Today started with an interesting conversation with an amazing teacher friend of mine. Someone who’s extremely experienced and delivers powerful, meaningful learning opportunities. She ranted, ‘If I hear another ‘digital something’ my head will explode!’ I laughed and it made me think of how many digital somethings I experience in my day-to-day meanderings. Let me start by sharing just some of the current list encountered almost daily:
- Digital Fluency
- Digital Technologies
- Digital Generation
- Digital Communication
- Digital Citizenship
- Digital Literacy
- Digital Devices
- (The) Digital Age
- Digital Enablement
- Digital Readiness
I really could go on. Each has a different meaning; each has importance, with some overlapping one another and many being misconstrued or misunderstood. It is important you understand that my teacher friend and I are not anti-digital anything. I, like her, highly value digital technology. It gives me the power to completely control my learning. I understand ubiquity on a level I could never have dreamed of just a decade ago. It enables me, empowers me, and supports me in almost everything I do. It’s specifically the word ‘digital’ that my colleague has begun to take issue with! It feels like it’s fallen foul of the buzzword trap that surrounds so many professions. Once a term becomes a buzzword it can lose purpose. It becomes something that’s thrown around because it sounds intelligent, cool, or current, rather than something that has meaning.
Let’s take the subject and teaching around Citizenship as an example. Is it any different from Digital Citizenship?
“Is this digital citizenship or just plain citizenship? Building strong 21st Century citizens is of paramount importance whether we are living our lives offline or on, and we need to avoid using old-fashioned compartmentalised instruction in a connected world.” (Weston 2013)
As Marti Weston points out, we live in a connected world. Even our New Zealand Curriculum makes direct reference to this being key to the teaching and learning of our students as we strive to create ‘confident, connected, actively involved lifelong learners.’ In an ever-connected world, in which many of today’s learners do not demarcate their lives into online and offline, we need to teach effective citizenship to their context, not ours. This includes the digital!
Digital Generation: native or at home?
Then there are Digital Natives. Native as a noun is defined as ‘a person born in a specified place or associated with a place by birth, whether subsequently resident there or not.’ Today’s generation of learners wasn’t born online. It’s simply something they’ve never known a world without. I often refer to the concept of working memory and formation of early memories in relation to digital technologies. ‘Few adults can remember anything that happened to them before the age of three. Now, a new study has documented that it’s about age seven when our earliest memories begin to fade, a phenomenon known as childhood amnesia’ (Wood 2015). So, if we suggest that most adults remember very little prior to seven years old it could be argued that today’s 18-year-olds have no working memory of a world without the following:
- Smart Phones
- The App Store
- The iPhone
This list is non-exhaustive and, depending on their recall and upbringing, they may not remember the launch of things like Spotify or on-demand viewing services. Can you imagine what today’s primary aged student doesn’t know a world without?! And of course, I’ve missed the one incredibly obvious element that anyone under the age of 30 will have no recollection of not existing, the World Wide Web. For over a quarter of a century we’ve watched a generation grow and develop, surrounded by an ever-expanding digital universe. So, of course they’re home in a digital world; of course they’re digitally competent and able; it’s all they’ve ever known!
This one might polarise some of you. There is a distinct difference between electronic communication and face-to-face communication. Of that there is absolutely no doubt. The ability to read someone’s expression and body language, hear the pitch and intonation in their voice, and make a connection just cannot be replicated without being face to face. But, I believe you can get pretty close. Approximately two years ago I started as a Digital Virtual Mentor (DVM) and I’ve been genuinely humbled to develop some fantastic relationships with people I’ve never met in person. I’m not suggesting we need to change the way we teach learners to interact, merely that we need to acknowledge a digital platform as one context they might experience.
Take letter writing as another example. Now we have email (even that’s been around in some form or another for nearly five decades). How often have you heard a teacher complain of students not understanding etiquette in letters or using inappropriate language/acronyms in their communication? If we don’t teach our students certain levels of understanding within their context, how can we possibly chastise or judge them for not meeting our expectation? While working with learners and exploring communication, I came up with a simple graphic to show the level of formality within different types of communication.
Although the graphic was clearly focused on online and digital device-based communication, I’m hoping it illustrates the point that when teaching strategies to communicate effectively, many of the lessons and etiquettes are applicable across both the real and digital worlds. I suppose we return to the William Zinsser (1998) quote, ‘Never say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation. Be yourself when you write. If you’re not a person who says ‘indeed’ or ‘moreover,’ or who calls someone an individual (‘he’s a fine individual’), please don’t write it’ (p. 27). It’s simply now understanding what and where ‘writing something’ is — it is most certainly not limited to pen and paper.
I believe it is fair to say that the word digital has evolved and changed quite significantly from its root word ‘digitus’ that became ‘digitalis’ meaning finger or toe! I suppose it could be argued that much of our digital technology today requires the use of a finger (or toe) to operate it, but even that has changed rapidly. Voice control and input, the ability to unlock your cell phone with your face, calling ‘Hey Siri’ from across the room and asking for a timer to be set, everything has moved on. Each learner of today is entering the world without an understanding of the digital technology prior to their existence. Adverts are a frustration and inconvenience to the Netflix generation. Taking longer than 10 minutes to respond is considered rude by the citizens of Snapchat.
So much of what we do involves digital that, at times, the non-digital feels almost abnormal. We don’t have a non-digital technologies curriculum learning area, it’s simply technology. There is no analogue generation (although googling that brings up all sorts of interesting reading), so why must we insist on having a digital one? If digital has become the norm, isn’t it time we stopped trying to demarcate the two worlds and understand that the current generation simply see them as one? If not, we’re at risk of teaching today’s learners through yesterday’s eyes.
Weston, M. (2013) Is It Digital Citizenship or Just Plain Citizenship? Retrieved on May 14, 2018, from https://mediatechparenting.net/2013/10/16/is-it-digital-citizenship-or-just-plain-citizenship/
Wood, J. (2015). What’s Your Earliest Memory? Psych Central. Retrieved on May 14, 2018, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2014/01/26/whats-your-earliest-memory/64982.ht
Zinsser, W. (1998). On Writing Well (6th ed.). New York, NY. Harper Perennial.
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