Digital Native vs Lazy & Dull

Dawn doesn’t always come at the same time in Paragraph City. In fact, there are some corners where it hasn’t dawned in years; the television is on in most of those corners. However, it dawned recently in a third floor apartment of a brownstone on Duh Ave. over in the Tech/Learning district of Paragraph City.


This particular dawn began in Ira Socol’s fine SpeEdChange blog when he recommended the Becta report, Emerging Technologies for Learning . The Diana G. Oblinger (CEO of Educause) article “Growing up with Google: What it means to education” pulled a number of observations and confusions together for me, like tightening some loosened mental drawstring.


Observing Myself: When I teach research writing (as an example – this experience repeats in many other topics), I lecture a little, I demo a lot, I break the task down into its components, I give exercises designed to let students encounter the sort of problems they will really encounter  — like judging the credibility of a website —  and we talk a lot about what we would do & how we would troubleshoot a problem, and so forth. It’s not brilliant and it’s a lot like being in school and it’s not especially fun, but it is solid workmanlike learning and I keep students “engaged”. It would work for me.


One Confusion: More and more as the years go by, this process doesn’t work with my students. My students behave as if they were lazy or bored or dull, because they understand a process for a moment but then are not making the leap into applying the research writing process in their own writing. Students who have gotten good grades in writing courses before do fine, but the things that other students don’t get, they should be getting. I’m not talking about applying them to produce polished prose; I mean the basic “getting it”.


In Oblinger’s articles she writes three things that I have known before, but her clarity and connections brought them home as if they were fresh out of the oven:

Thing #1: “[Today’s students] prefer to learn by doing rather than telling or reading. ‘Don’t just tell us – let us discover.’ To illustrate, one student describe how she learned about video. ‘Well…I opened up the camera box, started messing around, and then figured out how to upload it.  Took a while. Had to Google it a few times to figure out how to splice stuff together. Just took an hour or so.’ They teach themselves how to use technology – or learn it from their peers.”


So maybe my research writing students are lazy and dull, or maybe they need to learn by doing, with lots of messy mistakes and false starts and IMing each other.


Another Confusion: Why do my online students email me around mid-semester with questions about what my revision policy is or how much the quizzes count? It’s obviously in the syllabus, which they read at the start of the semester and which is still there back in the first course documents. If I were the student, I’d just go look it up.


Oblinger Thing #2: “Many students describe education as a business where efficient, convenient, technology-mediated transactions are expected.”  In other words, students expect information to come to them, the Google model. Good grief, I think, students are using me to Google the course! (There are lesser things I could aspire to than being Google, but it’s really not what I set out to be.) Or are they just being lazy and dull?


A Last (for now) Confusion: So if this is the Wired, Digital Native, Google Generation, why are so many of my students so poor at finding things online?  Why do they settle for weak, unreliable sources and base their writing on information which is biased, incomplete and often just wrong?


Oblinger Thing #3:  “Nor does comfort with technology equate to a full appreciation of issues…. When asked, most students confess, ‘Sometimes we just don’t think about what we’re doing online.’” And “It’s easy to assume that learners – with their tech-savvy attitudes and world wise veneer – have greater maturity than their years….the tendency of young people to not be reflective – to pause, think, and ponder – may simply be a characteristic of youth.”


My Personal Revelation: Certainly some of my students are lazy and dull (just as some are, to give equal billing, crackly with intellectual voltage and laser focused), but to these tired eyes, the lazy and dull do not look much different from normal students who stand firmly in a new paradigm:

Information comes when I beckon it; I use it in my own sloppy, sling-about style, making lots of errors as I muddle through with the help of friends & strangers (of whom the professor is one), learning along the way, as I need it.

And that this is not laziness. It’s not particularly efficient and bursts the factory model of education, but haven’t we recognized since the days of John Dewey that “learning by doing” is what integrates the thing learned into the life lived?  I can teach in this paradigm, I think, but it will take some doing.



13 Responses to Digital Native vs Lazy & Dull

  1. Ira Socol says:

    Thank you for this. It is wonderful when a “book” passed along connects with a reader. And I appreciate this remarkable response. One of the things I say “all the time” is that most students I meet are really poor users of technology – they do not know how to search, they rarely know how to evaluate, they rarely know how to organize their acquired knowledge. But then I realize: we don’t teach that stuff either? When schools – starting with primary schools – keep technology out of the classroom or out of students’ hands, the system abdicates the right to complain, because we have chosen not to get involved in the development of native cognition (or native etiquette either, because by not allowing computers and phones we choose not to teach appropriate use).

