by Terry Heick
The usual term is a digital native–students born into our digital, connected, and uber-social world who have always had Wikipedia to ask questions, and Google to bail them out.
There is nuance to this phenomenon that can distract a bit from the big picture. As with so many complex issues, it is tempting to over-generalize things—claims that 21st century students need to be taught with 21st century tools, or raging against the machine and forcing students to use books.
Both extremes miss the point that while neurological functions may not change, how students access, use, share, and store information is. This makes 21st century thinking simply different whether we acknowledge it or not.
There is no solution. There is no single way to respond to a changing world—no correct path that we all can take to make digital rainbows jump out of the monitor and color the room in brilliant, perfect spectacle. But we can slow down for a moment, look at some trends, and respond with some good old-fashioned diversity.
The most immediate and relevant trends is that students use Google quite a bit. In fact, we all do, to the tune of over 5,000,000 searches every single day (if my own Googling skills haven’t failed me). That number’s almost impossible to fathom or appreciate. Did we all pour into public libraries by the billions when we were young? Or did we just not ask so many questions?
Borrowing for a moment from basic business principles, if supply-demand ratio contributes to value, in an increasingly broadband, social, and digitized world, information itself is in danger of losing apparent value, yes?
Put another way, the easier something is to access, the less it is valued. It still may be useful, but the process of seeking information—one so full of learning potential in and of itself—is replaced by smarter keyword searches, and improvement by Google of their own search engine algorithm.
None of this is bad in and of itself, but in the long-run it provides students with the convenient and troubling misconception that searching for information is a waste of time that needs to be circumvented by “smarter searching.”
And worse, it creates an illusion where the packaging and popularity of information determines its relative value, rather than its credibility, insightfulness, or relevance. This is not to say that students should spend hours lost in dusty old libraries pouring over out-of-date information because by golly that’s what we had to do. But it does suggest the possible need to re-impress upon digital natives the importance of thinking in absence of endless—and endlessly accessible–data sources.
(So help me if I see one more student type full-on and open-ended questions into Google, I’m going to pull a Henry David Thoreau and go sit in the woods and chew on tree bark for the next five years.) So then, 10 strategies for you and your classroom to help students think before they search, more naturally contextualize information, improve how they use information once they’ve found it, and ultimately better appreciate the value of information.
Or that’s the idea anyway. They’ll probably Google a way out of it.
10 Strategies To Encourage Digital Natives To Value Information
- It sounds counter-intuitive, but periodically create information-scarce circumstances that force students to function without it.
- Illuminate—or have them illuminate—the research process itself.
- Do entire projects where the point is not the information, but its utility.
- Use think-alouds to model the thinking process during research.
- Create single-source research assignments where students have to do more with less.
- Change the assignment mid-course by demanding new resources other than those most accessible.
- Create the need for “open-ended data” they can’t possibly Google.
- Have them create a visual metaphor, analogy, or concept map before and after the research process that demonstrates the role that Google, and Google-sourced information, played.
- Have students create a concept-map or other clever characterization for the limits of Google (or any other search engine).
- Use a balance of both post primary and secondary sources.
Image attribution flickr user tulanepublicrelations and khamtran; Teaching Google Natives To Value Information