One of the silliest things teachers are asked to do these days is take courses on how to teach students to use current technology. Dont get me wrong. Im not a Luddite, ignoring the importance of technology in education.
But Im also not a digital native, and neither are any of the adults I work with. Asking adults to teach students how to use modern technology is like sending me to France to teach Parisians how to speak French.
Technology changes faster than fruit fly generations. Even young people in their late 20s arent as adept as todays elementary school children who cant recall a time when they didnt instinctively know how to manipulate a mouse and maneuver through unfamiliar software. Every time I assign a school project that includes the production of an audio-visual aid, the kids run circles around me putting together truly interesting graphs, charts, music files, and storyboards. Even when I show them a new source to use, they have an intuitive grasp of its possibilities and complexities, quickly figuring out the buttons and controls with little direction from me.
No wonder. They live in a world different from mine. In March the Pew Research Center released a report that found that 95 percent of teenagers use the Internet, and almost that many have access to a computer at home. 78 percent of teenagers have cell phones, and half of those phones are smartphones. Increasingly, students with smartphones are cell-mostly users, meaning that the majority of their Internet use is on their phones.
A related study, this one from the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, found that the percentage of teens who use social networking sites has increased in the past seven years. For example, 81 percent report regularly visiting Facebook, up from 55 percent in 2006.
A tech dinosaur
My own immersion in digital technology exploded when I finally broke down and got a smartphone. Essentially a pocket computer with a steady connection to the web, smartphones mean that users never have to postpone knowing something. When does the next movie start? Your phone can tell you. Want to buy tickets for it and jump the line at the theater? The phone allows you to. Need to tell friends you will meet them there? Send a text or if you are sufficiently old-fashioned, an email. Or if you are truly old school, use your phone to call them. After the movie, post your rant about it on your blog or say something witty or snarky on Twitter.
I realized that I had brooked that digital divide slightly when on the last day of school my seniors discovered that I had a Twitter account. I felt my street cred rise until they noticed that I only had five followers.
I dont post much on Twitter, I confessed. I put more stuff on Tumblr.
Harmonys eyes widened.
You know what Tumblr is? she said, her tone suggesting she wasnt so much impressed as aghast, as if she had seen a dinosaur walking down the street.
Lessons to learn
Which in a way she had. Ill never navigate the Internet the way my students do. Theres little I can teach them there.
But what I can offer them is an invitation to engage in serious critical thinking about their use, particularly about issues of safety and privacy.
In that same Harvard study, students made alarming claims about their practices with social media. 91 percent post photos of themselves online, 71 percent list their school names and city or town, 53 percent share their email addresses, and 20 percent share their cell phone numbers. Yet most indicated that they were being sufficiently cautious.
Young people also need guidance on issues of legality and ownership affecting their behaviors from downloading bootleg movies and music to plagiarizing sources in research papers. They have little understanding of the lasting consequences of posting compromising or embarrassing information, nor do they always recognize that online contacts are not authentic replacements for face-to-face relationships.
Ill leave it to researchers to decide if being wired is actually changing the way our brains work. Certainly it is changing our society. Look around in any restaurant at the number of diners attending their phones instead of each other. In school, disconnecting kids from their phones is a constant challenge, and I often worry that I cant compete with the distractions they offer.
But I might be able to offer some careful reflection the way an immigrant often sees things more clearly from the outside to the natives who will inherit the world.
Guest columnist Kay McSpadden is a high school English teacher in York, S.C., and author of Notes from a Classroom: Reflections on Teaching. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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