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Technology and collaboration: can DN manage their own learning activities?

To enter in brazilian universities, students must go through the admission process known as Vestibular. This admission process is composed by exams (usually two) with levels of difficulty and dispute compatible to the quality of the University. In Brazil, public universities such as University of São Paulo and private institutions such as Pontifícia Universidade Católica are examples of important qualified universities in the country. To be part of these universities (specially those which are not payed), many of students enroll in specialized prep-courses known as Cursinhos or in expensive schools that more than educate (or instead of), will train them to perform better in these exams.
This process of admissions can be very much questioned both because it leads schools to teach how to be successful in the Vestibular instead of enrolling in an educative enterprise and also because it creates an unfair competition between those who study in expensive and well prepared schools versus those who have no other choice but to go to weak schools. Although that seems to be a cornerstone in brazilian education, it does not seem that many things are going to change right now.
Yesterday, the Estado de São Paulo newspaper published an article about how students are using the Internet to create collaborative activities in order to get better prepared for the Vestibular. According to the article, brazilian students are themselves using tools such as instant messaging, e-mail, and Orkut (the Google Networking Tool that is most popular here, such as Facebook in North America) to create clusters of students who intend to reach a common goal and be better prepared for the exam. In these clusters, the students usually discuss previous exams, exercises they could not solve and debate polemic topics.
My point here is to call attention to how technology is actually empowering these students to find their own paths, their own way to practice whatever they are learning in their own ways. Yochai Benkler, in The Wealth of Networks, states that “as collaboration among […] individuals becomes more common, the idea of doing things that require cooperation with others becomes much more attainable […]”. I believe this article exemplifies how the possibility of cooperating actually enhances learning experiences for students who engage in such type of activity. From this perspective, I might say that these students are actually managing to use the ubiquotous computing in a positive way, instead of having it only as a distracter. On the other hand, I received a comment to my last post, in which a colleague reffered to the fact that these digital natives seem to be, actually, consuming all these tools instead of producing something meaningful, they would be just absorbing information.

All these ideas point me to some questions (and I would love to see some of your thoughts about it):
– Till what extent are we supposed to let digital natives themselves and only handle technology, without any instruction?
– In educational activities, are we supposed to instruct Digital Natives explaining how they should use this or that tool, or should we just provide the tools and let the students themselves figure out how it works best for them?
– What is this movement we can already observe in which the digital natives do not seem to care much about retaining information, once everything can be reached online? What happens with the teacher who now needs to deal with the “teacher as a facilitator” idea?

The mentioned article is an example of how brazilian digital natives have found a path to deal with an specific necessity of them whithin a certain context. Do you see anything like this in your context?

– André Valle

Bring in the Reinforcements: A Conversation in Action

Here at Digital Natives, our wiki and Twitter and YouTube channel and Facebook are our tools. But they are laboratories, too. We use them because they are useful, but also because we want to understand them; because when someone uses the tools in imaginative ways, we want to be there to hear about it.

This week, we had the enormous pleasure of seeing an experiment in one of these laboratories go dramatically right. Andy Oram, editor at O’Reilly, posted a preliminary review of Born Digital to the Digital Natives wiki for comment. After John Palfrey announced this spontaneous forum on Monday, many people jumped into the conversation. In brackets and italics, they etched the discussion into the text of the draft. All of this discussion culminated with Andy posting his review to the O’Reilly news site—a document reflecting not only an opinion, but the embedded nuances of a conversation in action.

We were elated to see Andy using these tools so imaginatively, and excited to have such an in-depth conversation about the marketing, message, and conclusions of Born Digital. While the full wiki conversation is worth reading, I wanted to take a moment to respond to one of Andy’s major points.

Andy kicks off his review with this analysis:

Born Digital postulates a watershed between those born on or before 1980 and those born after. Although the book is advertised as a guide to the latter for those born earlier, I suspect that the marketing became unmoored from the authorship. That’s because the book’s arguments culminate in the message that its lessons need to be learned by “digital natives” most of all, and that they are the ones best positioned to alleviate the social dislocations caused by digital media and the Internet.

He goes on to write about the seeming irreconcilability of this situation: Digital Natives are the ones who need this information most. But they are also—by definition—the ones least likely to even read a paper book, let alone buy one. The question then becomes: if Digital Natives don’t learn this information from a book, where and how will they learn it?

The answer, I think, is deeply tied to the ultimate goal of Born Digital: to facilitate better conversations between teachers and students, parents and children, by seeding those conversations with good information and provocative ideas. Conversations, as the internet has irreversibly proven, are inherently memetic; information travels, mutates, and impacts people along the way. And we’re much more likely to listen to someone we respect and care about than someone we’ve never met.

As pre-teens and teenagers, Digital Natives are acutely socially aware. They put great stock in the opinions of their friends. For parents and educators, this priority schematic can often feel like a brick wall stationed resolutely between their voices and the student’s ears. But the fact remains that, in the grander scheme of things, parents and educators are still easier to respect and care about than disembodied professorial voices—or even a sheaf of dead trees, covered with unchanging words.

It is true that Digital Natives form their own first line of defense. But that defense can be made much stronger by informational reinforcements. Fortunately, those are exactly the tools that parents and educators are best equipped to give their charges. These reinforcements, though, can never be transmitted and utilized if parents and educators don’t have them in their arsenals in the first place. By educating themselves, they can transform their fear of the unknown into a set of questions and a catalog of anecdotes; a lens through which to view their Digital Natives’ activities, and the knowledge to have intelligent conversations about the digital worlds they live in.

The measure of Born Digital’s success will lie not in unit sales, but in conversations started. The entire team here was honored, this week, to participate in the conversation Andy started. We look forward to many more, here on the internet; and hope that even more take place offline, between Digital Natives and the adults who care about them.