Why the myth of the digital native is bad and wrong February 29, 2012 4:09 AM   Subscribe

This rather excellent comment by GenjiandProust on the "myth of the digital native" and the tragedy of California's public libraries gets a nice shout-out in The Atlantic website's technology section, where the whole thread is described (accurately) as "deeply sobering." Well done, all round.
posted by Sonny Jim to MetaFilter-Related at 4:09 AM (35 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

Very nice!

There was also this earlier Metatalk post for another citing of the same thread.
posted by taz (staff) at 4:20 AM on February 29, 2012

Yeah, I thought when posting that we'd get interesting perspectives as library issues are always something MeFi does particuarly well. Thanks to GenjiandProust and many others for proving that confidence right.
posted by jaduncan at 4:36 AM on February 29, 2012

Heh, I saw that article and assumed it was another reference to Codacarolla's comment. Yay, GenjiandProust!
posted by Horace Rumpole at 4:49 AM on February 29, 2012

I reckon there's a lot more noise as the userbase hockeysticks up at a worrying rate lately, but.

Metafilter's 'best of the web' these days is less about linking than about creating the best of the web with the shiny smart top-shelf one-off comments and, sometimes still even now when we get lucky and things don't go sideways, the whole big deep hot discussion mines we dig for ourselves.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:05 AM on February 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

Codacarolla's comment affected me profoundly, and it's completely turned around how I think about libraries.

This comment hasn't had as long to sink in, but I've a feeling it's going to sit with me just as long. It's astonishing to me that all the parts were in place for me, but I needed to see it written down like this for it to crystallize into a "Oh God, yes" moment.

Congrats - GenjiandProust.
Deeply sobering indeed.
posted by zoo at 5:29 AM on February 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

Yay our librarians! I enjoy talking about the myth of the digital natives especially to people who really believe it's true [and believe themselves behind the curve as a result] and it's great to see the discussion of the myth getting a lot more traction.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 6:12 AM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thanks for pointing out the comment. It's an excellent one - I completely endorse the point of view too. Last year my staff and I developed and delivered a six-week freshman entry-to-college summer seminar in the museum, together with the university faculty who run the summer program, and it culminated in a research project. It was astounding to see how poorly skilled these students are - not only with things I might have predicted, like finding reliable resources on the web and critically evaluating them - but with things we think of as basic skills: word processing, spreadsheets, outlining, image manipulation, what GenjiAndProust terms "selecting a tool outside of their very limited set of daily resources," and so on. Most of these students were from underperforming schools, which didn't help, but even the peer leaders (selected in part for their academic good standing) were not particularly strong in these areas.

There is so much remedial learning to be done - and what frustrates me more than that, even, is that unlike my experience coming of age at a time when I had learned the bases of the analog systems for everything, and then transitioned to the 'easier,' computer-aided ways of doing things, educators seem to be totally dismissing with teaching the analog bases for these skill sets - so that when the time comes to sit down in front of a program and learn some commands, the students haven't even yet grappled with the ideas of problem finding, applying structure to data, and using that structure to solve the problems. They might be able to put some pictures into presentation software but they aren't sure what the purpose of doing research and making a presentation is in the first place, or what kind of thing it should contain and not contain. The schemas are not reliably in place.
posted by Miko at 6:37 AM on February 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm curious what percentage of mefites are libraries and/or have degrees in library science, because it seems like there's a lot of them.
posted by empath at 6:47 AM on February 29, 2012

I suspect some of them of beeing rather small shell scripts, but I don't think we have anybody here who is a full fledged library.
posted by Dr Dracator at 7:05 AM on February 29, 2012 [7 favorites]

I'm curious what percentage of mefites are libraries and/or have degrees in library science, because it seems like there's a lot of them.

You can use the "mark librarian contributions" script to see everyone on the site who we KNOW are library people [people who have mentioned working in a library, getting a library science degree or something similar] and this just picks out people who I have marked as a "colleague" It's a pretty long list.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:15 AM on February 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm glad those excellent comments are being pointed out, because I can't read the whole thread. It's just too depressing.

I learned so much in libraries - school and not - that I never would have learned otherwise. I was given so much more potential by what I was able to access in libraries over what I was provided in life. Libraries allowed me to make so much more of a bad beginning and the knowledge and escape they contain allowed me to grow each time I reached a stagnant point.

Knowing that a certain vociferous, greedy, short-sighted crowd would rather close a library than make a more thoughtful cut or funding policy upsets me.

Worse, though, I think, is the large number of otherwise good people who don't understand why it's a big deal to lose this invaluable, irreplaceable resource. And that thread is full of them.

