Adapting to Changing Perceptions

What was once a generation gap has morphed into a digital divide that teachers must navigate.

Their fingers glide across the keyboard. They surf and retrieve information from Google with the greatest of ease, chat on the Internet like fish in water, live and breathe Facebook. But today's kids basically live a double life. During the day, at school, their digital skills are almost totally useless and certainly are not recognized. Most adults, it seems, consider their intense Facebook activity a plague, something between a chronic waste of time and a source of constant danger.

And so their digital personality, which long ago became second nature, goes underground for a few hours, while they must grasp a pencil and record archaeological exhibits in a notebook, alongside their keyboard-oriented world, and listen to the teacher standing beside a blackboard and lecturing as if there were no such thing as a computer. When they get home after a long day of classes, before they've had a chance to drop their bags and breathe, they're already logged on. With a breath of relief they inhale the air of virtual peaks until the wee hours.

Weird dinosaur cartoon - Itzhar Shkedi - August 2011
$imageCaptionIllustration by Izhar Shkedi

As Internet surfing takes up an increasingly larger share of an adolescent's leisure time, this disconnect between school and home, between those who really are connected people and their student identity, becomes absurd. The image that comes to mind is from classic fairy tales such as "The Water Babies," where children secretly develop gills and the ability to breathe underwater or "Swan Lake" where the princess is transformed into a swan at midnight.

The dichotomy in these tales between sea and land or between daytime and nighttime is very reminiscent of the differing environments in school and at home, which students see as contradicting entities that should not be mixed. This, to no uncertain extent, is due to adults' fear of the world that is closed to them.

Another view of this alienation is offered by Dr. Gila Kurtz, the head of the communications program at the Center for Academic Studies in Or Yehuda, who is also a professor at the University of Maryland. According to her, researchers designated the early 1980s (1982, to be precise ) as the turning point beyond which are today's children i.e., the "digital children," born into the computer era and unfamiliar with any other reality, and in contrast, everyone born before then, that is the adults around them, are "digital refugees."

"Our parents, the immigrants who moved to the land, did not feel good in the new world," says Kurtz. "Even the digital immigrants, in this case, teachers and parents, must adapt and acquire a new language in order to comprehend the new order of doing things around them."

The division into children and immigrants illustrates the expanse where students have a natural superiority over their teachers. For the longest time, being a teenager meant also feeling that adults with the title of teacher or parent are irrelevant and outdated. Kurtz feels that the generation gap has widened and worsened during the present era, because it is acquiring another dimension in the wake of the technology revolution.

It is not just about the computer literacy that children seem to inhale, but also about other dimensions, a new value system and genuine cultural changes that are transforming the entire perception and view of the world. According to Kurtz, the research has yet to measure the distance that has emerged behind the influences of the Internet and computer games on psychology, and the broader positions and perspectives of the current generation. And in the meantime, there may be a cautious effort to speculate on these influences. And without being judgmental at all, she makes clear.

Kurtz feels that anyone who takes a harsh view of children's digital behavior is guilty of ignorance. At the same time, she notes that as a result of complex computer games, the way in which visual images are perceived is changing. The children develop a quick response reflex and train themselves to get used to receiving instant feedback. Or in other words, they are liable to develop a problem with postponement in the fulfillment of their wishes.

In games such as the assorted versions of Sim, in which children, mostly girls, spend hours creating and nurturing families and relations, the views of the programs' designers may seep into their soft consciousness. The slew of "second life" games in which the player creates an alternate identity is very problematic. "The concern is that someone who is not mature may create for himself an identity that differs dramatically from real life," says Kurtz, "and this split may cause damage."

Kurtz feels the role of educators is to understand these new spaces and address them; "to help the child sharpen the distinction between the real and virtual characters, for example."

Adi Amsterdam, a teacher at the Carmel Zevulun High School thinks otherwise: "I don't recall my teachers being interested in which television programs I watch, or what music I listen to," he says. On the other hand, he acknowledges that he is better than his students at using the Internet and this world does not at all threaten him. Yet, Amsterdam, who is a language and grammar teacher, was chosen the most popular teacher on E-Teacher, a long-distance learning Internet site. Perhaps it is because he relates to the students' world. For example, in his lessons, he uses the language of text messages and chat rooms to illustrate the difference between various usages of speech and written language.

