Digital Pioneers?

I am re-reading parts of Derrick de Kerckove’sThe Skin of Culture” and find that a lot of what he says about our new electronic realities applies to blogging and the environments that it can produce. The following are some excerpts that I am currently thinking about:

As Canadian composer Murray Shafer has suggested, with our eyes we are always at the edge of the world looking in, while with our ears, the world comes to us and we are always at the centre of it.

The basic difference between the two modes [of listening] is that oral listening tends to be global and comprehensive, while literate listening is specialized and selective … the first is cosmo-centric and spatial, the latter is linear, temporal, and logocentric.

The fact is that, as Western people, we have become gradually deaf through no fault of our own, through the rewiring of our nervous system by literacy.

His ideas remind me of Marshall McLuhan and his thoughts about the acoustic environment produced by the electronic media. McLuhan once wrote that “knowing itself is being recast and retrieved in acoustic form,” and I find that a lot of what I see in my classroom confirms both de Kerckhove and McLuhan’s thoughts on the acoustic nature of the electronic universe.

In a traditional classroom, the students are always at the edge, looking in. The teacher is the source of all knowledge and education consists of getting glimpses into the world of knowledge. But the electronic environment of knowledge-building changes that dynamic and allows the learner to see the surrounding world as an environment to be absorbed or – as de Kerckhove and McLuhan suggest – listened to. This kind of environment also puts the learner – the participant – in the centre.

This is what the “digital natives” (as Marc Prensky calls them) are very comfortable with – the way they perceive reality is based on “oral listening.”

However, the fact that their ways of perceiving reality are more in tune with the digital world around them does not necessarily mean that they are more at home in the digital realm than their teachers. In fact, I find that the two categories of “digital immigrants” and “digital natives” do not accurately represent what is now happening in education. I applaud Tom Hoffman for rejecting this innacurate label of “digital immigrant.” I don’t think all of us (educators born before 1986) are “digital immigrants.” I also don’t think that our students are “digital natives.” There are sweeping generalizations at work here.

I don’t agree that having been educated in a literate, linear mode of thinking makes us “digital immigrants.” This kind of linear perception forms the basis of our civilization and I don’t think we can assume that its days are over (Prensky himself says that we must teach both “legacy” and “future” content). Put as much hypertext as you want into your sentence and it still remains, fundamentally, a sentence. I prefer to look at the digital world as a second layer or an additional dimension – something that we can use to enhance the way we communicate, to make it more effective, more participatory, more “digital.” I find that learning about World War II, for example, is more effective when one participates in a community of learners but, at the same time, I believe that my participation is going to be severely limited unless I spend some time on my own reading primary or secondary (print) sources. (George Siemens wrote a very interesting entry related to this not that long ago). In other words, I need my print literacy skills in order to participate in an online community of learners. Why, then, am I a “digital immigrant” – because I enter the electronic sphere with strong print literacy skills?

I need these skills to compose this post and I also need my digital skills to add hyperlinks and put it online. You, the reader, have to have the basic literacy skills to read and understand my thoughts here. I also need some degree of digital literacy to add hypertext to this entry, to weave a web of influences and correspondences. You can ignore the hypertext and just read the sentences or click on the links for a fuller, more engaging experience. You can then go on to comment on it somewhere else and thus keep contributing to the digital web (“Remix and feed forward” as Stephen Downes says).

So, being an effective educator and learner in this new electronic realm means having the ability to read, compose, and participate in this kind of multimedia palimpsest. From what I’ve seen so far, children at the elementary level are generally good navigators and readers but their “native” skills do not usually extend beyond that.

To say that our students are naturally proficient in the language of the digital world in which they grew up is not very accurate. A native speaker of English is not necessarily a great speaker or a gifted writer. He or she needs years of practice to use the language effectively. A thirteen-year-old student may be a “digital native” but what can she do with that skill other than listen or stand at the edge, looking in? In fact, we often talk about our students “surfing” the net which to me means one thing only – they are skimming, looking, watching, listening. The average thirteen-year-old is not actively participating in the digital world, she’s not learning (as Marc Prensky suggests) about bioethics or nanotechnology. I believe that the so-called “digital natives” are just as passive when confronted with the world wide web as we were, twenty or thirty years ago, in our elementary classrooms devoted to rote learning.

Yes, we have, as de Keckhove suggests, become deaf after centuries of linear literacy. But we have also now become very much awake, very open to the new realities of the electronic world around us. To say that we are immigrants is to say that we do not really belong, and who belongs more than an educator who is proficient in both, who can both teach a five-paragraph essay and create a community of learners?

Lawrence Lessig says that “creativity and innovation always builds on the past.” This is exactly what we’re doing when we introduce our children to the digital world. Our role as educators, to paraphrase Lessig, is to ensure that the past, the linear, visual mode of thinking give rise to but does not limit the creativity and the energy of emerging technologies. This can happen only if we recognize that we cannot impose the old upon the new just as we cannot create the new in a vacuum. It is our job to ensure that our students acquire the skills necessary to intelligently share their views, whether it’s in a wiki, an every-day conversation, or a traditional five-paragraph essay. We need to ensure, as Prensky suggests, that they learn both the “legacy” and “future” content. To do that, we need to acquire the skills of digital pioneers, we need to “remix and feed forward.”

The “digital natives” do indeed find the acoustic world, that world of “oral listening,” more natural but this does not mean that they do not need to be introduced into that world, that they do not need a facilitator who will help them master their voice, online or off.

We are pioneers. We bring the experience with us and we are constantly discovering new territories and adopting to them with efficiency and speed. We “Filter, repurpose, remix, feed forward” to use Stephen’s words again. We might be newcomers according to Prensky but we come with the tools we need to filter the old, remix with the new, and give our students the skills they need to participate and not just “surf.”

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