Students, Technology, and Super Mario Bros.

For my second workshop at the University of Iowa this week, I was asked to tackle the difficult subject of how students think about and use technology. Difficult, because it is hard to talk about this topic without veering into “us vs. them” territory. I did that a few times during my session, but I tried to point out the complexities of “us” and “them.” I quoted from Marc Prensky’s original paper on “digital natives” and “digital immigrants,” since Prensky’s language, if not his ideas, have become so pervasive in these kinds of discussions. Here’s how he introduces the idea of a digital native:

“It is now clear that as a result of this ubiquitous environment and the sheer volume of their interaction with it, today’s students think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors.”

He then goes on to define the two terms:

Digital Natives: “Our students today are all ‘native speakers’ of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet.”

Digital Immigrants: “Those of us who were not born into the digital world but have, at some later point in our lives, become fascinated by and adopted many or most aspects of the new technology are, and always will be compared to them, digital immigrants.”

I find that the digital native idea has a lot of resonance with teachers and faculty who don’t have much experience with digital technologies, perhaps because it seems to explain the contrasts they see between how they use technology and how their students use technology. On the other hand, most of the people I know in the field of educational technology find the digital native idea deeply problematic. Most of their arguments against the notion are sound, but I think sometimes they go too far in dismissing Prensky’s ideas.

During my talk, I tried to summarize the critique of “digital natives,” while also pointing to one element of the idea that seems to have potential for educators. First, the concerns about “digital natives”:

The independent variable here is experience, not age. One’s experiences with technology are likely to shape one’s expectations for technology use in the classroom and one’s approach to learning through technology. Given what we know about the brain and the role of experience in shaping understanding and learning, that seems a safe assertion. But age and experience with technology are not perfectly correlated. There are plenty of people over the age of 25 who have extensive experience with digital technologies, and there are plenty of young people who, for various reasons, don’t. If there’s any difference in how a person thinks about or uses technology, it’s because of that person’s experiences, not age.

Individual results may vary. It’s almost never accurate to paint one’s students with the same brush. Learning is just too complex for that. Each student has his or her own history with technology, own comfort with technology, own skills in using technology. When we’re teaching more than one student at a time, we have to make some assumptions about our students (“I’ll plan on most of my students understanding this concept, but not this other concept”), but we have to be ready to work with students that surprise us. Maybe it’s the student who actually knows what RSS feeds are and uses them in clever ways to follow the news. Maybe it’s the student who never set up a Facebook or Twitter account. Even if the average technology skill level in a class is high, there are likely to be some students who don’t fit that profile.

I can drive a car, but I don’t really know how it works. I’ve changed a tire, but I’ve never changed my car’s oil. I’m not even that confident with the basic physics of combustion engines. In the same way, we can have students who use technology in very effective ways, but don’t know how that technology works. There can be subtleties that escape even a frequent user (such as the fact that “trending topics” on Twitter default to “trending within your network” not “trending worldwide”), and there can be algorithms that are designed to be a little mysterious (such as whatever Facebook uses to determine what to put at the top of my timeline).

I can drive a car, but I don’t really understand the automotive industry. Looking beyond the car itself, there’s a whole complex set of economic and social forces at play. I’d like to think I know a bit more about these forces than I do the mechanics of my car–I read the news–but I think the analogy still works. Someone who’s very good at using particular technologies might not have thought very hard about the social context in which that technology is created, distributed, and used. It seems to me that many of our 18-year-old first-years are savvier about privacy on Facebook than their predecessors were four or five years ago, but have they been thinking deeply about the implications of last year’s revelations about the NSA’s efforts to monitor social media? Do students thoughtfully consider intellectual property, creator rights, and attribution when they share photos on Tumblr? I’m sure some do, but there’s a role for us to play in helping students think critically about the technologies they use.

Non-academic experiences don’t always map to academic experiences. This is one of the key messages that have emerged from a series of focus groups we’ve conducted with students at Vanderbilt about technology in and out of the classroom. Many of our students (again, not all!) see their academic lives and personal lives as distinct and separate. Many don’t want their academic activities to intrude in their personal online spaces, and some find it challenging to take a tool they use for recreation (say, Twitter) and use it for academic work. Let’s not assume that students can transfer their understanding and usage of technology between contexts with ease.

“Native” and “immigrant” are complex terms. Let me quote Kwandell Peterson, who left this comment the last time I blogged about “digital natives,” back in 2011: “There’s also a small but vocal contingent of humanities professors who will point out that the analogy to ‘natives’ has problematic colonialist overtones.” “Immigrant” has a different, but related, set of connotations with it these days, too.

In the context of these concerns, I think there’s still some value in Prensky’s 2001 article. The idea that one’s experiences with technology might shape one’s expectations for learning makes sense to me, especially if I consider the kinds of things that James Paul Gee writes about games and learning. Back in 1985, I remember playing the original Nintendo version of Super Mario Bros. Like many Nintendo games of that era, it came with an instruction book, and I remember reading those instruction books before and during gameplay.

Mario 1985Years later, playing Super Mario Galaxy on the Nintendo Wii with my daughter, I kept checking the instruction book that came with the game, but it was basically useless for learning how to play. Instead, the game itself taught you how to play, as you went along. Game mechanics were introduced as they were needed, typically with some mushroom character explaining how the mechanic worked, along with a space to practice the mechanic without enemies around.

Mario 2007Now suppose you’ve spent hours and hours playing games like Super Mario Galaxy that teach you how to play as you go. Might that affect your expectations for learning in a classroom environment?

Here’s another difference: When you fail at Super Mario Galaxy, you need only backtrack a little bit and try again. When you fail at Super Mario Bros., you start the entire game over. Might experiences learning through failure in games like Super Mario Galaxy make it challenging for students to deal with the high stakes we often put on failure in the college classroom?

Caveats, caveats, caveats. Not all students play games like Mario Galaxy. There are plenty of older adults who do play games like Mario Galaxy. And maybe, just maybe, certain video games are doing a better job tapping into fundamental learning processes than we are. Still, I think that individual differences matter, and if we are to practice student-centered instruction, we need to learn about and be responsive to our students’ differences.

That line of thought led me, during my workshop this week, to a series of efforts to understand student perspectives on technology. See my slides, embedded below, for some data points.

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