Chapter Eleven: Learners


modernize some beautiful old classrooms. Among other

things, the school’s administrators decided to install new chairs. The old

ones were incredibly uncomfortable—hard, plastic, and form-fitting. The

chairs harkened back to an earlier era of education, when students were

expected to sit still and ramrod straight, responding to hard questions and

taking notes as the hoary old professor at the front of the room drilled the

laws of evidence into their brains.

Having decided to update the chairs, Harvard Law School decided it

would make sense to install an Ethernet jack at each student’s seat, along

with an electric outlet for laptops. This renovation happened to coincide

with the dot-com era, in which students were jumping ship to start their

own Internet companies. Even law firm associates and partners were bailing

out to join dot-coms. Not to be outdone by other schools preparing

their lawyers for practice in a digital age, the Harvard Law School administration

decided that a modern classroom ought to have Internet access at

every seat. But the faculty hadn’t focused on what the effect of access to the

Internet during class would be.

Immediately after they were installed, the law school faculty ordered

that the Ethernet jacks—the on-ramps to the Internet—be turned off.

Students could plug their laptops into the electrical sockets and take

notes, if they must, but the notion of a classroom full of students surfing

the Web during a Socratic teaching session on the hearsay rule made professors


A decade later, no one uses the Ethernet jacks in the renovated classrooms.

But the students are most definitely on the Internet during Evidence

class—pretty much all of them, actually. Students access the Net

through the wireless networks that blanket the Harvard campus (and much

of the city of Cambridge, for that matter). During class, the students are online,

reading the news on CNN, sending instant messages, accessing

Wikipedia to learn (maybe) what happened in that case they didn’t read for

class. There’s no meaningful way to stop them from doing so, short of banning

laptops in the classroom or situating teaching fellows at the back of

the room to keep an eye on every screen. Some faculty members do just

that; others seek to harness the Web for pedagogical purposes; and others

are still scratching their heads about it all, wondering what happened, so

quickly and with so little deliberation, to legal education. Is growing up with the internet

the only reason that students are online during class? Could there be other reasons?

Could they be online because they are not engaged? Or because education has

become an endgame?

Harvard Law School is far from alone. The educational establishment is

utterly confused about what to do about the impact of technology on

learning. Schools at every level of education have done the same thing that

Harvard Law School did. Some schools have distributed a laptop to every

student, and then wondered what to have them do with the computers

(or regretted what the students did do with them). Others have spent tens

of thousands of dollars to equip every classroom with SmartBoards, a terrific

newfangled computerized chalk-board that sits at the front of the

room, only to wonder, after the checks were cashed, whether the Smart-

Boards belong there. Now that wireless Internet access blankets many campuses

and urban areas, schools are wondering whether to boost the signals

or to find ways to try block them from bleeding into the classrooms (almost

certainly a futile task).

Forward-looking schools know that technology infrastructures are likely

to be worthy investments over time. But very few have any idea how to use

them—and, just as important, when not to use them—at the present moment.

And very few schools have figured out the connection between how

young people are learning in general in a digital age, in both formal and

informal settings, and their own missions.

In order for schools to adapt to the habits of Digital Natives and how

they are processing information, educators need to accept that the mode

of learning is changing rapidly in a digital age. Before answering the questions

about how precisely to use technology in schools, we must understand

these changes. To do so, it’s necessary to expand the frame to all

learning, not just the kind that happens in the classroom.

Learning itself has undergone a transformation over the past thirty years.

The Internet is changing the way that children—and college students—

gather and process information in all aspects of their lives. For Digital Natives,

“research” is more likely to mean a Google search than a trip to the

library. They are more likely to check in with the Wikipedia community,

or to turn to another online friend, than they are to ask a reference librarian

for help. They rarely, if ever, buy the newspaper in hard copy; instead,

they graze through copious amounts of news and other information online.

We’re not quite sure yet what the implications of these changes will be

over the long term. There are a lot of excellent questions to be answered

about how kids are learning in a digital environment and how that compares

to the way they learned in a predominantly analog world. Does reading

websites, instead of books and broadsheet-style newspapers, actually

change the way people process information, in the short and long terms?

