Jun 21, 2011

Human 2.0

Some dialog about the evolution of the Human Digerati. #SecondLife

“Pay attention!”

I can remember those words being repeated time and again in the classroom by a teacher at the end of their wits with the students. In the age of computers and ubiquitous technology, our students, and likely many of us born around or after the 1980s, exhibit strange behavior when compared to the prior generations. For one, we simply can’t be bothered to pay attention; our minds wandering from thought to idea in a seemingly chaotic manner.

From the viewpoint of “legacy” teachers, to borrow a term from computer lingo, these digital natives have the attention span of a gnat, and often times are simply impossible to teach. I beg to differ with that analysis, mainly because we’re assuming that these students (many who are now full grown adults) are somehow deficient, and that is a dangerous path to entertain. Down that path, we simply label children and adults as being Attention Deficit Disorder and prescribe some drug to “normalize” them.

Personally, I’m against the whole idea of A.D.D. and ADHD being considered a disorder or diagnosis at all, because of the implication that these children and adults are somehow broken and need to be fixed. In reality, they are Digital Natives and their very minds have been altered through rapid and long-term exposure to technological ubiquity. These children and adults aren’t suffering from poor attention span and focus, but quite the opposite; They’ve become exceedingly proficient at parallel thinking and multitasking, and as a result, anything linear is ignored.

I recently had a conversation with a friend in #SecondLife where she was explaining to me that she was told her son had A.D.D and required medication in order to correct the “problem”. Of course, she refused to have her son drugged up and instead chose a more hands-on approach to handle the situation, which included actually figuring out what was going on (to the best of her abilities). She had asked me what I had thought about the situation, and I essentially told her that she had done the right thing, because I didn’t think the boy needed medication for A.D.D. nor did I think there was anything wrong with him. In short, her son is the product of being a Digital Native, and should be celebrated instead of shunned for it. As far as I am concerned, it is a gift and not a curse.

It’s not a matter of not being able to pay attention or focus, but a matter of lightning quick prioritization of importance, meaning, and weighted analysis of attention. Unfortunately, the results are that anything linear is given a much lesser importance and thus marginalized at best in the minds of Digital Natives as “not important”.

I can say with certainty that I fall into the category of Digital Native very clearly, in that I personally disliked school, and while that isn’t exactly enough to justify the point there lies within it a deeper reasoning below the surface. It wasn’t that I disliked school, but instead the courses were bland and not interesting to me. At first I believed it was because I was somehow failing to grasp what was being taught, but later I realized a bigger truth; The teachers were failing to grasp the attention of the students or understand how they truly learned things.

There are two paths to consider when dealing with whether this apparent lack of attention has deeper meaning, and most of the time we immediately insist there is something wrong with the students. I’d like to venture out and say that the problem is not with the students but with the teachers as well as the legacy society that is trying to interact with these Digerati kids, in that they are Digital Immigrants (Legacy Thinkers in a Digital Native environment), and speak a very different language than that of the Digital Natives. Schools teach in very linear fashions, where text comes first and then maybe pictures afterward. Boring lectures that carry on far longer than required, dry material, and absolutely no immersion or hypermedia context. On the other side of the desk are the students, who are digital natives, carelessly engaged in multitasking and parallel thinking requirements, listening to teachers demanding that they devote 100% of their focus to what they are saying instead.

It’s just not going to work like that, and we know it. Growing up, I was told constantly how listening to music or watching television was counter-productive to studying or work, because (as the theory goes) you can’t do two things at once without sacrifice to the overall performance of both. For some things I’ll buy that line, like when driving you shouldn’t be texting people, but clearly we have radios installed in our cars and listening to music while driving isn’t cited as a number one cause of accidents – even when we’re constantly seeing reports of drivers in accidents when using their cell-phones. It really depends what we’re doing and whether we’re properly thinking in parallel – clearly the radio isn’t causing accidents but the cell phones are, unless you’re using a Bluetooth headset to talk.

The point is, the idea that we’re somehow lesser able simply because we’re multitasking is absolutely bunk, at least if we’re testing against Digital Natives and not Digital Immigrants.

