Introducing the 1997 Digital Natives, 97ers, and their networked communities of learning

I have worked with self-taught young programmers (aged 18 and under) in Young Rewired State since 2009; and in 1997 I gave birth to my own little digital native. My passion for learning, observing and being amongst networked communities in various forms, means that I have begun to see some interesting trends and patterns that are fascinating, and I am going to write a series of things about this. Here is the first and in it I refer to the 97er. By this I mean child born in 1997 OR LATER: The true digital natives.

Educational webs

In 1971, funnily enough when I was born, Ivan Illich (a philosopher, Catholic priest and “maverick social critic”) published a book on education and society: Deschooling Society. It is available to read for free here. He was crazily ahead of his time in his thinking, but I think he was not far off in his insight into how technology could transform education, and how in turn this would change society.

I am not profound enough to offer opinion on all of his book and beliefs on society, but I am with him completely on networked learning. He believed that the future of learning lay in communities:

“… educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing and caring…”

What is beautiful about this quote is that he talks of the ‘heightening’ and ‘transforming’ benefits of the web, and that this could and should be applied to every ‘moment’. What a salve it is to read how this is a good thing, a great thing, and can be embraced not feared or controlled.

The 97ers are already immersed in this web of learning. Whether we approve of *what* they are learning or not is immaterial, but they are there playing, interacting, growing up, making mistakes, testing boundaries, making boundaries, exploring things they find interesting or funny and more importantly – sharing their discoveries.

This is not news, but it is often feared or criticised as it is not well-understood. Many people are trying to ‘harness the power of the internet’ (mainly because it is not documented or governed and has our children in its thrall – an unseen digital Pied Piper, skipping off with our children to the lilting voice of Siri).

But it is not the internet that is doing this, it is the networked communities the children find online, people stripped of physical boundaries and prejudices they face daily in school and life, an open forum of communities they can opt into or out of.

As adults we imagine Lord of the Flies horrors, with children unable to cope with this ungoverned world, and are braced for constant catastrophe. But I see this networked online space, this world wide web, as a maverick place that they are shaping and governing themselves. Creating their own rules for digital citizenship if you like.

Strangers in this place stick out, people pretending to be other people are quickly caught out. And before you “aha” me with stories of paedophiles and paedophile rings infiltrating the networks of young people by pretending to be young people themselves – yes, this happened, but it happened when this digital native crew were very young. They grew up with this, and they are very canny now, even as 16 year olds, and know what to look for and how to identify people. Not just by name.

And as they learn, so they look out for their younger siblings, whether these be actual blood relatives, or young web-dwellers. My daughter, and her friends, regularly crawl all over the social media accounts and games forums occupied by those younger than them. They look for tells and behaviour that is not natural to them or their peers and don’t dally, they delete. There is no ‘intervention’ you can delete and block early signs of danger in a way not possible anywhere else in life. If it looks dodgy, assume it is and move on. They don’t make a fuss over it, this instant gratification society that we so condemn in young people should be embraced, to some extent, because it keeps them safe in an instant online world.

We cannot beat them at this game. These children, the 97ers, are soon going to graduate into the working world, and it is for them to adapt the web to their growing experiences, not ours to adopt and govern. This is why web monitoring by “grown ups” will not work. More on that later.

Peer-to-peer learning

What we can do, is look at how we can use this incredible resource to help shape learning and education. Back to 1971 and Illich:

The operation of a peer-matching network would be simple. The user would identify himself by name and address and describe the activity for which he sought a peer. A computer would send him back the names and addresses of all those who had inserted the same description. It is amazing that such a simple utility has never been used on a broad scale for publicly valued activity.

I fully believe that the current coding movement and crisis in how to teach programming, of finding enough teachers with the knowledge to fit the traditional role of teacher standing in front of a room full of children, ready to impart all knowledge, is the tipping point away from classroom-based education. There is no way on God’s earth that anyone could hope to study to be a computing teacher and hold the knowledge necessary to teach the children all the digital skills necessary for future work, life and community.

What I see happening in Young Rewired State is peer-to-peer learning, shaped by mentors. Take the phenominal take up of the YRS/Google assemblies as an anecdotal example. We announced this project on Friday just to meet the needs of the many people asking for YRSers to share their experiences with their peers. Within 24 hours we were so swamped with young people wanting to run an assembly that we had to build a database, write auto-responders, set up a new email address and adjust our delivery plans. (You can read the stories of these young people here).

If you ask any of those young people what they value in YRS, they will always say: community. Having a community of peers and mentors who are collectively so knowledgeable that they *know* all learning and discovery can be completed and shared, within this network, is like stumbling on the oasis in the desert. It is also new, and exciting, and the boundaries have not yet been discovered, let alone tested. I am enjoying watching them race to the boundaries – I want to see where they are too.

If we continue in the UK to try to retrofit traditional education formats to programming and computing, digital skills these natives do need to have – we know the result is going to have to be tempered to delivery restraints unseen beyond this subject. And so there will be no choice but to flip the classroom.

If we could really embrace the flipped classroom methodology, encourage young people to learn outside the classroom, from networks of people immersed in subjects, then bring that learning back to their lessons and share this learning in a more formal environment, where the teacher can curate the conversation and bring together the information strings – how much more engaged, relevant and testing would the learning be?

I know this seems like a pipe dream because it requires such a monumental shift in the way we ‘do’ education now, except for the home-schooled, but when a 97er becomes Secretary of State for Education, with another ’97er in Number 10 – it will happen then. I hope it doesn’t take that long.

(Read the next blog post on the 97er and Identity)

… and the third one just published on social activism

For those used to assuming that this applies to GenY, or The Millennials, here is a clarification

97ers and work