Posts Tagged ‘Marc Prensky’

The missionary Position

October 23, 2013

What are the Digital Natives doing with all the bandwidth and access to the internet?  Those who subscribe to Mark Prensky’s theory that our youth are Digital Natives seem to also be saying that the Digital Natives are leading the way in adopting new technologies and in finding new ways to use those technologies.  Every now and then we catch a glimpse, as if in a glass darkly, of where these natives are guiding the tourists in their world of cyberspace.

What it suggests to me is that we are not being lead to the promised land or even a glimpse of that marvel.

When Vodafone launched a 4 G service in February 2013, they began tracking as many as 20,000 users (and you thought it was the GCSB or NSA!)  to see how they are using this cornucopia, this Aladdin’s cave. The results are depressing.

Big spikes in usage are recorded at large public events, not surprisingly. Nor is it surprising that these big events are concerts by popular musicians and sporting contests in the major codes.  That translates to Beyonce and the All Blacks, not the Symphony Orchestra nor the New Zealand Ballet.

What are these people doing on their smart phones?  Vodafone’s consumer director, Matt Williams seems to think it is uploading photographs of themselves and their friends, followed by photographs of the performers on the stage or on the paddock.  There is a spike of uploading then they switch to downloading the pictures their friends have taken.  Not a lot of attention seems to be paid to the activities they came to see.

The net is full of comment about Gen Y being narcissistic.  I’m not too keen on condemning a whole generation whether that is Digital Immigrant or Gen Y but we do know who are more likely to pay for tickets to see Beyonce and who have the disposable income.

What the research from Vodafone shows is that bread and circuses occupy the public mind as firmly as they did in the days of the Roman Empire.  It also tells us that the digital natives will still have to be taught how to use the internet to some purpose.  Watching the America’s Cup? Yes.  Looking for solutions to real world problems? No. Matt Williams also calls it a virtuous circle of increased consumption.  Words fail me.

If the Digital Natives are not going to teach themselves digital literacy then someone else will have to teach them to read.  What could we call such people? Digital Missionaries anyone?


Wise old heads

May 18, 2011

The commercial popularity of medical self help books seems to be a testament to the desire of the digital immigrant to prevent the spread of tropical diseases in the digital homeland, or at the very least to enjoy a greater quality of life than any previous generation has experienced.  Concerns about dementia, coupled with new discoveries in brain scanning can also illuminate a major theme of this blog: a critique of the Digital Natives Digital Immigrants model.

In a new book, Secrets of the Grown up Brain: the surprising talents of the middle aged mind (2010),  Barbara Strauch argues that brains actually get better at lots of things with age.  She challenges the factoid that we lose up to a third of our brain cells as we age.  In a healthy person, the brain stays reasonably intact.

As Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s  fictional detective was fond of saying, our brains consist of grey cells, but they do not work alone.  They are connected by bundles of nerve tissue, which are white in appearance and these white cells are covered in a fatty substance called myelin.  (So there is some truth in the insult hurled at Billy Bunter, Owl of the Remove at Greyfriars School.  We are fat heads.)  However, current thinking is that the more myelin we have, the better we think, because the myelin has some function in helping the white matter connect the grey cells.  Current research appears to suggest that the process of covering the nerve fibres with myelin continues well into middle age, and, moreover, that this is a good thing.  Strauch refers to the result as “great connected brains”, able to think better, see patterns, connect ideas.

If you follow this blog, you might expect that I will now link Strauch’s findings to Marc Prensky’s idea that young people’s brains are wired differently.  What all the brain research reveals, is that our brains are plastic, so Prensky is partly correct.  The net generation, through their exposure to and use of digital technology, do think differently, but do they think better? Strauch would suggest better thinking comes with maturity.  I think the more interesting conclusion is that our brains are capable of change throughout our lives.  It is not that the Net gen brains are wired differently, it is that all of us are changing in our mental capacities throughout our lives.  In colonial New Zealand, a British immigrant who adopted coarser colonial ways was said to have “eaten his toot”;  “toot’ being a corruption of the Maori word, Tutu, for a poisonous berry responsible for the deaths of large numbers of sheep.  It seems we can all “eat our toot’ and become digital natives.

It may be a fact that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, but it is a factoid when we apply that adage to human beings. Toot! Toot!

Amazons or Athenians, what tribe is this?

May 17, 2011

In the legends of Ancient Greece. are the stories about warrior women, the Amazons, whose queen Hippolyta was finally subdued by the Athenian hero Theseus.  The story of their marriage forms the backdrop to Shakespeare’s play, A Midsummer’s Nights Dream.  The moral for the Greeks, presumably was that men were the superior sex.  Modern thinking has debunked that view, but it comes to the surface again in pseudo scientific guises

In a book published in 2006, (The Female Brain) the science writer Louann  Brizendine developed a thesis that women’s brains work differently from men’s.  One piece of Brizendine’s  evidence was seized on by a large audience, the claim that women uttered 20,000 words a day against the 7,000 spoken by men.  The Daily Mail for example argued “It is something one half of the population has long suspected – and the other half always vocally denied.”  The Washington Post : “Women talk too much, and men only think about sex…you need a Ph.D. to figure that out?”   The book went into numerous translations with much the same effect .  The German publisher wrote in their blurb “Warum gebrauchen Frauen 20 000 Worter am Tag, wahrend Manner nur 7000?”

