the final skill…………

Negotiation — up there with Judgement in importance, this is reflected in the message of the cartoon at the start of this post. We can’t network if we can’t cooperate with others and treat them with respect. We can’t network if we don’t know how to accept but still argue with different viewpoints. And we can’t expect cyber bullying to stop if we don’t educate our children how to responsibly use social media. As parents we need to be in control and as teachers we need to embrace digital learning at school so we can give them opportunities to use digital media for useful purposes instead of just writing garbage on Facebook or Twitter about a kid or celebrity they don’t like. This has to be part of our curriculum, not blocked by decade old laws like COPPA and SIPA.

So when you open up your new curriculum in the new year, follow what’s in there. It covers important skills we all need. But don’t be slaves to it. There’s a lot more we need to do to create the learners we want for the challenges of 21st century life.