The term digital native was coined and popularized by Marc Prensky in his 2001 article titled Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. In this he posited that the contemporary decline in American education was due to educators’ inability to understand the needs of modern students. Students were labeled digital natives and said to have an insider’s perspective on the web literacies and tools that inundate our society. Adults on the other hand, and more specifically educators, are relegated to the position of immigrants or outsiders in these practices.
It should be noted that Prensky’s original paper was purely theoretical and no empirical data has yet proven his claims. In fact, a growing body of research has steadily cast doubt or entirely disproven the existence of the digital native. Put simply, there is no proof that one is more or less digitally savvy based on their born on date. Prensky has since changed his metaphor of the digital native to instead describe digital wisdom, and yet the belief in the digital native still exists.
In this context, I believe that a 21st century educational system must educate all students in the effective and authentic use of the technologies that permeate society to prepare them for the future. This means that students should have opportunities to not only read, but write the web. This column will identify a continuum of three stages that I believe exist as we help students become the digital natives that they need to be in the future. These stages include moving them from consumers of content, to curators of content, to finally creators of content. Content in this piece is defined as text matter of a document or publication in a form that is digital or online. These stages do not have to operate in a sequence, nor should they be mutually exclusive. Students could and should move across each of these stages depending on purpose in their work.
Consumption of online content
The first stage of this sequence involves students primarily reading online content and materials. This may take the form of students reading blogs, wikis, and social networks for personal and academic pursuits. Students should read across multiple modes of information that includes text, images, video, audio, and other graphical representations. These graphical representations may include charts, graphs, infographics, and maps. The important thing to remember is that students need to be able to synthesize across these varied modes and formats.
The good news is that our students are already reading online. At least the research and anecdotal information suggests that as a society, and students specifically, we are online reading and interacting vociferously. I believe that we need to provide more room for online reading comprehension in classrooms from Pre-K up through higher education. I also believe that we need to require more from our students in terms of applying a critical perspective as they read in these spaces.
One powerful way to build these critical literacies is to have students annotate websites as they read online. This can be achieved by printing out web pages and annotating the hard copies using highlighters. This is also possible through the use of online tools like the open source tool Hypothes.is. For guidance on how to use Hypothes.is please review the following post.
Curation of online content
The second stage of this sequence involves students curating online content as they search and sift through online texts. Curation is defined as pulling together, sifting through, and selecting specific content for presentation to others. This may take the form of students reading and archiving webpages before sharing or commenting on this content. In this process, students are deciding whether these materials are credible and/or relevant to the purpose of their inquiry. This process occurs on two levels as students are gradually learning more about a topic as they read more content; they are also modifying their evaluations of new content as they learn more. Over time, they become more of an expert on the topic and the process involved as they build their own credibility on a subject.
Many educators and students already act as curators of online content as they sift and share links on Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook, & other social networks. Using these platforms and networks, individuals can review the vast amount of information and links that are shared online. They then, as an expert or a more knowledgeable individual, indicate what is the best of the best. This expertise may be in fine leather handbags, exercise routines, or hybrid learning. The links and collections shared are evidence of knowledge, expertise, and credibility.
One possibility for embedding curation of online content in the classroom is through the use of Pinterest or clones of the platform built specifically for educators. Educators may also use tools like Storify to allow students to collect and comment on resources while searching online. In my own process, weekly I curate and comment on all of the links and materials I read during the week through my own newsletter. In the Too Long; Didn’t Read Newsletter, I compile all of this information together and present this expertise on literacy, technology, and education.
Creation of online content
The third stage of this sequence involves having students construct or create digital content. There are many parallels between online content construction and the writing process as students plan, generate, organize, compose, and revise digital work product. This may take the form of students editing a wiki, building a website, or producing a stop-motion video for the class YouTube channel. In this process, students are encoding and decoding meaning by constructing, redesigning, and reinventing texts. Students write, compose, and create through play and expression with digital texts and tools.
A large percentage of students routinely consume online information in their normal work process. A fewer percentage regularly act as a curator in these activities. An even smaller amount regularly create and share digital content produced to act as a reader and writer online. The tools used in this stage are varied as students may choose to write a blog post, capture video for a public service announcement, or edit code for an app. Students also need to be considerate of the purpose and audience for the work they create.
One possibility for embedding content creation in the classroom is to have students film think alouds for their projects. Video think alouds can be created using web cameras on computers, tablets, or mobile devices. These video think alouds can be of the student as they discuss their ideas and work, or the video can focus on the specific project or text they are describing. The video think aloud provides an opportunity to build metacognitive skills that would normally be recorded in a journal or written essay. A powerful tool to use in the collection and sharing of these videos is VoiceThread on a classroom blog.
Becoming digitally native
Despite the transformative possibilities associated with the inclusion of the Internet and other communication technologies (ICTs) in instruction, relatively little is known about the regular use of these technologies in our daily lives. For students in particular, their ability to best to utilize these digital and web literacies in our work is central to our collective future. This means that students need to leave our schools with the skills necessary to not only read, but also write the web. As technologies connect our global marketplace, students need to identify opportunities to empower themselves as true natives of these digital spaces.
As I’ve indicated at the start of this post, this can only happen if educators identify and develop opportunities to build and utilize these new and digital literacies in instruction. There is not only a need to use these texts and tools in instruction, but also have educators display them as well. The stages detailed in this piece are not meant to be viewed as a continuum, or as replacing earlier stages. This is an opportunity to review our own instructional practices, and literacy strategies highlighted in our classrooms. Educators should continue to display that they can work with students to understand and prepare them for these digital spaces and beyond.
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This post is an extended version of a column recently published in Literacy Today.
Also published on Medium.