Do kids end up remembering the information that they gather online more

or less effectively than they remember material they read on a printed page?

And maybe more importantly does it matter if they do or do not? Could it be that

our memories are evolving as well? Didn’t Einstein say that it is a waste of time to

remember things that could be looked up?

Is the way that kids read these days a cause or an effect of diminishing attention

spans (or both)? Again, should a long attention span necessarily be privileged?

What is the role of teachers and librarians in a

world with so many experts opining freely on the Web, to whom Digital

Natives are turning for information? Are kids learning anything of value

while playing all those video games that consume so much of their free


There is a vast phalanx of psychologists, neuroscientists, and educational

theorists—among others—working on these and many other

questions about how new technologies are affecting the ways that Digital

Natives absorb and retain information.

Adults are worried about how kids are learning. In the absence of clear

data, a lot of parents and educators are fearful of the effects that digital

technologies are having on our children and their ability to learn. Parents

and grandparents worry about kids not reading books cover to cover the

way they used to. Librarians worry that kids are only looking at a narrow

range of sources, to which they’ve been referred by a single monolithic

corporation (Google, or the search-engine-of-the-year). Senior faculty

members at universities worry that their graduate students are failing to

find highly relevant Lionel Trilling articles because some online databases

don’t go far enough back to include his work. Slogans, in headline format,

they fear, dominate the information seeping into young people’s brains,

with kids developing too few analytical skills along the way. Kids, the

worry goes, are channel-surfing through their education, and their brains

are being rewired in the process.

Just because Digital Natives learn differently from the way their parents

did when they were growing up doesn’t mean that Digital Natives are not

learning. Take, for example, the way that Digital Natives learn about events

in the news. Many older people assume that because Digital Natives are not

reading newspapers and magazines, but instead absorbing news all day

long on various websites (and from comedy programs and other unconventional

sources), their understanding of current events is superficial and

limited to headlines. And worse, these headlines, parents and teachers

worry, come from biased websites, rather than authoritative organizations

like the New York Times or the big television networks, NBC, ABC, and

CBS. If it’s not outright wrong, the version of the story Digital Natives encounter

online must be superficial, many people fear. What version or organization is not biased

to some extent? If there is anything un-biased it is engaging with a multitude of

sources/voices as opposed to one source/voice.

These assumptions are wrong, because they underestimate the depth of

knowledge that Digital Natives are obtaining on the Web. They also miss

a key feature of how Digital Natives experience news: interacting with information

in constructive ways. Digital Natives often access much more information

about a topic they are interested in than kids of previous

generations ever could have. A recent study of young people and their

news-gathering habits confirms these changes. The study found, for example,

that young Americans don’t read the daily newspaper. Digital Natives

pick up bits and pieces of news and information as they go about

their day, not in a single sitting at the breakfast table in the morning or in

front of the television in the evening. And often, they in fact engage more

with the material than those who are used to more traditional news formats,

by virtue of writing a post about the idea on a blog or sharing it with

a friend on Facebook or over instant messaging.

Just because Digital Natives don’t learn things in the same way that their

grandparents did does not mean that the way that they are learning is not

as effective. There is no evidence to suggest that they are learning less than

their grandparents did, or that they are more superficial in their learning.

In fact, Digital Natives are quite sophisticated in the ways that they gather

information. The people to be worried about are those who are growing up

in a digital age but who are not learning these sophisticated information gathering

and information-processing skills, or creating things of their own

based on what they learn and sharing it with others.

Digital Natives gather information through a multistep process that involves

grazing, a “deep dive,” and a feedback loop. They are perfecting the

art of grazing through the huge amount of information that comes their

way on a daily basis. Imagine an eighteen-year-old college freshman interested

in the Middle East. (Yes, many Digital Natives are interested in

public affairs in regions other than their own.) Her boyfriend comes from

an Arabic-speaking family, and she is hoping to travel to Egypt next summer.