    The changes Oblinger describes are cognitive differences. Consider, if you had grown up in a world with books but were taught only by Greek philosophers who depended entirely on memory. Your knowledge access skills and those of your faculty would conflict in ways that might make the entire school structure seem useless. Now imagine that three students in that class have grown up in “memory families.” Those students will likely be doing much better in school… but how will that be truly valuable.

    This is the situation which seems to exist in schools today. It is a very challenging moment.

  2. Michael says:

    The way to learn to write is by reading the work of good writers, and by writing, writing, re-writing, and writing some more. There aren’t any damn shortcuts, no matter how fast “information” is supposed to arrive in your inbox.

    BTW, yes, the ones who don’t read the syllabus are lazy, new paradigm or not.

  3. Ira Socol says:

    Michael represents my problem. There is only one way, and it is “his” way. He is unwilling to imagine anything else, and he is perhaps happy that less than 30% of American students succeed. That fact keeps his status high.

    The way to learn to write, is indeed, “by reading the work of good writers, and by writing, writing, re-writing, and writing some more.” That statement does not include following Michael’s rules for Michael’s sake. It should involve discovering the best ways to motivate the widest variety of studens to, “read the work of good writers, and to write, write, re-write, and write some more.”

  4. I hope I am not tossing the notion of a paradigm around carelessly; that’s certainly possible but I’ll need retrospect to tell me. At any rate, the essence of a new paradigm is that it’s nearly impossible to view from another paradigm, and I’m still mostly in an old paradigm.
    Not only have I said exactly the same things that Michael says in his post; I still believe that writing is best taught — perhaps only taught — by reading and writing, the more the better. The “shortcuts” technology may offer strike me as taking longer to reach the goal than established methods of learning to write (longer but perhaps not easier, if the tech has become an integral piece of how one learns).
    And it seems to me that John Dewey’s “learn by doing” has for decades been best illustrated by the better college writing courses. I’m thinking that because of this, should there actually be a new paradigm (based upon education coming to the user rather than the user coming to education)writing instructors may be positioned well to recognize the value of such shifts.
    Michael & Ira — thank you for stirring up this topic. I am still sorting out what I think this means for the college writing classroom, and your remarks are helpful.

  5. Michael says:

    Ira, I suggest that you re-read what I wrote, and then try to understand that nothing I wrote supports what you said about me.

  6. Ira Socol says:

    Michael (and PC),

    I may have misread Michael’s statements, but “There aren’t any damn shortcuts, no matter how fast “information” is supposed to arrive in your inbox” and declaring students lazy struck me as “code.”

    Here’s the thing. The issue is not short cuts. It is, after all, American schools which teach students that speed, short cuts, and efficiency matter more than true learning, they do not come to that attitude naturally. The idea is cognitive style, and the technology now available in the classroom, in my opinion, allows a return to natural cognitive forms, and away from the stilted, artificial, linear – short cut – learning which we all know.

    That one learns through repetition is obvious, but how to repeat? And how to offer instruction? Does one offer that instruction as a set of explanations given ahead of all activities (the first day syllabus is representative of this idea), or does one coach along the way, providing just-in-time scaffolds and individualized supports. I could use the sports coaching metaphor, of course, do I explain things once, or do I continue to supply information as needed throughout practices, throughout games.

    Students are using these technologies to leap back to this more natural learning form. And finally they are willing to say it. In the past students did look at those syllabi and promptly forgot all about them. Now, at least, they tell you this and ask. Students used to struggle with few just-in-time supports once out of primary school, now good teachers can show them how to find their own.

    As an aside – yes, I suppose there are lazy students, just as there are lazy faculty. I guess I see no difference in percentages, but what I hate is the tendency to criticize students first rather than questioning the system. It is that “the failure is the student’s inability to conform” mindset which blocks any true educational change. Why should institutions or teachers change if, of course, it is lazy students which are the problem.

