All entries for Tuesday 18 July 2006

July 18, 2006

Do digital natives have differently wired brains?

Writing about Digital natives from Autology: John Dale's blog

Some people are claiming that new digital and online technologies have revolutionised the way in which people think. They have bred a generation of 'digital natives'. As a result of reflecting upon my own thinking and writing patterns, I conclude that this is an overstatement. Such extended cognitive patterns have been present for some time. However, learning and thinking styles have started to change in another way that could be ascribed to the digital native effect. Private study space is becoming more continuous with the social and collaborative world.

What is the relationship between interior design and learning technology?

At the moment there are two big concerns that are occupying my thinking. The most pressing of these is the need to reorganize our large three–story four bedroom house so that the generously portioned spaces within it start to support the kinds of activities and lifestyle that we want. My biggest demand of a home is that it be a place in which I can write. It must contain a writing studio, with all of the elements that make up such a place. Not being an [entirely] selfish person, I also want it to accomodate the extremely adventurous spirit of a one year old baby (one day he will climb Everest), and an overworked KS1 co–ordinating teacher/wife. The second of my big concerns is the question: how do we make a digitally native university? – and the implied question: what does it mean to be digitally native? There is a genuine and interesting connection between these problems.

The interior design problem forces me to reflect on how I get things done. What is my learning/doing/creating/writing style? I do certainly lean towards the connector end of the academic connector/dissector continuum. My process is as follows:

  1. Rambling, mooching, bimbling and fiddling;
  2. With occasional frenetic and concentrated bursts of activity, gluing things back together and boiling them down.

If you were to watch me work, you would see much more of the type 1 behaviours. You would also be surprised by the amount of space that it takes up. My ideal writing environment contains lots of different materials (books, papers, photos, artworks, maps, etc), all open and spread out for long periods of time. I'm not an indexer. I don't have a system. I'm a haptic/tactile kind of thinker. I make a big mess of fragments, each of which may have post–it notes or scraps of paper attached. Plus there are cups of coffee and items of food. However it certainly isn't total chaos. I always have a mental map of what has been discovered and laid out. And I don't want that map to be disturbed, because it is the thinking process. My thinking process is what cognitive scientist Andy Clark calls extended cognition

And furthermore, this is never a stationary process. I wander around. I sit in odd positions. I look out of the window. I walk in the garden and beyond. Until suddenly a tipping–point is reached and I sit down and write. And after that? More wanderings, with occasional trips back to the computer to edit the text with some correction or new insight.

That then describes how I work. It is, I believe, how many other people work, both now and in the past. Although few people have taken this art to the extremes of Francis Bacon's studio. There is, however, gathering support for the notion that 'young people today' are cognitively different, that they think in a different way. Marc Prensky has invented a pair of terms that encapsulate this difference: digital natives and digital immigrants. The proposition is this: people who grow up in an environment built from online and digital technologies have thought patterns that are significantly different to the previous generation. It is claimed that they are less concentrated, that they multitask most of the time, that they process a wider range of sources, that they tag (categorise with keywords) or discard more readily. There is then a claimed generational difference, one that must be at least challenged by my interior design requirement, for I have realised that there is actually little difference between the so-called digital native approach and my old-fashioned paper-centric approach. There is definitely a difference, but first we should dispel the conjecture that there is a fundamental cognitive difference. Andy Clark has demonstrated that there are many such forms of 'extended cognitive apparatus' some of which work in this way and which have done so for many years. Digital online technologies are just the latest addition. There is no revolution in the structure of our brains.

There is, however, still an obvious difference. The apparatus of extended cognition have been extended significantly. The physical/haptic space merges into a digital space of unlimited depth. The question of whether this new digital space can ever overtake the non–digital is significant in itself. I would argue that software still cannot replace my writing studio. Except in one very significant way. Few people will ever visit my physical space, but tools like Warwick Blogs allow it to be extended into a potentially huge social network, with much greater possibility for collaboration in the thinking process. I argue then that this is the real aspect that marks out the digital native: a greater ability to collaborate and to manage collaboration using digital and online technologies.

If this is the case, then we can conclude that digital immigrants are not necessarily blocked from becoming native by some fundamental cognitive difference. Perhaps the real limitation derives from their attitude to social and collaborative work, an objection or disinterest in opening up their thinking space.