Guest Post, Professional Development, Teaching

How Tech Savvy Are Today’s Novice Teachers?

savvy-teachersGuest post by: Dave Mulder, Assistant Professor of Education at Dordt College

What do we make of the Millennials? Are they digital natives, or are they “the dumbest generation”?  Now that they are graduating from college and joining the team as professional educators, how shall we—the more seasoned educators—think about them, and their use of technology?

Marc Prensky, in his 2001 article, introduced the terminology of “digital natives” (referring to the Millennial generation) and “digital immigrants” (everybody older than the Millennials). And the argument was compelling: kids growing up with ready access to digital technology seem to think differently about the tools at their disposal. Seeing students (college, high school, middle school, or even elementary students) so attached to their handheld devices and social media makes it seem that Prensky’s words were prophetic: “Our students have changed radically. Today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach.” Perhaps the Millennials are better suited for teaching their fellow digital natives.

On the other hand, writers such as Mark Bauerlein (The Dumbest Generation) and Nicholas Carr (The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains) have argued that the stupefying effects of digital tools and the constant barrage of media are negative influences, and that Millennials are ill-equipped to lead the way. If this is true, perhaps we should be trying to eliminate digital technology from our classrooms, and novice teachers should be expected to complete a re-education program that will help them fight against the rising tide of digital forces vying for their students’ attention.

Let’s think for a moment about “educational technology” very broadly. We often consider only digital tools such as computers, tablets, and SMART boards to be technology. But really, pencils, paper, and books are also technologies (tools) for learning. We can’t imagine anyone saying, “I’m not pencil-literate, so I’m not going to use pencils in my teaching practice,” but maybe you’ve heard a colleague make a similar statement about an iPad (or maybe you’ve said something like this yourself). Sir Ken Robinson said, “Technology isn’t technology if it happened before you were born.” Perhaps this is why we don’t think of things like books and pencils as educational technologies; we can barely conceive school without them!

But maybe digital technologies are different.

As a teacher educator and a self-proclaimed technophile, I am concerned with how we are preparing pre-service teachers for the realities of teaching with digital technologies. A couple of years ago a friend who serves as principal at a Christian high school made the comment, “We look to our young teachers to lead the way with technology integration. They’re so tech-savvy anyway; they are better at it than the veterans.”

I had a sort of warning alarm begin sounding in my mind when he said this, because while Millennials seem to have a greater overall comfort in using technology in their daily lives, I am not convinced that this makes them better prepared to teach with technology.

I began doing some research to find out if my hunch was correct. Here is what I’ve discovered.

  • Millennials are not “native” when it comes to technology any more than previous generations are. We are all acculturated into a particular way of interacting with the technologies we have at our disposal. Because of different technologies and more widespread access to them, we are all affected by certain cultural expectations for working with technology. Millennials simply function with them because they never experienced life without them.
  • This acculturation process matters greatly for our level of comfort in working with particular tools, but it does not mean that younger teachers are more tech savvy, or that older teachers are less tech savvy as a rule. We all have preferences. Generalizing, younger teachers seem to have less fear in trying new things with technology, but this is not the same thing as “natively” knowing how to use technology.
  • Comfort with (and preference for) using technology in our day-to-day life does not automatically translate into comfort with (and preference for) using technology for teaching and learning. Many of the supposed “digital immigrants” reading this are likely smartphone users, use at least one social network, and feel very comfortable watching TV or films on Netflix or Hulu or Amazon—not all that different from their “digital native” peers. Personal use of these digital technologies is different than using them in the classroom.
  • The scholarly literature on technology integration indicates that Millennials are no better at technology integration than more-experienced colleagues, and some studies have even found that Millennials are actually worse at tech integration, because they have less-developed pedagogical skills. For real technology integration, we need both technological knowledge as well as pedagogical knowledge, as well as the ability to see how they connect within the needs of a particular content area.

So how do we move forward? I’ll suggest three things:

  1. We need to partner between K-12 schools and higher ed to get better at tech integration. I see an ongoing need for K-12 educators to keep learning about technology, and I’m always excited to meet up with groups of professional teachers when I’m presenting workshops and seminars. But I also recognize that my students need to hear stories and see examples of effective technology integration taking place in K-12 schools! It’s a both-and proposition.
  2. Consider mutual mentorship between novice and experienced teachers. If it’s true that young teachers generally have less fear about trying things and that seasoned educators have a wealth of pedagogical knowledge from which to draw, perhaps teaming them up will result in valuable professional learning for both. If we can approach a mutual mentorship with a sense of “I have something to bring to the table” while also keeping a sense of “I have something to learn here,” all can benefit, to the ultimate benefit of the students.
  3. Consider how innovative ideas spread through your school. Diffusion of innovation theory is worth considering as an alternative to the digital natives/digital immigrants framework. I would encourage you to view this short video and reflect on the role you play within your school in regard to innovative teaching, regardless of your age or generational identity. How are you leading from that position? (We all serve as leaders within our schools, no matter what role we play!) Where do you need to follow? (We are all also following somebody!)

All of us can continue to learn. All of us can get better. Because of the constantly evolving nature of the tools, educational technology is a continued growth area for all of us, novices and veterans alike.


To connect further with Dave Mulder, find him on Twitter @d_mulder.

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