Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Transforming Digital Natives to Digital Citizens

A Tough Question
I recently had the enriching opportunity to collaborate with author Marc Prensky whose term “digital native” has become the moniker for today’s students since 2001 when it was first coined. Marc watched me teach a lesson and helped me guide students through a discussion regarding digital citizenship. In our reflections afterwards, he challenged me to rethink the way I was using technology to enhance the learning experience with this question: Are we using technology to do old stuff in new ways, or are we using technology to truly transform learning?

Until he posed that question to me, I could have sworn I was doing the latter, and in many ways I am, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I probably was not doing enough that was transformative. In the week following our conversation, I was stuck. I asked myself, How can we take the solid knowledge of what digital citizenship means live and make it truly action oriented and transformative?

The Ah-Ha Moment
The answer occurred to me one beautiful Saturday when I headed outside with the goal to remain outside and explore new places all day. I started posting inspirational pictures from around the city spaces to Instagram...and watched as my two new student followers liked and commented on nearly all my posts. Then came an email from them suggesting I use some popular hashtags to gain more “likes” on my posts and a bigger following.

This experience on a Saturday was an ah-ha moment for me in a number of ways. I realized that we adults, or to use Prensky’s term, we “digital immigrants” spend a great deal of energy discussing content management with our young natives. Mostly we stay in the finger-pointing mode indicating what they should and should not post lest they be immortalized online in a negative light during their teen days; at best, we coach them on designing their image to market who they are. On the other hand, despite an often blatant disregard or naive understanding of content management, our youth counterparts have an insatiable desire to learn the most effective way to increase their reach and bring attention to their posts. These are skills I do not have...which led me to the conclusion: we could form a great partnership.

The Birth of @FindingGreenNYC
I had been listening to my students discuss how to increase awareness of their service project Finding Green, a documentary call to action focused on creating and preserving green space in our urban environment. 

They were reaching out by phone and email to local representatives and groups to tell them about the initiative and were very actively promoting it to friends. While promoting it via our social media profiles had been a noted goal, none of us thought of using the power of social media to create a profile for the cause itself. It was relatively easy to meet, discuss parameters of involvement, and set up a FindingGreenNYC profile on Instagram, Twitter, and Foursquare.

It started like this:

  • Create the profiles and select a social media savvy group to be the content managers/posters.
  • Check in, post pictures of, and essentially map all green spaces in the NYC area.
  • Follow and promote other groups which share our mission.
  • Engage in social activism with them by retweeting, sharing, and collaborating on all things green in NYC.
  • Continue our service mission to care for our city and its green spaces.

And quickly led into this:

  • One student suggested: What if we got kids in other cities around the United States to do the same, like a Finding Green Chicago? Exactly.
  • Another student said, What if we got kids in other cities around the world? Bingo.

  • We could have others become ambassadors by tagging us in posts about green space as they explored New York City and took part in conservation and beautification efforts in our parks.  
  • The project could be a student project which transcends time and space, growing with our student ambassadors as they leave their middle school and take it with them, becoming a student project in the truest sense of the word.

Three weeks later, we have our feeds live with a growing following; we have participated in two city park events, including one planting event and one post-Sandy clean up; we have presented at one EdCamp event (the native & the immigrant together) and are speaking at the upcoming TEDxYouth@TheSchool conference. I’ve watched the students grow in their roles as citizens, native both to New York City and the digital world; I’ve seen leadership emerge and creativity ignite.

In short, the question posed to me by Marc Prensky is a tough one to think about. I’m still stuck in many areas, and the digital immigrant in me cries out frequently, “Some old stuff is good!” However, this one project has illustrated for me the importance of transformational design in our use of technology. The best applications of technology will not only inform students on the proper use of tools but will erase boundaries between the digital and offline world; merge social, learning, and community spaces; and build agency in the the development of accountability standards in our shared digital world. They were born into it, and they will lead from it.