When she opens her browser, Google is her home page. It features

headlines from sources that she has preselected, on topics of her choosing.

She might even have plugged keywords into Google or Technorati (a similar

service that primarily tracks blogs) so that those services could send her

alerts when relevant stories appear. She grazes all day through the news

feeds that she sees on her Facebook profile, posted by friends or others.

She might see headlines about the region by grazing through news from

major news outlets online (CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times, Al-Jazeera,

and so forth). She’ll also probably have a few favorite specialized websites

or discussion boards—for instance,—which she’ll

glance at in the course of the day. Chat rooms and e-mail listservs might

serve a similar function. This is a very excellent and inspiring example, and

while believable I yet to encounter such a student in my classrooms.

And, of course, her computer isn’t the only medium through which she

will learn about the news in the Middle East in a given day. Her cell phone

might serve up headlines that come through like text messages to her

handset, bleeping at her as they arrive (if she’s a sports fan, this is how she

gets changes in a game score, too). She will hear news on the radio or

watch it on the television in a gym or a student center at her university. She

also watches television news programs that star comedians, such as Jon

Stewart or Stephen Colbert.

While grazing, the Digital Native will absorb a headline or a bit more—

perhaps a paragraph—about any given story. The most important features

of information in this context are speed, accessibility, and how well it has

been sorted. The information is valuable insofar as it is timely, relevant,

and easy to process. The fact that it can be accessed from anywhere—that

Facebook news feed is channeled through a cell phone that is constantly

attached to a Digital Native’s body—is equally important. And the interface

through which the Digital Native gets this information is more useful and

attractive the more it can enable her to sort through the vast rivers of information

flowing around her all the time.

With some of the stories she sees, she decides she wants to go beyond

the headline, to learn more about a topic or event—to take a deep dive. In

this way, she is searching for what’s behind the headline, what the facts

are, what it might mean for her, what the people involved looked like, and

so forth. It might mean clicking on a hypertext link, loading up a video,

or downloading a podcast to listen to on the train. The deep dive helps her

to make sense of the news, to put it into a frame or better context, to offer

an analysis of it, to introduce relevant other voices.

The deep-dive stage in the news-gathering process for a Digital Native is

where news organizations, especially powerful and wealthy institutions—

those able to afford bureaus and the like—can add the most value. Some

blogs fill this role, too. CNN, the BBC, the New York Times, The Economist,

Talking Points Memo—these are increasingly powerful brands in a world

of more and more information sources. Global Voices online is an example

of a trustworthy brand that is less well known, but equally important

in terms of providing context to stories that our hypothetical Digital Native

encounters as she seeks news and information about the Middle East.

Global Voices is a global nonprofit citizens’ media organization that seeks

to aggregate, curate, and amplify the global conversation online and to

shine light on places and people other media often ignore. The key factor

is not speed in this context, though timeliness is important; the key

factors are accuracy, trustworthiness, insight, analysis, new angles, and


Some will go further, meaning that they will actively engage with the information,

sometimes in new ways. The eighteen-year-old college student

may be enraged by what she reads and want to “talk back” to the news. The

logical next step is to jump into the debate somehow. This last stage—the

feedback loop—is not for every Digital Native, and certainly not for every

young person. It is also the hardest for traditionalists to grapple with. Some

Digital Natives take this next step to engage more meaningfully with the

facts and the context of what they read.

The form of a Digital Native’s feedback loops varies. She might write a

post to her blog to critique a story she saw on CNN. She might comment on

someone else’s blog, or on a wiki or bulletin board. Or perhaps she’ll send

an e-mail to a listserv or to a network news program. If she’s especially creative

or passionate about a subject, she might create her own podcast or

video-log (or vlog). The idea is that she may react publicly to the story or remake

and retell it in some fashion. Digital tools enable her to have an impact

on the way the story is told. This feedback loop should be taken seriously.

