Thursday, May 8, 2008

Digital Natives of Today are Digital Immigrants of Tomorrow!

This month's question from Learning Circuits is around Learning design differences for Digital Natives.
My basics are clear - good design works for all. The basic principles of learning were the same before the digital divide and they still work now - we learn when we 'do' - when we make mistakes. 'Doing' is important to any learning that has happened in my life and in yours.

With that as the background to share my views, let me first start by saying that I recognize and acknowledge that we have moved tremendously from where we were 10 years ago. I am not sure if our brains have changed or not but we are definitely able to do more as learners. However, I am not so sure if all that change has been caused by 'digital' technology.
From where I come from, India, most learners do not even know this digital age - never heard, seen, or experienced it. However, they seem to learn just fine with it when given an opportunity. The example I have for you is
NIIT's famous 'Hole-in-the-wall' project. In this project of 'minimally invasive' education - a computer kiosk was put in a slum in New Delhi and children (8 -13 yrs old) started to explore it on their own - no teacher, no facilitator, no one. The experiment was successful. Children learned to browse the net, create new documents, use paint, and play games. They did not know what was called what - so the mouse became a 'needle' and the folders became 'cupboards'!

The questions that come to my mind are what was the design of this learning experiment? Did someone think about the design differently because there was a computer and Internet involved? My answer is probably not. The design was simple - let children learn by exploration - by doing - by making mistakes – by themselves - without someone telling them everything about everything. And they did. If it was not a computer and was something else - say a vacuum cleaner or a washing machine - my belief is that children would have learnt using them too! But in the context of digital technology - this project bought another perspective to the 'digital divide' discussion.

Having said all of this - the point is - there was a problem in the way some of us learnt things or were asked to learn them in our schools, colleges, and workplaces. No body said that design was good! It was just being used. If we had exploration, collaboration, group-and social-learning as our backgrounds - we would have learnt too! Try and recall all the good teachers and all the good lectures – I bet all of them would have involved – doing, discussing, and working together but with minimum instruction or support from the teacher. Didn’t we all love our summer projects – making models of things we learnt about on our own? Did we not learn and have fun in the science classes - doing lab experiments mixing chemicals and waiting for an explosion to happen. We learnt still - the properties of all elements - but differently - by doing. I am sure we remember those even now.

How I look at this situation is that the tools today are different - that is what they are - mere tools - nothing more. Let us not divide our learners based on just these tools. Let us remember and be aware that tomorrow, these tools will be outdated. The Digital natives of today will become digital immigrants of tomorrow and this cycle will continue.

Instead of just getting carried away with tools and technologies and designing only around these because they exist - let us leverage them to the fullest but design based on the basic principles of learning. We will never go wrong this way.
The bottom-line is whether we are a digital immigrant or a native - it is important to be open to new methods and tools of learning - be open to learning - everyone has to continuously learn - no matter where we are in this digital continuum.