Thank goodness for the great comments that were made and for the long legs they grew!
posted by batmonkey at 7:20 AM on February 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

as the userbase hockeysticks up at a worrying rate lately

Is this really a thing, though? Is the rate of new memberships actually increasing in the last year or two compared to any previous post-$5.00 sign-up period? Seems like all the graphs I've seen have been pretty constant, with smoothing.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:21 AM on February 29, 2012

As I was reading through the Reddit threads about that post a lot of Redditors seemed impressed with the idea behind Metafilter, despite being skeptical at first regarding the five dollar membership fee.
posted by codacorolla at 8:02 AM on February 29, 2012

Codacorolla, do you by chance have a link to the Reddit discussions about MetaFilter?
posted by michaelh at 8:17 AM on February 29, 2012

Codacorolla, do you by chance have a link to the Reddit discussions about MetaFilter?

At the moment, no. I think the subreddit that contained the thread I'm talking about was depthhub, or something along those lines.
posted by codacorolla at 8:24 AM on February 29, 2012

Reddit: impressed with the idea behind Metafilter.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 8:33 AM on February 29, 2012 [5 favorites]

Comment is 100% true and 100% too bad.

The Myth of the Digital Native - is there a more extensive blog post, article, or book on this nascent concept?
posted by fake at 9:07 AM on February 29, 2012

Gifting GenjiandProust a MeFi account is the best $5 I ever spent.
posted by Kattullus at 10:09 AM on February 29, 2012 [8 favorites]

Wow! I feel like I have arrived; a comment gets linked by The Atlantic, and I get mentioned in a MeTa without the words "I wish people wouldn't..." nearby.

The Myth of the Digital Native - is there a more extensive blog post, article, or book on this nascent concept?

It's widely derided in information literacy circles (well, at least the ones who are not all "digital children will save us!"), but I can't point to a specific article.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:11 AM on February 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Take that, Debbie Gibson!
posted by Sys Rq at 10:18 AM on February 29, 2012

Sadly, reading the article, I kind of think the author missed the point:

So maybe our greater emphasis shouldn't be on training users to work with bad search tools, but to improve the search tools.

Which is pretty much the idea that brought us to the idea of "digital native" in the first place, since it relies on the idea that there will be a single correct approach to search tools and "kids these days" will get it.

But Google and JSTOR (and Web of Science and SciFinder Scholar and...) are designed to do different things in different ways, sort of like the way that bicycles and automobiles get us places but in rather different ways, with different advantages and disadvantages and requiring different, although somewhat similar, skills in order to best utilize them. We complain on the Blue pretty frequently about the problems with trying to use bicycles in a world designed for cars and how bicycles should, perhaps, be allowed to be cicycles rather than "bad cars," why should be accept the idea that a search engine and a periodicals index (or online journal collection) are not quite the same thing and should be allowed to do their intended function in their own ways?

Some periodicals indexes do spell check, but it's not a bad idea for a user to know that they can't count on that and to be able to recognize bad results and troubleshoot. It's kind of like "give a user an answer, answer one question; teach them to formulate their question, search efficiently, evaluate the results, and apply that info effectively, answer questions for a lifetime."

Because, face it, a) we will never have a perfect interface -- the human ability to screw stuff up is maybe our greatest power -- and b) the more "fixing" the interface does, the less the user knows about how their results were generated and why (DIALOG command line searching is insane, but, by god, you know why you got those results, and you can tailor them pretty much as finely as you like). And I am not sure I want to leave my ability to find out information in the hands of interface designers working for for-profit companies.....

Sorry, that's me, never satisfied.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:36 AM on February 29, 2012 [5 favorites]

The Myth of the Digital Native - is there a more extensive blog post, article, or book on this nascent concept?

If you read the original article (scroll down to "The Classics" and select 'Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants — A New Way To Look At Ourselves and Our Kids'--he's screwed up the link to the PDF so I can't link you directly), you can see right away that Prensky is placing a lot of emphasis on age/generational cohort rather than mental flexibility. This is highly problematic and much hay has been made about how it's not what age you are when the new tech comes out, it's your willingness to dive in and absorb the new tech that influences how likely you are to be good at using it.

So as a librarian, I am often in the position of teaching teenagers how to use the command key on their shiny new Macs because I've put time into learning the new tech and they have assumed that it's easy to use and they'll 'just know' how (I actually happen to be a 'digital native' myself but that's another issue entirely). It's also things like so-called 'digital immigrants' teaching teens how to use Facebook privacy settings (digital natives should navigate this instinctively, right? hah no) and using Microsoft Word beyond copy/paste and yes, using library databases.

