I greatly enjoyed your latest piece on our group blog, The Disturbing Facts about Digital Natives. I agree with much of what you write, but there are a few points that I am worried about.
One is the fatalistic view of how ‘Digital Natives’ grow up. Another one is your apparent conviction that hyperlinked reading produces superficial knowledge. And finally, I have a problem with the idea that adolescent brains change as a result of prolonged internet use as an explanation of their lower academic achievement.
I totally agree with you that the Digital Natives idea is an unfounded myth. Looking back at nearly 40 years of teaching secondary school and university students, I do not see any significant differences between teenagers in the 1970s, the pre-Digital Age generation, and the present ‘Digital Natives’. They have the same dreams, passions and interests and that wil, not likely change in the near future. Yes, the world has changed dramatically in these 40 years. And, yes, they have access to infinitely more information than we had even two decades ago. But I doubt that this has had such a strong impact on their minds as you suggest.
In some respects present day teenagers are quite dexterous with their digital appendages. I am sometimes really impressed by the speed at which children develop digital literacy, e.g. when they want to find out where to buy things at the lowest price. Yet, their skills are often lacking when they need to critically review information on the internet. But this is hardly a new problem. It has always been hard for young people to distinguish between reliable sources of information and unreliable ones, whether digital or analog.
And this is precisely the task of education: teaching young people what to believe and how they can independently judge what is true (or, at least likely) and what is nonsense. No fancy 21st century skill, just good old critical thinking and skepticism.
So, while I agree that the image of “the technologically sophisticated digital native and the skilful, social, knowledge constructing Homo zappiëns” is misleading, I do not follow your idea that hyperlinked information processing is necessarily shallow.
On the contrary, I find jumping from one link to the next inspiring and exciting. I cannot tell you how lucky I feel to have so much information available within minutes, even seconds. When I am writing a blog, a paper or a book, I have many tabs open in my browser and on different devices. I copy information from one application and store it in another one. I find that I read and write many times faster than I used to do. And this way, I have learned more in the last couple of years about education, cognitive psychology, philosophy and many other things that interest me, than I would have 20 years ago with only books and paper copies of articles. Of course, it takes many years to acquire these skills. But there is no reason why we cannot teach them in our schools.
So, the problem is not the shallowness of hyperlink information processing, it is managing all the available information. That starts with questions such as: “What am I looking for?” “Where do I find it?” “Where do I find the really good stuff?” “Where do I put the information so I can find it when I need it?” “How do I know I can trust the information?” and “How do I properly reference it?” Age old questions, but all the more urgent now we have terabytes of data only a mouseclick away.
Even if it were true (which I do not think) that the young reader in the internet age “constantly shifts her/his attention, examines the text only superficially, thinks less about what (s)he reads, and retains the information more poorly than if the information is deeply processed”. Again, this is nothing new. And, instead of feeling sorry for our overworked teenagers, I suggest we educators accept the challenge and teach them close reading and deep thinking skills.
I am a bit surprised that you cite this Canadian study to support your thesis that “the result of this digital immersion is that how these children think and process information makes it difficult for them to excel academically.” If children’s brain structure would deteriorate so quickly in response to the stimulus from social networking sites, then brain training would have a positive effect. But you, Pedro and Casper convincingly busted this neuromyth in your book ‘Urban Myths about Learning and Education’.
An, admittedly, non-peer reviewed piece contains several interesting interviews with neuroscientists who are less convinced of this idea that young people’s brains change as a result of internet use, at least to the extent that it may influence their learning capacities.
As one of the interviewd scientists says:
“There is no question that digital natives will have their brains wired differently in response to specific types of media exposure than others not so exposed, but that is also true if this generation never saw a computer, spoke French instead of English, or spoke English but one person learned tennis and the other learned pinball. The brain is in the business of reacting to its environment by continuously rewiring itself in response to external experience.”
And another one states:
“There is absolutely no scientific basis for claiming that young people’s brains have changed in recent times or that there is such a major difference between the brain at different ages. There isn’t a shred of scientific evidence to back up these claims. This is totally unfounded. All of this is really a form of ‘just so’ stories. People say something that they feel speaks to their beliefs and others listen and believe it too, but it has no basis in fact. Brains change but not in the way implied by those statements.”
The lesson I take away from all this is that we, educators, need to help our students to critically process the information they find in whatever source, books, newspapers, radio, tv, the internet, their schoolbooks and even what they hear from us, their teachers.
So, indeed, Digital Native myth busted, but no need to panic about structural changes in children’s brains due to the internet. That will take a few generations, anyhow, and by that time the world will be entirely different.