Science Centre Guidebooks Bundle Sale at the Curiosity Shop @ SSC

Digital natives may not be digital savvy

I re-encountered Clive Thompson’s comment, “Why can’t kids search?” while reading my copy of Wired Nov 2011 one afternoon recently at NYDC in Holland Village, one of my ‘things to do when on leave’.

Well, I’d been saying for about a decade that I have been waiting for the IT-savvy generation to reach NUS but am still waiting. I gradually realised, that apart from the obvious exceptions, most digital natives have simply not been directed to explore the digital world to the point of being digital savvy.

However, this was really no different from the old days, i.e. the extent to which students used the library effectively varied greatly. Relatively few read the sources their professors cited. It was the rare individual who read extensively and those are probably the ones teaching in universities and schools now.

When I was an undergrad, I happened to read the relevant chapters of the recommended book for a 3rd year biochemistry module. So during that afternoon’s lecture, I found myself completing the professor’s sentences under my breath. A lecture buddy of mine was shell-shocked while I pretended we had been taught al of that in first year. I only pulled that prank once.

Mostly, we read the primary sources after the lecture and mostly in the home stretch before the final annual exams in February.

In the late 80’s, I was excited to finally encounter a digital database of journal abstracts! For our comparative animal physiology presentation, I printed out a couple of hundred abstracts on a dot-matrix printer in the NUS Medical Library, sorted into sub-sections. I passed the relevant material to my group members and we each synthesised the material for our sub-section presentations on hormones in medicine, biochemistry research, hormone therapy, veterinary medicine and sports medicine. The lecturer was bowled over and praised us no end just as our seniors said he would. That little extra effort was definitely welcome. Interestingly then, no marks were awarded for assignments such as these. And they were few and far between.

One thing that struck me even at the time was that I had no competition for the resources – these databases were on CDs which you had to loan from the Medical Library’s reference section by the hour. I recall holding on to them for hours with no fuss. As a digital-savvy individual then (I had learnt 6502 on the Apple ][ in secondary school), that skill presented me with an advantage then just as it would in the present time.

With the internet, however, that front desk with resources is at everyone’s fingertips. And this is what I need to highlight to the student masses who plod along in relative ignorance. Every semester, I am realising I have to elaborate my instruction set in my writing workshops to include a larger, complementary, digital component.

I also realise I have to overtly explain how to apply these lessons to daily life after seeing three of my former 3rd year research students independently share that Starbucks voucher Facebook scam this past October!

That could have been an epic fail moment for me, except that I realise I cannot undo gullibility in one module. As I explained to Kevin on the way back home last night, each time students make mistakes, I enhance assignment objectives in the 1st and 2nd year to address these loopholes.

Eventually we’ll inject more savvy students into society and hope they are happier as they meet challenges after graduation. Unfortunately assessment-driven exercises will mean a periods of marking hell each semester.

I’m sharing ideas, methods and lessons about this at Kenneth’s gig in Jan2012, BuzzEd [update: Search, citation and plagiarism: skills for a digital age have to be taught!].

And this will be a component in the professional development courses for new academic staff. I have a week to sort out thoughts.

But first I have to shake off my holiday lethargy.