Teens and tech

It’s always inspiring and motivating to read what others have been doing with technology in their classes. It seems that the  so -called ‘digital natives’ are ready and willing to go after every single opportunity they might have to use the computer and web 2.0 to boost their learning. Most of the work that’s shared online is so good that they make my jaw drop. Students can pick and choose the tools to use and, most likely, teens are the ones who teach teachers about the tools – after all, this is their expertise. They’ve been born with a keyboard and a mouse in their hands (when will they come with touchscreen-designed fingers, I wonder?) and they spend all their time in front of the computer. This is all inspiring as I’ve been using a computer since I was 6, but it turns out to be a bit frustrating for me, I’ve got to say.

I’ve been teaching pre-teens and teens almost exclusively for the past 4 years. They range from 10 to 19 years old mainly, and the vast majority of them have more than 1 computer at home. I always start the semester by asking them to share a bit about themselves. I like listening to them and this is what will help me cater for their needs and try to make sure I can put together lessons that will be meaningful to them. Pretty much all of them tell me that they usually spend all their free time online. “Great!” I used to think to myself, but lately this hasn’t been the case. Even though they spend pretty much all of their free time online, all they do is chat with their friends on MSN and use Orkut, which is the largest social network in Brazil. Apart from that, most of them have never heard of other online tools. And this is not what I think, it is what they tell me.

Of course they all use the web to do research for school, but as long as teachers fail to adapt to the shift from encyclopaedias to the web, most students will not go beyond a quick (and very simple) Google search and “the best” invention of all: Ctrl + C and Ctrl + V. In the past students at least had to go through the trouble of copying word for word what they read. Nowadays, I’ve found myself reading compositions in which not even the hyperlinks had been removed – a clear sign to me that the person who wrote and printed out the page hadn’t even read the whole text. I still don’t get why this tech generation still insists on printing out their papers instead of using emails, wikis, blogs, Google Docs and what have you.

But wait, perhaps I do get it. The answer is fairly straightforward when I question them. “I don’t know how to use that,” is a common answer, “I have never heard of that,” is also often said, but my favourite is, “What???” Most of my 11 – 15 students dislike the idea of submitting their work online. Even after I encourage them to do so, and tell them explicitly that I’d rather receive their compositions and papers online, and give them options to choose how they’d like to do it, most still write their work by hand. I’ve already spent time with them inside and outside class talking about such tools, demonstrating their usefulness, and showing examples of successful work online. I’ve already shared with them all my enthusiasm for all that I see online – all that kids all over the world have been doing, and still, nada! Even though I won’t give up on that, I won’t give up on my beliefs as well – it’s much more important for a teacher to listen to his or her learners and adapt to suit their needs than to ask them to adapt to your likes and dislikes. Therefore, I feel it’s important to give them options, but not to push them too hard. My job is to teach them English and to educate global citizens, and tech is most definitely not the only one solution to that.

I’ve recently started a project with volunteering students on a wiki – none knew how to use it and only 1 out of 17 could relate the word to wikipedia, and, oh, none knew what a wiki was. I’m looking forward to the results of this project. However, even though they’re learning their way around a wiki, I don’t think they’ll use such tool out of free will. They use it because we chose it as the media for our project – but many would rather write something on a piece of paper and rip off the page to give to the teacher. Mind you, they’re having lots of fun with the project, but I still hold none (or very few) will make use of wikis in the future by their own accord. I truly hope I’m wrong on this one.

I’ve always been very skeptical of the idea of ‘digital natives’, ‘digital immigrants’ and etc. When I mention this to my students, they themselves laugh at this idea and most say their parents know a lot more about computers than they do. Perhaps it just happens here, but to be honest, I don’t think so (am I that unfortunate?). The games they play may change, but not the fact that they’re looking for games, fun, and talking to their friends – and we, teachers, have to struggle hard to engage and motivate them to shift that energy to learning.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic as I’m planning to write some more about it. 🙂

14 thoughts on “Teens and tech

  1. Henrick, you are so right! I meet lots of teachers who are scared of using technology in class because they think their students will know more than them. I think the so-called ‘natives’ may be better at intuitively operating something new, but not necessarily knowing what’s out there or, particularly, how to use it to enhance learning.