Think of all those natural language searches being put into Google. Those are often coming from so-called digital natives, who should know better but it's not like they've absorbed Boolean operators into their pores or something. If it's not taught to students, a concept won't be transmitted by osmosis. This also doesn't help when it comes to library searching.

I also would love to talk to the author of the Atlantic post and/or discuss it on Metafilter, because I think there's a point that they're making--library databases are hard to navigate and they should be more like Google--that librarians are happy to talk more about (we're working on it, dude!). Also, what database was this person using that they needed to input an ISSN to get a journal article? That sounds...unusual, like maybe they were in the catalog rather than a database.

Ultimately, information literacy professionals (most definitely including librarians) find the myth of the digital native poisonous. It can make younger folks lazy and older folks timorous. How databases are navigated and what process to use to search is something that 'digital natives' need to learn. I spent well over 20 minutes yesterday in two classes teaching about synonym searching, relevance versus date, subject terms, phrase searching rather than natural language searching, etc. It's all too often assumed that because these are digital natives, they already know this info. Not true.
posted by librarylis at 10:43 AM on February 29, 2012 [5 favorites]

Some periodicals indexes do spell check, but it's not a bad idea for a user to know that they can't count on that and to be able to recognize bad results and troubleshoot. It's kind of like "give a user an answer, answer one question; teach them to formulate their question, search efficiently, evaluate the results, and apply that info effectively, answer questions for a lifetime."

Resolving ambiguity on the user's behalf is a form of mediation. Like all forms of mediation, it has advantages and disadvantages. I am inclined to say that for academic or other serious research, those disadvantages outweigh the advantages because this kind of mediation -- and this is not without irony -- undermines the user's confidence in the results. With a smart search engine, I know that I've gotten what the search engine thinks I want, rather than what I asked the search engine to produce.

In everyday life, this is not a problem, because I am able to evaluate whether the results do in fact coincide with what I want. (I want directions to the pizza place, I follow the directions provided, and there either is or is not a pizza place at the end.)

I'm unable to make that evaluation in academic or serious research, because the research doesn't work the same way. Unless I know that I've constructed my searches right, and can be confident that, for instance, there really are no published cases in my jurisdiction containing terms x & y & z but not q in the same paragraph, or that I've already found all of them. Smart tools are a start, but can never be an end, to this kind of research.
posted by gauche at 10:58 AM on February 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Great comment, GenjiandProust. What you describe matches my experience with first year students (of varying ages, but mostly 19-25 year olds). They are seriously terrible at finding and evaluating sources, and it seems like no one bothers to teach them how because they are supposed to be so in tune with technology.

To use another car metaphor, it's like assuming that because someone knows how to drive a car that you can plop them down in New York City and they'll be able to find their way to Toronto. They won't be able to unless they know how to read a map and road signs, and [to really stretch this metaphor] are savvy enough to look into what documents they need to cross the border. And those just aren't skills you develop when you're being taught road rules and how to operate a vehicle.

So no, just because they've grown up using computers and the internet, it doesn't mean they know how to search properly for things or evaluate the worth of what they find. That is why in the next couple of weeks I'll be taking my so-called "digital natives" to meet with the research librarian so she can teach them how to conduct research.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:01 AM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

In the course of my research I have observed college students carrying out searches using Google and library databases, as well as interview them about their searches. In one of my early studies I asked students if they had had any instruction on searching, whether the Web or library databases and/or catalogs. Nobody recalled receiving instruction on searching the Web, In my studies all the students who used library resources on a regular basis had received instruction on using them. So there were college seniors who did all their research for their papers just using Google, without taking advantage of the resources of the major research university library available to them. Anyway, something I noticed observing numerous search sessions and talking to the students was that the Google-only students had a "black magic" view of searching, while students who had received library instruction, particularly pre-college, had a more sophisticated, reasoning approach to searching. That is, instead of Google doing its magic, they were aware there were certain things they could to improve their search results. They were also more likely to turn to librarians to receive additional instruction, as well as be more skeptical of what was found through web searches. My overall gut-level impression is that library instruction at the college level is already too late, and for maximal impact has to happen by high school at the latest.
posted by research monkey at 11:06 AM on February 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

As Google gets more "intuitive" understanding the meta-aspects of how it's working is also sort of important if you want to use it to get what you want. I've totally accepted that there are certain aspects to the technological landscape that will shift without warning or notification and that this may, in some cases, make things subjectively worse. However being able to look at input and output and figure out how you got from A to B will make you as a person more able to solve your problems with recall and relevance when the systems aren't aligning themselves to your own preferences.