The feedback loop might also involve passing the information around

to friends and family. Digital information has a social life in the hands of

Digital Natives. They share it with one another, post stories to their profiles

in social network sites, and talk about it on instant messaging or on

blogs. It’s not every young person who engages with information in this interactive

way, but it’s more than most parents and teachers think. The same

instinct that leads a new Web user to circulate so many e-mail jokes (and

scams) animates the news- and information-sharing behavior of Digital

Natives. The difference between a Digital Native and one’s aunt with the

new e-mail account in this regard is that the Digital Native is likely more

sophisticated about what she shares and how.

Generally speaking, this increased level of engagement with information

and the world around her is good for her own learning process. If we

can encourage it, there’s no doubt that this feedback loop will redound to

the benefit of society at large over time. If Digital Natives are rewarded for

leading lives more engaged in the civic sphere, we’ll all be better off. It’s a

long shot, but it’s one worth taking—and one that won’t happen unless

we pay attention to fostering the positive behavior that it involves. Or the way that

I see it is that we are not going to stop it anyway so we should hasten the process and

push through the learning curve as soon as possible.

While the effects of this mode of learning—both in gathering and recreating

information—pose real problems for print and other content-owning

industries, those with strong brands should be able to thrive. There’s no evidence

that Digital Natives have less interest in news and information than

their parents and grandparents. It’s just that Digital Natives are not engaging

with news and information in the same way as it has historically been

offered by these industries. Studies of the user-generated content environment

show that the news items that spur the most conversation on blogs

and similar sites are often first published by mainstream news providers

such as the New York Times. The Times is an example of a company that has

invested heavily in an accessible, effective online format for its world-class

news. Its senior leadership has a strong vision for how the news will be

provided and how people will engage with it in the future. Good things in

new formats will enable strong brands to lead in a digital era.

There are no hard data to suggest that Digital Natives are smarter than

anyone who came before them. Neither is there any sign that kids are

dumber, or in any way less promising, than previous generations of kids.

Digital Natives are doing the same things their parents did with information,

just in different ways. While they may not be learning the same things

through the same processes, it’s not the case that Digital Natives are interacting

less with information. They are simply coping with more information,

and that information comes to their attention in new ways—offering

new possibilities for engagement. However, there is data that shows that

Digital Natives are expert consumers, something that these authors fail to

address in these two chapters. I am curious how this plays out in the college

classroom and in ideologies in the Native’s mind.

Some of the concerns that parents and teachers have about how kids are

learning in a digital age have merit. These are real problems that need to

be addressed.

First, we know that Digital Natives multitask. At Harvard, most students

have a laptop in front of them, connected to the Internet, at all times.

As teachers at the front of the room, we can tell that students are using the

Internet during a seminar to IM one another, read news online, and other –

wise amuse themselves. There’s an obvious concern about students not

paying enough attention to the task at hand—namely, in this case, learning

about the law. With a world of information and connections to friends

at their fingertips at all times, the temptation to stray from the course is

great. As we saw in the previous chapter, multitasking is almost always

bad when a student is trying to learn new things or doing something that

requires a lot of attention. One of the reasons that Harvard professors didn’t

want access to the Internet in the classroom was that they didn’t want students

to be distracted by playing solitaire (or, thanks to Internet connectivity,

hearts) on their computers during class. Faculty members often wish

the students were still sitting up ramrod straight in those uncomfortable

chairs and hanging on every word.

Some parents and teachers worry, too, about Digital Natives having

shorter attention spans than children in previous decades. There are real

issues brewing here. Many kids do read shorter works. They are migrating

from things like extended format magazines and books to the Web. On

the Web, short formats ordinarily work better than long formats, whether

in text, audio, or video. By and large, it is a sound-bite culture. Ditto for

text messaging, instant messaging, and even e-mailing.

Many of the young people we interviewed stressed their preference for

instant messaging and texting, for instance, as a mode of communication

with others. Much has been said of the increasingly short attention spans,

not just of our youth but of anyone in society. All news seekers are rewarded

for flitting about from sound bite to sound bite, and these bites are

coming from more and more sources. For Digital Natives, the phenomenon

is the same, only amplified.

