Are the Digital Natives Getting Restless?

Michael Krauss

At this moment, I am winging my way at 30,000 feet and 350 mph to Texas to visit family and friends. Boxed in by the passenger in front of me (he fully reclined just as the plane lifted off the runway), isolated from the couple next to me (they are avidly reading the airline magazine found in their seat pocket), I have a choice, both of which involve using my laptop. I can watch the DVD I brought with me (a movie I have seen before and can live without seeing again) or I can share my thoughts with you about an insightful little article I read in the airport waiting area entitled, "Closing the Gap Between Education and Technology" by Chris Reidel. It is not really a difficult choice to make, so here I sit, kept company by the complimentary pretzels and diet soda on my tiny tray, banging out what I hope will interest you, my fellow teachers.

Reidel, writing for THE Journal, highlighted a talk given by Mark Benno, Apple Curriculum Evangelist, at the FETC 2009 Conference in Orlando, FL. Evidently, Benno began his talk with a surprising statistic: "Nine out of ten students don't wear wristwatches. And the one that does doesn't use it as a timepiece; they (sic) use it to make a fashion statement." Digital immigrant (and devoted wristwatch wearer) that I am, I realize that I almost never use my cell phone to check the time. Until recently, I rarely used the cell for anything other than making and receiving calls or taking an occasional photo. But many of our students "live" on their phones, calling, texting, listening to audio material, creating and viewing images and video, and more. Many of our digital native students also now consume and create digital content in collaborative environments using Web 2.0 tools like blogs, wikis, podcasts, and social networks, and they do this using a variety of devices, including cell phones, mp3 players, personal digital assistants, and computers. It is no wonder that we teachers often feel left behind. The emerging consensus is that if educators are to engage students and help them prepare to be successful in 21st century academic and work settings, then it is necessary to rethink the use of technology tools in the classroom, especially Web 2.0 social networking tools. This holds true not only in general educational contexts, but also specifically for English language teaching.

Benno points out that a fundamental problem that exists for teachers is the time that passes between learning about a new technology and its incorporation into the classroom. He argues that teachers normally pass through five stages on the way to technology integration: entry, adoption, adaptation, appropriation and innovation. And Benno cites research showing that it can take up to seven years to move through these stages. Clearly, with technology advancing at a rapid pace, seven years to technology integration is not workable. So what is the answer to this dilemma? According to Benno, the key is professional development, which can greatly speed the movement from entry to innovation. I certainly would agree with this and would add that teachers need a particular type of professional development, especially when it comes to technology integration. What does this professional development model look like? I believe it must consist of educators working together in learning communities, collaborating by means of the technology tools they will be using with their students, guided by one or more experienced fellow teachers to create, share and critique technology-enhanced materials and lesson plans.

It is against this backdrop that I want to briefly report on the results of the professional development online course, "Exploring Web 2.0: Tools for Classroom Teaching and Professional Development" (hereinafter Exploring Web 2.0). I developed this three-week online course with the support and assistance of the English Language Office in Moscow, headed by David Fay, Regional English Language Officer, and his staff. The course was first offered in Fall, 2008, and is part of the curriculum of Lewis & Clark College, Graduate School of Education and Counseling, Center for Continuing Studies in Portland, Oregon. The objectives of this hands-on course include bringing together educators from around the world, mostly teachers of English as a foreign or second language, to work together, using collaborative Web 2.0 tools, to enhance classroom teaching and to facilitate professional development. The first course offering included English-speaking participants from Russia, Honduras and the U.S. Upcoming sessions will include English-speaking educators from Jordan, Syria, Palestine, Iraq and Russia, as well as U.S. teachers. Participants from other geographical regions is anticipated for future course offerings.

Exploring Web 2.0 incorporates several communicative and collaborative tools. Teachers receive daily emails from the instructor via an email list. The daily assignments and video tutorials for the course are accessed via a simple Web page. However, the bulk of collaboration in the course takes place using Ning, a social networking site with features similar to popular social networks such as My Space and Facebook. Course participants use the Exploring Web 2.0 Ning to create their own profiles and blogs, participate in forum (electronic bulletin board) discussions and synchronous chat, post photos and videos, and individualize their own personal Web page with any number of free Web applications. Links from the Exploring Web 2.0 Ning are available to all class materials, including a Web site with wiki capabilities, created using Google Sites. By using the Exploring Web 2.0 Wiki themselves to participate in collaborative activities, teachers gain hands-on skills and firsthand knowledge of the potential of wikis in educational contexts. Additionally, teachers create podcasts using a user friendly Web site, subscribe to English language teaching Web sites using RSS feeds, learn to manage their feeds with Google Reader, and create their own iGoogle home pages. All assignments are accompanied by text and video-based resources that provide the underlying pedagogical foundation teachers need to successfully integrate the Web tools into the classroom. Participants work in groups, created within the Exploring Web 2.0 Ning, to learn how to collaborate in an online educational environment, an essential digital literacy skill they can share with their students. The course ends with all participants, either individually or in groups, using Web 2.0 tools to create a final project. Teachers can choose between two options: creating a set of lessons or designing a professional development project. Each participant is also required to choose the final project of one of his or her colleagues and to assess it based on criteria provided by the instructor. By the end of the course, a community of practice has been established, laying fertile ground for the growth of effective, 21st century classroom practices.

Benno, in his FETC talk, exhorts teachers to take part in professional development because it motivates us to begin thinking about new ways to use 21st century tools. He relates an interesting story illustrating that certain uses of technology that may be hidden to us, or seem foreign to us, seem perfectly natural and perhaps even common among our students. Benno tells of seeing a college student in an airport with an iPod and a set of white earphones. He asked, "What are you listening to?" And the student replied, "Which ear?" It seems that the student had an iPod in each pocket. She was listening to music on one of them and to a chemistry lecture on the other. "It helps me get in the zone," she explained. This story also makes the point that we teachers can learn much from our students if only we are not afraid to ask, not afraid to invite our students to be partners in the educational endeavor.

For those of us who are teaching the digital natives of today, the message is clear. The digital natives are indeed getting restless. Research findings clearly show that our students want us to make more and better use of technology enhanced teaching techniques in the classroom, and this includes the use of mobile devices. The digital natives have integrated technology into their personal lives, interacting with content and communities on a global scale. If we teachers don't join them, if we don't incorporate these same tools into our teaching, we will miss a unique opportunity to assist our students in meeting the challenges that await all of us in the 21st century.

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Updated 2/18/09