However, none of the people who seized on this claim actually bothered to look seriously at her evidence.  The Female Brain certainly is a weighty tome with about thirty percent of the text given over to footnotes, making the book look academic.   Fortunately, Mark Lieberman from the University of Pennsylvania did comb through the book looking for the evidence and found just one reference to support this claim.  It came from a book by Alan Pease and Allan Garner.    Pease is the author of self help books on letter writing and body language which always struck me as more entertaining  than useful.  Lieberman read their book Talk Language: how to use conversation for profit and pleasure  (2003) (Pease Training Corporation) and found that Pease had no evidence to support the claim either.

See Liberman’s blog

There is research however in the linguistics literature which argues the exact opposite.  Janet Homes, for example in Women, men and politeness found that men spoke more, on average, than women.  Liberman lists a lot of the research into the incidence of talkativeness and none of it supports Brizendine’s claim.  In the year following the publication of Brizendine’s book, a study published in Science tracked 210 women and 186 men and found that women used about 3.5 per cent more words than men.  Given the result, the size of the study and its methodology, this scarcely validates Brizendine’s claim.  Perhaps the most compelling argument is that Brizendine finally agreed to remove this assertion from future editions of the book.

Why then did so many people seize on this claim and why do commentators still continue to present it as fact?  In his study of this controversy (You are what you speak) Robert Lane Greene labelled this tendency the “intellectual id”, the eagerness with which people will believe something they almost desperately want to believe is true.  William James put it another way;  “A great many people think they are thinking when they are really rearranging their prejudices. “  The fact is that we tend to form an opinion, then we look for evidence to support our point of view, while rejecting that evidence which contradicts us.

I suggest, that as with Louanne Brizendine, so with Marc Prensky.  As I have argued so often in this blog, his Digital natives, Digital Immigrants argument is fallacious.  There is no more evidence there is a generational difference in brain function than there is a gender one.

Is it truly possible to be too old to learn?

July 12, 2010

I think the term “Digital natives, Digital immigrants” is a gross generalisation, and as such unhelpful to our discussion.

It is a generalisation because it is abundantly clear that while children can pick up new technologies very quickly, this is not inevitable.   Children raised in traditional communities will not pick up new technologies because they do not have the opportunities and they are socialised to avoid and resist.   Imagine an Amish child presented with a computer.

Secondly, young people adopt new technologies much like adults, some are early adopters and some stoutly resist.  Most fall somewhere in between along a continuum between the two extremes.  This point is well made in a recent report by the [United States] National Schools Board Association, Creating and Connecting//Research and Guidelines on Online Social – and Educational – Networking.  The report discusses the “Nonconformist” who is at the cutting edge of adopting new technologies.   It also mentions by omission the adolescents who do not participate in online communities

The dichotomy suggested by “Digital natives, Digital immigrants” also implies the idea behind the old saying “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”.   There may be some truth in that saying but I question whether we should apply an understanding which we have gained about dogs and apply it to human beings.

Like young people, adults adopt new technologies at different rates.   The educational community might learn a little from market research which has coined the term “early adopters”.

One of the many things which separate human beings from animals is that adults do learn.  What is more useful to grasp is that adults learn differently to children and adolescents.    In 1975, Malcolm Knowles published his ideas on what he called “andragogy” (to distinguish it from pedagogy).

His principles are that:

  1. Adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction (Self-concept and Motivation to learn).
  2. Experience (including mistakes) provides the basis for learning activities (Experience).
  3. Adults are most interested in learning subjects that have immediate relevance to their job or personal life (Readiness to learn).
  4. Adult learning is problem-centered rather than content-oriented (Orientation to learning).

I suggest these principles are more useful than “Digital natives, Digital immigrants”.

I’m in a google state of mind

October 29, 2009

One of the things I have been critical of in my comments on Marc Prensky and his Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants hypothesis is that there is no evidence which would  support his claim that Digital Natives by virtue of their exposure to computers and the internet, have differently wired brains.  Apparently, neuro scientists do believe in a concept they call neuro plasticity but that in itself does not support Prensky’s hypothesis.

In 2008 Dr Gary Small published a book iBrain: surviving the technological alteration of the Modern Mind, along with his partner, Gigi Vorgon,  a freelance writer. Small is an eminent medical researcher who pioneered MRI scans to show there was physical evidence that the brain aged, and he was able to show evidence of Altzheimer’s Disease in living persons.  It would follow, therefore, that his adoption of the Digital Native Digital Immigrant model in his book would give much weight to Prensky’s case.