  7. Michael says:

    Ira, I don’t play games and I don’t speak in code. You are doing what you accuse others of doing: criticizing that which you don’t understand, rather than looking at your own lack of understanding.

    Here’s what I think: learning styles may exist (although the studies that show that they do are generally specious), but they’re largely useless in determining how to teach specific material well. You teach according to the material, not according to theoretical learning styles. That does not mean that you should lecture without pause when teaching, say, history, but should ask questions, use maps, cartoons, illustrations, data, and so on (and since computer technology can make such aids more vivid, use it). For teaching writing, most such aids obscure the point. Again, there are no shortcuts or tricks to learning to write.

  8. Ira Socol says:

    Sorry Michael, I have crossed enough cultures and worked with enough kids (and adults) to “know” that you are wrong. Teaching, if it is teaching as opposed to simply delivering, is the act of meeting each learner where they are and helping them along the path that is appropriate for them. This is true in every subject. There is no “right” way to bring content to every learner, nor is there even a “most efficient way” to bring content to every learner.

    And, on writing, I have my own research to suggest that you are completely wrong – just presented it this spring at CSUN 2008. That, in the single issue we were looking at the use of technology made dramatic differences in student writing. There are plenty of other studies (including others done by faculty at MSU) which “prove” the same thing with other technologies.

    I am criticizing not that which I do not understand, but what appears to be an uninformed attitude which suggests a belief that “those old ways” were somehow effective for all students. And it is that which I can find no evidence of.

  9. Michael says:

    Ira, you create totalizing narratives in which you are the hero and everyone who disagrees with you, even slightly, is the villain. You criticize Margaret Soltan, for example, who is a real scholar and teacher, and never seem to understand anything she writes. I feel sorry for you.

  10. Ira Socol says:

    I do not challenge that Dr. Soltan is a great teacher. I have never suggested otherwise. I do think her attitudes towards technology limit the possible group of people that she can teach, and I think that is a shame. I think it is worse that she her opposition to technology is always hidden behind the words and comments of others, and I think that is unfair to “ride that horse” as consistently as she does while refusing to engage the question of equity.

    I am not a hero. I’m a practitioner and a researcher who has dedicated the last decade plus of my life to making university educations possible for students who, under old systems, would have had no chance for that. The heroes are the students themselves who struggle with campus attitudes and fight for their right to learn in ways effective for them. And the heroes are the people, from Jim Fruchterman to Ray Kurzweil to Charles L. Chen who invent the systems I investigate. And people such as Lynn Anderson-Inman and James Gee and E.A. Draffan who have led the way in research on ubiquitous devices to do similar things. I translate down to application, and I hope, slowly, to add to the literature, and I try to build awareness and show prejudice for what it is, but my contribution is a very small thing.

    And yes, they are heroes. They have made massive differences in the lives of an awful lot of students – and thus made real differences in their schools and communities. And I make no apologies for believing that education must change if it is to become education for all.

    (to again comment on Dr. Soltan – I appreciate much of what she writes. I think she sometimes scolds too much, but then, so do I. I imagine that I might tussle with her over literary criticism, but that’s playing in her ballpark. And, obviously, I have fought with her re: technology and equity – which, perhaps, I consider my home turf)

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  12. CCPhysicist says:

    I can see why Michael is upset. Either Ira is not reading the sentence “yes, the ones who don’t read the syllabus are lazy” with comprehension or is deliberately changing its meaning to “declaring students lazy” to win a debate by changing what was said.

    Michael did not “declare” that students are lazy. He concluded that students who did not read the syllabus at all were lazy. Ira, unwilling to say he was wrong and admit what is obvious to most instructors, finally says “yes, I suppose there are lazy students”.

    You suppose? Get in a classroom. How about a kid who lives at home, does not have (or need) a job, but can’t stay awake in an afternoon class on the few times he manages to get there on time, and does not do any homework? A student who got a B the previous semester when he did manage to get out of bed before noon every day and do the homework?

    Feel free to slam the instructor, but everyone else in the class would laugh in your face if you did. They all assume he chose World of Warcraft over College, and that his parents paid for both.

  13. The_Myth says:

    Ira Socol’s a student apologist. All instructors who criticize students [even tangentially] get skewered in his mind as hateful and incompetent.

    He posts widely and profusely in such a vein, so take his words with that context in mind.

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