Digital Learners Can’t Do It On Own

Barry Joseph Says They Need Adults To Guide Them

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By Barry Joseph

Published August 29, 2012, issue of August 31, 2012.
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You know me, right? I’m the one you call to fix your computer or set the clock in your car, the one you can count on to have the latest electronic gadgets.

But I am coming to you now as an educator with the unique privilege (and challenge) of working with today’s generation of so-called “digital natives.” I am here to explain that there is no such thing as a self-directed learner — or, perhaps more the point, to explain that parents and educators still matter.

My techno-passion was first piqued about 30 years ago, just a few months before I became a bar mitzvah, when I began learning an arcane language with an unforgiving syntax: Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code, otherwise known as BASIC. Yes, at 12 years old, as an upper-middle class kid on Long Island, I was learning how to program a computer. Those initial classes led me to join some of the first online communities, and I even engaged in some pretend hacking of government agencies.

Back then I learned a lot in school, but I was also learning a lot at home, on my own. Today, as an after school educator training urban youth to use digital media to address global issues, it is hard to say which shaped my career path more: my formal education or my informal, interest-driven learning. You could say that my childhood passions, which once marginalized me as a nerd, have now gone mainstream. In fact, the computer skills I pursed as a child are now essential for all young learners, and they are acquired through playing video games, texting on cell phones, networking on Facebook, sharing videos from YouTube and more.

I can sympathize with the instinct to critique the time today’s youth devote to digital media, as well as the instinct to see it as separate from their education. But all this does is reinforce the gap between school subjects and students’ real lives. The opposite approach, however, is no better. We shouldn’t presume that inviting the digital into our learning environments requires us to fade into the background. Doing so plays into the myth of the self-directed learner.

What is this myth? I see it in action all the time. Take, for example, the new video “The Voice of the Active Learner,” posted on YouTube by Blackboard, an educational technology company. It paints a portrait of today’s young self-directed learners as superheroes breaking away from the guidance of an outdated educator.

“Very soon I will be in your classroom,” the young student challenges. “I will not take out a pencil or open a textbook … To learn I look online because the classroom is not enough for me … it’s your challenge to keep up with me.”

The taunts of this ponytailed cartoon character can be a source of deep anxiety for many educators and parents. But the truth is that there is no need to worry.

Yes, digital media can support youth to form deep engagement and pursue their own learning. The danger comes in presuming that if only the well-intentioned but old-fashioned adults would get out of the way and let the computer work its magic, a million minds would blossom. But this is not the time for us to admit defeat. In fact, now is the time for us to claim our unique role in the new learning ecologies of the digital age.


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