The Digital Divide

This post is an exploration and critique of a May, 2008 article entitled “Closing the Digital Divide:7 Things Educators Need to Do” [pdf] by Ian Jukes, The InfoSavvy Group and Tim McCain, Cystar.

This is an interesting article. While it attempts to promote itself as a bridge over the “digital divide” between students today and teachers entrenched in traditional notions of learning and education, instead it seems to instead highlight just how vast the divide is.

As an introduction, the rapid evolution of the student that is described in the article suggests that traditional ideas about childhood education are transforming into concepts generally established as features of adult learning and education. Jukes makes several points about “digital learners” that track features of adult learning theories that track and expand on the theories of Malcolm Knowles, including that “[Digital Learners] want their learning to be relevant and instantly useful” (at 6).

Jukes also discusses the need to be able to “Analyze and Authenticate” data that is found on the internet (at 16). This tracks the Knowles concept of “explaining why the information is important,” and with the perspective Jukes adds to this idea, it is even more of an urgent consideration for online educational resources.  This gets into the idea of building a site that has credibility and authority, and how that can be accomplished. For internet users without this skill, there is a need to build a site to make it clear to the point of obvious about where the collected information is coming from and the authority of these sources.  From the standpoint of the apparent needs of digital learners, there is a skill set associated with navigating the internet that is an important part of the learning process.  The need to teach effective skills for using the Internet is highlighted by this article in general, and the overlap of adult learning theories and ideas about digital learners may provide assistance to the next generation of learners, regardless of their chronological age.

Jukes describes the mindset of the Digital Learner to be “something like “Why should I read something from beginning to end, or follow someone else’s logic, when I can just ‘explore the links’ and create my own?”  What Jukes identifies here seems like the beginning of critical thinking – the motivation to assess relevant information from several sources and then form a conclusion about what it all means and what it can be used for. If this tendency does exist in Digital Learners, that this seems like a strength for attempting to teach critical thinking skills.

I think Jukes is trying to make the notion about ‘why don’t I just ‘explore the links” correspond to his example of how he believes that Digital Learners will ignore a User’s Manual on their new video game and instead spend more time and effort attempting to learn how their game works by employing a variety of digital resources (at 5). Wasting time in the search for knowledge does seem like a tendency that deserves careful attention from educators.

The goal of education in this context is to help students become effective at using the internet to quickly find the relevant information. This seems like a skill that any student would want to develop, and it is an opportunity to break some of the bad habits ingrained by the advertising focus on the internet. Advertisers want people clicking around and wasting their time trying to find information because that gets their product marketed on a broader scale. I see no reason to concede defeat to a marketing ploy and instead would prefer to consider this a challenge to educators. I cannot agree with what seems like an underlying assumption by Jukes that Digital Learners cannot learn to learn differently.

In contrast to the assertion by Jukes that the adults of today “will never have the level of technical skills [that] Digital Kids have” (at 8), it seems important to point out that it is the adults of today who are creating the new internet tools.  For example, Robert Scoble discusses “the social media starfish” and has produced videos where he talks about Internet tools and his definition of the “starfish.” It seems preposterous to engage in a self-defeating idea that there are inherent limits on what an adult can learn in this new environment. That adults will learn these skills differently than “digital natives,” I have no doubt, and I expect it to be related to the traditional forms of learning that adults are used to, as noted by Jukes (at 2). However, I find it difficult to believe that adults are somehow automatically incapable of learning to use these new technologies.

Another point that I found surprising is the assertion by Jukes that “[t]he digital culture provides exactly what kids need most – constant affirmation, lots of attention and the ability to distinguish themselves.” This may be the case for the video games Jukes discusses, but this seems like a disconcerting misunderstanding of the internet in general. When it comes to social media sites, there is an anarchy involved that provides constant insult, lots of negative attention and an extreme difficulty distinguishing oneself.

Social media sites tend to allow voting and commenting, which leads many visitors to make a sport out of being as rude and inflammatory as possible. I think Digital Learners need to understand the features of the digital environment, including the parts that can provide more harassment and negative attention in a day than non-digital environments would provide over a lifetime. Digital Learners have to grow up fast, grow thick skins and understand the general motivation of those that hurl abuse in their direction. There is no way to sanitize the Internet, but in an online school environment, it is possible to instill ‘real world’ values concerning conduct.

