Aspen Ideas Festival: Digital Natives

This morning at the Aspen Ideas Festival, the Brian Lehrer show is being broadcast live as we act as breakfast-eating studio audience. The first guest is Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty. Lehrer introduces Pawlenty as the Republican’s Obama – young, smart, charismatic and a party leader, who was considered a front-runner for McCain’s running mate.

Pawlenty admits that he didn’t get the result he would have liked in the Coleman/Franken recount, “but the process was fair.” The problems, he says, weren’t with the voting process but with absentee ballots – rather than seeing interest groups encourage people to abuse the absentee ballot problem, he argues that we’d be better served with limited early voting.

Framing Pawlenty as a likely frontrunner against Obama, Lehrer asks how he governor thinks the President is doing. He concedes that Obama inherited a tough situation, but worries that the federal government has allowed spending to get out of control. “They’re not even trying to balance the budget anymore.” Asked whether this spending is necessary for stimulus, Pawlenty argues that most stimulus money isn’t directly benefitting the economy. Asked whether Minnesota considered refusing stimulus money, Pawlenty points out that Minnesota is 5th lowest recipient of federal money.

In reference to the future of the Republican party, Pawlenty concedes, “the Republican party’s in a rebuilding year. We need draft choices, maybe some trades…” Lehrer wonders whether the Republicans simply need some new ideas – Pawlenty’s new idea is a very old one, nuclear power.

Lehrer points out that perhaps Pawlenty’s most radical idea is “unallotments”, unilateral actions by the governor to eliminate spending approved by the legislature. “This has been aroud since 1939, and we believe we’re on solid legal ground,” he says, but concedes that there are likely to be some lawsuits from public interest groups.

Pawlenty is here to talk about educational innovation. Lehrer asks whether Minnesota would sign up to a national educational standards test that’s indexed against an international standard. Pawlenty’s hesitant about signing up, because he’s worried about federalization of education, but he concedes that there’s a problem with state-based standards. He favors a voluntary standard, not a federal mandate. Lehrer quipps, “Republicans don’t like federal standards because they’re federal. Democrats don’t like them because they’re standards.”


Te heart of Lehrer’s show is a conversation about digital natives and how a new generation is using the internet. The discussants on stage are legendary game designer Will Wright, University of Washington learning expert Dr. Patricia Kuhl and my colleague John Palfrey, author of “Born Digital”. To frame the conversation, Lehrer calls on four high school students at the Ideas Festival as visiting scholars. They tell the audience that they spend hours online a day, at least half on social networks, notably Facebook. One sees a difference between how she uses the internet – a quiet, isolated process – and how a sister from Ethiopia does, favoring personal contact over online.

Lehrer asks John Palfrey whether digital natives are a different species, as one reviewer of his book suggests. He admits that “digital natives” is an uncomfortable term, one that he and Urs Gasser tried to reclaim in the book. He argues that it’s a population, not a species – digital natives are based on access, not just on their generation. He’s especially interested in gaming, because it has a “flattening effect”, crossing socioeconomic groups.

There is, he argues, an emerging global culture of digital natives. And there are common problems for digital natives, problems of privacy and safety. Asked the impossible “a good thing or a bad thing” question, JP suggests that the internet and computers are incredibly powerful tools for creativity, enabling kids to do things that parents find literally unbelievable. On the downside, he worries that kids could get a less good education online because they don’t have navigation skills to find the information they need. This could lead to a problem of “driving a larger digital participation gap.”

Will Wright sees “a tidal wave of change” in how people are using technology, moving into a different way of thinking. Digital natives are surfing the top of the wave. Educational users know they need to be riding the wave, but might be in the middle, while others are being washed over. His games, he concedes, are influenced by a constructivist approach to education. Kids connect to the things they’ve made, and revel in the ability to create.

The students in the audience seem to agree. While none play Spore, they’ve all played Sims, and they admit that they enjoy the building creation aspects, as well as the ability of bringing digital characters into conflict.

Dr. Kuhl is asked how computer gaming is affecting learning. She mentions that there’s an enormous amount of learning that happens in informal settings, implicit learning, rather than through explicit, classroom learning. People learn an enormous amount from reading each other’s intentions – it “feeds the social brain”. Kuhl is running an experiment on language acquisition, seeing how 9 month old children learn second languages. She’s got graduate students who are native speakers of Chinese and Urdu. They play with one set of children for 12 in person sessions. Another set hears the second language on television, a third on tape. She then does brain studies to see whether brain centers are activated by the sounds or words of the language. Kids who learned in person show the same patterns as native speakers of these languages – kids who watched TV or listened to the tape showed no effect. “Under age two,” she says, “don’t put the kid in front of TV to get them into Harvard.”

The scholars in the room tell the audience that they watch almost no television – one admits to being a Top Chef fan. John Palfrey addresses the issue of multitasking, suggesting that most digital natives are watching television while doing homework and using the Internet. Palfrey tells us that “multitasking” isn’t a word kids identify with. He prefers the term “task switching”, moving rapidly between different activities. Students at Harvard Law, he tells us, are often switching between note taking, Twittering, answering email. Those who are focusing on something other than the class – checking email – don’t learn as much, where as those who are using the laptop to research and participate often learn more.

Brooke Gladstone offers a question from the audience, worrying about the lack of in-person connections in virtual environments. Dr. Kuhl acknowledges that the research isn’t definitive, but reminds us that “People need people to learn.”

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