A third and unrelated concern we’ve heard from teachers is that the innovative

use of technology leads to a “copy-and-paste” culture—a practice

that is in tension with traditional educational ethics. According to insiders,

technology-enabled cheating is on the rise on college campuses, especially

in technical disciplines, where students increasingly work together

on assignments when they are required to submit their “own” answers.

These phenomena are obvious to anyone who teaches or manages Digital

Natives in a classroom or a workplace. These fears are realistic. Many

adults who have migrated to the Web do just the same things. Things are

moving and changing quickly in the digital age. It’s hard to know what the

future will hold, and more than a bit scary.

Given what we know about how kids are learning in the digital age, there

are many things that schools can do to harness what is great about how

Digital Natives relate to information. There’s also a lot we can do to address

the problems that are cropping up.

We don’t need to overhaul education to teach kids who are born digital.

There is a temptation among those who love technology to promote

radical changes in the way we teach our students. It’s easy to fetishize technology.

That instinct is wrong. Learning will always have certain enduring

qualities that have little or nothing to do with technology.

The use of technology in teaching makes no sense if it’s just because we

think that technology is cool. It’s easy to understand how we get to this

place. The thinking goes like this: It’s fun and cool to blog; lots of people

are doing it; we know that kids get some information from blogs; therefore,

blogging must have a place in our schools. This orientation is a mistake.

We should figure out, instead, how the use of technologies can support our

pedagogical goals. Blogging might, or might not, be part of the approach

we end up taking. The right way to look at it is to ask whether blogging

can meet a need that we have in our teaching. We need to determine what

our goals are, as teachers and parents, and then figure out how technology

can help us, and our kids, to reach those goals.5

The things that schools and teachers do best should not be scrapped in

the rush to use technologies in the classroom. In every field, there are aspects

of the curriculum that should be taught without screens or Net connections.

In our field of law, for instance, the computer has no place in a

classroom where a wonderful teacher is firing questions at a first-year student,

quizzing him about contracts. Surveys among Digital Natives indicate

that students have a preference for a moderate use of technology in the

classroom.6 The way that students learn to think critically, much of the

time, is through old-fashioned dialogue, with people exchanging views

and looking in depth at a topic, questioning and exploring issues in a face to-

face, real-life setting: Our teaching, in such cases, should not necessarily be mediated

by new technologies. This is the hardest job that teachers and principals may face: how

to avoid the trap of shunning the technology, on the one hand, and embracing

it in places where it does not belong, on the other.

There are ways that we can get Digital Natives interested and take advantage

of the particular ways that they learn. Let’s take advantage of the

fact that they have computers in front of them and the skills to use them.

Schools should make it a priority to figure out the right way to integrate

technology into the curriculum for the given skill level of students. These

approaches should seek to optimize, in the classroom environment, what

we know Digital Natives to be doing in learning both inside and outside

the formal school setting.

The most important thing that schools can do is not to use technology

in the curriculum more, but to use it more effectively. We ought to

experiment with ways in which technology ought to be part of the everyday

curricula in schools—but only where it belongs. The technology

should only be applied in support of our pedagogy, not for its own sake.

This basic orientation suggests that holding “computer classes,” while

possibly a sensible add-on to some curricula, is not as good of an idea as

the notion of building technology into the ordinary curriculum where it

can help. Programs where students are doing applied work, research and

writing, arts and music, and problem solving are obvious places to seek


As part of these curricular changes, schools need to focus on bringing

the kids on the other side of the participation gap up to speed. The New

Media Literacies curricula are designed for this purpose. Instead of worrying

about the “digital divide” in terms of just access to technologies,

schools need to adopt affirmative strategies to teach kids who otherwise are

being left behind by the digitally mediated world to function effectively

within it.

To bridge this gap, schools should encourage kids to learn by doing in

digital environments. Learning by doing is a more difficult thing to rubric-ize and

as of yet it is my experience that students like this idea until they are expected

to put it into practice. When asked to put it into practice, they want to be told what exactly to do.

