What I Learned at School This Year

The Cloisters; The Metropolitan Museum
The Cloisters; The Metropolitan Museum

Though the term “digital native,” which refers to people born after 1980 who have been exposed to the digital world all their lives, has long been exposed as a myth, the myth still persists as fact, even for those who consider themselves to be digital natives. Here’s what happened to me this semester, when I forgot that the digital native is a mostly mythical being:

Just about any college student can probably teach him or herself how to use a new technology or digital tool faster than, as one student from this semester’s Composition class put it, “my grandmother.” Students are also eager to discover new digital tools. They dive in like the Cookie Monster attacking freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. These claims were recently demonstrated by four students in my American literature class. Though they had little or no programming experience, they made a bold effort to use the Python-based Paper Machines to visualize their Zotero collection of sources on Emily Dickinson.

The visualization itself did not really work out. Their Zotero library was not stocked with enough documents (1,000 minimum) and they encountered some bugs in the program. But the process they went through was very valuable. After a great deal of effort to get the program to run on their laptops, an effort which involved soliciting help from their friends who were computer science students, they got the tool to work a little bit and were introduced to the concept of data visualization. I consider that part of their experience most valuable because it forced them to encounter something new in terms of how they researched and what they did with that research.  They had to ask people outside their discipline for assistance. They discovered that two different tools can “communicate” with each other. And it was a genuinely challenging endeavor that involved technology. They were quite proud of themselves for seeing the project all the way through.

But there is crucial a piece missing in the story about my students, and it is this: In their presentation to the class, the students did not convey a strong understanding of the importance of data visualization to humanities scholarship, or what even their slim results might suggest about the existing connections within their Zotero collection on Dickinson.

I assumed that my students’ digital nativeness meant that they would, with a little effort, plug Paper Machines into their Zotero library and in the process of learning a new tool, strive to investigate on their own why data visualization is important to humanities scholarship. That did not happen, though my students know that self-directed research is an important part of the course. So what I learned is that I can’t assume my students, even the advanced ones, can easily figure out how to use a digital tool effectively. Equally importantly, they need sustained guidance about why they should use those tools and how to draw conclusions from their results. This is true not just for advanced tools, such as Paper Machines, but relatively easy ones, such as Wordle. Just because students can operate a digital tool does not mean they understand why they use it or what it can be used for.

To quote from another student in my Composition class, students need “guidance from our teachers about how to use technology consciously and safely. We need them to help us learn how to use it effectively for academic purposes.” That statement is not just an observation, but it’s a call for help. Teachers should not assume that just because students are digital natives they can therefore can easily teach themselves how to use technology along with best practices.

It also reinforces what I strongly believe, that even though students engage with technology on a regular, if not constant, basis, non-digital native teachers should not avoid learning how to integrate technology into the classroom.  All the non-digital, traditional training many teachers have had, combined with the students’ deep exposure to technology, is a potent combination for using technology in the classroom in productive, versatile ways.

Next semester, I will give my students more guidance about the ways and whys they can integrate technology with traditional approaches to reading and writing.