Friday, September 3, 2010

Digital Natives they are not

I made a class Ning for my grade six students and it has taken longer to register with e-mails and passwords than I would have thought necessary. Some kids have no e-mail accounts, and the year of their birth seems to be an issue. Not sure if they are too young for Ning's liking or what but they had to say to say they were born in 1980 to get it to work.
The Ning is private, so only invited or accepted members may be privy to everything we do. 

I chose to use the following Ning apps:
  • instant chat
  • videos
  • blogs
  • pictures
  • my page
  • forum
The moment my kids got on, they gravitated to the instant chat and spammed the hell-out-of everyone with emoticons, LOLs and other drivel such as "I like cheesecake."

While some spammed the instant chat, others were busy uploading America's Funniest Home Video clips. Yes, some were funny, but more and more were being uploaded. 

While the spam was frustrating, it was anything but a surprise - I anticipated such an event, so I wrote my first blog post on the Ning about Spam:
After World War II, Britain suffered greatly. Their country, including their farms and economy were in ruins from the war.
An exorbitant amount of canned luncheon meat was imported from Argentina to help with the lack of food, and so the meat soon became infamously known as Spam.
Soon, Spam came to be known as anything of low quality done over and over again. When people send low quality messages such as "LOL" or "I like cheesecake" over and over again as messages, this is called spam.
In order to have a productive online experience that focuses on real learning, how should we deal with spam? 
The next day, we talked briefly about spam. This kind of technology typically is outright banned or ignored by schools (either purposefully or because of a lack of money, equipment or know-how), and so it should be no surprise that the kids have developed little to no real skills in using instant chat kinds of technology; after all, they've had no guidance from anyone but their peers.

To get started, I uploaded and shared this video with my students, and then asked them to use the instant chat to discuss the video:

The moment the video was over... more spam. More emoticons. More drivel.

Did I get mad?


Instead, I saw this as a teachable moment. It's not that these digital natives were given an inch so they took a mile - rather, it's more accurate that these kids are not digital natives. Frankly, I'm not sure there is such a thing but that's an another post.

To model some productive chat, I posted a question: "Does school sometimes turn kids off of school?"

And still I didn't get much more of a response than: "Yes"

So I posted a few more questions. 

Still nothing.

So I waited.... and then it happened. Chase typed something different - something no one had done yet: "this video reminds me of my cousin."

I stopped the class and we talked about how what Chase said was different from spam or one word responses. We talked about how his comment could actually inspire a response from others.

Then it happened again. This time Jayla asked a question: "why is there space in this video?"

We stopped and talked about how Jayla's question could inspire others to answer her question or even ask their own.

Finding and posting interesting content is less than half the challenge. The real challenge is in artfully guiding students to thinking and discussing the content in a productive manner. But you'll notice I didn't instruct them on how to do this. I didn't provide them with a list of rules to follow. Rather, I provided them with an opportunity to make mistakes and construct their own understanding with each other for how they should best use the Ning.

This all takes time, but it's worth it. I can already see kids reasoning with themselves and others how we can use this Ning to support our learning.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I believe it's because the majority (probably 90%) of their interaction with technology is for entertainment.

    TV, Movies, Video Games, Facebook, PSP, iPhone, the list goes on.

    Where's the instruction on browsing Wikipedia? Are kids challenged to find answers to questions using Google to do research? Have they been taught the power of using something like Twitter for crowd sourcing or following the thoughts and ideas of society's leaders and thinkers?

    I believe to them technology = entertainment. The power of it escapes them. And that's society's fault.

  3. and we wonder why kids grow up to be adults and do stupid, humiliating or criminal acts on the Internet...

  4. I have spent the last three computer sessions struggling to get the entire class on my private Ning. Remember I have a split 5-6 this year. We have student email accounts here so that was not an issue. The cumbersome process of invitations, applications and approval made it frustrating. I cannot get the chat function operating this year. Last year my experience was the same as yours. Everyone is on now, so we can start to use it more constructively.

  5. This is really interesting. I've done class Nings before, but actually done it very differently. The first time was as a student-teacher, and I really didn't want to make a bad impression with my mentor, so did anything possible to keep things moving.

    We had a pretty good procedure for getting everyone signed up, and everyone had email accounts, so that went (relatively) quickly. Then I did something I'm now starting to question. I told them how I envisioned the website being used and how I set it up for them (complete with forum categories, a ton of videos, and a lot of example content to give them some ideas for appropriate usage). I did have one rule. Basically, don't post anything on the site you don't want your mother to see.