This happened to me on Google the other day and was a sort of fascinating "Oh I know what is going on there" situation. This has nothing to do with whether I'm a digital native or not [hint: I am not] but whether I can understand the system that I am using. Having a smart phone doesn't make you more likely to understand these systems and I could argue that it actually makes you less able to do some of these things because of the black magic thing that research monkey mentions above.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 11:18 AM on February 29, 2012 [5 favorites]

From the high school teacher perspective, I see many of the things you all are describing - students who've grown up around technology, yet don't know how to use a lot of it. Digital Native is a major buzzword in education at the moment, but it really doesn't match up with what we're seeing in the trenches of urban education.

What's unfortunate is that we aren't able to cover those super important technical skills for the following reasons:

1. School funding was cut, and 90% of computer classes were eliminated, district wide. We have the labs, but can't offer the classes. Hell, most students don't have room for an elective until they are a junior or senior because of being required to take remedial math and/or English. I have 10th graders who have two math classes, two English classes, PE and World History. I wouldn't have come to school with a schedule like that.

2. Our full time librarian was taken, and we got a 40% librarian instead. That means the library isn't even open all the time, and the librarian isn't able to assist teachers during computer-based projects, which led to...

3. We cut our research projects in English 9 and 10. Without the librarian, teachers couldn't manage 34 students on computers. Even with the librarian, we often would give students a short list of sources because of time constraints and their general lack of ability to evaluate the quality of the website.

4. Our computers are either cheap or out of date. We replace them as best we can, but technology is always a source of concern for our teachers. So we learn to do certain lessons without computers, and eventually forget that we once used them for that purpose.

5. Many teachers are not technologically literate, although with time and retirement, their numbers are decreasing. I'm in charge of technology at my school, and there are only about 8 teachers who really can't deal with technology. That influences how they teach, obviously.

I would love to teach my kids how to use technology effectively and critically. But I can't. Apart from the multiple years behind they are in English when I get them (I have 10th graders who literally can't read, and many who are barely literate), the other obstacles are pretty overwhelming. I could also be really cynical and say that few of my students go on to four year colleges, so probably aren't the kids you are talking about.

The pendulum is starting to swing away from the horribly-disastrous high-stakes-testing focus, so maybe we will someday we'll offer computer electives and have students take them, instead of remedial English. Maybe our librarian will return so we can do more research projects. Maybe as a society we'll put more value on education and help schools prepare students more effectively for life, both in the digital and analog realms. Monkeys could also fly out of my butt. Don't know which scenario is more likely.
posted by guster4lovers at 11:53 AM on February 29, 2012 [5 favorites]

You know what, I wish I hadn't phrased part of my comment as "no one bothers to teach" my students research skills, because what guster4lovers has described (cuts to funding and thus library positions, unmanageable classroom sizes) is exactly the kind of frustrating situation I've heard about from high school teachers and librarians (the few who are left) in my district. It's not so much "not bothered to teach" as "didn't have the resources to teach effectively."
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:03 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

The reason why I feel that library instruction has to happen pre-college is that while a large number of the students I had observed had received some kind of Library 101 in college, via librarians, faculty or TAs, it didn't seem to stick with them the way library instruction received in say, junior high or early high school years did. Having your university librarian come to class and tell you about ProQuest didn't appear to translate into students actually using those resources or seeking out reference librarians, instead falling back upon their familiar research method, picking whatever the first research result is on Google / Bing. Students who had received library instruction through librarians pre-college continued to perceive librarians as a resource in their academic activities.

So the cuts to funding for school librarians described by guster4lovers is very alarming and distressing.
posted by research monkey at 12:09 PM on February 29, 2012

I should also say that we're lucky to even have a 40% librarian. The middle schools (three of them) share one librarian. The elementary schools don't have librarians (and therefore libraries) at all.

And it's much worse in other districts. We're actually amoung the lucky ones.
posted by guster4lovers at 12:33 PM on February 29, 2012

I was teaching at a very good university in 2009 - and I met students who didn't know what a file format was.

I blame the "hide file extension" options on macs and in later versions of Windows. If you are always staring at ".doc", ".pdf", ".jpg", etc, then you just instantly learn what a file format is. okay, I had a baptism by fire since I spent the several years migrating constantly between WordPerfect to Word back to WordPerfect again (doing that will seriously break your footnotes), but understanding the format of your information is just an essential computer skill - you should learn it right after learning where the on-button is.