    You work with teenagers. Do you think some of them actually resent the teacher trying to make them use ‘their’ toys/tools for serious work? A bit like saying, “just get off your skateboard for a minute because I want to use it to give you a physics lesson”? I’d be interested to hear what you (or your learners) think. But I don’t think we should stop trying to teach our students about using these amazing tools.

    I was really pleased to find your post as I’m talking to some teachers in Bosnia and Croatia about this very thing next week.


    1. Hi Johanna,

      This seems to be more common than we may think. I guess we tend to assume all this because in the world of twitter and blogs, we mainly communicate with teachers who are actively using it in their classes, but this doesn’t mean most teachers and students are doing so. I keep talking to some of the teachers I know and work with how much I’ve learned through these two media and most of the time I get a sarcastic or condescending look.

      And, yes, I agree with you. When only one or two teachers try to make use of their toys/tools for learning, it’s as if we’re trying to turn something they find fun into yet another thing they’ll be forced to use. If all teachers were to act together, this probably wouldn’t be the case. We shouldn’t stop trying, but I truly believe in the near future we won’t have to – we’ll simply have to use the tools for they’ll be the mainstream. Nowadays, it’s still something intrusive, in the future it’ll just be there.

      Thank you for your comments! I’d love to hear about the outcome of your talk.



  2. Great post Henrick. I think you have identified a key point in the whole edtech / learning technology issue, with respect to teen and young adult learners, and it is this: it’s really not about the technology, in the same way that my generation did not have the slightest idea or interest in how the television signal got from NBC to the set in my living room. It’s about a fundamentally changed way of consuming media, researching information, connecting with peers, and sharing thoughts. Which is why both the textbook publishers as well as the “e-learning” folks that try to re-create traditional lesson structures on new technology formats are simply not getting it. Think short-session; think free access; think collaborative work; and think personalisation, and we start to understand how English 2.0 starts to look. Your post definitely gets us closer to the goal.

    1. Hi there Paul,

      You’ve just said it in a much simpler way. It’s all about how we consume media these days and why we make use of certain tools. Children will always be children, no matter when they’re born. Even though they may use different tools to achieve their aims, their aims are still the same – they’re looking for ways to interact with their peers and have fun. If we insist on simply trying to get them to go online because they’re always online, but fail to see their true reasons for being online, we’re just changing one meaningless tool for another. I particularly like two of the things you mentioned: collaborative work and personalisation.

      Thank you for your insightful comment! I’ll keep thinking about that.



  3. Digital natives is an interesting idea. They have more facility with technology in general, but technological learning tools outside of Word and Google is often something new. I have found that plagiarism, even accidental, is so easy that I try to never give an assignment that can be easily plagiarized. AS they say, if the kids can easily look up the answer on Google, it is probably not a good question. Good luck with the wiki.

    1. Hi Jason,

      Plagiarism seems to be a major problem these days and I attribute that to teachers who do not take it as seriously as they should. If teachers do not warn their children that plagiarism is something serious and that it can’t be done, they grow believing it’s OK to copy and paste things. However, as you pointed out, teachers still don’t know how to work in an environment in which information is so easily accessible to kids. In the past, you had to know A and B – nowadays, we should be asking why they believe A and B were worth of mention in the first place. But we can’t blame teachers – we studied with teachers who wanted us to memorise facts, not to necessarily critically think about the fact.

      I’ll make the wiki public shortly. There are some students from other countries collaborating as well. If you feel like having a look at it and inviting some of your students to participate, that’d be awesome. As Paul mentioned on his comments, collaborative work is a must in any online endeavour.



  4. Your findings are very similar to mine. There is a very huge misperception of what students can do as it relates to technology. They can use some of the equipment like ipods and cell phones and some students are very adept at using computers the vast majority that I come across are seriously lacking in many areas of technical knowledge. I think we need to stop assuming that all kids are digital natives and don’t need any guidance. It needs to be a collaborative effort. If a student is very skilled in something let him/her show how to use it. If not teach them how to use an application and then sit back and watch- a few students will really take off. Let them show you how to expand on your knowledge. But don’t just sit back and assume that they know everything. That is selling everyone short.

