PBS Frontline’s ‘Digital Nation’: Presenting our generation with a crucial choice

While documenting a fearful point in media history the Digital Nation’s producers offer parents and other mass-media natives the opportunity to stop mourning what’s lost in this media shift and – for our kids’ sakes – seek and consider what’s being gained.

By Anne Collier

Seems to me, Gever Tully’s Tinkering School would be the perfect antidote for all the concern about kids and digital media expressed in PBS Frontline’s “Digital Nation” – hands-on problem-solving, lots of tools, collaboratively learning by doing, giving kids time to work the problem, celebrating and analyzing failures, teaching that success is embedded in the process (watch his TED Talk about this). The thing is, so much of that sort of tinkering is being done by kids using the very digital media and technologies that are the focus of our fears. But more on that in a minute.

This time, Frontline, which airs on PBS this Tuesday night, is depicting the personal explorations of Digital Nation’s writers themselves, those of Rachel Dretzin and Douglas Rushkoff, both parents. Last time, in 2008’s “Growing Up Online,” the stories were more those of the documentary’s subjects. It’s as if Dretzin, the producer of both Growing Up Online and Digital Nation, was shaken by what her reporting turned up in the last project. Thoughtful journalist/anthropologist that she is, she went in-depth and looked at all sides of those teens’ stories, presenting the most balanced picture I’d seen anywhere to that point, having interviewed leading social-media researchers such as C.J. Pasco and danah boyd for depth and perspective.

Our concerns or their reality?

In Digital Nation, however, it seems the main story is two parents’ concerns. We’re on a 90-minute journey with them, wending our way through skillfully told vignettes (about everything from a South Korean boy at videogame-addiction camp to the US Army’s shopping-mall-based videogame arcade/recruiting center to a corporation’s daily multinational staff meetings in a virtual world) and thought-provoking interviews, again with top academics (e.g., MIT’s Sherry Turkle, USC’s Henry Jenkins, Arizona State’s James Paul Gee, educator Katie Salen, Emory’s Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation, and Marc Prensky, who coined the term “digital natives”). Important, if not particularly new, questions are raised – for example, about multitasking, etiquette, addiction, alienation, and the blurring of virtual and real.

Documenting an angst-ridden point in history?

Certainly we hear Rushkoff when he says “we need to know if we’re tinkering with something more essential than we realize … what it means to be a human being.” But we also hear from scholars who have been studying that question very closely for years that, with societal and technological change, some things have always been lost and some gained. Prensky says on camera that “we confuse the best ways of doing something once [in our past] with the best ways of doing something forever.” That’s what so many of us are doing. Perhaps Dretzin and Rushkoff are Everyman, or Everyparent, and Digital Nation is documenting a point in history – here in the middle of this profound media shift Earth is experiencing – when we’re fearing and mourning what’s being lost more than we’re seeking and considering what is being gained. But not making that clear to viewers.

Did the writers really hear…

  • James Paul Gee, when, in their interview with him, he told of how, in virtual worlds and multiplayer games, young people function in teams in which “everybody is an expert in something but they know how to integrate their expertise with everybody else’s; they know how to understand the other person’s expertise so they can pull off an action together in a complicated world”? That’s what happens for home-schooled students and the teacher members of the Cognitive Dissonance guild in World of Warcraft – and with students at school on curriculum-grounded “quests” in an educational virtual world called Quest Atlantis developed by the University of Indiana School of Education.
  • Gee when he said we have two school systems now – traditional school, fixated on delivering content via textbooks, and the informal school system of social media, where kids are problem-solving, researching, producing, etc. on their own because social media are largely blocked from schools?
  • Katie Salen – professor, director of the Center for Transformative Media at Parsons the New School for Design, and executive director of the Institute of Play – when she suggests on the show itself that seeing young people’s game-based learning and play only through the lens of our old media environment, where virtual worlds didn’t exist, may be somewhat myopic for us and limiting for our children? (See “From chalk ‘n’ talk to learning by doing” about Quest to Learn, a new school of which the Institute of Play is a founding partner.)

Stick with ‘chalk ‘n’ talk’ or open our minds?

For our children’s sake, we really need to dig past the legitimate but relentless, visceral, and politically correct questions with which all parents and mass-media natives struggle and seriously consider what these scholars are saying. And not only them! I can’t wait to see what Digital Nation’s producers come up with next, now that the work of more than two dozen social-media scholars – Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out – has been released by MIT Press. It’s a mother lode of stories about how young people learn in and with new media.

Which brings me back to tinkering. I got to thinking about that because of Sylvia Martinez, president of Generation Yes, who presented a workshop about it at Educon, a tech educators’ conference, this past weekend. Reading through her past posts about it, in addition to references to Gever Tully, I found a profound 10-minute video interview with John Seely Brown, visiting professor at USC and former director of PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), about using digital technology to bring collaborative “tinkering” back to school. Digital Nation, please look into this next!…

Collaborative tinkering & social capital for kids

In the interview, Brown said: “I think we’re moving into quite a different kind of world, one in which change is omnipresent, where we’re beginning to find ways to bootstrap our own knowledge, tinker with ideas around us, find things we don’t know, ask good questions, and be open to criticism.” He calls for peer-based, collaborative learning, “because, from the sharing you begin to see how other kids use what you just created. Kids learn from each other as much as from an authority or mentor.”

Brown talks about how to make school responsive to the pace of change and suggests thinking of schools in terms of “distributed communities of practice,” which digital-technology learning tools allow. “With these powerful tools with which to craft things, tinkering has really come back big time…. This networked world is an open-source world, where I can make something, pass it back to the community, and have that community do new things with it.” This is not just a shift for media or even education, but for identity and self-worth: “In earlier decades, a lot of kids grew up thinking, I am what I’m wearing, how I dress, what my parents own; my identity came from those material possessions. Just maybe we’re entering a world where … a sense of identity starts to get constructed for myself based on what I have done, what I have created, and others have built on, passed on to others, and they have been able to do wondrous things with as well. A whole new sense of reputational capital and social capital is on the move….”

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