Young people, whether they are Digital Natives or

not, can learn by creating digital works ranging from the utterly simple to

the highly elaborate. The idea is to build on their penchant for developing

online profiles and other materials in MySpace, Facebook, blogs, and

YouTube. NOTE: there is a strange lack of synthesis though… faceook and

myspace okay, but blogging is weird…

Music classes can be transformed by letting kids listen to

Beethoven and then having them create their own master work (or maybe

not) using inexpensive software on a computer, like FL Studio or, for the

more daring, Audacity. Writing, poetry, art—in each instance a teacher

can orient Digital Natives in a digital space and encourage them to build

something new or improve on something old. In social studies or a class

on politics, students could be prompted to take digital speeches of candidates

for office and remix them into contexts that make them meaningful

to the student. In so doing, students could learn about copyrights—their

own as well as others’. This mode of teaching students by encouraging

their talents for online creativity will no doubt present challenges for many

teachers who are not comfortable in the digital world. But the payoff could

be substantial, for student and teacher alike.

Schools should also use digital technologies to encourage team-based

learning. The school of the future will put students in digitally supported

environments where they can work, and learn, in teams. Digital Natives are

proving, all the time, that they can build communities around ideas, good

and bad. Interaction and a sense of community are the key requests of

those born digital when it comes to online learning, as surveys indicate.

The work world will require them to collaborate in order to succeed,

whether they are starting a new business or nonprofit or taking a staff position

in an existing one. Collaborative technologies like wikis are cheap

and easy to use. As students research, write, and create collaboratively

through online environments, they will be learning skills that will serve

them well over time, even as digital economies evolve.

Schools also ought to incentivize and reward experimentation by its faculty. The

difficult part about this is twofold: it requires a huge time investment on the part of

faculty, and when that does not happen (which is often) that burden falls on IT staff.

The result is that IT staff at universities often become overwhelmed with requests by

faculty to bring media to classrooms.

Principals and deans should strive to make it easy for faculty to experiment

with new technologies in support of their teaching. Teachers

know best what problems they need to solve and what opportunities they

want to seize. Most schools develop a mode of supporting modest use of

modest tools by a handful of faculty. School leaders need to have enough

vision and enough support for experimentation for creativity to take hold

and flourish, in step with curricular reform.

Experimentation by faculty might include creative use of gaming in the

classroom, for instance. Many parents and teachers complain about the short

attention spans of their kids; but those same kids seem to have more than

adequate attention spans when it comes to gaming. The technologies themselves

can be used to address the problems to which their use contributes—

such as short attention spans.13 Schools can find ways to tap into the Digital

Native love of gaming. There is a movement building around “pro-social

gaming,” for example, which has enormous promise as a concept. In reality,

most of the games invented so far with a socially oriented purpose have been

less than compelling. The notion of finding ways to use games, in certain instances,

to teach math or science has a place in future curricula.

There’s an enormous amount we can learn from what is engaging Digital

Natives, and we should apply that learning to our efforts to rethink

curricula. One simple idea, for any class that involves writing of some sort,

is to put digital technologies to work as a feedback loop for students to

comment on the material they are studying or on the ideas of their peers.

The technologies to do so are free or cheap, and students already know

how to use them. BUT WILL THEY? If they are graded, probably. If they are not

graded probably not.

Finally, the school of the future should be better connected to the world

at large. It’s a big world. We learn too little about people and places far

from us. One of the ways that the Internet can be used for free is to help

people to explore the world without having to buy a plane ticket. Digital

Natives know how to connect to people who are geographically far from

them. In the simplest form, the Internet provides access to deeper, richer

information about other cultures.

A great way for a classroom teacher to enable students to listen in on

what people in another culture are saying, and to communicate with them,

is to use Global Voices. A simple class project would be to follow the news

in a place that students are studying in class and to require students to

post comments on stories about what happened that week in Kenya or

Mongolia—or any other place they are studying. Project Lingua at Global

Voices ensures that many articles are translated by users into multiple languages,

and sometimes a fascinating discussion on a given word-choice in

one language or another accompanies the piece. Kids can effectively travel

abroad by using the Internet.

