Thursday, October 02, 2008

Born Digital Students

Andy Guess, in “Understanding Students Who Were ‘Born Digital,’ interviews John Palfrey and Urs Gasser, authors Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives (Basic Books, 2008). Here is an excerpt:

Q: The intersection of education and technology is riddled with gimmicks that never worked and promises to revolutionize the way students learn. What are realistic expectations for the application of technologies to learning, and what are the potential advantages and disadvantages?

JP: Technology is never a panacea. And technology on its own can do nothing; it’s just a tool for teachers and students to put to work in support of how they want to teach and to learn. A realistic expectation is that technology may be able to help support your pedagogical goals, but it’s not going to (nor should it) do anything on its own.

A key advantage of using technology in education is that, through its use, we can give young people the digital media learning skills that they need. Right now, we are not teaching young people to sort credible information from less credible information online, despite the proliferation of sources and the extent to which we know young people are relying on such sources. Technology can also be very engaging and interactive and — truly — fun for young people to use as they learn.
The disadvantages could be many: over-reliance on the tools to do the teaching, potentially just a distraction, and used at the expense of sometimes better forms of learning (such as reading an entire book).

Q: How should libraries adapt to the changing ways that students (and faculty) do research?

JP: Libraries are adapting every day to changes in research methods. At Harvard Law School Library, we’re just updating our Web site in response to extensive focus-grouping that the reference staff did with students. The site is oriented toward those research tasks that we know start in the digital world, much as a Google search is the first stop for many young people on their way to find information.

There’s much more to be done, of course. One key is to figure out how best to acquire, catalog, and make e-resources accessible to users. Right now, most libraries are set up to do a great job in acquiring, cataloguing, and offering books for use to students and faculty members, but are not organized to handle e-resources. We need to teach students and faculty how to make use of both rivers and oceans of information. A lot of good innovative work is going into solving these issues. I’m sure libraries will adapt.

Another key area of adaptation has to do with the growing interdisciplinary nature of research and learning. More fields are becoming interdisciplinary, but libraries at universities are often stove-piped, much as the schools themselves are. So, we need to be offering research materials but also support for research methods, such as empirical work in law schools.

The original story and user comments can be viewed online at

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