Digital Learners Can’t Do It On Own

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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 It paints a portrait of today’s young self-directed learners as superheroes breaking away from the guidance of an outdated educator.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.

The MacArthur Foundation, for example, recently switched from over two decades of funding school-based education reform to what they now call Connected Learning — promoting changes in how youth learn and how we adults can support them. Connected Learning, in short, encourages youth to pursue knowledge or expertise about something that gets them excited while receiving support from both their peers and the institutions around them. From MacArthur’s perspective, we have to stop asking, “What is a child learning?” which focuses on the outcomes, and ask instead, “Is the child engaged?” which focuses on the experience of learning and creating a need to know.

The myth of the self-directed learner suggests youth can do it on their own. But, in fact, they need our help to develop that need to know. Sure, we can all point to an exceptional young person, but most don’t know how to pursue their own interests. They don’t yet know their own minds. That is where we come in.

To ignite their “need to know” we need to train young people to learn how to learn, to be able to navigate the rich “learning ecologies,” or networks, they will cultivate throughout their lives. We already know how to help them navigate their identities as they move in and out of Jewish contexts — why should navigating between their online and offline lives be any different?

The fact is, I may have developed an interest in computers as a teenager, but I could never have pursued that interest without the active engagement of the adults around me. My parents introduced me to my first computer class, while my teacher nurtured within me an aesthetic appreciation of computer code. The anonymous adults who ran my favorite online bulletin boards counseled me on safe online practices and provided me with invaluable leadership opportunities that inform how I teach to this day. The technology might have offered me the opportunity to pursue my own interests, but thanks to the adults around me I also learned how to do that.

Will today’s youth receive the support I enjoyed to apply their new skills and knowledge, learned through digital media use, to better themselves and the world around them? Or will they be left to fend for themselves?

The choice is not up to them. It’s up to us.

Barry Joseph directs the Online Leadership Program at Global Kids, Inc., and is writing the first book on seltzer water.

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Barry Joseph

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Digital Learners Can’t Do It On Own

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