Monday, May 05, 2008

Digital natives and learning

Response to LCB Big Question

As a learning designer based out of India, this question has very little relevance to me if I read it in the local context. Digital natives are a minority among a minority in this country. The greater responsibility of e-learning in a country like India is to help reach quality education to rural areas where there is a dearth of qualified teachers and classroom infrastructure. A majority of the youth and children in these places are not even digital immigrants. However, initiatives such as Akshaya in the small state of Kerala have shown that people who never used computers quickly adapt to technology when e-initiatives are rolled out with public participation.

As a learning designer who is involved in the design of learning solutions for an international audience, perhaps the question has some relevance. But isn’t the label—digital native—a little too singular and closed to club together a generation of learners? Except for some polemical arguments in favor of the need to design instruction differently for these learners, have there been any rigorous study conducted to see if these so called digital natives think and process information fundamentally differently from the previous generation? For example, my eight-year-old son is an avid gamer but is equally comfortable with books. While he loves his Harry Potter and Spiderman games, he gets quickly bored by the so-called educational games (agreed, these might be designed by “digital immigrants”).

I’m not arguing that we need to peddle old school education and training to the new generation, but we need to avoid being victims of hype and overgeneralization. My vote is for effective instruction and we all know that what is effective today need not be effective tomorrow. And maybe it makes more sense to leave the natives to figure out what is best for them. In the meantime, immigrants can prepare themselves for a native tomorrow.
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