    1. Hi Debra,

      I couldn’t agree more. Let me try to illustrate a situation here (I hope it’s not as confusing as I think it’ll be). When you give an adult an expensive gadget, he or she is afraid of breaking it, so they handle it with excessive care. If you give this gadget to a baby/child, they won’t be as careful because they don’t really understand what that is. Hence, they’ll start playing around with it as if it were unbreakable – they aren’t afraid of experimenting with it. And this is why I believe we find it amazing that they can work with technology so easily – but the truth is they’re just not afraid. However, if you give the same gadget to someone who’s acquainted with technology, they also won’t be afraid of playing with that. By the way, how many of us actually read manuals? Most people only read manuals when they can’t find what they want AND are afraid of breaking their DVD player, videogame or whatever.

      The reason why I mentioned that is I see eye to eye with you on the matter. It may be easier for them (kids) to find their way around things, but this doesn’t mean they already know how to do things nor that they’re willing to. After all, I don’t get lots of recommendations of educational links from my students, only from teachers. Why is that? 🙂

      Collaboration is key, as you said.



  5. Hi Henrick,
    As Computers are 21st Century Tools, so are mobile phones, ipods, smartboards, softwares programs like Garage Band and other plugged in gadgets. Something i remember when i teach with these “newish” 21st Century Tools I always remember two things:

    1.) I remember when the WORD PROCESSOR came out…made my long research papers easier to type (could you imagine the LABOR that went into just the typing AFTER the brain-work of the paper was done?!) and…
    2.) Evolution is a natural selection for survival

    Tools are just that, it about knowing the VALUE of the tool that will support student learning. If a student knows more than you, count your blessings that you too get to keep on learning. Teachers are skilled learners; we cannot be expected to learn and master what is changing everyday, we can only be open to the changes….

    1. Hi Susi,

      That’s exactly the point. We need to acknowledge that what we consider tech and innovation these days is just another way to refer to tools teachers have at hand to engage and empower learners. And it’s always good to have a student teaching you a thing or two about a new tool – I guess it’s thrilling for them to teach their teacher something.

      When we finally get to the point of experiencing the pervasive influence of such tools, we won’t even notice them. This will be a much more natural way of teaching an we’ll finally be able to focus on what really matters – the learners.

      Loved your second point! Evolution will take place and nature will follow its due course. There’s no need for a revolution, or is there? Personally, I don’t think so.



  6. Some very good points made in this post and the comments. I too teach mainly teens (and pre-teens) and find that before I use anything in the classroom I have to train them how to use it. I think the term “digital native” can be used to say that once shown, mostly (but not always) they can pick things up quickly. As mentioned in a previous comment, the teens aren’t afraid of trying new things – but they also need to have confidence in the teacher helping them out if something goes wrong. Most of the kids I know are limited to using Tuenti (a Spanish Facebook) and Facebook – anything more than that and they need full support.

    Another observation I have made with my pre-teens is that when it’s computer time in the classroom they moan about doing any work. I have to be very firm about keeping them on task – they have the idea that the Internet and computers is for watching Youtube videos and Facebook and are really not interested in doing anything else. But that could be because here in Spain, computers have only recently been introduced into schools as part of the curriculum so it is still quite new.

    Which leads me to my next point – some countries are not as advanced technologically as others. The cost of technology in Spain is a lot higher proportionately than the UK or the US. It is therefore less likely that all students have access to technology at home all of the time – in fact, I know of some students who are not allowed to use the computer. So….”digitally native” students? I don’t have any – yet.

    1. Hi Helen,

      One of the things I like most about web 2.0 is learning that were not alone and other people face the same problems we do. I’d relate to the fact that they can pick things up faster due to the fact that they’re not afraid of making mistakes or breaking down anything while using the computer. If you know for a fact that you are in complete control of whatever it is that you’re doing, you tend to experiment with it much more freely. However, I noticed that even though they pick things up faster, they don’t know what to do when things don’t go according to plan and are likely to give up faster as well.

      The same thing is true in Brazil. I’ve seen lots of people saying that computers and the Internet are getting cheaper by the day, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. Computers may be cheaper than they were in the past, but for you to have access to broadband Internet it’s still way more expensive than in other places (so I heard), and the average income of the typical Brazilian population is really low. Perhaps this could even be a topic for another post, with some factual data.

      And finally, to your last point. I agree with you and I’m afraid technology is going to create an even bigger divide between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ before it truly starts to bridge the gap. It’s pretty much granted that tech has allowed for widespread availability of information. Yet, we know that not all people have access to information as easily, and at least here, the government doesn’t seem to be doing what they should – it’s always too little, too late.

      Thank you for your comments! 🙂

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