A look at the technology culture divide

By Randall Hoyer
March 31st, 2010

Today's students live in a technology-rich world.

Today's students live in a technology-rich world.

The arrival and rapid dissemination of digital technology in the last decades of the 20th century fundamentally changed our students.  Today’s students represent the first generation to grow up with this new technology.  These adolescents have spent their entire lives surrounded by and using computers, video games, digital music players, video cameras, text messaging, and cell phones.

Today’s students use technology such as Instant Messenger, Facebook, Flickr, and Skype to be constantly connected to friends, family, information and entertainment.  As a result, 21st century students think and process information differently. While educators may see students every day, they do not necessarily understand their students’ habits, expectations, or learning preferences–this has resulted in a technology cultural divide.

The technology cultural divide

The Net Generation has arrived.   Don Tapscott in 1998 found that this new demographic group of digital mastery created a social transformation.  The Net Generation is a demographic wave of youth that is the heart of the new digital media culture.  The Net Generation learns, works, plays, communicates, shops, and creates communities very differently than their parents.

Today’s schools are taught and managed by individuals who did not grow up with technology–Digital Immigrants.  Many educators today still teach with the premise of being all-knowing.  Technology-illiterate educators may teach under the premise of, “Come into my classroom, sit in rows, remain quiet, listen to me, and I will pour all the knowledge I have into your brain.”

Students are very comfortable with technology and generally become frustrated when policy, rules, and restrictions prevent them from using technology.  Students become frustrated when administrative restrictions, older equipment, and filtering software inhibits them from in-school technology use.

Traditional schools, generally staffed primarily with Digital Immigrants, often provide very little technology interaction compared to the digital world in which students are actually living.  Digital Natives can pay attention in class, but they choose not to pay attention, because in reality, they are bored with instructional methods that Digital Immigrants use.

Digital Immigrants are often confused, and sometimes upset, by the strange worlds in which children are spending large chunks of time. Educators need to think more deeply about the growing gap between the lives that children and youth lead outside school and the ones that are available to them within its walls. When educators do this, they will have to acknowledge the simple fact that technology has been in schools for more than 20 years, even though they persistently think of it as new.

Today’s Digital Native students have developed new attitudes and aptitudes as a result of their technology environment.  Although these characteristics provide great advantages in areas such as the students’ abilities to use information technology and to work collaboratively, they have created an imbalance between students’ learning environment expectations and Digital Immigrants’ teaching strategies and policies, which students find in schools today.

Solving the technology cultural divide

Some researchers believe that if our schools are going to prepare Digital Native kids for the future, Digital Immigrant educators need to update the curriculum.  For students to be successful in a technology-oriented global economy, educators must recalibrate their focus.  Educators must reframe what they teach so that students understand the significance of what they learn.  When educators make these changes to the curriculum, both students and teachers are invigorated by adding rigor and relevance to the old reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Today, educators must revisit established policies that prohibit students from using technology within the confines of the school building.  Educators must relinquish the idea of being all-knowing and replace that concept with an attitude of being a facilitator, knowing that the world of information is just a “click” away.  Teacher training programs in the area of technology will be paramount in the success of the Digital Native.

Educators today must address the technology cultural divide created by educators who are Digital Immigrants and students who are Digital Natives.  Twenty-first century educators must begin to answer these questions: Do the educational resources provided fit the needs and preferences of today’s learners?  Will linear content give way to simulations, games, and collaboration?  Do students’ desires for group learning and activities imply rethinking the configuration and use of space in classrooms and libraries?  What is the material basis of digital literacy? What is different in a digital age?  What are kids doing already and what could they be doing better, and more responsibly, if we learned how to teach them differently?

Addressing these questions will contribute toward bridging the gap of the technology cultural divide and result in schools where all students have greater potential to achieve academically.

Randall Hoyer is the superintendent of the Lampasas Independent School District in Lampasas, Texas.