Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Second Junto, Tuesday 5/2/06 @ 11am in UMC 404

I recently attended a meeting where a faculty member made the comment that while students expect certain technologies, they should not be determining the educational technologies provided by the university. My thoughts immediately turned to these oft-referenced writings by Marc Prensky.


Marc Prensky is a speaker, author, and educational game designer. He holds an MBA from Harvard and a Masters in Teaching from Yale. These readings are often referenced in educational articles about the net-generation, constructivist learning, and game-based instruction.


  1. How do these readings relate to your responsibilities as a DATC?
  2. Should students drive media selection?


Mark W said...

Thoughts on Digital Natives

Hi All, Here are some thoughts I had as I read through the Prensky essays.

In graduate school, I studied how teaching methods in composition changed over the centuries and I noticed that Prensky's complaints were similar to complaints that writing professors had in previous centuries. They would lament how the generation after them had a method of thinking that was different (sloppy, perhaps) and how they weren't up for the rigor of the old ways. It's not exactly Prensky's argument, because they were on the side of the earlier generation, but I suspect that there has often been this division between one generation of educators and the students they teach.

I can see how it might be possible that digital natives have their brains wired differently and so they think differently, but I'm not comfortable with Prensky's approach, which seems to me to be giving up and saying "well digital immigrants won't be able to reach digital natives in the ways digital natives value, so let's just work with them in their own cultural thought milieu."

I think the right approach is to hold both digital natives and digital immigrants to higher expectations than that. I think there is some benefit for both groups to learn methods the other group uses to process information. I agree with Prensky that learning a new way is hard.

One implication in his essay seems to be, "it's too hard." My response is universities are supposed to be hard! They are like the Olympics of thought. Not everyone can get a university education, and not everyone should get one. My reaction to Prensky is to say, let's not let the digital natives define how thought, argument, debate, and inquiry in a university setting is conducted. Rather, let's learn from them and see how to work in their environment; but let's also expect them to learn-think-talk in ways that the digital immigrants do.

Prensky paints a picture of people as largely unwilling to change. Sure, people resist change, but when faced with tension in their lives and with a reason to change, people can be quite resilient. And therefore digital immigrants can change to expand their method of teaching to readigitalial natives in their space, but so can digital natives change to better understand and appreciate the value in what digital immigrants can offer them.

As I read the statement: "So unless we want to just forget about educating Digital Natives until they grow up and do it themselves," I thought it's a bit like a track coach saying, "well these kids are couch potatoes, and they won't run, so I won't teach them how to run. I'll have to just reach them where they are at."

One other thought. I think Prensky sets up straw-person charactures of digital immigrants. I don't know many who are as extreme about writing off the use of TV and other technologies to teach. Most of the digital immigrants I know are willing to entertain the idea of working within the digital native milieu, but they want some evidence that learning will occur in that milieu before they spend much time there.

Steve B said...

In Part II of his article, Prensky claims that "digital games [are] one good way to reach Digital Natives in their 'native language'"(1). Even though I disagree with his exaggerated claim that the 'digital generation' speaks a different language (it would be more accurate to say they use a different register), I'll let that slide and simply point out where Prensky contradicts himself in the very same article.

On pages 5 and 6, in defending the use of learning games from those who say they don't produce learning, Prensky makes a very interesting claim—one I think we've already touched on in our Junto conversations:

"[I]f some of these games don't produce learning it is not because they are games, or because the concept of 'game-based learning' is faulty. It's because those particular games are badly designed. There is a great deal of evidence that children's learning games that are well designed [sic] do produce learning, and lots of it...."

What about well-designed learning activities that don't use technology and do engage students? Are we to believe they don't exist? I don't think so. But apparently, Prensky does...and his evidence is less than compelling.

Indeed, I bristled when, in his "evidence" article (Part II), his proof that "old ways of learning" don't capture the attention of students comes from a single retired biochemistry professor from the University of Massachusettes (see footnote 25):

"'Sure they have short attention spans—for the old ways of learning,' says a professor." [emphasis mine]

Not very persuasive evidence if you ask me. I think what Prensky points out in the above defense of game-based learning (whether he knows it or not) is that good design of learning activities is what produces quality learning, not faddish media.

I've found Margaret Cassidy's Book Ends: The Changing Media Environment of American Classrooms to be very instructive in situating the blind faith in progress and technology within an historical context. Indeed, Cassidy points out that there have been numerous occasions in American history when someone has made the claim that new media will transform education, "[t]hroughout the history of American public education, school reformers have cited changes in communication technology as a rationale for changes in education" (25).

It's not that I doubt that video games could be instructive in classrooms, it's that I find Prensky's claim overly optimistic, myopic, and completely lacking rigor. Likewise, it's not that I disagree with Prensky that people today might think differently than people of yore, but I find his case for reaching students in their 'native language' sloppy and unpersuasive.