“Digital natives” don’t all speak the same language

Students engage differently with technology | Photo courtesy of Michael Wong

UBC Public Scholars Award recipient Ron Darvin is researching the diverse ways in which students use technology. His work explores the potential impact that varying levels of digital literacy has in society.

Darvin worked as a language instructor, teacher trainer and university lecturer in Manila, capital of the Philippines, and Vancouver before returning to school to complete his PhD in Language and Literacy Education at UBC. In his volunteer role as a mentor for Filipino high school students in Vancouver, Darvin gained a better understanding of some of the challenges faced by immigrant Filipino students.

“Through my interactions with these Filipino students, I became particularly interested in the integration of technology in schools, and how these innovations impact the lives of students who have unequal access to resources,” says Darvin.

The research

Ron Darvin researches how a diversity of students use technology | Photo courtesy of Michael Wong

Darvin conducted interviews with recently immigrated Filipino students, teachers and parents in three Vancouver high schools. Over a period of one and a half years, he observed the different environments in which they used their laptops, phones and tablets, as well as their reasons for using digital devices.

“What I’ve discovered is that families can have very different dispositions towards technology: some may view it as a rich source of information, others, as a medium of entertainment or a tool for communication,” says Darvin.

According to Darvin, almost all Canadian students have access to digital devices both in and out of school. Despite the statistics, Darvin explains that many factors influence their approach to using technology.

“How they access information on the laptop versus the five-inch screen of a phone, how much time they can spend with a laptop that they share with four other family members and whether they have a quiet space at home to do work online: all these shape how they use technology,” says Darvin.

Darvin warns that not all components of digital literacy are valued equally in a school setting. Students who only associate technology with social media platforms or online games are at risk of developing digital literacies that lack more critical thinking skills, such as being able to distinguish fake news from real.

“What happens when kids who have different digital literacies go to school and teachers have their own assumptions of what these ‘digital natives’ should already know about technology?” asks Darvin.

Teaching digital literacy at school

Technology has become crucial for social mobility; job postings, social networks, and government and medical services are increasingly found online. However, as Darvin explains, it is not enough to have a digital device with connectivity – it is also necessary to possess the relevant digital literacy skills.

“You need to have the right language, choose the right images, press the right buttons for specific contexts and purposes. This is what comprises digital literacy,” says Darvin. “Knowing how to use Facebook, YouTube or other social media platforms is not enough. You need to know how to produce digital media texts for school or for work, disseminate information, curate your online identities and expand your social networks.”

Darvin argues that these skills can be taught in the classroom, to students of any and every cultural background. In the modern technological age, schools are becoming more interested in employing educational technology tools, such as online quizzes and educational apps. However, Darvin explains that there is a difference between using learning management systems in the classroom and teaching digital literacy skills to students.

“If employment opportunities and government and medical services are increasingly accessed through online platforms, those people who have no devices of their own and have not been able to develop relevant digital literacies would not be able to access these resources,” warns Darvin.

More public computers are being added to many library spaces in order to accommodate the growing need, and librarians are increasingly called upon to help patrons navigate the web. However, Darvin emphasizes that a more systematic method for acquiring digital literacy is needed. He also advises that opportunities for people of diverse backgrounds to gain these skills should have priority over services such as city-wide free wi-fi or new app promotions.

“If we want to prepare our students to play a productive and transformative role in today’s digital world, we need a more comprehensive and strategic approach to integrating technology into the curriculum, one that doesn’t just promote the use of educational technology tools but enables students to develop more critical digital literacies,” says Darvin.

For more information about Ron Darvin’s research, visit www.grad.ubc.ca/campus-community/meet-our-students/darvin-ron