    There was a lot of spamming at first and I figured I would let them "get it out their system" (assuming they all knew how to use a social network, but were just giddy to have one for school). When it continued during more focused use, I would sternly remind them to stay on-topic, taking control of their computers or blanking their screen from the main computer if they faltered. In retrospect, I was trying harder to stay in control than to help them learn. They eventually learned to stay on-topic more and I clung to the small, occasional victories where one student would post something useful on the forum or upload a video unprovoked. Compared to other networks though, this community of over 100 students was pretty dead.

    I'm not that bad anymore. Now I'll at least ask students what they think of the forum categories and ask if they know any videos we could upload. As I start new classes this semester though, I think I'll loosen the reigns even further, letting them spam for a while, but instead of just telling them that it's bad netiquette, help them figure it out and why on their own.

    Thanks, Joe!

  6. I have a few thoughts about the post. One is just how invaluable wait time is, regardless of the medium. Another is based on our assumptions. It is so difficult to begin any school, but to assume what they already know makes it even more difficult. I have found that I know that I don't know what they know. I have to create opportunities for them to show me what they know & can do. It sounds like the Ning did exactly that for you.

    I am struck by your comment about them not really being digital natives. This is something I have been contemplating for some time. The term 'digital native' truly refers to anyone born between the present & '76. This does not mean that they have a particular skill set with technology.

    I am finding, what you discovered: they struggle to speak the digital language (or verbal, or written, or non verbal). This says more about how we (all adults) interact with children. With the advances in technology we speak to them less & less. They may see us texting, tweeting, facebooking, blogging, gaming, or whatever we may do 'in the cloud' but they do not see HOW we are doing it. Kids are still kids. They mimic what they see us do. Their concrete nature misleads them into thinking that drivel is what's happening ~ we look like we are having fun & most fun for them often involves little interactive substance. It is up to us to teach them otherwise. Once we do, their digital language will alter.

  7. A few thoughts:

    1. Totally agree with the approach you took. Brilliant.

    2. I still hold that they are digital natives, but that natives must learn to think any any medium that they have. Oral natives still goofed off and had silly songs. Print natives still played Hang Man. The reality is that native simply means they grew up with it and that it is a part of their value system.

    3. The digital value system is largely based upon entertainment. It's how adults use technology. It's the values of breadth rather than depth and of sound bites rather than stories. It's the value system that says "this really trite saying should be retweeted seventy-five times." The medium has shaped the culture. They are, in fact, acting exactly as a native would act in a world where a value system is shaped by social media.

    4. The goal then should be citizenship - not just digital citizenship (I don't buy into the notion that "digital" should be a separate type of citizenship) but rather true citizenship - critical thinking, inquiry, service learning. If these things become a part of how they live, they will seek out multiple types of media and use it creatively.

    5. Often the "native" concept is seen in more affective ways. My dad is very intelligent but terrified of technology. He uses it, but it baffles him. My students feel very comfortable with it, but I have to get them through the "toys vs. tools" concept.

  8. You're completely wrong about the food product Spam™! I have never even heard the Spain story before. The word is a portmanteau of "spiced" and "ham." It's an American product, from Hormel, always has been. Hawaiians eat lots of it.

    This could be another teachable moment- "Don't believe everything you read over the net." and "Don't always believe your teacher."
    Please blog about reteaching the accurate history of Spam.

  9. The video I placed in this post was unfortunately yanked from YouTube. I'm searching for its replacement, but haven't found anything yet.

  10. Hey Joe, here's a nice article about Spam you and your kids might enjoy.

  11. I have once heard that digital natives they may be, it does not mean they are digitally mature. It seems like a long road to teach them how to properly learn using the technology and not just entertain but it is a valuable "cause".

  12. Joe, I read your post with great interest. I use Ning with college freshmen and have not encountered what you did. I wonder if it is a maturity issue. Students in my class have grown up with lots of social media, but they seem to know how to switch their voice for the Ning without any prompting. Maybe, what your students did at first was developmentally appropriate. Some teachers in the graduate course I teach have been using KidBog with 3rd and 4th graders. At first, students used it as a chat. They needed to get used to the medium. Now, these 3rd and 4th graders are using KidBlog in more academic ways. I wonder if just the thrill of using the medium at first is what got your students caught up on chatter at first. I also wonder if they will "mellow" with time.

  13. I wonder why the video was taken off YouTube at first. I just watched it, and thought it would be a good one to show students. In fact, for those schools that block YouTube, it is worth trying to get the video in another format to show it. Do you know why it was taken down?