Digital natives

17 Sep 2019


The writer is senior manager of professional development at Oxford University Press, Pakistan.
The writer is senior manager of professional development at Oxford University Press, Pakistan.

MANY parents return from a long day at work expecting to spend some quality time with their children. They do not receive the enthusiastic greeting they wish for. Instead, they see their young ones stuck to various screens, eyes glued in concentration, blocking out their surroundings as they are lost in their digital world.

Parents these days seem worried that the information-overload through digital technology has resulted in their children speaking another language. From ‘OMGs’ to ‘Lols’ on WhatsApp, to Instagram hashtags and Vlogs, the brave new world of technology is a bit tricky for many parents to grapple with. This comes with the threat of loss of control and a natural need to protect children from the pitfalls of cyberbullying and other forms of digital harassment.

The truth is, our children have grown up with the internet and its buffet of possibilities. They are digital natives who never really had to learn to navigate the internet like digital immigrants did. They speak a language dictated by technological intervention. The result is a language barrier where technology begins to intervene in the parent-child relationship, making the generational gap much wider. The experience is quite akin to adults trying to keep up with multiple children running in different directions and the frustration that ensues when we realise they are too fast for us. The solution might not lie in holding them back but rather, understanding where they are headed.

‘Digital natives’ is a term coined by Marl Prensky in 2001, as he recognised that the generation born after the 1980s interacts with technology with a degree of comfort that those born before cannot fathom. The fear and paranoia we face as digital immigrants seems to have escaped them magically. They not only process information differently, they communicate, socialise and create knowledge differently. The options they have ensure that that they no longer have to rely on teachers or parents as their storehouse of knowledge, and with that comes self-directed learning and a defiance towards traditional forms of authority.

Access and the willingness to go digital is not sufficient.

The old cliché, ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ was never more apt than in this digital age. The only hope for bridging the generational divide created by technology is to loosen the reins and let children incorporate digitisation in their pursuit of learning. Many schools have made a concerted effort to include components of e-learning, but sadly, the access and the willingness to go digital is not sufficient unless the teachers have the expertise required to implement strategies for e-learning. Some teachers are simply avoiders, preferring to clutch on to traditional teaching methods, while others may be enthusiastic adopters who lack the skill.

Collaboration among peers may be the key to learning and improving student engagement. Someone once said, ‘the best thing about books is that sometimes they have pictures’. Technology works in a similar way. The best thing about it is that it links up with our real-life experiences, and our willingness to let students use it actively would perhaps enhance student motivation in classrooms and at home.

Interactive games are now available online for almost every subject in the curriculum. Rather than tearing the children away from what they love best, perhaps channelling their use of technology towards learning may be a way of joining them at this game. Children are natural storytellers. One way of joining them at the digital game might be to ask what they have been up to. They might be pleasantly surprised to find that technology is no longer the forbidden fruit in conversations at home, and it would not have the same pull for them once that barrier is crossed.

For digital natives, technology offers a range of possibilities for reflective learning. Children not only love talking about the educational games they play, they can draw a sound understanding of what they know and what they lack. It might be time for parents to cede control in favour of technological learning and use digitisation as a bonding exercise rather than a demon giving rise to agitation, frustration and divisiveness in relationships at home.

The next time your child invites you to play Ludo online, it might be a good idea to join them. For some, it is the only mode of communication with their tech-obsessed children; for others, it may open up a communication gateway that could lead to further interaction and help transition to actual conversation. Whatever comes out of it, a power struggle between the generations is not the answer. A willingness to integrate technology into our lives will perhaps win back the lost conversations.

The writer is senior manager of professional development at Oxford University Press, Pakistan.

Twitter: @nmulji

Published in Dawn, September 17th, 2019