Participatory black boxes

Every time I see the mention of digital natives or the assumed proficiency of those who have grown up with digital technologies, it irks me a little. It’s not that I disagree–not exactly.

This came up in a discussion we’re having in my seminar on participatory learning, and I found myself having to try to articulate my position more clearly. On one hand, it’s hard to argue with the core idea: when a generation has used digital tools their entire life, they are more familiar and comfortable with the tools. But then Prensky (who is still most frequently identified with this position) goes well off course, in my opinion (pdf):

All 21st century kids are programmers to some degree. Every time they download a song or ring tone, conduct a Google search, or use any software, they are, in fact, programming. To prepare kids for their 21st century lives, we must help them maximize their tools by extending their programming abilities. Many students are already proficient enough in programs like Flash to submit their assignments in this medium. Schools should actively teach students this technology and encourage them to use it.

First of all, I’m not working in the schools, but I am doubtful that a substantial number of kids are Flash users. Are there some? Of course. Just as there were kids when I was in school who could program. But we did not represent the norm.

Second, I would argue strongly that this is a slope that does not exist. Doing a Google search is not programming. Downloading a song is not programming. This renders the word fairly meaningless. If it is programming, then so is changing the channel on the television or buying a drink from a vending machine–“digital immigrants” are generally adept at both.

What is more important is that young people are happy to be thought of as “digital natives,” and probably think of these things as programming. I think part of the issue is that when I watched TV as a kid, I recognized that the production process was outside of my hands, but that it was achievable. It was clear who the producer and consumer of the message was, and although I might have access to an instant camera, what I produced with it was different from what a professional produced.

I think that we assume that the wall has been removed–but really it has just been replaced. It used to be that you could fix your car engine. You still can, but mainly be replacing black-boxed parts. Likewise, you can download and install iPhone apps, but most kids are not producing them. (Yay, AppInventor, and if it gets widely used, that is a good thing, but it is emphatically something that adults are bringing to kids, not something native to their experiences as consumers.)

So, I think the boundaries have moved a bit, but are much less obvious. I don’t feel like an immigrant. I create these technologies and don’t just adopt them. And, in fact, in many cases us “immigrants” lead the way on new tech. Kids may now all have cell phones, but I hasten to remind you, us “over 30s”–in some cases way over–had them before the kids did.

But we also recognize things like the fact that the iPhone and Facebook are walled gardens. Those who have lived in the technologies have accepted this as part of the ideology of tech: something that has always been, and remains unexamined.

So, whenever someone busts out the “digital native” talk, my skepticism levels start peaking. It’s not that the opposite is true, and that kids don’t know technology. It’s that the phrase–intended to spur institutional change–hides a multitude of ignorances.

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One Comment

  1. Posted 9/12/2010 at 11:20 pm | Permalink

    There has been a major funded project in Aus about the idea of ‘digital natives’ (and they agree with you, pretty much). Some useful publications from that here and here.

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