Those schools with more in the way of resources can experiment more

extensively than those with fewer resources, and more elaborate systems

will pay off for students who perform at a high level. The computer science

program at the elite Chapin School in New York City, which encourages the

integration of digital tools across the curriculum, is one exceptional example.

They have set up creative online spaces that look like MySpace

pages, only more structured and learning-oriented. Most schools can’t

afford Chapin’s level of experimentation, but for those that can, the opportunities

are endless—and well worth pursuing.

Schools of the future will need faculty of the future. We both teach at

fancy universities. Our schools have invested a lot of money installing new

technologies. But no one has ever offered to teach either of us how to apply

those technologies in our teaching. There are great people we can go to if

we have a question about how to get on the network, connect a computer

to a projector, or perform any other task related to getting the technology

to work. But very few schools of any sort take the simple first step of giving

teachers adequate training, or any training at all, to help them teach

using technologies in a way that supports their specific pedagogical mode. I learned at

a recent New Media Consortium conference that some European countries are instituting

mandated educational technology training for their university teachers on a yearly basis.

This only makes sense and will likely only happen here at the wealthiest institutions or

hrough a similar mandate. This idea is not so far-fetched I hope the Obama administration

is in full support of open course content sharing like what has been done at MIT since 2002[i].

The trainers don’t need to be expensive outside consultants. They could

well be the most tech-savvy teachers in each department, just sharing examples

of how they’ve successfully deployed the technology in their own

teaching. One could even imagine ways to work Digital Natives into helping

teachers learn to teach more effectively using some of these technologies.

We know this is much easier said than done, especially for schools

strapped for cash and teachers hard-pressed for time. But it is a worthy

and obvious place to start.

Television didn’t transform education. Neither will the Internet. This statement seems absurd to me.

Television and the Internet have only superficial things in common: mass communication,

entertainment and marketing. Comparatively, the internet is an exploded version of

television with a couple very large differences: interaction and a democratic/democratizing

structure. It seems to me that this statement needs to be reconsidered.

But it will be another tool for teachers to use in their effort to reach students in

the classroom. It will also be a means by which students learn outside of

the classroom.

The changes for libraries over the past couple of decades have been even

more radical than the changes in the classroom. Libraries are the facet of

education that will change the most in the digital age.

Librarians have no choice but to ask hard questions about acquisitions,

given the increasing importance of digital resources to the library’s core

users. The problem is that both digital works and traditional print materials

cost money. The ideal scenario—in which a collection includes a hardcopy

version and digital version of every book, for searching, cataloging,

borrowing, and citation—is implausible. This is, at a certain point, a zerosum

game of resources. The cost of acquiring an increasing number of

works in two formats and maintaining dual systems (analog and digital) is


Many libraries are already being transformed. Some are devoting less

and less room to books, and more and more to computers and printers. In

the process, many libraries are becoming more like bookstores with every

passing year. Digital technologies allow them to know more about what

their patrons are reading, just as bookstores use them to track their customers’

preferences. The need to spend on digital works and services—

in part to meet the demand from Digital Natives—is concurrently re ducing

the amount of money available to spend on books. Libraries are teaming

up with one another to acquire books for just-in-time delivery to patrons,

rather than maintaining the old system of each library having its own

copy of each book on the shelf. We are witnessing the Amazonification of


Digitization has meant that books—in their classic, bound format—

aren’t the only way to convey information. Patrons have more options than

they used to. Just as iTunes offered customers an à la carte approach to obtaining

music, publishers are signing on to allow people to buy one chapter

at a time. Google lets customers sample many books before buying them.

More profound, kids who can’t afford books can read John Locke in digital

format for free online, and many other public domain works besides.

Books are not dead; culture is not collapsing. There is no need to worry

about the future of the book just yet. Books for many people remain a very

good technology. Hard copies of books are important on many levels.

