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Edutopia Profiles the Digital Generation

posted Jul 29, 2009, 11:22 PM by TexasTechies .org   [ updated Jul 30, 2009, 6:38 AM ]
By Shari Wargo
I can't help but smile when I conjure the memory of my first high tech gadget. It was a red plastic Zenith radio -- a portable, no less -- with a volume dial on one end and an AM/FM tuner on the other.

That sleek assemblage of plastic, wire, and vacuum tubes transported me to fantastic places and momentous events. From my outpost on the North Shore of Chicago, I followed heated political conventions on the West Coast, daring rescues across the Northwest Territories with Sergeant Preston, White Sox games from New York to Kansas City, and Elvis singing "Blue Suede Shoes" in Memphis.

Now, I can pull a slim device from my coat pocket, dial up any Elvis clip from his catalog of 700-plus songs, critique it, and send it to a friend on the other side of the globe in seconds. Who knew the opposable thumb would come in so handy?

Of course, what for me is awesome new-tech wizardry is no big deal for the members of the Digital Generation. These DG kids -- the first wave were born around the dawn of the World Wide Web in 1991 -- already look back with fondness on their first tech tools.

"When I was two, my mom set me up with this huge ball mouse with the most gigantic button," says 13-year-old Dylan, one of the students profiled as part of the Edutopia Digital Generation Project [1]. "I used My Very First Software to learn the basics of both the alphabet and using a computer."

At, we are bringing together elements of our yearlong investigation into the digital lives of young people [2], and you'll find in-depth video portraits of ten students from around the country, accompanied by interviews with the teachers, administrators, and parents who are striving to keep pace and support them.

The Digital Generation Project was produced with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation [3] as part of a $50 million digital-media and learning initiative that explores how digital media are changing how young people learn, play, socialize, and participate in civic life.

Our research uncovered some telling stats and trends: Although a staggering 97 percent of young people play computer and video games, and more than 50 percent tend to their profiles on MySpace [4] and Facebook [5], the DGers also actually generate stuff: They build Web sites. They make movies, music, games, and works of art.

And they do most of this work at home; three out of four American kids surf the Web from home rather than from school. Small wonder that many educators rarely recognize, let alone honor, their students' technological talent. The kids' voices, pronounced and distinct online, fall on deaf ears in school.

"We wonder why, when kids leave this environment, they run home and jump on these new media," says Sasha Barab, a professor of learning and cognitive science at Indiana University [6]. "But online, they have agency. They have consequentiality. They have people responding to what they're doing."

Henry Jenkins [7], director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Comparative Media Studies program [8], adds, "Consider those kids who become leaders of guilds in World of Warcraft [9]. That's as much an experience as being the captain of the football team or the editor of the school newspaper."

It falls to teachers to harness this enthusiasm and energy -- even when, as one professor of education told us, the prospect of learning, let alone teaching, this new technology is terrifying. But it doesn't need to be.

If you listen to the kids, the first thing you'll realize is that you don't need to know it all. This is a journey with copilots, in which teachers, parents, and students can work in partnership. Fasten your seat belt loosely across your lap and read "Tech with Technology [10]" to discover how much of this brave new world of communication technology is comfortably within your reach.

On some not-too-distant day, we may all look back at Google, the iPod, and this issue of Edutopia as quaint reminders of vintage tech. Perhaps the DG will also recall with fondness the noble efforts of a vacuum tube generation of teachers and parents who encouraged them to explore. We hope our Digital Generation Project helps you lean into the whirlwind of change that is sweeping the learning landscape.