Digital Natives, Empowering Agents, and the Great Digital Divide

When we talk about distance learning or online learning, most of us take the perspective of the student (or parent) side. We often lose sight of the perspectives of teachers, professors, and other school/university staff to even make online learning possible. This week we changed our angle and debated how things might have to change to achieve a good online learning experience, not only during times like this, but also in the future.

The article “Facilitating Digital Access: The Role of Empowering Agents” by Zoë B. Corwin and Antar A. Tichavakunda, published in 2018, discusses the idea of digital natives, the inevitable digitalisation, and empowering agents on the bases of a study in American high schools. Part of their study was the implementation of an online game, helping the students figuring out college education, into the classroom. The teachers were supposed to help the students with the game while teaching with different media, such as laptops and computers. Two things were striking: first, there was a huge variety in the knowledge of students; second, there was a huge variety in how teachers taught the class.

The students normally considered “digital natives”, were not that ‘native’ to begin with. Not all students had the knowledge on how to use a PC or laptop for academic purposes. Many knew how to use social media but writing a formal e-mail, finding the right resources for financial aid online, or use the right and helpful tool to complete schoolwork. Even though this is the case for many students, quite a few have found a way to overcome the problem by using their social ties to older students, family members, or on social media sites to ask the questions they otherwise would not know how to find the answers to. 

For teachers, on the other hand, the approaches on how to teach with media and technology were differing widely. Some were happy to use the technological tools to help students broaden their knowledge and learn something about college. Others were uninterested and completely ignored helping the students, may it be because they were not comfortable with using technology or media themselves, or because the teaching style did not suit their pedagogy. Teachers who had a positive impact on students by providing aid in the chaotic world of technology and media are called “empowering agents” by Corwin and Tichavakunda. By the definition of the authors, these are the teachers who realised that digitalisation is inevitable, and that the only way to come to terms with this change is by transforming pedagogy, using the tools we have to help the students and fellow teachers to overcome the digital divide. 

The digital divide is still a huge part of our society, although we live in the ‘digital era’. Teachers and students alike face the challenges that digitalisation brings. Even though the study was conducted at a high school, we can still apply some of the ideas to the current situation at the university in Kiel. Besides the obvious challenges everyone faces right now with their internet connection, we should look at the problems all of us face in digital learning, which is a very new situation for the German education system. 

In our class, we discussed that the German educational system forgot to jump on the train when the digitalisation began in the 1990s – now we face the problems head on, instead of preventing them in the first place. If we give students and teachers the right tools and the proper education for these tools, digital distance learning could be a great addition to face-to-face education in the future. Online learning does not mean that it is the only way to educate, however, it could enrich it.

One more aspect I want to mention is that teachers are in a good position to help their students with overcoming the digital divide by being empowering agents, taking the time to explain useful tools, leading with confidence and showing their own flaws. Many parents cannot help their children with many educational programs, but maybe teachers, already being in the business, can provide support. I know that most of them do their best and we should not forget that teachers are humans as well. If the curriculum would comprise aspects like helpful tools for educational purposes, how to apply to a job or internship online, further education, the financial part of studying, a broader spectrum of what to expect after the Bachelor or Master, and the idea that there are also jobs in the humanities and not just the natural sciences, maybe many students (at school and university) would not feel the constant pressure and fear of the uncertain future. 

I want to conclude with an idea we had in our class. We can learn a lot from the current situation – let us embrace the change. This might not be the last pandemic of the century, so we should be prepared. That can only happen if we change the current system – giving teachers and students the right tools, the right education, and especially the confidence to use the tools to enhance the ‘normal’ school or university routine with the help of technology and media.

2 replies on “Digital Natives, Empowering Agents, and the Great Digital Divide”

I would like to thank Timea for an excellent summary of the article, having confirmed most of the ideas I came up whilst reading it.
As an online teacher of English I would like to mention a couple of points in more detail:
a) not only teachers are people with their own challenges but students are too, as not all of them can cope with online sessions. However this can be reduced through experience and the continued use of this system.
b) I think it unfair to say that the German education system ‘missed’ an early opportunity to get on the digital bandwagon as, quite honestly, I doubt if many people noticed that it was coming along the tracks. Each country/culture has its own approach to education and I personally have had a long-term opportunity to observe the differences for example between British/Scottish (yes, there is a difference here too) and the German education systems.
c) It is EXPECTED of educators to be competent in virtually everything including not only the use of digital technology but also in empowering their students. We self-taught instructors are being hung out to dry.
d) Where the access to the Internet is insecure it becomes a problem keeping a class going and demands a lot from both instructor and student. I have experienced this with university classes and private ones.
So I think rather than pointing a finger we should be looking at what is really necessary in the way of additional technology in educational institutions. We are not looking merely at the cost of new equipment but the social and energy costs the broadening of access to education is going to bring with it.

Thank you dear Timea for you good job and well done summary, so, I will use the title in order to share with you my own opinion. First, I agree that ‘digital native’ is a term that we still cannot use to describe this generation’s use of technology as long as there are too many students ,all over the world, who are able to use their computers only when it comes to online games, social media and shipping. However, it is noticeable that in terms of e-learning many students are struggling and they need help in this matter. Thus, as long as they don’t know, they need help and they struggle to get to know how to do it, then, the term ‘Digital native’ is not the best at least to describe this generation [maybe it would work for coming generations, who knows.]. Second, the term ‘Empowering Agents’ can be a great description to talk about all teachers who are doing a great job to help their students in terms of computer use, all teachers who are exploiting the available devices/materials and creating effective strategies and efficient objectives to get the stutents absorb to what extent technology can help them not only to get their homework done , reading or revising for their exams but they should absorb that it will certainly also help them to start building a brilliant career. Therefore, any teacher who can exploit what s/he has to engage her/his students and help them broaden their knowledge in this field could better be considered as an ‘Empowring Agent’. Last but not least, I think that online classes are working and they have many different benefits on both sides whether the students or the teachers. However, I think that studying all subjects online, as we are doing now in this corona time, is really exhausting and it will lead students to spend their whole days in front of their devices, students will miss the eye contact, they will miss expriencing the outside world, the real world, and they will miss also social communication and interaction. Hence, if the future wil be online, I am sure that we will miss the most important ways of education whether in class or outside of it. Since I believe that the educational system is not only about what is happening inside the classes nor about giving lectures to students but it is more than that.

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