Schools in general have the quiet air of authority that sets a tone for the kind of behavior that is expected. In an online environment, it is no different. It does create a clear example for student of a code of conduct that students can then use for comparison as they travel the internet on their own. Then, when they observe conduct that would be unacceptable in an online learning environment, they can immediately recognize it as unacceptable and move on without internalizing it as actual negative feedback or harassment.  This seems like a critical feature in the development of online educational environments.

I find the discussion by Jukes about the rates of American high school drop outs to be ridiculous (at 7).  I think it is a good point overall to note that the digital world creates new opportunities and obstacles in education, but I find it offensive that poverty and historical discrimination are swept away by his presentation of the statistics.  Teachers simply becoming “more in synch” is presented as the solution to what are generational and historic failures of the educational system. The kind of willful blindness involved in how the data is presented here makes me question the credibility and validity of the approach Jukes takes with this issue in general.

However, it is a shocking statistic that only 21% of high school graduates surveyed believe that their courses are interesting, and if Jukes could have not overshot the mark with the drop out statistics I think he would make a much more clear and valuable point: the digital world has a lot of ways it can be interesting and adopting features of this new environment into the school environment should help engage and motivate learning in students who are now accustomed to the digital environment.

The issue with the overall credibility of Jukes comes up again in his admonition that we’ll never have the technical skills of Digital Learners (I’m not convinced) and his ideas about the “25 Week Digital Diet” (at 8) where he suggests learning a new internet tool each week. His suggestions overall feel “out of synch” with  the operation of the digital world.  For example, he is enthusiastically swept up into the advertising shtick of the internet (podcasts, MTV, Craigslist and Ebay) while making no mention of some of the pitfalls involved with advertising-driven sites. He also makes suggestions that for novices don’t make a lot of sense from a security standpoint, including downloading ringtones (would you like an invasive worm with that?) and from the perspective of maintaining professionalism seem overconfident at best. He might as well have suggested that a novice upload a picture of themselves in a pirate costume, tag it “drunken pirate” and watch how quickly they get fired. What seems missing overall from his list is a warning about what becoming Internet-savvy means, and how caution needs to be exercised, especially at the beginning of learning to wander around the internet.

From the risks of identity theft, scams, violations of privacy and spam, to the indelible tracks that can get left on the internet, there is so much more required than just learning how to find information. Staying safe on the internet is a critical skill, and one that seems vital to emphasize when discussing the educational opportunity of the internet.

If I was going to create a list of digital activities for the novice internet user, it would definitely start with “download Spybot” and a focus on security measures to take while online. I agree with the overall point that Jukes makes with a reference to Daniel Pink’s idea that “it’s about moving beyond 20th century literacies like reading, writing and numeracy. In an age of multimedia, hypertext, blogs, wikis and much more, reading is no longer a passive, linear activity that simply deals with text … [a]nd writing is no longer just about being able to communicate effectively with written and spoken text.” (at 12). I think he is right about the need for a “wide range of different skills needed to function within a rapidly changing society.” (at 12).

Jukes asks the reader to think about being a parent and a child’s first steps, as well as the inevitable falling down that is a part of learning to walk (at 17-18). This relates to one of my sharpest critiques of the perspective articulated by Jukes – “falling down” while learning to walk on the Internet involves real risk, including identity theft, trojans and worms, spam and a torrent of potential harassment. He seems to fail to reckon with the volatile nature of the internet and appears to promote it as if it is a safe environment along the lines of a traditional school.

The internet can produce safe spaces that promote the learning of critical skills, but one of the most critical skills is an awareness of how unsafe the rest of the internet can be. From this perspective, the creation of online educational resources takes on a new underlying purpose – by comparison to the internet in general, it is a safe space, which informs an understanding about the validity and authority of internet spaces that lack a “school” code of conduct. I think it will be important to distinguish educational spaces on the internet from areas that focus on entertainment and advertising, and that this distinction will help Digital Learners develop skills to “analyze and authenticate” the information they find.

If there is anything that will help Digital Learners break the “dependency” on teachers and textbooks that Jukes describes (at 17-18), I think that an environment that works to distinguish itself from the way the internet works in general and seeks to build more sophisticated critical thinking skills is at least an important part of that process. Essentially, it seems that an online education resource will need to clearly show why it is different than the internet in general in order to be an effective learning tool.

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