This summer, I had a rare face to face meeting with some pre-service teachers in the Master of Arts in Teaching program who were taking my online course. They were on-campus for another class, and wanted to meet to talk about the expectations for their final assignment. We met for coffee in the library after they had completed a long day of internship. They were taking Thinking About Technology, a course in which we deeply read a couple of books about Digital Natives/The Internet Generation/Call Them What You Will: I call them people who actually value technology as a part of their day-to-day lives and whose behavior is shaped by the value they place on it.
As we were talking, one of the emerging teachers shared with me that she had often felt out of place in her education classes because she didn’t learn in the way she was being told to teach. She shared that she would rather explore and try things out than read instructions. She’d rather create information and negotiate with others than be lectured to. She shared that as we discussed the Net Generation in class, a light bulb went off in her head – we’re talking about me! There was nothing wrong with her – she realized. She simply values technology as a part of her everyday life, and she is being taught by many who do not.
Now, she says, she simply presents the viewpoint of a Digital Native when she participates in her education classes. She identifies herself as such to her instructors, and she has resources with which she can prove her citizenship. As a result, she has found a new prominent place in the dialogue, and she can identify why she was feeling a disconnect in the first place.
This was the first time a student actually identified themselves to me as a Digital Native/Net Gener/Person for Whom Technology is an Integral Part of their Lives. Most remarkable to me was how out of place this student had felt prior to identifying herself as a member of a plugged in generation. I wondered if the sea change was about to occur – you know – that influx of Net Geners into the University? I wondered if it had already occurred and (because I taught primarily graduate level students) I missed it! Was I a part of the system that was disenfranchising these new learners we’d been preparing for? I decided to try to find out.
The undergraduate technology class was in dire need of a revamp – so I decided to reconstruct it using connectivist pedagogy. I designed a class that emphasized the importance of Learning to Learn and its relevance to 21st Century Skills. I emphasized peer tutoring as students achieved the objectives of the class. Above all, I wanted to use this class to prove to myself that the Net Generation had arrived – that they were plugged in, turned on and ready to use those technologies they valued for learning in addition to using them for Facebook and texting. I strongly suspected that the Net Gen was here and ready to learn in the way they learned best – but that they needed validation and permission to do so.
As I taught the class, I was unsure really whether I had been correct in my hypothesis. I saw interaction and engagement, but I could not really identify whether students were feeling empowered. In Week Six, I conducted a survey – just to try to get a handle on the attitudes of the class. I asked the students whether they thought they were learning in the class, what they enjoyed about the class, and what they would do differently. I expected comments like I have seen in the past – I expected a strong desire for more “teaching” and some feelings of isolation as students complained about working “on their own”. As the survey progressed, I was amazed that I only had one comment which reflected a desire for more teaching. Most students were unabashedly positive about their experience.
Just before the survey ended, a student asked whether I would share the survey results with the class. After a shocked moment (I had never been asked to do this before), I decided that I could share results with them – and that in the name of transparency, I should. In fact, this could be a teachable moment!
I shared responses to the questions I had posed in the form word clouds and graphs, and created a video/prezi to share this information with them. As I went through the results of the survey – which were actually very positive – I emphasized the connectivist nature of the course, the importance of the teacher’s willingness and ability to stay up to date with technology, and my willingness to mentor and to assist but not to dispense information to them. I emphasized to students that I was not withholding information – but that rather, I was preparing them to remain technologically relevant in an age of information abundance.
Students were creating a concept map during this week to share the concepts they had learned in the class. I saw the term ‘connectivism’ appear on several concept maps, linked to 21st Century Learning, Learning to Learn and YouTube and Diigo. I was surprised, because this is not the reaction I think I would have seen from students 10 years ago. Student concept maps suddenly seemed much less prescribed and were living, real and authentic. Many of the journal entries since the presentation have portrayed a “pioneering” spirit – which shouldn’t be surprising since these students are Alaskan! I have seen a pride in ownership of learning which I have been seeking since I began teaching. I am very encouraged and so proud of this group. They have proven to me that the Net Gen has arrived. I didn’t know – how in the world did they sneak up on me like this!
I have great hope that these emerging teachers won’t sit in their schools, staring helplessly at the technology that they have and waiting for someone to “train” them. I hope that they have the skills and the confidence to move forward, identify learning goals and quality sources of information and training, and design their own professional development. I hope that when someone says to them “We need to be trained to learn clickers (or iPads, or holographic technology)!” they will retort, “I’m a member of the Net Generation, and I don’t need to be trained. Here, let me help you figure that out. Have you seen this site?”