Saturday, September 20, 2008

Interactivity: The Key to Reaching Digital Natives

Keeping Up with Digital Natives - Part V
Interactivity: The Key to Reaching Digital Natives 

This is the fifth installment of my series on digital natives and how we can meet their needs in the classroom.

After much careful consideration and thoughtful observation, I have come to this conclusion: for a digital native there is a direct correlation between the interactivity of his/her classroom experience and the impact of the classroom experience on the digital native.  Furthermore, the correlation between the two becomes stronger when the interactivity involves technology.  Consider these points:
  • One of the first lessons new teachers learn is to call on students and ask them questions directly in order to keep them engaged: interactivity.
  • My daughter has always loved Dora the Explorer because the TV asks her for input and direction.  She perceives that her input affects what happens on the screen:interactivity.
  • My son has always loved video games because he has influence over the characters, the players, the civilizations, etc.  His actions and reactions in a dynamic scenario influence the direction the game goes: interactivity.
  • Senior level students in our dual credit math class do their homework and tests on laptops.  They spend more time on these assignments than they ever have before but they don't even notice.  As they answer questions, the computer gives instant feedback.  Even silly phrases such as "Fantastic" and "Stupendous" make the students excited: interactivity.
  • Senior English students in our English classes scour their lit books for quotes that describe them.  Using a variety of digital media, the students create presentations.  The students use Activboards to give the presentations in class.  The class, using a rubric provided by the teacher, use Activotes to grade the presentations on a number of things (correct MLA citations, accuracy of quotes relative to the presenter's personality, etc.) that require critical thinking and analysis.  Presenter and audience are fully engaged start to finish: interactivity.
  • Students in history classes at my last school begged for review days in history classes because their history teacher used a powerpoint version of Jeopardy for exam reviews: interactivity.
Interactivity directly addresses a number of our digital natives' needs.  First, interactivity allows digital natives to collaborate and to be social.  The insane popularity of social networks, blogs, wikis and MMOG (massive multiplayer online games) is evidence that digital natives crave contact (interaction) with others even if that contact is digital.  Digital natives thrive when placed in groups and when given assignments, projects and challenges requiring collaboration.  It's a good thing, too, because the future for which we are trying to prepare digital natives will require more collaboration, especially digital collaboration (email, videoconferencing, etc.), than ever before.

Second, interactivity provides allows digital natives to receive feedback quickly and continuously.  Digital natives will not tolerate dial-up Internet because they want instant connectivity.  Digital natives do not write letters because they want to send and receive communications instantly.  Digital natives do not shop for CDs at the mall because they want mp3 downloads in seconds.  Do not misunderstand this to mean that digital natives have short attention spans.  That simply isn't true.  Digital natives will spend hours browsing online, playing video games, writing software, blogging, creating videos, using IM or sending texts, and even doing homework on laptops with interactive software.  Rather, the digital natives' desire for quick feedback is more likely a reflection of the world in which they live, the world of instant downloads and rapid-fire video games.

Third, interactivity provides opportunities for digital natives to be creative.  Digital natives not only are creative (perhaps by nature) but also crave outlets for their creativity.  If you have doubts, check out some of the machinima videos on youtube, photos on Photobucket, money-making schemes on ebay, websites, organizations and more, all created by digital natives.  Games such as the Sims series, World of Warcraft, even 1st-person shooter games, require creativity to master.  Teachers who require students to be creative, whether with writing assignments or with digital presentations, will engage and challenge their students more than those who simply require the organization and memorization of data.

An ancient Chinese proverb says, "Give a man a fish and feed him for a day.  Teach him to fish and feed him for a lifetime."  Do you think that ancient Chinese fisherman simply wrote instructions for the hungry guy? No.  Interactive teaching was the key.  Do you think simply giving a digital native an engineering text will effectively teach engineering concepts?  No.  How about hands-on interactive engineering labs combined with the interactivity of the Infinity Project, all overseen by a master teacher?  You better believe it.

Here is my twofold challenge to the next generation of educational leaders: First, find a way to make your classrooms, as well as your out-of-school assessments and projects, as interactive as possible.  Second, couple the interactivity with technology.  This recipe will produce better teachers, better students and, ultimately, graduates prepared to enter a rapidly-changing digital future.

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