Students, technology, and us

Digital vs. traditional writing

In his dense, jargon-laden article “De lo analógico a lo digital: el futuro de la enseñanza de la composición”, Daniel Cassany discusses the differences between digital and traditional (or analogic) writing. Basically, digital writing is nonlineal, open-access, and user-driven; it places more emphasis than analogic writing on active consumption and forces writers to think/plan differently. Digital writing is also highly collaborative, even when there is no formal teamwork involved, due to its open nature. These characteristics also make digital writing highly dynamic and versatile.

In the digital writing age, writers are expected to provide readers with multiple entry points to information through the use of hypertextuality and intertextuality, but the onus of meaning-making is on the readers themselves, who are supposed to decode these myriad textualities effectively and strategically,

While Cassany’s vision of digital writing is inclusive and celebrates the expanded opportunities for communication that it offers, Mark Prensky’s vision is much more pessimistic. In his 2001 article “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants,” self-titled ‘thought leader’ Prensky presents the rather straightforward –if overly simplistic—argument that today’s students are the product of a fundamental change in our society caused by the advent and spread of computer technologies. Since contemporary students have been born into this new technological era, they are the natives who are totally at home, while the adults who teach them are the hapless immigrants who must either get with the program and master the new technologies or be left behind, a lazy, stupid relic of an earlier age.

Prensky’s native-immigrant metaphor is rather belabored and stereotyped, depending on many generalizations and oversimplifications for its validity. While I agree that teachers should continue to learn and evolve as teachers, I disagree with Prensky’s underlying assumption that so-called “Digital Native methodologies” are the key to engaging students in the classroom; instead, his reliance on gaming technology seems more like mirage than reality, and more panacea than cure. Frankly, I am horrified by Prensky’s rather cavalier examples of his approach in action, particularly the one where he suggests a Digital Native way to teach the Holocaust: “Create a simulation where students role-play the meeting at Wannsee, or one where they can experience the true horror of the camps as opposed to the films like Schindler’s List.” He concludes his jeremiad by adding: “It’s just dumb (and lazy) of educators –not to mention ineffective—to presume that (despite their traditions) the Digital Immigrant way is the only way to teach, and that the Digital Natives’ “language” is not as capable as their own of encompassing any and every idea” (6).  I think it’s equally dumb and lazy to presume the converse.

My own experiences with technology

While I’m not one of Prensky’s Digital Natives, neither am I one of his Immigrants, because I do care about technology, educate myself on its uses, and integrate it as a tool to teach content. I plan activities that include multiple entry points to analysis through diverse, student-chosen tech tools. For example, I ask students to create author timelines with biographical and historical information that the students think is relevant to understanding the author’s work; to fulfill this assignment, they can create paper timelines, use PowerPoint, or use any of the various online programs that are designed for that purpose. They like the freedom to choose their own tools and figure out how to use them to fulfill the objectives of the assignment.

While I dislike Prensky’s smugness, I do take (some of) his message to heart – and I do work hard to learn the latest tools and lingo that my students have so easily mastered. I ask them to teach me, and through that interaction, model for them my own learning process, complete with successes, failures, anxieties, and triumphs.

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