Many people prefer to read hard copies of books to digital forms of books,

despite massive investments in technologies like e-Ink at the MIT Media

Lab. Books don’t run out of batteries on airplanes, as an Amazon Kindle

can in the middle of a gripping novel. Some people, including Digital Natives,

still like to curl up with books in bed, collect them on bookshelves

as signs of their knowledge (or for easy access), take them to the beach, and

so forth. Books represent a stable format, unlike the constantly changing

digital formats that imperil digital record-keeping processes over the long

term. Books are the cornerstone, for now at least, of the large and important

publishing industry, whose leaders play a significant role in democracies

and cultures around the world. Books have the advantage, under

U.S. and European law at least, of being covered by the first-sale doctrine

and the principle of exhaustion, respectively (you can give them away, or

lend them, or sell them in a secondary market). But books have downsides,

too—the slow fire phenomenon (whereby books of a certain vintage

are deteriorating quickly), the high cost of production (compared to

their digital counterparts), and the high cost of storage and distribution.

The libraries of the future will also need the librarians of the future. Libraries

will be staffed increasingly by those who can serve as guides to Digital

Natives. At a fundamental level, the services provided by the library

ought to adjust to the way that Digital Natives are accessing information.

There’s never been a greater need for reference librarians than there is

today, when Digital Natives are relying so heavily on Google, Wikipedia,

and the places to which those sites point them.

The job of the librarian of the future should in part be to help to create

a self-service information environment that allows students to navigate the

increasingly complex array of choices for getting the information they need.

In addition to maintaining access to traditional pools of knowledge (such

as books, journals, and case studies), librarians should help Digital Natives

figure out how to manage the rivers of digital information that they encounter

every day (RSS feeds of current information that is useful for a short

window, but less so with the passage of time, for example). Right now, libraries

are focused on the pools. Librarians could profitably help patrons

have greater access to the rivers, and to use them more effectively.

Libraries should serve as a digital heritage center. The works of Digital

Natives, and of everyone else living in the digital age, may well be less

likely to be preserved than the writings of ninth-century monks on sturdy

parchment. Librarians should think in terms of collections that will preserve

this digital heritage for future generations. The collection of digital

resources by every library, historical society, museum, and other collecting

institution can help on this front. This is what it means to gather resources

for the public in a digital era. In a world where our children are born digital, these

collections can be freely online and available to anyone, anywhere

in the world—not just those within walking or driving distance of

each library. And these collections should take the form of a digital commons,

without the constraints of physical distribution, from the start. As

Digital Natives are creating many of the artifacts that successive generations

will wish to study, this will be their legacy.

The role of libraries is increasing, not decreasing. The job may take on

different contours, but its importance is only rising as Digital Natives grow

up saturated in the information environment of the digital age.

Schools and libraries should start by putting the learners first. Teachers

and administrators need to get serious about figuring out how kids are

learning, and they must build digital literacy skills into their core curricula.

Librarians should embrace the crucial role that they can play in guiding

Digital Natives through the increasingly complicated world of digital

information. How does one guide a person who has a distinctly different and

more immersed experience than oneself?

Our children find information in digital formats and are processing it in

ways that those who came before them could only have imagined. This

information is sometimes surrounded with far less context than in the past,

while at other times, it is surrounded with far more. Our challenge is to

help them make sense of these new contexts and new meanings, and to

think synthetically and critically, rather than letting them lose their way.

Yes, but this also means that we need to let go of old notions of “genius, leader and top down

structures in order to make this happen.

Digital Natives may be able to lead us into these new environments and

show us how they work, but parents, teachers, and librarians still need to

teach children and students how to interpret the signals they pick up with

such perception. Again – . How does one guide a person who has a distinctly

different and more immersed experience than oneself?

We find ourselves in a period of transition. Digital tools will find their

place in schools and libraries. We have managed transitions of this sort

before. The hard part, during the transition, will be to discern what to preserve

about traditional education and what to replace with new, digitally

mediated processes and tools. Sometimes, this will mean teaching kids to

use computers; sometimes, computers will have no place in the room. We

need to get much better at telling the two apart. Only then can we exploit

what we know about how kids are learning in the digital age.


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