How to Teach Digital Fish
Imagine for a moment that you have been called to the palace and have been offered a too-good-to-refuse stipend to educate the royal goldfish. What would you teach it? What is the most important thing it should understand?
Let me suggest a topic that might be the first in the list of curricular priorities: water. If there is one thing that a fish completely ignores and has absolutely no understanding of, it is water.
Now how would you teach a fish about water? Assuming you share a common language with this very special royal fish, one method would be to prepare a long and detailed lecture about the properties of water. You could deliver this lecture while the fish swims in its regal bowl, pausing and rephrasing whenever you get the impression that the fish is not quite following you. You might get the fish to memorise the key points in the lecture and arrange to give her a little fishy MCQ test the following week.
Perhaps the fish might pass the test, and so some progress might have been made, but surely a deeper understanding and appreciation of what water is would still be lacking. A different approach is needed.
Perhaps a better way of teaching the fish about water would be to take it out of the bowl, set it upright on land, keep its gills moist and start teaching it to walk on its tail. The experience of trying to walk on land would surely lead to an understanding and appreciation of that lovely medium called water – a medium that the fish previously paid absolutely no attention to.
Now if, instead of the fish, you were given a class of 30 digital natives, and you were offered a modest salary and a short-term contract to teach them about the digital media that they are connected to from dawn till dusk, you might do exactly what you did to the fish: Take them out of their little digital bowl and encourage them to do lots of things that are not coded in zeroes and ones.
One example: Inside the rather claustrophobic digital goldfish bowl, the digital natives accept a huge amount of technology that they know nothing about and that they can never hope to create themselves. Without thinking about it, they accept the image of the world as an unfathomably large machine on which they are infinitesimally small creatures who can do nothing more than scrape a few mechanical pimples. Of course, life was not always like this. Do the digital natives realise this? Do they appreciate this characteristic of the new media? To make sure, I would get them making some very low-tech things where they can begin themselves from the raw materials and make the entire things, making them from start to finish, adding their signature somewhere, before putting them on display in all their non-digital splendour.
The point is not to imply somehow that anything digital must be opposed. No, the point is to provide a point of comparison so that students can better understand how technology is changing us, and can appreciate – like the fish returning to the bowl – the new media that are increasingly dominating their lives.