In iBrain, Small is writing about young people, Generation Y, but his research has been with older people, mostly, but not always, the elderly.  We see this in a paper he published in February 2009  in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychology. (I said he has lots of street cred!)

To this untutored person, what Small, Moody, Siddarth and Bookheimer found actually argues against the Prensky hypothesis.  The study asked a group of older people to conduct on line searches in Google while the researchers studied their brain activity, hence the title of their paper, Patterns of cerebral activation during internet searching.  The subjects varied in age, the youngest was 55, and some were experienced users of the internet while others were novices.  The conclusion was that all subjects showed changes in the ways their brains worked during and after their searching.  The trouble for the Prensky hypothesis is it argues that only Digital Natives will show  changes to their brains. Whatever you call the people born between 1945 and 1955, Baby Boomers, Woodstock Generation, Generation Jones,  they are all part of Prensky’s Digital Immigrants and this should not be happening.  The fact that this research was conducted by a researcher who had previously supported the Prensky hypothesis should give pause for thought.

Small, Garry W., Moody, T.D.,  Siddarth, P., and Bookheimer, S.Y., (2009) Patterns of Cerebral Activation during internet searching, American Journal of Geriatric Psychology pp 116-126.

Small, Garry W and Vorgon, Gigi (2008) iBrain: surviving the technological alteration of the modern mind, Collins 256p.

The tribe that crossed its head

November 1, 2007

The idea of the world being divided on generational lines between “digital natives” and “digital immigrants” seems to be a widespread belief among educational managers. Its origin seems to go back to the American software developer Marc Prensky, who has written several books on educational technology. (You can access his blog from my blogroll.)

The problem is that for teachers working daily with the so called digital natives there appears to be scant evidence for Prensky’s claim. Yes, many adolescents are very skilled at using new technology and knowledgeable in a way their parents are not, but Prensky’s claim is a generalisation and like all generalisations it is very easy to disprove. Teenagers exist out there who can not use computers and cell phones and more importantly don’t want to. Nor are these all from communities which have turned their backs on new technologies. I’ve actually taught students who couldn’t use email but who had parents who were very computer savy; the exact opposite of what Prensky is claiming to be the case.

Now academics are examining Prensky’s claims in more detail. Gregor Kennedy head of the biomedical multimedia unit at the University of Melbourne says, “The data is showing that there is certainly a percentage of students who aren’t as technologically adept as some of the commentators make out.”

Prensky’s second claim that through their experiences using electronic media has meant that “digital natives” have their brains wired differently to the older generation. This is a view which resonates with me as the father of a thirteen year old with classic autism and profound intellectual disability. I might like to say his brain is wired up differently but the various brain scans and other neurological investigations didn’t find anything different about his brain or that of any other person with autism. The same is true with Prensky’s “digital natives.” This is not a “tribe that has lost its head” or found it again. Their heads are where they have always been, squarely between their shoulders. There simply is no evidence to back up Prensky’s claim.

Prensky’s loudest claim is that the education system is outdated and needs some fundamental changes to be able to cater to these new students. Well, the families who make up the autistic community have been saying this for years so I’m not going to argue with it, except to observe that these claims are being promoted by self-serving administrators who posssess the hallmark of the true reformer, a person who wants to change everyone but themselves. Ask Prensky’s more vocal disciples. What are they doing to show their commitment to changing the education system? Do they have a blog or use wikis to encourage collaborative and networked approaches to educational administration? Some do but many do not.

I’ve been in education long enough to see the way new approaches appear like new fashions in clothing and music only to disappear, as another new approach rises to take its place. This is a pity because personalising education does have the potential to improve motivation and outcomes for the students who are not succeeeding in schools. It would be a pity if this approach was to disappear now that Steve Maharey has resigned as Minister of Education and his successor, Chris Carter promotes some new enthusiasm of his own. However, I recall that “Parents as first teachers” lasted as long as Lockwood Smith was Minister of Education and I am not optimistic.

And let us also realise that Prensky’s claim is yet another generalisation. Our present system is working very well for many of our present students and there is no reason to believe it will not continue. Let us promote innovation not because all the old ways are not working, but because issues of equity demand that we do something for students who are not succeeding at school. Yes, we have students who are persistently truant and leave school without qualifications but these students have always been there. Once schooling was just for the sons of the nobility and gentry. After all, the word “school” comes from the Greek word for leisure. We have progressively extended the opportunity to attend school to the sons of the middle classes then to girls and finally to the children of working class families. The present group causing concern are part of a large underclass which we have created. When their parents left school before the school leaving age we just turned a blind eye. If we didn’t see it happening, we could pretend it wasn’t happening.  Now that is no longer acceptable. What has changed is not the students but our attitude towards underachievement.