But this is also a symptom of how people don't understand how computers work, and we aren't teaching the guts of them in schools. It's not about offering classes in high school. Kids should all be learning about what an operating system is and what an executable file is and what harddrives and ram are (never did figure out ROM - or is that just a museum) in early gradeschool, along with printing and addition and other basic lifeskills. It's very simple stuff, and they'll have no problem learning it because they haven't figured out that computers are supposed to be "hard". (I was scared of learning binary until I was in grade five - and then they taught us Base 8 by telling us about the planet where everyone has four fingers instead of five, and then binary/Base 2 made sense).
posted by jb at 6:41 PM on February 29, 2012

But as for the research databases - just, argggh,

Dear University of [Redacted] Libraries: When I type the name of a Journal into your catelogue search, please give the item that is named EXACTLY WHAT I TYPED IN first, rather than 100 other items with different titles. If I type in "Journal of Rheumatology" then it's okay to bring up "Rheumatology" or "British Journal of Rheumatology" as well, but don't be giving me "American Journal of Pediatrics", even if it is vaguely related. And DEFINITELY allow me to sort the results by title.

I don't want library catelogues to work like Google - I just want them to work like they used to when they were all on Telnet and you could find stuff by typing in part of the title and they didn't try to be clever or anything.
posted by jb at 6:46 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Which is pretty much the idea that brought us to the idea of "digital native" in the first place, since it relies on the idea that there will be a single correct approach to search tools and "kids these days" will get it.

Indeed. I no longer do much searching, but it used to be my full-time job for quite a few years. I remember how much I hated Google's interface when it first came out:

"What is this, a black box? I can't prepare a complex search statement? This thing believes it knows what I'm searching better than me?".

Anyway, I've ultimately reconciled myself with Google for web searches (its algorithms have also been much improved), but God, I still miss AltaVista sometimes.

Anyway, research databases need more complicated UIs than Google, just like Photoshop needs a more complicated UI than MS Paint. I found this part of the article quite telling:

Not long ago I was using a research database to try to get a PDF of an article published in a journal to which my college's library has a digital subscription. I knew the title of the article, the author's name, the title of the journal, and the issue date. I plugged all those in to the appropriate text boxes, clicked "search" . . . and got hundreds of results. But the one that I wanted wasn't on the first several pages.

I sent an email to a reference librarian describing this event, and he wrote back saying, "Oh, see, you should have entered the journal's ISSN." Really? Exact title of article and journal, exact name of author, exact date of publication -- that's not enough?

The author seems to have completely misunderstood both how to use a research database, and the librarian's response. Firstly, just "plugging" all those data into the search boxes isn't going to give you the right result if you don't link them appropriately. I'm sure that I could have found that article in a couple of seconds with just a few of this data. The problem wasn't that there weren't enough data, the problem was that he wasn't using them correctly. The librarian then offered him the alternative, much simpler approach of just entering the ISSN (surely because most university librarians know that it isn't a good idea to tell a tenured professor that he's a dolt who can't use a database) and he understood this as meaning that he should have also entered the ISSN.

Not that some research databases haven't infuriatingly useless UIs and arcane search syntaxes, but the article's author merely shows that he's just as "Google-trained" as his students.
posted by Skeptic at 2:16 AM on March 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

My partner is in charge of technology for a small private school and is even now coming across similar problems with his elementary school students. He just wrote a post dealing with varying levels of ability and more importantly, understanding, of technology at his school. It's frustrating for me, even though I work with older patrons at the university level, and often have to try to explain issues around more complex things like copyright in the digital age but also how to add printers and what a pdf or tiff file is. I'm not trained in how to explain technology, but people get frustrated and don't always follow up with our Help Desk if I can't answer their questions, so I try to do the best I can. I don't even know what it will look like in five or ten years, when students who have never known a librarian or computer teacher attempt to navigate still-outdated databases and clunky interfaces.

So I'm glad this (already great) thread is getting more attention-- maybe parents will start to consider what their children need, and start pressing school districts (and legislatures) to try to get that training. I do wish bloggers would talk to vendors and librarians though instead of just quoting anecdata from their own lives and situations; some of the comments are perpetuating nonsense about librarians and databases that could have been addressed in the post itself.
posted by jetlagaddict at 7:39 AM on March 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

frankly, if I were the professor, I would have just browsed the electronic version of the journal to the volume and issue I wanted, because I'm lazy like that and you don't need to fuss about having the title correct. And I do bibliographic systematic searches and retrieval as part of my job.

but typing in the title, journal title and author should have brought it up. No one should ever have to use an ISSN, even if it is faster. much too awkward.
posted by jb at 10:12 AM on March 1, 2012

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