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The death of the digital native: four provocations from Digifest speaker, Dr Donna Lanclos

In these four provocations, anthropologist Donna Lanclos argues that the notion of the "digital native" is bogus and disempowering, that pandering to student expectations can backfire, universities should be open by default, and our attitude to educational technology needs a rethink.

Provocation one: The death of the digital native

The 'digital native' is a generational metaphor. It's a linguistic metaphor. It's a ridiculous metaphor. It's the notion that there is a particular generation of people who are fundamentally unknowable and incomprehensible.

The original formulation even posited that there is something biologically different about the brains of these so-called digital natives, because of their early and frequent interaction with particular types of technology. It's not true and anybody who connects with students and members of academic staff in any kind of practical way knows that people who engage with technology are not motivated by their age category.

Dangerous assumptions

There are very real dangers in adhering to this sort of generational narrative of disconnection – it's an argument that says we'll never understand them and, furthermore, that we cannot teach them.

There are policy implications: if your university philosophy is grounded in assumptions around digital natives, education and technology, you're presupposing you don't have to teach the students how to use tech for their education. And, furthermore, it will never be possible to teach that faculty how to use that technology, either on their own behalf or for their students.

So you've set up at least two different barriers. You've set up a student barrier and you've also set up a barrier for members of academic staff who are then being fed a line about how they're dinosaurs and will never get it. It cuts both ways and it's disenfranchising across the board.

Visitor and resident

A very different paradigm is 'visitor and resident'1. Instead of talking about these essentialised categories of native and immigrant, we should be talking about modes of behaviour because, in fact, some people do an awful lot of stuff with technology in some parts of their lives and then not so much in other parts.

Each person's choices are embedded in a very particular context and each person is going to have different reasons for that behaviour. And that's going to inform the nature of their practice. That's going to inform the frequency they're in that place. Indeed, it's going to influence whether they think of the internet as a tool or a place.

Give people freedom

The workshops we're developing with Jisc are around helping people to visualise their practices so that if they do want to change, at least they know where they're starting from. It's so much more empowering a metaphor than native/immigrant. It's about what you do and why you do it, not about who you are as a person. It takes some of the value judgements out of descriptions of modes of behaviour.

They are descriptions of a range of possibilities and I like the idea of giving people the freedom to figure out where they fit in that range of possibilities instead of categorising and pigeonholing them and making them feel limited based on some kind of bogus identity category.

Provocation two: Open by default?

How much of your university practice is behind closed doors?   This is traditional, of course, gatekeeping our institutions of higher education, keeping the gates in the walled campuses closed.

The power of open

What if those gates were open? What other sorts of things would we want to be open?

Imagine having at least part of your virtual learning environment (VLE) open, not just for current students (and even current students usually can't see all the teaching that might be useful to them) but for non-students, prospective students, or staff members who want to know what's happening down the road, across the country, in that academic department that interests them.

NetworkED 2020 

Watch Donna at NetworkED 2020: The London University, as she asks 'what if all of London were a networked University?'

There would be so much potential for seeing the different ways in which departments are teaching, for instance. Which departments of biology are doing what in their labs? What theoretical approaches are they taking?

Paywalls and passwords

So much of the pedagogy as well as the content of the university is locked away. That has implications not just for potential students but also from a policy perspective – if part of the problem in higher education policy is of non-university people not understanding the work of the university, being open would have really great potential to mitigate that lack of understanding.

What would happen from a political perspective - the funding of universities, the running of universities – if the people who want to hold universities accountable really knew what they do? And if we lock all our content away behind paywalls and password protection, we're not giving the public an opportunity to see the work of a university either.

Networked, open, transparent

The product of education should be effective citizenship that is enacted out in the open. I would like to see our universities modelling themselves more closely on what we should be looking for in society generally: networked, open, transparent, providing the opportunity for people to create things that they wouldn't create all by themselves.

I understand the rationale for gatekeeping, I just don't think that there's as much potential with a gatekept system as there is with an open one.

Provocation three: Stop being ruled by 'student expectations'!

There are two huge problems with the notion of "student expectations": firstly, the sense that, with the UK's new fee model, students' ideas of what higher education should be now weigh much more heavily in the institutions' educational planning. Secondly, institutions in part think their role is to make their students "employable" because some politician somewhere has said the university is there to get them jobs.

Setting low bars

Students coming into higher education don't know much about what higher education can be. So if we allow student expectations to set the standard for what we should be doing, we create an amazingly low bar.

It's the same as student and academic staff expectations of libraries: these tend to be quite traditional and fairly low level stuff. Do libraries provide content? Are they in a building? These users don't know enough about the potential, so can their expectations stretch practice or reach for innovative things?

Student expectations limit

So, being ruled by student expectations is limiting because they don't know what they don't know, while we who work in higher education do have a certain level of expertise around what's possible. That's not to say we should ignore the needs of students or shouldn't pay attention when they tell us what would be effective for them. But part of our job is to provide a space for our students to stretch and explore things and if all we do is meet their expectations they're not going to do that.

The employability issue

The employability issue is more difficult because I don't think we in higher and further education ever want to be saying we don't care if our students don't get work – that's not true. But the framing of it is all wrong. The point of any educational system is not to provide citizens with jobs. That's the role of the economy.

So, if the economy is failing and people can't find work, it's not the fault of the university; the university shouldn't feel it has to shift fundamentally its reason for existing.

Universities are not vocational

To my mind, the reason we have higher education – and, indeed, any state-funded education system – is to provide space for us to produce engaged and effective citizens who will be prepared for whatever the economy throws at them, by being able to think and connect and be critical. And those things are relevant to employability, in the sense that any smart employer will want employees with those attributes.

Businesses are not saying "I want someone who went through a programme that promised them a job". I think there's a real disconnect between what real employers actually want, the political rhetoric around the role of the university and the university's reaction to political pressure.

I'd like to see universities, and people who work within them, take a stand against being defined as vocational. I don't think that serves anybody.

Provocation four: Educational technology – fit for purpose?

I want to get people to start from the notion that there are educational things that they want to do, or educational processes that they would like to engage with, and then - and only then - talk about the technology.

Educational practice first

This is the opposite of having technology drive practice, of saying to an educator,

"so we have Moodle, this is what you can do in Moodle. You want to have a conversation with your class? This is what it has to look like in Moodle".

That's technology shaping educational practice in a really top down way. I want the educational practice to come first.

Institutions can approach educational technology in two very different ways. They can have a learning technology division that is basically in charge of acquiring and maintaining educational technology. Or they can provide spaces to develop pedagogy and then think about the role of technology within that pedagogy.

I think the 'fit for purpose' debate is evidence of the tension for those who would like to start with the education but are being told by their institutions that they have to work with particular kinds of tools. I think those debates are actually artefacts of going about it the wrong way: a history of institutions handing people tech instead of starting with the pedagogy.

So, what are you trying to do?

So, educators need to figure out what they need to do. Are you trying to have a conversation? Are you simply trying to transmit information? Or are you, in fact, trying to have students create something?

Answer those pedagogical questions first and then - and only then - will you be able to connect people to the kinds of technologies that can do that thing. 

Join Donna at Digifest 2016


This is the second in a series of features from our speakers for this year's Digifest. 

Donna is speaking on day one of Digifest, 9:30-10:45, during our plenary session about the power of digital for change. See full programme.

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The views expressed by contributors to Jisc Inform are theirs alone and not necessarily those of Jisc.  You might not agree with everything that the contributors say but you are guaranteed to read something that will raise questions and spark debate while you're at Digifest - and beyond.