But most of the teachers are very different from him. A random conversation with students about this digital gap yielded countless anecdotes about their technologically-challenged teachers. Children describe their teachers as people who denigrate Facebook and discount it as a dangerous activity, without ever having opened a Facebook page. Some complain of teachers who teach them irrelevant programs in their computer classes.

"The guidance counselor once spoke to us about safety on the 'net," says Naomi, who is going into seventh grade. "She said there are kids who do all sorts of things to have 60 friends."

One could hear the mocking tone in the girl's voice. "What are 60 friends? It's not even a grade at school. She should have talked about 2,000 friends."

Some teachers manage to avoid the shame. Rotem, from Jerusalem, who is going into 10th grade, says that during a Bible class, one of her friends offered an explanation he based on a concordance he uploaded on his phone that contradicted the teacher's. "There are teachers who would have confiscated his phone on the spot, but the teacher used this explanation to open a discussion on the subject."

And there are teachers who decided to take action. Instead of being stuck where they are and becoming dinosaurs, they began learning this new language, which is sometimes referred to as communications. In the course focusing on communications in learning that Kurtz directs at the Center for Academic Studies, the number of students attending this year doubled and the overwhelming majority of them are teachers. From a handful of students some three years ago, the program has grown to around 100.

"Teachers are flocking to the course out of a sense of lack of knowledge," says Kurtz. They learn how to build sites and integrate digital content in teaching; for example, how to use Facebook in the classroom. "I hear teachers saying things like 'a revolution is underway and we are not there.' They stand in class and sometimes don't understand what their students are talking about," says Kurtz. "The moment the teacher realizes that knowledge is power, this fear of his dissipates."

"The aim is not just to give the student an assignment to find material on Google, but to make him understand the difference between different levels of knowledge. In a world where the teacher's authority as someone knowledgeable is being eroded almost to the point of disappearing, we are offering him a new position and the ability to acquire digital understanding: familiarity with the tools of technology. The fear is replaced by the understanding that the world has changed and our new role is as counselors who guide the students. In general, school is no longer the sole provider of knowledge."

Naomi Borenstein, a teacher with 28 years of experience who is a third-grade homeroom teacher at the Nofim School in Rosh Ha'ayin, and a graduate of Kurtz's e-learning and communications program, said she realized she had to change something when the social networks started. "There was a moment when I said to myself that this is a revolution and you can't beat it and therefore it's worth joining it," she said.

Borenstein is extremely excited by the possibilities the new technology tools offer her. "A teacher who says the computer isn't for me, Facebook isn't for me, doesn't belong in teaching," she determines.

A Tablet for every teacher

The rumors about gaps between students and teachers finally reached the Ministry of Education and last year, albeit a little late, a national e-learning program was launched.

Dr. Zvi Rimon, who is in charge of implementing the program, agrees that the gap could make schools and teachers irrelevant. "In the existing format, the advantages the amazing technologies can offer teaching are not being utilized." He is referring, for example, to Google Earth and Google Body, which enable the use of a computer in the classroom to show a class the human body and live simulations of natural processes, such as the amount of energy various countries consume.

So far, more than 200 schools from the north to the south of the country are taking part in the program. They received generous budgets to set up the technology infrastructure, all the teachers in the school were given laptops, and projectors were purchased for all classrooms as well as other relevant equipment. The teachers took supplementary courses and in every one of these schools, the program is run by a communications coordinator who was specifically trained for the purpose.

This is how Rimon describes his vision: "The teacher I imagine enters the classroom with a laptop or Tablet. At the beginning of the class she takes attendance and records it on the computer. She doesn't have sheets or books, nor does she have an attendance book. In some schools, it's already happening. Later on, she enters the program's content portal and goes to the lesson plan for her class and projects the content on the board. When she finishes the class, she records the homework assignment on the portal."

What about the students? Are they destined to be stuck with a notebook with blue lines?

Rimon reveals that later in the program, at an unknown time, the students will also be equipped with laptops or Tablets.