At some point, research was done for Sesame Street revealing that children do not actually watch television continuously, but “in bursts.” They tune in just enough to get the gist and be sure it makes sense.  In one key experiment, half the children were shown the program in a room filled with toys.  As expected, the group with toys was distracted and watched the show only about 47 percent of the time as opposed to 87 percent in the group without toys.  However, when the children were tested for how much of the show they remembered and understood, the scores were exactly the same.  “We were led to the conclusion that the 5-year-olds in the toys group were attending quite strategically, distributing their attention between toy play and viewing so that they looked at what was for them the most informative part of the program.  The strategy was so effective that the children could gain no more from increased attention.” [1]

If a 5 year old can think in parallel effectively, so can you. They’re more aware of their surroundings than we give them credit for.

Heck, whenever I’m working on a project I am most often listening to music or multitasking across multiple tabs on my web browser simultaneously while answering messages. How do you think I wrote my book chapter? By nature I’m an “Immersive Learner” which is a fancy way of saying that all methods of learning interaction are the best manner for me at the same time and fall exceedingly short individually – Visual, Kinesthetic, and Auditory. In a hyper-media frame of mind that is thinking in parallel, the problem may be that we’re not being taught in a manner that is immersive or takes into account what type of learner we are. How better to address this problem than to teach in an Immersive Learning environment that caters to all types at the same time?

I mean, the most effective forms of education are turning out to be not from real teachers but from fictional characters in video games, television, or unrestricted access to hyper-media.

Maybe Animaniacs should have been required television?

It isn’t a matter of whether or not children or adults are having trouble focusing or paying attention, but quite the contrary – in that they are devoting no more than is required for multiple tasks, with a weighted importance (more attention) to things that they can actually take something away from having given more attention to. If you’re speaking their language (Immersive Learning), then you’re likely to have their full attention.

There is also rising evidence that technology actually does rewire the brain, changing the way we think, which leads me to believe that we’re not actually deficient but instead at a higher advancement than the prior generations of legacy thinkers. Digital Natives are the human equivalent to multi-core processors versus Digital Immigrants (Legacy Thinkers) who are single core processing.

That’s not to say that Digital Natives are overall better than Digital Immigrants. Oh yes, we have our drawbacks as well as advancements. We’re literally wired to think in non-linear and random order, a hypermedia frame of mind, where we are free to explore every notion and idea we have instantaneously and often times in multiplicity. Of course, the problem here is that it may be literally impossible for us to go backwards to the prior way of thinking (at least not without a lot of time, effort, or drugs). The question, though, is why would we actually want to impede our advancement?

Which brings me to the point I raised earlier about this whole A.D.D. and ADHD diagnosis. I don’t think it’s a diagnosis that actually addresses the root of the problem, which to me is that the  legacy thinkers are unable to interface with these new technorati children, and thus instead of learning how to better do so, they drug the ever loving hell out of these kids and bring them back down to their level, intentionally retarding their ability to reach maximum potential.

That should be a global crime against humanity.

"They were always hanging cores on me to adjust my behavior" – GladOS

We live in a world where children can readily memorize hundreds of Pokemon, their stats and characteristics, but teachers can’t seem to convince them to memorize the nations of the world and the statistics that go with it.  Clearly it isn’t because the children are somehow deficient or incapable, quite the opposite in that I’d venture to say Digital Natives are not only capable they are hyper-capable with an astounding ability to parse mountains of information in seconds if it suits them. The only way it will suit them, however, happens to be in a manner that gets them to warrant using 100% of their attention on it – which is Immersive Education.

I can admit that I’ve learned more playing Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? (and watching the subsequent cartoon Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego?) than all of my Geography classes combined. I also learned my World History from teachers who knew better than to toss a book in front of me and tell me to read – no, they engaged us in thought experiments and non-linear methods of exploration. To that point, I will always thank Mr. George Gelderman for giving me a keen interest in Social Studies and World History. He is, and was, a brilliant example of non-linear education at its best and I can’t thank that man enough.

