New media monsters II: From digital people to ‘digital wisdom’

By Anne Collier

I’m using “digital people” as shorthand for “digital natives” and “digital immigrants,” which together have become one of the “new media monsters” I wrote about, gosh, last April. This long overdue post is Part 2, because I want to be sure you know that even the person who coined “digital natives,” Marc Prensky, himself has moved beyond this term that suggests children are alien life forms that don’t need earthling parents’ and teachers’ help with media and life literacy. They very much do need those, but what we need is to lose the native/immigrant binary that emphasizes a dysfunctional (and, actually, slowly fading) generational digital divide – for our children’s and students’ sake, reduce adult intimidation, which will increase much-needed adult-child communication.

“Although many have found the terms useful,” Prensky writes in Innovate magazine, “as we move further into the 21st century when all will have grown up in the era of digital technology, the distinction between digital natives and digital immigrants will become less relevant.”

Problem-solving aid

What has staying power is digital wisdom. This is not some sort of robotic “digital enhancement” he’s talking about, but the wisdom that comes from using the digital media and technology that give us both greater access to all the wisdom “out there” and the ability to grasp and analyze it all. It also includes prudent and ethical use of those media and technologies. He’s building on a definition of plain-old “wisdom” suggested by Harvard Prof. Howard Gardner in 2000 as something that “may be seen in the breadth of issues considered in arriving at a judgment or decision,” and he sums it up as “the ability to find practical, creative, contextually appropriate, and emotionally satisfying solutions to complicated human problems…. Many see it as a more complex kind of problem solving.”

Emphasis on complexity. The Internet has already put all of us on information overload, as we all know. An educator told me recently that his profession is no longer about filling children with information but rather helping them understand how to deal with all the information at their disposal 24/7. This may seem obvious to parents now, but have we thought enough about how very much our children need help in developing the cognitive filter in their heads – the filter that enables them to know what to do with and wisely exploit all that’s on the Internet, both content and behavior? That includes critical thinking about and problem solving for everything from pornography to social influencing by peers, marketers, and adult strangers, as well as their own online behavior and its implications.

Individual and collective wisdom

Technology can help with that. Prensky puts it in the future tense, but we’re already seeing this: “Wisdom will certainly involve a lot more sharing and testing of ideas while they are in formation than is possible today” (see Arizona State University Prof. James Paul Gee’s video interview at about how young people collaborate). Another example Prensky gives: “Future technological tools will allow people engaged in making judgments and decisions to evaluate their decisions very quickly in light of collective past experience, just as today financial strategies can be backtested on the historical market.” And digital wisdom will help us deal with abuse of complex financial strategies such as those practiced on Wall Street that led to the current recession. Technology gives access to unimaginable amounts of information (from global discussions occurring in real time to basically all of recorded history), but also enhances our ability to find and collect it instantly, analyze it all [together, regardless of participants’ geographical location], and simulate outcomes.

“The unenhanced brain is well on its way to becoming insufficient for truly wise decisionmaking,” Prensky writes, which is why it’s increasingly imperative that schools not only teach students what to do with tech-enabled information glut but embrace technologically enhanced learning so that students will have guidance in how to use the tools of digital-wisdom acquisition.”

‘Generation [3]C’

As the world shrinks and connectivity grows, the need for digital wisdom grows, indicates a study released last summer by Booz-Allen in the UK study: “By the year 2020, an entire generation will have grown up in a primarily digital world. Computers, the Internet, mobile phones, texting, social networking – all are second nature to them… This is the demographic group we call Generation C – the ‘C’ stands for connect, communicate, change). The connectivity explosion predicted to take place in the next ten years is astounding. The study says by 2020, there will be as many as 6 billion mobile phone users, and the number of people accessing the Internet will hit 4.7 billion from 1.7 billion currently.” Meanwhile, Booz-Allen continues, “the global population is projected to be 7.6 billion in 2020.”

Prensky wrote that “parents and educators are digitally wise when they recognize this imperative and prepare the children in their care for the future [rather than fear all the technology in it, I’m adding] – educators by letting students learn by using new technologies, putting themselves in the role of guides, context providers, and quality controllers, and parents by recognizing the extent to which the future will be mediated by technology and encouraging their children to use digital technology wisely.”

Every now and then I hear a parent proudly state that he or she is Facebook-free. Certainly it’s parents’ prerogative not to engage in digital media, but I think it makes their job harder. Not only the online-safety part of their job, but the part about helping their children develop the digital wisdom they increasingly need to navigate a complex, digitally driven world.

Related links

* Part 1 of this reflection: “The new media monsters we’ve created for our kids”
* Prensky’s just-released commentary on US education reform (1/24/11): “The Reformers Are Leaving Our Schools in the 20th Century: Why most U.S. school reformers are on the wrong track, and how to get our kids’ education right for the future”
* My thanks to the authors of “Technology & the Adolescent: Paring Modern Media and Technology with Mental Health Practice” for pointing Prensky’s digital wisdom piece out.
* On our over-focus on what’s being given up rather than what’s being gained as we adapt to new tech realities (my review of PBS Frontline’s “Digital Nation”
* “So-Called ‘Digital Natives’ Not Media Savvy, New Study Shows” in the New York Times and a comment on in it the Computing Education blog
* Writer and educator Brad King on how “there are no digital natives”

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