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Digital Natives, Or Digital Citizens?

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I often hear adults describing today's young people as 'digital natives,' usually with a tone of resignation or acceptance: "They are so far ahead of us, but we can turn to them for help," is the general message I hear.

My reaction is "Whoa there, Nellie," because to me that kind of thinking smacks of abdication of adult responsibility. Yes, most young people know more than we adults because the fast-changing world of modern technology is alien to us, wildly different from the one we grew up in. But being a 'digital native' is not the same as being a 'digital citizen.' Young people have always needed ethical guidance and the security of rules and boundaries. That's more true now because today's technologies have unprecedented power to harm, as we have seen in documented cases of cyber-bullying and harassment.

I accept the general truth of what someone called the "Three C's 1-9-90" rule of thumb, sad and depressing as it is. Only about ONE percent of young people are using today's technologies to create; NINE percent are curating, collecting and critiquing, while NINETY percent are consuming.

If most youth -- 90 percent -- are texting, playing Angry Birds and Grand Theft Auto, and linking up on Facebook and Google Circles, then we adults should be ashamed.

Unless, of course, we are equally guilty.

And we are.

I would bet that the education community's use of technology follows a "Two C's 10-90" rule: TEN percent to create, and NINETY percent to control. I mean 'control' broadly, everything from keeping the school's master schedule, monitoring attendance and grades, tracking teacher performance, and imparting the knowledge we believe kids need to have.

If an important purpose of school is to help 'grow adults,' then the creative use of technology -- by adults and young people -- must be ramped up dramatically. We need to find ways to move kids out of the 90% and into the 1%.

If, on the other hand, a central purpose of school is to produce willing consumers, well, we're doing fine.

What about Sal Khan and his burgeoning Khan Academy? Doesn't his approach blend technology and traditional learning in ways that are to be admired? Yes, of course. However, at least so far most of the energy has been devoted to helping kids master the required curriculum. I think that's necessary, but it's not sufficient.

Schools today must provide opportunities for young people to create knowledge out of the swirling clouds of information that surround them 24/7. You went to school because that's where the knowledge was stored. That was yesterday. Think how different today's world is. Today's young people need guidance in sifting through the flood of information and turning it into knowledge. They need to be able to formulate good questions -- because computers have all the answers.

(I speak about a lot of these themes at greater length in The Influence of Teachers.)

Here are a few ways to harness technology and foster creativity.

1. Every middle school science class could have its own hand-held air quality monitor (under $200). Students could take air quality measurements three times a day, chart the readings, share the information in real time with every other middle school science class in the city, region or state, and scour the data for consistencies and anomalies. That's creating knowledge out of the flood of information, and it's real work, not 'homework.'

2. Students could use their smart phones' cameras to map their own neighborhoods, documenting (for example) the number of trash cans on street corners. That information could be plotted and shared city-wide, and the data could be examined for patterns and anomalies. Are there more trash cans in wealthy areas? If so, ask the Mayor, the Department of Sanitation and the City Council for an explanation. Again, students will be turning information into knowledge. I wrote about this a while ago in more detail.

3. Why not measure water quality? A hand-held monitor/tester of Ph costs under $100, and the instrument that tests conductivity (ion levels, which relates to purity) is available for under $100. Turbidity -- how cloudy the water is -- is important to measure as well, and that can be done with an inexpensive instrument and a formula. Students could also measure the speed of the current and keep track of detritus. Then share all the data with other science classes around the city, region and state. Everyone could dig into the information looking for patterns. If one river's water seems relatively pure until it passes point X, students could endeavor to find out why.

4. Teams of students with held-held Flip Cameras are invited to participate in our Shared Poetry Project and become producers for our YouTube channel.

If you click on the link above, I suggest you watch example #3, which was created by some middle school students in New Jersey.

Work like this is, well, real work. Students are creating knowledge; they are designing projects and seeing them through from beginning to end. These projects have to meet real-world standards because the results are in public view.

These young people will be learning (or reinforcing) real-world skills that will help them once they move out of school. They're working together, they are gathering, assimilating and analyzing data, they are learning how to present what they are learning, and so on. This is career-track stuff, 180 degrees different from much of the 'regurgitation education' that is the hallmark of too many of our schools.

And here are two final benefits: the time they spend doing projects like these (and there are many more good ideas out there) is time they cannot spend playing games or otherwise consuming technology. And because they are using technology to create and are enjoying the fruits of their labor, they will be, I believe, less likely to use technology's power negatively. Strong in their own sense of self, they are less likely to feel the need to bully and cyber-bully others.

Technology is not value-free. We have choices to make, folks.