Digital Natives

When I was a graduate student in education, I tended to hear a lot about the so called “digital natives”. This cohort includes the group born around 1980 to the present and includes the so called Millennials and Generation Z. In more than one course I was told that teaching these tech savvy individuals would require a new paradigm; a whole new pedagogy. They were all reared on video games and the internet and knew how to get facts and information quickly. Teachers needed to adapt and deliver information to this group in new and novel ways lest we quickly lose their attention. After watching my niece teach my brother-in-law how to use a smart phone, I have to admit I bought into the digital native thing completely. Then I had a classroom experience that made me think twice.

As part of my teaching practicum, I was working with a science class on a research project. In groups of four, I had the class researching documented behavioral, physical, and morphological changes in living species believed to be due to climate change. During computer labs, I provided them with possible websites to find information as well as suggested search words/phrases. A problem arose when I would not let them use certain sources (e.g. Wikipedia). The point of the exercise was to read, evaluate, and synthesize information. However, several students wanted to use sources that had already done this for them. Some pleaded to let them use Wikipedia or similar sources.   When I said no, a few simply used the write up from Wikipedia but referenced the original sources that were used to create the Wikipedia page.   Few, if any, exhibited the tech savvy attributed to the digital native. In this particular exercise, I believe technology interfered with higher level thinking I was trying to elicit.

This and other similar events has led me to believe that while this cohort may spend a great deal of time using technology, it provides them with little to no educational value. Based on the above, you may think I am anti-technology. That is not the case. Used correctly, I believe technology can provide a first class education to far off places. However, it is not a replacement for good teaching, just a method to enhance it.

What is Instructional Design?

Whenever I meet somebody I haven’t seen in a while they always ask me how the teaching thing is going. When I tell them that I am focusing my efforts on instructional design (ID) the response is almost always “instructional what?” Or just plain “on what?” The truth is that not many people outside the industry have ever heard of instructional design. I usually give them a brief explanation, something to the effect that “it is similar to teaching except it takes a systematic approach to teach specific skills usually to adult learners”. In the event that someone shows genuine interest in ID, I usually paraphrase The Systematic Design of Instruction (Walter Dick, Lou Carey, and James O. Carey, 2009) and their Systems Approach Model for Designing Instruction.

Instructional Designers work with businesses, government institutions, school districts, colleges and universities to determine if there is a problem, performance/achievement gap, or unmet goal that can be solved through the use of instruction. If so, the ID will:

  • Identify specific goal(s) for the instruction;
  • Identify the steps, sub-steps, and existing skills the learner must have to achieve the instructional goal;
  • Identify who the learners are, the context they will be learning in, and the context in which they will be using the new skills;
  • Write specific measureable performance objectives and methods to assess if these objectives are met;
  • Develop instructional strategy(is) and materials; and
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of the instruction and revise if necessary.

If the person is still listening at this point, I will describe some computer based instructional modules I have created using the Dick and Cary model protocols. A flicker of recognition will then cross their face and they will confidently say “oh, you’re doing e-learning”. At this point, I just want to stop and cut my losses but I usually tell them that ID has been around well before the PC existed. ID can roughly be traced back to World War II and the military’s need to train literally millions of soldiers many new skills. Today, much of the training is delivered through electronic media which has blurred the lines between ID and e-learning.
Another misconception about ID is that it is the same as education. In general, educators start with “big ideas” and work backwards to create curriculum to teach those big ideas. ID is more concerned with teaching a specific measurable skills usually to adult learners. An example would be if a company wanted to instruct their employees on how to use a new email system. An instructional designer would create instruction that focuses on exactly what learners need to know to use the new system. They would not concern themselves on how modern communications systems work or how they have changed the world.