Let’s face it, we all had a really good reason to find Carmen Sandiego… *ahem*

I didn’t have an interest in the fine arts or theatre until I actually watched Hamlet as a movie and started going to the theatre in person. Before that, classics like Hamlet, Beowulf as well as Romeo & Juliet really meant nothing to me. To a Digital Native, the text only versions often times simply do not parse. You simply fail to visualize what is going on or the relevance inherent with the text. It’s almost like your mind marks it as unimportant and ignores it until it can be explained in a hyper-media manner suited for parallel thinking. Going to those theatre performances, I immediately took in all that was going on and loved the premise, story, and plots immensely. When I was in school, there was a time when such experiences were made to be fun and engaging, later on to be offered as dry text and some lectures. It was no wonder I lost lost interest!

There comes a point in education where we realize it is no longer fun or engaging. Prior to that moment, we are sponges, soaking up vast amounts of academic stimuli in short periods of time. We end up with issues in the learning chain when we forget the reason children (and adults) continue to learn; Because it was fun.

The problem isn’t the children or adults that are Digital Natives, it’s simply a legacy communication problem. The reason they can memorize hundreds of Pokemon is because it’s a non-linear, immersive learning experience, coupled with a learning environment that suits them best – Gameification or Hyper-media. It’s entirely about immersive experiential learning.

A frequent objection I hear from Digital Immigrant educators is "this approach is great for facts, but it wouldn’t work for 'my subject.'" Nonsense. This is just rationalization and lack of imagination.  In my talks I now include "thought experiments" where I invite professors and teachers to suggest a subject or topic, and I attempt - on the spot - to invent a game or other Digital Native method for learning it.  Classical philosophy?  Create a game in which the philosophers debate and the learners have to pick out what each would say.  The Holocaust?  Create a simulation where students role-play the meeting at Wannsee, or one where they can experience the true horror of the camps, as opposed to the films like Schindler's List.  It's just dumb (and lazy) of educators - not to mention ineffective - to presume that (despite their traditions) the Digital Immigrant way is the only way to teach, and that the Digital Natives' "language" is not as capable as their own of encompassing any and every idea. [2]

This is why I love the idea of using virtual world environments for education. It’s not a magic bullet, any more than slapping a cartoon character on the textbook is going to suddenly show results. It’s a tool that should be used effectively, but can just as quickly be used ineffectively if not disastrously.

I wouldn’t say that trying to cram legacy, linear teaching methods into a virtual world space is a good idea. If anything, it’s a colossal waste of time. If you want to know how to make effective learning experiences, talk to companies like MadPea Games in SecondLife. I learned quite a lot in a fun and intuitive game atmosphere that was non-linear because of them, and as a result, I played The Kaaos Effect many times over simply because I enjoyed it.

The Kaaos Effect–1943 German U-Boat Level: MadPea Games, SecondLife

This is the future of education, though I am quick to point out that legacy thinking need not apply. I’m pretty sure that if you were to take those same children diagnosed with ADD or ADHD and sat them down to play this game, they would probably learn it inside and out in no time. As it turns out, this is the type of language they (we) speak. It is an immersive, hyper-media learning experience that is non-linear.

Digital Natives aren’t broken. They don’t need to be fixed with drugs. We’re just really bored with linear and legacy interactions. We’re wired differently in the head, and that’s not a bad thing, to the contrary it’s actually the best thing for humanity that we are. The question is, whether or not the legacy teachers and methods will learn to speak our language or if they’ll continue to find excuses to dumb us down.

I was playing Portal 2 recently and a line in the game from GladOS really hit home. The A.I. GladOS was remembering that when she started becoming “too intelligent”, “too quick” and “too powerful” the scientists tried everything to slow her down. Eventually they resorted to attaching defective units to her that were spewing gibberish into her head, and constantly distracting her on purpose. The sole point of this was to mentally weigh her down and try to restrict her any way that they could in order to keep her manageable and under control.

In a world where our kids can blow through Portal 2 with ridiculous complexity and problem solving skills, we’re trying to convince them (and ourselves) that these Digital Natives must be drugged up and slowed down in order to “function” in society.

I don’t buy that, and neither should you.  Welcome to Human 2.0


[1] Elizabeth Lorch, psychologist, Amherst College, quoted in Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Little Brown & Company, 2000, p. 101.

[2] Marc Prensky, Digital Natives. Digital Immigrants, From  On the Horizon (NCB University Press, Vol. 9 No. 5, October 2001)


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