0008: Digital Natives or Digital Zombies? Helping Students Thrive in a Digital Democracy
Communication by Twitter, Facebook, and/or SMS is quickly becoming a primary method of communicating ideas. A lot is being packed into these seemingly miniscule messages. The contents are responsible for huge outcomes, such as tweet by a graduate student covering a government protest in Egypt that read: “ARRESTED”, which helped free him and his translator from the Egyptian jail (Simon, 2008), to the growing problems of cyber-bullying and sexting among teens, and recently, flash mobs arranged through social networking sites and text message. Evidently, words are power, and the power is quickly entering the hands of the people—the young people. Social networking and microblogging sites put users in the roles of consumer, producer, and distributor of information (Jacobs, 2006), thereby eliminating the middleman (i.e. the media, publishers, etc.). By putting the power to create and publish in the hands of the general public, more responsibility and cunning is required of the participants in this digital world. Consumers must be able to rapidly discern useful and non-useful information, as the majority of information, and producers must choose what to write and how to communicate it in as few words as possible. How can teachers prepare students, who are digital natives, to be wise and productive consumers, producers, and distributors of information in this vast informational expanse?
Teachers need to first be knowledgeable about the technologies that their students are using. Ideally, teachers will become users of these technologies, and active participants in digital culture. As culture progresses, so must the educators who function within that culture. Teachers who choose to remain ignorant of digital technology are separating themselves from their students, thereby rendering themselves ineffective (Prensky, 2001). Once the teachers becomes active digitally, can help their students flourish in the digital world. Microblogging sites such as Twitter should be encouraged and utilized by teachers for teaching tools and informational resources. Microblogging, when harnessed as an academic tool, allows for quick communication and transfer of ideas, a public domain for collaboration, the ability to communicate through multiple mediums, as users can post pictures, video, audio, and so forth, to enhance their communication (Holotescu, 2009). Additionally, communication can be informal and far reaching. The ubiquity and the lack of formal norms and regulation with these technologies raise ethical issues and require students to be critical users.
Students must be critical consumers of information. The meaning derived from readings of the written word are not concrete; readers must be the mediator of the reality, or the meaning of the text they consume (Iser, 1978). Teachers must give students the critical tools to analyze and interpret the word which their worlds envelop. Such tools include: the capacity to manipulate one’s environment for the purpose of experimentation and discovery, the ability to interpret and recreate situations occurring in one’s environment, the ability to collaborate with others to develop collective knowledge that is ever transforming and growing, the ability to understand and mimic multiple perspectives, the ability to mediate differences among collaborators, the ability to discern the reliability and credibility of sources, and the ability to network, or locate, create, and disseminate information (Jenkins, 2009). Students with the above media skills will have the ability to function productively in 21st century society, and ideally in a classroom whether it has transformed or not.
Students must be conscious producers of information. Accordingly, they need to have ethics when functioning as producers of information, and ethics must be taught. Users of social media are functioning more or less as journalists, perhaps more appropriately, gonzo journalists, reporting constantly on their worlds. The content posted by users of digital media is seldom monitored and have minimal ethical constraints (Jenkins, 2009). The constraints that do exist can be easily surpassed, as communication is not limited to one medium. The role of mediating the content of these sites falls in the hands of the users, and the users are vast. The culture is participatory and free, so the norms must be created by the users themselves. Teachers and parents are not able to fully regulate this group of digital natives; rather, parents and teachers have the responsibility to bring students into dialogue about the problems that occur or can occur in such settings and help them learn for themselves how to mediate such situations. This proverbial moral compass cannot simply be deposited in an individual; it must, instead be lovingly developed collaboratively through dialogue between teachers, parents, and learners (Freire, 1970). As users learn to name their world a code of ethics will undoubtedly develop as users reflect on their digital world and participatory culture.
Society and its citizenry are becoming increasingly digital and participatory. It is up to educators and educational systems to evolve to fit the needs of the students it serves. Teachers no longer serve as depositors of knowledge and technology; rather, they must help students, through collaboration and dialogue build a set of tools that will enable them to be critical and ethical producers, consumers, and distributors of information and text. The knowledge and meaning are organic and infinite. The consumers of that knowledge must be discerning, shrewd, and participatory. Teachers must ensure that the digital natives in their care do not walk blindly as digital zombies.
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