Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants: Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age

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THE PREVIOUS INSTALLMENT OF "Mindful Voice," "Creativity in Crisis?," concluded with a look at some of the cognitive effects of digital technology, and what that technology's overuse may be wreaking upon human creativity. As I noted in that column,

. . . creativity . . . does need mental space. And space implies time. The experts are still debating whether or not digital technology destroys concentration, but no one who uses it can dispute the fact that it gobbles up big chunks of our time.1

According to technology reporter Matt Richtel, in one recent year (2008), the average person consumed three times as much information each day as he/she did in 1960.2 This is almost entirely due to the limitless amount of information that is now so easily available via the Internet on personal computers and Smartphones. The question is, what is this information overload doing to our brains? That is exactly the question that author Nicholas Carr set out to investigate in his book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains. Implicit in Carr's title is one of his central conclusions: when information exceeds the brain's "cognitive load" (the limit of our short-term memory), we lose our ability to think deeply and draw connections between new information and things we already know. Instead of diving deep, we "zip along the surface like guy[s] on Jet Ski[s]."3 In other words, the way we read on the web has not just changed the way we read; it has changed the way we think.

"The technology is rewiring our brains," said Nora Volker, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse and one of the world's leading brain scientists. She and other researchers compare the lure of digital stimulation less to that of drugs and alcohol than to food and sex, which are essential but counterproductive in excess.4

This and future installments of "Mindful Voice" are a closer examination of cognitive function in the Digital Age, both for so-called "Digital Natives" (those who were born into the Digital Age) and "Digital Immigrants" (those who have migrated to the Digital Age).

If you are neither native nor immigrant, life without digital media is still a viable choice, though probably not for long; as we shall see, there is growing concern among experts that technology has the potential to be addictive, and the new wave of self-help books on the market advise "unplugging" as the first line of defense. However, to choose this path is to miss out on the wonders of digital media, which has the potential to enrich as well as entrap. Teachers who maintain a personal aversion to technology should not take a pass on this subject due to their personal views. This column is predicated upon the maxim that a shift in emphasis must occur in light of the Cognitive Revolution, from how well teachers teach, to how well students learn; therefore, understanding the cognitive implications of technology is essential for teaching the new tribe of digital natives. And when it comes to the Digital Revolution, all perspectives are needed because we are, in the words of Sherry Turkle, psychologist and director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Initiative on Technology and Self, still in "the early days."

Because we grew up with the Net, we assume that the Net is grown up. We tend to see what we have now as the technology in its maturity. This is a dangerous habit of thought. We need to remember that we are in very early days.5

DIGITAL HEAVEN: TAKING THE MEASURE

The previous two decades have ushered in an onslaught of new technology, and when compared with other significant innovations that deeply changed human culture (the printing press, the clock, the microscope, the automobile), the magnitude of the effect of the digital revolution is unprecedented in human history. On the upside, human endeavors as disparate as medicine, marketing, and music all have been enhanced by the ability of their practitioners to harness the riches of digital media. …